November 16, 2012 3:00 AM | Staff
[Guest reviewer Colin Brown profiles each game in The Harvest Bundle currently running on IndieGames' co-created site Indie Royale.]
How many of you enjoyed the Geneforge games from the July Jubilee bundle? If your taste of Jeff Vogel's style previously piqued your old school sensibilities, I won't judge you if you're on the lookout for more from Spiderweb Software. Enter the back half of the Avernum series, the continued story of the world that started it all. With a style that hews closer to typical fantasy than Geneforge, yet set in an even more alien locale, Avernum shows that Spiderweb has always been consistently excellent when it comes to building worlds.
The world of Avernum is a richly complex and varied landscape that is unfortunately best described as a ugly, dank, fungus infested and humongous cave system. You see, the Empire that covers the surface world once used its portals to Avernum as a dumping ground for prisoners and rebels, but humanity carved out an ugly little existence in the caves as a show of defiance. Since the first three games, Avernum as a whole has become a much more unified presence, establishing their firm independence from the Empire while simultaneously maintaining a tentative peace. Of course, my rough descriptions really don't do justice to the world crafting going on here, as there's plenty of fascinating back story and lore elements that ebb and flow throughout the series. It's a very Narnian approach to building a world, letting players drop in to fix whatever crisis has struck while seeing how the world has grown and changed.
So let's focus on where you'll be entering the series. Like that other Spiderweb series, Avernum follows the world through a continuous chronology while remaining largely standalone; though you'll certainly get a better understanding of the historical references, feel free to start fresh anywhere. Avernum 4 shows the effects of a strange magical attack on the major cities of Avernum, plaguing the Avernites with evil haunting shades. Avernum 6 deals with a food crisis, showing a desperate society in rapid decline. Avernum 5 is my personal favourite; for the first time, you play as Empire soldiers tracking down an assassin instead of Avernite mercenaries solving some crisis, and the world becomes delightfully complex on the other side of the coin. For example, a very early quest requires you to deal with bandits on the road. Normally an easy and typical trope, this is complicated by the stringent restrictions against attacking native Avernites. While it doesn't always have as much of an effect on gameplay as one would like, it's little touches like these that show off the writing well.
I would say the Avernum games have terrific writing, but in all honesty I don't think they have particularly amazing plots. Instead, it's the focus on the moment to moment writing behind encounters, allies and enemies that really deserves praise. I've always maintained that Avernum feels less like a living, breathing world and more like a rock solid tabletop RPG campaign. Dialogue is snappy, verbose and often funny, encounters are designed with multiple approaches in mind and there's plenty of side quests and optional dungeoneering as the game gently railroads you through a fairly open and huge world.
It's also long. I'm a firm believer that length shouldn't necessarily be a selling point, but if we're talking pure dollars to hours then the second Avernum trilogy is an outright steal. Completing Avernum 4 took me about 21 hours to finish the demo area alone, about a fifth of the overall game. It does inevitably get repetitive, but the terrific world building and fun, tactical turn based combat has a lot of charm. Plus, the back half of the Avernum series is when the games are at their technological zenith, with 4 and 5 using a tweaked Geneforge engine and 6 debuting an early look at the style used in recent releases like Avadon and the Avernum 1 remake. They may not be pretty, and they may stick close to old school mechanics, but any CRPG fan who's somehow avoided Avernum would do well to dive in with this trio.
[Mutant Mudds, Spirits, BasketBelle, Avernum: The Great Trials Trilogy, and Pineapple Smash Crew are available now in the Harvest Bundle at Indie Royale.]