Avernum: Escape From The Pit – Review

Avernum: Escape From The Pit

developed by Spiderweb Software

Back in the mid 90’s (1994-1996), Spiderweb Software developer and now indie game pioneer Jeff Vogel, made a Role-Playing game titled Exile: Escape From the Pit.  At that time it was an epic adventure and a classic role-playing experience that was rooted heavily in fantasy and featured swords, sorcery, dungeons, and of course monsters.  Exile ended up having a couple of sequels which formed a series of Classic Role-Playing games.  Then, about half a decade after the first Exile was released, Spiderweb Software released the original Avernum which was a remake and revamped envisioning of the now classic Exile series.  Like Exile before it, Avernum was followed up by a number of sequels that were subsequently released over the next decade or so.

Even back then, the Exile and Avernum series of games were somewhat critically acclaimed for their imaginative worlds, epic stories, and creative writing.  The series spawned a large following of hardcore RPG gaming fans.  Though not nearly as big in name as popular mainstream titles such as Ultima, Diablo, or Final Fantasy, the Spiderweb Software fanbase numbered in the thousands and had proven that Mac and PC gamers still loved hardcore and classically styled RPGs with an emphasis on story.

Now, more than fifteen years after the original Exiles’ release, Spiderweb Software has gone back to it’s roots and remade, revamped, and reworked the original Avernum to re-create a classically styled, hardcore Role-Playing experience.  This new game, aptly titled Avernum: Escape From the Pit, is made with RPG veterans and fans of the genre in mind, but at the same time the selectable difficulty levels and game design has been tweaked enough to accommodate newcomers and curious gamers alike.  As much as this is a game made for RPG gamers, it is also extremely easy to get involved and enjoy the gameplay without having played an RPG ever before.

Story:
You are part of a small group of unfortunate individuals who have been cast out of the Empire.  Exiled, you are sent to the underworld prison known only as Avernum.  What you did to earn this imprisonment, whether it was for speaking out against the Empire or whether it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it no longer matters.  The Empire has served it’s swift, if somewhat unfair, justice.  You’ll never see daylight again.  The magical gates leading to Avernum ensure all excursionists a one-way trip.

Now, as you arrive in your new home, you’ll have to explore the dangerous underground caverns of Avernum.  Thoughts of escape and revenge are heavily outweighed by the need to survive.  Your displacement to the underworld is not yours to suffer alone though, as there are other prisoners, people who have faced similar banishment as well.  Throughout your exploration and adventures you will encounter new friends and even some foes.  As you discover the mysteries of Avernum you may even stumble upon hidden treasures, magical artifacts, and even another race or two of intelligent creatures — some who are friendly, and others that are quite hostile.

The story of Avernum is full of rich atmosphere and imagination.  The fantasy and adventure are mixed evenly with a good sense humor and drama.  Avernum is a world brimming with life (and death), and it’s easily apparent that the text and dialog has been well thought out by someone who loves both fantasy and classic Role-Playing Games themselves.  It’s an engaging and engrossing story, and one that can envelope and hold gamers imaginations and interests as much as any great Fantasy Adventure novel.

Gameplay:
Avernum: Escape From the Pit utilizes a very simple point and click interface.  There are keyboard shortcuts to make things a little easier and occasionally more complicated as well (more on that later).  Where this remake differs greatly from it’s predecessors is in how easy it is to move about and explore Avernum, converse with it’s people, and manipulate objects and items without relying on the keyboard.

For those who have played the original series of games, they’ll notice that the control scheme is very much the same yet far more refined.  This is a very positive improvement since moving about and exploration in the older versions lacked precision, often forcing players to rely on numerous keyboard shortcuts in order to interact with environments, manipulate objects, and even open up a dialog with NPC characters.

The old Avernum games shared the same rich atmosphere and engrossing story, but the controls, as similar as they were, and trying to move player characters about the world, often left me feeling disengaged at times, even with the apparent strengths of it’s story.  It might sound like I’m complaining about minor details in regards to the older games and series, however, it should be pointed out that this version of Avernum is much more user friendly and provides players with a more enjoyable experience because the interface and point-and-click precision has been cleaned up considerably.  After playing this new version it’s almost impossible to go back.

As similar in story as they are, the new Avernum includes a new area at the very beginning of the game when you first arrive in Avernum.  This area provides players with a brief prelude and introduction to gameplay, exploration, conversation, and the ins and outs of combat.  It makes for a great little tutorial section while adding to and expanding upon the already intriguing story.

Exploration and conversations are handled very simply and require no real skill, just keen observation and attention to detail.  The combat is fairly straight forward as well but does involve quite a bit of strategy at the same time.  Hacking and slashing is made up of turn-based fun, but a hasty gamer will find themselves overwhelmed if they don’t pay attention to the enemies they encounter and their characters status.  The tide of battle can change drastically if your characters become cursed or poisoned, among other ailments.  Thankfully, your characters are also equipped to deal with combat situations in the form of battle skills, magical spells, healing rituals and some passive traits that enhance your abilities or protect you from an enemy’s.

If all of this wasn’t enough, players are given the freedom of choice.  What type of characters do you want to play?  Will you do the thing that is just?  Or will your characters gain renown through their merciless and selfish acts?  For the most part, the choice is up to you and it will ultimately have an affect on how the game plays out and ends.

There are a few design choices that have me a little irked unfortunately.  One example is that some menu’s can’t be closed with the same button that they were opened with.  This sounds trivial but it also applies to the keyboard shortcuts.  For example, in most games that have an inventory, pressing the letter ‘i’ opens up that inventory, while pressing it again closes the inventory screen.  Not so in Avernum.  Pressing ‘i’ does open up the inventory screen just like it normally should, unfortunately pressing the letter ‘i’ again does not close it.  It sounds like such a minor gripe but this ‘bug’ applies to more than just the inventory menu.  What’s even stranger is that some screens and menus, such as the world map, do open and close this way by simply using the ‘m’ key to either open it up or close it.  Not a big deal, but it is annoying that all the menus and screens do not work similarly.

Graphics and Sound:
People won’t exactly be writing home about Avernum’s graphics, but that’s just fine.  Everything about this remake is sharper, better looking, and more detailed than the original.  It’s heavily story based, like most classic hardcore RPG’s.  This also means that the player is left to use their own imagination a little.  One of my biggest gripes with games today is that they leave nothing or very little to the imagination.  I grew up using this most wondrous of free toys, my imagination I mean, and I hope that I’ll be able to continue using it with my kids as they grow up, right up until I die.

So if you only play games for their graphics, can’t stand reading, have little or no imagination, and didn’t build forts out of pillows and blankets or fight dragons and demon’s with wooden spoons or other pieces of your moms kitchenware, then you probably won’t appreciate Avernum very much.  You will be missing out though.  The imagination and creativity behind Avernum is what’s important.  Still, the graphics are both colorful and effective in working with the story and atmosphere to make Avernum seem like a cold, miserable, dangerous, and mysterious place.

The music and sound is actually very good, though a little sparse.  Music accompanies gameplay once in a blue moon but what is there is also very nice to listen to.  The sounds are ambient.  Dripping water, echoes of clanging and chinking…  These sound fx, as simple as they are, add to the level of atmosphere tremendously.  Again, a certain amount of freedom of the imagination is involved and for that reason, I love it.

Conclusion:
Avernum: Escape From the Pit provides the perfect example of what people love about RPG’s.  Whether it’s from the 80’s, 90’s, or the next millenia, Avernum represents what gamers and RPG fans enjoy and love about classically styled Role-Playing games.  An emphasis on story is as important, if not more than, graphics, sound, and perhaps even gameplay.  This is an RPG that is greater than the sum of it’s parts.  It’s a dark and dirty world begging to be explored.  You may choose to play as the straight arrow, helping others where they can’t help themselves, or you can play the part of the crooked and corruptible thief.

There is a linear set of quests that can ultimately win the game, but the overall gameplay is definitely non-linear.  You can choose where to go and when to do specific side-quests.  Some of your choices aren’t exactly black or white either.  Spiderweb Software (Jeff Vogel) has done a great job providing players with the freedom to choose, not just right from wrong, but what to do and when.  If you enjoy epic RPG’s and you appreciate sophisticated fantasy stories full of combat and intrigue, then you will definitely love Avernum: Escape From the Pit!

You can pick up Avernum for PC, Mac, or the iPad directly from the Spiderweb Software website, where you’ll also find a ton of Spiderweb Software’s other classic Role-Playing games.  Avernum comes with a huge demo that should provide players with more than enough fantasy adventure to decide whether this game is worth the purchase or not, but believe me, it is well worth it.

You can also get Avernum: Escape From the Pit from these other download portals:
Steam, Gamer’s Gate, or Apple’s iTune Store

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