By Michael Stoll 09 August 2016
Top line: Avernum 2: Crystal Souls is a classic-style RPG with all of its skill and creativity dedicated to making dungeon mazes and none of it dedicated to making the game interesting. 1.5/5.
The previous image is symbolic of my experience playing Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. You’ll notice, just left of the imposing wall of text, the shimmering red block preventing the player character from moving forward. That is the magical barrier that prevents you from moving on early in the game. I won’t make you read the Star Wars-esque slab of words placed in front of you, as this game so often does, but around the second paragraph your journal refers to the wall as green. This seems like a nitpick, I know. But, for me, what it really reinforced was that the game’s designers and the writers were on a completely different page. That is, the designers were on the page titled “How to make a decent, bare-bones RPG” and the writers were on the “How to fall off the fantasy tree and hit every trope-branch on the long, long way down” page.
Before I dive into all the problems I had with the game’s story and pacing, I’ll start with what I did like in the 16-hour experience playing Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. For starters, if you’ve ever played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and you’ve ever said “oh dear Azura, another cave full of zombies,” you might find yourself surprised by your dungeon-diving experience. Each cave, castle, and crevice of mountain paths you raid feels different from one another. In one cave, you walk along a winding spiral with different magical traps and enchantments that prevent your progress, until you finally reach the boss in the center. In another, you must figure out the order of a set of switches to free a group of crystal-frozen people from eternal slumber. All in all, the game was at its best when the player was waist-deep in exploring and adventuring.
Likewise, the combat system is worthy of some praise. It’s a little clunky at first, but once the cobwebs have been shaken off the fights are fairly intuitive and flow seamlessly with the travel system. The combination of basic attack and defense strategies amongst the four protagonists allow for the creation of more complex strategies used to fight enemies of all types, whether fighting a large group of weaker foes, or just one big baddie, or any combination. It’s simple to get a hold of, but still diverse enough to keep things interesting.
Now we reach the “issues” section. The above picture was the very first thing I did in this game, which is name and customize my characters. It was the most involved I would ever be in the game’s story. If you can imagine the most generic possible fantasy story, I would like you to do so. You probably came up with something slightly more original than that of Avernum 2: Crystal Souls. There is, of course, and obligatorily evil Empire faction, hellbent on being evil for reasons. Your people live in a giant cavern called “Avernum”. There are native lizard peoples called “Slitheraki” whose names are all variations of the sounds “Sss” and “Hiss”. There are goblins, trolls, lizards, magical elves hidden in a far-away corner of the land who mistrust the humans but later see past their differences, ghouls, zombies, ghasts, giant bats, giant lizards, giant spiders, dragons, drakes, slimes, bandits, and, of course, evil Empire soldiers. The list goes on. The world crafted in Avernum 2 never sees it as an obligation to give the player characters any, well character. It could be argued that a truly immersive experience would never impose such as thing as character onto a truly free gameplay experience. However, the gameplay is in no way free. You play as the hero who does heroic things wherever he may travel. This is made worse by the fact that at no point does the game attempt to differentiate the four different characters the player controls, simply referring to them as an all-catching “you”. Every other character in the game is, of course, forgotten at a moment’s notice. They all either have no character traits, or one that controls every moment dialogue that they are given.
With all of that said, does any of it really matter if the game still feels like a fantasy world you’ve found yourself in? Perhaps not, but the game makes almost painful efforts to take the player out of the world it has created. Despite the use of standard fantasy swords, bows, and magic, the game constantly relies on modern humor and language. From the castle filled with spider-people who refer to the player characters as “cute” to the constant modern colloquialisms used by NPCs, I couldn’t tell if the game started off as a parody of fantasy games at first and then later changed course or if two of the lead writers has very different ideas for the game they were making.
There’s a few other comments I’d like to make before I conclude the review. I found the graphical art to be fairly standard. There was nothing exceptionally bad about it, and occasionally some of the enemies were kind of cool. The music and sounds grate on the nerves after the first few hours of gameplay, since all of it is the same all the way throughout. And finally, I want to point out that I never finished playing Avernum 2:Crystal Souls. The main reason for this is (and I’m trying my best not to spoil too much, but if you’re looking to play this game, by all means, skip ahead) the game required of me to receive a higher security clearance from the army to move forward. To do this, I was told to complete missions around Avernum for the different citizens and mayors. I spent probably 10 of my 16 hours doing this, and they would. Not. Give it to me. I finally gave up in exasperation.
Bottom Line: I give Avernum 2: Crystal Souls a score of 1.5/5. While I found the gameplay to be mediocre and even occasionally good, the story was severely lacking. Put plainly, if the game were divided into a bare-bones game and a book to include the lore and story, you’d be left with a decent dungeon brawler and an awful book.