Unless you’re part of the legion of long-time fans or have been keeping up with our coverage here at theBitFix, you probably haven’t heard of the Avernum series. Brought to you by the indie game studio Spiderweb Software, the original party-based role-playing game was released all the way back in1995, when I was seven years old and still thought King’s Quest VI was the best video game I’d ever played. Actually, it still is. But I digress…
There’s a remake of the original Avernum in the works called Avernum: Escape from the Pit, featuring an overhaul of graphics, gameplay, and compatibility. I got lucky enough to check it out about a month early. And, if you’re reading this, you got lucky enough to stumble on this preview. Unfortunately, I haven’t played the original Avernum, so I can’t compare the two. But I will be able to give you a nice little play-by-play description of my experience with Avernum. Maybe it will help you decide whether or not you want to pick it up yourself, if you’re into an RPG with these kind of mechanics. It’s certainly gonna be cheap enough.
When I first started up Avernum, I was duly impressed by the options — there’s a full manual, a character editor (which you can only activate after several warning prompts — apparently, you can break the game this way) and even a screen that keeps track of your stats and achievements. I selected “new game,” where I could customize a four-person party. I selected pre-made classes, cycled through different character portraits, and before long, I had a soldier named Marco, a rogue named Polo, a priestess named Darla, and a sorceress named Bobby Sue. I commenced playing the game.
The game’s introduction comes by way of text set over painted images, something that certainly hearkens back to 1995:
“You are never going to see sunlight again. You will never breathe fresh air. Or be warm and dry. Or feel safe.”
Then, it treats you to a slightly longer explanation of why you’re being exiled to the land of Avernum, a huge underground world separate from the surface. I won’t repeat the whole thing here. It takes several screens of text to complete. After the announcement that I was finally thrown into Avernum, I found myself in a tutorial dungeon. The first thing that struck me is that this game is very text-heavy. Somebody spent a lot of time describing things in great detail — the water is foul and stagnant, the reek of fungus assaults your nose, that kind of thing. Of course, there are some well-detailed graphics, even though they’re complete shit by today’s standards (this isn’t a 3D engine with voxels and shaders and that kind of thing). But they’re certainly functional.
The inventory screen is fairly detailed. Each character has an opening for a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a secondary weapon/shield, armor, gloves/bracers, a helmet, boots, a necklace, a cloak, a ring, a belt — and most importantly, pants! I shudder to envision myself with a pants-less party. The monsters might run away.
The character screen is pretty damn complicated, as well. Each character has an experience bar which contributes to the character’s level. There are four major attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Endurance — your typical RPG fare. Characters also have health and spell energy. There’s a list of “resistances,” as well, which are expressed as a percentage. In this part of the character sheet, you can keep track of your armor rating, magical resistance, elemental resistance, mental resistance and curse resistance (jeez, you think they could have consolidated some of these! Sure feels like 1995 again). In addition to all this, there are two skill-trees, one for characters that fight with weapons, and one for characters that use spell energy. And, as a final way to keep your head spinning, each character has a list of traits that do many different things, such as modify your chance to hit, your damage output, your attributes, etcetera. When you level up, most of these things can be increased one way or another, except for resistances, which increase depending on your skills, attributes and traits.
Combat is turn-based. My first combat was against three “nephilim,” which are intelligent cat-like creatures who apparently hate humans. I only had melee weapons to begin with, so I charged with my warrior and my rogue, cast a shield spell with my priestess, and cast a fireball at one of the nephilim with my sorceress. Within only a few turns, the nephilim were completely destroyed. Easy, so far. I guess that’s just because I’m in the tutorial dungeon.
After running around the tutorial dungeon for a few minutes (it’s almost completely linear) and beating the boss, I emerged into Fort Avernum, the first city you have access to. Immediately, I’m prompted to start a dialogue with a “greeter.” Dialogue in Avernum, again, is quite text-heavy. The character to whom you’re speaking gives a monologue and you have a few options with which to respond. I suppose I should be thankful there’s no voice-acting in Avernum, otherwise I would have never finished this preview. The dialogue is so text-heavy it’s almost absurd by today’s standards. Again, if I haven’t reminded you enough, this is a re-make of a game from 1995, so this kind of thing was the status quo for RPGs of that generation, not to mention RPGs in general.
After getting some free supplies, I tried stealing a couple of things. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to go into any kind of “sneak mode.” You just walk up to a container, and if it isn’t locked (or your tool use skill is high enough to unlock it) you can just take whatever’s inside. If the items in the container aren’t yours, a little caption above the item’s image says “steal.” I stole everything from Fort Avernum that I could. The game dialogue did say my crime was seen a couple of times, but no guards came after me. I even walked up to one of them, attempting to get caught, and the game prompt simply said “you make small talk with the guard for a while, but don’t learn anything interesting.” After taking a look at the instruction manual included in the game’s opening menu, apparently you have to commit a certain number of transgressions before anybody will do anything about it. Sweet. I’m going to try and steal all of Avernum.
After stealing everything I could, I left Fort Avernum feeling confident and quite a bit heavier. I decided to head for the next town over, called Silvar. In Silvar, I was able to sell most of my stuff and buy new weapons and armor. I was also able, after finding the mayor, to start questing. This means you get the opportunity to go to different dungeons and forts around the world of Avernum. One interesting mechanic in this game is the free-healing option: If a dungeon is too hard, you can flee to the nearest city, and all of your dead party-members are revived at full health. In addition, if your surviving party members are injured, they are completely healed and regain all their spell-energy. This completely replaces any option to “rest” within a dungeon, which is a little inconvenient, because you have to run back and forth between dungeons and cities to get anything done, but it’s better than a free-healing option not being present at all.
After all this, I spent quite a bit of time exploring the world of Avernum, doing quests, getting gradually sweeter and sweeter loot, which included enchanted pants. The breadth of item variability is astounding. All kinds of armor, weapons and wearables can have an enchantment on them. By my third hour playing Avernum, all my characters had some relatively powerful items and had leveled up several times. My sorceress and priestess had acquired some new spells, and my soldier was doing quite a bit more damage to his enemies.
Despite my original apprehension at playing this isometric-view RPG remake from 1995, I was actually enjoying myself. Avernum has flair and a potential for many hours of gameplay, once you master the steep-ish learning curve. There is a well-developed story and lots to do. I look forward to doing a review when the game is officially released in April; it’s been a fun journey so far.