Avernum 2: Crystal Souls

By Dave McLean - March 21st, 2015


To me, playing Spiderweb Software’s Avernum 2: Crystal Souls for the PC feels just like playing Dungeons & Dragons. Now, I haven’t played legitimate, tabletop D&D in almost thirty years, and I didn’t really think I missed it since computer RPGs seemed to fill that gap pretty effectively – especially nowadays. When I look at a game like Skyrim, which is huge and beautiful and dynamic, with a first-person view that figuratively puts you right in the boots of your character – when you’ve got all that, who needs a bag of dice and some shoddily painted figurines? But ten minutes into playing Avernum 2, I felt a really powerful nostalgia for those old D&D days. I don’t know if that effect was achieved by design or by accident, and I don’t think I want to know, but I know why it feels so much like old school D&D: it’s all in the exposition.

Here’s an example: “You find a gnawed human body that was probably thrown to the hellhounds as food.” Or this: “A rickety stone and wood bridge spans the river here. The grim, shadowy tunnels to the west are heavily festooned with webs.” This kind of exposition pops up every time you enter a room or interact with the environment. I haven’t seen that kind of thing in a long time, frankly, not since the days of text-based adventures. And Avernum 2 has more to offer than just exposition. You get a party of characters equipped however you see fit, you move and explore your environment, you get in fights – all the usual RPG stuff you’d expect, but it’s all kept quite simple – particularly character and environment design. It’s not 8-bit simple; but it’s not all much more advanced than that. It really does feel a lot like moving figurines across a table top sometimes (hence all the nostalgia). And while design is as simple as it needs to be, game-play is still complex enough to be fun. The world is quite big, there are main quests and side quests, battle has tactics and magic to deploy, and there’s always new armour, weapons, and treasure to discover.


The story takes place in a subterranean land populated by exiles from the surface world. The land above is ruled by the Empire, who has long been at odds with the populace of Avernum. After a botched assassination attempt above, the Empire begins sending troops to exterminate those below. But before all of Avernum’s defences are ground down, magical barriers begin to appear underground. No one knows their origin, and it’s your job to investigate. Much like design and game-play, the story has just enough detail to be interesting, but not so much that you have to be deeply invested in it to make the most of it. The introduction and the interstitial load screens are also accompanied by really great artwork. They look like paintings and remind me of the covers of old fantasy novels (the more I write about this the more I realize that all these throwbacks are deliberate and not just happy accidents).

One critique I will offer up is around the difficulty scaling. I chose Normal to start (the second of four options) and I found it very easy for about the first hour… and then incredibly difficult thereafter. The game just hit this point where I was reloading once or twice per battle. Then when I went over to Casual difficulty, it was absurdly easy. An unsheathed sword or a stern look was enough to make an enemy drop dead. I think it’s great that the game has a Casual mode (especially for reviewers, so they can get far enough into the game to say something intelligent about it), but the Normal setting has to come down a notch. And I can’t even imagine what the next two difficulty levels are like. At the Extreme difficulty level your whole party probably explodes right after you press start.

Simple enough to pick up quick – complex enough to be challenging and fun.

You learn something writing every review, and the lesson Avernum 2 taught me is that you should always reserve your judgement. In my head, I started writing my review of this game within the first minute. Before I’d really gotten in to play it I was thinking, “This is gonna be a slog.” I wanted to form an opinion as soon as I could, and I viewed its strengths as its weaknesses. I mistook simplicity for lack of effort. I skipped over the character design options because I didn’t think I cared – but even just ten minutes later, I really, really liked it. I think this game is in danger of being overlooked. Give it a chance: it doesn’t take long to like it, especially if you’re an old D&D nerd like me.

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