Avernum: Escape from the Pit – Review
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit started off its life in 1995 as Exile: Escape from the Pit. A popular and engaging game, Exile offered a deep story with hours of exploration and complex combat. The game was so well received that even after a decade, it retained enough popularity that Spiderweb offered the game on its website, but technical problems began to interfere with finding new fans. Rather than sit on their laurels, Spiderweb decided to update Exile and create Avernum a re-packaged and re-focused version of Exile. Giving the player a new intro tutorial, expanded sidequests and conversations (as well as updating the engine to run on Windows 7, tablet PCs and Macs), Avernum offers a newer, deeper glimpse into the dark underworld known as Avernum.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about Avernum is that it is very old school. The graphics will definitely not endear it to people who weren’t old enough to be gamers in 1995, and the total lack of voice-acting or other high production value gimmicks will probably be an obstacle to quite a few prospective players. It begs the question as to what the developers intended with the re-release/update/reboot/rewrite: is it just to give old fans a chance to keep playing the game on modern machines? Or is it to try to electrify a new fanbase to get support for future Spiderweb projects? If so, the lack of meaningful changes – and the total inability for a new player to discern the changes – makes that a little limp-wristed.
The lack of a high production value should be ignored as soon as possible, however. Avernum shows its pedigree in the very first level-up screens. Although it doesn’t stray from the archetypal RPG classes, the sheer number of skills and abilities presented to any of the classes means that you’ll get more than your fair share of tech trees and min-maxing opportunities. The four-man party you take with you also helps to diversify your team and offer plenty of possible synergies to crush your enemies.
The combat is also pretty typical, following a grid-based movement system along with one-at-a-time turn-based attacks. Finding the right weapons and employing the right skills in the proper order will make the difference between the life and death of your party, and this gets important very quickly in the underworld of Avernum.
The story follows you, a nameless (for all intents and purposes) adventurer who has been cast into Avernum, a subterranean prison for misfits, rebels, or political enemies of the Empire. Occupying a vast amount of territory but closed off from the surface world, the exiles in Avernum have formed their own societies, social hierarchies and even armies. Your flailing attempts to make sense of the structure of these disparate communities occupies a good chunk of the first few hours, and eventually leads to making some pretty critical decisions for your future.
One of the most intriguing features of Avernum is the triple story, so to speak. Do enough exploring in the early portions and you’ll come to find out that you can follow three main quest lines: escape, revenge, or safety. Following (loosely, as the quest structure is wonderfully free from any restrictions) one quest line will inevitably lead you to the fruition of whatever motivation you’ve chosen.
Escape probably makes the most sense, since it’s part of the name of the game and that path is one of the most obviously presented to you. Revenge is much more satisfying, however. Confronting the all-powerful, monolithic power of the Empire leads to some fairly epic confrontations toward the end of the game. Safety, while sounding a little boring, is a unique and nuanced option. Far from finding a hole to hide in and hunkering down, it presents a challenge at least as interesting as the other two options, on top of being a choice generally not presented in many RPGs.
The story is one of the best parts of Avernum. The ability to choose your goal rather than simply the means you employ results in a closer player-character relationship than in most other RPGs, simply because you are truly affecting your own future, rather than choosing how to play moments the game presents to you along a scripted and pre-determined path. This is an esoteric choice, since the rail-free experience also comes at the cost of characterization (for example, you’re never provided with even the most basic of character histories). You and your party members have very little in the way of scripted personality, relying instead on you, the player, to direct most of the conversations.
The dialogue itself tends to be a little wonky. Most of the information you get come from massive infodumps, and no matter what type of character you’ve decided to play, each conversation can be played out until every single dialogue option is explored, which means there’s no reward in-game for playing a specific type of character. No renegades, paragons, open hands or closed fists here, just a series of conversations that lead you to make decisions on your own.
There are other elements that go into the story. The world is deep enough that you’re able to form quite a distinct impression of the Empire without having too many obvious info-dumps given to you. Even the Nephilim, a race of feline humanoids, have a thoroughly crafted history and society that might not be obvious at first. I first wrote them off as being the Avernum race-of-choice for low-level grinding, but that turned out to not be the case. Given enough exploration, most things in Avernum – races, places or even characters – are more than what they seem on the surface.
What it boils down to is that Avernum is very much an RPG stripped down to its core. There are no frills here, no hi-def graphics or budget-busting voice acting credits, just the basic elements that go together to craft a dramatic, intriguing story with deep and entertaining combat, and plenty of loot to haul around. It’s refreshing to play an RPG that is very much in tune with what made RPGs such a popular genre in the first place – even if the price tag is a bit steep ($20 for a game that’s more than a decade old – even if it’s somewhat updated). Although it does lose a few points for lack of character background and awkward dialogue, Avernum is sure to entertain RPG fans for hours on end.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit earns a solid 4.50 out of 5.
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