By – Jarrett Riddle

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There is a man that once decided to make his own kind of games. He didn’t care if these products had specific mainstream appeal, nor if they were presented with the most state-of-the-art graphics. All that mattered was the gameplay. This man is Jeff Vogel, and his company, Spiderweb Software, is an almost solo effort.  They are all about outstanding, lengthy RPGs that are often judged as AAA titles, but with an indie price. Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is the latest in his fantastic line of turn-based RPGs.

Avernum: Crystal Souls and its predecessor, Escape From the Pit, are second remakes of a series started in 1996 known as Exile. These adventures tell a tale of a people forced underground who have managed to form their own civilization. As a team of four, you must utilize and synergize your spells and abilities to defeat various foes such as barbaric tribes, brutal creatures, and the cruel Empire forces who banished you there to begin with.

A plethora of video options is offered including all widely used resolutions, windowed mode, and partial/minimal graphics for slower computers. Players can control party and menu navigation by mouse, or with the keyboard via arrow and shortcut keys. No matter what your viewing and control preferences are, this game will probably accommodate.

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Some may be put off by the graphics in Crystal Souls. This is not a game that prides itself on having the best art out there, but a presentation that is more functional than pretty to look at. I personally feel that the graphics are great at what they do, and are never visually offensive or hard on the eyes. Even without boasting the most advanced graphical prowess, personality can be seen in many parts throughout. These include beautiful introduction screens, character avatars, and hilarious hand-drawn skill portraits.

To begin, up to four characters may be created for your journey into Avernum. Almost infinite party combinations are possible, with a multitude of classes and three different races. Humans get additional bonuses every few levels, Slithzerikai (lizard people) get extra proficiency in spears and are resistant to fire, and Nephilim (cats) are naturally handier with thrown weapons and can brave the cold. Having these other species in your group doesn’t just give you an advantage in battle, but also changes some dialogues with people you meet throughout the game.

Townsfolk and wanderers of this underground prison have a delightful amount of depth. Most everyone you speak to has a job, background, and distinct personality. You will oftentimes find a random person in a village that seemingly has nothing to do with the story or goals of the game, yet whose history and ambitions are described in multiple paragraphs. The same goes for locations: Forts are realistically stocked with guards and patrolling stations, as well as dump areas full of the town’s garbage. I believe details like this are an overlooked, yet vital component to building a world that feels real.

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The story of Crystal Souls is a lengthy one, played out slowly as you become more powerful and reputable throughout the land. The player’s adventurers start as humble miners, digging out space for storerooms at a small outpost of Avernum’s army. This duty is short-lived, however, as magical barriers mysteriously appear between settlements, blocking essential supplies and communication. Only when you are contacted by a race of strange, alien-like people known as the Vahnatai do you understand where these walls came from.

After venturing into Vahnatai territory, you learn that these people are the original inhabitants of this underground world many folks now call home. They have been in a sort of hibernation known as the “Resting” and have since lost much of their land to the Avernites. To make things worse, they are considering going to war with your kind. They say their crystal chamber was ransacked, with three of the sacred Crystal Souls containing their wise elders being stolen. Back in your own lands, war between the citizens of Avernum and the Empire is hot and heavy. Can your adventurers somehow make amends with this foreign race and defeat the invaders?

Exploration and combat are the key elements of gameplay while completing tasks. Most jobs require the player to set out into the world, find the area where a monster needs to be slayed or an item found, and return to the quest giver. This is aided immensely by an overhead map filled with icons that display the names of locations along with accepted duties that can be accomplished within. Many areas of Avernum can look similar, and the size itself can be daunting, so any help in navigation is welcomed by me.

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Discovering new locations remains consistently fun and engaging throughout the game, as all areas not yet seen by your group are covered in a fog of war. This means that even the exploration of small rooms in towns feels worthwhile, as you never know what may lie within. Battles are equally satisfying, pitting you against progressively larger and more difficult enemies that require teamwork and tactics to bring down. With each level gain of your adventurers, they gain usage of different combat abilities and spells, most of which are crucial in your fight for Avernum.

The sheer size and scope of Crystal Souls can admittedly be overwhelming, especially to those not well-versed in the RPG genre. Unlike many modern titles, you are not guided by an all-knowing arrow that points in the exact right direction. The strength of enemies are also set in stone, so wandering into a cave with very powerful monsters when your party is still at a low level can be devastating.

There are positives to this kind of trial and error gameplay; One may think they die an unfair death, not knowing what to expect, while another feels that it only adds to the satisfaction felt when they are able to claim victory over those that have slaughtered them in the past. Thankfully, an Auto Save feature usually keeps you from getting stuck in a difficult position. When this fails, a Character Editor is also included which lets you add or take away as many skill points from a character as you want.

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Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?

With a price tag of $19.99, Avernum 2: Crystal Souls provides more entertainment than most $60 games. Though I’ve played at least 32 hours, I still have many more obstacles to overcome before I see the end of the game.  Every person, every conversation, and every detail contains the heart and soul of the developer. I would most definitely pay full price for this title. If you are still on the fence, I reccomend downloading the demo from the Spiderweb site.

Avernum 2: Crystal Souls Technical Summary:

Avernum 2 Review Sum

  • Time Played – 32 Hours
  • Widescreen Support – Yes
  • Windowed Mode – Yes
  • Resolution Played – 1920×1080
  • Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None
  • DRM – DRM-free if purchased from official site or GOG
  • System Specs – 3.7 GHz AMD A10-6700 , 768MB Radeon 8670D, 8GB RAM
  • Control Scheme – M/KB
  • Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • Availability – Official Site, GOG, Steam
  • Demo – Yes
  • Saved Game Location – \Documents\Spiderweb Software\Avernum 2 Saved Games

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