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Reviewed: Avernum
Author: Chris Kim       Date: July 20th, 2000
Page: 2

As we've learned in the past from this interview with Jeff Vogel, author and main developer behind nearly all of Spiderweb's games, the retail distribution channel is too competitive for him to compete in with such games that his company creates. It is also understandable why they would choose this method over the retail channel: they don't have to pay for space on shelves, no need for expensive boxing, and there is no deadline placed on the developer to finish the game before a certain date, thus allowing them to create the product they want, not what the publisher wants. So, the latest game to be distributed in this timely fashion is Avernum, which is available in both Macintosh and PC flavors for maximum cross-platformability (is that even a word?).

What exactly is Avernum? You've probably never even heard of this company or what they've produced in the past. Well, they've won various shareware awards and received critical acclaim as one of the best shareware developers out there. It's not surprising with titles such as Exile, Blades of Exile, and Nethergate at their helm. Avernum is the latest release in the Exile series, in fact, it's a remake of the now classic Exile: Escape from the Pit using the Nethergate engine with tons of expanded worlds and storylines to follow. How does it stand-up to the rest of the competition?

Ooga Booga
Arena of Death

One thing that all of Spiderweb's games have excelled at are excellent storylines. Avernum is no different with the core of the Exile: Escape from the Pit storyline powering Avernum. Basically, you (and a party of up to four), have been banished from the surface, where the empire reigns supreme, and sent down below the surface into the hideous world of Avernum. This is where the story picks up with drama between humans and other alien races never seen before on the surface. While it might not be the most creative or unique, it is interesting and will definitely keep the player into the flow of the game. With the unique branching system, storylines can become quite complex to the point where the player is in over his/her head. Thankfully, a journal feature will help the player keep track of what is happening in the world.

Another item of note is the extremely large game world. There are tons of cities, dungeons, and areas to visit in the world of Avernum; this is backed with an incredibly open and free roaming style of gameplay. There are several ways to defeat the game and about a hundred separate smaller, optional branching missions which the player can choose to take or not. As players explore the world of Avernum, they will learn the large and expansive back history, current problems, and make friends or enemies in the underworld (not hell, though). This ultimately keeps the game very interesting and fun to play, as rather than being restricted to certain directions, the player can do what he/she feels at any time and however he/she wants to. The only problem with this is that players might end up entering a dungeon or mission that their characters are still not quite up to. Players could then end up dead meat in certain dungeons because they weren't developed enough to handle such a rough mission.

Lotsa Stuff
Smack Him Up
Hiding Away

What will ultimately keep the player coming back to get more and more of Avernum will be its extensive character generation and development system. Like any other complex role-playing game, there are a lot of character statistics to build. Similar to how the statistics system in System Shock 2 worked, players will receive skill points in which they allocate certain attributes. However, instead of each skill point being worth a full statistic, the player must build up a certain amount of skill points to raise a statistic. The higher a certain statistic is, the more skill points are required to build that statistic higher. As players receive skill points as their levels increase, so do the points required to raise a statistic. At first when the game starts out, adding strength statistic might cost five skill points, but near the end of the game, it might cost twelve points to raise that statistic. As these skills are built up, it has a drastic effect on how well each character performs; therefore, it is crucial that players develop their characters in certain areas to become experts.

Heavy character interaction with other NPCs (non-player characters) is crucial, although sometimes it might feel a bit under developed. Typically, at towns, players can interact and talk with other NPCs to gain information about Avernum, the history of the empire, or earn quests. Interaction is fairly simple and is controlled with a set of questions that will generate certain responses from the NPCs, whether it is neutral or hostile. Doing things in favor of the community or a city will result in a higher reputation of the party, the higher their reputation, the easier people will open up and provide more vital information about them. The NPC interaction isn't overly complex, but simple enough for new gamers to get into the game fairly easily and complex enough for meaningful interaction.

Do the Rest
Blood Shot
Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Combat is probably the biggest focus of the game as most of it is spent fighting! Similar to all of the other Spiderweb games, Avernum uses the same battle system that has been in every other game developed by them. It is a turn-based, grid strategic system. It isn't too unlike Odium or the Playstation title Final Fantasy Tactics. It involves complex character movement around a square tile system that allows movement in eight different directions. Several different attacks, from hand-to-hand, missile, and magical attacks are some of the variations that are offered by the battle system. Each fight occurs right there in the dungeon in the same location without any screen transitions. Each character has a certain amount of action points to spend per turn based on their dexterity statistic. With a balanced party, the battles are a lot of fun and can be easily defeated. There is, however, a slight problem with the system, sometimes finding out how to approach a situation is difficult and will require frequent loading/saving of the game, although it isn't a major problem because saving the game takes less than two seconds.

Magic and items in the game have a good variation. There are basically two types of magic: priest (white or healing) and mage (black or attack). Both have distinct purposes as to their functions. A skill to learn such magic called lore is needed to decipher cryptic spells that are found around the globe. Spells ranging from a simple fire shot to a complex ice lance that deals a significant amout of damage. There are also scrolls, which are one-time spells that can be used to attack or heal. There are also several different weapons types: melee, pole, bows and missiles. These require separate pools of statistics for successful attacks. Each provides different strategies with strengths and weaknesses. Armor is also heavily used; there are various types of armor that provide varying amounts of defense. Each weapon and armor has several variations for their attack or protection value, from poor buckler to a steel large shield, each item has unique attributes. Items such as lock pickers can also be used to get past obstacles and disarming traps is also a good skill to possess.

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Added:  Thursday, July 20, 2000
Reviewer:  Chris Kim
Page: 2/5

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