Review of Avernum 1

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Review of Avernum 1

Postby BlueSalamander » Mon Aug 25, 2008 11:08 am

Spiderweb Software's Avernum lets you control a party of four human adventurers. Having commited a petty offense, the party is banished from the all-powerful Empire and sent to rot in the cave system called Avernum. The game begins as you make contact with a colony of humans living underground. (Click on a picture to enlarge it)

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Character creation

The character creation does not involve any randomness. You are given 65 or so skill points to allocate between the various skills. Some skills are fundamental abilities like Strength and Intelligence and some are more particular, like Tool use or Cave lore. As with any skill system some skills are really useful and some others are of questionable usefulness. Hardness reduces any damage inflicted to you, but with Defense you can avoid being hit altogether. With tool use, you can pick locks, but you might as well increase you Magic skill and cast the Unlock Door spell. Cave lore lets you avoid wilderness encounters, but I would rather not avoid them, to get the experience points. There’s a first aid skill that is redundant with the priest spell of healing.

Which brings me to the next point: there are no restrictions on what skills a character can acquire. The result: all your characters will become jack-of-all-trades, each making use of the best skills. You can have a magician that’s as strong and resistant as a boxer, and a priest who can also pick locks and cast wizard spells. In my opinion that’s not a good thing. The game doesn’t feel as if each character puts his very own contribution, rather as if all the characters are nearly identical.

As a tactical consideration, why would any of the characters invest a great deal of skill points into melee weapons, when they could invest in magic and get spells that can damage or kill several enemies at the same time and from a distance? If you do invest in the magic (or priest) skill at the beginning, you will automatically receive the spells corresponding to your skill level. As a result, you could start the game with some of the best spells, which are actually rather hard to find in-game. I suggest starting with Mage 8 to get the Lighting Spray spell and Priest 1 to get the Healing spell. The only skills that seem really worthy of receiving points are endurance, mage spells, priest spells and intelligence. You can always increase the combat skills after you've increased magic and priest to around 18.

By contrast, in D&D, wizards are a class – they come with both advantages and disadvantages; you can’t “cherry pick” their best abilities; and the better spells come only as you gain levels. They can’t cast healing spells, making a cleric necessary, and they can’t fight properly, making a fighter necessary.

Another thing Avernum allows is Talents – you can select two special talents that help or hinder your character while reducing or increasing the experience points you get from fighting. The positive talents seemed to reduce experience so much that the game becomes a grind. The negative talents really helped remove the grinding aspect, making fights more rewarding.

How the environment is represented

The game’s resolution is 800x600. In this resolution the characters look very small – I believe that the graphics would actually have been better in a lower resolution as you would then be able to examine details more easily.
Everything is represented with 2D isometric tiles, but there are two modes, the town/dungeon mode and the world map mode. In both modes characters move one tile at a time, without animation. However, that’s actually a good thing, you get used to it and it makes the game very quick and responsive.
Like ADOM, the game stays in turn-based mode both in the world map and the town mode and regardless of whether you’re involved in a fight. You move by a square, then other citizens all move by a square. Then it’s your turn again.

In the world map mode, the party is represented as four tiny figures – a great way of representing the immensity of the place. The same technique was used in Albion – the party was represented by tiny figures while exploring the world map. In Avernum, groups of monsters roaming the wilderness are also represented with tiny figures which you can spot from far away. When your group meets their group, the game switches to dungeon mode and combat ensues.

Interface issues

You use the mouse to move around – left button to move fast, right to go step by step. To detect a secret door, you must try to move into a wall (if you find a building or place that you can’t access easily, look for a secret door on the area’s border). Keyboard shortcuts allow you to initiate a dialogue or spell casting. The interface is pretty good in my opinion, excepted the following elements:

- “look” command: in order to check the content of a box, drawer, cupboard, etc, you must first push L then click on the item in question; then you click again to close the drawer; then repeat if there were other containers to check. That might sound simple, but it’s clunky. A single click on whatever you want to examine ought to do the trick.

- “start combat” command: you must push “f” to start combat when exploring a dungeon and “e” to stop combat. It would be much better to automatically turn on combat mode when a hostile creature is getting close to you, and automatically revert to “exploration mode” when there are no more enemies present.

- spell casting: keyboard shortcuts for the most frequently used spells would have been nice.

Turn-based + Party = interesting combat

In my opinion, combat is the most interesting part of this game. That is good because combat is what the party will do most of the time. You will fight bandits, goblins, magical spiders, zombies, skeletons, cat creatures, lizard creatures, evil wizards and many other creature types. On a character’s round you can move by up to four squares, you can cast one spell, or attack one or two times.
Moving away from an adjacent enemy triggers an attack from that enemy, a bit like a D&D attack of opportunity.

Combat does get confusing sometimes:
- When there are many opponents involved – wizards on both sides of a battle could summon skeletons and there would be no easy way of knowing which creatures are allied to you and which are hostile.
- When the computer moves several opponents (too) quickly – in this case it’s hard to know just who did what.

There are quite a lot of combat spells and most of them have nice animated effects. Once you have defeated an enemy group, you can pick up any part of their gear, including their swords and armour.

NPCs and quests

I thought NPCs were quite unremakable – they say their piece, you can ask one or two questions, if you missed something you can restart the dialogue and the NPC will again say the same thing.

A very few NPCs will give you quests and missions, but you really do not get much guidance in the game. You are free to go anywhere you like, at least until a group of monsters stronger than you blocks the party’s advance. Overall I’d say the game probably gives too much freedom and not enough guidance as to what should be done next, or in which order places should be visited. The game world is huge. Some places are accessible only by rowing a boat. Also, just like a Super Mario game, many (too many?) places are accessible only by spotting a secret passage.

One thing I don’t really like about the NPCs is that the ones that offer services you want (like identification, selling spells or buying equipment) are scattered around the various cities. You can’t find them all in one place so you always have to move back and forth between the cities. Also, in some areas (cave of friendly spiders and most cities) there are a lot of non-essential NPCs, making it rather tedious to find those who are essential to the game’s progression.

The starting missions include an attack on a fort occupied by bandits (where you must defeat their leader, a wizard) and attacks on Nephilim (cat-like creatures) fortresses. These missions are hack-and-slash but the design is smart. For example, the main entrance of one of the nephilim fortresses is guarded by soldiers who will pour boiling oil on the party when it passes the gate. Once the party has cleared the fortress’ first floor it will get a chance to destroy the mechanism, making the entrance safe.

Avernum versus Geneforge and Pool of Radiance

The last few weeks, I’ve been trying to play several old games, including SSI’s Pool of Radiance and Spiderweb’s Avernum. Avernum is superior to Pool of Radiance, in my opinion. Avernum has a much better interface than Pool and it does not force you to draw all the maps on paper. However, both games offer interesting turn-based combats and good character development. In both games, the quality of graphics does not hurt enjoyment of the game.

I also tried Spiderweb’s Geneforge long ago and now I can compare it to Avernum. The problem of Geneforge is that you control only one main character, plus whatever creatures that you create using your special powers. Playing four characters created at the beginning is much more interesting. Also, Geneforge had more than four character slots, making combat slower and tedious at times since you need to give orders to each of your creatures.


Comparing Avernum 1 to Neverwinter 2, a crazy idea?

Not at all. In my opinion, NWN2’s strong points are the D&D ruleset and the nice graphics. Some might say that NWN2 is also good for the way it represented player characters like the dwarf and the tiefling.
However, Avernum 1 is better than Neverwinter 2 in some ways. Avernum 1 gives you a sense of freedom that you do not get with NWN2. In NWN2, the party is systematically pushed along the predetermined storyline by the designers. You are the Kalatch’ka, the unique, NPCs are so enthralled by your personality that they freely join you and when you don’t need them, they quietly stay at the inn waiting for your next command. You must help Neverwinter, and don’t get it in your head to ever visit Luskan.
In Avernum it’s the opposite. No one cares what you do, you are a nobody until proven otherwise. Of course in the end it leads to a single storyline, because hostile races remain hostile to your human group no matter what you do; but the maps don’t force you to remain in “safe” areas until you’ve completed them.
There are other things that in my opinion are better in Avernum. Combat being turn-based means that you can actually understand and control how a fight turns out, unlike Neverwinter’s real-time-with-pause system, which more often than not means that you will just be watching your characters swing left and right without any input from you.
Unlike NWN2, Avernum doesn’t take 10 minutes to start a game, it’s immediate. And you don’t watch cut-scenes, you’re always in control of the action.
'Say there is a chunk of meat. Pirates will have a banquet and eat it! But heroes will share it with other people. I want all the meat!!' - Luffy in One Piece
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Review of Avernum 1

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Re: Review of Avernum 1

Postby SkeleTony » Tue Oct 06, 2009 3:04 pm

Avernum 1 is the weakest of the series. It is an isometric re-imagining of the author's first game "Exile: Escape from the Pit". Has a better/more interesting game system than Exile did except for a couple of things: 1)The magic system is kind of crappy with too few spells and 2)I prefer having 6 member parties over 4 member parties for the same reason you prefer 4 member parties over solo adventurer games. ;)

Many of the flaws you cite in the above were gradually improved at the series progressed(Avernum 4 was complete crap though). Avernum 3 was very good(Exile 3, which Avernum 3 is a re-make of was better IMO) and Avernum 5 is the best of the series.

I agree with a lot of what you say above but some things you just got wrong. For example, trying to make every character a high-powered mage at the beginning and forgoing melee specialists and priests is a recipe for disaster. You will have your butt handed to you many, many times that way. And it is not cost effective. If you buy "Magic 7"(not sure if it is even possible to buy Magic 8 at the beginning because you only have 65 points) you will have no points for the stats and skills to enable you to survive various encounters. You NEED front line 'tanks' to fend off swarms of creatures who will otherwise kill your mages early and often. Also priests have some very much needed spells besides level one "heal". It is actually better to go "Priest 7" and "Mage 5" at the beginning(for two of your characters and taking only one level of priest for the other two) for various reasons.

Same thing applies for upping "Tool Use" instead of just buying the incredibly expensive magic levels needed to be able to cast "Unlock" at a high enough level to get through the game. Also, at least in later Avernums(but probably Avernum 1 as well) you can cast the unlock spell but that only removes the magical protection. it does not pick the actual lock on a door or chest.

Certain traits(what you called "Talents") are good to have and the experience penalty is rather irrelevant. "Divine Gift"(or whatever that thing is called) and a few others. the only 'negative' traits I would bother with would be the "Fragile"(or "Brittle"...whatever it is called in this game) trait for your mage(since they should not be in combat anyway).

The non-linearity(freedom to do what you want and go where you want) is a very GOOD thing BTW. If there is one thing that irks a true CRPG fan it is being on 'rails' in a CRPG where you have to go along a specific path from point 'A' to point 'B' to point 'C'...etc. The quest journal makes it relatively easy to figure out what you need to be doing anyway.

In Avernum 2, 3, 4 and 5 you can create your PCs from 3 playable races(Slithzerikai, Nephilim and Human) BTW(this alone makes them more attractive games IMO).
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Re: Review of Avernum 1

Postby BlueSalamander » Fri Oct 09, 2009 2:24 pm

I agree with a lot of what you say above but some things you just got wrong. For example, trying to make every character a high-powered mage at the beginning and forgoing melee specialists and priests is a recipe for disaster. You will have your butt handed to you many, many times that way
Whatever works for you; I didn't finish the game but played a good chunk of it, and never had any trouble with the encounters. Each character can cast a multiple-target damage spell, meaning that fights usually end in the first round. In the rare cases when the enemy can do damage, each character also has cure spells to remove that damage. They also all have "summon illusions" spells if necessary.
'Say there is a chunk of meat. Pirates will have a banquet and eat it! But heroes will share it with other people. I want all the meat!!' - Luffy in One Piece
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Re: Review of Avernum 1

Postby BlueSalamander » Sun Jan 31, 2010 5:39 pm

Here are some extra screenshots I took while finishing this game (click on a screenshot to enlarge).

Liked:
- The battles, particularly the boss battles against the Lizard King, Demons and the Emperor. The difficulty is just right in these battles. The fight against the Emperor is the hardest but this is mostly because you have to go through a lot of other fights before meeting him and you can't rest.
- Potions are difficult to make and you can't make as many as you'd like.
- The very large game world and large amount of text descriptions.
- The simple, yet effective, magic system.
- Moving on the world map and in dungeons is very fast, unlike many 3D games.

Disliked:
- I had to use a walkthrough to get through some parts. For example in the castle of the lizard (Slithzerikai) king, you need a key to progress from the ground floor to the first floor. There are no in-game hints whatsoever about the key. Logically the key should have been somewhere on the ground floor itself (otherwise how would castle servants go about their business). But no, you had to go through another lizard fortress to find the key.
- Too many fetch quests. Find five brooches, find seven mushroom ingredients, find three sword shards, find x crystal pieces, find tomes of magic to learn each spell in three different powers, etc. Often times there are no hints as to where you're supposed to find all these things.
- By the end game there ought to be a magical way to get from a city to another. It's tedious having to walk from one end of the game world to the other.
- Party gold is restricted to around 9,000, no mention of this anywhere.
- AI is a bit too simple. Fighters always move to the closest character, mages cast slow on slowed characters, etc.
- Picking up items and opening crates and treasure chests is very, very tedious. Most of the time there's nothing of value but you just have to look through them otherwise you might miss some important items.

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'Say there is a chunk of meat. Pirates will have a banquet and eat it! But heroes will share it with other people. I want all the meat!!' - Luffy in One Piece
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