I pointed out more than a week ago that Avernum: Escape from the Pit was on sale, and that it was worth picking up. Based on the exact science that is my Steam Activity page, many of you did. Good job. If you didn’t, and you like RPGs, you can still fix that mistake.
There are a few things that stand out about Avernum and make it almost impossible for me to put down right now. The first and perhaps most important is that the setting/world of Avernum is so tightly woven and kept together. In way too many RPGs, every town or location you visit might as well exist in a vacuum; people aren’t aware of the actions or motivations of others, and every quest is local and doesn’t impact anything else. In Avernum it almost feels like EVERYTHING matters and is connected, which really is crazy given the sheer amount of content.
Quick example (hopefully spoiler-free): I meet a certain NPC early in the game, who works for a surprise faction, and the existence of this NPC explains a lot of ‘how’ the world of Avernum works. Much later in the game, I met an NPC from a rival faction, and one of the dialog options was “Did you know an agent for your rival is at location X”? That alone shocked me, but even better? The NPC replied that yes they are aware of that NPC, and haven’t dealt with them yet for ‘reasons’. I love that not only are these NPCs aware of your actions, but the game also provides valid reasons why they can both exists despite what they and you are doing. That is amazing world building and story connection.
Now to be fair, I said it feels like everything is connected because not everything actually is. You still have some side quests that are more traditional “go get this, deliver it, the end” stuff, but even in those the writing and flavour ‘fit’. There are also plenty of examples where you can ask “what is X” when you have already had another NPC explain “X”, but even here you often get different bits of info. I think a huge factor here is that the game was made by one man (Jeff Vogul), so rather than multiple writers/designers each adding their own take on something, Avernum has a solid continuity and always ‘feels’ the same from NPC to NPC, location to location.
This continues into its design as well. You are very rarely forced to have a quest in order to complete/acquire a future quest objective if you happen to explore an area/dungeon early (in fact, a lot of the major quests assume you won’t know WHY you are collecting something until much later). Sometimes you must have the quest, but in those cases it makes sense (need a special key, or must know what you are looking for). I haven’t come across a single instance of a quest asking to kill someone, and that someone only spawning once you have the quest, which has always bugged me in other RPGs, while on the flip side I’ve killed or collected many objects early, and when finally meeting the NPC with the quest, the dialog reflected that I already accomplished the task, which is a nice little touch.
Speaking of quests, I love that there isn’t one obvious ‘major’ quest and then everything else plays the role of ‘side quest’ like in many RPGs. Avernum has multiple major quests and major characters, certainly, but even here which one is more important is difficult to say; is helping the king more important than helping a major rebel faction? I don’t know, but I do know that both (among others) feel really important and epic (and not lame ‘epic’ save-the-world-from-uber-death-dragon-god either).
One of the major goals is escaping Avernum, and multiple, multiple times you will find locations that hint at escape, only to turn you away for one reason or another. You can almost feel the hope rising in your characters, only to be crushed.
Much of this is due to the fact that the writing is absolutely top notch, and strikes the perfect balance of enough to set the stage and provide detail, but not bore you with a small novel every time you talk to anyone. The tone is mostly serious, as Avernum is a pretty serious place (being a huge underground prison and all), but lighter moments and characters do happen, and again unlike in many RPGs, they don’t feel like intentional ‘comedy breaks’, but characters that fit the world.
Story/setting/feel aside, the gameplay is also surprisingly solid for an older-styled game. Character progression is varied enough to be interesting, but isn’t a stat overload. Spell selection is the same; enough to be interesting, but not so many options that you have a dozen different ways to throw a fireball. I would say the same for items; you come across enough special/magic items to feel like you are constantly making progress, but it’s not the loot shower that other RPGs can become. Important, major magic items that you find feel like huge rewards/upgrades, and hold their value for a long time in many cases.
All of the above feeds into the combat, which again IMO is surprisingly good. At the start of the game it’s rather basic, but after a few hours and some levels, you will face a lot of different situations that will certainly challenge you (or outright kill you if you visit them too early). Sometimes it will be a tough boss, while other times it will be a longer dungeon that simply grinds you down in terms of potions and mana. I love in an RPG finding something that kills you early, but being able to come back later and inch out a victory; that to me is one of the more rewarding aspects of an ‘open world’ RPG, and Avernum has this in spades.
I haven’t finished the game just yet, though I feel I am fairly close given where certain quests are going and the overall percentage of the world I’ve explored and my character power. I am genuinely excited to see how this ends, and very much looking forward to Avernum 2 to continue the story and get more of this style of game. Obviously highly recommended to any RPG fan able to look past the old-school graphics.