QCF: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls

ast summer our good friend from across the pond Stevie reviewed the title from Spiderweb Software entitled Avadon 2: The Corruption. After reading that review I had to appreciate what the developer was attempting to do, in a sense capturing the heyday of PC role playing games in a generation of gaming that has all but abandoned the old ways.

Now I find myself with the similar task of reviewing another sequel, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. After almost thirty hours of playtime with the title I can echo similar sentiments from Stevie’s review, however what Avernum 2 lacks in presentation and mechanics it certainly makes up for in story and exploration.

The moment the title begins to load, it is apparent that the developer has chosen to capture the look and feel of classic top-down adventures similar to Baldur’s Gate and other entries in the Forgotten Realms series of games. Sadly however the graphics of a game that released in the late nineties looks and animates better than Avernum 2 does. I am unsure if this was an intentional move on the part of the developer or if the budget was just not accommodating to force the developers into having characters and environments as bare and lacking as what is in this entry. It is hard to ignore the barren appearance and because of that I am almost certain that many players would skip spending the $20 to jump into this world.

However once the text begins to populate the screen the story really can hook the player into an experience that can have many twists and turns and smart writing with clever dialogue and interesting characters. I can understand that this can take a leap of faith and many may just not be able to sustain playing through the game on just words and story alone, however after recently becoming more involved in pen and paper RPG’s I was very eager to see what sort of trouble my group of unlikely heroes could get into.

The world that is discovered through the multiple paths and hidden areas tells a tale of many nations stretched across dozens of towns and underground lairs, each with a population that may either become friend or foe depending on the choices the player will make. It became very hard at times to follow the core storyline however since picking up so many side quests derailed the progress of what was the current objective.

Sadly the user interface was clunky at times like this, where bringing up a map and the objectives that were currently opened were always on two separate screens. This was unfortunate to continuously open and close several screens just to figure out where I was and where I was meant to go, all while having hardly a clue as to where I was in the world due to the game making the world small as my group traveled in a very unfriendly overworld map. Utilizing the mouse to navigate the map at first was unbearable, and would jump out of control every time I attempted to click on a new area to explore.

However after messing with the resolution and taking the game out of the windowed mode, it became easier to control. The point and click mechanics were easy to learn, although I did tend to rely on it too much during gameplay, where learning the keyboard shortcuts would have made gameplay more fluid and progress would have not suffered as much as I tried to click on whichever area I wanted to access. This is a flaw on my part however, not the game itself because I am sure that a veteran of playing this style of game or just being a core PC gamer would have picked up the control scheme very quickly. Apparently I have much to learn when it comes to taking on titles inspired by classic turn based games such as Avernum 2.

With the adventure in Avernum complete for the time being, I look back on the group of exiles that were brave enough to fight back against a cruel empire and I cannot help but think that this can be also be an analogy, albeit a forced analogy of Spiderweb Software. Although they may not have the presentation or timeframe to produce a title in the RPG space similar to other developers such as BioWare or Obsidian Entertainment, this group is still making the games that they have been known for since the mid-nineties, and it is something to appreciate.

However we must also acknowledge that other developers will evolve and attempt to change the genre, whereas the developers of Avernum 2: Crystal Souls have struggled with the undertaking of fixing the control scheme and user interface of a title that could have benefited greatly from smoother gameplay and operating the various menus with ease. As egregious as these problems may be, it is still an experience that I believe many fans should try, even if it may not be as visually alluring as titles such as Pillars of Eternity or Divinity: Original Sin. I for one am pleased to have had the chance to play a throwback to an adventure like Avernum 2: Crystal Souls, problems and all.    

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