Game #24: Avernum: Escape from the Pit (2012)

v2avernumcreator: Jeff Vogel
language: English
finished on: 13 August 2013

Avernum is a series of role-playing video games by Spiderweb Software, an indie video game developer helmed by Jeff Vogel. They’re rather famous for being very simple graphically but very complex in the gameplay and story aspects.

“Escape from the Pit” is actually a remake of Avernum, which was released around 1999 or 2000, which is itself a remake of Exile, Vogel’s first game, which was released around 1995 or so. Vogel is very attached to his old games, and seems to like remaking them. Even with newer games, I tend to find that they bear incredible similarities to the older games, especially within the Exile and Avernum series.

I was a fan of Exile when I was a kid, especially the second sequel, Exile 3 (also remade into Avernum 3) and Blades of Exile, which came with an editor so you could create your own games and was very popular in its time (mysteriously, Blades of Avernum never really took off). Exile was played on a square grid, and the biggest update when it changed to Avernum was changing to an isometric grid. The isometric grid still persists in the latest remake, and this time most of the changes have been with the interface. The game now takes up the full screen, rather than being in a window, and uses point-and-click controls – click, and they’ll go somewhere. This sounds like a rather minor point to get worked up about, but Vogel took literally years to introduce that into the Avernum series, only actually doing so in the second Avernum trilogy (ie, the first Avernum games which were not remakes of the Exile trilogy), after trialling it in his other successful series, Geneforge. Previous games required you to click in the direction that you want to move, or to use the numerical keypad – and of course, the latest Macs don’t have a numerical keypad anymore, putting a bit of a dampener on that for me at least.

Other things that have changed since the early games are the skill system, which has been imported from Avadon, another recent game of Vogel’s, and now gives you two skill increases per level, on a tree system, so that things higher in the tree can’t be leveled up beyond those lower in the tree – this is actually different from even the most recent Avernum game, Avernum 6, which still used the old system of saving up skill points (you get about 6 per level) and spending them on skills like currency.

The graphics have also gotten a major overhaul, but they still look very retro compared to modern games. Another very convenient change is the introduction of a “junk bag” to put all your treasure to mark for selling, which takes away the problem of inventory slots entirely and just makes the game more enjoyable to play. Another is that secret doors are now opened by pressing a button near the door, which is also another change introduced in the later games but one that I felt made it too easy to find the doors, compared to the old games where you just had to walk into walls that you thought would contain secret doors. The last major change that I can think of was the addition of an extra town and a few dungeon levels – notably, the game opens with a tutorial dungeon, instead of dumping you straight in a town and getting you to talk to people straight away, which can be confusing for a first time player – the dungeon is thus a welcome change which makes the game feel more fast-paced.

This was actually the first time I’ve completed any iteration of Vogel’s first game: I never actually bought Exile or Avernum 1, and I only bought this one because it was on offer by the Humble Bundle (I think this time it was “buy all of Spiderweb Software’s games”). I’m kind of glad to have played this one now, because most of the changes that Vogel has made, drawing on his more recent experience, make the game more enjoyable for casual players. In some ways they make it feel easier, but I guess if I wanted a harder game, there are harder difficulty settings, so I’m not going to worry about that too much.

It is all too easy, though, even now, to see the remnants of Vogel’s early writing in this game. Most of the dialogue has not been updated much since the original game – the first remake introduced the player actually asking questions instead of asking “about” single words, but even then the vast majority of those “questions” take the form of “Tell me about _” or “I’d like to know more about _”. This was more obvious with some characters than others, to be fair, but it was still prominent even with some of the more important characters.

Another strange effect of the layering remakes is that Vogel’s level design has changed a lot since his original games, in which he crammed as much into the space of a level as possible, and it became really obvious when you saw a gap on the level map that there had to be a secret passage there – so in this game, when you get some of the extra levels that have been added to town basements (there’s a portal system to get around the map quickly that was added this way, for instance, and a few extra characters were also added), and half of the map isn’t used, it becomes very obvious that this was not part of the original game. One of the mayors of one of the towns is moved upstairs, which doesn’t really gel well, and it becomes obvious when you get the right quest that this was because he reacts a certain way when you talk to the wrong person.

Most of Vogel’s more recent games include the ability to take the role-playing aspects of the story seriously and decide which faction you’re going to join and how you’re going to complete the game. Perhaps as another artifact of the early games, I couldn’t find many ways to do that in this game – there is a particular faction you can join, but it’s necessary for one of the three game goals.

The game was good fun while it lasted, which was quite a long time – over the course of several weeks from start to finish. I finally got to the point one day where I had completed almost all minor quests in the game, and decided to start the major quests. Since I had a high level party, and I had set up all the quests already, this turned out to be quite easy, and I finished all three in the space of one day. It was fun, but unlike some of Spiderweb’s bigger fans, I’m not about to replay it (but I have started played Avadon). I am looking forward to seeing if Vogel will recreate Avernum 2-3, so that there’s a full series of Avernum games that are playable on modern computers with the new engine. I tried to play Avernum 2, but I could only play it on Wine, and the controls were difficult to get used to after playing with point and click for so long. So hopefully Spiderweb will make that announcement sometime soon.

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One Response to Game #24: Avernum: Escape from the Pit (2012)

  1. Pingback: Game #34: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls (2015) | reuoq

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