Game #34: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls (2015)

a2cscreator: Jeff Vogel
language: English
finished on: 2 May 2016

I reviewed the last RPG offering in this series about three years ago, and this is the second in the reboot series of a reboot series – the third version of a game originally released in the early 90s. I still question the motive for rereleasing it at all, but I think the reason comes down to Apple consistently removing backwards compatibility for their systems, meaning that we can certainly no longer play the Exile games from the 90s, but good luck playing the original Avernum series from the early 2000s. I think the best way is now to emulate the Windows versions.

Avernum 2 was always the most successful, if I remember correctly, but I never paid for the full version of the old games, and only completed the demo sections. This new version cuts off the demo at a much earlier point, after the end of Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3, which means I was kicked into buying it.

I wrote up there that I finished the game in May this year, but this is slightly misleading, because I actually played the bulk of it last January, while I was job hunting, just after it came out. When I started my new job I was playing it at home for the first couple of weeks, but my computer finally decided to give up on me, and crashed while I was playing the game. Superstitiously or subconsciously, I blamed the game and avoided it for over a year, and got back into it only recently for about a week just to finish it off. Annoyingly, I’d already gotten a level 30 party, so none of the battles were challenging anymore, and I’d already completed most dungeons, so I was running around the far corners of the maps trying to find something else I hadn’t done already.

Storywise, this is probably the strongest in the series, although it runs contrary to the modern trend of open-ended responsive RPGs, as there isn’t a lot of choice in the way you play the game. You’ve got your assigned role by the story, which is initially linear in chapters, and opens out in Chapter 4, which is the bulk of the game. I guess this is open-ended, but I don’t think there’s a way to play the game “evilly” – you have to be good, basically. Like I’m pretty sure there’s no way to join the evil empire, which is something that the creator addressed in his later works.

The plot is that The Empire invades their rebellious underground penal colony, but they accidentally disturb some hibernating subterranean aliens, who don’t take kindly to pesky humans and divide everything off. The main goal is to return the aliens’ still-sentient ancestors, whose souls are infused into crystals. Then you’re supposed to stop the war to win the game again – I forgot the third goal, to be honest. Kill the bad guy, probably.

Similar to the previous game, not much has been changed in this game except the game engine itself (especially that you can now click to walk to an area). Unlike the previous game, there isn’t a lot of new content, except a single tutorial dungeon right at the very beginning. The last game had a whole new town to explore, but here no. This meant that I could use 10 year old strategy guides without much being different, but it also suffered the same problem as the last game, which was that dialogue and other stuff hasn’t really been altered much since Exile, and dialogue trees are endless variations of “Tell me about X” (Exile had you type in a keyword, instead of asking set questions).

This gets even more annoying at one specific point – the old game had two separate magic stones, one called a “crystal soul” and one called a “soul crystal” – sensibly, the second one has now been changed to something different, like “spirit prism”, but the dialogue trees still have your characters being confused over the difference, and characters saying things like “don’t confuse a crystal soul and a spirit prism” – if I didn’t know where this line came from, I’d actually be more confused.

It’s not just that, though – there are also a bunch of places where Jeff Vogel in the 90s had worked out how to do something technically difficult, and coming back to those points now is painful, as it’s no longer technically difficult. I just hope when he makes the third one in this series that he is a bit more inventive with it.

Thematically and structurally, it still mirrors the previous game to an extent, and Jeff Vogel’s dungeon design style, especially the way he used to do it in the 90s, is very predictable, so I got into a kind of rhythm with this one. The missions are also often very similar to before.

Gameplay-wise, it’s enjoyable, but addictive and repetitive, so I often found myself playing it into the night. Oops. I did get tired of it, though, especially when it got easier at the end – perhaps if there’s a next time I’ll play it on a harder difficulty (there’s an online community for whom playing with one character on the hardest difficulty is the gold standard – I’m more happy to play with close to the default 4 characters on normal difficulty).

I was glad to finally get to play through the story after probably about 20 years since I first tried the series. As I say, I’ll be looking out for the next installment, but I hope he changes it a bit more than this one.

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