Avernum: Escape from the Pit
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Genre: Rope-playing Game
*Author’s Note: I will periodically be referring to all versions of Avernum with the year of release after them to clear up any confusion when I am comparing them.
Avernum: Escape from the pit is actually the second remake of Spiderweb’s first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit, from back in 1995. The first remake, released in 2000, was just simply called Avernum. The first remake completely overhauled the graphics, audio, and added more content. Exile and Avernum 2000 are point and click turn based role-playing games in the same vein as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. Now twelve years after the first remake, is there anything left to be added or improved upon in Avernum: Escape from the Pit?
The reason for the second remake is because Avernum 2000 was no longer able to be played properly on today’s modern PCs or Macs. So Spiderweb Software started from scratch and remade the game from the ground up in the new graphics engine used in their last released title, Avadon. They’ve also added a brand new interface, a new skill and stat system and more towns and caverns to explore. Avernum 2012’s game window was now made full screen as opposed to Exile and Avernum 2000 where the game window only took up slightly more than a quarter of the screen while sharing it with a stat tracker and dialog window.
Graphically Avernum 2012 did receive a nice upgrade over its ancestors Exile and Avernum 2000. With the new engine Avernum has better looking spell effects, new movement and combat animations, improved character and npc models and better textured environments. However the better graphics aren’t truly impressive at all. Avernum 2012’s graphics style is equivalent to a late 1990’s PC game. After seeing how huge of a leap forward independent developers have taken with their games these past few years, Spiderweb has no excuse to be using graphics that are already outdated by nearly fifteen years.
You start out your quest in a cavern inside the pit you were dumped in. Get used to the surroundings because those walls, floor and animated water textures are what you will be seeing almost seventy-five percent of the time while exploring caverns and the world map. You’ll be seeing a lot of while unique looking fungi and stalactites everywhere. The only time when you will be free of these is when you are in towns, forts or palaces but honestly they aren’t much better. Aside from a different layout and size variant, each town feels and looks the same. All the forts and buildings in towns use the same granite wall textures and the only time you actually see external housing details like a roof is out in the over world while traveling.
Character and NPC models fair a lot better in the facelift. While the sprites are a lot smaller due to the higher resolutions of today’s monitors, they are nicely detailed. Your avatars actually look like your character portraits. The enemy variety is equally nice, from the tiny killer clams to the dragons. One of my big gripes, however, is the lack of quality sprite animation. Every sprite has simple walking, melee attack, spell casting and death animations. The speed for every animation is so fast that they go by so quickly and you barely notice what is going on. Worse, there isn’t much to see since everything seems to have like three or four frames of animation. Spell effects unfortunately are a mixed bag. There are fifty spells that can be learned in the game and depending on what you cast they pretty much use the same effects but with a different color scheme. For instance, the wizard has Icy Rain and poison area effect spells but they are just simple palette swaps while something like Summon Creature consists of just simple star sprites that flicker until a creature appears.
For a franchise that has six entries, you’d think that there would be a budget to allow the franchise to truly fit in with this day and age of high quality indie games. Normally this kind of graphical style ages well, it just doesn’t belong in this day and age of indie gaming unless it fits to a unqiue style of the game play like VVVVVV, bit trip or even I Wanna Be The Guy. I am just surprised there was no real step forward with the second remake of a game that is over seventeen years old. Avernum feels like it graphically progressed from the year 1995 to 1997.
I’m sorry to say however, as disappointing as the graphics are, the audio is hands down the worst part of Avernum. More like a lack of audio to be honest. During my playthrough, I became irritated with the constant sounds of footsteps from your avatars. Everywhere you go will be accompanied with this truly obnoxious sound. In the menu settings you are given the option to disable background audio effects, but this generally means just turning off the town crowds, dripping water in the caverns, the creaking noise of a dissolving fortress or the title screen music. Honestly it’s nice to have that option for when I enter a town because the town chatter is just as annoying as the footsteps.
One of the areas of the game that was only slightly altered was Avernum‘s story. The plot has generally stayed the same since the release of the original game, Exile, seventeen years ago. You and your party are prisoners of the evil Emperor Hawthorne and he has condemned you all to the pit of Avernum. There the Emperor expects you to die a slow death, be devoured by the underworld wildlife or be torn to shreds by the other prisoners sent there before you. Now stuck in your new underworld existence, you try to either figure out a way of escape, defend yourself against the dangerous wildlife or give up hope and become a part of the society that was built under the nose of the empire. Now to be honest, the whole, “Hero escapes from inescapable prison”Â story has been rehashed and used over and over from the classic Eye of the Beholder, to Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, to the recently released The Legend of Grimrock.
To be brutally honest, I find Avernum‘s main plot to be really weak. In fact, there isn’t just one but three main plots that you can follow in Avernum and all of them suffer the same problems that I keep coming across in my playthrough. The first of those problems, and the biggest, is how boring I find the story to be. I easily lose interest and find myself playing short sessions because of how weak the story dialog is between the player and the npc’s. The interaction is nothing more than a ton of meaningless words stacked on top of two to four questions you can ask the npc. Asking these questions doesn’t really amount to anything as you can just accept a new quest from the npc, leave the conversation, go to your journal and get more information about your quest there. Now the biggest problem I have with Avernum is how the game doesn’t show any focus on the main plots. It fact, it seems more like it wants you to spend more time exploring the vast underworld trying to uncover more dialog about the underworld’s lore.
On top of the game’s weak story, I found the game’s lore to be one the many elements that throws me for a loop. The lore is way more consistent that the game’s main plots. There are a ton of NPC’s out there and they all, minus the guards, have something to say about the underworld’s lore or the society they created. There is also constant discussion about the Nephilim, a race of aggressive cat people, whom the people of Avernum live in fear of constant attack. Plus it appears there was more effort put into the explanation of how their society is split up into five or six provinces, each ruled by an appointed council member. It’s funny that they put so much emphasis on the council members because they are the people you go to for many quests relating to the main plots yet they have you doing simple things like retrieving lost amulets or killing monsters in their sewer system.
Avernum however does have many bright spots and they’re found within the upgraded gameplay and reworked stat system is among them. Control wise, Avernum still uses the same mouse and keyboard interface for accessing inventory, character sheets, spells and avatar movement. Movement is really clumsy on the keyboard so it’s only useful for quick access for menus when you don’t feel like floating the mouse cursor over to every corner of the screen which actually leads to a small problem I have with interface controls. Because of the placement of the character portraits and the map moving the mouse over to them may accidently move the screen from time to time. Not a major issue but it can be annoying from time to time.
Some of the upgrades I approve of include a reduced party size, the new skill leveling system and altered trait system. Now the reduction of the party size has jumped down from six to four and this makes managing characters a lot easier to manage. I don’t have to constantly worry about whether or not I have enough gold to buy potions, getting better equipment or purchasing new spells for all characters. It just feels much more manageable and also makes combat move along so much faster. The reworked skill leveling system is more simplified than it was in the previous games. Now all your stat points are divided up between four skills as your level up. The trait system was completely overhauled. Now you are allowed to add a new trait every couple of levels allowing for quite a mix in gameplay style with your characters. In previous games you were only allowed to pick only two traits and that limited how you would play the game.
Now one of my favorite parts of Avernum is its combat engine. It’s basically a turn based grid combat system that has lots of heavy tactical placement. You can initiate combat at almost any time but simply approaching an enemy in a dungeon or fort, running into them during an encounter on the over world map, or simply clicking the dual swords button on the bottom menu bar. Combat can take place anywhere, be it in narrow dungeon paths, the open ranged over world, in multiple rooms of a fort, or even in town. You can use the layout to your advantage to hide from the sights of an enemy’s bow or spell or simply rush them down and lay the smack down. Now even though the combat is turn based, that doesn’t mean stats don’t play a role in the order of who goes first. You can use potions or spells to help allow your party to attack first or flee in terror if you encounter to strong an enemy.
There is an issue with the game’s balance however I must address. Too many times have I often explored the over world and encountered an enemy group or a boss character that was way too powerful for me to overcome. This happened quite often early on in the game. You can have multiple encounters with even leveled or weaker monsters and then suddenly find yourself reloading a save file because you met up with the lizard men or an experimental rat that annihilated your party in just a few hits.
Aside from combat, Avernum does offer a ton of exploration. The over world map is huge with lots of secrets. In fact the game seems to have a stronger emphasis on exploration than it does on its plot as it encourages you to do so. You are generally rewarded treasures, better equipment and experience for exploring the unknown. That’s fine, but I really wish the developers worked more on putting that emphasis on the story lines of the game because I didn’t feel like I was given any incentive to follow thru on them. This would usually help if the dialog was a lot better too for the main story plots.
Another element I take issue with is the side quest system. Now generally it does work the same as any other rpg by going to an NPC or the quest board, accepting a quest and then returning the NPC to collect your reward. Unfortunately half the time you get decrypted conversations or minimal descriptions from the client that makes locating your objective harder than it should be. One of the improvements over the first remake was the addition of quest markers on the world map however they don’t show up unless you’ve wandered around to the right location and enter the location. Sometimes I’ve walked into a dead end with no sign of anything significant and upon approaching it, I automatically enter a cave. Only a few quests that I received have given me good descriptions or hints of where I should go to complete my objective.
Now I’ve mentioned Avernum‘s dialog quite a bit, so I am going to expand on my major issues with it. Straight to the point the dialog is not enjoyable; in fact it’s downright boring. And there’s a ton of dialog and text in the game. The dialog between NPC is mostly a bunch of drivel about their world’s history. Usually I am a fan of exploring a game’s lore but I was just simply not interested in it. The conversation choices you have with NPC also lead nowhere as well. Usually you use them to acquire more information for the side quests you do but they are mostly about the day to day lives or background of each NPC. Generally it’s just boring. There is also a ton of text that shows up regularly describing your surroundings upon entering a town or exploring a cave – despite being able to see this for yourself. Avernum‘s text is super descriptive and truthfully, there is no need for this much dialog unless you’re playing Zork or some other text based adventure game.
Overall my gameplay experience is a mixed bag. On one hand, there’s the overwhelming amount of text, horrible audio, poor story line and boring dialog. I found myself getting disinterested preventing me from playing for long periods of time. On the other one hand, I found myself enjoying the exploration, the tactical combat and the revamped character leveling system. Fortunately the latter was enough to keep me going. There’s also the unfortunate fact that I am playing a game that has been remade for a second time with only cosmetic changes made. However, these cosmetic changes aren’t enough to win me over and convince me to play a game I feel just doesn’t belong in this day and age.
Story: Below Average
Sound: Very Bad
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Very Bad
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Very Bad
FINAL SCORE: Pretty Poor Game
Short Attention Span Summary
In a nutshell Avernum Escape from the Pit belongs in the nineties. There was no need for the game to be remade a second time just because the first remake was having issues running under current Windows 7 or the latest Mac OS. There are ways around that via Virtual PC programs. Avernum‘s redundant npc dialouge and weak story truely bored me. The combat and exploration, though enjoyable, aren’t strong enough to merit me to play for extended periods of time. Unless you never played Exile or Avernum 2000 I can’t really recommend even picking up this game to even the most hardcore of computer RPG fans.