The Avernum series from Spiderweb Software is one of the classics of indie gaming and of the RPGS in general over the last couple of decades. Earlier this year Spiderweb released the revamped version of the first game in the series for Mac, PC and iPad. Now they have ported the final three games, known as the Great Trials Trilogy, to Steam. I had played them when they were originally released so I was thrilled to get an excuse to go back and revisit these classics. Let’s see how they play several years later!
Avernum 4 takes place long after the previous game and will have you protecting Avernum from new monsters and assassins rising from the darkness that threatens to destroy your home. In Avernum 5, take a new role as protectors of the Empire, seeking to thwart assassins who would lay it low. Finally, in Avernum 6, a food blight and invasion of barbarian lizard people drive the underworld of Avernum to the brink of extinction. In each game you shape the world and the ending as you travel through the enormous, deadly world of Avernum.
Avernum is one of the great tales of indie gaming, an epic series of fantasy role-playing adventurers set in an enormous, subterranean nation. Avernum is a land underground, a subterranean nation full of rogues, misfits, and brigands, struggling for survival and wealth in the monster-infested darkness. Avernum – The Great Trials Trilogy is three games that tell the tale of your land’s struggles in the face of powerful forces that seek to destroy it.
Even before taking a quick look at each of the games in this trilogy, it is worth noting some history. Even though it starts with number ‘4’, Avernum IV was the first truly new content in the series in quite a while. That is because Avernum 1 – 3 were updated remakes of the classic Exile 1-3 games from the mid-late 90s.
Avernum 4 is the fourth entry in a series known for huge subterranean worlds, epic stories, tons of quests and combat played out in turns. 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.
One of the best role-playing games of the 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 PC capable of running Steam, and will play full screen or in a window. What Avernum 4 lacks in visual presentation, it makes up with immersive story-telling and engaging gameplay.
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, and therefore I would recommend it for kids over 10. The subject matter is somewhat dark and scary, but nothing beyond what a middle school kid can handle.
This series has always been focused on party building and turn-based combat, and these games are great for younger players to learn how role playing games work without being overwhelmed by their mechanics. The controls and options are perfectly laid out for fast and flexible combat, while the classes and enemies are balanced to ensure that all character builds are useful. Help is plentiful and there are combinations of mouse and keyboard options for just about everything.
I originally thought my kids would hate Avernum 4 when they checked it out in 2006. 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 GameCube, Game Boy Advance 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 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.
Playing Avernum IV again I was struck by a couple of things – how the game has aged and how it is timeless. Even in 2006 the game wasn’t great looking, but the last six years have left it further behind. Yet at the same time it simply doesn’t matter – in 2006 I remarked taht Avernum IV offerred better story and exploration than Oblivion, something I still maintain. Story, exploration, role-playing and so on remain timeless, and all of these make Avernum IV a timeless classic still worth playing.
Return to the world of Avernum … this time coming from the surface! Whereas in previous games you have played as a prisoner of the Empire cast into the underworld of Avernum, this time you are an Imperial guard who has been betrayed following an attempted assassination of the Empress by a rebel named Dorikas, who flees into the underworld of Avernum.
Along the way you meet wonderfully realized characters (most of whom instantly distrust or hate you because you are from the surface) and situations, get involved in local disputes, take care of trivial tasks for small rewards, and explore the world looking for a fight. The open feel and seemingly endless possibilities in a game that is in many ways fairly linear really 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.
It is always easy to criticize Spiderweb games based on fairly simple graphics – this remains true, but everything here is done in higher resolution and looks better than any previous entry in the series. Replaying now I was stunned at the difference from Avernum IV to Avernum V. While IV introduced many of the combat and role-playing standards that remain in place today, the interface made a huge leap with Avernum V.
This is definitely one of the best role-playing games of the year, and is friendly to those new to the series as well as veterans. Hints that pop up as you play the early sections of the game get you immediately immersed, but there is depth of control and party management that defies mastery. You will find yourself pulled into extended ‘one more battle’ 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 PC with WIndows XP or later, and plays full screen or in a window. As I have said before – what Avernum 5 lacks in visual presentation, it makes up with immersive story-telling and engaging gameplay.
The ESRB doesn’t rate independent games such as Avernum 5, but I found the story and characters 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. Once again this is a game for very strong readers, and the subject matter is somewhat dark and scary, but nothing beyond what a middle school kid can handle.
As I mentioned in my Avernum 4 review, I found the game was easy for my kids to learn but still gave me plenty of challenge as I played through. It is a great game for kids to pick up in that regard, even though the graphics are somewhat rudimentary compared to what most kids are used to seeing. As I mentioned, my kids have enjoyed the Spiderweb games for years now and have once again enjoyed toying around with my copy of the Steam version of the game. Your children’s response to the game depends on their gut-level reaction to graphics and desire to read, but there is no reason that they can’t try it out for themselves!
The last three games of the Avernum series 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 last 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!
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’. That continues with Avernum VI – it requires loads of reading, and has some dark themes, but nothing beyond what a middle schooler can handle.
Avernum VI 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.
As I replayed these games I was struck by just how much progress has been made in terms of visual presentation and user interface. Avernum VI looks very modern and will be immediately accessible to anyone who has played Avadon or the recent re-release of Avernum: Escape from the Pit, and even the earlier games are quick to learn.
But the big story here is the quality of writing. The stories and characters are memorable and intriguing. I hadn’t replayed these since I first looked at them, and was thrilled to revisit these worlds. The morality systems are rather ambiguous, which Jeff Vogel has said is intentional as it reflects his own world view. But that just makes your process of exploring the world and learning the characters and places even more intriguing.
I have called the Avernum games ‘gems of the indie world’, which I restate here. These games are all worth playing, and with the inexpensive bundle offering they are an easy recommendation.
Here is a gameplay video from Avernum VI:
Review: Avernum Great Trials Trilogy
Where to Buy: Steam
What I Like: Excellent stories; great characters and writing; well implemented turn-based combat; easy to learn and get started.
What Needs Improvement: Graphics are decidedly ‘old school’; no Mac version on Steam (but there is a Mac version)
Source: Publisher provided review code