Okay. You got me. My Spiderweb Software RPG reviews are getting pretty formulaic. I typically kick things off by bemoaning the state of gaming these days, then wax lyrical about the Infinity Engine and the importance of writing over visuals. Thankfully Jeff Vogel is still around, though, creating enormous and engaging RPGs with rich fundamentals and masterful command of the written word. Which I praise highly and breathlessly, pausing briefly to criticise the terrible interface before slapping on a ripe old score and an editor's choice award.
In my defence, however, my reviews are so formulaic because Spiderweb Software follows a winning formula of their own, down to the same basic systems and iterative engine that remain largely unchanged after two decades. As an expanded remake of a remake (Avernum 2 originally released in 2001, which was itself a remake of Exile 2!), you might expect Avernum 2: Crystal Souls to be old rope that's fraying around the edges somewhat.
So I'm delighted to report that Avernum 2: Crystal Souls manages to feel fresh and unique despite its pedigree, thanks to the timeless quality of Vogel's writing and its impressively unique campaign structure. If you have 40-odd hours to spare and don't mind reading a novel's worth of text, this is a old-school trip worth taking. It's certainly the gaming highlight of my year thus far.
We return to Avernum, a sprawling subterranean world in which generations of exiled prisoners have started new lives and scratched together a brave new civilization against the horrors of the dark. Unfortunately the surface world has launched a crushing offensive against its former outcasts, scattering and crushing the beleagured yet determined rebels. It's a unique and complex setting that feels alive and authentic, underpinned by powerful themes of poverty, desperation, rebellion and racism, but what's remarkable is that the world and its inhabitants are brought to life though the writing, not the graphics.
Every NPC you meet or situation you face is described and narrated in painstaking detail, from events and character details to the practical realities of living underground. Vogel is a master of his craft, a storyteller of the highest calibre, and playing Avernum 2 evokes the happy hours I spent in D&D sessions back in the day. A one man campaign, perhaps, sat across from a DM obsessed with nailing the little details in an entertaining style.
Despite the very occasional inconsistency between text and visuals (one character with "very pale," "nearly translucent skin" has a distinctly tanned sprite, for example), Avernum 2 proves that building worlds and characters relies on the written word, not specular maps and shaders, and spins its yarn using your own imagination as much as the remastered engine.
Much like the previous Avernum titles, Icewind Dale and the Etrian Odyssey games, you'll start out by creating your entire party from scratch using a selection of preset and custom classes. The ruleset is pleasingly transparent and easy to understand, hinging around four basic stats, simple yes/no skill checks and percentage-based combat, allowing you to make informed choices about character creation from the start. You've got the scope to create a balanced or specialised party with a myriad potential builds including fantasy archetypes and more esoteric offerings such as versatile Hedge Mages.
However, should you screw up, there's a new safety net in the form of the Character Editor which effectively lets you hack your save file to radically alter skill distribution or even remake characters entirely. There's temptation to abuse this new feature, but it's overshadowed by the reassurance that poor early decisions won't kill your endgame chances, granting you the courage to experiment with more adventurous party choices.
After a brief tutorial you'll emerge blinking into Avernum itself. It's an utterly enormous open world; not just a map screen with clickable items, but a staggeringly vast overworld that you'll explore on foot, by boat and via teleporter on the trail of countless optional quests and in search of hidden secrets. The sense of scale and widening boundaries is intensely satisfying, while exploration brings its own benefits in the form of tucked-away stashes and hidden entrances into dungeons or enemy strongholds -- balanced by the fact that you'll have to decide whether you need to back off until you're strong enough to proceed.
Avernum won't hold your hand. You can progress at your own pace, but there's nothing stopping you biting off more than you can chew. Quests, too, encourage you to use your brain and cover a lot of ground, sometimes with slightly surreal or left-field solutions that encourage you to think of Avernum as an actual world rather than a game. I'd recommend keeping a pen and paper on hand since you'll need to keep track of and realistically process a lot of information rather than blindly following an objective marker.
You'll spend a great deal of your time exploring dungeons, fortifications and caverns in time-honoured isometric style, filling your packs with gear and consumables, ferreting out hidden doors, disarming traps, picking locks and engaging in strong turn-based combat. It's strategic without being overwhelming, with multiple options to debilitate, disable or even verbally talk down enemies depending on the situation and your spellset.
Primitive graphics also mask hidden depths once you get your eye in, as items are individually represented on floors and tables, meaning that a discarded dagger or discoloured wall brick might unlock exciting new opportunities for advancement. Personally speaking, I actually adore the art style, despite the fact that it's remained largely unchanged over the preceding years.
What feels fresh and new despite its age, however, is the campaign structure. Avernum 2 may start out in fairly familiar fashion, but after finding your feet and adventuring for a fair few hours, you'll find yourself embarking on a harrowing river cruise through uncharted territory to make contact with an alien race. Think Apocalypse Now, only set in the Underdark. This change of pace switches up the way you approach exploration, pushing your party and strategy to the limit.
River jaunt complete, Avernum 2 then reveals yet another pleasant surprise. Your horizons are summarily blown open with the option to partake in three absolutely massive non-linear "game-winning quests," all of which include multiple sub-objectives with their own rewards and advancement. Whether you're into reclamation, sabotage or assassination, you're given a sense of freedom, of being able to fight back against the ravening surface-dwellers on your terms. Naturally replay value is also increased threefold!
It's sensational. Now it's time for a good old moan about the interface, because Vogel has his formula and I have mine.
Things have improved. The skills bar is easy to operate and versatile and gameplay flow is slicker, but familiar foibles remain after years of criticism. Text size is still too small at high resolutions even when enlarged on the options screen, quests still don't update when you've completed their conditions (meaning that you'll have to keep track of progress yourself, remember to keep a notepad handy!), while the junk bag forces you tab through all of your stashed items before being able to put new objects into it. Sadly, though, the biggest issue once again lies with the menus, in that you can open them with a hotkey but can't close them by pressing the same hotkey again! You can't even open a different menu until you back out with the Escape key.
Ugh. This might be a limitation of the engine, but frankly it feels like Spiderweb are actively trolling us critics now.
But, as per usual, it's a niggling nitpick that doesn't detract from the big picture. Avernum 2 may be built on a formula, but it's a winning formula, while the remake still deviates from traditional genre structure in a number of pleasing ways. Thanks to the massively expanded amount of content, quests and enemies and a slight yet welcome graphical update versus Avadon 2, even longtime Spiderweb fans should book themselves another lengthy vacation into The Pit.
- Superbly realised world, setting and characters brought to life through exceptional writing
- Strong and versatile RPG ruleset, character creation and new Character Editor
- Countless hours of open-world adventuring, exploration and high-stakes storyline
- Exciting and well-paced campaign structure keeps you guessing, grants impressive freedom
- Menus are still clunky after years of criticism!
- Primitive sound design
- Can occasionally overwhelm and confuse - keep pen and paper handy
The Short Version: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is an enormous, expansive and peerlessly written RPG that succeeds both on the strength of its world and its innovative campaign structure. So long as you're willing to read and exercise a little imagination, that is. Spiderweb have refined their winning formula over the last two decades and the result is pure roleplaying quality.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), iPad version incoming
Developer: Spiderweb Software