You could be forgiven for never having heard of Spiderweb Software prior to the last couple of years. For a long, long time Jeff Vogel has toiled away in the depths of indie gaming, creating the types of RPGs that used to only be the purview of AAA companies. The types of games have been very consistent — sprawling games with lots of low-level character customization for a decidedly hardcore type of RPG player.
Spiderweb Software finally burst onto a more mainstream scene when they released Avadon: The Black Fortress, a game which won Editor’s Choice from this very author not so long ago. Avadon was a beautiful game for PC, hearkening back to the days of Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, a remarkable accomplishment for such a small studio with limited resources. The combat was basic but complex, the dialog choices were varied and interesting, and the outcomes of your decisions were evident by the end of the game.
The bigger money for Spiderweb Software came on the iPad however. Avadon vaulted onto the tops of the App Store charts, the first massive RPG of its kind on the platform. The port was not perfect – the game stuttered at times, saving versus closing the app was sometimes a little awkward compared to the behavior we’ve been trained to expect on iOS devices, it was sometimes difficult to get your finger to click just the right thing you wanted on the screen… but overall, it was a triumph.
It was a surprise then, when Spiderweb Software opted not to make Avadon 2 next (although we can almost certainly expect it at some point), but rather to remake one of their oldest games using the newer Avadon engine. Thus we have Avernum: Escape from the Pit.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit is not a bad game. It is another sprawling RPG, the type of thing that is right in this developer’s wheelhouse. But compared to Avadon, it just feels like a step back. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a remake of a game that came out a long time ago to feel like progress, but on the heels of Avadon (my personal game of the year for 2011) makes it feel simply not as good. I played it and enjoyed it, particularly by iPad standards, but there were times when I wished I was playing Avadon instead.
Avernum, as previously stated, is a remake of the original using the same engine that was built for Avadon: The Black Fortress. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Graphics are a great example: on one hand, the graphics look vastly better than the original. On the other hand, the same graphics, sprites, and character models that were used in Avadon are used again here. Gameplay is another example: the strengths of Avadon’s deceptively simple turn-based approach are shared by Avernum, but the drawbacks — the sometimes repetitive nature of encounters, the difficulty on the iPad to click quite what you want — there don’t appear to be too many improvements to the underlying system.
There are also differences from a narrative standpoint. Avernum has a decent story, but the characters that you control feel quite generic. This is a product of the different gameplay design choices that Avernum makes compared to Avadon. For example, you create only one character in Avadon: your protagonist, who happens to team up with various other NPCs. In Avernum, you create your entire party of four at the outset, and the party never changes. This takes away some of the ownership you feel in the game universe: you think of the characters as “the mage” or “the fighter” as opposed to real people, like you did in Avadon.
Scoring sound becomes difficult because so much of it is recycled from Avadon. There are some very short acoustic guitar riffs when you enter town and some sound effects that add color to your actions, but they are really bare bones, and if you’ve played Avadon, you’ve already heard most of them.
The controls deserve special mention because things work about as well as I think can be expected on the iPad as a turn-based, strategy RPG platform — sometimes it is hard to touch exactly the button you want, but it works on the whole.
This is still a huge, fun to play, absolutely sprawling game in the tradition of classic RPGs of yesteryear, and is really only one of a very few of its kind available on the iPad. While I still recommend the game for fans of ultra traditional, turn-based strategy RPG, it is more difficult for me to universally recommend it like I did Avadon. While I understand the reasons behind the decisions to recycle so many resources, it still detracted a little bit from the game experience, especially when the turnaround was, in game development time, so fast from the previous game that used those same assets. If you’re going to pick a Spiderweb Software game on the iPad, I still think Avadon is the best choice.