Is there room in your heart for another old-school RPG?
You don’t have to look far on the internet to find a game of any given genre, subgenre, or cross-genre. Spiderweb Software, developers of Avernum, have been filling the needs of old-school RPG fans on the PC & Mac for some time now. Avernum: Escape from the Pit is an isometric turn-based tactical role playing game in the fashion of Baldur’s Gate that has now been brought to the iPad. This fashion of RPG in particular is one that iPad users are excited to see implemented on the device because of its purely point and click nature of gameplay.
Avernum, much like Baldur’s Gate, seeks to bring a Dungeons and Dragons campaign to life through video game magic. While Avernum lacks the official Dungeons and Dragons license, the nuts and bolts of its mechanics will be familiar to a D&D enthusiast. Players create four custom heroes, each with their own skills and strengths, and engage in grid-based tactical combat. These combat encounters are of course driven by a story, and it is this combination of story and RPG mechanics that kept me playing.
I want to avoid letting out too much about the story, but from the App’s title and storefront alone you can learn that your characters in have been sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in an underworld known as Avernum. Your initial encounter with a small league bully in the opening dungeon sets the tone for Avernum. Even this ultimately insignificant character is written with care and attention to detail. In a short amount of time, you grow to hate this enemy and (surprise surprise) quickly dispatch of him. The balance of spells, combat skills, and positioning make for engaging combat. This combat can be difficult though, as players will quickly find themselves up against powerful mages that case damaging area of effect based attacks for major damage and crippling status effect. I rushed too quickly into one particular early encounter and found myself surrounded by summoned enemies, poisoned, and my health bar rapidly approaching zero. The balance of completing these scenarios and the game’s intriguing world and story are Avernum’s greatest strengths.
As mentioned previously, isometric turn-based RPGs are considered to be a perfect fit for the iPad. While Spiderweb has done much to adapt the game’s mechanics to the smaller screen, I cannot say I am happy with the end result. I partake in the majority of my iOS gaming while on the train or bus, and controlling Avernum can be a tricky prospect. The screen is quite dense, and one must be precise when tapping to move a character. I can’t count the times that my finger has slipped while playing the game, causing me to move my mage to the front line, or my warrior off into a corner. While I can’t fault the game entirely for expecting the user to correctly input their desired turn on the touchscreen, I think the omission of a confirmation button or double tap option is a mistake. Other aspects of the game, such as menu navigation (especially loot transfer between characters) can be tedious.
Retro styled graphics are often great, and I love how many old games look, but I don’t care for the visual style of Avernum. There is a lack of visual consistency between the beautiful hand-drawn title and loading screens, the pencil style sketches that illustrate skills, and the actual in-game graphics. These separate elements of the game seem to point in three separate artistic directions, and unfortunately the one the player spends the majority of their time interfacing with is not appealing. Animations seem stilted, the dungeon tiles are uninteresting, and my character’s “dagger” extends far beyond his head. The visual blandness makes the quite caverns of Avernum seem that much more lonely after hours of play.
My intent with this review is to convey my experience with Avernum, even those experiences that happen out of the game. Some time ago I attempted to boot up Avernum and was rewarded with a crash to the home screen. Rebooting the device accomplished nothing, and I was forced to download a third party software to back up my saves to my PC, delete the app, re-install the app, and finally transfer my saves back to the device. Not only was this a major inconvenience, it would have been the end of my save files had I not had access to my PC.
If you can’t get enough old-school RPGs, Avernum is indeed what you are looking for. Even in light of my negative experiences with the game from a technical perspective, I cannot deny the satisfying tactical depth and rewarding RPG hooks built into Avernum’s core.
Avernum is available on the App store for iPad. $9.99