Computer Roleplaying Games, or commonly referred to as CRPG, have been around for longer than most gamers know. The first true "CRPG" game was in 1975 for the PLATO platform and was called 'dnd,' which is the common abbreviation of Dungeons & Dragons. 'dnd' was a text-based adventure that was based on the tabletop roleplaying game (which had been released the year prior) and since then the CRPG genre has change drastically. What originally started as a text-based roleplaying game to an isometric roleplaying game in the vein of titles like D&D: Champions of Krynn, Ultima, and Baldur's Gate (to name a few).
The pinnacle of the genre lies with Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which to this day still ranks as one of the best computer roleplaying games ever developed (which is a well-deserved assumption). However, since Baldur's Gate II was released the CRPG genre, as isometric, pseudo-turn based, text-heavy, and extremely long, has all but disappeared. As we entered the 2000's the roleplaying game genre mutated and you now have all manner of different types of roleplaying games, from action RPG games to SRPG games to Western RPGs, but rarely do you see titles that hearken back to the heydays of CRPGs.
Enter the Avernum franchise, a classic roleplaying game developed by Spiderweb Software. While the Avernum games have been around for years, Avernum: Escape from the Pit was released in 2011 and was very well received. Four years later the sequel, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is upon us, throwing us back to the days where text-heavy roleplaying and standard D&D-style rules drove some of the best games available. Does Avernum 2 successfully pull you into its homage to classic CRPG games?
Like many roleplaying games of the 90's and early 2000's, Avernum 2 has a static isometric view with a "fog of war" appearance. After you leave a room, while it is viewable on the map, there is a slight gray haze that appears that blocks out any potential threats/items/characters. While a standard in isometric gaming, it is still refreshing to see, though these days it is primarily used in RTS games (likely due to the fact that there just are not many CRPG games out there that use the isometric camera).
The graphics are straight out of the days of Icewind Dale and it is a blast. From the moment I loaded the game I was wrapped up in a blanket of warm nostalgia, and that was just at the main menu screen. Loading a new game allows you to build your 4-person party with classes like warrior, rogue, archer, priest, and wizard to name a few. You can then place your attribute points and basic skills (or just a pre-built party) and then finally customize your wonderfully two-dimensional characters. Every single aspect of Avernum 2 is a throwback to the days of old and it is glorious. The one thing about Avernum 2 is that it is not for everyone; the older roleplaying crowd will be far more familiar with the way that it looks where the younger crowd is used to 3D models, high resolution textures, and far more 'impressive' graphics. The pity is that many may look at the graphics of Avernum 2 and pass it by and that is a shame because it is absolutely worth the money. From the massive world to the intelligently designed dungeons and different sidequests, Avernum 2 is a massive bounty of classic roleplaying that any fan of the genre has to pick up.
Something some gamers may need to get used to with Crystal Souls is the lack of voice acting; this is a text-heavy game so come prepared to read. For older gamers like myself it is a non-issue; we grew up in an era where you actually had to read your games, not just listen to them or skip through the quest logs then check the map to see what you needed to do. Avernum 2 is a true roleplaying game in the fact that the explorable world of Avernum is absolutely massive and full of so much lore that I found myself wondering how such a small team of two people could come up with so much content. The world-building that went into the Avernum series is astounding and full of rich content that is actually interesting. Honestly, if Jeff Vogel, President of Spiderweb Software, compiled the Avernum lore into a compendium and sold it, I would buy it in hardcover as well as paperback.
I think myself a creative individual that is capable of small-scale world-building but holy cow, Avernum lore is all over the place and it is huge. I really felt like after 17 hours I was just barely getting to know the world of Avernum and I could not be happier. On top of the spectacular lore the background music is just great; I would not be opposed to Spiderweb packaging the OST and selling it, because I would buy it, then I would listen to it. All. The. Time. The downside is that there do not seem to be many tracks, but that is okay because the tracks that are there are wonderful.
Gameplay is a blast; turn-based combat that uses a grid system with interesting mechanics like how spears can attack two spaces away. While it may seem like a small thing, a lot of games out there do not differentiate a spear or polearm's reach from that of a sword, so seeing that is a nice little change. Magic is handled via energy and ranges from close-range healing or damage spells to area-of-attack damaging spells or group buffs. I did find that in some of the battles that I came across, if you do not have a priest or other class that can cast buffs, you will die. No doubt about it, death awaits those that come unprepared which is great, as it feels like the old-school dungeon spelunking and tactical combat.
Most games these days are about clicking as many times as possible between dodging an enemy's strike, Avernum 2 is 100% old school so be prepared to face some tense situations. While the combat is stellar, the pacing is even better. You have plenty of time to explore the massive world of Avernum and perform various quests that range from fetch quests to destroy-these-badguys quests to rescuing people from the denizens of the dark, but once you home in on the main story the pacing is just brilliant. It eases you along providing you with as much information as you can handle while not giving you a headache due to over-information. Larger RPG developers need to take a few queues about world-building as Spiderweb knows how to do it, and they do it very well.
I did not know how much it is that I missed the classic roleplaying game style; the isometric 2D models that are well animated, the massive world and sprawling dungeons, the sheer number of skills and spells to master, everything about Avernum 2 screams triple-A title out of a small indie game studio. When I dove into Avernum I was transported into a rich world of terror and complacency, joy and sadness, justice and injustice, and best of all, a world full of real people struggling with real issues in a fantasy land where oppression is the norm. While the graphics will appeal to the older generation, the sheer storytelling and gameplay mechanics can bring in new players and introduce them to the golden age of CRPG games. Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is without a doubt, the best computer roleplaying game I have played in years, if not in over a decade.
Review by Robert