Spiderweb Software’s Avernum: Escape from the Pit is an old-fashioned open world RPG adventure for iOs and Android. Avernum is an underground realm, to which you and your party have been exiled for treason against the empire. You quickly discover that there is a thriving civilization here, with pale skin, surviving on mushrooms and cave lizard meat, mining and smelting resources, and never seeing sunlight. Some citizens don’t want to discuss their crimes, while others are happy to tell you about that unfortunate difference of opinion they’re having with the Empire. Each quest can be done separately by sending your party out to slay the required beast or find the required item, but the connections between the adventures and the recurring themes tell of the complex relationship between Avernum and the Empire.
A party consists of four adventurers, composed of any combination of nine possible classes. Choose names, outfits, and character class to design your party, but there’s no need to stress too much over character class, because as Avernum adventurers level, players can easily customize their skills for their optimal party. Leveling is straightforward and very rewarding. Most abilities, traits and attributes will be very familiar to players of tabletop D&D games or PC RPGs like Neverwinter Nights, and similar games, but tapping any icon or skill will reveal further information.
Avernum characters have four basic attributes, intelligence, dexterity, strength and endurance, on which their other abilities and attacks are based. Dex is essential for rogues and archers, intelligence takes the role of D&D’s wisdom and intelligence combined, and is essential for spellcasters of all sorts, and endurance is valuable for anyone hoping to make it out alive. (Charisma, that other RPG standard trait, is achieved by text choices, allowing players to be friendly or snarky to NPCs, There’s also a “Negotiator” trait for bargaining with shopkeepers.)
Avernum combat uses a grid of party members and enemies, on friendly and hostile squares. Arrange your party and attack with basic tabletop D&D principles, sending the melee fighters with lots of armor straight in and letting the spellcasters and archers hang back. The difficulty progression is just perfect, beginning with basic ranged combat and close combat weaponry, and smoothly adding magic attack, defensive and offensive scrolls, wands, area of effect spells, and so forth, at a rate allowing for the constant excitement of looting something new, and never overwhelming the player with too much to take on. It’s unfortunately very easy to screw up a ranged attack by accidentally fat-fingering the spot next to the target, which sends mages and archers running into melee, with predictably disastrous results. The top-down isometric view is a perfect choice for the feel of Avernum, but occasionally an enemy or piece of random loot will be hidden by the walls.
There are a lot of tunnels to explore in this underground world, and players soon develop their own Cave Lore skill, learning to spot which bricks to push to open secret doors or which cave mushrooms might be obscuring a hidden passageways. Tunnel exploration does eventually get old, but not until I’d played my tablet’s battery from fully charged down to zero. For the second time. Exploring these dungeons can be mixed with visits to towns for shopping and pursuing the main plot.
The Avernum world is full of wonderful and zany things, from a hive of cheerful spiders all called Spider, to an entrepreneurial barkeep looking to open a hot springs spa. There are epic battles against the usual high fantasy cultists and drakes and the like, but there’s also a foreman looking for some cheap wine for his workers. It’s worth noting that Avermun women are soldiers (Wearing practical armor, even!), armorsmiths and mayors.
Side quests are engaging, and if you aren’t already reading character dialogue and item descriptions carefully, you’re missing out on laughs and world building. Random encounters pop up as your party travels Avernum’s landscape, telling you that you’ve found something special, like an unusual item, a special fountain, or an enemy, and asking how your party will react to this event. Will you search the bodies for possible loot or let the dead sleep peacefully? Fight, retreat or attempt to parley? Steal everything that’s not nailed down? See what’s past that KEEP OUT sign? Each random encounter reminded me of playing a tabletop RPGs with a good gamemaster.
Some dungeons and quests require traveling by boat to hard-to-reach locations. Although the concept of taking a boat to get to secret areas was an exciting narrative, in practice it was annoying. Boat pathing was awkward. Although my adventuring party could walk round obstacles on foot, they kept rowing into the rocks. And in a game with so much playtime and so much world, trying to find where I parked my boat was just as frustrating as looking for my keys in real life.
I’d planned to include a disclaimer that, at $9.99, Avernum is a bit more expensive than the typical mobile title, but with so much retro RPG charm and so much playtime, it’s more than worth the price. Avernum: Escape from the Pit blends all the things I loved in pen-and-paper games, like D&D-style combat strategy, loads of dungeon loot, and narrative adventures, into in an engaging gameworld that’s more than worth the price point.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit encompasses all the highlights of a good tabletop RPG campaign, with a little fat-finger frustration.