SummaryPoor in graphics, but very rich in content
The GoodA good game needs to be immersive, it needs to pull you into its world. That holds doubly true for RPGs - games that by definition must provide you with a role to play, a role that is both epic and natural in the context of its world. Avernum does just that. As the first in the Avernum game series (and a remake to Exile which I never played) the game does a wonderful job of introducing a world and its inhabitants, big and small. You play as a group of adventurers banished from the surface world by an all-powerful empire down to a huge cave system, serving as a huge jail. When you arrive you discover that all those that were banished earlier had already established their own society and its up to you to explore it and use it to forge your destiny.
The game features an open world with six cities and a dozen other settled locations whose inhabitants feel like real people. Unlike most RPGs, in Avernum you can speak to people who aren't just quest givers - from farmers, to shopkeepers, and to the highest ranked people in the land. While it's true that not everyone has large dialog trees, it's still amazing how much a few dialog options with a lizard herder will increase the feel of the game. There are almost no restrictions on where you can go. You want to go straight to the toughest parts of the game? No problem. You'll die obviously, but you have the option to choose for yourself where you want to be at any given time. The plot doesn't pull you in a straight line from start to finish, as a matter of fact, the game's main objective isn't given to you as a starting quest. It's just something that you know you have to do, and eventually you'll find people that will help you achieve it. The game has three major quests, only one of which is essential to finishing the game. In each case the quests flow naturally from your exploration of the underworld, and don't feel like they're being shoved down your throat by the Powers That Be. Aside the major quests you will dozens of minor quests, given by various people in every location. These quests too feel like part of your exploration and not inhibit your wanderlust. The ending you get depends on how many of the three major quests you've completed, giving you additional satisfaction for a job well done.
Character creation is as free as the game world - every character can develop every skill as they see fit. Some skills are useful for only one party member, some have effects that are shared by the entire party and some skills are hidden and can only be learned from special trainers. You can learn up to 18 different arcane or divine spells, each of which has three levels of mastery. The first two levels can be learned from regular teachers, but the third level can only be learned in special locations that are often hidden and sometimes aren't part of any quest. The upside is that the third level offers a much bigger improvement to any spells than the second level, usually giving additional bonuses beside the improved effectiveness.
Combat is turn based and very well implemented. Fighting in turns on a grid means its very easy to execute your tactics - you go where you want to go and hit what you want to hit. It may sound trivial, but bigger names like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale had real problems with your characters falling over each other and not being able to get where you want them. Avernum's simplistic graphical design and simple combat commands (move, wait, defend, hit, fire or cast spell, with the option of entering autocombat) serve it quite well.
Do you remember me mentioning hidden places? This game has lots and lots of them. In almost any location, including outdoors, you will have false walls that can be discovered only when you step through them. Luckily a "Far Sight" spell may tell you whether there is a hidden room or not. These locations are usually filled with goodies so that you get real satisfaction when you discover them.
The BadI could say that the graphics are outdated, but that would be an understatement. It really does take a commitment to good old RPGs to even start playing the game. Not that the graphics break the the game - they don't, but it may be hard to switch from today's Action-Adventures with their blingbling mapping to the retro look of this RPG.
What does damage the gameplay is the absence of a real quest log. The best you can do is record whatever is said in your journal, but the journal has its own problems: For one thing, you can't write your own note - just record whatever was said. The second problem is that the journal isn't arranged in any way, so that if you delete a finished quest from a journal and the record something new you get the new, late game note sandwiched between a bunch of old, early game notes. And you will have to flip through them, because the journal works only by showing you each note on a separate page, one after the other. But the worst part of the journal is that it has limited space. This means that if you don't often delete obsolete notes (and thus cause the aforementioned problem) you will reach a stage where you won't be able to add new notes. And the game won't even tell you that - the new things just won't be recorded.
Other bad choices include not naming important NPCs when you examine them in town mode, nor making special spiretes to distinguish them from other NPC. This means that examining a person will tell you that she's a guard (a generic description for any random guard in the game), but only when you speak to her you discover that she's actually High Marshall of His Majesty the King, or some other important title. This means that important NPC can be overlooked if you don't try to strike a conversation with every single person in the game (unimportant NPCs have nothing to say).
The enemy AI is bad. They will still kill you more often that you'd like, but they could have been so much more effective if they'd only have some sort of strategy instead of running in your general direction and attacking with any random spell or attack they have at the moment.
One more problem is the limit on how much money you can carry. As always the problem is aggravated by the fact that some places require much less money than others and that there is no alternative way to store your money. In effect, this means you lose any surplus money you find. The limit is in the thousands, but you will need all that money to learn the best spells and skills from late game trainers.
My final gripe relates to the hidden/inaccessible things in the game. Sure, it fun to find stuff, but your chances of doing so are rather slim for the entire early game. If you don't start with Far Sight (by having a character with sufficient mage skill) your only chance to find any hidden passage is to bump mindlessly against any wall (in some rare cases the game does give you a hint that there might be a hidden door somewhere in your vicinity) because only some teachers may teach you this spell. And good luck with the outdoors - because you need a third level Far Sight to spot hidden caves outdoor, something that isn't easy to get. The same problem occurs when you encounter magical barriers - you will encounter them early, but the spell to break them can be learned only in the middle-to-late game. And since the journal isn't very helpful, you'll have to keep your own notes about where the inaccessible place are.
The Bottom LineDespite all the criticism this game still is a very good indie RPG. More than that - this is a model of how an indie RPG should be made: Less attention on graphics and full attention on the immersive world, large variety of character attributes, lots of dungeons, quests, and interesting NPCs. A great way to start the Avernum series.