If you’ve been following along on our RPG Reload Podcasts, you’ll know that we have a soft spot for Spiderweb Software’s excellent old-school RPGs. In addition to dedicating a whole segment to Avernum: Escape from the Pit ($9.99)on Episode 2, we’ve also spoke at length to the recent drama regarding Avernum 2: Crystal Souls ($9.99). Released and taken off the market within a day, issues with iOS 8.3 threatened not only its release but also the release of future titles. Thankfully, all that has been resolved and Jeff Vogel’s group has rereleased the second game in the Avernum series on iPad. It’s a big win for RPG fans, as Avernum 2 continues the excellent tradition of old-school RPG goodness with a new adventure deep underground.
For folks that haven’t had the pleasure of playing a Spiderweb RPG, Crystal Souls is an old-school open-world turn-based RPG with plenty of NPCs, a sprawling world to explore and a wealth of optional content that prepare players for the high level objectives that seem impossible at the onset. A basic leveling and customization system provides players with some flexibility in terms of character development, and there are plenty of weapons and armor (both magical and otherwise) to buy and find. The Avernum (and before, Exile) gameplay system has always been highly tuned and Crystal Souls uses the same upgraded system as showcased in Escape from the Pit. Simply put, it’s a great game for both and old new RPG fans and offers a classic experience that is rarely seen in today’s modern RPGs.
Gameplay elements rarely change from title to title in the Avernum series. Rather, the big draw (and to be honest, the primary draw of games of this caliber) is in the tale, so I’ll focus primarily on the story itself, how it changes compared to Escape from the Pit, and whether the tale is worth the price admission. Before we get to that point, however, it’s worth mentioning to interested players that the gameplay, from character selection to attributes and traits to the touch-based controls themselves, are identical to Escape from the Pit. I thought the transition to iPad worked quite well in my previous review, so I have little in the way of complaints with the way Crystal Souls is handled.
While it’s certainly not necessary to enjoy Crystal Souls, a bit of background from Escape of the Pit is helpful in appreciating what this sequel brings to the table. After being exiled to the underground land of Avernum in the first game, players were given a huge world to explore with plenty of quests but also a few end-game objectives. One such objective was to assassinate Emperor Hawthorne, the leader of the Empire that was responsible for sending you to Avernum in the first place. In Crystal Souls, the game assumes that you are act successful in that endeavor, and the assassination has caused quite an uproar on the surface world.
The assassination leads to an invasion of Avernum by Empire troops. As the introductory cutscenes state, at first the people of Avernum are able to successfully hold back Empire troops due to sheer will and knowledge of the region (combined with the hubris of the Empire troops). However, the Avernite advantage was short-lived as the Empire began to make headway into the underground region. As the tides of war began to turn, mysterious barriers began to appear in Avernum, breaking up key regions and separating both Empire troops and Avernum soldiers. The barriers throw the entire region into chaos as now the people of Avernum have to deal with both an Empire invasion as well as having key cities and regions cut off.
This is where the player comes in. As a group of four soldiers on digging duty in a remote fort, war hasn’t quite reached you. However, the standard invasions from the other denizens of Avernum have. After defending your fort from a small time battle, you’re sent to take care of the local threat before being let loose upon the world. Your immediate goals? Defend the people of Avernum, investigate and hopefully dispel the mysterious barriers, and repel the Empire army.
While players will notice a lot of familiar locales in Crystal Souls, the beauty of the story is in how they’ve changed. Five years have passed since the events of the original Avernum and that translates to lots of change. Couple that with the war and mysterious barriers and you’ll find location and NPCs to be in quite different situations. An early example that players will encounter is with the dragon Motrax. In the first game, Motrax an elderly dragon that eagerly looks forward to meeting the player characters and offers some missions. In Crystal Souls, it was recently attacked by the Empire before you meet and has become gravely injured. You can still talk to the dragon but you’ll notice an obvious change in demeanor as well as how kept the dragon lair is. You’ll notice even more significant changes the further you advance in the game.
As is the case with other Avernum games, Crystal Souls does an excellent job of fleshing out the entire world and when you combine the significant changes that have occurred since the first game, even familiar faces and locales have new motivations and events to take into consideration. For players that have never played an Avernum game before, this means that there are plenty of side quests, people to interact with and places to explore. For folks that played through Escape from the Pit, that added history makes the experience even deeper as players get to witness how the world changed from game to game.
As its name implies, the Avernum series has always been about the land itself; the players we create are simply exploring and leaving their imprint on it. Spiderweb Software’s ability to keep that world engaging from game to game is one of the reasons I thoroughly enjoy the series as whole. Whenever a game is remade as is the current case with Avernum, it’s easy to question whether the developers will be able to maintain that reverence for what made the classics work. I’m happy to report that Jeff Vogel understands that need and Crystal Souls continues this tradition.
As you might gather from this review, story telling is Crystal Souls’ biggest strength. However, that extends well beyond the tale itself but also to the player’s individual story. The strength in player customization combined with the large world and huge exploration potential means that each player’s experience has the potential to be unique. It’s very easy to get caught up in hours of optional content and never even think about the big objectives. It’s reminiscent of the recent resurgent open-world RPGs but obviously in a more much classic setting.
While Crystal Souls has been available for PC for awhile now, I think that the iPad version has a better control scheme. Hence, I have no problem saying that Crystal Souls should be considered the definitive version and I’m very happy to see it make its return on the iPad. Crystal Souls, as well as the rest of the Avernum series, offers an RPG experience that is not only nostalgic but holds its own even in today’s iOS environment. Whether you’ve played Escape from the Pit or not (and I suggest you do), Crystal Souls is well worth a recommendation.