My previous post went over a bunch of the more abstract aspects of MotB that resonated with me, and the two albums have recapped most of the my thoughts on the plot proper. So, here are a bunch of idle musings, not attached to much of anything at all!
First, the non-spoiler ones:
I prefer the crafting system in MotB to the one in NWN2, mostly because I actually used it. I know that a lot of people love crafting in NWN2, partly because they like the character aspects of it (it does connect to a wonderful tradition stretching back to Ultima and continued in many other non-BioWare RPGs), and because the best crafted gear can be much more powerful than the best non-crafted gear, so it's appealing to both roleplayers and min/max-ers. But, for people like me who are playing the game mostly for the plot, it ended up just being a complex, opaque, time-consuming subsystem that I could fortunately safely ignore, instead focusing my limited gaming time on awesome story and character moments.
The main improvement in MotB is a big simplification of crafting. NWN2 had a staggering array of recipes, requiring a big array of different possible components. With planning, you could make something very powerful, but the odds of you just happening to hold the ingredients you needed was practically nil. MotB eliminates all the old stuff and replaces them with a single set of resources, Essences, that you directly take from slain enemies. Enhancing your weapon and armor then becomes a simple matter of applying those essences to the item. Want to add a Lightning attack to your sword? Then use some Air Essences. The more essences and higher quality the essence, the more damage you'll do. How about adding a higher attack to your weapon? Just add Power essences, and so on.
The one thing that was still a little annoying was the lack of any in-game description of what was needed for each upgrade; but fortunately an FAQ was just a few clicks away.
I had big plans for crafting, but ended up not doing that much. Upgrades now check your character level instead of your Crafting skill, and the highest-tier upgrades (like +8 attack bonuses) require a level 30 character. I used Safiya for crafting, and she finally reached level 29 right before the very end. But, I did apply a few mid-level upgrades, which were pretty awesome. I found a Falchion fairly early on that had the "Spirit's Ruin" ability, which lets you inflict critical hits on normally-critical-resistant spirits. With Safiya's crafting upgrades, I was able to add a +5 attack and 2D8 electrical damage. I'd planned to eventually upgrade this to +8 attack, 5D6 electrical, and Persistent Haste, but never got the levels for the attacks, and didn't get enough Spirit Essences for the Haste). Still, even those upgrades still let me destroy everything up through the time I got back the Silver Sword of Gith.
My character build continued along the lines that I'd started in NWN2. I'd already earned all of my Red Dragon Disciple levels, so I was mostly continuing in Weapon Master, though I switched back to Fighter near the end. Weapon Master's biggest jump happens at Level 5, where you get an increased critical multiplier AND an extra +1 on all attack rolls; but, it's worth continuing to Level 7, which expands your critical threat range by 2. Since I'd also taken every single Falchion weapon feat (Power Critical, Improved Critical, etc.), I was critting ridiculously often for ridiculously high levels of damage. Above Level 7, Weapon Master just gives you additional Ki attacks per day, which become less useful the more you get (you're not likely to expend all of them in any boss fight), so I switched back to Fighter to get more bonus feats.
I didn't do anything too special with any of my companion builds. They're all locked into a single class anyways, so I just gave them the stats that worked best for that, and tried to focus on their chosen spell school or weapon ability as appropriate. One of my companions was an interesting critter who controlled his own leveling and couldn't use most equipment, so that was even easier to manage than the rest.
The first part of Mask of the Betrayer is very focused on your sense of isolation and disorientation. Whether you're importing from NWN2 or starting fresh, you're in a land where nobody knows you and you don't know what's going on. I thought it was nice that, starting late in Act 2 and especially in Act 3, they start bringing back elements from the first game, particularly callbacks to your other companions. It might have felt disappointingly brief if we'd gotten all of it at the beginning, but because my expectations were so low and I wasn't expecting to see them again, I felt particularly happy when they popped back up, even in a limited form.
The one thing that probably most disappointed me about the game was the abortive nature of your crusade. Even though I frequently declared my intention to destroy the Wall and overturn the order, the game ended with me "winning" by getting back my soul, but everything else in the multiverse continuing on the same as before, which felt a little deflating. I'm sure that there are alternate endings to the game, but I doubt that any of them let you tear it down. Which was a bit of a bummer; after all, Throne of Bhaal has already established the enormous changes a high-level player character can make, so I feel like there would have been some precedence for letting such a lore-altering action go forward.
Now, you can absolutely make an artistic argument for why they left that option off the table. Games aren't (or shouldn't) be all about wish fulfillment, after all, and one of the big recurring themes in D&D is that even gods are restricted in their actions, so it would have been fine to establish that you wouldn't have the power to accomplish your quest. Still, I was kind of expecting an option akin to the "Refusal" ending to Mass Effect 3, where you refuse to turn aside from your quest, even knowing that it will destroy you. It would have been a tough choice, but I think I could have gotten behind it: taking a mad, doomed course of action, not out of any hope that it could succeed, but merely because I knew that it was right.
Again, though, I can't get too upset about that, because it falls well within the purview of "this is the game they wanted to make," and pretty much everything else was great. I really dug the characters; Kaelyn was by far my favorite, but Safiya was very intriguing as well. Okku was gruff, but ultimately loveable; I never really spent all that much time with Gann, but he certainly seems pretty unique among companions in these series.
The story itself ended up being pretty cool, too. I cover this in more depth in my album, but a lot of the information you kind of incidentally absorb during the Academy segment in Act 2 ends up forming the foundation for the big revelations that drive Act 3. As best as I understand it, here's the ultimate sequence of events:
- Akachi, a priest of Myrkul the God of the Dead, falls in love with the Founder of the Thayyan Academy.
- The Founder dies. Since she is one of the Faithless, her soul is interred in the Wall of the Faithless. Akachi knows the Wall as well as any mortal, and knowledge of her fate torments him.
- Akachi and his brother, Araman, lead a revolt against Myrkul. They convince many of the god's followers to join them, and ultimately create a grand alliance spanning good, evil, and neutral factions. Many join because they feel the Wall is unjust; others for their own reasons (to gain power, disrupt the order, etc.)
- The crusade against the City of Judgment inflicts tremendous damage, but ultimately fails. Myrkul punishes the False (the traitors), including Araman, by pressing them into eternal service.
- For Akachi, Myrkul devises a particularly cruel fate. He is placed in the Wall, where he shouldn't be (Akachi was a traitor, but not faithless). He separates Akachi's soul, and curses it with infinite hunger. He places the soul in its first victim in Rashemen, starting a cycle where the spirit-eater will devour the lives of those around him/her, before being consumed by their own hunger and moving into the next body.
- Myrkul does this because he anticipates the Time of Troubles. He may be killed, but as long as people believe in him, he will continue a limited kind of existence; and having an unstoppable soul-sucking killing machine is a great way to make people believe in you.
- And, in fact, this is what happens. Myrkul is killed, and replaced by Kelemvor. Myrkul no longer has the power to directly affect events, but the plot he sent in motion continues along its trajectory. The Devourer of Souls will likely continue tormenting others indefinitely, granting Myrkul immortality; but, even if the Devourer or his/her/its allies seek to end the curse, they would have to do so by striking against Kelemvor, potentially killing him and restoring Myrkul to godhood.
- The Founder was freed by Akachi before his crusade ended, and her love for him grows even stronger. She plans to try and rescue him as he did her. She deliberately divides her soul into four components: most remains with her, but parts of her essence pass into Lienna, Nefris and Safiya. They are separate persons, and grow more different as time continues, but all share a psychic bond, including the ability to communicate with each other over long distances.
- The Founder remains hidden behind the scenes. Nefris becomes the headmistress of the Thayyan Academy, where she directs research into the problem of restoring Akachi's soul. Lienna is their eyes and ears in Rashemen, tracking the progress of Akachi's divided, tortured existence. Safiya is kept innocent, ignorant of her heritage, in the hopes that she can one day be reunited with Akachi in love, blameless from the torment caused by her other parts.
- Along the way, Akachi's soul is also divided; I'm unclear on whether he did this himself before launching the crusade, or if it occurred after he was interred in the Wall. These fragments retain uncorrupted essences of himself before his punishment: the Young Boy, recollecting his youth with Araman, and the Red Woman, recollecting his love of the Founder. These essences are weaker than the Founder's, and don't influence events, but ensure that a part of Akachi as he was continues to exist.
- Kaelyn the Dove, a half-Celestial, enters Kelemvor's service as a Doomguard. She is horrified by the Wall, and eventually abandons her god. She switches her allegiance to Ilmater, caring for the sick and poor. However, she becomes disillusioned with this work as well: she has been caring for the physical needs of the dying, but knows that unbearable eternal torture awaits their souls after death. She abandons all the gods, and begins her own Second Crusade against the City of Judgment.
- This crusade is much less successful than the first, and she never even reaches the Wall. Her grandfather, a powerful Celestial, thwarts her crusade for her own sake. She breaks off her family ties and continues her mission alone.
- The spirit-eaters continue to wreak havoc on Rashemen, causing many legends of horror to grow up around them. The curse claims both good men and bad, but everyone eventually succumbs, until a particular man makes an agreement with Okku, a bear spirit. Okku takes the man deep into a barrow and lets him die in a chamber warded against magic. From here, the spirit eater cannot find a new victim, and so remains trapped without a host to inhabit.
- Neverwinter Nights 2 happens here, and ends with the PC defeating the Lord of the Shadow with the Silver Sword.
- Crucially, the Silver Sword is required to open the gateway to the City of Judgment. Nefris deduces that the PC has the potential to free Akachi, between embodying the sword and having shown enormous resilience in fighting powerful enemies. When the Temple of Shadows begins to collapse, she teleports the PC into Okku's barrow, deliberately infecting him with the spirit eater curse. She also sends Safiya to meet the PC, instructing her to guide their path.
- Nefris hopes to prepare the PC for the mission to the Wall, but Araman, serving under Myrkul's geas and continuing his role for Kelemvor, kills both Nefris and Lienna, leaving the PC and Safiya somewhat adrift.
- Favorite companion: Kaelyn, hands down.
- Favorite weapon: I named my custom falchion My Boom Stick, which amused me.
- Favorite map: I loved the look of Immil Vale
- Least favorite map: While I kind of appreciated the complexity, The Skein was a slog to get through.
- Favorite outfit: I liked having a variety of sweet-looking feathered hats for my PC. Kaelyn looked great in heavy plate armor.
- Favorite villain: Myrkul was pretty fantastic, a great combination of art direction and voice acting.
- Best battle: Fighting the Voice of Kelemvor in the Basilica of Lost Hope. Though the final battle is really good, too.
- Best conversation: Probably the discussion with Myrkul at the end of Act 2.
And, that's that! If I had it to do all over again, I definitely would have skipped playing the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights, but on balance I'm really happy that I took this detour into the near-past of gaming. I can see why Mask of the Betrayer has such a high reputation, and seeing so much of its creative team present on Torment: Tides of Numenara makes me extremely happy. I can also start to grok some of the information they've started releasing about the game; concepts like being able to transfer pain from your PC to companions, and making that choice something that affects both gameplay and how your companions respond to you, feels like the same kind of idea that people who came up with the spirit-eater mechanic would have invented, and I'm really looking forward to seeing that holistic approach to mechanics and story being realized in another game.
If anyone is looking for a recommendation, I'd say that it's worth playing NWN2 before MotB if you have the time to do it; despite a few reservations over it feeling a bit rushed, NWN2 is still a great game, and while it isn't necessary to enjoy MotB I think it adds some extra richness and texture to the game. MotB is certainly the crowning achievement, though.
It feels nice to look back over the series, and also feel finished with it. I don't feel particularly drawn to Storm of Zehir; from what I understand it hews closer to the Icewind Dale series, which isn't as attractive to me as the rich character-centric legacy of Baldur's Gate and NWN2. I kind of doubt that I'll replay these games, though the NWN2 games seem likely to hold up much better than their predecessors (both graphically and in terms of story); I doubt I would be attracted to an "evil run" of the game, though I suppose it might be interesting to switch up my parties and get to know some of the other companions better. Still, even if I don't replay them, I get the feeling they'll be the kind of games that worm their way into my memories and continue to influence the way that I think about games, and the potential of games, for the rest of my life.