At the end of Avernum I felt like I had been delivered a full package. The game never overreached its bounds and never pretended to be more than it was: a strategic dungeon crawl. The 35-40 hour game ended just about on time since I was beginning to feel a little fatigued just before the climax of the game. I really enjoyed the writing, difficulty curve (mostly, see below), environment, and turn based combat. As I said earlier, this game is a definite buy for any RPG fan, and with the remake of the remake of the second game in the series, there is another 40 hours of content to be had! Not to mention the remaining four games that have not been remade that are playable and available now in the Avernum pack on GOG.
Savior of Avernum
In the last entry I wrote about some major plot points that I saw forming under the surface of the over-arching Avernum backdrop. Three major quests revealed themselves to be the end game content and emerged in a fascinating way. These objectives were never stated at the beginning and naturally grew as more sociological and archaeological investigation was done just trying to explore the giant cave prison. Once all three of the major quests are completed, the game is officially over, although the player may get the chance to goof around and finished any leftover quests. I didn’t do this for reasons I’ll reveal later.
The first plot point I was able to complete was securing an exit from Avernum for the rebel group Scimitar, allowing them to take their battle to the Empire’s doorstep. At first it seemed impossible, but then I recalled that the Empire had various bases and spy stations around Avernum allowing them to observe the prisoners and cause trouble. There must be a way for them to be delivering personnel and supplies… I just had to find it. My discovery came in the form of a dragon named Khoth who informed me that she had been bribed by the Empire to only allow them access to a tunnel behind her. She also said that if I were able to retrieve two artifacts, an onyx staff and a silver circlet, she would allow me to pass through along with Scimitar. I had retrieved the onyx staff after defeating the demon in the Tower of Magi, but I still needed to track down the silver circlet which was rumored to be in The Abyss; a den of thieves and murderers who are, themselves, banished from civilization in Avernum. After stealing the circlet from the mayor of the town named Spire, I was granted access to a heavily guarded hallway which ended in a room requiring a four part password. More backtracking back to various locations, sages, and mayors, I was able to track down all four parts and emerge from the underworld into the light of the sun, again! I was offered the choice to stay above ground, or return to Avernum. I could not forsake my duty, so I left the sun bathing for another day.
The next quest on the laundry list is to tackle that pesky ancient demon the Triad summoned and trapped in a bottle. After releasing the demon, it immediately got back to work restoring its old fortress and waiting to unleash havoc, because what’s the point if your house is a mess? In the mean time, King Micah opened the pathway of the fortress for me to go and finish the job that the most powerful magicians in Avernum could not. Setting out with my party, I arrived at the blasted hellscape of the Demon’s fortress.
Surprisingly, I was met with what seemed like only perfunctory defense of a demon “lieutenant” that offered very little opposition. After entering the fortress, the party was surrounded by imps rebuilding walls and doing light fixtures, but in a great subversion of usual plots, these imps were quite upset about being distracted from their normal rabble rousing and flesh eating to do masonry for a demon master. When I informed them I was there to kill the demon they immediately said “Great!” and pointed me in the direction of a hidden passage that led directly to the demon Grah-Hoth’s throne room. Unfortunately, he was not as excited about the idea of being slain.
After arriving in the throne room, the battle began with Grah-Hoth summoning some skeletal warriors and launching his attack. For me, this battle was the best test of all the skills I had learned throughout the game (aside from another ‘off camera’ battle with a Lich which was very similar) in that it tested three of the most important strategies in the game: positioning, crowd control vs. focused damage, and item usage. As long as Grah-Hoth is standing, he will continue to summon mid-level enemies to swarm in and hit your characters with status de-buffs like slowing and the dreaded stun which incapacitates the character for three turns. It is essential to space your buffers, damage dealers, and crowd damage folks correctly to avoid disaster. This battle took me almost ten attempts to beat on normal difficulty, including one in which I defeated the demon with only two characters left. After he fell, the flavor text said that his summons “slunk away into the darkness”, yet they remained after the battle and finished off the two hemmed in characters. I think this text is a hold over from the last version.
The solution I found is to keep the healer away from all damage, have my two damage dealers tanking all the hits on the demon, and have the sorceress take out all the mid-level enemies with area of effect spells. Even knowing this strategy, it still took several attempts before I was able to clear the room and get another nicely painted ending scene informing me I had finished the second major quest of Avernum. I was feeling pretty good… at the time.
All Falls Down
The last quest that I delayed on purpose was the assassination of the Emperor, and boy I am glad I left it for late. Erika, one of the Triad mages itching for revenge on the Empire, is who tasked me with this quest in the last update. To be able to implement a reverse portal, she told me I needed to attain four out of the five brooches that Empire heroes brought to Avernum during the first expedition to explore the cave. I had found three, already, after clearing a haunted grotto, helping the spiders defend against the evil spiders, and killing a dragon who was just a plain jerk and I wanted the challenge and achievement for killing a dragon in the game. The last was hidden in the treasure room of a friendlier dragon named Motrax who let me take it with no resistance. With four out of five in hand I began the single hardest sequence in the entire game.
Erika transports the party directly into the Royal Spire of the Empire. It is a linear hallway with only one way forward, literally. If you go west from the beginning the game ends automatically. This leads to a race against time where enemies coming from behind, through various gates along the hall, and ahead home in to hamper progress and overwhelm the player. The key is to move forward as fast as possible, even in combat, and defeat the enemies as quickly as possible. After reaching the highest ranked mage in the Spire, I was surprised at what happened. I was expecting a mini-boss fight, but he actually stepped aside after taking damage to only about 50% of his health and said, “It is perhaps time for the madness of the emperor to end.” I guess not everybody was happy with him, but it was me who almost lost my sanity.
The final battle is a huge difficulty spike. The concept is simple: the emperor has a magic barrier that cannot be destroyed, however, he will use magic power to repair his defense golems until the shield disappears allowing you to kill him. The problem is it is the hardest thing I did in the entire game; including an optional battle with an ancient lich that signaled to me that it should have actually been the hardest. Indestructible golems with powerful elemental attacks, troops streaming in, and a tight combat area make it almost impossible to position weak characters to avoid damage. This led to over twenty attempts of me and my pride hoping against hope that I could finish the game without disgracing myself by changing to ‘casual’ difficulty. This ended up happening, but let me tell you a story about getting angry.
After I switched the difficulty to casual, the game was insanely easy. I beat the Emperor handily and saw him crumble. Heck, I even found out I was so close to beating him several other times I thought about trying again on Normal… until I read the splash screen.
Erika could not get a fix on my position because I had only found four out of five brooches. The text describes my valiant fight and how the party was eventually “cut to ribbons” by the guards. “Maybe you’ll get a better ending next time…” I was pretty upset. I don’t mind an ending like that, I even thought it was fitting because I’m pretty sure most Spiderweb games do not have a single continuous protagonist. What makes me angry is that the game lied to me. Erika said “four of the five brooches” indicating that maybe some are more difficult for certain party builds to get, so there is some flexibility. If she needs five to get me there and back, then do it, don’t make me go back and get one. Especially when there’s no option to return! I YouTubed the rest of the ending and it was pretty much what I expected: the demon is dead, the emperor is gone, and Scimitar is able to take the fight to the surface, but I felt cheated. It was a terrible way to end such a great game, but that’s the way it goes.
What I Thought
I would definitely recommend Avernum to any RPG player as I have said over and over again. The graphics are serviceable, even good for what it does, and the gameplay is pretty much as good as it can get. Writing also ranks very high with its humor and colorful descriptions. Sounds were minimal, but ok; they did not get on my nerves. The music is what got to me. It is almost nonexistent, which is fine, except that the same short themes play when entering dungeons and towns over and over and over, and that’s it. Music can be sparing, but having something longer than five second snippets could have done a lot. Especially since the title music is decent and some shorter pieces could have spruced it up a bit. It is a solid 8/10 for me coming from the perspective of an RPG lover.
I got political last time, but I won’t now. I did attend the latest protest and saw some troublemakers plan and execute an assault on peaceful protesters, so that was good. Unfortunately, I also saw assaulted protesters reasonably defending themselves get arrested for nothing. That’s how it goes, I guess… it’s just a little too real when you’re standing ten yards away.