Posted by Eric Schwarz at 7:16 pm on 04.27.2012 (1 year ago)
Avernum: Escape from the Pit is a remake of 1999's Avernum, which in turn is a remake of Exile under a different name. A "remake of a remake" isn't a common thing, but evidently Jeff Vogel is a fan of updating his games both for new audiences, new technology (his Avernum 6 engine) and new devices (the iPad). While I'm personally familiar with a few Spiderweb games, I haven't played the original Exile or Avernum before, so like many, I'm going into Avernum: Escape from the Pit with fresh eyes. While the question of whether or not this second remake offers enough new content to be worthwhile to old fans is a bit hard to answer, on its own, Avernum stands as a very solid exploration-driven RPG that fans of the genre should enjoy, albeit with some rough edges.
Welcome to the Pit
Avernum is unique in that its world (also called Avernum) is entirely underground. Cast into the darkness by the all-controlling Empire on the surface world for some crime or other, your party of four will soon learn that life under the surface of the earth is actually quite remarkable, if harsh and dangerous. The kingdom that's been formed by exiles like yourself, ruled by King Micah and home to six major towns and a society of mages, is a large and relatively prosperous place all things considered. After a short, if slightly awkward tutorial sequence (a brand-new addition), you're set free into the game world to explore, do good deeds, strike a blow to the Empire, and, hopefully, escape from your subterranean prison.
If there's one thing that Avernum completely gets right, it's open-world exploration and a sense of progression. While not entirely free-roaming, you'll work your way from one corner of the world to another, following more or less whatever path you want. With the single goal of escaping Avernum, there's a lot of room to take your time and figure things out. As you explore the world, so too will you grow in power, learn more about Avernum, its people and history, and so on, until you're finally both tough enough and well-traveled enough to leave it behind. Trekking deeper and deeper, the distance from civilization growing as the land becomes more and more desolate, Avernum is able to create a feeling of scale and, later, isolation, that few other games can.
Two more goals appear as you explore the caverns - strike a blow to the Empire by assassinating its Emperor right inside his palace, and defeat the ancient demon Grah-Hoth. Combined with escaping to the surface, these form the three "great goals" of Avernum. In keeping with its generally open-ended nature, Avernum never actually ends until you want it to, a design choice which encourages you to explore every inch of the game world and solve every quest. Without any points of no return, forced cutscenes and plot doors, you're free to play at your own pace in a game actually built for it, making Avernum a stronger open-world experience than many more modern titles.
Of course, there's a lot of additional content beyond these "great goals", and in fact, many of those goals require you to solve several other quests - banishing the demon Adze-Haakai from the Mages' Tower, collecting a magic orb that allows your party to fly, helping out several dragons, and so on. There's also a lengthy subplot concerning helping out either the Empire's servants, the kingdom of Avernum, or the freehold of Kyass, in addition to several dozen minor quests sprinkled all throughout the game world. Many of these help guide your exploration, but I was able to solve many, many quests and visit the farthest reaches of the world well before I was "supposed" to simply by striking out on my own. The rewards - skill-boosting tomes, money, magic artifacts, and more - are more than enough reward, and make exploration very compelling.
As Avernum is based off of Exile, Spiderweb's oldest game, the design of many of these quests and the overall story is decidedly different from the newer titles. Rather than having a plot, it'd be more accurate to say Avernum gives you a lot of problems to solve and scenarios to complete. Almost all of the quests are of the fetch/kill variety, and there are very few puzzles to be found, so unfortunately they tend not to be very interesting on their own. At the same time, a global reputation mechanic and the fact that many characters are involved in multiple quest-lines also means that advancing one quest will help you indirectly in others, which gives the world a great sense of consistency, as well as a feeling of progress in your adventure as previously locked areas and opportunities open to you, sometimes revealing entirely new sections of the game world that were invisible earlier on.
If there's one complaint to be made about Avernum as far as its world and gameplay goes, it's that it comes from a much simpler time. While there is an interesting parallel between some of the underground conflicts and those implied above ground (such as the dominance of the state over the people), Avernum is bare-boned compared to the far more character-driven stories found in the later games, and has very little choice and consequence in either solving quests or the game ending(s), something that can become a bit jarring at times.
The game world's overall tone and morality is also a bit strange - slaughtering Slith (lizardmen) farmers in the name of the king might be uncomfortable, but the game world certainly doesn't care. Additionally, while the early game constantly reinforces how miserable the world and its people are, none of this really translates into any actual game mechanics - you'll be rolling in supplies and magic items even just a few hours into the game, while peasants continue to farm cave dirt and fight off bandits. The classic tongue-in-cheek, wry humor Jeff Vogel is known for is very much intact, but it doesn't always mesh with the situations or setting, certainly not as well as in his later games.
The simple fact is that Spiderweb's games have changed over the years. Avernum is both a simple hack-and-slash game, and one with some hints at the later greatness of the franchise. Not everyone will be bothered by this, but there is so much more potential that was only fulfilled in later games that it can be hard to ignore. As a remake, Spiderweb had the option to flesh out the world and characters, create a more refined and driven story, and spiced up some of the quest design. Some of them, like the addition of the Freehold of Kyass, an all-new town that's tied up with a few quests, are definitely interesting, but they also draw attention to the lack of sophistication in the parts of the game that weren't spruced up. As one of the few parts of the game with real choice and consequence, it's a little unfortunate some of these improvements didn't show up elsewhere.
This new version of Avernum has some additional quirks; the transition to the new engine, as well as cross-platform play on the iPad, has brought with it a share of compromises. For one, the ability to close doors manually has been removed, which means that now stealing items can be very difficult without being caught. Additionally, changes to the non-combat skills mean that searching for secrets is now done by clicking hidden switches on walls, with the emphasis not on finding secrets but on whether your party is smart enough to press these buttons - a little silly, in my opinion. The auto-regenerating health from Avadon is thankfully gone, but now your party fully heals whenever it enters a town, and there's no hunger system in place like some of the other Avernum titles, which makes eating food or staying at inns completely useless. It's simply hard not to feel like you're playing an old game with a fresh coat of paint, and like the simpler story and gameplay mentioned above, these more modern design choices don't always fit, or simply weren't necessary.
Character System & Combat
One consistent theme throughout Jeff Vogel's games has been an emphasis on party-based play, as well as a lot of combat to enjoy (or slog through, in some cases). After the previous Spiderweb game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, and its heavily simplified character system, I was a little apprehensive about Avernum. Fortunately, Avernum retains much of the depth of other Spiderweb games, although there have been a few changes here and there, specifically to the leveling-up process.
Avernum is a classless game, although like many classless RPGs, in practice you’ll have to specialize into various roles anyway. With only four character attributes and only one or two of those relevant for each archetype (mage, priest, fighter, archer/rogue), there's little room for fiddling around with spellswords and more exotic character concepts. Min/maxing is the name of the game. The one key advantage of the classless system is that non-combat skills, such as Cave Lore and Tool Use, can be assigned to anyone, and the entire party will pool its knowledge, so you can either have a "nerd" character to figure out everything, or spread out the non-combat stuff across your whole party depending on preference.
Leveling up is fairly frequent, although different from the 1999 version of the game. Aside from a single attribute point per level (along with some "natural" bonuses as you go), you'll also get two skill points and, sometimes, a trait. Skills cover everything from passive bonuses, to the aforementioned non-combat skills, to defensive abilities like parrying, to more general bonuses that allow you to learn spells and battle disciplines (activated combat abilities). Traits, meanwhile, are now passive benefits earned every two level-ups, and they either take the form of health bonuses, attribute bonuses (strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc.), or skill bonuses. They're a bit of an odd fit, because the same effect could have been achieved with a bonus skill or attribute point every few levels. I would have preferred the original trait system, with up two two selected on character creation, was kept for the new Avernum