Avernum 2: Crystal Souls – What We Think
The resurgence of isometric view RPGs in the last few years has been a welcome development for those nostalgic for the days of Baldur’s Gate and its ilk. Spiderweb Software, however, never stopped making RPGs in this style, and since the Exile series in the late ’90s, the studio has been quietly making deep and sprawling titles within the genre. Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is a remake of Exile 2: Crystal Souls and features the same plot as its namesake.
The tale is one of a vast underground community created by the actions of the imperial culture living above. The majority of the surface world is ruled by a massive empire that made a policy of discarding its prisoners, malcontents and general “undesirables” by exiling them to the underworld. Over time, this has created a sizable subterranean society made up of various groups and factions that have little in common beyond a need for survival. What little equilibrium that existed between the underworld and the surface is shattered when the Emperor is assassinated, provoking a full scale invasion of the underworld.
The Amazing Race
You are thrust into this volatile cauldron of varying factors at the beginning of Avernum 2, put in control of four adventurers (either presets or player-customized) working to defend the underground realm from the invaders. There are three races available to play: humans, the feline Nephilim and the reptile Slitherakai. More race options would have been preferable, but those that are present are well-rounded and occasionally contribute to the plot. For instance, I encountered at least two instances of NPCs reacting negatively to my Nephilim party member.
A wide selection of player classes are available, which greatly expands the number of selectable character options. Once you’re in game, the character growth possibilities strike a fine balance between variety and accessibility; you won’t be lost in a sea of choices, but there are enough to ensure that you can build your characters to have unique skill sets.
The gameplay of Avernum involves turn-based combat and RPG storytelling accompanied by text heavy dialogue. You navigate local areas and the overworld itself in much the same way: by issuing destinations to your party. In the overworld, your party moves as a unit, but in specific areas your characters are represented individually. If you encounter enemies in towns or dungeons, you’ll enter combat mode and fight immediately, while if you meet foes on the overworld you’ll enter an instance where a flat area of terrain makes up the battlefield.
Combat By Numbers
The combat isn’t exactly visually compelling, but it is well designed technically, and certainly challenging. Foes will often outnumber you, and if you don’t choose your fights carefully, they’ll overpower you easily. While some players may welcome this level of challenge, others may find it frustrating as it’s easy to simply head off in the wrong direction and meet foes that outmatch your team. As is the norm in any challenging RPG, saving your game regularly is highly recommended.
The unusual setting of Avernum 2 coupled with the quality of the writing is enough to keep the sizable quantity of dialogue in the game interesting. That being said, this isn’t a title for those who prefer to jump straight into the action; the text-based storytelling often serves as a narrator and provides tabletop role-playing-style introductions to new areas, making for a lot of reading as you travel around.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag: The game’s environment is sufficiently well represented and discernible, but it can be difficult to spot specific items lying around. Character models are more limited, and your party’s appearance is based purely on your choice of portraits at the start of the game. It’s always rewarding in an RPG to see your character wearing that shiny new armor you found, and it’s a shame not to have that here.
There are also some minor issues with its interface. Most aspects are easy enough to access, but once you’ve opened a window (such as character inventory), it must be closed before another can be opened. Normally you’d expect issuing a command to open a new window to close and override the first, but in this case one must first manually close the one you were working in. Another fiddly aspect is that you can’t always click on items in the world to pick them up or access them; you need to open your inventory while standing near them so you can see what is on the “floor.” These are minor problems, but they do slow down the already ponderous gameplay.
A New Old Favorite
In the lively RPG genre, Avernum 2 has a lot of competition. Thankfully the game acquits itself well and provides a world quite different from those of most conventional RPGs. This isn’t a title for those looking for a visually appealing adventure, however, and its lackluster interface coupled with sizable walls of text could make it difficult to justify the price tag for some players. As a retro role-playing experience with some unusual features – created by veterans of the genre, no less – Avernum 2 is certainly worth a close look.
Watch the trailer for Avernum 2: Crystal Souls below: