Developer: Spiderweb Software
Do you remember the days when RPGs didn't rely on flashy engines and hype campaigns? When they overcame their graphical limitations and lack of voice acting with exceptional storytelling and dialogue; making every word, conversation and description count for something? When combat revolved around cerebral tactics and planning rather than third person swordplay?
We remember... and so does Spiderweb Software. Jeff Vogel's Exile series released back in the late 1980s, and after spending the next two decades remaking them (and bringing us the superb Avadon: The Black Fortress), this indie pioneer has combined the first three Avernum titles into a single package.
Avernum: Escape From The Pit harks back to the Infinity Engine days; an isometric RPG powered by story, exploration and imagination. We're home.
Having incurred the wrath of a vindictive Emperor for reasons unknown, players suffer the fate of all political prisoners: a one-way trip to The Pit. No-one knows what lies beyond the prison portals, but after emerging into the subterranean depths far beneath the surface world, you'll discover that The Pit is infinitely more than a simple oubliette. Instead, survivors cling to life in a colony they've made for themselves, the mythical Avernum, where even the most depraved criminals can start afresh. This ramshackle collection of ad-hoc townships is under threat from the nightmarish horrors that plague the dismal caverns, so needing to fit in and earn a crust, players embark on a quest to learn more about the realm, discover the truth behind its existence... and potentially, eventually, escape.
To this end, you'll spend plenty of time exploring from an isometric perspective, navigating the painstakingly detailed maps, talking to NPCs and undertaking quests via a simple selection of clicks. Spiderweb has laboured to create a sensationally nuanced game world, with a simplistic graphics engine balanced by an exquisite attention to detail. Far from a cosmetic flourish, this level of detail extends to individual inventory items (right down to pots, mugs and bolts of cloth) being individually drawn onto the environment, creating a very real sense of being in a lived-in world rather than a fictional construct.
With no voice acting to fall back on, Vogel and co are forced to rely on the written word to deliver interesting characters, and do so with a degree of mastery that we rarely see from even the biggest and most skilled triple-A companies. The humble text box becomes our doorway into an entirely new world, with incredibly strong character and environment descriptions allowing us to conjure up vivid mental images of Avernum in our mind's eye. Dialogue flows naturally, and item descriptions crackle with subtle, playful humour. Most importantly, the story itself is remarkable, presenting a rebellious tale of survival against the odds and the pursuit of justice in an unjust, desperate place. The longer you spend reading, digesting and understanding the text, the greater your appreciation of the world will be; Avernum feels as visceral and real as any Unreal-powered title even though most of it exists in your own imagination.
Interestingly, the storyline and characterisation aren't quite as strong as Avadon: The Black Fortress, but this is very much a purposeful design decision. Rather than acquiring party members throughout the journey, players actually create their entire team from scratch at the start of the game - choosing everything from class and custom skills to appearance and name.
You're free to enter the adventure with any combination of characters, so while balance will make your job easier (I'd seriously recommend going with the default mix of soldiers, priest and mage for your first run), there's plenty of scope for experimentation and replayability. Sure, this level of customisation comes at the expense of inter-party relationships and backstory, but it brings the experience more in line with Black Isle's Icewind Dale rather than Baldur's Gate. Choice is good, and Escape From The Pit delivers it straight out of the gate. As an Infinity Engine aficionado, I would have appreciated a wider variety of character portraits or the ability to import them, but I recognise a nitpick when I make one.
Sooner or later, you'll take your personalised kill-team into combat against disgusting lizardmen, undead horrors and other subterranean denizens, which proves to be another of Escape From The Pit's strong suits. Once engaged, the real-time exploration gives way to seamless turn-based strategic play, seamlessly overlaying the maps with a square grid. Characters and enemies act in order of speed, expending a limited number of action points to move, attack, use skills or pick up items. All characters can use a range of both melee and ranged weaponry (dynamically switching out between the two depending on range), and have access to an enormous number of special abilties. Priests, for example, can heal, buff and smite enemies with righteous power - while mages can dish out fearsome magical projectiles or debilitating status effects. Since you're able to customise every aspect of your party, the near-infinite scope for advanced tactical descision making is a refreshing change from the norm, and working out how best to arrange your characters, create choke points or shield your weaker units becomes increasingly important as the difficulty ramps up.
Avernum: Escape From The Pit isn't perfect by any means. NPC pathfinding is slightly temperamental, to the extent where townsfolk can annoyingly block doorways or cows can bizarrely make their way inside houses. The interface also makes mountains out of molehills, with separate character skill panes for different types of attack, compartmentalised inventory menus and a bitty GUI. You'll soon get the hang of it thanks to useful keyboard shortcuts, though.
And while the spartan visuals are compensated for by detailed items and unique artwork, there's no denying that Escape From The Pit's sound design is absolutely horrendous, featuring an aggravatingly loud omnipresent footstep effect, short repeated background loops and little in the way of original music. The Exile and Avernum series have long been criticised for their lacklustre audio and it's strange that Vogel hasn't taken this feedback to heart.
- Sensational writing extends to storyline, characters, dialogue and descriptions
- Uncompromising freedom in character creation and combat
- Enormous, detailed world to explore
- Weak sound design
- Bitty interface, inconsistent NPC pathfinding
- Players need to be willing to use their own imagination
The Short Version: Avernum: Escape From The Pit is an excellent adventure that harks back to a simpler, better time. Though its slavish (and laudable) devotion to the grand old RPG traditions can come at the cost of immediate thrills, the sensational quality of its writing and world-building results in a thoroughly worthwhile experience.