Review: Avernum 3: Ruined World02 May 2018 0
Review: Avernum 3: Ruined World
Released 23 Apr 2018
Spiderweb Software is like a band that has been around for years without really ever getting much recognition. They stick to singing about the same themes, persist with the same chord patterns and churn out riffs that sound reassuringly familiar. By rights, they should have split years ago, nevertheless, they keep plugging away. Through thick and thin, their small fan base remains devote and loyal, snaffling up every new release, re-release and limited edition release. They make enough cash to get by, they make people happy and most importantly, they still enjoy what they are doing.
The company’s latest mobile release probably needs a bit of explaining, as the chronology of the Avernum games is indeed a tangled tale. There are two Avernum trilogies, the first are remakes of their earlier Exile series, whilst the second trilogy is made up of original games created using a more advanced game engine. To further complicate matters, a few years ago Spiderweb decided to revisit the first trilogy and produce new versions. So, is based on the original Avernum 3, which was in turn based on Exile III: Ruined World - and I thought the Star Wars chronology was bad.
Avernum may sound like a painkilling gel, but it is in fact a subterranean nation, largely made up of petty criminals and rebels who have been banished from the surface by the ruling Empire. In Avernum 3 the Avernites have found a passage to the surface world, and the player is given the task of creating an expeditionary party and exploring the outside world. However, all is not well since it soon comes to light that the surface world is facing destruction by plagues of monsters. Defeating this threat will rely on your small party of adventurers uniting the two warring nations. It may sound like a pretty involved plot, but the good news is that even if you are not familiar with the other games in the series, you can still jump in and play without feeling you have missed out on anything.
Spiderweb Software, headed by Jeff Vogel, has been in existence since 1994 and have released over twenty games. Since the company is pretty much a one-man band it makes you wonder how Jeff ever manages to find time to eat and sleep. Here, he has created a huge world, with multiple nations and races. There are around 150 towns and dungeons and an estimated 60 hours of gameplay. Avernum prides itself on offering player freedom; there are dozens of optional side quests and players can become merchants or bounty hunters and even get the opportunity to build their own house.
Despite these impressive statistics, if you are new to the series then initial impressions are likely to be underwhelming. The isometric graphics are simplistic and the push scrolling judders enough to bring tears to your eyes. The sound is limited to some rather annoying tip-tapping footsteps and a few swishes and groans; do not expect any angst-ridden voice acting here. When exploring, the game’s path-finding mechanics can be frustrating, sometimes resulting in your party taking the scenic route, or coming to a halt as soon as they bump into an easily avoidable obstacle. Making up for the sparse presentation is some rather excellent storytelling. The richly written narrative is both evocative and humorous without overdoing it. Whilst not overly original it still manages to steer away from hackneyed stereotypes. A particularly nasty race of unicorns will give any prepubescent girl nightmares, whilst a tribe of friendly giant spiders comes as a bit of a shock.
Character classes are variants on the typical fighter, thief, cleric and mage stalwarts, with lizard and cat races added to the mix. There are four basic attributes; strength determines damage and ability to carry stuff, dexterity governs the likelihood of hitting and dodging, endurance reflects health points and resistance to poison and finally, intelligence defines how much mana you have for casting spells and your resistance to mental attacks. You can further personalise your characters by choosing a portrait and allocating skill points.
This means that you can, for instance, specialise in a specific class of weapon or turn your hand to lock picking. The magic system is especially well designed, the selection of spells may not be huge but each one is useful and can be upgraded. Spellcasters themselves have a generous supply of mana, which encourages you to actively use them rather than fretting about running out of magic points.
Having assembled my party of topless macho adventurers I was eager to test their mettle in battle. Combat is turn-based and just tactical enough to be interesting without slowing the game’s pace. Depending on the landscape, characters can take cover or secure an advantageous position on the battlefield. Each adventurer has a set amount of action points that can be used for moving, attacking and casting spells. Enemies tend to have the philosophy of charge blindly into combat and not ask questions later as you will be dead. What they lack in tactical subtlety they often make up for in sheer numbers, quickly surrounding any isolated characters and ruthlessly despatching them. The tiny graphics can sometimes be hard to differentiate and narrow corridors can be especially confusing, as walls can obscure the action. But the zoomed out view does allow for quite large battles, which sometimes involve allied forces. It all moves along at a cracking speed and although the interface feels rather cramped it actually works quite well. However, it would have been nice to be able to delay a character’s actions until later in the round.
At times, the sheer size of the game and player freedom can be overwhelming. The narrative will prod you in certain directions but you are still pretty much free to roam anywhere. This means that you can find yourself blundering into a combat situation that you do not stand a chance of winning. There is also a bewildering amount of items littered around, indeed there seems to be more bric-a-brac than at a church fete.
Avernum 3 does make a few concessions to novice players. There are four different skill levels, a smaller party size, a simpler party healing system and cheat codes to help ease your progress. A quick and reliable save system along with regular autosaves ensures that things never get too frustrating. The little cartoons used to illustrate the various character skills and abilities are also a really nice touch. However, Avernum is still a challenging and uncompromisingly old- school experience that diehard fans will love, I guess he who pays the piper calls the tune.