mikelemmer's Avernum: Escape from the Pit (PC) review

Refreshed Style, Classic Substance

Download Size: 160MB

Time Played: 12 hours

Game Completed: ~25-33%

Estimated Time to Complete: 40-50 hrs.

What I'd Pay: $30

Steam Price (4/15/12): $10

I first played this game 15 years ago, back when it was originally released as Exile. In the time of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6, back before Baldur's Gate revitalized the western RPG market, it was a shareware throwback to the early Ultima days: a 6-member party, turn-based combat on a grid, and a giant underground world to explore. It rarely forced you onto a linear path, blocked your way, or gave any guarantee that crypt would be as easy as the nearby bandit fort. Even the 3 endings branched off along wildly divergent paths, giving you the option to complete just one, two, or all of them. It was enthralling, it was intoxicating, it's one of my favorite RPGs of all time and it was only $30.

Spiderweb Software has become a steadfast presence in the shareware RPG scene since then, constantly churning out expansive, complex RPGs at shareware prices. Their philosophy is to recycle the graphics with new stories and mechanics, and then once a generation has passed, recycle their old stories with new graphics and refitted mechanics. Exile is their oldest game; it's also their 1st game to be remade twice. Would the remake still strike the same chords its predecessor did over a decade ago?

I booted it up. Five hours of uninterrupted play later, I had to pry myself off the computer to get some sleep before I pulled an all-nighter. I'll take that as a "yes".

You start the game by building your party of 4; you can either go with the premade classes or satisfy your inner grognard by custom-making your characters. The game then tosses you into an introductory dungeon. ("Huh, this is new. The first one just started in the fort.") It teaches you the basics, gives you a small hook in the form of a bandit with delusions of grandeur that tries to rob you before fleeing, and then you emerge in the first fort of the game, where you get a small assortment of supplies, a few mission hooks, and a pat out the door.

Evil altars attract adventurers.

The combat is turn-based; each character has a set amount of Action Points to move around the combat grid, attack, and cast spells. Positioning is important: creatures slow down enemies trying to move away (or around) them, so melee fighters run interference for the ranged casters behind them. Many spells & effects have a blast radius, so you don't want your characters grouped up either, and it's probably a good idea to flank that fire-breathing drake so your entire front line isn't roasted simultaneously. Damage can pile on quickly, and status effects like daze and acid are nastier and tougher to remove than other RPGs, so you'll want to have the right wards and buffs up (or just daze them first).

It feels well-crafted, dangerous, solid. Two details in particular stand out to me. First, using items doesn't use up all your Action Points, letting you use an item and attack on the same turn, thus giving consumables a little extra "oomph" in battle. Second, instead of just making bosses immune to dazes, dominates, and other effects that would completely cripple it, they convert it into a damage-over-time effect instead as the last-ditch effort to resist it makes them physically ill. They're small tweaks to common, minor nitpicks of RPG battle systems, but I wish more games had details like this.

A skill tree. And art by Phil Foglio.

Defeating creatures and finishing quests gives you XP to level up. When you level up, you increase your stats, your skills, and occasionally gain a new perk. The interesting skills are the non-combat ones, like Arcane Lore and Tool Use. There are traps, locks, hidden caches, and arcane texts scattered throughout the game that you can only open/use if you have enough of that skill in the party; the combat skills will help you survive, but you'll miss out on a lot of nice equipment and spell upgrades if you focus solely on them.

It's this exploration that's the allure of the game. Avernum approaches Skyrim in the sheer quantity of locations to explore, things to find, nooks and crannies to uncover. Explore the tunnels under Formello and you'll find a small keep hidden away, complete with a questgiver. Deliver a piece of meat to a friendly nearby dragon and you can learn about the lost treasures of a previous expedition, fight a group of fire lizards for the trinkets from a previous "rude group of explorers", or try to steal the dragon's treasure trove yourself. Later in the game, I was infiltrating a nephar fort to free some hostages. A frontal assault didn't go well, so I spent some time the side tunnels. I eventually found a way in and freed the prisoners, making a mental note to return later to clear out the nephar for more loot. One of the prisoners also told me about an ominous crypt behind the fort, so I checked it out. A crudely-scrawled sign outside it read "DEMUNZ KEEP OUT". Several skulls and dismembered limbs littered the crypt's entrance. "I'll just take a peek inside," I thought. "I bet I can take them."

Three turns later, I abandoned my summoned creatures and fled the battle as fast as I could. They were even tougher than the nephar; I would have to come back several levels later to clear them out. In the meantime, I could try to clear out the nephar in the fort again, or take care of the slith problems the local fort was having, or investigate the rumors of friendly talking spiders up north, or just abandon it all and head south to the Magi's Tower on my way to the Castle...

The rare Silly Spider species, in its native habitat.

I looked at how much of the map I had explored. It was a quarter of it, tops. I looked at the time spent playing: 12 hours so far. It'd probably take me 50 hours to finish it. I was falling behind on the other games in my review queue; I would take a break from them to play Avernum for a bit, then look up from my screen to see 3 hours had passed. And I still wanted to play more. It's just as fun as the first time I played it. It probably has about half as much content as Skyrim for 1/6th of the price. This is an obscene deal for any computer RPG fan. And, if you want to try before you buy, you can download the demo here. (Not sure why there isn't a demo on Steam itself.)

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