January 15, 2015 7:51 AM | Lena LeRay
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is the newest release from Spiderweb Software, a single-developer game studio that's been producing tactical RPGs for the PC since the mid-nineties. It takes place sometime after the end of Avernum: Escape from the Pit, though its story is self contained. The events of the previous game sparked an all-out war between the people of the underground caverns called Avernum and the tyrannical empire that rules the surface. Now, magical barriers have mysteriously appeared, cutting the caverns of Avernum off from each other, and the wizards have been unable to figure out how to remove them. The player is a soldier in the armies of Avernum, doing what they can to help amidst these difficulties.
Here's a gameplay rundown. Players start with a party of four characters whose classes can be chosen from nine prefabs or be completely customized. Party members don't have to be human this time, though; the lizard- and cat-like races of Avernum are playable and offer different racial bonuses than do humans. As players battle, characters will gain experience points and level up, at which time the player can increase stats, level up skills, and choose perks for the characters. There are skill trees, but all characters have access to the same skills. The starting classes are just predefined starting skill/stat combinations.
Battle is turn-based and grid based. When in dungeons, caves, towns, and the like, it takes place on the regular map. Only when in the overworld does combat take place in a separate environment. Friendly units and foes alike take turns based on individual initiative, each with a set number of action points that can be used for movement, item consumption, attacking, and such. When a character runs out of action points, their turn is over for the round.
If that sounds mostly standard... yes, it is. Spiderweb Software has been making PC RPGs since the early/mid 90s and specializes in giving gamers who like tactical RPGs more of that classical kind of gameplay wrapped in interesting settings and stories. The Avernum setting itself is the real sell here, and it's a good one. The empire that rules the world above has been sowing fear and consolidating power by throwing any troublemakers or people suspected of being troublemakers into a barely liveable system of caves for decades. They've essentially fostered a nation of people that hates the empire. Now that Avernum has proven that it can strike at them from below, the empire is responding in force and apparently has the ability to chop Avernum up into more easily conquered chunks. Or is it the empire? Nobody knows.
This game's predecessor did a wonderful thing, narratively speaking. It started at the point where the party had literally just been tossed into Avernum. The characters knew no more of the setting than did the player, which made every question they asked feel natural, feel right. Even as the player was learning about the setting, so were the characters. Everyone subsists on tasteless mushrooms cultivated by wizards? That's not at all like back home for the characters, and it's (hopefully) not something any of us have to deal with, either.
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls doesn't have that advantage. Instead, however, it introduces the setting to new players with well written exposition scattered here and there as tiny bits inserted into the regular story. Players of the first game get little reminders of how things work in the same way. They also get to trek through familiar places which have not just changed as a result of the passage of time, but also the events of the war. It still doesn't feel forced, a testament to the quality of the writing.
I haven't played the original version of Avernum 2 or the previous game, Exile 2, upon which Avernum 2 was based (yes, this is a remake of a remake), so I can't tell truly long-time fans of Spiderweb Software what sets this version apart from the previous ones. I also can't recommend this game to folks who haven't enjoyed PC tactical RPGs in the past. For those who do enjoy them, however, or who like a robust setting they can get lost in, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is a good choice. For people worried about the tactical gameplay, there are multiple levels of difficulty from casual to very difficult, which means everyone should be able to find a comfortable challenge here.
Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is available for Windows and Mac at a $20 price point on Steam, GOG, and other game distribution portals as well as directly from Spiderweb Software. The Steam version is on sale for 15% off for launch week. An iOS version is in the works and currently planned for an April release.