Chillin’ in the Pit
I love a good surprise, which may be why I’ve been playing so much Avernum: Escape from the Pit, a remake of Avernum (1999), which was itself a remake of Exile: Escape from the Pit (1995). When I saw it available on Steam, I decided on a whim to see if Spiderweb Software’s brand of old-school goodness could take root in the thorny soil of my RPG-weary heart. I’m glad I took that gamble.
Find out why, after the jump (that was for you, wedge).
I’m a little embarrassed to say it now, but my original goal was to write a three- or four-part series of articles, which would have chronicled my misadventures in the subterranean kingdom of Avernum. To say that I was planning on bullying the game is a stretch—I was hoping more for some friendly condescension and gentle ribbing—but anyway, my intentions weren’t exactly pure. For one thing, it looked like an extremely generic fantasy world. This wasn’t aided by the fact that its title looked like it was created by a fantasy kingdom name generators. For a second thing, the graphics. For a third, how often does an indie studio make a good RPG, complete with a compelling world, solid writing, and fun gameplay?
So I sat down to play Avernum, ready with one finger on the screenshot key and a pen and pad of paper at the ready to jot down whatever misadventures should befall my party of four adventurers. But then, something magical happened. I awoke from a trance, hours later, and I was entirely unwilling to exit this fantastical place. A couple unexpected things happened to me in those early hours of my journey into the Pit. The first was that I had played for too long—I had far too much material to write in just one article. The second was even more devastating to my initial plan: I was hooked. Rather than bland fantasy, Avernum was fresh. It wasn’t instantly recognizable (and therefore dull), despite promises of dragons and goblins. Rather than bad graphics, they seemed clean and readable. And rather than toeing the line of competent writing, the people milling around in town were worthwhile and interesting to talk to: they had logical careers and motivations, and occupied distinct places within the social hierarchy of the cave kingdom—which I never noticed mattered to me until I played Fallout 3, in which all the characters spent their days goofing around instead of [insert logical post-apocalyptic activity]. Most importantly, rather than being disappointed by Avernum’s vaporizing of my plan for a fun game diary, I wanted to play more.
So, the story: An evil Empire rules the surface. Rather than just making judicious use of the headsman’s block, the Empire has a habit of exiling its misfits. There are plenty of murderers, rapists, and rogue mages who get sent through the portal that leads to a massive cave system, but there are also lots of pretty normal people too: weirdos, D&D players, social activists, or even folks who just like to have a mumble about their government. If this sounds like a bad idea, you’re absolutely right: there are plenty of folks in Avernum who would like nothing more than to get back at the Empire that exiled them. After all, look at the real-life case of Australia’s bloody vengeance on the United Kingdom.
However, the people of Avernum are preoccupied with survival. Resources are scarce—most food and drink is made from fungus, and iron for weapons, tools, and armor is rare. Even worse, the feline Nephilim, lizard Slithzerikai, giants, magical spiders, demons, and bandits are all constantly waging war against the fragile kingdom. On the upside, all this conflict makes the Avernites a hardy people.
As the game begins, your party of adventurers (normally four, though it’s possible to solo the game if you’re amazing or lonely) are sent into Avernum, where you’re immediately recognized as competent enough warriors, mages, or priests, and entrusted to a few odd jobs of the violent or item-recovery flavor. From there, you can travel wherever you want, and accomplish the game’s multiple storylines in any order. Want to make the long journey south to the Kingdom’s capital and the king’s favor? Go ahead. Want to hop a boat and explore the marshy lands of the Slithzerikai? Feel free to buy one. Or perhaps you don’t much like these Avernite do-gooders? Well, nothing’s stopping you from seeking out the Freehold of Kyass or the Abyss, where people don’t subscribe to the Kingdom’s narrow view of things. Of course, some areas are more dangerous than others, so you’ll probably want to help out in the towns you encounter along the way, but for the most part you’re free to explore where you want. There aren’t nearly as many options as there are in a game like Skyrim, but the tighter focus brings, well, tighter focus. Besides, even in Skyrim you couldn’t side with the bandits.
Possibly my biggest worry was the combat. Turn-based combat bores me as often as not, so I was relieved to find that it’s pretty good in Avernum. Your team of heroes is easy to control, and although things can sometimes be blocked behind other creatures or walls, the keyboard-friendly nature of the game means it’s easy to highlight items or select which enemy to attack with a keystroke. Happily, there really is quite a bit of latitude when building your characters’ skills—though trust me when I say that it’s best to specialize rather than having jacks-of-all-trades.
Sadly, it isn’t perfectly balanced. Early on your melee fighters and archers will be more useful than your frail mages and priests, who start only with knowledge of a bare few spells. After a few hours, I started to wonder if I was leveling up my fighters incorrectly. That may still be the case, but in the late game my fighters were doing maybe 60 damage with normal attacks, while my mages and priests did 80-100 damage to an entire group of enemies with ice storms, fire blasts, and electric currents, and had enough mana to keep this up for a long series of fights without having to drink a single energy-restoring potion. The fighters were still sometimes useful for absorbing attacks, but they were quite a bit duller than they could have been. This does make some sense—I’d much rather be a mage burdened with the dark secrets of the underworld that let me transform my enemy’s blood into acid than a boring fighter who knows that a shield will block a blade, but the fighters were so boring compared to the spellcasters that they felt like portable barricades.
These are small complaints, however. The game’s writing is top-notch, often toying with RPG conventions as much as it embraces and runs with them. Avernum is comfortable with teasing you for obsessively searching every nook and cranny, while still rewarding you for that kind of behavior. And it’s not often that a game compels me to care not only about its characters, but its nations and ideals. Avernum somehow does this effortlessly, infiltrating its themes into your skull without smacking you about with them. Late in the game, the suggested assassination of a person (whose identity it would be bad taste to reveal) had somehow come to matter to me, whereas hours earlier it would just be another kill-quest in a string of kill-quests. This radiated to the game’s other aspects: a lost city wasn’t merely a lost city, but a chilling mystery, important to me because it was important to likeable characters.
My final score for Avernum: Escape from the Pit is that of pleasurable surprise. I don’t know if you could call me a hostile audience, but I definitely wasn’t looking for something to capture my imagination. Thanks to this remake of a remake, I’ll definitely be checking out some of Spiderweb Software’s other games in the near future.