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Avernum 4 Review
Brian 'Dhruin' Turner, 2006-06-12

It's a testament to the quality of Spiderweb's work over many years that the tiny developer of indie cRPGs is a household name among PC roleplay gamers. Well, almost. Avernum 4 is their latest title - the first Avernum to sport a new storyline after the first three remade their classic Exile series. This first "original" Avernum is a curious mix of updated technology, strong narrative and old-fashioned dungeon-crawler gameplay.

If you are unfamiliar with the series, Avernum is an underground world of tunnels and caverns underneath an arrogant and nameless Empire on the surface. Over many years, the Empire has banished criminals and dissidents to this sub-world, to eke out a harsh existence in the sunless caverns. Over time, these exiles have built an entire culture with towns and settlements, fungi farms and mines - even trade with the surface. But it's a dangerous and unforgiving world full of monsters and battles with bandits and other races, such as hostile factions of the cat-like Nephilim, the lizard-like Slith and more.

In practice, Avernum is a recognisable fantasy world from the rats and goblins to the usual archetypes of rogues, sorcerers and clerics - but the unique setting adds a distinct and welcome layer of atmosphere. The game itself is a 2D, isometric, turn-based RPG with a player-created party of four. The player eases into this world as a party of adventurers - a neophyte team with some basic training looking fame, fortune and employment.

If you have played one of Spiderweb's previous games, you'll find yourself in familiar territory, albeit with many small changes. Avernum 4 uses a modified version of the Geneforge engine, which provides improved graphics, a seamless gameworld and better interface, although there are some losses such as no elevated terrain. In the interests of efficiency, some of the graphics from the Geneforge series have been reused, which caused much chagrin from some of the core fans. While these are valid complaints, taken as an individual game, Avernum 4 looks better and is easier to use than its predecessors.

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So, the game proper starts with creating the party. A single pre-made party is offered but the real fun comes with designing your own. There are three races and nine class templates - or you can create a custom character by allocating the 75 points across the various skills. In addition, there are positive traits such as Nimble Fingers or Deadeye and even negative traits like Weak Minded. Multiple traits can be selected, with each positive trait incurring a penalty on XP that slows levelling, while a negative trait adds an XP bonus.

In game is a huge world to explore, a mysterious and sinister series of attacks on Avernum to investigate and a myriad of side-quests to undertake. As with most RPGs, players will seek out and speak with NPCs who will often have quests or information to help move the game forward. Although the gameworld is continuous and players can theoretically explore how they please, the main quest is linear and the gameworld has several choke points and quest-related barriers that funnel much of the game along a natural path. Along with the linear main quest, there is an obvious emphasis on combat, so Avernum 4 often plays very much like a classic dungeon crawler.

That's not to say the story and dialogue are unimportant by any means. Jeff Vogel is a gifted storyteller and although the plot of Avernum 4 is fairly straightforward, it is well written and quite engrossing after a (very) slow start. There are limited opportunities to really develop memorable NPCs but encounters are always accompanied by plenty of descriptive text that add atmosphere and dialogue with personality that lifts Avernum 4 beyond mere dungeon-crawler to an expansive adventure. The role of dialogue, however, is clearly to develop the story and add flavour rather than offer real choices or branches in the plot.

Ultimately, the combat is the crux of the gameplay. Avernum 4 uses a simple but solid turn-based model with a movement grid, action points and attack order based on speed (which is determined by several factors). Each round, characters get a default base of eight action points to attack with a melee or ranged weapon, cast a spell, move, use items or some combination.

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While the system is very simple - there is only a single melee attack, for example - the range of options with an effective party is reasonably satisfying. At its best, such as storming a keep with archers at the embattlements to engage mixed enemies within, combat is quite exciting. Unfortunately, it can get tedious against the random single encounters across the map - the classic repetitive rat (or the myriad of chitrachs in the Eastern Gallery, for example). This can be somewhat mitigated with the Natural Lore skill, which can calm some monsters, but remains an issue. As the game progresses, some special (and undocumented) skills can open up (such as Parry or Quick Attack) and these certainly add extra depth to the character development but being passive skills, they don't add any additional interactive options to combat encounters.

Although the main quest is linear, there is a large number of side-quests that can be obtained from the many NPCs or the job-board that can be found in towns and forts. The world really is enormous with over 20 sizeable settlements and many more mines, camps and other locations that make exploration enjoyable - exploring remote corners often yields the annoyance of single encounters with rats, goblins (or those damnable chitrachs) but you'll also discover hidden caches, underground lairs, hidden access to other locations, shrines and so on. All up, Avernum 4 manages to feel more open than the main quest suggests.

There isn't much point in discussing the technical aspects - the graphics and sound are primitive by mainstream standards and you can decide for yourself the importance of those elements. It is worth saying there is a surprising range of different tiles with a certain charm; together with the evocative text descriptions they effectively fire the imagination. Avernum 4 is free of obvious bugs and the low technical requirements make it perfect for laptops or older rigs. As with all Spiderweb games, there is a large demo - but bear in mind the story starts slowly and the demo doesn't showcase the best the game has to offer.

Some will be disappointed Avernum 4 doesn't reach the dramatic heights of Avernum 2 or offer the factions and roleplaying choices of Geneforge but Spiderweb clearly set out to create a more linear, action-oriented experience - and for the most part, it succeeds. Avernum 4 is great value with many hours of gameplay and offers a fine adventure in a well-realised world.

  • Spiderweb Games
  • Avernum 4

  • The Verdict

    RPG Dots:   (7/10)

    The ups and downs:
    Large, seamless gameworldLinear
    Simple but effective TB combatMelee could use more options
    Good writingTedious minor encounters
    Lots of contentCombat focus
    Game Overview
    Version: v1.01
    Setting: Fantasy
    Combat: Turn-based
    Voice-Acting: None
    No ratings so far
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