"Once again, Spiderweb Software provides me with many hours of enjoyable adventuring. "
In my limited experiences with Spiderweb Software's games, I've found its most recent remakes of the Exile series to be great. If not for limited assets, which creator Jeff Vogel has recycled in every Spiderweb game I've played, I'd be hard-pressed to notice it's an indie company releasing them.
Exile was, to the best of my knowledge, the company's first game and it quickly turned into a trilogy. Over the years since it came out, technology progressed, so Vogel decided to re-release enhanced versions of his Exile games under the name of Avernum. After some more technological progression, he decided it was time for another re-release of those titles and that's where I came in.
I was quickly captivated. Avernum: Escape from the Pit offers computer role-playing similar to games like Baldur's Gate or Divinity: Original Sin, but simplified to make it easier for the average gamer to push through. Think of it as a "lite" version of those very complex games and you'll know what to expect. You'll have a four-character party consisting of various fighters and mages and you'll explore a vast world, fighting monsters and enemy soldiers in strategic turn-based combat the entire way while gradually working towards the completion of the game's three main quests.
The best part of the equation was that the game contained a vast world and lots of dungeons and there was a lot of freedom as to what I could do. Oftentimes, the only thing keeping me from a particular place was that my party wasn't powerful enough to handle the local enemies. So, I'd sit down with it on a nightly basis and explore, finding quests and dungeons that I could handle and gain rewards from…and, of course, find stuff that was capable of eradicating me with minimal resistance on my part. For those, I kept a list. Revenge is best served cold and, man, I was given the opportunities to hand out so many helpings I needed a new refrigerator.
Escape from the Pit had its challenging moments, but compared to other games of its ilk, I found it to be accessible and very enjoyable. The sort of thing that had me looking forward to playing the next game in the re-remake trilogy, Crystal Souls.
One might think it a bit weird to start a review of one game by giving a lengthy description of its predecessor, but in this case, it's fitting. Crystal Souls takes place in the same underground prison world, but shortly after the events of Escape from the Pit. You'll see many of the same towns and dungeons, as well as most of the same opposition. The battle system is the same, you'll be using a lot of the same spells and weaponry and you'll have three main quests to work towards completing. If you played the first and were looking for something original, you'll likely be disappointed; but if you're like me and wanted to re-experience all that good stuff without simply replaying the first game, you'll be in heaven.
The one truly important deviation from the formula will happen in your initial hours of play. At first, this game is pretty linear. You start out as a party of young recruits stationed at a fort in the northeastern portion of the game's world. After Escape from the Pit concluded, the vengeful empire decided to wage all-out war on the collection of political prisoners, dissidents, criminals and other folk they'd previously exiled to Avernum. Making matters worse -- one day, a bunch of seemingly indestructible walls mysteriously sprung up all over the land, preventing Avernites from freely moving from place to place. Due to worries that the Empire might have found a very effective divide-and-conquer strategy to obliterate their foe, your party is sent out to try to figure out just what the hell is going on.
This leads to a few hours that could best be described as an extended tutorial where you do a number of quests and gain a few levels and superior equipment in your little corner of the world before visiting a major city that happens to be located as far from your starting position as possible. The plot quickly thickens as a mysterious being appears to give a dire warning. Since its arrival came complete with an earthquake that revealed a subterranean passage, your next step is to see where it leads.
The answer: a linear jaunt eventually leading to a land populated by the Vahnatai. They were the original inhabitants of Avernum, who retreated farther underground when the Empire started dumping their prisoners there, so they already had a bit of a grudge against the Avernites. A grudge that turned into pure hatred when three of their Crystal Souls came up missing. When a Vahnatai elder gets really old, their soul gets transferred into crystal in order that they may continue to provide guidance long after they naturally would have expired. Obviously, the Vahnatai are not remotely tolerant of those venerated souls being absconded with and, therefore, they're using all of their magical power to make live hell for those whom they suspect of the theft.
Fortunately, your party does have powers of persuasion and is able to convince the Vahnatai they have no clue as to what happened, but are willing to do some sleuthing on their behalf. As a show of goodwill, they not only teleport you back to Avernum, but also remove all those inconvenient walls. And now, we're back to the Avernum I knew and loved: a land full of possibility and non-linear exploration. Of dungeons and castles and towns; of magic and monsters; of so many quests that it's a good thing that game keeps track of all of them because my brain sure couldn't!
Much like the first game, there are three main quests that everything leads up to. Obviously, finding the three Crystal Souls is one of them. Also, you'll need to find and destroy the portal the Empire is using to flood Avernum with their soldiers -- preferably before you're overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Last, but certainly not least, you'll need to eliminate Garzahd, the commander of the Empire's forces who made a cameo in the first game, assuming you completed the quest to assassinate the Emperor. Completing any of those quests is far from easy, typically involving you completing a number of other tasks to obtain the necessary information for finding and accessing the locations of your quarries.
For over 70 hours, I found myself embarked on a joyride where I sought out off-colored panels on walls to discover secret passages, endeavored to complete quests in order to improve my reputation enough to gain access to movers-and-shakers such as Avernum's king and amassed a collection of useful potions to give me a better chance of surviving the game's toughest fights.
For the most part, I found those battles to be fair, although a few late-game ones almost seemed to necessitate having a few Invulnerability potions on hand, as the mega-tough mages featured in them were capable of almost-instantly annihilating characters otherwise. The only battle I truly thought was excessive came in one of the dungeons housing a Crystal Soul. You'll get dumped into an arena and have to survive through five waves of heavy-hitting enemies -- most of which are proficient at either buffing themselves or inflicting status ailments on you. Or both.
Other than that, though, my only real issue came from the quest index. While most of them are one-time adventures involving you going somewhere, doing something and getting some sort of reward, there are a number of never-ending fetch quests where you deliver frequently-found items to shopkeepers for gold. It'd have been nice to have those quests separated from the others, as having them all placed in the same menu could cause things to get cluttered.
But I was able to persevere through minor issues like that. Due to its overwhelming similarities to Escape from the Pit, Crystal Souls may not have had quite the same impact on me, but I still found it to be a really fun adventure to play through and explore every corner of its large world in order to delve into every dungeon and complete every quest I possibly could. Spiderweb may not have the biggest name out there, but it's quite proficient in creating games I enjoy playing through and this was no exception.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 07, 2022)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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