Spiderweb Software has a longer history than just about any other RPG developer still around today. As an independent studio headed up by Jeff Vogel (who is responsible for the programming, game design, writing and much of the artwork in his games), Spiderweb has a surprisingly large following that has stayed consistent for years. It's no surprise, perhaps, as it's one of the few developers still providing traditional turn-based, party-based games with a point-and-click PC-style interface. Beginning with Exile: Escape from the Pit in 1996, Spiderweb have nearly 20 games (including remakes) to their name.
Avernum: Escape from the Pit is a remake of 1999's Avernum, which in turn is a remake of Exile under a different name. A "remake of a remake" isn't a common thing, but evidently Jeff Vogel is a fan of updating his games both for new audiences, new technology (his Avernum 6 engine) and new devices (the iPad). While I'm personally familiar with a few Spiderweb games, I haven't played the original Exile or Avernum before, so like many, I'm going into Avernum: Escape from the Pit with fresh eyes. While the question of whether or not this second remake offers enough new content to be worthwhile to old fans is a bit hard to answer, on its own, Avernum stands as a very solid exploration-driven RPG that fans of the genre should enjoy, albeit with some rough edges.
Welcome to the Pit
Avernum is unique in that its world (also called Avernum) is entirely underground. Cast into the darkness by the all-controlling Empire on the surface world for some crime or other, your party of four will soon learn that life under the surface of the earth is actually quite remarkable, if harsh and dangerous. The kingdom that's been formed by exiles like yourself, ruled by King Micah and home to six major towns and a society of mages, is a large and relatively prosperous place all things considered. After a short, if slightly awkward tutorial sequence (a brand-new addition), you're set free into the game world to explore, do good deeds, strike a blow to the Empire, and, hopefully, escape from your subterranean prison.
If there's one thing that Avernum completely gets right, it's open-world exploration and a sense of progression. While not entirely free-roaming, you'll work your way from one corner of the world to another, following more or less whatever path you want. With the single goal of escaping Avernum, there's a lot of room to take your time and figure things out. As you explore the world, so too will you grow in power, learn more about Avernum, its people and history, and so on, until you're finally both tough enough and well-traveled enough to leave it behind. Trekking deeper and deeper, the distance from civilization growing as the land becomes more and more desolate, Avernum is able to create a feeling of scale and, later, isolation, that few other games can.
Two more goals appear as you explore the caverns - strike a blow to the Empire by assassinating its Emperor right inside his palace, and defeat the ancient demon Grah-Hoth. Combined with escaping to the surface, these form the three "great goals" of Avernum. In keeping with its generally open-ended nature, Avernum never actually ends until you want it to, a design choice which encourages you to explore every inch of the game world and solve every quest. Without any points of no return, forced cutscenes and plot doors, you're free to play at your own pace in a game actually built for it, making Avernum a stronger open-world experience than many more modern titles.
Of course, there's a lot of additional content beyond these "great goals", and in fact, many of those goals require you to solve several other quests - banishing the demon Adze-Haakai from the Mages' Tower, collecting a magic orb that allows your party to fly, helping out several dragons, and so on. There's also a lengthy subplot concerning helping out either the Empire's servants, the kingdom of Avernum, or the freehold of Kyass, in addition to several dozen minor quests sprinkled all throughout the game world. Many of these help guide your exploration, but I was able to solve many, many quests and visit the farthest reaches of the world well before I was "supposed" to simply by striking out on my own. The rewards - skill-boosting tomes, money, magic artifacts, and more - are more than enough reward, and make exploration very compelling.
As Avernum is based off of Exile, Spiderweb's oldest game, the design of many of these quests and the overall story is decidedly different from the newer titles. Rather than having a plot, it'd be more accurate to say Avernum gives you a lot of problems to solve and scenarios to complete. Almost all of the quests are of the fetch/kill variety, and there are very few puzzles to be found, so unfortunately they tend not to be very interesting on their own. At the same time, a global reputation mechanic and the fact that many characters are involved in multiple quest-lines also means that advancing one quest will help you indirectly in others, which gives the world a great sense of consistency, as well as a feeling of progress in your adventure as previously locked areas and opportunities open to you, sometimes revealing entirely new sections of the game world that were invisible earlier on.