What exactly is Avernum? You've probably never even heard of this company or what they've produced in the past. Well, they've won various shareware awards and received critical acclaim as one of the best shareware developers out there. It's not surprising with titles such as Exile, Blades of Exile, and Nethergate at their helm. Avernum is the latest release in the Exile series, in fact, it's a remake of the now classic Exile: Escape from the Pit using the Nethergate engine with tons of expanded worlds and storylines to follow. How does it stand-up to the rest of the competition?
One thing that all of Spiderweb's games have excelled at are excellent storylines. Avernum is no different with the core of the Exile: Escape from the Pit storyline powering Avernum. Basically, you (and a party of up to four), have been banished from the surface, where the empire reigns supreme, and sent down below the surface into the hideous world of Avernum. This is where the story picks up with drama between humans and other alien races never seen before on the surface. While it might not be the most creative or unique, it is interesting and will definitely keep the player into the flow of the game. With the unique branching system, storylines can become quite complex to the point where the player is in over his/her head. Thankfully, a journal feature will help the player keep track of what is happening in the world.
Another item of note is the extremely large game world. There are tons of cities, dungeons, and areas to visit in the world of Avernum; this is backed with an incredibly open and free roaming style of gameplay. There are several ways to defeat the game and about a hundred separate smaller, optional branching missions which the player can choose to take or not. As players explore the world of Avernum, they will learn the large and expansive back history, current problems, and make friends or enemies in the underworld (not hell, though). This ultimately keeps the game very interesting and fun to play, as rather than being restricted to certain directions, the player can do what he/she feels at any time and however he/she wants to. The only problem with this is that players might end up entering a dungeon or mission that their characters are still not quite up to. Players could then end up dead meat in certain dungeons because they weren't developed enough to handle such a rough mission.
What will ultimately keep the player coming back to get more and more of Avernum will be its extensive character generation and development system. Like any other complex role-playing game, there are a lot of character statistics to build. Similar to how the statistics system in System Shock 2 worked, players will receive skill points in which they allocate certain attributes. However, instead of each skill point being worth a full statistic, the player must build up a certain amount of skill points to raise a statistic. The higher a certain statistic is, the more skill points are required to build that statistic higher. As players receive skill points as their levels increase, so do the points required to raise a statistic. At first when the game starts out, adding strength statistic might cost five skill points, but near the end of the game, it might cost twelve points to raise that statistic. As these skills are built up, it has a drastic effect on how well each character performs; therefore, it is crucial that players develop their characters in certain areas to become experts.
Heavy character interaction with other NPCs (non-player characters) is crucial, although sometimes it might feel a bit under developed. Typically, at towns, players can interact and talk with other NPCs to gain information about Avernum, the history of the empire, or earn quests. Interaction is fairly simple and is controlled with a set of questions that will generate certain responses from the NPCs, whether it is neutral or hostile. Doing things in favor of the community or a city will result in a higher reputation of the party, the higher their reputation, the easier people will open up and provide more vital information about them. The NPC interaction isn't overly complex, but simple enough for new gamers to get into the game fairly easily and complex enough for meaningful interaction.
Combat is probably the biggest focus of the game as most of it is spent fighting! Similar to all of the other Spiderweb games, Avernum uses the same battle system that has been in every other game developed by them. It is a turn-based, grid strategic system. It isn't too unlike Odium or the Playstation title Final Fantasy Tactics. It involves complex character movement around a square tile system that allows movement in eight different directions. Several different attacks, from hand-to-hand, missile, and magical attacks are some of the variations that are offered by the battle system. Each fight occurs right there in the dungeon in the same location without any screen transitions. Each character has a certain amount of action points to spend per turn based on their dexterity statistic. With a balanced party, the battles are a lot of fun and can be easily defeated. There is, however, a slight problem with the system, sometimes finding out how to approach a situation is difficult and will require frequent loading/saving of the game, although it isn't a major problem because saving the game takes less than two seconds.
Magic and items in the game have a good variation. There are basically two types of magic: priest (white or healing) and mage (black or attack). Both have distinct purposes as to their functions. A skill to learn such magic called lore is needed to decipher cryptic spells that are found around the globe. Spells ranging from a simple fire shot to a complex ice lance that deals a significant amount of damage. There are also scrolls, which are one-time spells that can be used to attack or heal. There are also several different weapons types: melee, pole, bows and missiles. These require separate pools of statistics for successful attacks. Each provides different strategies with strengths and weaknesses. Armor is also heavily used; there are various types of armor that provide varying amounts of defense. Each weapon and armor has several variations for their attack or protection value, from poor buckler to a steel large shield, each item has unique attributes. Items such as lock pickers can also be used to get past obstacles and disarming traps is also a good skill to possess.
Since the world of Avernum is a persistent one, things are always moving and happening. With a completely open game design, lots of things have to be kept in mind. The reputation factor is the most important and best thing about the game. Before even receiving certain quests, the party's reputation has to be high enough for that person giving the quest to know of. For instance, Erika won't even talk to the party about her plans unless the reputation is twenty-five or above (default reputation is at ten). Reputation was gained by accomplishing and doing tasks for other people in Avernum. This makes the player actually develop his/her skills prior to the game getting too advanced for the player, giving a little direction in how to approach it. Do something mean or bad, reputation will fall and that town will hold a grudge against the player.
Another smart thing about the game is the AI. It plans and moves the enemies quite well, although the AI seems to use brute force over intelligent placement. Frequent loading/saving is required because of that surprise element of being over powered; although, the AI does make good moves in battle to position itself at an advantage versus the player, it can be beat. Depending on the skill level picked (from easy to impossible), can drastically impact the performance and skill level of the computer. With that skill level selector, all players with various skill levels can easily jump into the game. It's not like getting into the game was hard anyway...
One of the nicest parts about Avernum is the simple and easy interface. All control can be accomplished through keyboard or mouse, although the keyboard is quicker. It combines the usage of several overlaid windows, each with their respective functions. A simple "paper doll" interface of equipping and removing equipment is what Avernum offers along with an easy scroll menu for all items in inventory. Every function has a hotkey, along with the hotkey nicely labeled beneath or next to the button/function. Along with that, a drag and drop function with the mouse can operate in the same exact way instead of using the hotkeys.
Control with the keyboard or mouse to move and fight in combat is pretty simple. Since the world is positioned from an isometric perspective, movement is diagonal. Using the keyboard, the keypad is put to use with 1, 3, 7, and 9 buttons for movement and 2, 4, 6, and 8 for diagonal (relative to the gameworld) movement. This perspective adjusts itself to where the player is located. On all buildings, the tops are cut off so seeing inside the buildings is clearly visible and nothing is hidden behind other obstacles, such as bookcases or walls. Movement with the mouse is just as simple with an arrow that points in a certain direction and then pointing moves the party.
While the gameplay is smoothly polished and exciting to play, the graphics are at the complete opposite spectrum. These graphics are by far some of the most crude, simple, and primitive graphics to be released in several years. The first thing to note are the extremely small graphics that are used. The program wants to lock in at 800x600 resolution and then there is a smaller border around the playing field. The actual graphics themselves are constraint inside to another border with other windows surrounding the game, so the actual visible world is roughly half the size of the 800x600 screen. Getting past that, since the graphics use such a small window and the graphics are very simple, getting the game up and running on any system is a fairly simple and easy process. There is no configuration of videocards or anything else for that fact.
The most detailed objects are not used in the game. The sprites used to depict the characters in the game blend in well and fit perfectly with the rest of the gameworld. A realistic, but also cartoonish at the same time, set of colors at used to fill the depths of Avernum. Textures and objects are overlaid quite attractively and seem like a realistic place to be. One thing that is bothersome, though, are how all areas are limited to Wolfenstein 3D-esque 90º angled walls. There are no areas where curved places exist. Animation is also on the sparse side, while it is no different from any of Spiderweb's games, some extra animations would really help out the graphical splendor, although the death is animated.
Another area that Spiderweb's games have never excelled at is in the sound department. The sound is extremely sparse mainly consisting of walking, alerts, and combat filling the air. Other sounds when swinging weapons at enemies, when blows land, taking steps, and triggering some sort of alert will signal a sound to be played. They are decent sounds are sufficient to play the game. One thing that is significant that is missing, however, is the music... there is none!
Avernum is an excellent role-playing game for all gamers if players can get past the crude graphics and simple sound effects. There is an immense amount of depth, playability, and game to enjoy. The open-ended gameplay will offer lots of variation and the multiple ways to finish the game is a definite plus to all role-players. A simple interface helps gamers get into the game easily while a difficulty slider allows for multiple game settings for all players of all skill levels.
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