When I wrote about the official announcement of Avernum 2: Crystal Souls last year I noted that I had missed the initial release of the first three games, and only played parts of them since. In 2012 I played and replayed Avernum: Escape from the Pit, and now I have played Avernum 2: Crystal Souls and completely loved it!
Type of app: Role Playing Game
Platform/where to buy: >Spiderweb.com>; available on multiple digital stores for PC, Mac and Linux
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls Description:
- Epic fantasy adventure with over 40 hours of gameplay. Explore an enormous underworld, with multiple nations, alien cultures, and over 100 towns and dungeons.
- Three separate game-winning quests. There are many ways to fight the invaders. Do just one of them or all three!
- Unique races and settings make Avernum different from any adventure out there.
- Dozens of side quests and hundreds of magical artifacts.
- Rich game system with over 60 spells and battle disciplines and a multitude of beneficial character traits to choose from.
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls Major features:
The opening sequence of Avernum 2: Crystal Souls tells you the aftermath of the first Avernum – the setting is five years later, the lord of the realm has been killed, and now Avernum has been brutally attacked. The Avernites are fighting back, and you join the cause hoping to help out. Instead you end up assigned to a remote post completing trivial tasks. Before long things change and you are embroiled in the conflict!
I have said before Spiderweb Games are best viewed as ‘classic RPG elements, reimagined for new audiences’. They are isometric, turn-based third-person games that look more like games of the Baldur’s Gate era, but offer huge and sprawling stories with interesting characters and choices that allow you to shape the experience.
Combat is challenging and strategic and requires thought and planning – both in terms of your party members and specific battle preparations. Right up through the end of the game you are part of an unfolding plot and can have a major impact in how the struggles of the world of Avernum turn out.
It is worth noting that this game is Avernum 2, and I have already reviewed Avernum VI for the iPad and the ‘Great Trials Trilogy’ (Avernum 4 – 6) for the PC. How can this be? Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is the updated rewrite of Avernum 2 from more than a dozen years ago, which in turn was a complete rewrite of the 1996 classic Exile II: Crystal Souls.
Some reviews of Dragon Age Inquisition were critical of the graphics for not being ‘next gen enough’ … so it is hard to frame the graphics of a game like this in THAT context. So I won’t even try – with each new game Jeff Vogel makes significant advancements in graphical detail and overall design, but for many fans all they see are ‘fugly old-school isometric games’.
Looking at my review of the Great Trials Trilogy (Avernum 4 – 6) you can see the amazing improvements made between 2005 – 2009, and comparing to the screens in this review you will similarly see great improvements. I continue to be amazed at how Jeff continues to deliver games that feature an immediately familiar presentation and style, yet each game is much more detailed with a broader color palette and engaging sense of design for the various areas.
Another point I have made in the past: These are games that do not push the state of the art, but instead continuously refine the state of indie isometric games.
The environmental sounds and music are sparse, and are similar to what was present in the original game. The important thing for me was that it was well done and appropriate – and that was certainly the case.
One thing I have enjoyed with Spiderweb Games is that you are handed a solid starting party as the default. Sure you can customize everything, but if you start with the defaults, you will have great luck throughout the game.
Contrast this with games that force you to set up the path for your entire game before you’ve seen the opening vignette: I use the recent Realms of Arkania remake as an example of a game that make you totally invest yourself before you have a clue what you’re doing. In that game you are forming a party and stepping through pages of character options before you can even get started.
The habit I have developed is to leave the default choices in place, but change the names and appearances to my ‘standard party of four’, and jump right into the game. Avernum 2 opens with what amounts to a tutorial, but also an introduction and immersion into the world of Avernum.
The goal of the opening is to get you going and invested quickly, so once you choose your character you are launched into a slideshow of screens describing the backstory and current situation and then dropped into an opening scene where things quickly degenerate and you are needed to step up and jump into action. It is closer to a traditional RPG opening than the Avadon games, but it is also short enough that I have always appreciated it for the simplicity of its effectiveness.
The Story and Characters
As I have said, you are not buying this game to tax your new high-end computer, but rather to enjoy the excellent writing and an intricate story with fully formed characters. And of course the cool combat, but I’ll talk about that later!
Avernum is in a terrible state as the game begins – it has been five years since the end of the first game, the Lord of the Realm was killed but now the Empire has reorganized and launched invasions and begun to wreak devastation on Avernum. Even worse, magical barriers have mysteriously and you need to find out what is going on, and also how to stop the Empire!
The story-telling is complex and non-linear, and you almost always have extensive freedom of choice in terms of actions, movement and dialog. I also love that from the very start of the game you will meet characters who are interesting, conflicted, deeply flawed, and not drawn at all from the typical Bioware cast of characters that have felt overplayed in recent years. As a result I always loved meeting new characters – you didn’t know if they would be crass, earnest, pompous, ordinary, or just plain crazy!
Combat System & Battles
The Avernum games use a turn-based combat system that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Spiderweb game in the past, and easily accessible to fans of turn-based role-playing games in general. There is a combat mode and adventure mode you can toggle with a keypress, and choosing adventure mode allows real-time movement and unrestricted action. Once an enemy is in range and has spotted you, the game automatically drops into combat mode.
In combat mode each character (ally and enemy alike) has a certain number of action points and initiative. Initiative (speed) determines who goes first, second and so on. Once it is your turn in combat, you can spent your action points between movement, attack, spells, skills, potions, equipment changes, and so on. When you no longer have any actions remaining, turns pass to the next character and so on. Attacking will automatically end your turn (unless you have an effect allowing more than one attack per round), so if you want to move or do anything else you need to do it prior to an attack. When all characters have exhausted their turn, a new round begins, and this continues until one side is defeated.
Your encounters will have you facing off against so-called ‘trash’ mobs as well as more dangerous enemies, against giant rats to mages and warriors and deadly giant creatures, and will range from quick & easy to nearly impossible – and after you get out of the tutorial every single one feels like it matters and adds something to the experience. And yes, as I have described in the past with Spiderweb Games, they have taken a stance of balancing the need to engage in combat as well as quests in order to gain experience to get new levels and skills, with a respect for your time by not drowning you in mobs of low-level enemies that are more monotonous than challenging.
After a few hours you will start regularly encountering higher level enemies that will present a serious challenge to your party. You might find yourself falling in battle on occasion and having to reload a save. Generally speaking if you choose the lowest difficulty all but the critical battles will be easy, whereas Normal difficulty will present a solid challenge throughout.
There are a couple of brutal battles in the game – the sort that reminds me of facing Jon Irenicus at the end of Badur’s Gate II. You will need to really prepare and think your way through … and probably still die in your first attempt! But the battle isn’t impossible, and as a result the end game is satisfying … unlike the end of Risen!
Because the Avernum games are true leader-less party games, you are free to focus each party member on certain skills and attributes in order to have the largest immediate impact rather than end up with a bunch of generalists. This party focus is more in keeping with some of the more popular RPG classics, whereas the Geneforge series had a single-player focus and Avadon has a leader in charge of the party. This changes the narrative, but also lets you focus on taking each of them in certain directions in order to form a well-balanced party.
As you gain levels you are granted points to put to attributes such as strength, intelligence, dexterity and endurance. These impact the damage you do with melee or ranged weapons, your defenses and resistances, and your magical abilities. These points have an immediate impact on gameplay, where a single point to strength can make the difference between taking out an enemy in one round versus two.
You also get to allocate points to your skill tree along several branches with dependencies for many of the skills. If you are a mage you might take a firebolt spell, and then advance it for several levels to make it more effective. You could also choose skills or traits which make all of your magic more effective, but not as much as just putting points to a single skill.
You have access to over 60 different spells and battle disciplines in Avernum 2, which really allows you to enter each new game with a distinctly different set of characters in terms of how they handle traps, hidden items, locked doors and people who don’t want to talk.
Long-time fans of the RPG genre have certainly seen branching elements in games pruned significantly through the years. It has been explicitly stated by game company executives that it is simply too expensive to produce the assets required for a number of branches that will never be used. As a result you see what I call ‘phantom branching’ in many AAA RPGs – small things that look like significant choices but that all lead back to the same point and use the same core set of assets.
I had commented on the first Avadon game that I felt constrained, and in the sequel felt much less constrained … but as a comparison I referred to the Avernum and Geneforge games. Obviously there are times when you essentially ‘run out’ of quests because the game is pushing you to the next chapter, but in general the game feels open to allow you to make the choices you want for your party throughout.
I have to say that it is a breath of fresh air that you truly make changes and choices in Avernum 2. There are three different and distinct endings, and you can explore any of all of them. It is a wonderful experience to see the world change as you explore and make decisions, and as you make more and more choices in one direction or the other they add up, your reputation is altered and the world before you subtly shifts. It is wonderful to have a game so focused on your experience as a gamer.
Ease of use/Overall performance:
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls controls like a traditional isometric RPG, and has some of the lowest possible system requirements available for a computer running the latest versions of Windows or Mac OS X. It works well and looks great on everything from a Netbook to a gaming PC and everything in-between.
The reason these are important is that in a year when The Witcher III is arriving to system requirements that more closely resemble a water-cooled supercomputer than a system normal people might buy, Avernum 2 is affordable, easily learned and playable on a computer you already own.
During more than 40 hours playing through for this review I never had a single crash or freeze or unexpected ‘event’. This simply doesn’t happen in newer games – we normally see two or three patches of critical issues before a game is stable.
Would use again/recommend?: Definitely! Look – this game is NOT an unknown: it is a bottom-up rewrite of a bottom-up rewrite … and while much has changed through the years, much remains the same. But it reminds me how much I love the world of Avernum and how much I appreciate these updated experiences – and I am not along. As Jeff Vogel remarked on his blog:
I still need to keep doing the rewrites. They make good money. People like them. The old games don’t run well (or at all) anymore. I get tablet versions out of the deal. So I’m going to keep doing it. When people complain about rewrites, it just means they’ve failed to fully acknowledge how awesome I am.
Yes that is more than a bit snarky, but the reality is that games like Avernum 2 are worth playing, and would join many old DOS and early Windows games on the ‘pile of unplayability’ if Jeff Vogel didn’t update them on occasion. So I am glad he did.
Oh – and while you can buy the game from numerous sources, if you head to the official site you can grab the large demo which will give you the full taste of the game.
Suggested changes/wish list for updates: Nothing
Source: Publisher provided review code
Price: Direct from Spiderweb.com for $20 – but definitely check out the huge free demo!
Here is the Avernum 2: Crystal Souls trailer: