With the current fad in gaming being the replication of a ‘retro’ look or feel to appeal to a gamer’s sense of nostalgia, we thought that now would be a good time to look up a trilogy of RPGs that actually ARE from a by-gone era and evaluate them as free indie titles using the values we would apply to a modern indie release.
It’s unusual we review a whole trilogy in one sitting, but Spiderweb Software’s classic Exile games (titled individually as ‘Exile: Escape from the Pit’, ‘Exile II: Crystal Souls’ and finally ‘Exile III: Ruined World’) all run on the same engine and make up one single huge narrative when played in succession. The expansion ‘Blades of Exile’ will also get some minor commentary, being both a series of three short campaigns set after the trilogy’s conclusion and an open-source game editor. It’s worth mentioning that these games have been remade as the ‘Avernum’ series since their first release and are currently going through the process of being overhauled and remade again, with the current series having just released Crystal Souls. Needless to say the games keep finding an audience, but we’re not here to look at the remakes but rather the free-ware original Exile trilogy as it was upon release and how it holds up today.
Graphically the series uses the same engine to power all three titles with only marginal graphical changes to the HUD in terms of button layout and background textures. The game shows you what’s happening on the left and provides you with a simultaneous text description of everything you do or encounter on the right in real-time. The game world is built on a square grid that enables backgrounds, obstacles and characters to interact nicely, though the artwork for terrain and assets is grainy in quality the spite work on display is of a good standard. Sprites aren’t animated, meaning that the game can feel a little lacking in the motion department, but drawing from a series of BMP files that contain all the terrain and all the characters for the game is one of the game’s biggest strengths because it allows for endless customization of the games assets. As a youth I’d open these files up in Paint and spend some considerable time tweaking the visuals of my custom party to match their current builds, and today with access to Photoshop and other tools one can completely reskin the game quite quickly should the mood take them. On a design level the character party that the player can choose from between these games is nicely diverse, with male and female adventurers from different classes and ethnic backgrounds represented. The Lizardmen encountered in-game are a particular standout as the sprites employed for them are especially nice. The series doesn’t evolve a great deal visually between entries, but it keeps a solid sense of world at all times and those seeking to customize their experience won’t be disappointed.
Sound is really the game’s biggest let-down because the effects are on the poor side and often don’t feel quite right for the situation at hand, lacking that crucial punch. The game has no obvious fix for this because unlike the graphics you can’t swap them out on a whim. There’s also no music to help set the scenes, but at the time of this games release music in games wasn’t seen as a necessity in the way it is today. Ultimately it’s a game that would benefit from setting the sound firmly on to the off setting for maximum enjoyment.
Put together the combined stories of the three Exile games are pretty epic, with the initial installment seeing yourself and a party of five friends taken for crimes against an all-encompassing Empire and sent through a portal to the world of Exile below. Over the years many have been condemned in such a manner and far from empty caverns of harsh rock, what you find is a whole subterranean world with towns and troubles of its own. The one thought on your collective minds? Escape. The range of story elements in Exile is broad and includes securing a means of escape from the pit into which you’ve been thrown, assassinating the evil Emperor Hawthrone and dealing with a demon that has been threatening Exile’s people. The first sequel, Crystal Souls, sees the Empire sending troops into Exile in recognition of the threat it poses. A new party of characters encounters a strange creature from a previously undiscovered race that is capable of creating magical barriers seemingly at random in Exile and pushes forward to form an alliance. Together the Exiles and the Vahnatai turn the tables on the might of the Empire and push them out of the pit for good. The final installment in the trilogy takes place sometime later with Exile an established power preparing to strike out to the surface and reclaim the land. A third player created party venture forth on a scouting mission but discover that the world above isn’t everything they thought it would be and has its own set of problems. Monsters roam the land and the Empire is crumbling, the remnants, discovering the player party, beg for their aid in stopping this blight and unite both Exiles and Imperials against a common foe. Lastly Blades of Exile adds a few optional quests to play through in a post-Exile 3 world. These include searching for a reason for the water in a portion of the land to have become a virulent poison and don’t add much to the over-arching narrative built by the trilogy that came before it, really they are expansion missions added to a custom editing tool for players to create their own adventures now that the original story was complete. There’s a lot of depth and texture to the world and characters of Exile (player party non-withstanding) and the writing is certainly the highlight of the experience.
Gameplay is entirely mouse-driven and works in a ‘click to move in this direction’ fashion with the mouse icon morphing to show the direction in which you will travel. Interaction is done through the icons below and clicking one will turn the mouse into a similar image that you then click over the object you want to interact with. It’s a little more fiddly than it strictly HAS to be, with context sensitive use of the mouse being possible at the time (recognizing that it’s over an NPC and changing to the talk prompt for example) but there are plenty of options laid out using the buttons. These include Speech, Looking, Wizard and Cleric spells, Picking up or opening an item, Combat mode and more. Shortcuts to the individual spell lists are in fact very handy and the games control will feel like second nature to those who grew up on the old point-click adventure titles. I personally found the look command more useful than I had expected to. Combat is turn based and tactical in nature and the party takes it in turns to be moved and take actions while enemies do the same. Like the combat seen in ‘Ultima IV’, It’s a very solid and traditional take on battles with games like ‘Gurk III’ trying to capture the same feel on the iPhone today. The variety of weapons, equipment, enemies and spells makes for a decent amount of depth and gives you a reason to search out every corner of the world to loot items for use or resale. Characters as mentioned before are entirely custom made at the games outset, though the game can generate one for you, and the variety in skills and classes allows for a lot of flexibility in your group. I usually like to play characters to their class and have a central hero who can dish out damage but do some light healing if the party healer goes down, but you could easily build an assassin with poisoned arrows or a mage with a passion for big axes who likes to be in the front row. It’s a little intimidating at first, like cracking open a copy of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, but sensible explanations in-game help. Speaking to characters is a text-based affair with the player typing in command prompt questions and key words to gleam the information they need. I admire this kind of system because it makes you work to get the most out of the games story and promotes a sense of satisfaction when discoveries are made, but I can see why it went out of style in favor of a more cinematic experience.
Overall the original Exile trilogy holds up pretty well today, especially if you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys a challenge and an open world to explore. The graphics fall into the between-years where high quality artwork hadn’t come in yet and sprites were on the out, making them feel a little cheap and grainy by today’s standards, which is a shame because the actual artwork is very nice. Still you can impose your own party over them or clean them up yourself if it offends your eyes too much and that simple sense of customization goes a long way. The sound is truly lacking, but it doesn’t muddy an overall good experience. So should you download the games? I’d say yes, at the low-low price of FREE on Spiderweb Software’s homepage you can get the full set and a character editor to buff or heal your party (cheat!) outside of the game. They may not be classically ‘retro’ but they tell a good story, play reasonably well and still hold up better than a great many indie games do to this day. Experience a little history before you head out to purchase the remastered editions on your iOS and Android devices.