Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is, against all odds, the eighth in a series of games I’ve never heard of, which somehow isn’t the most confusing thing about it. Assassin’s Creed, to name but one example, has pretty much proved that accurately numbering your games is optional, and I’m not the sort that thinks stupid decisions are the sole domain of big companies. Of course, Avernum is a series that’s been going since 1994, so it was never going to be as easy as that. See, the current Avernium series (set to be a trilogy, because isn’t everything) is a remake of the first Avernum Trilogy released between 2005 and 2009, which is some Hollywood-tier rebooting. Not that it stops there, those games themselves are remakes of the Exile Trilogy, all made by the same company between 1995 and 1997. On one hand I want to criticize Jeff Vogel, the game’s creator, for apparently having exactly one good idea for a story, But on the other I almost want to congratulate him for knowing he’s only got one good idea, and sticking to it.
The titular Avernum is basically a prison colony, a big pit that the handily named “Empire” (because I assume there’s only one) throws its criminals and undesirables into rather than execute them, though god knows why. I guess maintaining security around a gigantic pit of every dangerous bastard in your civilization is cheaper than hiring one dude with an axe? Either way, Avernum (named such because Sub-Strelia was a bit too obvious) is under attack after it turned out that an underground society of hardened criminals is the sort of thing governments should be fighting to uproot, not making happen. As such there’s a war on between the surface dwellers and the cavefolk, and it’s up to you to get stuck in fight off the invaders.
That this means your character must be a hardened bastard is never mentioned, though I choose to believe they’re stuck down there after a particularly bad night of debauchery that ended up ruining the Emperor’s bedspread.
Or rather, four hardened bastards, each generated to your own specifications. Human is the obvious “default” with the most character models and a generic boost to ability points, whereas catfolk and lizardkin (I invented both those names because, if I start using all the in-game bullshit names for things I’m going to have to include a glossary) have boost to specific traits, namely bows and spears, giving humans an obvious advantage in all fields but those. Not that the race of your character matters at all beyond that. Nobody seems to notice if your all catman squad as being even slightly suspicious if you show up mid-catmen attack, perhaps because the people around you are so open-minded they no longer see race, but more likely because hey, species specific text isn’t going to write itself. Not when there’s caves to design.
You see, I thought when I started that generating not one but four characters might be a point in the game’s favor. You’re bound to end up with whatever well balanced (or unbalanced, if you wish) troupe of tiny pixel people you want, and it might have been a really great opportunity to tell your own story. Instead, the lack of any consistent personality in your team means there isn’t really much story at all. Instead of taking the opportunity (as many other franchises have done) to build personality and perspective through the consistent reactions and opinions of your co-questers, Avernum 2 has everyone in the world address your party as though they were one. They answer the same way too, implying some kind of dark “pod people” scenario where all four are puppeted by some dark singular force from beyond the dimensions. Which, admittedly, they kind of are, but it’s rare for a game to just accept that without making it a plot point. It’s an odd design choice to say the least, but then again it’s barely alone in that.
The dialogue is laden with exposition, and maybe necessarily. A limitation of the fixed camera and Incredibly basic level of detail means emotions and subtlety are either forgone entirely or, more commonly, expositioned to near worthlessness. The saving grace is that the writing is decent, at least. It’s your only connection to the characters beyond some low-detail sprites, and so basically has to carry the experience in terms of character and setting. Thankfully it’s not bad writing, by any means, but it can get pretty exausting to digest it all. It’s still not as effective as a more developed game could be, but the simplicity isn’t entirely a bad thing. The stripping down of the formula adds a great sense of focus. The maps, for example, are nicely varied and labyrinthine and all the spells and abilities feel necessary. There’s nothing here the game could do without, but nothing that feels useless either. (Well, almost nothing. The little drawings that accompany the flavor text for attributes are hilariously low budget. “One of the Dev’s kid-brother’s” level low budget. It’s not as lazy as Mass Effect 3’s Picture of Tali, but I deserves mention as an equally mind boggling decision).
Avernium 2 doesn’t do a lot, but what it does do, it does to a high standard, and I can’t help but appreciate that. If you’re a fan of story heavy RPG’s and think Baldur’s gate was the pinnacle of gameplay, it’s absolutely for you. If not, then pretty unapologetically not.
AVERNUM 2: CRYSTAL SOULS
Developer: Spiderweb Software
Released: 14th January 2015
Score: 5/9 Hammers