Wait – are we back in 1997? What happened? Did someone reach 88 miles per hour? If you’ll excuse my horrible intro (I never was good at them), Avernum: Escape from the Pit will totally convince you that yes, in fact, it is 1997 again and you’re playing games on MS-DOS (or Windows ’95, depending on how awesome you were). This is the third – yes, third – remake of the classic-yet-forgotten top-down RPG called Exile I: Escape from the Pit; its second incarnation goes by the name Avernum. Their creator, Seattle-based developer Spiderweb Software, were founded in 1994 – and have stayed there ever since.
To their credit, Avernum: EFTP is fantastic, for what it is. Spiderweb strive to repeatedly create high-quality 90’s-style isometric RPGs, and they have succeeded yet again. The story is brilliantly generic, and yet still manages to maintain a certain level of depth. Okay, so the subtitle is “escape from the pit” – you reckon you can guess what it’s about? Avernum is the name for a giant subterranean nation. The human populous in this huge pit is made up of people who have “spoke out against an unjust law, angered some minor official, or may just have been a misfit” – the punishment for these crimes being life imprisonment in Avernum. Despite being expected to die by those on the surface, the exiled have developed a civilization of their own, resisting attack from other races and surviving in general. EFTP then describes the tale of the Avernites – the people of Avernum – as they attempt to free themselves from the miserable pit.
The brilliance of EFTP lies in the openness of the world. Despite being limited by being underground, the world of Avernum never feels constricting or small, unless the claustrophobic feeling is the intention. Quests can be completed in a totally free order, which is something that modern isometric RPGs still seem to be having trouble with. And then, as icing on the cake, there are three endings. In an RPG. And even more, all three endings can be achieved in the one game. Why do I call them endings then, you wonder? Well, dear readers, it’s because each of these endings will result in the game being “won” – you can successfully seek safety in the pit, exact your revenge against the villainous Empire that banished you in the first place, and/or escape Avernum and leave the pit behind for good. There are also four not-really-optional quests that aid your progress towards the main quests, each with a distinct feel and objective to it. You’re not just going to “go here, kill ten of these, come back, collect reward, go and kill big boss, collect important item, come back, collect reward”. The great quests aren’t blatantly signposted as they are in most games – some may argue that this is a hindrance, but I propose that it forces the play to absorb the world of Avernum, not just plough through it as you usually would an RPG. And of course, as with any good RPG, there are countless side-quests that can keep you busy well after you’ve completed an ending or two. Never before has an isometric world, especially one set in a gargantuan underground cavern, felt so open, so explorable. There are 68 distinct towns and a world of explorable areas. 68.
When push comes to shove, the most important mechanism of an RPG is the combat mechanism. On that front, EFTP comes out head-and-shoulders above its competition (of which there isn’t much, I admit). You control a party of 4 customisable characters who, despite starting with a fixed class, can adopt a wide range of 28 skills as they progress. The world also features 40 distinct spells, none of which feel repetitive in any way. 20 of these are priest-specific and 20 are mage-specific. Of course, damage can be inflicted with any combination of melee, ranged, and magic attacks. EFTP follows a turn-based isometric combat system; at first it tends to feel a little generic, but the depth behind the mechanism shines after about an hour of gameplay. This is when your foes become more numerous and more powerful, and you’ll start to really struggle just to progress to the next room. Cleverly planned tactics are absolutely essential to survival in the latter parts of the game.
Graphically, EFTP is no more than that one isometric game you played in 1997. And that’s okay; that’s the style they’re going for, it’s the style they’ve used for years, and it’s the style that works. You don’t go into a Spiderweb game expecting Diablo III. It’s lacking a touch of finesse and is maybe not as polished as it could be, but I’m sure that there’s a market for that unique charm. Despite being a contemporary game, it definitely provides a kick in the nostalgic teeth – even if you didn’t play any RPGs from the 90’s, you’ll still, somehow, have a feeling of sudden nostalgia wash over you as you click around the screen. Sound design is acceptable – the general lack of music adds to the atmosphere, while still retaining the retro feel.
Despite it being one of the game’s biggest selling points, there are elements of archaic game design that really hamper the overall experience. The user interface is my main concern with EFTP. With a lack of finesse comes a lack of user friendliness. Firstly, when an item is dropped on the ground, you can’t just click on it to pick it up – no, you have to walk over it, press “g”, move everything from the ground to your inventory, and then press the close button. With this comes another issue, that you can’t press the same button to close a menu as you press to open it. Instinctively, if I open my inventory with “i”, then I expect to be able to close it with “i” as well. That’s not the case here, unfortunately. The hotkey layout is nice and customisable, but it lacks the ability to bind keys to “move camera”. I like to play games like this in a window, which more or less requires the ability to control the camera with a set of four keys. I’d prefer WASD, but if the cursor keys were locked to this feature then I’d be okay with that too. But here, nope. You have to point the mouse cursor to the edge of the screen to get the camera to move – no WASD, no cursor keys.
There’s a very simple way to put this, in the end. Like RPGs? Like old-school games? Don’t think twice. Think you might be interested? All Spiderweb’s games are demoware, which means that you can play a significant portion of the game before you have to pay for it. Avernum: Escape from the Pit exudes steaming piles of love from the man behind it, Jeff Vogel. Some will fall in love with the 90s aesthetics, deep story, clever characterisation, and rich combat mechanism. Others will get overwhelmed very quickly and might end up pressing close after half an hour. It all boils down to this: if you consider yourself even a bit of an RPG fan, then Avernum: Escape from the Pit is a must-have, and serves as a fantastic introduction to the hours and hours of other games in the series you have ahead of you. This is a fantastically crafted game that harks back to what some would consider the golden age of RPGs.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Avernum: Escape from the Pit by Spiderweb Software, Inc.