"Spiderweb Software: Because there's never enough time-sinks eating up hours of my day!"
Spiderweb Software is one of the RPG world's lesser-known heroes. The Seattle company, founded by Jeff Vogel in 1994, has released games in multiple series over the past 20+ years, and oftentimes more than once. I had come across Vogel's games from time to time while surfing the net, but never bothered downloading any of them until recently, when I found a number of them on sale on Steam. Taking so long to finally give one a shot may have been a mistake, as my experience with Avernum: Escape From the Pit led to me putting other projects on hold because my general lack of self-control inspired me to binge on Spiderweb stuff. Gotta make up for lost time!
Avernum: Escape From the Pit is an example of a developer realizing that technology constantly advances, and stuff made for older computers might not be compatible with modern ones. The game is actually the second remake of 1995's Exile: Escape From the Pit. While Spiderweb has created multiple series of western RPGs, the Exile one was the first one and, apparently, the dearest to Vogel's heart. He started re-releasing the three original Exile games in 2000 under the Avernum moniker, with a more recent engine. Then, after finishing a second Avernum trilogy (as well as the five-game Geneforge series), Vogel went at it again, both starting a new trilogy titled Avadon and re-re-releasing Avernum in 2011. If a dude is going to that much trouble to keep his games accessible and fresh, then it's my civic duty to give them a try, right?
Yes, yes, I know. My ability to justify any action I take has become legendary over the years, but this game is the real deal! Truly. If gamers are open-minded enough to accept graphics that aren't remotely state-of-the-art and a general lack of music, they'll have a blast roaming a large world littered with all sorts of caves, crypts, fortresses and other environments hosting hostile creatures in what could be considered a lower-budget version of BioWare's Baldur's Gate games.
The world is dominated by an empire, but this game isn't about that empire, at least not directly or immediately. Instead, it's about an underground region called Avernum. After this place was discovered and a few attempts were made to explore it, the empire got the bright idea that the realm was an ideal location to store its undesirables. A few non-human races were tossed down there, as were criminals and people who committed the cardinal sin of not falling in line with the emperor and his policies. And then, your four-person party. No reason is given for your exile to Avernum, but here you are in the game's opening, leading a small band of fighters, archers, clerics and mages to their new home. All you have to do is battle some weak monsters and overcome a bandit whose ambition is far greater than his actual skill and you'll reach your destination.
Fortunately, the portal you find drops you off at one of the safest places in the land. Over the years, humanity has made some sort of headway into civilizing this cavernous underworld, erecting towns, castles and towers throughout it. In Fort Avernum, the safe zone you reach, you get some equipment and a few tips as to where you can find employment. Nearby towns offer an assortment of quests, ranging from "fetch some of these items" to "wipe out those bandits."
Quests similar to the latter of those lead to all sorts of combat, which makes it a good time to talk about the battle system. At first, it's pretty simple, as your fighter-types won't be doing much more than swinging a sword or firing a bow, while magic-oriented characters only have a couple spells at their disposal. When you first enter battle, you only have a few commands at your disposal to (hopefully) overcome your opposition in turn-based combat. As you level up, you'll access perks that improve your stats, and you can put points into various abilities that enable you to learn superior spells, allow auto-healing after fights and do other beneficial things. After exploring towns, you can buy better weaponry, spells and battle skills. Thoroughly delving through the game's many, many dungeons provides more spells and weapons, as well. You'll want to explore every corner of this world, as there are hidden goodies scattered all over the place, just waiting for a diligent group of adventurers to unearth them.
Your goal in Avernum's world is to do more than simply collect treasure and power, however. Leave that sort of business to NPCs such as King Micah, who essentially rules the civilized portions of the land, or Kyass, an independently-aligned warlord who runs a freehold far to the north. Spend your own time completing various missions that have the potential to rock the world, both in Avernum and the lands above. The most obvious destination is Micah's castle, but to gain entry, you have to bring proof of your worthiness, since the king doesn't grant audiences to just anyone. To get past his guards, you need a specific token only granted by the mayors of certain important towns. And to get one of those, you had better be capable of making that mayor very happy.
Obtain the required token and reach the king and you'll be requested to take out the lord of the local Slith (lizardman) population, as he's been exhibiting more and more hostility. Kill that being and you'll find out he was controlled by a different villain, which sets you on a complicated quest to exterminate that baddie. But while you're tending to that matter, you hear rumors that lead to a couple other major quests. By using powerful magic, you might be able to use a portal to warp to the Royal Spire in order to personally confront the emperor who condemned you to this pit. Or, perhaps, you'll even find a way to escape Avernum and return to the overworld. Of course, there still are all of the caves, crypts and dungeons scattered throughout the world that need explored. Just because your purpose is greater than treasure and power doesn't mean that you can't devote some time to exploration, does it?
Early on, your freedom to move about the expansive world is intoxicating. You're controlling a young party that doesn't have a great deal of firepower, and there are all these dungeons and set encounters strewn throughout the land. I found myself keeping notes, just so I'd know what dungeons still had encounters remaining. A very early quest you may receive asks you to kill a certain number of bats in a cave. That's easy, but if you keep exploring, you'll find genetically-enhanced rats much further inside that will butcher low-level adventurers. Put it on the list! While clearing out a fortress populated by the cat-like Nephilim, I found an isolated room containing one-third of a very powerful sword…as well as two demonic guardians. Two very disastrous combat rounds later and this location was put on the list! After venturing south to the Tower of Magi, I was asked to eliminate some ogres from a nearby cave. No biggie, as I'd been trashing wandering bands of them. Unfortunately, those bands contained nothing as difficult as the ogre mage leading the cave-dwellers. While I cleared most of the location, that mage forced her way onto my list and remained there for quite some time.
Eventually, I noticed that things were getting easier. I was a thorough adventurer. I hunted down every set encounter, no matter how remote they were. I explored every dungeon and obtained every treasure cache, allowing me to constantly upgrade my characters' equipment, as well as gain level after level. Eventually, I didn't have to keep my list, as I was clearing each dungeon out in one trip, retreating to a town to heal and sell off all my collected treasures and then hitting up the next unexplored location. Until I reached the end-game dungeons, most of the challenge came from various optional fights. That's part of the beauty of this game -- by talking to most everyone in the land, you can find yourself in confrontation with all sorts of folk, including some of the ones who offer up quests. Hidden securely under the town of Formello is an envoy of the Empire, whose mission is to ensure the residents of Avernum aren't planning any sort of rebellion. You can cheerfully provide assistance…or simply eliminate her. You can help Kyass improve his independent city, or kill him at the request of one of Micah's commanders who is worried about potential threats to his king's authority.
The intensity does ramp back up at the end, though, with several powerful demons, wizards and soldiers standing between you and your final goals. However, my one major peeve also reared its ugly head at this point, offering up what could be considered the RPG version of a Kaizo trap. I was working on one of the final missions, where I was pursuing a high-value target. To reach him, I had to gain the favor of the reclusive mage, Erica, as well as complete a number of quests that would allow me to pass a pair of checkpoints along a critical pathway. Erica told me that in order for her magic to work, I needed to collect a bunch of brooches scattered through the land. Getting four would work, she said, but getting all five would be even better. During my adventuring, I'd already collected four of them, so I figured I was good to go. And so, I warped to my destination, fighting off wave after wave of re-spawning mobs while clawing my way to the boss's chamber one grueling step at a time. It took many attempts, but I was finally able to dispatch my foe, leaving me only needing to escape through a portal to succeed in my mission.
Just kidding! There's actually a huge difference between collecting four brooches or five, as with only four, Erica's magic can't retrieve you. What you get is a text screen letting you know that you fought valiantly against your foes, but were eventually cut down. And since both of my saves were stupidly made on the wrong side of the portal, that meant my time with this game was done. Sucks to be me!
That unexpected turn of events was annoying, but it's hard for me to be too critical of Avernum: Escape From the Pit. I got it on sale from Steam and received a really fun adventure that lasted me about 75 hours. I got to explore a vast world, dive into dozens of dungeons and fulfill countless quests. The game had enough of an effect on me that I immediately started the first Avadon game, and can see myself going through a lot more of Spiderweb's products in the future. My time with this game might not have ended on the best note, but everything leading up to that point was the sort of blast I'll be spending a lot of time attempting to recreate.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 31, 2017)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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