Saturday, 10 April 2010

PC Game Review - Avernum VI (RPG in the old-school CRPG style)

Avernum VI is the last in an epic series of RPGs, and in itself is an amazingly deep and epic gameplay experience.  It’s true old-school RPG; top-down view, turn-based, can be controlled entirely by keyboard commands if you want (or conversely, entirely by mouse control – most people will, I suspect, opt for a mixture of keyboard and mouse control).   Don’t be fooled though, the graphics are very good and there are some cool effects – just don’t expect real-time 3D.  There’s also no speech, which makes for a lot of reading at times – if that’s going to put you off then it’s a shame for you, as you’d miss out on an amazing game.

Set in an underground civilisation, Avernum VI puts you in charge of a small band of heroes – well, hero wannabes at the start of the game, and (hopefully) progressing towards full hero status over time.  To begin with you’re stuck guarding food in a dingy cellar, but soon events will unfold that will lead you to more exciting things.  A blight on the food crops has brought famine to the land and people are using portals to escape to the surface – but not everyone can get there.  (You will use these portals later in the game to move about the map more quickly.)   In addition there’s a growing menace on the borders, a vicious breed of killers seemingly bent on destroying the human colony; uneasy alliances with other races exist, which threaten to break at any moment.

The world Avernum VI is set in is full of rich detail and colourful characters, though the extent to which you explore these features is entirely up to you.  Hidden amongst the vast realm are many secrets (and, perhaps even more important to you as the player, objects of great power) – but this realm doesn’t give up its secrets easily, finding them takes great effort and sometimes patience.  Levelling up is an important part of any RPG, and it’s handled brilliantly here – there are a good number of skills to choose from, but not so many that the stats page becomes a sea of meaningless numbers.  There are a great many strategies you can employ in levelling up your characters, and a particularly nice touch is that some stats are cumulative for your whole party, such as Arcane Knowledge and Natural Lore – spare skill points can be used on these and no one character has to become expert at it for your party to benefit from it.  In contrast, certain skills such as Tool Use actually tell you that only one party member needs to have it, saving you from wasting points giving this to two or more characters.

The large domain is pretty much free for you to explore from the off; there’s a main quest to follow and to some extent that determines where you are able to travel to at that time, but basically you can rove around at will.  Depending on what objects you possess and what level you are in various skills, other areas may be open or sealed off to you at any particular time.  The freedom to roam where you will sometimes results in you meeting a foe far too powerful to be overcome at that point.  I guess for some players this might be a little too frustrating, but I find that it gives you a great feeling of accomplishment to get your butt severely kicked, go and level up your characters, perhaps try a different strategy, and eventually prevail against that enemy.

All of which brings me nicely to battles.  When you encounter an unfriendly character / animal, that game automatically goes onto battle mode; the game area is divided into a grid, and both your characters and opponents have “action points” than can be used for movement, attacking, casting spells, using items and all that stuff.  Unless you’re battling someone / something much less powerful than you (or so much more powerful that you just get pulverised immediately), strategy genuinely plays a large part in the outcome.  Unless all of your party get squished in a battle, your remaining party member(s) can revive them with the correct spell / scroll, or by journeying to the nearest friendly city gates.  After battles watch out for negative effects, especially poisons – the effects don’t automatically clear when you leave battle mode, and on more than one occasion I merrily walked away from battle only to get killed by the effects of poison... now I’m much more careful of those symbols next to my character avatars!

While Avernum VI doesn’t have quite such obvious Good / Bad actions and status as, for instance, Neverwinter Nights, you still have to choose which missions to take, and whether to do the right thing in different circumstances.  You also might have the opportunity to gain some tasty artefacts / items / gold through theft... but do this too much and you’ll turn the town against you.  In battle too you can have friendly units turn against you if you attack them.  There’s a huge amount of choice in what you can do and how you can do it.

Overall, Avernum VI is a spectacularly good RPG.  I’m guessing that some might be put off by the old-school approach it takes or perhaps the lack of animation and speech, but really they’re missing out on a fantastic game.   If you’ve ever played a turn-based RPG and enjoy it, and don’t run away from a challenge (and anyway there’s an Easy mode for the timid), you’re going to love Avernum VI.

My rating:  8/10 (I had been going to give it 9/10, but sometimes the game does take just a little too much slogging through to level up) 

You might also want to check out my interview with Jeff Vogel, creator of the Avernum and GeneForge series, and owner of Spiderweb Software

Avernum VI Ordering Page 

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