It has been a long time since I last sat down in front of a game, sunk several hours, then awaken from the fugue state wondering where all the time went. Well, I’ve finally gotten that feeling back with Avernum: Escape from the Pit. I chose this game from the list almost exclusively because I have not been able to get the Internet connected in my new place, yet. I had downloaded it before and needed to stick with something that did not require Steam to play, so that’s where I landed. I’m currently tussling with the cable company and begging them to come hook it up, but I’m pretty much at their mercy so we will see if they can get it in before I manage to finish this 40+ hour game.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit (2011) is a remake of the first entry of the Avernum saga originally released in 2000, which is itself a remake of Exile: Escape from the Pit which was released in 1995. I’m usually the guy who complains about all the remakes and lack of imagination, but the head and almost sole employee of publishing house Spiderweb Software, Jeff Vogel, has done more than his share of proving his creativity by writing, programming, producing, and distributing over 20 games by himself. His dedication to his fans and making his old games accessible, or even functional on modern hardware, is laudable. Having messed around with the second iteration of Avernum before purchasing the 2011 remake to play, I can say that it has certainly been successful.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit is the story of a gigantic underground cave prison where enemies of the enigmatic “Empire” are both justly and unjustly stowed after causing trouble. This includes everyone from the jobless man caught stealing bread for his family to the criminally insane. The story begins when your group of four custom designed adventurers is thrown through a magical portal into this prison for unknown reasons that I’m not even sure will be revealed at a later time, or if it even matters.
The game begins in a starter dungeon which was absent from the original Avernum game to help new players get acclimated. This area contains some useful items and also gives instructions about how to use the game engine. Unlike Avernum, which made use of the keyboard similar to the Ultima series, Escape from the Pit is mostly mouse based. The game does offer the option to use the original hotkeys if the player prefers the original input system. After escaping the starter dungeon, the player is cast into the world with no quest or objective aside from information that the mayor of a nearby down is looking for adventurers. Thus begins Avernum.
Avernum is epic, but not in the sense that a coming evil is going to destroy the world or the fate of humanity is in the balance. Avernum is the long tale of your party’s life coping with its new environment and simply learning the culture and dangers of the giant cavern. It could diplomatically be called a “slow burn” in that it does not begin with any fanfare or dramatic set pieces; it simply is. All of the drama from the game comes from exploring alien places and conquering tough encounters which are fairly well balanced. I can’t explain why, but I really like it. I normally get quite tired of Elder Scrolls and FarCry “open world” games that have so many things to do because it all just feels empty to me. What Avernum gets right is quality over quantity. The cavern is big, but not too big. Skill upgrades are fairly numerous with two or three skill trees, but not too overwhelming. Encounters can be difficult, but always leave the hope that one dice roll’s difference could have changed everything. The potential for what may be coming or what may have happened if I had won the fight drive me forward instead of “more stuff”.
So far, there does not seem to be much story besides some basic groundwork. Most of the inhabitants of the eastern reaches of Avernum are humans that have been sent to prison for their crimes. The empire also casts the Nephilim, a group of cat humanoids with which it is at war, into the prison with the humans. As you can imagine, there is no love lost and this conflict continues underground just as it did above. I have also recently found a race of lizard people native to Avernum that inhabit some rougher areas of the cavern which are called the Slith. Although they have been painted as the token “bad guys”, I can tell from my previous experience with Spiderweb games (Geneforge) that there is probably more going on here and they have a good reason for their beef. My off hand guest is the Slith used to have the entire domain of Avernum under their rule and have been pushed back forcefully by the humans. I’ll see if I am right.
I can also tell, mostly because of the six games in the canonical series, that Avernum will turn into a much more complex survival story than it first seems. Geneforge began as a quest to escape a deserted island and ended with four factions warring over an ultimate weapon; I expect this game to be similar. I have already heard quiet talk of a small resistance group looking for a way to reverse the entrance portal or find another way out of the cave. Most people dismiss it as “impossible”, but I have the feeling it may not be so difficult.
Writing and general ‘How’s it going?’
Writing about Avernum may be quite difficult as (backhanded compliment) it is completely consistent. That means that along with not having low lows to rant about, it also hasn’t struck me with any highs to laud besides how well everything works together and how conservative the design aesthetic is. I have played over ten hours and am thinking of how to write about my experiences, but they have mostly been exploring dungeons and talking to people in cities. Although, I will mention that I have met a race of intelligent talking spiders and cleared out their evil magic using spider cousins down the road. That was interesting.
I hope to comment a little more on the evolution of the story and the environment itself since many of Vogel’s games deal with moral grey area, but they’re not out in the open yet and I can’t really speculate beyond what I have already. I will go ahead and say that if you are looking for a long RPG with a classic feel that is quick to play but hard to put down, give Avernum a try.