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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.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Stanton Daries Staff Alumnus

05/15/2012 at 09:58 PM

This game looks awesome! Sorry you had that initial trouble with it. 

Julian Titus Senior Editor

05/15/2012 at 11:43 PM

Yeah, I wanted to love it. I was excited when I saw that it was a throwback since I missed out on those types of games. Maybe the upcoming Baldur's Gate remake will be just what I want.

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

05/16/2012 at 10:42 AM

The screenshots you put in this article stirred up something deep within me best left nondescript.  Let's just say it was a positive experience.  I have a love / hate relationship with a lot of these older games, namely the same experience you had when reviewing the title.  I think a better understanding of the D&D fundamentals would have helped, and I've expressed my interest in past articles to be educated in these classics so I can better appreciate them.

Resistance, as they say, is futile.  I think I'm going to be playing some similar games in the near future.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

05/16/2012 at 12:27 PM

I went back to FF V on GBA after this. That probably has more to do with the retrospective I'm writing, but my comment about dreaming about a new old FF is a real thing. 

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

05/16/2012 at 01:01 PM

That game is amazing.  Best use of the job system EVER.  I thought the story was pretty lame though.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

05/16/2012 at 01:30 PM

Which is the reason it's the only game in the series I haven't finished. I've tried from scratch at least 8 times since the release of Anthology. I'm 17 hours in this time, which is way better than I've done before. I'm stuck, but I'm gonna gamefaqs it before my vacation and play it on the plane.

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

05/16/2012 at 01:33 PM

It's a shame there's no equivalent to a "beast tamer" class (or if there is, I'm unaware of it.  I haven't beaten the game either)  If there was, you could play with snakes. On a plane.



Travis Hawks Senior Editor

05/16/2012 at 01:51 PM

This review and my current playing of Etrian Odyssey III have unfortunately made me interested in this.

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

05/16/2012 at 02:04 PM

Etrian Odyssey III is fantastic.  If I hadn't bricked my healer I probably would have finished it.

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