I've come to realise something in the process of playing Avernum: Escape from the Pit - the latest in a long line of releases from the tiny development house Spiderweb Software. Imagination is an incredibly powerful tool. The more limited the graphics, the more sparse the sound effects, the further your own imagination can take you. It is something disappearing from the gaming world as they enter the realm of fully realised and realistic 3d worlds and unending reams of voice acted scripts. And, perhaps that is a shame.
One quick glance at a screenshot from Avernum and you would instantly assume this is a game dragged out from last century, and in essence that is the case. However instead of being an unevolved stalwart with its head stuck in the sands of the past, Avernum feels more like a loving tribute to gaming lore long since forgotten. A rich party-based fantasy world, turn-based and filled with traits, attributes and statistics in the vein of past greats such as Wizardry or the Ultima saga. It may be a niche target audience who will manage to break through the shackles of pixelated graphics and pages of text, however those that do will be released into a time sapping but wonderfully intriguing, deep and involving world.
The gameplay can be split into two elements. In general you will find yourself wondering around the land, clicking on tiles and watching your characters jerkily move to their destination. This mode is used for travelling, searching and interacting with NPCs. It's functional, which is about as much praise as one can give, but since you are not going to be awestruck by the low resolution scenery it makes sense to make the process of strolling around as efficient and unhindered as possible.
Where the game really takes off is during the tactical turn-based combat sections. This mode is activated whenever an enemy appears in your line of sight. Each member of your four man team is given action points to move and attack and then, when your turn is over, your enemies take their revenge. At first the format feels strange, awkward and rather tedious. Often you will find yourself clicking on the nearest enemy and leaving it to the luck of a roll to decide whether you have hit. However, after investing a few hours or so into developing each character's skills the tactics really evolve.
It seems that every spell, every boon, every ability has been thoroughly tested and balanced to give your team the ideal option in every battle. Monstrously powerful area effect spells that can destroy entire armies of enemies, but drain your mage's energy. Summoning ferocious creatures to hold back the advancing swarms. Haste spells that give your team the chance of attacking twice, or alternative slow spells that potentially cause enemies to miss their turn. While the list is not endless (there are only 52 spells or abilities in the game), nearly every single one seems useful in certain situations. It becomes an engrossing battle of tactics, with each class filling in a required role and where one clever move can turn the tide of a battle. This is perhaps a unique formula they have developed in the studio over the process of releasing a large catalogue of games.
Aside from the actual gameplay, you will be spending a vast amount of time reading. Many games that try this approach get bogged down in tedious, and often unnecessary text which ultimately gets skipped. Fortunately, due to its particularly interesting setting Avernum: Escape from the Pit manages to avoid this problem. You have been cast Into the Pit of Avernum because of crimes against the empire. What grievous law has been broken is left unsaid and it is up to that powerful imagination to create your own backstory. Avernum is a land buried beneath the surface, exiled from the empire, where prisoners are sent with no hope of return. What lies in this dark and mysterious world, no one on the surface knows. As it turns out there is a massive region filled with dark, twisting caverns, cities with people scraping to survive, and monsters ready to tear you to pieces without pleasantries.
By delving underground, the world of Avernum distances itself from the standard fantasy fare, making for a far more compelling experiences. The script is generally well written, with most scenes you enter presenting you with a brief worded description, all of which helps drive the imagination. Of course you may still find classic fantasy clichés such as zombies, demons and perhaps even a dragon on your travels, but you are equally likely to discover armies of bizarre anthropomorphic cats called Nephilim or dangerous lizard-men called Slith. And somehow despite (or perhaps because of) their pixelated appearances and muted sounds these creatures in my mind are more real than anything Skyrim managed to throw at me. I guess it is that active imagination running wild again.
Of course for a team that is barely a handful of people, Avernum’s cavernous cracks start to show through as soon as you try to dig in too deep. All NPC scripts are repeated ad infinitum each time you attempt to converse with them and no amount of saving them from their problems changes their demeanor towards you. For instance you can save a city from its invading armies of nephilim and they will all still be muttering about the war for the rest of eternity. For a game that prides itself on its intelligent script and humour it seems strange that the characters you meet do not evolve as you progress with through your journey. It is also a shame that your party of four never grows or swaps members. One of the most exciting parts of classics such as Baldur’s Gate is discovering new companions and changing your style and tactics to suit your new recruits. Unfortunately in Avernum, every character you meet who seems keen to join your motley crew quickly pulls out, as if the developers ripped out this function as a late design decision.
Furthermore, the gameplay itself could do with some refinement. The artificial intelligence of the enemies can be erratic and sometimes baffling. Worse perhaps is that it is sometimes difficult to perform the actions you desire, with required tiles blocked by models standing in front of them. With no means of changing the camera angle, or clicking through models, it can be frustrating to have your delicate plans ruined by a finickity interface . Other such pleasantries such as a line of sight indicator for ranged weapons and spells would be useful, as sometimes your tactics can be aggravated by assuming your warrior can attack, when instead he disappears down a completely random corridor in order to get a better line of sight.
These are all minor grumbles however and issues that still plague far larger studio games. None of the problems stand in the way of an incredible experience in which you could accidentally lose hours, if not days - since the world of Avernum: Escape from the Pit is impressively massive. I have ploughed at least 30 hours of game time into adventuring through these dark and mysterious caverns, and I can still barely see the light at the end. Half the map lays undiscovered, and heaven knows what ancient beasts and mystical treasures lie ahead. While games such Skyrim may provide more hours of gameplay than anyone actually has time to invest, for a game created by a tiny indie studio and available at a fraction of the price, Avernum: Escape from the Pit provides excellent value for money. Rarely has a game driven me to push on with my adventure, made hours of train journeys disappear in seconds or kept me feverishly awake at night as I quested into the the early morning hours. It is a tribute to indie gaming as a whole that a game made by such a tiny team can swell into such an involving, engrossing and glorious fantasy epic.