(PC Review) Avernum: Escape from the Pit

Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
Win XP, P4 1.8 GHz or AMD equiv., 256 MB RAM, 3D accelerated graphics card (Open GL compliant), 300 MB free hard drive space

Despite the glorious rise of games such as Skyrim, the new Fallouts, and even Kingdoms of Amalur, there will always be room on the RPG fringes for games that willingly embrace the genre’s roots. The continued success of the likes of Spiderweb Software is a strong testament to that fact, with founder-coder-writer Jeff Vogel having made a career of it in the world of independent RPG design where story takes precedence over graphics. It’s something this indie company has continued with quite faithfully for nearly 20 years, regularly pushing out titles with specific, old-school appeal and which have cultivated an incredibly faithful following. The tradition continues on with their newest release, Avernum: Escape from the Pit, something which strives to revive the company’s earliest efforts while bearing out the many lessons they’ve learned along the way.

In this swords-and-sorcery themed, open-style RPG, the Empire has discovered a portal to an inescapable underground world, and has wasted little time in casting all manner of “enemies of the state” within as a sort of substitute for prison. This soon led to rampant abuse, as people were soon being lobbed into this mysterious pit for even the slightest transgression. Naturally, you play a party of folks who found themselves on the wrong end of some favored Empire official’s ire, and begin the game as you are tossed unwillingly through the portal into this unknown land. Turns out that makeshift cities have sprung up as the survivors sought to make a life for themselves in this new land; from here, it’s up to you to learn enough about the many, many denizens of this underground realm to find your way and determine what, exactly, you’d like to consider to be your ultimate victory. Along the way, you can take on a considerable number of quests, collect a considerable amount of loot, and wade through a considerable quantity of dialogue.

The lineage of this particular version of Avernum being somewhat convoluted, it’s worth taking a moment to retrace the series’ steps. Having first crafted the Exile series in 1995, Jeff Vogel then decided to give those games a coat of polish—relatively speaking, given the series’ characteristically retro style—by remaking them as the Avernum series in 1999, revamping their UI and graphics, but not their core plot and gameplay. Now that the Avernum series itself has evolved somewhat, and Vogel has cut his chops with two new IPs in the form of the excellent Geneforge series and the newer Avadon: The Black Fortress, he’s returned once more to his roots and re-made the first Avernum. For those keeping score, that makes this version of Avernum a remake of a remake. This of course raises some very important questions, namely: is this most recent revival really worth the effort?

In short, the answer is arguably yes. Much like the first Avernum made Exile more palatable for audiences some five years later, Avernum: Escape from the Pit attempts to clean up the creakier elements of the ’99 release, which in itself was somewhat around the edges even at that point. Indeed, the new game borrows liberally from the interface and look of Vogel’s most recent efforts, allowing for much more streamlined gameplay, flashier graphical effects, and a much easier time of enjoying rather than working against the game itself. And yes, as much as this still remains a strong RPG, it is one that has not lost sight of its retro-style appeal, and so for all its improvements, Avernum: Escape from the Pit still remains the kind of experience reminiscent of maps hand drawn on graph paper.

On one hand, this means lots of combat, so it’s a great relief that this aspect remains as fun as it ever was throughout the series’ history. It’s a fairly straightforward turn-based affair where your party takes turns trading blows with whatever pack of foes you find yourself up against, with each side lobbing arrows, spells, or sword-swings until the other is dead and lootable. There is, thankfully, more to it than that: characters can develop powerful abilities that can be used once every so often, while the more magically inclined types have access to spells that also include buffs and debuffs, as well as creature summons and area of effect damage. If that wasn’t enough, there are also spell scrolls, potions of all kinds, and enough equippable items to keep you mixing and matching for optimal effect. There’s just enough variety to make things feel solid and tactical, without giving you so many moving parts that you feel as though you’re spending more time managing the fight than actually fighting. It’s a credit to the combat side of this equation that cleaning out a fort of brigands can be as satisfying as taking down a single and particularly dangerous mage.

Aside from digging your blade into kobolds’ gullets, you’ll spend most of your time bopping between settlements and having long conversations with the many people living therein. This is a game big on the written word, so gamers with no patience for text are probably in the wrong neck of the RPG woods on this one. Those who appreciate the lost art of good fantasy plotting and writing, however, will likely find themselves at home here, as the not-inconsiderable amount of dialogue, quest descriptions, narration, and general text are by and large of high quality. Characterizations are usually good if sometimes broad, and you’re not often left feeling as though the author’s touch is left smeared on the words they utter. This is a tough trick to pull, and it’s one on which Avernum: Escape from the Pit does well throughout the bulk of the game.

It’s also important to note that the open-world approach, one of Avernum’s most charming qualities, is retained perfectly here. Although the realm offers you considerable opportunity to explore, this is no Skyrim-style “go forth and try to make sense of where you might be” but rather an approach that provides reasonable guidance. You certainly can wander through to some high-level areas almost immediately, and even if you ignore the very literal signs, you’ll soon find yourself reminded in no small way that you’re clearly going to want to come back later after you’ve beefed up a bit. The twisting and turning underground tunnels that make up the transitions between the major areas typically give you some idea when you’re shifting into a new space, which helps.

What helps even more are little touches, like the self-drawing map, automatic annotations on the world map indicating the locations of quests, and of course the ability to capture snippets of conversation into your personal journal for later reference. It also needs to be pointed out that the quest log is uncommonly handy as well, something that is unfortunately rare in the genre. That aside, these elements all come together to create an open-world environment that is interesting to explore as it is simple—fascinating without being overwhelming.

Even if you’ve played the original, Avernum: Escape from the Pit—a remake of a remake—carries itself with such swagger and old-school RPG strength that it’s very much worth playing all over again. The graphical and interface tweaks help bring the venerable series’ origins sufficiently up to speed for modern audiences, but not so much so that it ever loses that comforting retro approach that has helped to keep these games in such high regard. The plot and core characters might be the same (countless additions aside), but the look and feel are now a positive and not a liability. The combat is refined, the writing is strong, and the game itself is more accessible than it’s ever been. The text-heavy approach may turn some folks away, but those that decide to stick around will see in this twice-resurrected title something worth turning to just one more time.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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