capsule review

Avernum 4

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It’s time to take another visit to the underground world of Avernum, scene of a long-running series of role playing games made by Spiderweb Software. This is a return to a “classic” form of turn-based role playing that fans will enjoy immensely, especially if they value substance over style.

Spiderweb’s previous three Avernum games have all been retellings of an older game series called Exile, updated with a new game engine that uses isometrically displayed graphics. Avernum 4 is the first game in the series to sport an entirely new storyline. If Avernum is new to you, don’t worry. While there are references to the events that have taken place in previous games, Avernum 4 doesn’t require you to be familiar with the previous installments to enjoy.

Avernum is an underground world—formerly a prison of sorts for undersirables who the surface Empire sent away. A labyrinth of colossal caverns, mines and caves, Avernum is home not only to human castoffs but a variety of sentient races, such as the feline Nephilim and the reptilian Slitheraki. It’s also home to monsters and shambling creatures of all shapes, sizes, and intellects—many determined to do you harm.

Avernum 4 is very much a traditional role-playing game. Before you get the game started you assemble a party of four adventurers of various species and professions, each with unique abilities and specialties. There are the customary warriors, priests, mages, and more. You assign them points in various categories like strength, intelligence, adeptness at handling specific weapons, or familiarity with specific types of spells or magic items. And as you gain experience, you can apply new points your characters will earn to those same categories to increase their skills.

This is a turn-based strategy game. You move your party on the screen either by pointing and clicking using your cursor, or using navigation keys on the keyboard. Every action your party can take is accessible using a key command (in the main interface, clicking the Tab key shows you which actions work with what keys), so you don’t need to spend a lot of time learning the interface. Avernum 4’s interface has been honed by years of practice from Spiderweb, so it makes sense for the most part.

One thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that you’re dealing with a very different class of game—graphically and aurally—than the RPGs you might be accustomed to playing on your Mac or console. The interface and graphics seem positively antique by comparison. But, from where I sit, that’s part of Avernum’s charm. What’s more, this game is incredibly scalable regardless of your hardware&38212;even though Avernum 4 works just dandy (and natively) on Mac OS X, it even works on Macs That Time Forgot which still might be running Mac OS 8.1. (Yes, even OS 8.1!) And it works fine on Intel Macs using Rosetta (really, Universal Binary isn’t necessary).

Graphics and interface aside, the strength of Avernum 4, like all games from Spiderweb, is in the incredible storytelling. Exploring the game’s branching storyline and working through every subplot and mission will take you weeks, if not months, of gameplay. Spiderweb’s games offer some of the richest RPG storytelling experiences on any platform, and don’t let anyone tell you different. This is classic RPG gaming at its very best, and Avernum 4 serves you up countless challenges like a good dungeon master should.

You’ll start out with run-of-the-mill missions that are designed to help you improve your experience, build your inventory, and increase your wallet. But before too long, you discover that Avernum has been plunged into chaos by an unknown force—monsters are roaming the underground cities of Avernum, killing innocent bystanders at will. Water monsters are making the waterways impassable. The missions you’re thrust into ultimately put you in contact with the person behind this new threat, and to “win” the game you have to defeat them.

Navigating around Avernum invariably brings you in contact with monsters, and the game switches pretty effortlessly into its combat mode. Each adventurer in your party is assigned a limited number of “action points” that can be used to either position themselves near the enemy or to strike. Your party and the enemies in the vicinity each get turns to do damage, and whoever’s left victorious can claim the spoils. You can resurrect party members who are felled in combat at various places in the game or by using specific magic.

There’s a little bit of animation present in the combat sequences as your party and the monsters they’re fighting take turns inflicting damage. It’s pretty simple stuff—a swing of a sword here, a burst of light associated with a magic spell there. Otherwise, the game’s graphics are largely static, which may be off-putting to gamers who have gotten spoiled on the more sophisticated RPG offerings like Neverwinter Nights (   ) and Knights of the Old Republic (   ) in recent years.

You’ll discover that while there are hundreds of side-missions and quests to go on, there’s really ultimately one goal to achieve to win at Avernum 4. That makes gameplay more linear than some of Spiderweb’s past games, which might limit replayability. Then again, just getting to the end will take you weeks—still, it’ll be likely that you won’t want to play Avernum 4 once you’ve finished with it the first time.

All of this makes you wonder just how deep and rich a Spiderweb game might be if the budget was unlimited and the technology even more advanced. Maybe some day we’ll find out.

By the way, there’s a massive demo you can download from the Spiderweb Web site before you plunk down your cash. And if you’re the sort of gamer who gets frustrated easily, you can spend a few extra dollars on the Book of Answers, which will give you walkthroughs of each mission, maps, cheats, and more.

The bottom line

Avernum 4 is old-school RPG gaming at its finest. It may not have the most cutting-edge engine in the world, but tons of rich storytelling make this game loads of fun.

Watch out for that Grue! Not as flashy as a modern role-playing game, Avernum 4 makes up for it with tons of storytelling.
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