Avernum 5 Review

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2007-11-12
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Avernum is the long-running flagship series of Spiderweb Software. Set in the underground realm of Avernum, the series now at its 5th iteration has led us through the development of the area from the dumping grounds of the upper-world Empire to a stronger, independent nation.

The series is in one word (old school), known for its low-end graphics, massive world, classic quest structure and heavy focus on narrative, combat and exploration. Some of us have played previous iterations, some of us haven't, either way is fine because you don't really need to have played older Avernum games to try this one.

What's old?

As Jeff Vogel explained in our recent interview, he made a conscious choice to make his series rely on reusing graphical assets while he focuses on breathing new life into every episode by improving the story, characters and overall design. As such, it should come as no surprise that the graphics are as good (or bad) as the previous iterations. Think I dunno Ultima VII quality, which is by now a good 15 years old. Simple, but effective. The only thing that still bugs me a bit is when you get a message telling you that you're facing a gigantic, scary monster, it's a bit of a disappointment that it uses the exact same sprite as its lesser brethren. In other words, monsters and enemies rarely feel unique enough.

The sound files appear unchanged, which means no music (except in the menu) and only very basic sounds for things like combat, walking and opening doors.

As with every Avernum title, this one is very polished. I didn't encounter any bugs or issues running the game. The interface is still as intuitive and well-designed as it was before.

The RPG system is much the same (with one significant addition, see below). It still offers a very expansive set of options to start with, including a selection of traits and race. And while levelling up, you need to balance the needs of your stats with your combat skills, magic skills, general skills and special skills. It can be a bit overwhelming, but the pre-generated characters are pretty good and the descriptions are clear enough for you to be able to figure out on your own what to specialize in, what to generalize in and what to leave alone.

The setting is still Avernum (duh) and the usual guys make an appearance, there are sometimes-friendly humans (Avernites or Empire), Slithzerikai, Nephilim (all of these are playable races) and Vahnatai, but also the usual monsters; lizards, bats, goblins, giants, giant spiders, etc. etc. The location has shifted quite a bit into unexplored territory, you won't be seeing the familiar Great Cave in this episode. Also, the focus on races has shifted a bit, noticeably in the Sliths, goblins and Vahnatai being less present.

What's new?

The first thing you're bound to notice is the addition of "battle disciplines", a new combat element exclusive to fighter classes. These can be used to invoke short-lasting buffs, enhance single attacks, temporarily lower an opponent's defenses, and more. It's a solid idea, but unfortunately they feel a bit unpolished. There's no real sense of progression in battle disciplines, as you never have to learn them (they're added automatically as you add to your weapon skill) and you don't pick between skills but instead are presented with a fairly linear progression that lacks a significant tactical element. At the end of the game, you'll always be using (the best one) rather than having a variety of choices to make as magic users do.

As is usual for Avernum sequels, the feel of the game changed a bit from the last one. Avernum 4 almost had a post-apocalyptic feel in the way towns were wrecked and humans were despairing. Avernum 5 has a distinct frontier feel to it, as you explore new regions in which humans are trying all sorts of methods and philosophies just to survive and attempt to get along. There's a delightful sense of futility to all their efforts, as once you pass out of the old colonies into frontier land, none of the places you pass through could be described as (thriving).