April 9th, 2012 | By Lee Weedall
Remember when role-playing games actually let you play a role? If so, then this one will be right up your street.
Mayor Steele of Cotra has a problem. Ten of his soldiers have been taken prisoner by the Nepharim and are being held in a nearby fort. He has no more men to send to rescue them, and the town is now less able to defend itself. Therefore, the second your ragtag bunch of adventurers walk in and talk to him, his obvious response is to ask you for help.
Being that this is an RPG, fetch quests and rescue missions should come as no surprise. This is very much the stock-in-trade of the genre, after all. And Avernum: Escape From The Pit is nothing if not respectful of tradition. Anybody who has ever played an RPG on PC in the last 20 years will feel right at home here. From the standard tropes, right through the isometric top-down viewpoint, to the turn-based combat, there is little in terms of presentation that will come as a surprise (unsurprising, as this is an updated version of an older series).
This instant familiarity is both a great strength and a slight weakness. On the one hand, it is possible to feel at home incredibly quickly, and thus some of the frustrations with the interface are trivialised. However, it brings with it a certain sense of ennui, which can lead to skimming large chunks of text. Which you shouldn’t do, because the story and dialogue of Avernum: Escape From The Pit are the real stars.
Avernum is a world quite unlike the ones you will have played in before. Instead of it being some faraway land full of sunshine and mountains, it is actually an underground prison. Should somebody find reason to question the Empire, they will find themselves flung mercilessly into the pit, where they are left to fend for themselves. It is at this point that the game starts, and the player is tasked with creating a team of four. Sticking with generic character classes will do, although it is also possible, and indeed recommended, to create your own team that is tailored exactly to your wishes.
The opening section of the game is a tutorial, designed to guide you through the mechanics of moving around and combat. Fairly quickly, it becomes clear that functionality won the internal debate over interface choices, as often it feels very much like you have to click one too many times to do things. It doesn’t take long, though, before things feel natural, although, several hours in to the game, you will still face the odd moment of anger as the game does what you actually told it to, instead of what you thought you did.
Once through this initial challenge, the real size of task in front of you is revealed. Avernum itself is MASSIVE. You head to the nearest city and start to deal with trying to escape. In a nice touch, this is not the only way to complete the game, but it would be unfair to merely say that there are different endings. There are, in fact, separate quest lines altogether, and the world is so large and non-linear that it is entirely possible to not discover everything. Suffice it to say that there is no corner of these caves that is just for show. Every inch is explorable, and well worth your time travelling to.
Often, you will find an item that seems out of place, and will not discover the quest it is connected to for quite some time. The converse is also true. NPCs dish out quests at a rate of knots, but do so with some wry and witty dialogue. The humour is rarely subtle, but also never feels like forced jollity. The writing is of a quality that seems at odds with the average graphics and lacklustre sound. Aesthetically, a job is being done and not much more.
Another problem may not even be seen by a problem as some. The world offers such freedom to explore that there may be times when your party stumbles across an enemy group that is meant for a much higher-levelled party. Unwinnable fights leave a nasty taste in the mouth, especially when they happen so early in the game. Eventually, though, the player can venture forward without fear of what may ambush them.
Some will struggle to look past these surface details, seeing them as flaws. They will be doing themselves a disservice, as beneath the surface, Avernum: Escape From The Pit offers a healthy dose of charming old-school RPG goodness. Spiderweb Software have provided a vast world in which to get lost, and a hefty quest in which to sink your teeth, which will reward those who can overlook its lack of finesse with many hours of enjoyable adventure.