Wot I Think: Avernum – Escape From The Pit

Turns out you don't need volumetric lighting in RPGs.

Spiderweb Software have one intention: to keep making 90s-style RPGs, and to keep making them good. Avernum: Escape From The Pit is their latest, technically the seventh game in the Avernum series (although presented with a fresh start), the 20th game from the developers, and the first of their games I’ve played. So from that perspective, and despite having spent so many hours still only a fraction of the way in, here’s Wot I Think:

I just had my laundry done. For no reason. Not only does it not make any practical change to my experience, but it doesn’t even make an aesthetic change to what I’m seeing. 10 coins in the hut in Fort Draco, and I still got it done. Which is perhaps the surest sign that I’m very deeply embroiled in the underground world of Avernum: Escape From The Pit.

We seem to be spoiled for games emulating early RPGs, with Legend Of Grimrock so superbly recapturing the late 80s joy of Dungeon Master/Eye Of The Beholder, and now Avernum, laser-focusing on that moment in the late 90s when the RPG suddenly came back to life. It was, I must confess, a moment that completely passed me by, my interests elsewhere in the realms of gaming. And one I’m all the poorer for having missed. So weirdly, Avernum isn’t an experience of nostalgia for me, but rather just really bloody great RPG.

A really bloody great RPG that I do often feel I’m playing on the other side of reinforced glass, my arms protruding via thick rubber gloves. Oh, Avernum, why must you have gone out of your way to be such a pain?

The set up is pretty nice. You are playing as four adventurers, cast into the vast cave system of Avernum as a punishment for undisclosed crimes. The world above is only learned about through snippets told by the game’s hundreds of NPCs, or through the text describing your own reactions to events. The Empire, a clearly dictatorial force, is expelling any who may rebel, or simply not fit in to their regime, into the inescapable pits, and then forgetting about them. So very many people are now there, and have been there for so long, that what should ostensibly be a prison has become its own nation, huge stretches of caves and caverns containing multiple towns, secrets, and most of all, some dragons.

Arriving in the city to which all new arrivals emerge, you’re greeted by officials who explain the deal. There’s no escape, don’t bother trying, and be careful. Between the towns, and constantly threatening their existence, are multiple hostile races. Goblins, neraphim, the undead, and so on, have their own plots and machinations. Then there’s all the talk of the Magi Tower, the Great Cave, and the King’s Castle within it. Oh, and those dragons too.

And then you can go where you like. Which is an extraordinary feeling. It’s not that you can complete the game’s sections in any order you wish – there are no sections. There’s just you, a flipping great big cave, and places to go. The game does throw out some hints. Villagers will suggest places you could head to for work, support, or to do them favours. And if you head South early on, it will throw up a warning saying you might find it too difficult down there just now. But you can still go there if you fancy your chances.

And your chances are slight. This is a tough game on Normal, at least at first. Before you’ve got your party well equipped and started levelling them up, pretty much any encounter is going to be a challenge. I admit I dropped things to Casual at the game’s insistence that I’d have “more fun”, just to leap that first hurdle. Then a while later put it back up to Normal once I was more experienced. Character deaths aren’t so serious, however. So long as one of your party survives, you can head back to the nearest friendly town and all will be revived. And there are various spells to bring characters back mid-battle/dungeon if necessary.

Then everything else you want from an RPG is in place, really. Stats are pleasingly simple, but open to huge variation. Mages and Priests have a great arsenal of spells. Inventories are enormous, and there’s no weight restriction on anything you’re not actively equipping – and a junk bag lets you keep things uncluttered while still hoovering up loot to sell at the next town. Combat is frequent and turn-based. The lengthy descriptions and interesting conversations are detailed and often witty. It’s all there. Behind that bloody screen.

I’ve not played any of the previous Spiderweb games – they’re perhaps most famous for the Geneforge RPGs made in the previous decade. These things may be true of all their games, but I can assure you they’re annoying here. Perhaps with excellent intentions, the game has been designed to work with mouse or keyboard, or a combination of the two. But literally can be played without the mouse at all. Everything has a keyboard shortcut, from picking a spell from a list to choosing inventory items to sell. I’m sure that’s great for the twelve people on Earth who don’t like using a mouse, and it’s certainly an enormous show of dedication to the PC version of a game that’s also out on iOS. But it also means that there’s no chance to redefine keys for yourself, making all the basic interactions a real pain in the arse. To see what’s on the ground after a fight, or in a room, you press G. Great. To close that window you, well, don’t press G. In fact, pressing G may well have you steal an item from someone that’s on that shortcut. Instead you have to click the close button with the mouse, or hit Escape. Sure, that’s not a big deal, but it’s a constant pain. And it’s true of everything. Open the Mage spell panel with M, and only Escape will close it. Hitting M again does nothing. And more mysteriously, clicking on the Mage spell button with the mouse opens it, but again, doesn’t close it. I’m sure reading this people are thinking, “What a picky idiot”, but believe me, as you’re playing it becomes so utterly infuriating. Shortcut keys should offer shortcuts, and not require three hands.

Then there are some rather peculiar aesthetic choices. Viewed from an isometric perspective, with no options for rotating the camera, some of the design choices are extremely strange. Objects become hidden by opaque walls, which becomes even worse when it’s you and the enemy you’re fighting being obscured. Put the mouse over a character or object (that you can’t see in the first place) and they’ll glow through, but not by default. And putting a mouse on something is no mean feat when the camera is quite so far zoomed out. I’ve tried and tried to find an option for zooming in, but none seems to exist. And for a large part, it’s the right distance. Occasionally, when my tired old eyes can’t make something out, I’m left leaning into the monitor and squinting.

It doesn’t stop me though. And I think that’s pretty crucial. Despite being near-constantly frustrated by a basic lack of intuitive interaction (and the pretty awful pathfinding) I just want to keep playing, keep exploring, and figure out whether I want to make a life for myself in Avernum, or eventually try to escape.

Don’t be put off by this being the seventh Avernum game. It’s a fresh start, a relaunch perhaps, and I’ve had no prior knowledge about the series and haven’t hit a single issue for that. At just over a fiver, this is an exceptional amount of game, and a really great RPG. Quite how they’re making those mistakes twenty games in I’m not quite sure, but often great writing, a simple and effective turn-based combat system, and a great sense of freedom and exploration make for a superb time that overrides the hefty niggles.

You can get Avernum for $20 directly from Spiderweb. Or you can get it far cheaper on Steam for £5.59.


  1. flashman says:

    Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software is a grizzled ancient of the indie PC RPG. I spent a long, long time playing the Exile series to its shareware limitations (in the Australian 90s where transactions over the internet were basically impossible) and I always appreciated the storytelling and worldbuilding that went into each game. (Avernum sounds like a very similar theme to the Exile series – actually, even the Emperor’s name is the same, now I check!)

    Going to download this and check it out.

    • Jekhar says:

      I, too, played the shareware versions off the older Spiderweb titles, but the full games always seemed a bit too pricey for me. I think the first three Avernum games (there were six) are remakes of the three Exile titles, or at least “based on”. This new Avernum is again a remake of the first Avernum.

      • ZephyrSB says:

        I played the original Avernum many moons ago too, but was also put of by the price, and general discomfort at this newfangled ‘buying stuff online’ thing. But once I’d got over that, and went back to have another look, somehow it had lost a bit of its wonder and aspects (such as loot – no unlimited capacity then) were just tedious and put me off again.

        This new version has stripped all that unfun stuff out, and recaptures the magic I felt that first time I tried it.

    • Revisor says:

      To all who think about this game – I very much recommend it. It has a huge, hand-crafted world full of quests, dungeons and secrets, good writing, great battle system.

      The negative aspect mentioned in the review – user interface – is definitely true, although after a few hours you won’t mind it anymore.

      I also posted a paean on the forum, so when this article is history, join us there.
      link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • Premium User Badge

      Waltorious says:

      Jekhar is correct. Spiderweb’s first game was Exile: Escape From the Pit, which they later remade as Avernum. Now they’re remade Avernum as Avernum: Escape From the Pit. I’ve only played the second version that was simply called Avernum, but I liked it a lot. As in all Spiderweb games, the best feature is the writing.

      So anyway, for those considering this game, rest assured that it’s a great starting point since it’s a remake of the first game in the series.

    • sogeking99 says:

      Any idea how it compares to Avadon? The only Jeff Vogel game I have played.

  2. mr.lutze says:

    So it’s a remake of the remake of first Spiderweb Software game? So far I’m enjoying it, but using inventory button every five seconds to find something is pretty annoying and it hasn’t changed in years.

      • Underwhelmed says:

        Funny you should mention it, but I grabbed the iPad version and it works great on that platform. Touch controls feel a lot more natural in this game than mouse clicking, and it looks and plays identical to the desktop versions.

        For those with the iPad, I would definitely recommend that version.

        • Ninja Foodstuff says:

          Thanks for that. I was actually trying to decide which version would be better for me, and this review and your comment are leaning me towards the ipad version.

          • Revisor says:

            I have played Avadon on PC and Avernum on iPad.
            With iPad you can play on the go but sometimes it’s tricky to click exactly where you want to (although it’s a matter of habit, after 15+ hours I misclick much less).

            I would say the enjoyment is the same on both platforms, buy the one you prefer.

            Whichever one you choose, this is a great game. Much recommended.

  3. CMaster says:

    I remembered as a kid playing a demo of this very hard RPG set underground. Never knew what it was until recently, realised it must have been Exile. Is there a similar demo for Avernum to give it a try?

    • Deadly Habit says:

      All Spiderweb games have demos on their site.

      • lordcooper says:

        Can you import saves into the full game?

        • qrter says:

          As far as I see, the demo is the full game – you just need a key to unlock the rest of the game.

          Meaning: no need to import anything, just play on with the same savegame.

        • InternetBatman says:

          He’s right. You just type in a code and your demo version changes to a full one. Saves and all.

          • Revisor says:

            The demos are huge and saves work hassle-free after purchase. Who would want to lose 8 hours of progress? :)

  4. Deadly Habit says:

    This is a game that isn’t meant to be played at high resolution despite having the option, unless you enjoy straining your eyes…
    Great review though and pretty much how I feel about it, and for the price you really can’t beat it.

    • akkunari says:

      I have no idea what you’re talking about tbh. I’ve been plaing Avadon on 1920×1080 just fine. In fact it’s pretty fantastic on such high resolution.

      • Deadly Habit says:

        It’s easy to miss the tiny objects you can pickup in high resolution for starters.

  5. Anthile says:

    That is curious. I’m playing Avadon at the moment and the pathfinding works just fine there. You can send your party to the other side of the map and they will arrive there without any problems. I was actually impressed by this because it made me remember situations from Baldur’s Gate where this kind of stuff would have resulted in two party members wanting to go through a door at the same time and getting stuck there.

    • frightlever says:

      Worth pointing out, perhaps, there’s an option, on iOS anyway, that stops the camera snapping back to the active party member, which makes navigating a recalcitrant party someone less frustrating.

      To be fair, the interface on iOS seems to work fine. I own Avadon on Steam and iPad, but I see no reason to get Avernum for PC – it just plays better on iPad.

  6. qrter says:

    This game is wonderful. An awful timesink, though – be warned..

  7. frenz0rz says:

    I played the shareware versions of Exile, Exile 2 and Blades of Exile to death as a kid. I was crap at them but thoroughly enjoyed them nonetheless. Its been a long time but I might pick this up, a fiver seems like an absolute steal.

  8. rustybroomhandle says:

    Still playing Avadon – which I bought twice, since I just had to yell “I support the existence of a Linux version” with money.

    Will definitely look into this one, since Steam keeps waving it my face. “Oooh, look at me, I’m here, being advertised at you. Am I in your game collection? No. This is wrong. Fix it, shopper… fix it!” I will cave, yes… I am weak.

  9. Bhazor says:

    Is having to press esc to close a menu (something I do anyway) really worth dedicating a whole paragraph to?

    • Grygus says:

      He dedicated a paragraph to saying that the UI isn’t well thought-out, in support of which the Esc from a menu was only one example. When reviewing a video game, I would argue that the UI is worth a paragraph, yes.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I thought that was odd, seeing as the skill system isn’t mentioned at all. The real complaint seems to be that you can’t press the same button to close a window as you did to open it. Which seems like a neutral design choice, rather than a bad one.

      I know lots of action RPGs have that sort of interface, but Spiderweb games work differently – once you open a window, you’re expected to interact with it, rather than glance and close it. That’s especially true with something like the mentioned Mage spell panel. If you open it, it’s to cast a spell. Canceling it is an exceptional action, not the norm.

    • NathanH says:

      It’s incredibly annoying, since to pick up things from the ground you have to press a button, and you can rarely tell whether the stuff on the ground is worth picking up without pressing this button, but once you have pressed this button and immediately seen that the stuff on the ground is worthless, you just want to immediately press the same button again.

      It comes across as completely trivial but it is really frustrating.

      Basically, any window or game screen you open should always be closed by the same hotkey or icon that opened it, and also the escape key. No excuses ever.

      • pkdawson says:

        [wrong reply]

      • BobTheJanitor says:

        Not only is it clunky to not be able to close the ‘what’s on the ground’ window with the same button: Why, in the first place, do I have to open a window to see if anything is on the ground or not? I get the concept of ‘searching the room’ but the lines between what is and is not the next room are quite vague. I start to feel like if I don’t check every couple of steps, I could be missing the untold riches sitting (invisibly) below my feet!

    • InternetBatman says:

      I agree with the previous commenters. The games are great, but the UI is just a bit wonky.

      • Conner_36 says:

        The ui is wonky like Emacs or VIM, once you get used to it you can really fly around the map and do things easily. Like the letter system is contextual so that A is closer than Z. That applies to items and people. You hit a button to show all the letters and from there its a piece of cake.

        • Ragnar says:

          But we shouldn’t have to learn a whole new UI interface with keyboard shortcuts for one game just because it eventually becomes easier. That’s like asking us to learn dvorak when we already know qwerty, or saying that an FPS uses ESDF instead of WASD and you can’t remap it. Sure, it may not be optimal, but it’s the standard that everyone uses. If you deviate from that, you force us to learn something completely different and unintuitive for one game.

          • Conner_36 says:

            Considering it takes maybe 30 minutes at the most to figure out and that this game is easily over 40 hours its best to buckle up learn something new :)

          • thebigJ_A says:

            Except if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t play one game at a time, but plays for a while, gets distracted by another game, then comes back a week or a month later only to have to relearn everything.

            Hell, I’ve already had that problem with Legend of Grimrock. I had several cool spells I’d figured out without finding the scrolls, but when I came back to the game I’d forgotten the right rune combos and had to spend a half hour guessing at them.

    • Rhygadon says:

      It’s completely appropriate. The interface has several of these small quirks that just get more annoying over time. I bought Avadon at full price, really enjoyed the world and the story, and quit playing after about five hours purely because the moment-to-moment experience of play was so irritating. Simply checking some information about your character — a key process for a game like this — takes far, far longer than it should.

      I love this guy’s design philosophy, and his knack for creating fantasy situations that touch on real, morally deep questions is rare and admirable. But John’s metaphor is exactly right: the UI problems keep me at a distance from the play, so that it never turns into flow. I won’t buy another Spiderweb game unless/until I hear that the UI has been improved.

  10. mechabuddha says:

    I already picked this up completely based on my experience with Avadon. I agree that the interface is…clunky at best, but everything else is so beautifully crafted it doesn’t bother me too much.

  11. Lobotomist says:

    I am currently playing Avadon (but on Android) ,

    Can anyone comment on how Avernum stacks against Avadon ?

    • RuySan says:

      i only played the demo of the original Avernum 10 years ago or something and i remember having a great time (spiderwebsoft game demos are perrty big). Avadon is the weakest link of the company, it seems.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I found Avadon vastly inferior to his other games. Go for the Geneforge collection or this one, if you like turn based RPGs with lots of exploration and narrative freedom you won’t be disappointed.

    • mckertis says:

      “Can anyone comment on how Avernum stacks against Avadon ?”

      That depends. I havent played new Avernum, so maybe he has reworked it alot, but in original Avernum there was combat. Lots of it. And it was pretty hard, most of the time. In Avadon you basically have only weak trash mobs and bosses. In Avernum – every encounter in a new area was potentially deadly.

      Unfortunately, it seems this New Avernum has succeeded the crappy skill tree system from Avadon, where you MUST pick skills and spells you will never use. Too bad.

      • malkav11 says:

        Not really. There’s a lot of crossover and the core skills are all at the bottom. Plus, battle disciplines and spells are only tied to the baseline skill of that type. For my tastes it’s a vast improvement over previous incarnations of the Exile/Avernum skill system because a) you always get stat points instead of having to invest huge quantities of precious skill points in them, and b) no skill ever costs more than one point and you get (at least so far) two points per level. PLUS traits every other level. This latter especially makes me very happy. I have no objection per se to a classless system based entirely around skills, but I hate levelling and having nothing actually improve because I have to save my points for some obnoxiously climbing skill cost. I get that in previous Spiderweb games it was to encourage a certain amount of generalization, but still. Hate.

    • JFS says:

      In my opinion, Avernum is better than Avadon (oh my, those names are so friggin similar…). First of all, you have an entire party to create. I like that. Second, the setting is much more interesting, and third: the artwork! There isn’t that much of it in Avernum, but oh boy the intro and loading screens. Didn’t get that with Avadon.

  12. RuySan says:

    Spiderwebsoft games have indeed awful UI’s. Autohotkey is a must.

    I always play with WASD to navigate the map with all the other basic stuff in the nearby keys (e.g. “E” for the Inventory/floor menu)

  13. Jimbo says:

    UI issues like that can really ruin the experience for me. Skyrim was infuriating before they tidied some of that stuff up. Hopefully they’ll take another look at this and see if it can be improved.

  14. Cryptoshrimp says:

    I love Spiderweb’s games, but I prefer Geneforge above Avernum, and this installment did not change that. Nice enough game, though.

    • FunkyBadger3 says:

      I spent most of Christmas playing several of the Geneforges… excellent games, if unfortunately hard-work on a current PC…

  15. Craig Stern says:

    Yay John! It’s great to see Avernum getting some love on RPS. :)

  16. Juan Carlo says:

    This is the best RPG I’ve played in ages. It’s such a massive world and none of it feels like it was auto-generated like you get with so many open world RPGs. Every little cave, dungeon, city, nook and crany has something interesting and new to see. I’ve been playing it for 50 hours now and I think I’m only like half way done.

    As to complaining about the fact that you can’t pan the camera or zoom, those things are SO beyond this engine that it’s a bit silly to even ask for them or expect them. This entire game was basically written, programmed, and designed by one guy. Of course I do think that Spiderweb often will use that as an excuse to forego innovation (they do churn out a game a year, after all, whereas one wonders if they slowed the pace a bit maybe they could focus on upgrading their engine a bit more often), but still….not being able to zoom or pan the camera has always been the least of my compaints when it comes to spiderweb.

    As to pressing “g,” yeah that’s really annoying and it’s a feature of everyone of their games. I just don’t think the engine can handle ground inventory any other way. After playing Avadon and Geneforge 1 and 2, though, I really don’t notice. Pressing G everytime an enemy dies just becomes second nature after a while.

    So, yeah, people should not let the slightly outdated and idiosyncratic UI keep them from playing what is an awesome game.

  17. QuickRIme says:

    I’m certain there is an option to redefine keys in the settings menu.

  18. Dozer says:

    So, if you managed to get anything built in pre-v2.50 Blender, you’re laughing?

    I never got anything built in pre-v2.50 Blender.

  19. wodin says:

    Funny enough been playing this and the Black fortress and they have really drawn me in after an initial feeling of meh…

    I could imagine a Games of Thrones game using this engine to be very good indeed, as Black fortress at the moment reminds me of it.

  20. InternetBatman says:

    I like the zoomed out camera. It lets you approach the world from a more tactical frame of mind. Either way I think it’s asking too much for one man to make a 3d world with tons of npcs and content. Then again, I’m probably playing at a far lower resolution.

    This game should get the same pass that indie platformers get when they use simple graphics to focus on gameplay. VVVVV could have been a lot prettier but it didn’t need it and I’m glad the effort didn’t go there.

  21. DrScuttles says:

    I’m thinking that Avernum, Grimrock, 1000 Amps and Sword & Sworcery would make a decent birthday present from myself to myself and keep me going a while for just over £20. But then Dustforce did look good as well. Hmm.

    • jamesgecko says:

      Dustforce kept me going about six or seven hours until it became brutally hard. Well, it was brutally hard to start with, but I hit a wall. A wall the likes of which I haven’t seen since Super Meat Boy.

  22. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    How strange. A WIT of an RPG and no Wizardry to be seen.

    • Wizardry says:

      What’s up, Ninja Foodstuff? I’ve played Exile and I’ve played the original Avernum. If this is a second remake of Exile then I don’t really know why I’d want to play it again.

  23. Pemptus says:

    I’ve been playing with the huge demo for a while now, and it’s quite good. I still prefer the original Avernum 1-3 (which is the first remake of Exile 1-3). Sharper graphics, better stat and skill systems go a long way.

    • malkav11 says:

      I still prefer the systems in Exile to either, because you have a six character party (more flexibility) and there are spells like walls of fire and multiple summons. Also, top down is easier to parse than isometric.

  24. Moorkh says:

    I’d reckon Spiderweb’s games to be more in the style of the 80s than the late, in the vein of Ultima 6, the Summoning or the Magic Candles but certainly not the Bioware era. Good times.

    Otherwise, I’d fully agree with John’s conclusions – great game despite the UI clunkiness – I really wonder if Jeff will consider doing something about the latter, though.

    • Wizardry says:

      Indeed. In fact, Exile credits Wizard’s Crown (1985), Phantasie (1985), Realmz (1994), Might & Magic (1986), Deathlord (1987) and Wizardry (1981) as inspiration. These games were either released in the 80s or are series that started in the 80s, with the exception of Realmz which is a tactical indie RPG published by Exile’s publisher in 1994.

      Except the Geneforge games. And Avadon. Those definitely aren’t 80s games in my mind. Those scream of late 90s/00s.

  25. Wolvaroo says:

    I moved on to Spiderweb’s game after picking up Eschalon book 1 (and shortly there-after book 2) off steam on a whim. They are a bit pricey at a glance, which put me off for awhile, but it was well spent in my books.

    I reccomend Basalisk’s Eschalon series to anyone who enjoy avadon,avernum, or geneforge.

    • dogsolitude_uk says:

      Seconded! I bought both Eschalon games in the Steam sale, great stuff :) Ideal for old laptops too :)

      • Juan Carlo says:

        Eschalon runs terribly on laptops–or at least if you have an intel chipset. My laptop can run Half Life 2 and pretty much every game made pre-2008, yet Eschalon runs like molasses.

        • jamesgecko says:

          How odd. My 3.5 year old Intel GMA X3100 seemed to run the demo of book 1 just fine.

  26. mr.black says:

    But there is a way to change shortcuts. it was sorely lacking, till Jeff put it in the last Avernum and has been implemented in other newer games (Avadon, Exiles remake, etc.) ever since.

  27. Tuco says:

    I used to be a fan of Spiderweb games, but to be honest I’m growing quite tired of Jeff Vogel’s disregard for production value.
    He even stated at some point that he doesn’t intend to invest in improving that side at all cause “my games are too niche-oriented, anyway”, which beside being a poor argument (if you make them prettier, they could be a bit less of a niche) is a defeatist attitude I can’t sympathize with.

    And just to be clear, it’s not like I’m asking Mass Effect cinematic cutscenes, but, you know… Animations?

  28. wodin says:

    I’m surprised no one else thinks it’s a good engine to do a Game of Thrones game.

    • MonolithicTentacledAbomination says:

      What makes any engine good for a Game of Thrones game? People say they’d like one, but the only thing I can think of that would retain the flavor the books or even TV series would be a text adventure, something like King of Dragon Pass on iOS. There’s barely any fighting to speak of in GRRM’s books, compared to political maneuvering and such.

  29. vodka and cookies says:

    I’ve always loved Spiderweb games and played all of them but I don’t think I can bring myself to play through this second remake of their first game.

    Also the fantasy genre is being heavily leaned on at the moment in the indie & AAA space, I think Spiderweb would find success with a sci-fi RPG.

  30. WinstonSmith6079 says:

    The review says that this is a ’90s-type RPG, but really it’s an Ultima-clone, except that it has more advanced GFX & sound and an isometric view instead of top-down. The Ultima games date back to the early-’80s (1980, to be more exact), so Avernum: Escape from the Pit is actually in the vein of some of the earliest cRPGs, well before the ’90s came along.