Starting Avernum: Escape from the Pit slowed me down. Reeling from a number of console games, I began my adventure in this world, immediately noticing it was quieter and demanded more focus. I spent about half of my time in Avernum at this pace. For this, I must partially blame my lack of experience with computer RPGs. Learning the games systems, introducing my player-self to new townsfolk, and simply surviving battles took time. But the game seems to change a third (guessing—I haven’t beat the game) of the way through. Fights begin and end faster. Quests are notched off en masse. And at this point, the game competes with brand-new RPGs.
A rewrite of a rewrite, Escape from the Pit was released in December 2011 over a decade since its last rendition. You control a party of four, whom you create, through the underground world of Avernum, a scantly inhabited land to where the above-ground Empire sends people it doesn’t like. Other species, hostile and friendly, have found their way in, too. Naturally, your characters want to know what this place is like, and maybe even how to escape.
The graphics are much better than they used to be, but much is still left to imagine; or else it is described to you in text. Each new area of the world map, each new cave and city and hideout, comes with text—some narrative, most dialogue. And unless voice-acting is essential to a positive gaming experience, you may count this as a plus. The writing is one of the biggest strengths of this game. NPCs have unique personalities that are conveyed through just a handful of sentences. Dialogue trees lead to explanations about the world of Avernum, anecdotes, shopping, and quests. New areas are thinly shown on the isometric map, but fattened by a description of the feel, the details, the smell, the surroundings.
Most importantly, it’s funny. The writers took care to be serious when it made sense to be (talking to a millennium-old dragon or infiltrating a fortress of undead warriors) and to be funny when it made sense to be (the more-or-less useless item descriptions of junk-like wine and pillows; talking to a colony of “silly” spiders all actually named Spider). Of course, almost all of this text can be easily skipped, but with a little investment, the game becomes much more than a pile of quests and loot.
As for sound, it didn’t take long for me to mute it altogether—first the music, then the sound effects. But at least the option to mute the game is available. There are some interface issues that you cannot turn off that make the game feel old. Which it, of course, is. But that fact makes it no less frustrating when, in battle, one character runs around the map to reach the space you clicked which is blocked by another character. The kicker to this issue is that if you click the character who is in the way, the character whose turn it is can indeed walk past his unaware ally. But the AI doesn’t seem to know that it can move one character over a currently occupied space to get to its destination. In addition, the limit on the distance your heroes and heroines can walk with one mouse-click seems too arbitrary to excuse: to get from one end of town to the other, I’d like to be able to click on my destination, but instead I have to click the one or more on-the-way points first because that one place you clicked is “too far.”
From personal experience, learning the battle and leveling systems took time, but I can’t rightly fault the game for that. Once I spent several hours in Avernum, the flow of fighting felt more comfortable, and I better understood who shall get skill points where. That is to say that it is in most ways a western RPG. It’s much more difficult than Skyrim, say, (though difficulty is adjustable), but most of the sometimes janky systems become non-issues once you get the hang of exploration and enemy-annihilating.
Spiderweb Software provided CerebralPop with a copy of the Mac version of Avernum: Escape from the Pit for review.