Whenever I see a new isometric RPG released, I usually try to size it up and figure out what the developer was going for. What did he or she envision when creating the game? It's been so long since the Diablo-era of RPGs reigned that the technology has long-since passed the necessity of isometric design, with turn-based mechanics and "3/4" top-down viewing angles. These days, when come across a game like Avernum 5, I have to wonder if we're supposed to judge its merit using a different set of criteria— such as those considered "retro" games— the way we think of arcade clones and side-scrollers, for example. Developed by Spiderweb Software, Avernum 5 serves as a good example of this trend; reaching a precipice of sorts where a game genre almost has to be developed and marketed as a retro throwback to remain viable.
Usually I try not to subscribe to the theory that a screenshot is worth a thousand words, although sometimes, it might be worth a couple hundred. Just a quick glance will tell a seasoned gamer a few things about this game: it's obviously designed isometrically, it's a dungeon-crawl RPG, and the graphics look like something you might see on the back of a game box lying in a garage sale from a decade ago. What the screenshot can't tell you, though, are things like story-value, gameplay details and most importantly, the vision the developer had when creating the game. And after playing this game for a bit, I'm convinced it's a game of just that— vision. Not a vision of the future or the past, but simply the developer's idea of what ingredients it takes to cook up a fun game, one that they themselves would enjoy playing, "retro" or otherwise.
Avernum 5 is the fifth game in a series, believe it or not. That surprised me, because I'd never heard of it before. But lo and behold, four other similarly-styled RPGs precede it (the first three are remakes of a series called Exile, created by Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb). "Avernum" is the name of an underground domain that's home to the Avernites, a group at war with the surface-dwellers, collectively called the Empire. This time around, a group of adventurers is sent back to Avernum to hunt down an assassin who tried to kill the Empress. The story and its development is actually pretty thick for a closed-in dungeon crawler, unfolding constantly a simplified "choose-your-own-adventure"-styled dialogue.
You're given four characters to form your party, all of which you can control individually in battle. Each of them can be customized and tweaked to fill different roles, primarily as your typical melee, ranged and magic fighters. There are two game states: in-battle and out-of-battle. When you're not in battle, you control the party as a single unit, using the mouse to control movement by clicking where you'd like to go. If you're jumped by monsters (or attack them first), you enter battle. In this mode, the game becomes turn-based and each of your characters are allocated "action points," which are used in basically the same way as most other games: to move, attack, grab an item, etc...
You can use the mouse to control almost everything, but you'll probably drive yourself nuts if you try. You're given the option of using pre-configured keybinds for all of the most frequently-used actions, and most gamers will find it exceedingly tedious to not use at least a few of them (picking up loot, opening menus). As well as being able to customize the role of your characters, you'll find quite a bit of loot along the way, which adds another layer of dimension to the gameplay. Want to use a spear instead of a sword? No problem. The same kind of customization is available for magic-users, in the form of choosing specific mastery paths to follow as you level up and gain more skill points.
Lastly, underlying all those options and paths to follow, the game offers 10 classes to choose from, spanning over three races. You've got Humans, the reptilian Slith and the feline-like Nephilim. Just a few of the classes offered are Scouts, Shamans, Archers, Hedge Wizards and the obligatory "tanks," like Soldiers and Berserkers.
Analysis: Earlier, I mentioned the vision involved in a developer's creative process. When it comes to games like Avernum 5, I think it's important to try and recognize what the developer envisioned (and of course, whether or not he or she succeeded in that vision) the game to be. Specifically, my preconceptions about this genre (old, tired and cloned to death) would probably have kept me from even giving this game a shot, if it weren't my job. But then I never would have seen what this game is really about; a surprisingly-detailed dungeon-crawl/action-RPG that serves as a retro indulgence for all the old-school hack-and-slash fans out there who would rather sit down and play something that reminds them of the games they loved than many of the modern, graphically-intensive monster-RPGs trying to reinvent the wheel.
I'm not gonna yank your chain— if you're not even the slightest fan of this genre and you never have been, there's a better chance you'll get struck by lightning than enjoy this game. It's old-school R-P-to-the-G all the way; micro-managing, drawn-out reward progression and all. Avernum 5 is a bit less action-centric than many RPGs of its kind. But it excels at the other end of the spectrum, in strategy, character-building and story presentation. That's not to say you won't get anything more out of the experience than pulling out an old tabletop dungeon-runner; there's plenty of fun to be had here, and the game is decently polished. But it's one game that's definitely made for a specific audience, and I think that's exactly what the developer had in mind.
Mac OS X:
Available only through Spiderweb Software's website:
Download the demo