Avernum 6 Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Spiderweb Software
Release Date:2009-12-05
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
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.
Story and writing

Avernum 6's main plotline is fairly basic, as it's a simple save-the-world type story in which you have to defeat an evil horde. But that's just the top layer. As you progress through the story, the game hints with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety when things aren't what they seem: political strife, pigheaded officers, wizards that think they can solve anything. The antagonists certainly lack the tragic ambiguity of the antagonists of the previous two games, but it's a welcome amount of depth nonetheless.

There are a lot of questionable and doubtful things going on, and the different factions and individuals have their own motives and views, which they'll often reveal (to a silly extent). As the player, you have a lot of freedom to choose who to aid or even destroy depending on your own opinion of their views. The game has a lot of different ending variations depending on the choices you make, who you support and to what extent.

In general, Avernum 6's quality tends to be in the little things and not in the overall large-scale events and main quests being particularly interesting. The smaller, inter-personal conflicts and motivations are where a lot of the qualities lie. Overall, the writing is solid but doesn't stand out from the rest of the series.

Avernum 6 pokes fun at a lot of conventions, especially early in the game, with a curmudgeonly narrator making light of many of the earliest missions and locations. This fits well with the way the narrative scales up, with you beginning as a lowly soldier and only later working your way up to more serious missions. Less amusing as you reach those serious missions is the game's tendency to warn you. A lot. It's not a game that'll hold your hand as you can still mess up, but before it allows you to it'll give you a clear warning in the location description. Fair enough, but it gets a bit (the boy that cried wolf) when the game keeps warning me for almost every new location I enter. I get it, it's dangerous, I can handle it.

Avernum 6 like its predecessors has an overarching tone that is clearly present in writing and location design. Where Avernum 4 was about a post-apocalyptic, despairing feel, and Avernum 5 about frontierism, Avernum 6 emphasizes that the world is getting old, while at the same time the mushroom blight ran out a lot of its populace. Several locations are abandoned, many NPCs tired and despondent. It's a fitting (we're done here) tone for a closing title.

Wisely, the game ties up a lot of loose ends from the previous games, providing appearances of many earlier NPCs (such as X and Solberg) that help finish those characters' stories, as well as providing glances at and possibilities to close the book on factions like the darkside royalists or Rentar-Ihrno's followers. The main story doesn't always jive well with the way many of these longer storylines are tied up, as the events in-game seem a bit small compared to the grand memories you have of these NPCs. But this appears to be intentional: the final message of the very end of the game is that Avernum is by its nature the wild and untamed place it was prior to the events of Avernum 1, and the events of all the Avernum games do little to nothing to change its nature. (It all didn't matter, really) might not be the best message to leave for fans of the titles, but I feel it fits the franchise well.

Conclusion

One thing often asked of Avernum titles is (can I start off with this one?) The answer is always (yes), as each individual Avernum assumes no prior experience with the system or world and explains everything very clearly. But perhaps more than its predecessors, Avernum 6 is a title that is more enjoyable the more you know of the franchise, and new fans may not understand the grandeur of certain sequences (the final events with X spring to mind). If you're interested in the series, I'd recommend starting with Avernum 4, but kicking things off with Avernum 6 is certainly plausible if you understand that you may not fully grasp the scope of some events.

But to view it within the franchise: if there's one thing I want to highlight about Avernum 6, it's to show that even with all the similarities from title to title, Avernum as a series has evolved. Jeff Vogel has clearly learned many things in quest and combat design, and even in writing. In my opinion, Avernum 6 is the best title of the series, keeping an enjoyable pace throughout, and with a weak main story made up for by well-written individual quests and locations. It really makes one regret the series is ending, but at least it's going out on a high note, and perhaps that's for the best.