Avernum 5 (PC) review
"But maybe even more than that, the Avernum series sets itself apart from the legions of other fantasy CRPGs with its phenomenal milieu; an Empire soldier might not want to trudge through miles of winding underground caverns, with their unique ecosystems and civilizations and problems, but I sure do."
Some time ago, a small company called Spiderweb Software made a game called Exile. This game was pretty awesome for many reasons, among them its unique milieu: a vast, sprawling network of underground caverns, known only as Exile, in which the surface-ruling Empire dumped its criminals and misfits. And this game did pretty well, so Spiderweb made some more, and the relationship between the Empire and its rejects grew more complex as Exile won its freedom and various shenanigans ensued.
In the past few years, the games have been remade in 3D and the series continued. Avernum 5 is the latest entry, and this time, youíre on the other side.
Being a soldier in the Empire sucks sometimes. A recent assassination attempt has left the Empress bedridden and weak, and now the Empireís major generals are scrambling to find the would-be killer, a radical named Dorikas, and be named her successor. You work for one such, and youíve had the excellent fortune to be sent into the dank, cold caverns of Avernum to hunt down this Dorikas.
Itís not gonna be easy. Never mind the monsters; the hardest thing is getting the help of the natives. Your skin brands you as a surface-dweller, one of those bastards who oppressed their civilization for years, and they sure as hell donít take kindly to you wandering through their territory. They shun you, exploit you, even try to kill you. While the plotís not particularly original, itís refreshing to play a game where random townspeople donít automatically lick your boots because youíre Omigawsh The Heroô. And if you want to enlist Avernumís aid, youíve got to do something to prove youíre not a total scumbag.
To this end, the bulk of the game is doing quests for townspeople as you travel deeper into Avernumís frontier in search of Dorikas and his rebel group, the Darkside Loyalists. While the bulk of these are short and basically linear, you often run into quests that present you with actual choices. You can join the Anama, a cult that detests magic, and (among other things) assassinate an Empire mage thatís been keeping an eye on them--or you can lend your aid to the mage instead and steal the Anamaís holy prayer scrolls, which detail the geas they use to bind their membersí magical abilities, so he can free cultists who decide theyíve had enough. You also have to decide what to do about the overcrowding in the last cavern; each of the four groups that want it has a legitimate claim, and thereís no pretty way to resolve the problem. You can even join Dorikas if you agree with his goals, although heís not as ethically ambiguous as I might like (come on, Darkside Loyalists?). And, of course, there are tons of side dungeons and places to explore. The world of Avernum is absolutely massive, and itíll take your party some time to see it all.
Before venturing into the caverns, you create four custom characters with various races and traits. Instead of stats at level-up, you get points to invest in main attributes like strength and intelligence or in a variety of abilities, both for combat and not. This gives you a nice degree of customization, although since the party has been downsized from Exile, thereís not much flexibility in the makeup: you pretty much need two fighters, a mage, and a priest. Every character is critical to your partyís success in a dungeon. One meatshield alone often canít absorb enough damage to keep enemies off your spellcasters, you canít slaughter hordes without your mage, and if your priest dies, forget it, because everything has four times as much HP as you and hits for similar damage.
The AI isnít great--for example, enemies often forego finishing off one of your characters to wail on his buddy with full HP--but stuff hits hard enough to make up for it, and if you ignore buffs, youíll most likely die horribly and frequently. Some of them are amazingly potent. Haste, for example, gives you two attacks or spells every turn if you donít move, and the various shielding spells make a huge difference in the damage you take, especially when you stack them.
But sometimes even that isnít enough. If you take issue with the eyebeast Morboís plan to massacre the town of Muck, youíre in for a hell of a fight: he has gobs of HP and defenses your spells can barely scratch, can buff himself and charms anyone who melees him to fight for his side, and he summons monsters. On top of that, he starts the fight with four wyrms that spit globules of green acid at you for lots of damage. You can keep Morbo under control even if you canít really hurt him, but things just get ugly with the wyrms, and somehow your fighters keep dying soon into the fight. You think about just coming back later--even if you manage to take out the wyrms, you still canít damage the main attraction--but youíre stubborn. So you check your abilities for something useful and realize that you picked up this priest spell called Control Foe a while ago, and while long experience with video games tells you something that sounds that good has to be useless, you give it a shot. If he can do it, so can you, right? And, amazingly, it actually works. A good percentage of the spells land, and within a few turns you have four wyrms spitting acid at Morbo, increasing your damage output threefold. As long as youíre at it, you charm his summons and call up a few of your own, and soon the battlefield is crammed with legions of monsters that constantly switch sides as your priest and Morbo struggle for control. Under your armyís relentless assault, the eyebeastís HP actually goes down, and soon enough heís dead.
However, the game sometimes takes enemy overpowering to the wrong extreme; towards endgame, foes have way, way more HP than they should, and they challenge your patience more than your gaming skills. But itís not a huge issue until the final dungeon, and if it really irritates you, you can adjust the difficulty in-game to make stuff spawn with less HP and worse defense.
While Avernum 5 has its flaws, they donít do much to sully the experience. The world is huge and immersive. You can spend all your time exploring all the little nooks and crannies and extra dungeons hidden at the edges of the map, or you can determine the outcome of conflicts, join organizations, or piss off entire towns. More games need to do these things. But maybe even more than that, the Avernum series sets itself apart from the legions of other fantasy CRPGs with its phenomenal milieu; an Empire soldier might not want to trudge through miles of winding underground caverns, with their unique ecosystems and civilizations and problems, but I sure do. Itís different. And that difference is a very good thing.
Staff review by Julia Stein (July 27, 2008)
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