Avernum 3: Ruined World recreates classic isometric RPGs, a la Fallout and Ultima. It’s incredibly fun, that is, as long as you’re a sucker for RPGs regardless of overall quality and polish, like me! While I enjoyed myself, I don’t think this game is anything special and feels like it’s selling itself purely on nostalgia.
For a lot of folks, capturing that feeling might be enough to justify a full playthrough; or, if you’re a curious younger person like myself, who was understandably not cognizant during Avernum 3’s original release, this is a great opportunity to discover the franchise. But, if you want a game that is going to surprise you as it tries new things, you won’t find anything like that. This is a very by the book and standard RPG.
In the process of reinventing this game, they merged modern approaches towards design with outdated choices creating a strange and clunky amalgamation of a game. It feels like a modern RPG hiding behind an archaic façade. Some of these choices are bizarre, like a limited UI that is frustrating to work with. They paired this with a redesigned skill tree and spell system that would fit perfectly in the Witcher or Skyrim. Is it retro? Is it modern? It’s a bit of both and not better for being either.
I just didn’t find this middle road approach captivating. If it weren’t for the fact that the story and quests were entertaining, this wouldn’t be a fun game. Pretend that Avernum 3 is not a remake and is simply a 2018 indie title and it plays like a great story wrapped up in the most annoying design limitations of yesteryear.
Should You Buy It
After that tiny rant, you may think I would say, “NO NO NO NO NO! DO NOT BUY!” However, I’m a sucker for older games (read my bio at the bottom of this article). I owe my tastes in gaming to accidentally coming across a download for a pirated copy of Fallout 1 in my youth. On top of that, if you’re someone who, like myself, constantly craves new RPGs, Avernum 3 will scratch that itch.
However, If you want something polished and easily consumable, stay away. If you want to actually know what niche games were like 20 years ago, stay away. If you’re not really into RPGs and you’re reading this article out of curiosity, go play Divinity: Original Sin 2 and report back here to pick one of the previous options.
Why? The learning curve on this game is steep; which would be forgivable if it was an actually difficult game. But the entire curve is just learning how to use the UI. I cannot see this game appealing to those not already sold on RPGs. There are better games in the genre that are way easier to start playing and more fun.
The UI will cause you more grief over the first 10-20 hours than any of the bosses you face. I apparently have a great deal of patience and I’m content with the time I spend learning to play. Once I figured out how to actually do simple things, the game opened up and became brilliant. However, you might not be so patient and forgiving as to wait 10 hours before this game becomes playable.
This is a very straightforward isometric RPG. Your mouse is the primary vehicle by which you’ll interact with the world: click to move, click to interact, click to attack, click to talk. While you also can play this almost entirely with a keyboard, I didn’t think that control scheme was designed well. So for us normies, we’ll be doing a lot of clicking.
You begin with a team of four heroes. Customization is limited to picking between four classes, a few races, cycling through a few sprites for each race, and creating a somewhat short name. It’s disappointing, as this is an easy place to add improvements to a classic game without moving too far from the original experience. But, nonetheless, after making your team you are put right into the action and the game once again has a misstep.
It is common for games to give you space to organically learn how to play. Doing this well is the height of game design. You could study something like Portal and write hundreds of papers on how it teaches people to play without ever taking them out of the game. Avernum 3’s opening is nothing close to that experience. Your first bouts of combat are messy and overly difficult. You’ll be confused trying to figure out how to use your character’s special abilities. You are more or less left to figure everything out on your own, all of it convoluted by the sub-par UI.
The RP in your G
Roleplaying makes a limited appearance in Avernum 3 as far as choices go. While each NPC presents you with a small handful of dialogue options, they don’t achieve anything beyond being prompts for more exposition. Occasionally, a dialogue choice will have a permanent repercussion, but this felt a bit random and never overtly important. I usually didn’t know my choice was permanent until after the fact, which took some of the fun away. Making choices only feels important when you know you are making a choice.
On top of that, I felt hamstrung into behaving ways I didn’t want my characters to, as there was rarely more than one way to complete a quest. While I know I likely missed some options, overall it felt like a completely linear game, focusing on stats and leveling, not choices.
All that said, the place where choices do appear and have an impact is while exploring the overworld map and running into monsters. Bump into a group of unicorns, roaches, or blobs and you may be pleased with unexpected results when prompted with a variety of options. It shows that the potential and know how were there, but choices were simply not a major element in how this game was designed. Instead, the real goal is to complete every quest, regardless of what kind of character you want to roleplay.
A bit more on the Writing
The other disappointment is that character creation didn’t really play into roleplaying either. Putting non-human races into your party does give you special flavor texts from time to time, but it rarely feels like it matters that half my party is non-human. The game doesn’t even appear willing to commit to its own world building. You are told at the start that your heroes are spies who would be killed if they are discovered. Instead, every NPC seems aware of who you are and your mission and they don’t care. The fun of role-playing spies is stripped away before it even starts.
The writing is top notch, however. It kept me laughing and engaged for 25 hours and I bet it would have continued to do so for another 30. That said, I like choices in my RPGs that go a bit beyond to kill or not to kill.
The G in your RP
So what is the actual combat gameplay like? Firstly, it’s turn-based. Your heroes have a set number of action points which are used for both movement and attack. As my heroes grew more powerful they started being able to attack twice per round. I’m sure after 60 hours they’ll be throwing spells about, jumping about the map like nobody’s business.
If you are looking for a game that is going to challenge you, you’ll be disappointed as strategy isn’t much of a concern here. The spell system is terribly unbalanced. Most of the spells affect large areas and do the same damage as a normal attack. A party full of magic users far out competes having non-magic users in your group.
The game tries to balance this by making mages unable to wear full armor but with near unlimited healing available and obtainable traits that let you override this restriction, they dominate in combat. The best strategy was to attack the largest group of enemy you can and bomb them with AOE Spells.
A bit more on combat
Movement is done by traversing tiles in the eight cardinal directions allowing you to creatively use hallways and doors to corral and direct enemies into favorable positions. The movement system is very well done and I quite enjoyed how I could dramatically alter the outcome of the fight by positioning myself favorably. So snaps to you.
Much of the NPC behavior in combat is unpredictable, perhaps driven by some level of randomness. This creates encounters that play out with a bit more interest than what other RPGs offer. But it also means you could cheese the system by scum saving until the NPCs did enough stupid stuff to ensure your victory.
A few minutes in you’ll click on some NPCs and hopefully read what they have to say, giving you enough clues to complete your first few quests. This is where the game is strongest, and also the least changed from classic RPGs. You’ll never be directly pointed towards where you are supposed to go and If you’re not paying attention, you’re likely to get lost quickly.
You’ll face goblins, bandits, sentient goo, and evil unicorns. Kill enough bad guys and you’ll level up. All in all, it’s about as straightforward as an RPG can get. I don’t feel it brought anything new to the table, other than feeling a bit more like a paper and pen experience than normal.
I don’t think that hurts the overall game, even though it’s not the most mechanically interesting. If you like RPGs you’ll already be very familiar with everything Avernum 3 is offering. It isn’t going to win any converts nor is it going to impress fanatics. It’s just a solidly, okay game.
When you level up, you are presented with a very modern experience. Perhaps the best designed element of the game. You choose between improving 1 of 4 stats. Strength makes you hit harder, dexterity makes your archery better, etc. The talent tree feels lifted out of WoW or Skyrim, with lines connecting various skills which all provide a very direct and immediate impact on gameplay. It is very modern and probably a turn off for people looking for a truly classic experience.
You also have a few points to spend on talents; things like allowing a mage to wear full armor or an extra bonus to lock picking. It is a very enjoyable and simple skill system that allows for a lot of forward-thinking as you try to solve problems and beat quests. When a quest involved a locked door which required a higher skill than I had, I spent the next three levels dumping points into lockpicking until I could open it. I love these kinds of skill systems, as it makes your heroes’ progress feel real and tangible.
The most standout aspect of the skill system is that non-combat skills stack between party members. Instead of having one hero who you dump points into lockpicking and another who you dump points into speech, Avernum 3 uses the total points of your team to determine how good you are at something. I’m not really sure how you explain this logically, four people who are terrible at picking locks wouldn’t be able to suddenly crack a world class safe just because they put their heads together, but if you step back from that, it is unique and fun to exploit.