Avernum VI (2009 RPG): The Netbook Gamer

Something interesting about the games from Spiderweb Software: I have been fortunate enough to be on the beta-test teams for the last few iterations of both the Mac and PC releases of the Geneforge and Avernum games. This means having access to the code early, getting loads of play time in before release … and yet in all cases I find myself writing reviews months later. I attribute that to the difference between playing to test for issues, and playing as a gamer figuring out what I do or don’t like about the overall experience.

So here I am in May reviewing a game that was released in November for the Mac and January for the PC, finally replaying a game that I put hundreds of hours into testing. Since November I have been very clear to anyone who asked – this is an excellent game, and is well worth buying. Now I am finally getting around to finishing up my replays and adding more details to my ‘it’s great, buy it’ recommendation.

The Avernum series is known for huge subterranean worlds, epic stories, tons of quests and combat played out in turns. The major conflict is between the Avernites and the over-world people of the Empire. Avernum was originally a colony formed by outcasts from the surface world, but over the years it became its own world, with loads of people born and raised without ever visiting the surface.

In terms of history, Avernum grew out of the original Exile games from Spiderweb Software, and indeed the first three games in the series are largely remakes if the original Exile games with loads of added quests and characters and encounters, broader stories with more dialogue, and a fully revamped graphical presentation and interface.

The last three games are entirely original, but the core conflict of Empire versus Avernum remains. For Avernum 5 you actually came from the surface at the behest of the Empire. But in the latest game you are once again an Avernite, leading a group of soldiers.

The game features a huge story filled with mystery, intrigue and twists. Along the way you meet wonderfully realized characters and situations, get involved in local disputes, take care of trivial tasks for small rewards, and explore the world looking for a fight. This synergy of possibilities makes the game shine. You are rarely forced to do a task at a certain time, but the pull of the main quest keeps you on track better than many other games.

At the beginning of the game you create your party, selecting four characters amongst a variety of classes and races, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Each character gets a range of attributes and skills, and there is a great amount of depth to the character development system throughout the game. You will get enough points to be effective but will always be wanting more!

Setting up a proper party is critical to success, as it is easy to become to heavy in melee or magic or ranged skills and leave out healing and other critical class types. The game suggests a party, which is reasonably well balanced and a good starting place for new players.

While you do set up your party members with an avatar, Avernum is not the sort of game where you’ll be tweaking eyebrow distances on your character. There are a few options and that is it. It is the sort of thing that really bothers some people, so I want to make sure that no one is expecting to have the level of character customization you’ll find in Oblivion or Mass Effect … or Baldur’s Gate.

After making large improvements to the combat system in Avernum 5, Vogel turned his attention to balancing and streamlining things for Avernum 6. Combat is still turn-based, and when you approach an enemy you switch from real-time to turn-based and everything pauses. Each combatant takes their turn, and can move, perform a standard attack, use a battle discipline or spell, use items, and so on. There is a parry skill to counter enemy attacks, and so on.

Jeff Vogel has spoken quite a bit about reducing the ‘trash collection’ – those filler battles that provide much less in rewards than the effort they seem to take. Too often that ‘grinding’ is to get you pumped up with enough skills and experience to face the cool boss battles everyone wants to experience. His goal was to keep combat as a main element of the game, but not have it so frequent that it becomes a tedious grind.

With the last Geneforge game he made a step in the right direction with pacing and balancing, but it is really in Avernum 6 that we finally see the realization of that goal. One thing he knew was that he beta testers were generally experienced hardcore gamers, and that he needed to ratchet the game down to where they started complaining about it being a bit too easy in order to hit the right level for most folks to play at ‘normal’ difficulty.

There are a few other ways ways that balancing is enhanced: the most obvious is making sure that every skill is useful from start to finish, and nothing becomes too overpowered. Many games start you off getting chased by kittens and ends you up taking down elder dragons with a single hit. Vogel makes the game challenging from start to finish. And, in a tactic that has been used effectively in recent years by games such as Neverwinter Nights 2, you will often find yourself as part of larger battles obviously beyond your ability to handle as a group of four adventurers. These provide tension and excitement without forcing you into a die-and-retry grinding loop.

While I don’t pretend to be a hardcore gamer, I have now managed to finish the game on both my Mac & PC without having my entire party die a single time. I have certainly come close, and perhaps it isn’t fair to say I haven’t failed since I *have* quit and reloaded a couple of times when defeat was inevitable. But in general I found the difficulty quite consistent and reasonable at the ‘hard’ setting for myself. I really just have to reiterate how satisfying to play a well-balanced game.

The most recent games in the Avernum and Geneforge series also share at their core a new engine created by merging the two engines, and greatly enhancing it along the way. While these are clearly ‘old school’ and ‘indie’ in their appearance by almost any standard, looking at screens from earlier games shows just how far he has come in the last few years.

The world is huge and varied in looks and terrain, with plenty of interior and exterior regions to explore. Unlike many games where entering a building requires a load screen for a small area, everything is continuous in the world of Avernum. There are dungeon areas that are loaded in, but the load is nearly instantaneous and the resulting area is massive.

The large overarching story is with you at all times, given out in chunks of quests by a variety of characters throughout the game. Historically the Avernum games have been very linear in terms of main quest, with the side quests filling in much of the variety. There is still some amount of ‘gating’, wherein you cannot access new areas without completing the existing quest tree – but the majority of the game gives you extensive freedom to not only explore the massive world, but also in how you go about accomplishing quests.

There is still a huge amount and variety in the side-quests available in Avernum 6, and as is true with most RPGs they represent much of the ‘flavor’ and interest of the experience. Most of the side-quests are fairly simple and single-tiered, but there are some that are more complex and require thought and planning. There are also quests with repercussions, where you can for example succeed at killing off bandits but fail to protect the captives you were meant to save!

One thing I have always loved with the Spiderweb games is they are fairly ‘family friendly’. They are not meant for children, but the story and characters are comparable to those found in teen-level reading material such as the Eragon or Harry Potter books. There is pain, emotion and pathos laced with humor throughout this wonderful tale. This is a game for very strong readers, forming the basis of the 10+ age recommendation. The subject matter is somewhat dark and scary, but nothing beyond what a middle school kid can handle.

I originally thought my kids would hate Spiderweb games. Between the old-school graphics, the lack of dramatic voice acting and sweeping music found in so many of the games they play on their Wii, PS2, PC, PSP and Nintendo DS, I thought they wouldn’t be interested. Also, the text heavy storytelling is not something that kids raised on the adventures of Mario and Zelda generally gravitate towards.

But, almost as if 2005’s Fate had acted as a ‘gateway drug’, they immediately became interested while watching me play, asking questions, making suggestions, and getting excited as I entered combat in one of the mines and suddenly was surrounded and outnumbered. Their reactions to the characters and dialogue illustrated just how well written the game is. One character’s reaction to my party caused my younger son to adopt a Jar Jar Binks accent and say ‘How Rude!’ They have each taken some time working their way through parts of the game. My older son loves the combat system, while my younger son appreciates that losing one or two of your party during a battle only leaves them unconscious until you can return to a town to revive them.

Avernum 6 is a wonderful close to a wonderful game series. Full of interesting characters, great writing, humor, drama, fun sidequests, and more, the game rewards gamers who stick it out through the end – and very much rewards those of us who have been along for the ride since the start.

Netbook Gamer Perspective: Jeff Vogel and Spiderweb Software are the classic Indie RPG developer, having been at this since 1994. The Avernum remake of the Exile games has been a big part of the resurgence in PC RPG games in the wake of the early 2000’s developer exodus to consoles, and Vogel has shown the ability to stand alongside the big developers and come out looking favorably. This classic conclusions should appeal to all RPG fans.

– Digital Download / CD version? – Avernum 6 is generally sold as a downloadable game, but there are CD versions available – they are simply the download installer put on a disk.

– Installation Notes: The game is in a single downloadable file and installs very quickly. The default install is a large demo, which you then unlock by registering.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~105MB.

– CD Required to Play? No.

– Control Considerations? The game shows you all of the keys for all actions.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? Yes!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? Avernum 6 works great on all modern operating systems.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? The Mac version is always developed and released before the PC version.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The full version is simply unlocked from the demo, which makes life simple.

Conclusion: One of the best role-playing games of the last year the game can be learned in minutes, but allows depth of control that defies mastery. It pulls you into extended gaming sessions, yet the journal is clear enough that you can walk away for quite a while and then hop back into it effortlessly. It runs on just about any Mac or PC and is available as a small download, making it easy to try out. What Avernum 6 lacks in visual presentation, it makes up with immersive story-telling and engaging gameplay.

Categories: Gaming, Reviews


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