Avernum: Escape From the Pit Review
Before I even had Windows on my computer, I remember my dad bringing home a game from the store because a clerk said it was really good. I opened the box, and inside was not one, but three manuals, a cloth map, and a floppy disk labeled Exodus - Ultima IV. I popped the disk in, exited to DOS, and ran the game. I was bewildered by the pink and cyan color palette, died several times, and quickly became disgusted with the game. Ok, I was only five, an anxious yet naive child, and kept making a party consisting of all fighters because I liked to "fight" and kept trying to push the G button with enemies because the quick reference card said "G" for "sword." What was I doing wrong?
It wasn't until a few years later when I played other RPGs such as Final Fantasy that I understood the whole concept. "Fighters" aren't the only people who can fight, and pressing the sword button when next to monsters doesn't do anything. G was used to buy swords at a store, or equip them when one was owned. It just didn't help that my party didn't actually have any swords. Experience points, money, remembering to actually equip things -- it soon became so clear! I decided to brave that "Exo 4-something" game again. I never turned away from the genre since.
Click the image to view game screenshots
Avernum - Escape From the Pit (a revamped version of the first Avernum) is an isometric RPG that harkens back to the days of PC RPG games, particularly Ultima. This is made obvious from the game's graphics, which use sprites and tilesets to represent the game's world. Of course, they're a lot better than they were then, and with the addition of a mouse-friendly interface, Avernum takes all of the good of old PC RPGs and none of the bad. The same character sprites are used in abundance, which may confuse players not familiar with this graphic style, but this is remedied by the game's well written and sometimes humorous narration during key plot points and conversation.
Players can control up to four characters in the land of Avernum -- a large network of subterranean underground caverns where criminals are banished. As you progress in the story, you'll come to find out that Avernum is more civilized than you'd think, and many people have been banished for petty reasons, such as giving the Empire a dirty look, passing wind, or just simply existing.
Despite being a prison, the inhabitants of Avernum have created their own society and managed to continue on with their lives, albeit worse off than on the surface. Throughout your journey you'll fight plenty of bandits, lizard-men, forage for alchemy ingredients, eat bread made from mushrooms, and even find a dragon with a fascination for cats. It's also a breath of fresh air to find out that the end quests don't actually revolve around saving the world for once. In fact, there are three of them: getting revenge for your banishment; returning to the surface; or simply settling down in Avernum. You can complete one or all three if you wish.
Considering the game's size, character customization is rather in-depth. Players can create a party consisting of any combination of 9 different classes, or create one from scratch, as well as a wide variety of skills, all accompanied by hilarious artwork that depicts the different skills, similar to the Pipboy in the Fallout series.
The game recommends that first-time players use the default selected classes, but if you know your RPG quirks, you should do fine creating your own. For my playthrough, I opted to create my own classes -- a warrior with a few points in healing skills, a rogue that excelled in archery, lockpicking, and five-finger discounts, a dedicated healer, and a mage.
The game doesn't exactly fare too well for character background, and this is mostly because of the looseness of character appearances -- they aren't set in stone. You simply choose one of a dozen character images, name them, and be one your way. It's often best to pick matching characters -- for example, a picture of a man with a sword for a warrior class, or a woman wielding a bow for an archer class -- but the game won't restrict your choices. You can change your characters' appearance any time during the game, including their names. That option is nice, but the fact that it exists cuts any possibility for a backstory because all your characters speak as one when conversing with others. You'll simply have to use your own imagination.
Combat, the real meat of the game, can occur either on the game's world map or in any of the game's many dungeons or towns. Players move their characters along the grid in turns, using up action points whenever they move. After the player has finished moving, the game then moves the enemies in a similar fashion.
Combat sounds simple at first, but position, flanking, and knowing what items to use when can be of the utmost importance. Melee attacks can only be done to enemies in adjacent grids -- characters need to be in visual range of their enemy for missile or magic attacks (hint: you can shoot through windows), and archers must retain distance to use their bows. Most attacks and spells finish off the rest of a character's action points no matter how much is left, but some actions such as drinking potions or using magic scrolls take up less. Sometimes drinking a healing potion instead of using healing spell so you can slip in an extra attack can make all the difference.
And speaking of potions, they're rare. And I mean rare. Shops tend to never restock their items, including alchemy stores, unless you buy about half of their wares. Enemies (on the world map, at least) infinitely respawn, providing an infinite amount of gold, but the frequency these encounters happen isn't as prevalent as other random-encounter RPGs out there, so grinding for money can take some time and may not be worth the effort.
However, as rare as potions are, it makes them feel all the more valuable when you get them. Besides, the chances of actually running out of mana is rare, at least in the first quarter of the game. Your character's mana pools are quite large in the beginning, and going through an entire dungeon without using up all your mana isn't uncommon early on, so heal or blast away. You can also learn the First Aid skill which enables you to heal after fights based on the level of the skill and experience gained.
The game's sound effects are adequate, from swinging blades, magic blasts, grungy acidic dripping, to the footsteps of your characters. The game also has an ambient soundtrack of howling caves and water dripping in the distance which gives a rather damp and dark feeling. It's a good thing the ambiance is well done, too, because there's no music, save for a few interludes when entering towns, entering combat, or the title screen. In a strange way, it makes the game feel more authentic, and the offbeat ambiance instead of looping music is a bit soothing. Because this game derives from older ones which didn't have music either, it feels fine without a soundtrack.
The game can be controlled either entirely with a mouse, a keyboard, or both. My only gripe is the forced use of the ESC button, which seems to be the only key that can be used to leave the inventory screen, which you'll be using quite a lot in between battles. This is because the games uses letters to indicate target selections, such as which enemy to attack, or, in the case of the inventory, which item to pick up. An option to deactivate the keyboard targeting shortcuts and have window buttons close them as well would have been nice.
In some cases, the interface can get awkward and cause trouble. The game supports higher resolutions than the original, but the simple graphics don't fair too well. Obtainable items end up being very tiny and can easily be missed if you're not looking closely. Also, it can be hard to target an enemy with the mouse when another enemy is overlapping it due to the isometric view.
Lowering the resolution can alleviate these problems. Seeing more of the map with higher resolutions sounds useful, but your own characters can only see so far away anyway, so it doesn't matter.
The game comes with four difficulty settings, a rarity for RPGs. You're not forced to keep it at whatever you choose at the start, so you can easily lower the difficulty in a tight spot and then raise it back up when you're done. (I'll admit, I have done so at one point.) At the time of this writing, there's no reward for playing the game at a higher difficulty; however, this being a review based off a review copy, this may change with Steam achievements. Still, the difficulty settings is a welcome feature, and the wide variety of classes and skills make for excellent replayability. If you want to go crazy and play with four priests, or only two or three characters, no one's going to stop you.
Chances are, however, that you've already played Avernum, and if this is the case, your ultimate question is most likely whether the game is worth buying again. It depends on how much the extras are worth to you.
The game can be bought on Steam (or at Spiderweb Software's website) for $20. For simply owning the original, you can grab it for $10. The enhanced graphics resemble Spiderweb Software's more recent games, such as Avernum 6 and Avadon: The Black Fortress, and also include much better character portraits. The game's leveling system also works differently, again resembling the last two iterations. Characters can now choose two new skills every level instead of earning distributable points. You can now also learn a new trait every other level, instead of sticking with only two at character creation. In addition, there's a new town, a slew of new quests, dungeons, and characters.
Overall, Avernum - Esacpe From the Pit is a great game if you're looking for a simple, addicting, classic RPG experience for a reasonable price, and I whole heartily enjoyed it. It may be over before you know it, until you realize that Escape From the Pit is only the first of a series of six. If you loved Ultima or even fancy tactical RPGs, this game won't disappoint.
(Unfortuantley, the first Avernum game is the only game currently planned to receive a revamp. Currently, all games work under all versions of 32-bit Windows, including Vista and 7, but most other games may have issues with 64-bit versions. You can check out the game's website here to test the demos as well as read some compaliblity tips.)
Presentation - 7
Story - 7
Sound - 7
Gameplay - 9
Current Stability - 10
Lasting Appeal - 8
*Editor's Note: OMGN received a free review copy of the game for this article.