Avernum is Spiderweb’s flagship series, a remake/enhancement of the earlier Exile games. Set in a huge underground area of connected caves, they naturally bring to mind Ultima Underworld, especially as Avernum was previously a dumping ground for criminals, eccentrics and anyone else the Empire didn’t like.
Of course, Avernum is much more developed, as we are now up to the fifth installment of a continuing story. After much battle and bloodshed, a tenuous peace has been worked out between Avernum and the Empire, headed by the moderate Empress Prazac.
However, not everyone agrees with this policy. Dorikas, head of the Darkside Loyalists, wants a return to the “good old days” of tyranny and genocide. To that end, he tries to assassinate Prazac, and then flees to Avernum. Your party of Empire soldiers is sent to hunt him down.
It was certainly a joy to be running a group again after so many solo outings. The four members come pre-generated, and unlike too many earlier games (not Spiderweb’s), they are actually well-designed.
I took the originals (aside from changing one member from a Slith to a Nephilim) through the demo portion, and they performed well. So those who are impatient can jump right into the game with few or no changes to the basic party.
For those who prefer to tinker, you can choose from three races: Human, Slith (lizard) and Nephilim (feline) and ten professions: Soldier, Berserker, Archer, Scout, Priest, Sorcerer, Rogue, Hedge Wizard, Shaman, and Custom.
Each character has stats of Strength, Dexterity, Endurance and Intelligence, along with three groups of skills that can be called Martial, Magic, and Miscellaneous.
Their values change as you cycle through the classes, but otherwise can’t be edited except through the 8 bonus points available to each character at creation time.
The Slith and the Nephil each come with special bonuses. The Slith are hardier than most, and better with Polearms. They also get stuck with a 20% experience penalty to balance out.
Nephils are fast and agile. They receive a +2 bonus for bow and throwing skills, and a +1 on Gymnastics. On the downside, they suffer a 10% x.p. penalty.
Further tinkering can be done by choosing one or two (no more) traits for your characters. These can be beneficial ones, which carry experience penalties, or negative ones, which carry experience bonuses. The negatives are so terrible, I don’t recommend them. Most increase the damage taken, which is a very bad thing.
AV5 has some “special” skills, not available at the start (except Gymnastics for Nephils) which can be obtained in several ways: raising certain stats or skills, equipping an item, or learned from a trainer.
Custom characters begin with all stats at 2 and skills at 0 (exception: certain racial bonuses apply for Slith and Nephils), and 80 points to distribute as you see fit.
The pre-gens actually have an edge here. I noted that going with Custom and recreating the professions left me with fewer than the 8 bonus points the starting characters have.
At level-up time, characters receive 5 skill points, along with a small increase in hitpoints and spell energy. The points can be used immediately, or held over. Since the higher your skill/stats are, the more points you need to increase them, holding points becomes necessary.
As usual in a Spiderweb product, this is a turn-based world. Nothing happens until you move the party or perform an action such as attacking or casting a spell.
Outside of combat, the party moves together in single file at a very fast speed. A lot of ground can be covered quickly when there are no obstructions.
In combat, each character has Action Points, normally eight (or ten when hasted), and these determine how much can be done in one turn. Usually, it’s enough to move and attack (weapon or spell). Or drink a potion, move, and attack. You get the idea: any combination of actions to the limit of the points available, although attacking ends the turn regardless.
Fighting is mostly a matter of choosing type of attack (melee, missile, or spell) and clicking on the desired target. A good feature here is that characters can have both a melee weapon and a missile weapon equipped, and switching between them is just one click.
Interestingly, combatants in melee range do not get free strikes if an enemy moves away. Instead, each “friendly” participant slows down the retreating enemy by reducing its APs.
Encumbrance is a feature of the game, but applies only to equipped items. Anything carried in inventory is ignored, and a good thing, too (more on this later). Encumbered characters can’t move in combat, although they can still attack.
A new feature is a set of skills called “Battle Disciplines”. All characters have them, but they have to be unlocked before being used. Each discipline requires a specific total from adding together the skill values in Melee combat plus Pole weapons, plus half of the throwing and half of bow skills.
The disciplines mainly allow for extra damage (weapon or spell) and enhanced fighting abilities. They also have “cooldown” periods, registered as fatigue points. These points diminish over the combat rounds, and no discipline can be invoked while a character is still fatigued.
Special crafting is available through certain blacksmiths and alchemists. If you have the appropriate ingredients, they can create items for you, ranging from potions to wands to arms and armor.
The game interface is friendlier than most. You can play entirely with the keyboard alone using letters and numbers, and cursor keys to move. Or, you can use the mouse to click on various icons along the sides of the screen. And, naturally you can use the two in combination.
AV 5 has four difficulty settings: Easy, Normal, Tricky, and Torment. These simply determine how powerful the enemies are, and how easy/hard it is for them to hit you. The default setting is Normal.
You can save the game any time outside of combat. Eighteen slots are available for named saves. The nineteenth is reserved for the quicksave, and the last one for autosave. You can restore at any time, including combat, if it’s getting too hot.
There are two maps. The automap sits in the lower left corner and fills in as you move. It also shows, as red dots, any nearby enemies. The world map fills in as you reach new areas in the underworld, and marks the party location with a pair of crossed swords.
Aside from walking, some travel will be done via rowboat along underground rivers, and also through the use of teleporter pylons. All the towns have a pylon nearby, so while the game is essentially linear, it’s easy to return to any of them, including the outpost where the game begins.
Graphically, the game looks very much as Geneforge 4 did; I’d say the visuals from that were recycled into AV5. That’s not a bad thing; it just means we’re not looking at cutting edge here.
Happily, the game ran well on my system. There were no graphical glitches, crashes, or odd happenings. This was on the original PC release; I know that a patch has been issued for the Mac version.
Avernum 5 is a large game as indies go, and suffers from the usual problems of a big game: predictibility and repetition. By far the majority of tasks belong to that tired old trio: “Bring me this”, “Kill that”, “Deliver something”. Certainly there are others, but those are the ones you’ll be doing much of the time.
Of course, AV5 is a one-man production, and asking Jeff Vogel to come up with 200 (as I note from the Spidweb boards) interesting and unique tasks is asking too much. It would be too much for a team. Still, some more variety would have been appreciated in this regard.
What I think would work better here is fewer jobs with longer solutions and more closely tied to the main line. An intricate task with some twists and turns would be more satisfying than simply killing enemies or delivering paper.
I mentioned earlier that encumbrance applies only to equipped items, and that was good. That’s because money is always in short supply, and that’s bad. Aside from what you may pick up from an errand or defeated foe, cash is obtained by grabbing anything you can and selling it.
Typically, the party returns to town staggering under a load of mainly junk, for which they receive a “generous” 25% of list price. That’s uniform throughout the world; no one will give you more for the stuff. If encumbrance applied to inventory, I hate to think how many trips would be necessary to eke out a handful of cash.
Gold is used, not so much for buying gear, but earning/training spells and skills. That becomes expensive very quickly, especially for the spellcasters in the party. There is never enough money. I think this is just a little too tight; gold ought to have been a bit easier to come by.
As you likely guessed, Avernum 5 is a seriously combat-heavy game. Which brings us to the problem of buffing. The farther you progress, the more difficult the opponents, and the greater the need for magical protections/enhancements.
Some, like Steel Skin and Enduring Armor, last awhile. Others, in particular Haste, are short term. In time, it becomes tedious to cast or re-cast the necessary buffs, because you need them more and more often.
I yearned for those “all-in-one” spells that used to be in Might & Magic. Remember “Day of Protection”? “Day of Wizardry”? And, of course, “Day Of The Gods!”. Definitely, spells like this should be available at high levels (okay, maybe not “Day Of The Gods!” ;).
In Game In Progress, I mentioned using the “buff cheat” to get through a difficult fight. It really was a tough situation, especially as we didn’t have a lot of protection, and the “boss” called in two duplicates of himself, all three with over 600 hitpoints.
Of course, I could have managed it in time. But how many retries would be needed until I had the right combination of tactics? Better to use the cheat and be done with it. I wanted to get on with the game, not spend an hour working out how to bring this enemy (or these enemies) down without anyone in the party dying.
Speaking of combat, I found the enemy AI to be quite annoying. Regardless of how many in the party hit an opponent, most of the time it will target whoever hit it last. Usually, that would be a spellcaster, making it hard to protect the weaker members. “Meat Shield” tactics don’t work well here; enemies will ignore the tanks and go for the “last one who damaged them”.
In some cases, the “special skills” add a layer of complexity and confusion. Consider the Sorcerer. She needs the basic Magic skill to cast spells, and this skill also controls what level of spells can be learned. And higher levels of the skill make spells more effective.
Next there’s Spellcraft, which also makes spells (mage or cleric) more powerful. But then we have a third skill, the “special” one of Magery, and that, too, makes spells more powerful.
At level-up, where do the points go? Are Spellcraft and Magery the same? If so, that’s redundant. If not, then which is better? How can you tell? Why are there two enhancements to magical power in the first place?
Much the same could be said for Quick Action, a basic martial skill, and Quick Strike, a “special” one. The descriptions for both are almost identical.
These “special” skills ought to be unique, and rather than duplicate existing ones, complement them. Magical Efficiency is a good example. It’s the chance that a spell will take less energy to cast than usual. There is no other skill like it, so ME really is special.
All this, so far, has been about the mechanics. However, there is a story here, too. It is not particularly obvious; you have to talk to people and read carefully (all dialogue is in text boxes) what they say.
We are familiar with it, too: over-population and limited resources. Avernum is no longer a prison, and people are flooding in. Many are looking for land to call their own, as everything aboveground is taken. Others areadventurers looking for treasure.
The contention for land is especially fierce, epitomized by the squabble between Highground and Muck. Highground is a closed town, allowing no new settlers, and claiming all the areas in the vicinity as its own. They’re even willing to pay the giants to attack Muck to get rid of the people holed up there.
Highground wants you to be the go-between, making the offer to the giants. Muck would rather you kill the giant Queen instead, making them safer. This is one of a number of “ethical” situations in the game. Which side do you help? Or do you just ignore both and go your way?
The main choice, however, is between staying loyal to the Empress and hunting down Dorikas, or switching sides and joining the Dark Loyalists. That decision leads to one of the two endings and an epilogue.
The epilogue will have some variations that depend on your actions throughout the game, aside from the main choice. My party stayed loyal, and was generally helpful to the Avernites. That, I suspect, leads to the best conclusion. After all, the Loyalists want to bring back heavy-handed rule, not to mention, hunt down and destroy all non-human species. Like Nephilim, and my group was all-kitty.
Overall, Avernum 5 leaves me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, we have the traditional, “classic” turn-based, party-based game. The world is well-thought-out. Many situations, large and small, make for interesting decisions, allowing a fair amount of player choice.
On the other hand, AV5 is also repetitious, and I found it becoming tedious in the later stages. Many combats were more difficult than I thought they should have been. And the skill system needs re-working to make it less confusing.
So I can’t give an unreserved recommendation. While Avernum 5 is worth playing, it’s best for those who appreciate the old-school system, and have both the time and patience (especially patience!) to play it. And yes, I am playing it again; it’s always the first time that’s the hardest.