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Exile II: Crystal Souls (PC) artwork

Exile II: Crystal Souls (PC) review

"The Exile trilogy made something of a name for itself when it hit the shareware market in the mid-90’s, claiming a handful of mildly impressive awards and thrilling loads of people in magazines I’ve never heard of. Then, a few years later, it was remade into the less awesome Avernum series, which marked Spiderweb Software’s jump onto the crappy 3D bandwagon. But the shareware era was destined to die, and when it faded away so did Spiderweb’s games. To this day they can still be fou..."

The Exile trilogy made something of a name for itself when it hit the shareware market in the mid-90’s, claiming a handful of mildly impressive awards and thrilling loads of people in magazines I’ve never heard of. Then, a few years later, it was remade into the less awesome Avernum series, which marked Spiderweb Software’s jump onto the crappy 3D bandwagon. But the shareware era was destined to die, and when it faded away so did Spiderweb’s games. To this day they can still be found on the company’s website, the first half of any of their number free to download, but the world has forgotten them. The world has forgotten Exile, and this is nothing short of criminal.

Looking back on it, I couldn’t tell you what exactly makes Exile such a great game. It doesn’t have any particular extraordinary quality that you could pin a finger on. It doesn’t have a mind-blowing storyline, innovative gameplay, or stunning graphics. But what it does have is a wonderfully deep atmosphere and simple, wholesome fun, and that’s all it could ever possibly need.

When you first start playing, the engaging setting ensnares you immediately. The trilogy is set in the subterranean maze of aptly-named Exile, a natural network of interweaving caverns and tunnels that stretches for hundreds of miles under the surface. The Empire – a totalitarian, iron-fisted political machine that has dominated the surface world for all memory – used it to dump all the people who didn’t fit in with its grand design, believing it had forever rid itself of the outcasts, the degenerates, the rebels.

It was wrong. In Exile: Escape from the Pit, the Exiles retaliated. In Exile II: Crystal Souls, the Empire finally realizes that sticking a bunch of insanely powerful mages, along with masses of angry people with a thirst for revenge, together miles and miles away from supervision wasn’t a terribly intelligent thing to do. And so it sets about rectifying the mistake, teleporting soldiers down into the caverns to crush the rebels like the vermin they are.

But not so fast! Out of the masses of faceless Exile renegades arises a band of noble adventurers whose holy quest is to…err…not rescue their homeland from the clutches of evil tyranny? In a refreshing deviation from cliché, you’re never portrayed as “the chosen ones” destined to save the world. Rather, you do what you do merely because you happen to be around at the time, and someone strongarms or bribes you into altruistic actions. In another surprising twist, the war is more background scenery than anything else for much of the game; instead of kicking some major Empire butt, you end up serving as an envoy to the powerfully magical natural inhabitants of the caves, whom the human race has inadvertently pissed off.

The stylish simplicity of the plot is beautifully done, and it proves that you don’t need massive plot twists or deep philosophy to make you genuinely care about the world you’re in. It’s utterly ideal for a game like Exile; anything more complicated just wouldn’t have worked, given how non-linear the game is. There’s a liberating sense of freedom in being able to do most dungeons whenever you want, or even not at all. Absent is the rigid warpath most RPGs these days follow. You spend much of the game randomly wandering around, stumbling across the game’s oodles of optional dungeons and raiding them for equipment, new spells, or promised rewards from NPCs.

A little exploration of the massive world of Exile tends to go a long way, and when you come back from your adventures, you can spend the skill points you accumulated along the way at a town’s trainer. Trainers let you build your abilities however you want, giving you free rein to tailor your party to your liking. Fans of open-ended titles like Fallout will find a lot to like here, even if most of the optional stuff is oriented around fighting.

Combat takes place on the same grid-based system as everything else, using the same map as whatever town or dungeon you’re in. Each character starts out with four – or less if you’ve got a lot of heavy armor – action points per turn, which can be used to move to a more favorable position before attacking or casting a spell. Manipulating AP via the potent group Haste and Slow spells often proves to be a vital tactic against large numbers of enemies in Exile’s many monster-choked dungeons.

They all progress fairly similarly, sometimes even repetitively. Enormous hordes of enemies, teeming as well as they can with only two frames of animation (which is actually only one, just flipped horizontally), swarm frenziedly around you during their turn; they dart randomly over the screen at breakneck speed as though determined to eat up all their extra AP before laying into you. Your fighters are probably in front, acting as meat shields to protect the more fragile spellcasters, and their high HP soaks up the damage with ease.

And then it’s your turn, and the ownage begins.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as wiping out large clumps of enemies at once with a couple well-placed castings of a multi-targeting spell. They drop like flies as the spell hits them, and in their death throes they utter a final hilariously cheesy groan or grunt or meep. These range from merely constipated to simply indescribable, although I imagine kicking a goose with a squeaky toy stuck in its throat would produce vaguely similar sounds.

You follow it up with a bit more magic, clearing the field of the rest of the weak cannon-fodder. As the last of the flames clears away, some dweeb’s tinny voice plays, shouting “Cool!” to mark your level up. Then you deploy your fighters to finish off the tenacious and considerably more annoying magic-using enemies, hopefully before they can summon half a dozen monsters to their aid or disease your entire party.

Soon the battle is finished for the time being. You gather up your hard-earned loot and set off deeper into the dungeon, letting your fighters take care of the odd enemy you stumble across on the way to the next major fray, your spellcasters conserving their spell points for crowd control.

Despite the fact that mages’ capability for dishing out destruction puts your melee combatants to shame, Exile strikes an interesting balance between the two, giving it its only real claim to strategy. Individually, enemies aren’t difficult to dispatch in the least; it’s the long, grueling dungeon-crawls that prove difficult, especially later in the game. As your headcount climbs into the triple digits, the sheer numbers begin to wear you down. You have be miserly with your spell points or take the risk of running out mid-dungeon. This is bad because your fighters generally have difficulty taking on large throngs without some type of magical support, either in the stat-altering department or with sheer damage. Even if you can find a safe corner to rest in somewhere to restore your SP, you can be certain that the monsters will have respawned by the time you’re ready to emerge and be waiting for you, piled sometimes three or four (or more!) deep outside your hiding spot.

Venture further in and you’ll often come across “specials,” white dots on the floor that trigger an event when stepped on. There are many diverse specials scattered throughout Exile, in towns and on the world map too, usually giving you options – say, whether to rush an Empire outpost or trick your way past it, or even something as mundane as whether to eat strange food. There are also invisible specials that don’t offer choices, usually room descriptions (and occasionally nasty surprises). Overall, they’re a really fantastic addition to the game, vividly written or simple and concise depending on what the subject matter demands. They breathe life into the land of Exile, piggybacking on your imagination when the modest graphics just don’t cut it.

That said, though, the game doesn’t much look like it’s as old as it is, which is mostly due to the fact that the character and chipsets were redrawn a couple years after its release. Everything is silky smooth and much brighter than you’d imagine a cave could be, even cheerful, from the neon aquamarine of the cave floor to towns’ thriving potted plants and glowing braziers. Granted, it’s far from perfect; there aren’t that many chips, so they tend to get seriously overused. And despite the fact that there are a grand total of 116 different enemy and townspeople graphics (and I know this because I’m such a dedicated reviewer that I looked at the bitmap files in my Exile folder and counted), you end up seeing certain ones over and over again.

But despite its share of problems, Exile has that certain special something that keeps drawing you back. It has that small-company personality today’s monoliths in the industry have abandoned, an ambience about it that’s somehow intriguing and endearing and convincing all rolled up into one heartwarming bundle you can’t help but love. It doesn’t need all the bells and whistles that garnish modern games; no, instead it has that vital core of indefinable charm and sheer simple enjoyment. And it’s all the better for it.

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Community review by viridian_moon (August 05, 2005)

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zippdementia posted March 07, 2009:

Is that Ridley on the pic?
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bluberry posted March 07, 2009:

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EmP posted March 08, 2009:

For this particular review, that's an author pic.
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bluberry posted March 08, 2009:


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