If you are not familiar with the Avernum and Geneforge series of games, you are missing out. Developed for both Mac and PC by Spiderweb Software, these RPGs eschew flashy visuals for deep story and hours and hours of solid gameplay.
The latest from Spiderweb is Geneforge 5. The core concept of the Geneforge series is based on the existence of people known as Shapers. Shapers can mold matter and magic into semi-intelligent or even intelligent creatures that are subservient to the Shaper. The classic Shaper hierarchy is fine with this, believing that Shapers’ creations are lesser beings and should be treated as such. A growing group of Creations, backed a group of Rebels, disagree, and have been fighting the Shapers for five games now.
Geneforge 5 finds this world on the verge of total disruption. The Rebels are succeeding, and regime change seems imminent. The Shaper Council has begun infighting and choosing sides at will. You are thrown into this as a character with a mysterious past, who might even be a Creation, but who has rare Shaper skills.
The game centers as much around you finding out who and what you are as it does on your role in the greater world. That’s a welcome change, as the last four game in the series have been strong but slight variations on the theme of Empire vs. Rebels. That classic trope is present here, too, but there seem to be many more factions and options for the player to choose from than in previous iterations.
Art is not Spiderweb’s bailiwick. Spiderweb is largely the work of one man, Jeff Vogel, and he has made a conscious choice to put his efforts into writing over visuals. As a result these games have passable characters, decent textures, and utterly forgettable items. The advantage is that you can play these on an aged system or the newly-popular Netbooks. The disadvantage is that they look like they were made in 1996 with minor visual tweaks along the way.
The heart of any RPG is its battle system. Fights in Geneforge are classic turn-based fare with a bit of strategy thrown in. Characters have action points which they can spend to move, fight, or both. You have to be in range of an attack for it to hit, so figuring out how few points you can spend on movement of each character or Creation and still attack is key. After that, though, it is very much an RPG-type magic and mundane attack system with the expected status change spells and elemental weaknesses.
When you’re not in battle, movement is accomplished through an overland map system. New areas open up as you move through the map. Once you’ve cleared an area, you can always move to it from any other cleared area. This is a real time-saver, and takes away the question of annoying random battles. You can always see what’s coming in Geneforge 5.
For people who have played through the Geneforge series, Geneforge 5 is more of the same. Solid but somewhat tired story, good battle system, excellent writing. If you are following the Geneforge storyline and want to know more, have at it. For newcomers to Spiderweb’s particular brand of game, Geneforge 5 is as good an entry point as any. It assumes no prior knowledge, though prior knowledge will add depth to the proceedings. In the end, this game sells for $28 and you’ll be hard-pressed to find more RPG entertainment for less money these days.
For being a solid RPG, if repetitive for fans of the series, Geneforge 5 gets Three Weiners out of Five.