Growing up as an avid Mac gamer in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of RPGs put out by the folks at Spiderweb Software. Not particularly known for their graphical prowess (even back then), these shareware games of old focused more on exploration, narrative and, most important, freedom. Avernum: Escape From The Pit [$9.99] is the second game from Spiderweb to hit iOS, serving as the pinnacle for these RPG tenets and should be looked at as a gold standard for iOS RPGs.

First, a brief history lesson is in order. Avernum for iPad is a remake of the 1999 Avernum title, which itself was a rewrite of the 1995 Mac shareware title Exile: Escape from the Pit. While each iteration brought visual and combat upgrades, the same open-ended exploration system remained. The same holds true for Avernum for iPad, which receives overhauls in both its visual and character/battle systems.

In Avernum: Escape From the Pit, the Empire rules the surface. Anyone that crosses this oppressive regime is banished to underground region of Avernum, a world unto itself that replaces the sun with luminescent moss and the sky with endless caverns. The world, along with all its inhabitants comes to life in the game’s deep narrative which could easily span its own novel. It’s this world that you’re violently thrown into, and it’s in this world that you are free to do what you wish.

It’s this freedom that makes Avernum such a compelling and enjoyable experience. From the moment you customize your four person party at the onset, you are allowed to do what you wish. Sure, you are presented with some overarching decisions as you spend more time in the world (complete with three separate endings), but like all great RPGs, the true reward is in the journey. Whether you choose to be a willing asset of the struggling makeshift kingdom in Avernum, a lone wanderer trying to make do in the cavernous wild, or an agent of destruction and chaos, all paths are available in this title.

In terms of character development, there’re attributes, abilities and traits to customize, each being open to all characters. You really can’t appreciate the sheer amount of options you have as opposed to most other RPGs as a plethora of weapons, armor, abilities and spells supplement the core character stats mentioned above. Fans of the original Avernum series will notice that some of the skills have been streamlined. However, the options have been consolidated for the better, preserving the majority of the customizability while making the game far more accessible.

For those looking for a rundown of Avernum’s gameplay, you need not look any further than our review of Avadon: The Black Fortress, Spiderweb Software’s initial iOS offering that debuted last year. The same isometric, turn-based combat system returns, complete with various difficulties, an auto-save function and a new collection of achievements to earn. As with Avadon, the touch-based control system works well enough, although there are occasions of imprecise tapping, making your characters potentially act in ways you did not mean.

One of the side effects of open-ended gameplay is a shift in exploration and gameplay style. In the world of Avernum, you can and most likely will run into areas that you simply should have not stumbled onto. Enemy fortresses may have hidden rooms (complete with warning signs) featuring overpowered enemies that may wipe your party out. This leads to a lot of saving/reloading as well as a lot of backtracking should you choose to return to previously visited locales to beat that one powerful demon. Fans of streamlined experiences may balk at this gameplay style, but I love the variety as it sets the tone of Avernum as a chaotic world that isn’t as clear-cut as it may appear.

As we mentioned earlier, Spiderweb Software games are homages to classic 90s RPGs in many aspects. That includes the visuals and music, which are simplistic and work just enough to provide ambience. And yet, there were many occasions while playing in which I felt far more attached to the events unfolding than I have while playing any ‘next-gen’ RPG. The amount of effort and care put into the narrative, quests and even level design create an atmosphere that is sorely missed in other titles (assuming you’re willing to lend an able imagination to fill in the gaps).

While Avadon served as a streamlined ‘introductory’ experience to the world of classic RPGs, Avernum (as evidenced above) removes all the handholding in order to create a more open-ended experience. I believe this choice makes Avernum the more fulfilling and satisfying title, as well. The storytelling, customization, and sheer amount of content make this RPG a true powerhouse on iOS. There’s also a certain amount of nostalgic satisfaction as newer gamers are able to experience a world made popular during the Mac shareware golden age. While there will undoubtedly be some who turn away because of the retro look and feel, a truly rewarding experience awaits anyone else willing to dive into the pit.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • http://twitter.com/dtstro Stro

    Honest review. I'd like to add that Avernum is worth every penny for the amount of overall content you'll get. A solid RPG for any iPad owner (Avadon as well). 

    • SoyGreen

      Would you recommend one over the other?

      I have a BRUTAL conference coming up where I will be in a booth for 13 hours on day 1 and 8 on day 2. (There are spurts of busy times when I can set the iPad down... but I will have hours to throw into one of them...)

      I think one of these would be a wonderful way to get through the days!

      • mreford

        Recommendation is based on your preference of play. Avadon is more 'modern' in that there are more linear quests and goals whereas Avernum really is open-ended.

      • SoyGreen

        So would you say that Avadon is more single story driven? Where quests are chains and one leads into the next? So if I'm looking for a good story experience - would that be the best bet?

        And that Avernum is much more open in that exploration of the world is there and I will find many smaller story arcs?

      • mreford

        That's pretty correct. Avadon has you playing an actual 'role' with quests being assigned based on that. Story is probably more cohesive in that manner.

        Avernum features a lot more smaller arcs depending on the quests you find/accept and locations you discover.

        If you're looking for a more 'story-based' experience, probably Avadon. Although I'd recommend that you pick up both at some point.

      • SoyGreen

        OH - if I get one and enjoy it - you bet I'll get to em both! :)

        (problem is having the time to play anymore... stinkin' 1 year olds and wanting to spend time with you!!!) :)

        Looks like the first will be on its way to my iPad here shortly!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Drexiel Drexiel Tempest

    Awesome =D

    I'll be buying this asap

  • Robert Clark

    This does look like an awesome game!

  • Quickmix

    Great RPG in a Classic Style!

  • Tim Ambler

    I played "Exile" when I was a kid and am looking forward to this. Be warned though: this game doesn't support multitasking. Save before switching apps, and don't accidentally press the home button!

    • darwiniandude

      True, but when I've switched back and it's reloaded, I've always been in the same turn. Maybe just one move back, actually. Doesn't seem to be much of an issue.

  • Soul_of_Wit

    If you are all about the gameplay, then this is an RPG for you. A lot of value for the price. This offering from Spiderweb combines wide-open exploration with a good mix of both short- and long-term quests. The possibility of getting in over your head makes this more old school than Avadon. Frequent saving is recommended. It is well balanced, and offers on-the-fly changes to difficulty level.

  • araczynski

    as much as i want to buy these, the graphics just stop me cold every time.  looks do matter.

    • Jordan Cohen

      "Looks" (or graphics, as those fancy people call them) have never once - not ONE TIME in all of history - made a game great.

      Gameplay - now THAT is where the value is at. 

      Don't get me wrong - graphics are wonderful, and they can make a good game great, or carry an average game to goodness - but judging an old-school style RPG by its graphics makes it clear that it's just not the right game for YOU.

    • http://twitter.com/gavanw Gavan Woolery

      Well fortunately there is a whole swath of AAA garbage made for consumers just like you :)

      • araczynski

        Yup, looking forward to the updated baldur's gate for ios.

      • http://twitter.com/gavanw Gavan Woolery

        Me too :)

  • darwiniandude

    Loving this game. Got it maybe, last weekend? Totally engrossing. And to think, I never really thought myself an RPG fan, I just hadn't found the right one. :)

  • http://twitter.com/christianvogel Christian Vogel

    Is anyone playing this on an iPad 1? I found Avadon to chugging quite a bit on it, is this one doing better?

  • Kareos

    Honestly I think the coolest thing here is that the dev is getting supported by a fan base for doing this. Maybe there is something to the whole MW# whiplash...

  • http://www.facebook.com/Axerax Michael Greer

    I played this game when I was very young, I had my first computer running Windows Millennium Edition and I played all 3 games as "Exile" then again as "Avernum" and the newest 4th title. I'm sure they have more now. But these are high quality games from a very good indie development team.

    Inspired me to go into the game designing field, so if you're interested in seeing how a company builds a quality game with a limited budget, this is how.

Avernum: Escape From the Pit HD Reviewed by Eric Ford on . Rating: 4.5