Avernum: Escape the Pit Review
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On 05/15/2012 at 09:00 PM by Julian Titus
Bear witness to my journal of failure!
If you have fond memories of early '90s PC RPGs, this is your new best friend. Otherwise, this game is not to be taken lightly, and more casual RPG players should take heed of my words.
Avernum: Escape the Pit is in love with the '90s. In fact, it’s so in love with the '90s that every copy of the game should come with a flannel shirt, a can of Crystal Pepsi, and Nevermind on CD. Spiderweb Software has created a new game that feels old, not unlike what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10. To gamers that cut their teeth on games like Ultima and Baldur’s Gate this is fantastic news, as games like this simply don’t get made very often anymore. For gamers such as me who were weaned on consoles and people under the age of 30, this game is a total head scratcher.
From the outset, it’s easy to see what Spiderweb Software has done here. Even though the only PC games I played in the '90s were Doom and King’s Quest I knew right away what Avernum is, and it didn’t bother me a bit. The game is the epitome of “old school”; the 2D sprites set against an isometric backdrop are instantly recognizable as the hallmarks of a classic PC RPG. This is not the memory I have of gaming in the '90s, but I can appreciate it for being a love letter to that era.
The classic presentation goes beyond just the sprite art. It may be difficult to remember a time when NPCs in role playing games didn’t have expertly acted voice work and motion captured animations, but Avernum is a text based affair. NPCs have pages and pages worth of text to throw at you should you engage them in conversation; a necessity if you plan on getting quests for valuable xp. Similarly, the game is “narrated” by an unseen voice, not unlike a Dungeon Master in a tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons. Step into a new area or inspect an item and you’ll be greeted with text that adds flavor and atmosphere to the simple graphics on the screen. These textual moments are expertly written, and often very funny. Avernum knows what it is, and it will give you a wink and a nod at times to let you in on the joke.
When you begin your game you’ll create a party of four. You can change their character sprites and rename them if you so choose. Once my party was assembled (I opted for a balanced group of a warrior, rogue, priest, and wizard) I was given my motivation for the quest and given almost free reign. You’ve been banished to the underground land of Avernum for your crimes, which the “Dungeon Master” is very vague on. You decide your fate from there--will you try to make a living in the subterranean environment or try to escape to the surface?
There’s something refreshing about playing a game that trusts you enough to take the controls and run with it. Oh, there’s certainly tutorial text and a couple helpful prompts at the start of the game, but by and large you’ll have to brave the harsh caverns and turn-based combat of Avernum on your own. This is the game’s greatest strength but also its greatest weakness. You have complete freedom to explore from the moment you get control of your party. Talking to the right NPCs will lead you on quests and a general direction that you may want to explore, but for the most part you’re on your own.
As a total noob when it comes to classic PC RPGs my early moments with Avernum were extremely frustrating. Once I left the starting town I headed towards the next town over, where I was told new adventurers should go. Somehow I got turned around and ran into a group of monsters that slaughtered my party. This happened to me a lot. Like those RPGs of yore, equipment and items are expensive and gold is hard to come by. Experience points are also hard fought, since random encounters in the overworld are few and far between. Wandering into an interior area that’s above your level will punish you with one hit kills and a quick reload. I began to think that this game would be completely beyond my ability.
But then something started to click for me. I gained a couple levels, and as I put points into the important stats for each character (Dex for my rogue and Int for my mages, for example) I could really see a difference in their battle prowess. I completed some quests and got some gear that similarly helped me out. I also realized that playing to the strengths of each class is the key to battle, so my rogue became a powerhouse with her bow, while my warrior became much more useful with a sword in each hand. Things were going great, and I was enjoying the freedom that Avernum gives. Who needs constant tutorials and arrows telling you where to go when the open road and glory awaits the dedicated adventurer?
Well, it turns out that I need those more than I thought. I talk a mean game about wanting my games to give me the benefit of the doubt and let me discover things for myself, but Avernum taught me to be careful what you wish for. That’s because as soon as I began to feel comfortable with the game and its mechanics I hit another wall. There’s no way to know how strong enemies are in relation to your party until you start fighting, and by then it’s almost always too late. I had a huge quest log, but every time I would go out to complete one I would realize to my dismay that the enemies I had to face were far beyond the abilities of my group. Death came for me swiftly, surely, and often (I got well-acquainted with the Grim Reaper). My feelings of triumph were completely overshadowed by my feelings of failure, and I wished for just a little bit of guidance. Even something as simple as color coded enemy names ala World of Warcraft would have increased my enjoyment of Avernum immensely.
I will freely admit that my complaints about this game stem from the fact that my video game expertise has a blind spot for classic PC games. If I had grown up playing games like this I know I would have embraced Avernum for all that it is. After all, I lay awake at night dreaming of a new Final Fantasy game done in the style of the Super Nintendo games with the classic creators back on board, so I understand the sentiment here. Sadly, I don’t have that appreciation for 90s style PC games, and I can’t go back in time and tell 13 year old me to play Ultima. Avernum is a godsend for a certain type of gamer, but for the rest of us it is simply a curiosity.