Avernum: Escape from the Pit – Review

Title   Avernum: Escape from the Pit
Developer  Spiderweb Software
Publisher  Spiderweb Software
Platform  Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Mac OS X, iOS
Genre  Isometric Role Playing
Release Date  April 2012 on Windows PC
Official Site  http://www.spiderwebsoftware.com

This game was put together by intelligent minds. It was. Seriously. Only a very talented group of people could have pulled this game off. It shouldn’t work – not really; not if you take all of its core components and examine them. First of all, it’s an isometric, turn-based RPG; traditionally, these sorts of games are very ‘core – and titles adhering to the genre have been utterly let down by the restrictions it imposes. Avernum, however, supersedes these expectations – rather than being limited by the (arguably outdated) isometric, top-down style, it feeds on it.

The folks over at Spiderweb Software (responsible for the development of Avernum) know their influences inside-out. A single glance at a screenshot of this game shows you all you need to know about its heritage; you’ll instantly be reminded of the Diablo series, or – if you’re of the DOS generation – the old Ultima games. In terms of content, too, the games share common ground.

Avernum is a world beneath a world – a huge cave system below a dystopian overground. The world of Avernum itself acts as a huge prison – any who oppose the tyrannical empire’s regime are thrown through a portal and left to fend for themselves amongst the arid and difficult terrain of the underground. You control a team of four silent protagonists, and begin after being shoved through the portal for your crimes (never outlined explicitly, which works in favour of the story – you’re an enemy of the state, and that’s all you need to know). You are instantly thrust into an unfamiliar world, and have to fend for yourself. It’s all pretty compelling stuff, really – if the game took itself seriously (like, uber-seriously) it would all feel a bit haggard; a bit clichéd and obvious. But the writers clearly knew what effect they wanted, and what sort of world they wanted to create.

The universe itself comes together nicely. There is a fairly large world map to explore (with not much of it mandatory for questing), and each little area is loaded with its own personality and charm. You’d expect a game set in an underground network of caves to be a bit… boring, but the environments show true imagination; you’ve got visual ambience ranging from the beautiful Crystal Caves (where the sharp reds, greens and blues of the palette are brought out for a stunning contrast to the earthy browns of the rest of the game) to the weird Spider Town/Dungeon, where a slew of over-friendly arachnids quickly dart all over the nicely-rendered map.

On your travels, you’ll uncover a variety of towns, forts and other settlements, all with their own backstories, histories and legacies. These range from crumbling, siege-ridden outposts to massive spires, bustling cities to poverty-stricken towns. After only about eight hours bumbling around the world map (seeing what I could do, and where), I felt at home in the game – knowing enough to orientate myself, but wanting to find out so much more because this isn’t a game told through an individual story. All the people you meet throughout Avernum have different tales (usually woeful), and as you learn more, you can start to piece together a well-constructed, deep universe. It’s all very Star Wars in its theme – underdogs versus the all-powerful empire etc – but it’s the detail and character you’re after from a game like this, and Avernum delivers that.

There’s also an atmosphere to this game that a lot of expensively crafted, AAA-games miss out on. There’s a subtlety to it. Once you head north and get into the land of the spiders, the game takes on a seriously creepy edge, but not because it’s trying to bombard you with scary enemies (a la Dead Space) or because it’s trying to intentionally make you soil yourself (Silent Hill syndrome). Instead, it succeeds because there is a distinguished lack of explicitness – when you’re precariously edging through a tight stalagmite system, and suddenly there’s a patrol of demons/spiders waiting for you, your imagination does a lot more work than when, say, a necromorph ripping a body in half and firing decapitated babies at you drops from the ceiling. The nature of the combat adds to this tension, too; although you’re transported to a battle-screen (when encountered in the world map, anyway), it’s the make-up and numbers of the patrols that can throw you – if you never know quite what’s coming, therefore it’s a lot more difficult to prepare.

Battle itself is described as “tactical turn-based RPG”. This is everything you’d expect it to be – based on certain stats, your team acts before or after certain enemies, deals damage and moves around on a grid-based map. I couldn’t tell you quite why, but the battles reminded me of Disgaea quite a lot, or an old PC game called Lords of Magic. The battles have enough variation available to them to prevent them from becoming boring or repetitive; being able to out-manoeuvre my enemies while they attacked my tank character was my favourite tactic, but – for a laugh – sometimes I blasted all the cat-demon bastards with a severe blast of icy wind before setting my lads on them like the dogs that they are.

Play for long enough, and you’ll start to unlock powerful abilities that are granted in a very Fallout-esque way – perks! A staple of RPG diets for years, perks in Avernum would most likely remind modern gamers of Bethesda titles and their approach to them – at an interval of levels, you’ll be able to choose a perk per character to make things just a little bit easier for you going through the game. Being the “most-reward for minimal work” sort of guy that I am, I chose to heavily bolster the experience garnered from quests/foes/etc – 5% and 10% bonuses to any exp-accumulated perks are always the don choice. There is choice beyond that, of course – you’ve got perks to boost strength, perks to boost weapon skill, perks to boost magic, and that’s all before you even get to the skill trees.

The skill trees themselves are the same for every character, but once you start getting a decent amount of points to unlock/bolster skills, you’ll find yourself taking different characters in different directions. My set up, for example, was a berserker – my tank – who would soak up damage and deal it out in equal measure. Supporting him was an archer, who was eventually powerful (and quick) enough to pick off two enemies before they even engaged my berserker. Supporting these two were a pair of mages – one for each discipline; arcane and priest magic. These are basically your typical black and white mages – arcane being (typically) offensive and priest being buffs, healing and support magic. I never got stuck with a team like this and, on the skill trees, each of them had their own specific strand to follow – you can choose to upgrade magic (generally, or specifically) for the priests, and upgrade chances of countering or physical endurance for the fighters. All the different abilities came with their own cartoon-esque drawings, too, playfully illuminating what you’ll be improving when you hover your mouse over the option.

The customisation of your characters is further augmented by a well-designed weapon/armour system. If you’re willing to part with a fair chunk of cash pretty early on (and if you can find them), there are a few incredible weapons that’ll help you out for the rest of the game. I came across a powerful bow quite early into my sojourn through Avernum, and from then on my archer was the dominant player in my line-up. Like all RPGs to have ever existed, each piece of weapon and armour has buffs to your attack value or defence rating, making it important to decide what weapon (sword or rod? Bow or javelins?) you’ll equip to each of your characters. The whole system here is built around you needing to tailor your team for the tactics you’re likely to use during combat, and therein lies its charm.

So why do you need to battle, then? Why do you need to do all this in the first place? Why can’t you just come to Avernum and settle down and farm the meagre resources like so many others have been happy to do? Well, that’d make a dull game (for a start), but the whole narrative is kicked into motion when a brigand assaults you and tries to take you for all you’re worth. Obviously, you don’t let him. You enter the main bulk of Avernum hunting this dastardly fellow down, but then your quests evolve rapidly as you come across imperilled locals who request your aid. The whole story plays out with a variety of endings, depending on what you decide to do with your time. Do you want to simply find safety within the world of Avernum, for example, or do you want to take down the empire that cast you out?

The game’s score is one element that will pass you by without much pause – whilst not exactly bad, the music and SFX all seem a bit standard. Then again, in a game like this (no acted speech, no cinematic cutscenes) you’re not expecting an awful lot. Ambient sounds in towns and encampments are nice – they add to the feel of hustle and/or bustle – but they serve their function, and rarely exceed that.

Now, one thing Avernum did frequently was have me smile to myself; if I took my bog-standard laptop out and about, I’d find myself sitting down for a bit and re-entering the dark, cavernous world. I’d sometimes get taken completely unaware by the humour embedded in the text – Avernum is a game that knows its source material well, and is not ashamed of showing you. For example, you can search through pretty much every item you find throughout the land, and should you go into a hotel/house and raid their draws, you’ll find a towel. But it isn’t just any towel – it’s a towel “for the hoopy frood who has to know where his towel is”, (as any Douglas Adams fan will tell you). There’s also a small showdown with a sub-boss who likes to summon flesh-eating worms (as you do). You enter a conversation with him, and if you follow all the dialogue all the way through, you’ll end up having a debate on the correct linguistic term for a group of worms – is it a “swarm”, as your adversary suggests? He reckons so, because “clew” and “bed” (the offered alternatives) “just aren’t sinister enough”. It’s the little moments like these that highlight the sophisticated charm of Avernum – it really is a game filled to the brim with playful wit and respectful parody.

  • Simple yet effective graphics suit the game's personality
  • Deep and rewarding customisation options - a real, honest RPG
  • Embedded with rich humour and entertaining text-based conversations
  • Sometimes, a little more direction would be welcomed - you can end up wandering around, aimlessly
  • Acquiring gold can be a little slow-paced, and scavenging isn't as rewarding as you'd think
  • Some of the "go here, do this" quests can get a bit tiresome

Avernum has all the depth and personality you’d find in popular, franchised universes throughout fiction, and manages to pull off a gripping, original fantasy premise without being clichéd or cheesy. It makes the out-dated silent-protagonist platform work – and setting it so fittingly against an omniscient third-person narration pays off; the narrative goals and progression are delivered clearly, and you still project your emotions onto your silent team. The simple graphics at times enhance the world, the score lies comfortably in the background and combat/RPG elements take centre-stage, as you’d expect they would.

So this is a return to RPG gaming at its rawest – if you’re fed up with the infinite moral choices (that may or may not affect gameplay...), over-the-top skill trees and ludicrous add-ons which add faux-depth to the more mainstream RPGs and long for something a little more realized – a little more retro – then Avernum: Escape from the Pit is for you.

Honestly, now that I’ve played this one, I’m going to sniff out the instalments that came before (all courtesy of Spiderweb Software) – the time and effort invested in this rich environment is just too good to throw away after a few measly hours.

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  1. Richie richie says:

    I wonder why devs and publishers insist on giving their games such unfriendly and unwieldy names. Avernum: Escape From The Pit? That’ll put off a lot of people and the graphics look astonishingly ugly and dated. They might as well call it Cancer Puppy: Your Face is Shit.

    Good job you reviewed it really as I imagine it’d be ignored big time. Good review though, Dom.

    Still ain’t buying it though. Torchlight killed the underground RPG for me. That bastard.

  2. simonjk says:

    Waaah! This is more the type of stuff I want to see on XBL arcade! I want stuff like reboots of Baldur’s Gate and the first 2 Fallouts or Diablo (oh and Hogs of War).

  3. Edward Edward says:

    Dom, you have a way with words that I could only seldom dream of. It’s really actually quite brilliant :)
    The game sounds like a piece of bloody awesome too, it sounds like something I’d quite enjoy, if anything :D

  4. Lorna Lorna says:

    Amazingly retro looking game that reminded me of Hero Quest back on the Speccy. I think that the graphics are pretty charming in a way and certainly made me look twice – the whole old skool meets new guy feel to it is appealing to me and as a contrast against the modern, shiny, snow-bound RPGs, it presents something of a refreshing break. Like a gaming KitKat

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