Spiderweb Software – Avernum 6 review

old school gameplay-over-graphics RPG
Photo of Spiderweb Software – Avernum 6

Avernum is the name of an underground fantasy realm of vast caverns and claustrophobic passageways. Once a prison for the miscreants of the Empire above, it eventually evolved into a prosperous society in its own right. Think Australia, but the opposite in terms of the sunshine, and with lizards instead of sheep. Not forgetting cat people, warriors, mages, priests and all the usual high fantasy role-playing fare.

Avernum 6 is very much an old school RPG. Those who’ve played the previous fifth incarnation of the series will know what we mean, and will be immediately familiar with this game. Mainly because it’s pretty much identical in terms of the basic graphics engine, character classes, skill system, loot system; in fact all the major cornerstones of this adventure remain the same.

For those who haven’t experienced the indie developed world of Avernum before, we’d better start at the beginning. So, the graphics: they’re pants. There’s no kind way of putting it, really. Crude isometric environments, no animation – monsters jerk step by step across the room – poor generic cartoon portraits for the player characters, you get the idea. Despite their basic nature, the visuals do have a certain slightly bizarre charm to them, and additional text descriptions add to the atmosphere.

When you walk into a cavern that’s inhabited by fire salamanders, for instance, a text box pops up describing the stench of sulphur in the air, and the cave walls being warm to the touch. It’s a bit like the dungeon master reading out a description of the rooms you’re entering in a pen-and-paper RPG, and it makes you quite nostalgic for your teen years (if you spent a good deal of them fighting in the Keep on the Borderlands).

The overall storyline, which involves themes of famine and invasion, features some interesting characters and quests, in between some pretty run-of-the-mill kill or delivery tasks. Where Avernum 6 (and indeed 5) really shines is with the challenging combats, character development and loot system, all of which roll together and provide just as much, if not more, impetus to play as does unravelling the grand plot.

The character attributes and skill system is quite simple, yet has a number of intricacies which aren’t immediately obvious, such as hidden skills. For example, if you raise your melee weapon skill and strength attribute to high levels, a blademaster skill is unlocked. Fighters can develop this to boost their hit percentage, damage, and fatigue recovery. Experimenting with different combinations of skills, various utility abilities and hybrid characters (we had a mage/thief) makes character progression an engrossing exercise.

Particularly when you combine the character building with the loot tables, which are fairly sparse (especially early on) and make you work for the good stuff. This means you appreciate earning that mithril rolling pin of demon slaying all the more, and in our opinion, the slightly stingy drip-feed of the “phat lootz” is pitched really well here.

And building your skills and arsenal, then facing down and beating the hallmark of the Avernum series – the tough bouts of turn-based combat – makes for the holy trinity which gives this RPG its pull to play. Monsters have different weaknesses, varied powers, and the situations the game throws at you keep any party on its toes. Pickles such as being locked in a long, winding corridor full of fire-breathing creatures, having to quickly get out the other end against the clock because volcanic vents in the floor are about to start erupting. Or ambushes where archers on ledges above ping your melee heavy party and make you rue the day you decided to go for a berserker pole-arm wielder rather than a ranger.

Having said all that, for every epic battle there are quite a number of filler fights against minor opposition which sometimes clog up the exploration of the map somewhat. A bit like when you had an overzealous dungeon master in those pen and paper games, who insisted on rolling for random encounters in the wilderness every minute. Avernum could have been streamlined a touch in this department.

We also found a couple of interface design issues which had us using our helm of head scratching +3. For instance, tapping the map key to open the world map for a quick glance, we kept hitting the key again expecting it to close the map as well. It doesn’t, you have to press escape or click a close window icon, which just slows the process down slightly. Not a major problem, but a niggle nonetheless.

The biggest issues we had with Avernum 6 were twofold: innovation and price. There’s certainly been some tinkering under the bonnet in the innards of the game engine, but the outward close similarity to the fifth Avernum initially disappointed us. That negativity faded as we got into the storyline and swing of the game more, but the other problem looms a bit larger. Particularly with the current dollar to pound currency rate, this is priced on the expensive side for an indie adventure. In fact, you can now pick up Dragon Age: Origins for a few pound less on a popular online retail site.

Company: Spiderweb Software

As long as you can get past the aesthetics, Avernum 6 is a compelling slice of old school role-playing, which is well designed on the character development and combat fronts. We'd be happier if it was pitched a little more cheaply, but it's still a worthwhile consideration for fans of classic RPGs.