Avernum 6 Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2009-12-05
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
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Avernum 6 is the closing chapter of Spiderweb's flagship series, the first three of which are remakes of earlier Spiderweb titles, and the latter three an original trilogy. Spanning a decade, the Avernum series has always stuck to the same core formula while slightly improving and upgrading graphics, UI, writing and other gameplay elements from title to title.

At its core, Avernum remains unchanged, it is an exploration and combat-heavy RPG in which you control a party of four characters you create at the start of the game, pursuing a number of consecutive main missions (or mission-groups) and of course taking on every rat-infested cellar and bug-butt collecting quest they bump into along the way. The main strength of any Avernum has always been its huge explorable world, supported by competent-to-good writing and simple but good turn-based combat, all executed in isometric view with competent if unspectacular graphics.

Graphics/engine

Avernum 6 continues the competent and well-designed graphics of its predecessors with no real change, other than some more flexibility in screen resolution. The mid-90s era level of graphics will bother some people, but they're generally good enough to keep you engaged in the game. But this is one area where the franchise's age is a bit of a problem. Spiderweb's lead, Jeff Vogel, has stated multiple times that retaining assets to use in a series plays a key part in his business model. That usually works fine, but in Avernum 6 the usage of different assets from different iterations side-by-side becomes a bit jarring. Comparing the party's cartooney portraits to the well-drawn portraits of NPCs in dialogue is one of the worst examples, but the animations and detail in different monster models from older Avernum or Geneforge games don't always mesh either.

The game ran without a hitch for me, and the engine is as low-demanding as it should be. A huge jump forward is a redesign of the GUI, which the same in basic functions, showing you the map and status screen and having quick buttons available for combat, spells and items. But it is now more customizable, and takes up much less of the screen, leaving more room for the actual gameplay action. It's a very pleasant upgrade that makes the game quite a bit easier to play.

Gameplay

Avernum 6 does not have any additions to combat in its core design. Where Avernum 5 added battle disciplines, Avernum 6 sticks to the same basic setup as its direct predecessor: you can attack, use a spell or battle discipline, and the parry and riposte skills allow you to react to enemy attacks. This makes for a very simple combat system, and most fights are of a rinse-and-repeat variety where you just go through the motions, including the obligatory buffing up with spells before every fight.

But Avernum 6's combat progression is much better designed than that of its predecessors. Where in the end-game of the previous titles you'd often still have to grind through pointless, repetitive fights, Avernum 6 blesses us with less combat situations, and each one tends to be a better designed conflict.

Specifically, the main plot will drag you into massive, high-level fights where you work alongside key NPCs or groups of elite soldiers. This resolves both the problem of it feeling implausible that you save the world single-handed, and helps in having the big fights feel different from normal fights. The fact that you're not always working alone means the player's team feels less important, and this might bother some players. But it is part of the game's overall tone (more on that later), and to me it actually makes the fights feel more grand in scale, not less.

The other side of the improved combat situations sees your party fighting opponents as normal, but with specific requirements needed for victory. For example, there may be endlessly respawning spheres that need to be destroyed, the party may be forced to go shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight space, or there may be requirements to even damage an opponent. The idea is nice enough, and an expansion of challenge fights in Avernum 5. But I could imagine players don't always feel like going through this, so it's better when they're stuck purely to side quests, something this game does most of the time, but not always.

Another (bigger) problem with challenge fights is how specific the requirements can be, and what a pain to figure out. At times, you'll find a fight to be frustratingly difficult, until you do it exactly and I mean exactly as the designers intended it to be done, and then suddenly it'll be a piece of cake. At times it feels more like a mini-game than combat, and while usually fun and challenging, it can descend into head-scratching and frustration.

A further improvement in design can be seen in quests, both in overarching structure and individual quest design. The main quests are no longer of a linear, one-after-the-other sort, but rather the main quest givers will give you a number of important jobs, and once you have done a couple of them you can move on. Most players will do all the quests regardless, but this does mean that you can do these quests in whichever order you like, or leave quests undone if you don't feel like doing them for whatever reason. In particular, some of the more morally questionable quests at the end are eminently skippable, and I definitely appreciated how the game gave me the option of ignoring half of them if I so chose.

Avernum's open-world nature is still limited by these main quests, and you will have to progress through them to open up new areas. But interestingly enough, Avernum 6 will at times tell you to go to a specific place directly, it being very dangerous for you not to do so. And while it is indeed dangerous, the game won't force you to do so, and you can wander around more freely than you might expect. The game's open-world design is pretty good here, and even when you're doing quests out of order you usually won't break them.

Overall, single quests have also seen some improvements. Most quests still follow the (go there and kill) or (collect 10 trinkets) design, but a few ask for a bit more attention from the player. When you're asked to save hostages and be careful, it's actually a really bad idea to ignore given advise and run in guns blazing, as your opponents will kill the hostages if they can, so to successfully complete the quest you'll have to find a way to sneak around the main force. Similarly, at times you'll be given the opportunity to use back doors to avoid good portions of combat. The game won't guide you to these ideal solutions, nor does every quest have a simple fail or succeed variable. Instead, the game tracks how well you've done in keeping your allies alive. These types of quests may be in the minority, but they're there, and they're definitely an improvement over the normal grind.