Saturday, October 08, 2011

Baldur's Gatina

As previously noted, I've been continuing my retro Bioware kick with a play through the Baldur's Gate tetralogy. (Or I guess maybe "trilogy" is more appropriate - Tales of the Sword Coast wasn't so much another chapter in the saga as a literal expansion of the original Baldur's Gate world.) I greatly enjoyed my playthrough of Baldur's Gate, and found that the mods (particularly Unfinished Business and the BG1 NPC Project) made it noticeably better and more fun than my initial play-through. Still, the whole time I was playing that game, I was looking forward to BG2, arguably one of the finest RPGs ever created.

(I'm not going to bother marking spoilers on a decade-old game, sorry. The rest of this post gives away the main plot points of BG2, as well as way more information than anyone in their right mind would be able to remember.)

I had actually installed a bunch of mods way back in the spring when I was setting up my BG1 Tutu game. Even though Tutu runs on the BG2 engine, they're installed in totally different directories, so the mods you install for one don't affect the other. That said, a lot of the gameplay-related mods (as opposed to quest or NPC mods) work for both Tutu and BG2, so those changes can work for both. I was torn between a desire to install as many mods as possible, in order to provide the greatest difference from my first play-through, and a desire to keep the mod list to a minimum, to reduce the risk of conflicts. While my memory of my first playthrough of the game is a bit fuzzy, I'm pretty sure that I was running at least a couple of mods; I think I had the multiple-romance mod installed, as well as the Baldurdash collection of non-Bioware bugfixes.

I ended up with a pretty decent number of mods, selected from a few lists and forum discussions that I'd found, and winnowed down by what I was looking for in the game. My list included:
  • BG2 Fixpack - this is apparently the modern successor of Baldurdash.
  • BG2 Tweak pack - provides a bunch of options to customize how the game works, including  allowing multiple romances, getting rid of "You must gather your party before venturing forth", allowing more items in stacks, etc.
  • Banter Pack - adds many more interjections and dialogs between the Bioware NPCs
  • Unfinished Business - the original game scripts included quite a few quests and characters that were apparently dropped from the final game. This mod re-enables them, fixes any bugs with them, and when necessary finishes them.
  • Flirtpack - this lets you initiate flirting sessions with a romantic partner
  • Gibberlings Three Anniversary Mod - a fun (and funny) quest that includes a pubcrawl through Athkala and a chance to meet the Gibbering Twelve
  • Quest Pack - a collection of original quests 
  • Assassinations - another collection of quests, this one oriented more towards evil players
  • Chloe - an NPC mod, Chloe is a semi-divine Kensai romanceable by female PCs
  • Nalia romance - There are two, I've heard that the jcompton one is better so I got that. This lets you pursue a romance with Nalia de'Arnise, and provides more content related to the de'Arnise lands and the Roenalls
  • Romantic encounters - adds a bunch of casual hookups to the game, both with minor existing characters and some new ones.
  • Oversight - Fixes a bunch of strange alignments for monsters and characters
  • Alternatives - Offers some other options for traveling to Spellhold.
Another mod I was particularly interested in was Ascension. Ascension seems to predate WeiDU, the scripting framework that almost all BG2 modern (heh) mods are written in, though it's since been ported to WeiDU. Unlike all other mods, Ascension was written by a Bioware employee; in his own capacity, he spent time fleshing out the ending of Throne of Bhaal and trying to improve on the original ending of the game. That sounds intriguing, but unfortunately, I've read enough posts about the conflicts that Ascension can cause that I've been scared off for now. I might check it back out when starting ToB to see if there's a clear guide on the right way to include it.

I'll cover most of the mods' effects in-line below, but a few of them ended up not having a big impact on my game. Assassinations sounds interesting, but I just couldn't make myself let my Neutral Good character go through with them. I did do the first quest, which is a standard carry task, but never got into any of the actual assassinations. If I ever do play this came as a CN or any of the evil alignments, I'll be very interested to see where that mod goes. Also, I got a bunch of prompts for the romantic encounters, but only ended up going through three of them - Ribald of the Adventurer's Mart, Teos from the Cowled Wizards, and a particularly disgusting interlude with the Pirate King (which, to be fair, they certainly give you plenty of warning about). I'd meant to play Sebrina as a lesbian character, but I guess she kinda turned out bi instead. Oh well.

One of the things I decided early on was that I wanted to make this game as different as I could from the previous play-through. As noted in my BG1 write-up, I stayed with the Neutral Good lineup, but otherwise transformed my PC from my half-elf male bard Cirion to my new full elf female sorceress Sebrina. The biggest choice to make, though, was which NPCs to run with. In my original game, I had pretty early on settled on my core group: Cirion was the Bard, who was the public face of the party and provided support and inspiration to the group in combat; Minsc and Keldorn were my front-line melee fighters, soaking up damage and pounding down enemies; Jaheira was my versatile member, who could heal or bless the party, join the melee, or provide missile support; Yoshimo was my thief, who shot bows and occasionally backstabbed when I felt like micromanaging him; and Aerie was my main mage, who by the end of the game could cast some very powerful offensive spells, as well as handle a lot of healing. The party only changed a little bit throughout the game; I think I temporarily admitted Nalia for her quest, I replaced Yoshimo with Imoen after spellhold, and in Throne of Bhaal I would finally let Keldorn go home to his family and let my brother take his place in the front lines. Still, once I had a setup that worked, I would turn down anyone who offered to join, so I never really got to know any of the other NPCs.

In this game, I experimented a LOT with my party. I think a majority of the NPCs were in my group at one time or another, even if only for a quest or two. Yeah, that did have the effect of diluting the experience I earned - but heck, over the course of the entire game (especially including Throne of Bhaal), I knew I'd get more than enough XP, so in the long run it really doesn't matter at all. So, let's see if I can reconstruct how my party ebbed and flowed:
  • By the time I left Irenicus's dungeon, I had a full party: myself, Minsc, Jaheira, Imoen, Yoshimo, and Chloe (who you meet in the Plane of Air).
  • Imoen left.
  • I finished the circus questline and had Aerie join. At this point 4 of my 5 NPCs were the same as in my first game, and the only one who wasn't was my non-Bioware NPC, so it was time to start culling.
  • I went to the Government District and rescued Viconia, dropping Jaheira.
  • I also ran into Jan and saved him from the guards. I kept him, replacing Aerie.
  • At the Copper Coronet, I was approached by Nalia. I took her into my party and removed Yoshimo.
That lineup kept me going for a while. Oh: while I'm thinking of it, I was pretty surprised at how over the map my characters' XP was at the start of the game. I had imported Sebrina from BG1, and she had around 220,000 XP. Minsc, on the other hand, showed up with a HUGE amount of extra XP, around 400k; I think he might have started at the same level as at the end of the last game, but immediately got several levels up, and stayed way ahead of me. I'd assumed that this was some quirk that had to do with the fact that Minsc had been in my party at the end of my last game; Jaheira had not been there, and started this game with about 160k (80k per class). However, even later NPCs showed similar discrepancies. Viconia had never been in my party in BG1, but she had a ton of XP; Jan, though, had way less than my PC. I'm a bit curious about what algorithm the game uses for determining what level characters should be when they join, and why mine seemed to be so varied.

After finishing the de'Arnise keep, I was hoping to kick off the Nalia romance, but it didn't trigger. It's only intended for male PCs, and I'd forgotten that the any-romance mod which lets you romance same-sex Bioware NPCs doesn't affect third-party mods. Fortunately, all WeiDU mods ship in source code form. I hadn't done anything with mods before besides install them, but I had a lot of fun looking through the Nalia one and figuring out what I'd need to tweak to make it work. I felt like I had to work while peeking between my fingers, because I didn't want to encounter any spoilers for the mod; fortunately, the way the Bioware dialog is constructed automatically separates out translate-able strings from scripts, so for the most part it was pure logic. All scripting languages are pretty easy to pick up once you get enough examples, so I just had to switch a few checks from MALE to FEMALE and I was set. (I later had to go back and make a few more changes - it turns out that one set of relevant checks are in the character's dialog, while other checks are in the script; updating the dialog had allowed Nalia to offer me the keep even though my class didn't allow it, but the romance still didn't trigger until I updated the script. Also, for some reason, the checks for Player1 [that's me] CD_STATE_INVALID were incorrect, so I had to remove those from the script as well.) It took me a while to work out my kinks from the Nalia mod, and I was continuing to play the game in the meanwhile, so that romance didn't really get going until Chapter 6. Which actually proved to be fine, since that meant that in the meantime I was able to run through virtually the entire Viconia romance.

The Viconia romance is... really good, and unintentionally hilarious. The original Bioware game has 4 romance options. Intentionally or not, all of the romantic partners are some form of cleric, which in itself is kind of an interesting statement on the role that one might expect of a partner. Female players tend to get shafted, since there is only one male option, and he is Anomen, and he is insufferable. Male players have a choice of three, and all of those women have problems. In my first game, I'd pursued concurrent romances with Jaheira, a half-elf fighter/druid, and Aerie, a winged elf mage/cleric. Aerie is sweet, and EXTREMELY sheltered and fragile; you need to be extraordinarily gentle when interacting with her. Jaheira is much fiercer and more assertive; at the start of the game, she is mourning the loss of her husband (and your former traveling companion) Khalid, and over time, you can get into a relationship with her. Her romance is much more complex and involved; unlike Aerie's, which is pretty much all about talking, Jaheira actually has several quests associated with her romance. It's also notoriously buggy. Viconia's romance is interesting; you learn a lot about her background, the life she led in the Underdark and the incredibly difficult time she's had surviving on the surface. However, much more so than just about any other mod, it does NOT make much sense if you're playing a female character. Much of Viconia's romance content has a lot to do with the sexual politics of the Underdark, where females are dominant and males are slaves who exist to provide pleasure. It's just kind of funny to have Viconia sneer "Sniveling male!" at you when, you know, you're not. Viconia's romance is a bit like Aerie's in that it's primarily conversation-oriented, but it's much more dramatic, with lots of ups and downs. In Shadows of Amn it ends on a downish, bittersweet note; I've heard a few things about where it goes in Throne of Bhaal, and will be interested to see that play out.

The Chloe romance was... all right, I guess. I think I might have messed it up, since there were a whole bunch of getting-to-know-you friendship talks at first, but no actual romance developed. Based on what I read online, it sounded like this might have been due to my PC's INT getting drained by mindflayers at some point. I fiddled around with CLUAConsole to get it back on track, but there just doesn't seem to be a whole lot of actual romance involved once you get to that point. (And, since Imoen had rejoined while our romance was still broken, Chloe was pursuing that love interest at the same time, which was a bit disconcerting.) It sounds like Chloe was originally intended to be extended into ToB as well, and maybe things would have gotten more involved there. There is a Chloe-specific romance quest in SoA that ends in a cliffhanger, which I presume was intended to be consummated in the finale. At this point, it doesn't sound like the ToB component will be finished, which is a shame.

As a character, Chloe is interesting. Her most controversial aspect by far is her DEX of 25. This is intended to both reflect her divine heritage and lower her AC, which is important since as a Kensai she can't wear armor. She dual-wields special weapons which are usually as good or better than the equipment you'll have at the same point in the game, at least unless and until you start exploring Watcher's Keep. All that adds up to a really devastating damage dealer on the front lines; she gets an insane number of attacks per turn, and is doing extra elemental damage with her weaponry as well. That said, she attracts a lot of damage, even with her low AC, so I definitely needed other meat shields with her.

Chloe has a lot of content - again, almost all of her dialog seems to be "Getting to Know You" sorts of things, but it's pretty involved. I can't say I care a lot for her personality, but I think that's intentional; she's designed to be strong-willed, a bit arrogant, and opinionated. (She doesn't boss you around quite as much as Jaheira, but she'll let you know her opinion on just about every topic.) She banters a lot with the other Bioware NPCs, and interjects in a whole bunch of game dialog. The writing is pretty good, though her Imoen banters had a bit too many "Haha"s and "(Grins)" for my taste. I didn't care much for the voice acting at first, though I've gotten used to it over the course of the game; I think the main thing that bugs me is actually some slight technical problems with the audio tracks (nothing horrid, just the difference between a very clear professional Bioware recording and a decent home recording), and the fact that she's a bit shouty (though, in all honesty, probably not much more shouty than Jaheira).

All that said, I am a bit astonished that there aren't more lesbian NPCs out there, given the significant number of new NPC mods made for the game and the number of Bioware characters reconfigured into NPCs. I can totally understand why Bioware wouldn't have made any of its own when the game was released back in 2000, but I would have thought that in the post-Dragon Age era we'd have picked up a couple. Heck, if there's a mod that makes Imoen a romanceable NPC (!), I don't see why there aren't more same-sex female romances.

Where was I... ah, yes. After finishing the de'Arnise quest, I kept on bopping around the map for a while. Having played the game before, I knew that once I headed off for Spellhold, all the Amn-related stuff would be out of the picture for quite a while. Unsurprisingly, virtually all mod content is located in Amn; pretty much all the other locations will only be visited once, and you can't go back to any of them after you return in Chapter 6, so most of the cool new stuff I wanted to see was in Athkala or the countryside.

I'd intended to kick off the Planar Sphere quest next, to get my hands on my own stronghold, but Minsc started complaining about going to the Umar Hills, which a sweet little boy had asked him to do. I like Minsc, and I like Boo even more, so we ventured forth. This brought me into the first of MANY main quests that I'm pretty sure I completely missed in my first game. And these aren't third-party mods; they're main parts of the game. I'm a bit baffled as to why I wouldn't have done them initially; I probably had headed out to Spellhold as soon as I could so I could rescue Imoen, and either forgot those optional quests by the time I got back, or hadn't realized that I wouldn't be able to go back and finish them in ToB.

Anyways... the Umar Hills quest is pretty neat, and I'm fairly sure I would have remembered it if I'd done it. It starts off as a bit of a mystery: villagers have been dying for a while; their bodies don't seem to show many signs of a struggle; furthermore, their bodies will actually vanish in the next night or two. From that description, I'd initially assumed that it was the work of vampires or some similar creatures: the the villagers were being "killed", then raised again as undead. The villagers were split between three dominant theories as to the culprit behind the troubles. Some believe it to be the work of a group of hobgoblins who have recently migrated into the area. Others think that the wolves from the woods have been killing people, then stealing into town at night to devour their bodies. Still others think that it's the Umar Witch, a creature of legend who supposedly died generations ago but whose spirit may still haunt the Umar hills. (You can pick up a book in the town titled "The Umar  Witch Project." I think this might be from a mod.)

I checked out the hobgoblins; they actually seemed peaceable, and pointed out that they would have nothing to gain from killing in this way, since the humans could easily wipe them out. They asked me to represent them to the town mayor and see if they'd be interested in opening up trade. He was, and they did. So that was cool, but still left the question of the disappearances open. Next up I went to a cabin in the woods, where the town's ranger had lived before disappearing herself. The cabin was abandoned, but I found a journal from the ranger, who had noticed the strange and frightening behavior of the wolves recently. I was now leaning more towards "werewolves" than "vampires". There was also a note from Mazzy Fereldan, a halfling adventurer who had previously been hired by the village to investigate matters. Mazzy had traced the source of the problems back to an abandoned temple to the west, and included a map. I followed it and went into the woods.

The abandoned temple is in a very dark place, which is filled with many Shadows, creepy undead creatures. In a cave, I encountered a werewolf. It turned out, though, that the werewolves were themselves victims in this matter; the Shadows had been killing both humans and wolves, then raising the dead as more Shadows. The problems all stemmed from the nearby temple. It had once been the domain of a powerful Shade Lord, a spiritual creature who reminds me of the Witch-King of Angmar. The Shade Lord was defeated, and the followers of Amaunator, the Sun God, rededicated the temple in his name. While Amaunator's worship continued, the shades were kept in check; however, over time the order faded, the temple decayed, and now it has been corrupted back into its original form.

The wolf wants vengeance, and I let her go. After fighting our own way to the temple, we encountered a HUGE wave of undead Shades. It was a very long and tiring, but very fun, battle. The wolf dies pretty early on, but tells you how you can defeat the shades: trigger a lens that reflects some daylight, which helps wipe out most of the shades and lets you enter the temple. (I was too dense to realize this at the time, but I later learned that Shades are, duh, considered Undead; I think this whole quest could have been much easier if I'd had Viconia using her Turn Undead power.)

Inside the temple, I met the famous Mazzy Fereldan, a Halfling who apparently hasn't read the D&D manual and so doesn't know that halflings can't become Paladins. I let her into my party, dropping Jan. (This started the nadir of my party's thieving skills; Nalia is nominally part-thief, but she dualed over too soon. I got to use a lot of Knock spells before getting back Imoen.) Mazzy proved to be a great character, both in this quest and just in general. A lot of Bioware NPCs are needy (Aerie), conceited (Jaheira), mentally deficient (Minsc), or... hm, I'm not even sure how to characterize Nalia's blend of privilege and heavy-handed socialism. Mazzy, though, is just a bright, talented, optimistic, and good-hearted person. Sure, that means she's less interesting than Minsc or Edwin, but it's also really pleasant to have a solid person around. (That may seem like an odd thing to say, but these people talk to you EVERY TIME you click on them. I avoided doing anything specific with Chloe whenever I could just because I was tired of having her yelling at me; I was more than happy to send Mazzy off on errands, though, since she would cheerfully say something like "I shall do what you ask!" I always let Mazzy wear the Boots of Speed while she was in my party.) Mazzy is also a very nice yet believable variation on the halfling stereotype. She isn't overly cute, or fawning ("Oh, it's a fine day for meeting new friends!"). She's as far from the typical halfling thief as you can get. Yet, they resisted the temptation to play completely against type and make her a hard-bitten warrior. Instead, she's got a lot of the cheerfulness that one associates with halflings, but completely directed towards her notions of honor, duty, and virtue. It's a nice mix.

Mazzy filled me in on the other details. The missing village ranger hadn't been turned into a mere Shade, but was being possessed by the Shade Lord him/herself, as its main vessel and connection to the world. Worse, all the members of Mazzy's party had been captured or killed. Her lover, Patrick, had been turned into a powerful Shade. The Shade Lord had let her know that he intended to use her as the next vessel after discarding the ranger's form. We'd come just in time, and (without Jan) continued our exploration of the temple.

This may be as good a time as any to reflect on my experiences with Jan. Jan is probably the funniest NPC I've played with. He's got a huge stock of loooooong anecdotes, most of which somehow involve turnips, and none of which seem to ever exactly end. He exasperates most of the other NPCs, but doesn't seem to mind. I guess that, like Mazzy, he's another fairly independent and self-secure NPC; yeah, he's pretty eccentric, but he also owns his own business, has a family, and adventures just for the fun of it, not out of some deep dark primal urges.

So, as a personality, Jan was great. As a character, he was... fine. In BG2, all that you really need is one fighter, one mage, one healer, and one thief; since some characters can be more than one class, that means that most of your party slots can be filled by the people you like, not necessarily the people you need. Jan was a bit redundant, especially since both he and Nalia were Thief/Mages; he was a better thief than Nalia, but I was invested in Nalia for the romance; he was a fair mage, but not nearly as good as Sebrina, and since he was multi-class instead of dual-class, Nalia would be eclipsing him soon. At this point in the game, I was getting concerned about protecting my back line - Minsc and Chloe were both dual-wielding (Minsc with dual maces, Chloe with her custom scimitar and short sword), so they were doing a lot of damage, but when I was facing large mobs like that group of shadows, those two would quickly get overrun and my rear spellcasters would need to muck around with evading enemies or switching to (ick) melee. Mazzy is ALL front line, so into the group she came.

There are some fights in the temple, but also some good puzzles. There's an Indiana Jones-style walk-across-the-letters maze. You also find a few pieces of paper describing a ritual you need to perform; unfortunately, the papers have been damaged, so you need to infer the missing steps of the ritual, which is an interesting variation on this type of quest. Ultimately, you unlock the wards on the lower level of the temple. By rescuing the desecrated remains of a child prophetess of Amaunator, you had gained a wardstone that lets you tiptoe past the dragon without it noticing you. I saved, tried talking to the dragon, and then fought it. I eventually gave up, and resolved to come back after finishing the Underdark.

After emerging from the other side of the temple, you are confronted by the Shade Lord in the ranger's form, along with Patrick in another shade form. Oh, and there's the Shadow Altar, too. I "killed" the altar first, then the Shade Lord, and finally Patrick. We gave Mazzy some time with her grief, and made an appropriate grave marker for Patrick. With the Shade Lord banished and the Sun Lord's rituals refreshed, the dark shadow was removed from the forest. We returned to the Umar Hills and accepted the thanks of a grateful populace.

That whole sojourn had taken much longer than I had planned, so I was eager to get back to the Planar Sphere quest. This kicks off when a Cowled Wizard asks you to track down Valygar, a man who had murdered two wizards and fled Athkala. After resuming my investigations, I was surprised to note that he had gone exactly where I had just been, in the Umar Hills. We headed out, and I met him in his cabin hideout. Valygar gives his own explanation of what had happened. He is the last living descendent of the mage who had created the Planar Sphere many centuries ago. His family has encountered all sorts of misfortune as a result, and he has a particularly strong personal revulsion towards all forms of magic. His ancestor was basically a lich, a powerful undead mage, who had left Athkala to travel the other planes of existence; now that he has returned, only his own blood (including the blood of his descendents) can open the sphere. The Cowled Wizards had sought to use Valygar to enter the sphere.

It seems like there are multiple ways you can approach this problem - I had asked him to join my party so we could enter the Sphere ourselves and do an end-run around the Wizards, but I think you can also kill him and get into the sphere that way. With some reluctance, I moved Mazzy out of the party to make room for him. I wanted to keep Chloe, Viconia and Nalia in the party for their ongoing storylines, and I just feel bad about leaving a big guy like Minsc on his own. However, I was already playing around with the germ of an idea for making an all-ladies party, and I decided that after I rescued Imoen I'd like to bring Mazzy back in as well.

The sphere was nicely challenging. Since it has spent so much time moving between the various planes, it has taken on a wide variety of creatures, including mermen, insanely homicidal halflings, and a ton of elementals. The ship itself has several golem defenders. There weren't many puzzles in this quest, but the fights were appropriately difficult, and there were a few item-related tasks to complete.

Eventually, you descend into the interior of the ship, by the engines, where you and Valygar confront his ancestor. After a tough fight, he reveals that he has been possessed by one of the demons from the outer planes. That demon had hoped to use the sphere to invade the Prime Material plane, but his desires have been temporarily thwarted. The sphere's defense systems have been activated, moving you back out to one of the infernal planes. In order to get back to Prime, you'll need to retrieve some demon hearts, powerful relics that will provide the ship with the necessary power.

The infernal plane was SUPER creepy - Black Isles has a couple of astonishingly good maps, and this was one of them. This was one of the few parts of the game where I had to resort to relatively cheesy tactics, like casting Skull Trap into the Fog of War so I could soften up a demon without starting the fight. Still, I was intrigued enough that I eventually worked my way through the entire map, harvesting all the available black souls.

Back in the sphere, you return to Prime, where Valygar has a very touching denouement with his ancestor. Valygar is another fine NPC; he's more quiet and soft-spoken than most of your companions, but he's also very thoughtful, and has an introspective streak, so as his ancestor dies he starts to wonder whether redemption is possible after all, and whether some of his hatred towards magic might be misplaced.

The Planar Sphere was a pretty good stronghold, but nowhere near as entertaining as the Playhouse had been for my bard. Unlike the Playhouse and the Keep, the Sphere doesn't generate any income. Instead, you get a group of interns, who you can assign to create various magical artifacts for you. Unfortunately, each time I told them to do something, one of them managed to blow themselves up doing it, so after three weeks, I had no interns (though I did have a Staff of Power). My Cowled Wizard overseer made fun of me for being such a bad teacher, but there weren't any other consequences. I imagine that if you figure out how to keep them alive, you can probably keep getting more items or gold or something; as it was, there really wasn't any point to visiting after a while.

In Athkala, I got to do a GREAT quest which I'm pretty sure came from one of my mods, but felt like it belonged in the original game. After visiting the Docks one night (as part of my pub-crawl quest), we were walking in the Government District, when Minsc suddenly panics upon realizing that Boo is missing! He's been KIDNAPPED! It turns out that Boo is not just a giant miniature space hamster, a loyal companion, and a wise counselor; he is also the source of Minsc's great strength. Minsc is usually the strongest NPC you can get, with something like 18/92. However, with Boo gone, Minsc becomes a wreck, and his STR drops to, like, 9. Minsc urges you to retrace your steps so you can find Boo. You gradually find the urchin who rescued/stole Boo, and after threatening him, you find out that he sold him to a pet store. You teleport to the pet store (I LOVE that this exists) and talk to the very reasonable proprietor, who lets you know that he sold Boo to a young lady magician. From here you go to the Government district, where that woman is trying to teach Boo how to swim in the fountain. There's a great, long dialog that unfolds, where you learn about how this young woman (who is not just a magician but also a debutante) is trying to improve Boo and make him... I dunno, stronger, faster, better. Minsc is practically weeping with ineffectual rage. You agree to a bargain whereby you will solve some riddles to prove your worth, and after completing them, Minsc and Boo are finally reunited. The young woman even gives you an "improved" Boo, with the power to create "Boolets", tiny little miniature giant space hamsters that you can, I dunno, use as scouts or something. They're useless but really cute. She also buffs Minsc, who comes out of the quest with a permanent boost in his STR to 19 - not as dramatic for him as for anyone else, but still, a good reward for a very traumatic experience.

Okay... note to self, I cannot give capsule summaries of all the quests I went on, or this post will take as long to write as the game took to play. I just wanted to mention this specific one, though, since it's one of the great examples of the high level of quality I found in the user-created mod community.

I continued for a while longer with this party, tackling old and new quests as I wandered back and forth across the map. Eventually, I decided it was time to start getting ready to go to Spellhold. I'd read online that, while Imoen does gain some XP while you're gone, there's a limit to how high her level will be, and since I wanted to keep her in my party, I didn't want to wait too long before rescuing her. (Plus, of course, she's your sister! You shouldn't leave her at Irenicus's mercy!)

As noted before, I'd picked up a mod called "Alternatives," which gives you alternate ways to get to Spellhold. I've noticed that most people who continually re-play the BG games tend to do two things. First, most people will at some point try to make a solo run through the game (only using the PC in a party by themselves). Secondly, people really get into the role-playing aspect. The game itself is really pretty indifferent to how you role-play; sure, you can call yourself Chaotic Neutral, but the game will let you make Lawful Good choices without any negative repercussions, and your choices won't affect your alignment (unlike in Planescape: Torment). But, players self-enforce the actions that are logical for their roles: if they're playing an evil character, then they'll make the effort to BE evil when they can, while not breaking the game's main plot.

The problem is, there are a handful of situations where it's impossible to progress in the game without making decisions that might violate your character's persona. Most famously, if you are a Lawful Good paladin, it's inconceivable that you would choose to ally yourself with the Shadow Thieves or Bodhi's guild; no matter how much you wanted to rescue Imoen, doing this would necessarily violate your calling (and, really, make you a Fallen Paladin). So, gamers are forced to break character in order to keep playing the game.

Alternatives gives you some new choices. The main one, which I ended up pursuing, lets you ally with an undercover group of Paladins of Tyr who are willing to transport you to Spellhold in exchange for your assistance in cleansing Athkala's underworld. (As Neutral Good, I would actually be comfortable with aligning with the Shadow Thieves - they aren't good, but I'd see my assistance in fighting a larger evil as serving the greater good. Since I'd done that before, though, I was looking forward to trying something new.) I think that the other alternative, which I never followed up on, is surprisingly straightforward: a man offers to let you sail away "from all your troubles" for the simple price of 100,000 gold pieces. I'm guessing that this puts you on the same boat as all the others, just without all the quests in front.

The Tyr quests seem to combine the tasks that you would get from the Shadow Thieves and Bodhi: you are charged with wiping out the two guildhalls and killing their leaders. I remembered the Shadow Thief guildhall from the last game, though it was a bit more nerve-wracking this time since I was fighting everyone on my way through it. The final battle with Aram actually proved to be really difficult, and I had to reload a few times in order to finish it. (He and all the other thieves are hasted, and use a lot of invisibility and illusion magic to hide from sight while back-stabbing you for huge damage.) Bodhi's graveyard lair was just as incredibly creepy as I had remembered. I think I've picked up a revulsion to blood over the last couple of years, and the images of the giant feeding pits made me feel a bit sick. That's, um, a good thing - it's very effective.

Sidebar: Fighting vampires is ANNOYING! I'd forgotten just how bad it was. They have attacks that can drain your levels; lower-level vampires can drain 1 or 2 levels on a hit, and I think bosses can drain 4. In BG1, the risk was that your level would drop down to 0 and you would die. Here, I usually didn't need to worry about that happening, BUT what's really annoying is that when they level-drain your clerics or mages, they lose their spell slots; and, even after you restore their previously lost levels, those slots remain blank. That means that I need to fuss around with a bunch of aggravating micromanaging whenever I finish a vampire fight, as I try to recall just what mix of spells I'd had across multiple spell circles for multiple characters. Gr. Magic doesn't help much, either; Viconia knew Lesser Restoration, which will restore members after they've been drained, BUT casting it will make her tired, so that usually means that I need to rest after each major level-drained fight. Negative Plane Protection SHOULD be the right solution, but it only affects a single party member, on touch, and only lasts a couple of rounds; it's practically useless in a fight. I think the game badly needed something like Mass Negative Plane Protection as a higher-level cleric spell.

Rant over. After wiping out the vampires, your sponsor from Tyr brings you to Saemon, and you're on your way. The mod creators did a nice job with this one; the Tyr character has a good voice, and they update the Chapter 4 opening crawl to match the decision you've made. She also sends along an observer who warns you about Saemon (though they're not able to do anything about it).

Once you reach Brynnlaw, the game continues normally. Chapters 4 and 5 don't seem to have a whole lot of mod content, as noted previously, but a few of the wider-ranging mods do plug things in here.

I'd forgotten that there are also multiple ways of entering Spellhold. I think that in the first game, I'd taken an amulet from a Cowled Wizard in town that let me just walk over there. This time, I, um, had my character sleep with the Pirate King in order to prove that she was crazy enough to be admitted to the Asylum. That was pretty gross. But effective. In Spellhold, I reunited with Imoen, who didn't recognize me. I, however, was delighted to see how many other inmates I did recognize. Having just finished playing Tales of the Sword Coast for the first time, I was happy to run into Dradeel, whose already-tenuous grip on reality has now completely unclasped. Tiax was fun, too; I regret having never kept him in my party in BG1.

Anyways, you know the drill... Irenicus steals your soul, everyone's really sad. I talked the guard into letting all the crazy prisoners loose, together we took down the place, but not before Irenicus managed to slay them all (sniff... goodbye, Tiax!). Saemon flips back towards you again, and you set sail for home.

On both my games, I've opted to sail with Saemon, and so have gone through the Githyanki ambush and the sojourn among the  Sahuagin. I presume that turning away from Saemon will let you just skip those parts and head straight for the caves near Ust Natha. It's good to know that that option is there, and if I'm in a hurry the next time I play the game I might just do that; as far as I can tell, skipping those parts will keep you from being able to create the Silver Sword (which, in my game, nobody was really capable of wielding anyways), possibly some other Cromwell pieces (I know that I returned to Athkala with a TON of them, but have trouble remembering which came from which places), and a ton of experience and plot.

I very vividly remembered the Sahuagin city, though I had gotten confused about how that storyline ended. I remembered that you were involved in a prophecy, and that there was a civil war going on; however, for some reason I recalled that it ended with you actually destroying the city, such that the barrier surrounding it broke and it was flooded with water. Obviously, that's not what actually happens. I'm curious if I conflated that ending with something else, or if I just made it up somehow.

The whole segment in Ust Natha is very dark. It's also quite interesting; I like the sense of constant threat you feel, the in-game role-playing required (you need to act like a Drow even if you actually aren't one), and the different feel that these quests have. Most noticeably, this is practically the only place in the whole game where time limits actually matter. Oh, sure, virtually any quest that you get in the rest of the game is delivered by someone breathlessly exclaiming, "This task is of the utmost urgency! You must do it at once!" But, you can take months and months and still finish those quests. In Ust Natha, though, you have very specific timelines for everything: "Meet me within a day," "You have three days to accomplish this," etc. That keeps things moving along briskly, and adds a nice layer of verisimilitude to your journey; in real life, if you were undercover in a hostile city, you wouldn't be kicking back and ambling around for weeks on end, right? Fortunately for me, I'd done all of the major Underdark lairs (Illithid, Beholders, and Kuo-Toa) before entering Ust Natha, so I didn't have to panic too much about the timelines.

I feel like the Underdark segment is the one other part of the game, along with the end of Chapter 2, that could benefit from an "Alternatives"-style mod. As usual, it's those pesky Lawful Good types who can spoil the fun; I just can't imagine a paladin going undercover. Still, I suppose that the game probably does give a way that you can technically advance to Chapter 6 without going undercover; I haven't researched it, and I assume it would be very dangerous, but there might be a way you can fight through the Drow and kill the Matron Mother, or otherwise do something to unlock the exit. That said, it would be interesting to have a relatively peaceful but less deceptive way through that part of the game. (I was going to say that it would also be nice to have a straight-up evil path, but from looking at some online walkthroughs, it looks like the game does offer some pretty evil solutions - you can betray Solaufein, you can betray the Matron Mother but choose to deal with the demon, etc.)

I finally emerged from the long hiatus and back into Amn. Like I said before, I'm still fuzzy on parts of my first run through the game, but I feel like in the first game I had picked up on the Suldanessellar plot fairly quickly, and didn't spend time doing the many, many optional quests in the Amnish countryside. That may have just been because I didn't know that the game would end then... after all, you don't know in advance how many chapters there are, and I probably wanted to get my soul back before picking up the side-quests. This time around, though, I was ready to experience more of the game, and so took my time polishing everything off.

Before that, though, I wanted to settle on my "final" party. I do love Minsc and Valygar's personalities, but since I already had five females, I wanted to go all-out and finish making this an all-girls party. I had asked Mazzy to go back to her home in Trademeet when I had earlier exchanged her for Valygar, so I headed there and swapped those two back again.

I found one other major set of quests that I had missed on my first game: I don't recall having ever made it to Trademeet, Mazzy's hometown and a place with its own set of crises. This touches off the Druid Grove quest, when you try to track down the source of the animal attacks that have caused chaos in the city; you also meet Cernd, an outsider druid captured by Trademeet, who wants to help you investigate the Shadow Druids. The game really, really wanted me to put him in my party, but I really, really didn't want to muck with my composition just yet, so I sent him ahead and fought my way through the very long and boring druid grove map. I eventually confronted the druid grove leader, and accepted her challenge of a one-on-one fight. I'd assumed that I'd be able to pick a champion from within my party, but no, it had to be my leader. Whoops. Well, at least I had some good gear that would help me in the fight - oh, no, I had to do it in the buff. Well, nuts. Oh, wait a minute: I'm a sorceress! I quickly brought up Stoneskin, then... hmm, I think I might have used Melf's Minute Meteors, though if it was late enough in the game I was probably using Mordenkainen's Sword. Honestly, I probably would have been OK with just my fists; thanks to the Manuals and Tomes I'd found in BG2, I had an STR of 19 and a DEX of 20, so I probably would have come out of it all right. Still - I'm a magician, and magic can make some things VERY easy.

I turned down the offer of joining the druid grove - I think I'd inadvertently enabled one of the tweak pack options for multiple strongholds, or else maybe I had intentionally installed it months ago and since changed my mind - since I got offered all of the strongholds (ranger's cabin in Umar Hills, playhouse in Five Flagons, etc.), but turned them all down except for the Keep and the Sphere. I might have originally thought that it would make sense to take all the strongholds just so I could experience all those quests, but by this point in the game I was fairly confident that I'll be playing BG2 at least one more time in my life, so it makes sense to leave a few things to experience fresh in the future. Back in Trademeet, they were grateful to have escaped the immediate hazards of the animal invasion, but still had to deal with the more pernicious economic maladies afflicting their town. Trademeet, like Athkala, is devoted to Waukeen, the goddess of wealth. Waukeen had died during the Time of Troubles, though Trademeet's clergy refuses to accept that, and insist that she is merely "missing." However, Trademeet is no longer able to engage in any meaningful commerce, thanks to a group of djinns who have set up camp outside the city; they are sort of genially blockading the town, buying up all of the goods traveling into the city, leaving merchants with nothing to sell. The town's mayor and the equivalent of their chamber of commerce (who seems to be wearing chain mail armor and wielding a mace) ask you to deal with that problem.

You can probably "fix" this by killing the djinns - for as much as people are worried of them, they've never seemed particularly difficult to fight - but it's more satisfying to hear their demands. They're hunting a rogue rakshasa, a catlike genie who has escaped their justice. The genies are setting up this embargo in order to get the humans to turn over the rakshasa - even though they admit that she isn't actually in the town, and they don't know where she is.  Ooookaaaay then... fortunately, you eventually meet a local thief who gives you a tip in the right direction. You head back to the druid grove, and spend another five minutes to walk thirty feet across the map. The disguised rakshasa reveals herself, you kill her and her companions and take her catlike head back to the djinns. They leave, and everyone's happy. They even erect statues of your entire party in the middle of town!

Here we are, posing by our respective likenesses. All hail the glorious heroes of Amn!

Clockwise from the top, the characters are:
  • Chloe, the Yr'kai kensai, dual-wielding her custom weapons (a short sword and a scimitar).
  • Viconia, my Drow Cleric.
  • Nalia de'Arnise.
  • Sebrina, my PC, an elven sorceress.
  • Imoen, my sister.
  • Mazzy, the cheerful and effecting Halfling paladin and our resident tank. She's the cutest, smallest little tank you'll ever see.

I think it was around this time that I finally figured out what was going wrong with Nalia's romance, and so that started gradually ticking along. Her romance is LONG, which would ordinarily be a very good thing. My only complaint about a lot of the Bioware romances and banters is that they sometimes "finish" relatively early. I don't think that there's much they can do about this; since they've given you, the player, the freedom to take as much or as little time as you like to finish the game, it's impossible for them to know how long they have to unfold these side-stories. I think that in most cases, someone who picks up Nalia early (and it's kind of hard NOT to do that - she and Viconia are, I believe, the only two NPCs in the whole game who will actually approach you and demand a response, rather than standing around and waiting for you to come to them) and pays attention to her romance's requirements (being a good steward of the de'Arnise keep, not letting her languish in Isaea's clutches, etc.) will still be able to play at a leisurely pace throughout the entire game, including all the side-quests you want, and still have new romantic developments unfold as you're approaching the very end of the game.

Since I was getting such a very, very late start, though - having only begun the post-funeral lovetalks in Chapter 6 - I had a lot of time to spend. Fortunately, Watcher's Keep awaited. This is one of the major additions from the Throne of Bhaal expansion, and it's the only quest/area that's available in the main Shadows of Amn portion. However, it does seem to otherwise draw from the ToB segment of the game, as it's filled with a lot of powerful items that I never found anywhere else in SoA - like Potions of Superior Healing (absolutely critical for my front-line fighters by this stage of the game), +4 Bullets, +3 Arrows, etc. It also has some more artifact pieces that you can combine into powerful weapons and items; I think that there's a similar smith in the ToB portion, but it turns out that Cromwell can also forge these things (at least the ones you find in Watcher's Keep), so I was able to get some pretty nicely upgraded weapons that were a bit unbalanced when I went back into the normal SoA world.

As for the Watcher's Keep itself - it's good, not amazing. On the surface, it seems to resemble Durlag's Tower from TotSC: both are large, multileveled dungeons that are completely optional but offer significant rewards for completion. As I'd noted before, Durlag's Tower made a pretty strong impression on me: I thought it was the darkest, spookiest, creepiest part of that whole game. DT was insular, but very focused on your steady uncovering of the history behind Durlag's tragedy and meltdown, and the evil forces that had been arrayed against him. Watcher's Keep has plot as well, but less mystery. Before you enter the Keep, you're given a precis of the situation by an order of Helmic knights; your view of the situation is further refined as you complete more parts of the Keep, but the plot seems a lot less complex than in DT.

One of the things I'd loved most about DT was how radically different each of the floors in the dungeon was. One was filled to the brim with deadly traps. Another had an elaborate system of self-opening and self-locking doors that shunted your party through the map, splitting you up if you weren't careful. You got to experience the actual rooms where Durlag and his family had lived, and watch their ghostly apparitions replay the ghastly violations of the doppelgangers. WK still has more variety between levels than you would get in, say, a Final Fantasy super-dungeon, but it didn't feel as exciting as DT. There were some cool puzzles that required you to pay close attention to your environment, which was a nice change from the game's standard of revealing everything through dialog or items. For the most part, though, each level really only was about itself. The Keep as a whole is there to guard The Imprisoned One, but nothing in the keep really has anything to say ABOUT The Imprisoned One, or about each other. It's as if Durlag's Tower only had the Demon Knight, and none of Durlag's family.

That said, the individual levels are pretty interesting. The first level has some nice-if-standard item-based puzzles, and a very challenging fight with some animated statues. Later on you meet a Chromatic Demon, with some environmental puzzles that require you to read and compare notes from various dead mages, then arrange the environment to allow you to defeat some ordinarily unkillable guardians. I think the battle with the Chromatic Demon is supposed to be tough as well - according to the notes, he can take four forms, and in each form he's only vulnerable to a specific type of attack - but fortunately to me, he emerged in his Ice form, and, well, if there's one thing I do VERY well, it's offensive fire-based magic, and I was able to kill him before he shifted.

Later you go through a very difficult maze game. This felt like a throwback to the 80s and 90s adventure games - typically, all screens in those games would be connected in North-South-East-West-type links, and you could navigate them sensibly, but every once in a while an area would abandon spatial logic, such that you could keep going in the same direction and end up in circles. Well, this was like that. In addition to the challenge of navigating the maze, the way it's divided into rooms also makes it nicely tough; for example, you can choose to raise a powerful summon, but you won't be able to take it with you when you move on to the next room; and you need to be very protective of your weaker party members, since enemies might be on top of them from the moment you enter the room. And, as a final grace touch, two powerful groups of demons (I think balor and tanar'ri) are also lost in the maze and are battling it out for supremacy. I killed pretty much everyone in the maze before I found the journal that clearly describes how to get to the exit. In order to leave, you need to gamble with a tiefling (or kill him, I suppose - I never fight when I don't have to).

You finally encounter the Machine of Lum the Mad on the next level. I think this is probably the real highlight of Watcher's Keep - yeah, all of the artifacts you get are nice, but solving the mysteries of the Machine gives you the only chance in the whole game to directly improve your natural stats. Unlike BG1, where items like the Manual of Bodily Health were scattered throughout the game, and you could gradually improve yourself over time, here there's one point in the game where you can pull a bunch of knobs and levers and quickly raise all your stats. I took the DEX, STR, and CHA for Sebrina. Finally having a natural 18 CHA let me ditch the Ring of Human Influence that I'd been carrying since the start of the game; DEX helps my eternal quest for a low AC (though this is still mostly driven by my Bracers); and, while I'm not all about combat, I do occasionally whack people with my quarterstaff. And giving myself a better natural STR makes it easier to dispense the STR-boosting items to my real frontline fighters. As a sorcerer, I really don't have any use for INT, WIS, or a higher CON. I gave the INT to Nalia, finally raising her to 18 and letting her learn a bunch more spells. The CON went to... hm, I think Mazzy; Viconia needs higher CON more badly, but I think that a single point wasn't going to help her enough, and fighters always benefit from more CON.

The fifth floor has less-interesting puzzles, but more-challenging fights (probably the most difficult since the statue fights on the first floor). There's an interesting "endless horde" type thing early on, where you fight a seemingly endless wave of orc fighers, archers, and mages. After a few minutes, I became convinced that I was doing something wrong, that I had to do something on the map in order to keep them from arriving. Nope - turns out it's just a test of your perseverance. As you collect, um, gems or keys or something, you can start unlocking the seals on the Imprisoned One's prison, which unleashes some VERY challenging fights. I'm talking, like, multiple lich-powerful opponents at once. I struggled for a while, then started bringing in the summons. WK lets you earn a TON of XP, and I'd rocketed up through Level 20 by now and started gaining HLAs. I found that the battles got far easier when I had, say, a Fallen Deva and a Planetar fighting by my side. Honestly, the numbers were the big thing; once I got parity with the number of enemies, I could finally start protecting my spellcasters, and then the fights, while still challenging, were much more doable.

Oh, yeah: this level also had a GREAT retro text-based adventure game. No, really, I'm hardly even joking: one of those things where you go "North", "South", "Look", "Fight". Instead of clicking on the screen to move through rooms, you do both your movement and actions through dialog. You can find some equipment, some items (like a key to open a chest), fight enemies, use a Wand of Missiles, etc. You eventually fight and defeat a Skeleton Warrior. It made me really nostalgic for the formative games of my childhood, which were the start of a fairly direct line towards me playing and loving the BG games.

There's a bit of a plot twist that you encounter once you finally reach The Imprisoned One. It had been pretty obvious from the beginning that some twist was coming - the Helmic knights are a bit too cryptic - but I had assumed that they were, like, actually in service of the Imprisoned One and using you to free him. It turns out that they're who they say they are, they just aren't very good at it; they've neglected to tell you that the job requires sacrifice and eternal imprisonment alongside the bad guy, who turns out to be the Demogorgon, one of the more powerful princes of the Abyss.  They're using you so they can remain free. You have a couple of choices in how to resolve this; the "best" solution, in the sense of serving the greatest good, is probably to use Helm's ritual to seal Demogorgon and the faithless knights inside; doing this will keep the world save for several centuries more. That seemed a little boring, so I opted for the second-best approach, killing Demogorgon and rescuing the knights. Once again, my Planetars helped a ton with this fight, and I fell in love with Improved Alacrity and Stop Time. Killing Demogorgon sends him back to the Abyss, which is actually a bit less good since it means he's free to move around and do stuff, but Helm seemed cool with it.

As all this was going on, the Nalia romance was steadily advancing; periodically I would break away from one of the levels to head back to the Keep or to the city in order to advance things. However, even after WK was done, I still was barely dating her. I spent some more time hunting down and finishing every last little side-quest I could think of, until my Journal was totally empty. I then started downloading and installing still more quest mods, to draw out the time. That's a huge testament to how much I was enjoying this mod - I was so wrapped up in it, and I knew that it would come to a hard stop once I moved on to ToB, that I wanted to keep on playing just for the mod. I also started looking around for ways to speed up the romance without breaking the mood. There's a pretty trivial cheating way to do it via CLUAConsole, which I'd done a few times before when I was checking to make sure that the script was still on track, but that's a pretty lame way to experience something like this; the whole thing that's fun about this sort of NPC interaction is how fairly spontaneous it is, how it pops up while your mind is on something else, and quickly becomes the center of your world. It turns out that the timers the game uses for events (including love talks) isn't based on real-world clock time, or on in-game clock time, but on the game's frame rate - basically, the rendering loop. So, by boosting the FPS, you can also speed up a romance. It turns out that this also has other side-effects, which might have been annoying or difficult early in the game, but for now were pretty much perfect: your characters all walk faster, so you can get across maps more quickly, and fights are over sooner. Since everyone was so incredibly overpowered by now (all my characters ended the game with levels in the mid-20s), Mazzy (who, remember, always gets the Boots of Speed) would often race across a map, run into, say, a group of five Greater Wolfwares, start swinging her adorable little short sword at them, and kill them all before the rest of us would catch up. I'm planning on setting the FPS back down when I start ToB, because it's hard to manage tactics when fights move that fast, plus I want all the NPC content to last me as long as I can, but for this, it was a great way to make sure I could experience the whole de'Arnise plot while still doing SOMETHING in the game.

So, I grabbed a couple, played through them, grabbed some more, and played through those. As always, it's really interesting and exciting to see the variety of cool things that independent modders can do. There's a lot of variety in tone and style between the mods, but for the most part that's okay and in keeping with the main game - after all, BG2 has some really amusing stuff in it like the Five Flagons playhouse and the Cyrano-esque wooing outside the Temple of the Radiant Heart, along with some incredibly dark stuff like Irenicus's torture chambers and Bodhi's pools of blood. Some of the mods are very self-contained. One, Tower of Deception, is apparently based on an old D&D module. It's a wholly separate area, with its own plot that fits within the world of the Sword Coast but doesn't connect to any of the BG2 plots. The overall story of that mod actually reminded me a bit of the Ice Island quest from TotSC, in that it's a far-away place that attracts and traps people moving nearby. There are some good puzzles in the mod, and I liked the way that a lot of them depended on you actually using items within the game, instead of just picking from dialogs or clicking on things. My main complaint is probably that the rooms in the tower are too small - it's really hard to fight, or even move, with a six-person party when everything is scrunched up together. Still, it was a great mod, and the creator gave it a lot of polish; in addition to the custom maps, it even has a custom video showing the tower as you approach it, very similar to the Bioware videos introducing new areas. I was tempted to keep the book for myself at the end - after all, as a high-level sorcerer it's the sort of thing that I SHOULD be able to use - but I decided to keep my word and hand it over.

After this, I played a couple of mods created by Lava Del'Vortel, a Polish BG enthusiast. First up was Eilistraee's  Clearing, which adds a bit of a coda to Solaufein's story, and introduces you to a group of peaceful Drow who are trying to build a virtuous community on the surface. This was a perfect mod for me: lots of nice little quests, some set in a new area and others that tied back in to existing places (one particularly adorable one has you finding a teddy bear for a little girl). There's a good and challenging optional fight with a demi-lich; in contrast with my earlier fights with Kagnaxx, this time I did very little advance buffing and preparation, but was able to kill him quickly enough that only a single party member got Imprisoned. There's a larger overall plot that has to do with enlisting these good Drow in the fight against Irenicus and his army from the Underdark. Unfortunately, by this point in the game I'd already reached Suldanessar and cleared all the enemies all the way to the Palace; I still wanted to see how it played out, though, so I peeked at the mod dialog for Elhan so I could manually carry out an exchange that was supposed to happen in the Elven war camp. A significant portion of this mod has to do with reading comprehension and analytical thinking; you review a couple of scrolls that describe Eilistraee and her relationship with the Drow pantheon, then carry on a fairly intelligent conversation with one of the group's elders: not just reciting memorized facts from the scroll, but inferring conclusions from the evidence they present. At the end of all this, you gain a new special ability, in addition to a few useful items (including a unique amulet for Viconia).

At right around the time I finished this set of quests, Nalia and I had finally set RomanceActive from 1 to 2.... if you know what I mean! Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!

There are still more developments in the romance, so I kept on with my quest mods. I did an earlier mod from the same author, Tales of the Deep Gardens, which was a much more stand-alone one; after an initial set of riddles and mini-quests in Athkala, you are transported to a new area. This is a very involved and intricately constructed alternate world, where colors are dominant essences, and humans are only faint followers of those colors. Once again, a big part of the mod consists of immersing yourself in this mythology, and coming to understand what it all means. This mod also added a lot of new, unique, interesting items and spells, and manages to offer a bunch of new things that feel very useful without being overpowered. I bought a bunch of cool and unique things, but ended up only permanently keeping a few pieces of equipment - a new Black mage robe for Imoen, and a nifty Mage healing spell for Nalia. (I know that this kind of violates the divide between mage and cleric, but a single spell isn't going to ruin anything, and it isn't like it'll make me ditch Viconia.) There's another segment like the one in Eilistraee where you need to answer a bunch of questions, this time about Colors, although here you don't just study some documents; instead, your understanding comes through sheer exposure to all the aspects of this society. Oh, and there are several fights that are also riddles; the hardest for me by far was the Silver Guardian, who basically tells you what you have to do to defeat him, but it still took me a long time to do it correctly. You do get a ton of XP from completing this mod - I think they could cut the amount in half or more and it would still feel like an adequate reward - but the best part is probably an opportunity you get to spend 16k gold in order to have a character named "Silvertongue" bind you with a color. This KIND of reminded me of the tattoos from Planescape: Torment, but you can only choose a single color. Now, by the end of the mod, you'll have some idea of what impact the various colors might mean. For example Red is the color of hostility, so it makes sense that this would boost your fighting ability. I saved my game and tried a few colors, but didn't immediately see any impact; I'd assumed they would boost your stats, but that wasn't the case. I eventually broke down and hit Google, and finally found a (German?) page that Google helped me translate. I opted to go with the Gray color, which actually takes away max HP and gives you a fairly significant penalty to your death saving throws, but grants you an extra attack and improves your THAC0. As a sorceress, this was probably my only chance in the entire game to boost my number of attacks.

Finally, I played through an older quest mod, Dungeon Crawl. This is apparently based on a webcomic that evidently no longer exists; I'm sure I would have gotten more amusement out of it if I was already familiar with the characters, but it was fun anyways. There's an initial segment in the Copper Coronet and the Slums, then the bulk of the mod takes place in a new area in a dungeon-type place on an island. Actually, now that I think about it, there was actually some really funny stuff in there... on the second level, the smugglers responsible for your kidnapping offer to assist you if you'll help kill a lich and his pet beholder. Sounds like a nice epic fight, right? Well, you can kill them if you want, but they're really just two very enthusiastic entrepreneurs: the lich makes some delicious tea (and you'll even hear some fun rumors if you patronize him), while the gazer is deliriously excited about his cheese shop; the gazer actually has some really good other items, including another pair of Boots of Speed, a Belt of Ogre Strength (which I grabbed for Mazzy - making the Crom Fayer for Viconia had deprived Mazzy of her strength-boosting belt), and another really good mage robe. I eventually decided that I liked this lich and beholder more than the smugglers, and killed them all. The final boss is Lupus, a demonic rabbit - yeah, basically like the one from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except he actually talks. My fight with him was a bit buggy - I got him down to "Near Death", but he just wouldn't die, even after whaling on him for another minute or so. By now, I was feeling really comfortable with editing mod scripts, so I started poking around the source tree for something that looked promising. Ah, O#Lupus.baf - that's gotta be it! I saw a couple of potential problems - it had the same "!CD_STATE_INVALID(Player1)" check that had been breaking my Nalia script, and also a check for "HPLT(10)", which I figured had to mean "fewer than 10 hit points". Now, Chloe et al were whacking Lupus for 20-40 HP on each strike, so I wondered if the script might be getting thrown by that - either wrapping him around to negative values, or else not dropping below 10 since he wouldn't die at 0. I took out the CD_STATE_INVALID check, boosted the HPLT value to 50, re-installed the mod, and fought again. This time, it ended as expected: I got him to Near Death, the adventurers teleported in, Lupus fled, we took the treasure and left. All in all, a fully satisfactory mod.

By now, I had finally completed all the unique content from the Nalia romance mod. I thought it was extraordinarily well-done, arguably better than any of the three Bioware romances I've played through. It managed to really stay true to what we know of Nalia from everything that's in the official game, and then it extrapolates from that; it manages to surprise you occasionally, while making it feel like a revelation and not a repudiation. The overall pace of the romance is quite different from the others, and I think that's very appropriate given Nalia's personality and social role. For example, with Viconia you, um, get to ViconiaRomanceActive == 2 relatively early on, and then experience a sort of roller coaster of ups and downs as you explore that aspect of your relationship. With Nalia, though, there is an extremely long period of gradual friendship, which deepens to interest, which leads to a state where Nalia digs you but seemingly won't admit it to herself, to a period of reflection and creative thinking. I'm making it sound more directional than it really is; most of the conversations are about topics other than the two of you, but you can sense your two orbits gradually synchronizing with one another as you exert more of a pull on each other. After the consummation, there is still a little more fleshing-out of your relationship, and you have access to all of the flirt options (which, again, she reacts to in believable ways - don't think that she and Viconia will go for the same things!), but that initial journey was by far the biggest element of the romance, and there isn't a whole lot that follows is. Again, I do wish that jcompton or someone equally talented would make a Throne of Bhaal version of the mod - I would love to see how that story ends.

Speaking of ends... once I determined that the romance had run its course (I think that's at PGNaliaLoveTalk of 65), I headed back to Suldanessellar and the Palace. I think I managed to goof up the Tree of Life - I had repaired the statues and gone down into the Tree before harvesting the nuts, and when I came back up it didn't seem like it was possible to get them anymore. Once again, I used the cheat console to grab a necessary item. (I'm usually fairly careful with my saves, but I had overwritten my quicksave and auto-save, and the last unique save would have taken me back about two days of in-game time.) I destroyed the parasite, fought Irenicus, and won!

It was yet another case of my memory playing tricks on me...  I had vividly remembered the battle at the Tree of Life, but had thought that it was the last battle in the game. After all, I remembered it taking a long time - I seem to recall racing the party around the branches, chasing after Irenicus and fleeing from him when we needed to recover - as opposed to this time where my seriously overpowered characters whaled on him for a while. (The secret to a boring boss battle: Improved Alacrity + Timestop + Ruby Ray + Breach + Summon Planetar + Comet + Comet + Comet.) After you kill him, though... you get dragged down to Hell! Zoinks!

I did remember Hell, but for some reason I had mentally placed that near the beginning of Throne of Bhaal, not the end of Shadows of Amn. I'd wondered for a second whether the game had automatically moved me on to the final episode - but no, I was still getting unique dialog from Chloe, so this had to be SoA. Well, that's fine. Down we go!

Hell is kind of interesting. You need to face five demons who each present you with a trial. I think that you can fight someone for each of the trials, but it may only be required for one. Each presents a "good" and an "evil" solution. First I faced the wraith of Sarevok, who wanted me to transform into the Slayer and claim my Bhaal birthright. I turned him down (saying that I felt only pity), but still had to fight him. The second demon gives you a powerful longsword, the Blackrazor, which is a +3 blade with some really good abilities - fast HP regeneration, some immunities, and I think a level-drain as well. You can give up the sword to free an imprisoned djinn, or kill him and keep the sword. That would have been a much more difficult choice if I'd had a single party member with a longsword proficiency - next! A particularly nasty dilemma forces you to choose between sacrificing yourself or losing a party member. The demon chose Imoen, which I thought was particularly unfair - after all, she's already HAD her soul stolen once! I gritted my teeth and went through the self-sacrifice doors. I HATE giving up personal stats; I had spent an inordinate amount of time in denial an an earlier dream sequence where you need to sacrifice a point of CON in order to survive. Here, I lost some max HP (eh), some XP (big whoop), and 1 point of DEX (NOOOOOOOOO!) Mutter, mutter.... I hope you appreciated it, Imoen. The next trial featured a demon offering another choice: you can accept a cloak sewn from the flayed skins of beautiful nymphs (ewww!) in order to avoid the fear that awaits you. I get the feeling this might have been one of the mod-affected trials; in addition to the clearly good and clearly evil dialog choices ("Screw the nymphs, give me the cloak!" or "I would never accept a gift from you!"), there's another line of inquiry where you seek to establish whether the nymphs had already been harmed or not; the thinking here is, if the cloak has ALREADY been made, then you're really not making the world any better or worse by taking it. I dunno, maybe that was in the original game, but it feels like something added by a thoughtful/obstinate modder. Taking the cloak makes this a cakewalk. Like an idiot, I stuck my head in the other room, only to see a whole bunch of beholders. Blech. They chased me back to the main Hell room, where I had to whack them a lot. The last trial has a demon egg you on to fight an enemy. Um... are you really going to do what a demon tells you to? I just kept questioning it; turns out the enemy was a golden dragon, which I guess is one of the good kind. No more fighting!

Phew... after all that, you get to insert "tears" (c'mon, they're keys, all right?) into the big scary eyeballs by the door. And, ta-da, you get bonuses for doing this! I was ecstatic to see that I got +2 DEX from one of them - okay, so now I didn't feel so bad about that choice. You pick up some nice resistances as well, and I think I got some mostly-useless boosts to WIS and CHA as well. (I'd be curious to see if these rewards change based on your choices - it seems like it'd make sense.)

This is probably as good a point as any to show of my lead character, Sebrina, at the end of the game.

Not too bad, I guess. I hadn't bothered re-rolling her when starting off in BG1, so she started off with good but not great stats there. I'd maxed out my DEX and STR, and ensured that I'd have a decent amount of CON (again, non-fighters don't need too much, but I'd remembered that I'd be losing some along the way). Sorcerer is a kind of weird class, in that none of your stats are really that important; unlike every other mage type, you don't rely on INT for any of your spellcasting; like all other mages, you don't need WIS, either. (I think there might be minimums for these stats, but they're pretty low, and there doesn't seem to be a benefit to boosting them.) I'd filled out my remaining points into CHA, as usual making my protagonist the public face of the party. I think I'd had enough points left for a natural CHA of 16 at the start of BG1. I'd gradually enhanced it to a natural 19 by this point in the game, and a few buffing items raised it still further, as seen here. My other boosts had come from the Manuals and Tomes of BG1, the Machine of Lum the Mad, and my Trials. It's fun to look at these stats and think about what Sebrina would be like in real life... not too bright, kind of rash and impulsive, but extremely capable and VERY persuasive.

Anyways... after the last Tear was inserted, Irenicus arrived for the final battle. This was more challenging than before, if only because he summoned some fiends to help him. Still... this battle was NOT designed to be challenging for someone who had gone through Watcher's Keep. He threw me off a bit early on - a fireball interrupted my attempt at Improved Alacrity, and some Demon Fear temporarily put Nalia and Viconia out of the picture. Still, Mazzy and Chloe were able to keep his demons occupied, and in the meantime Imoen was able to summon her own Planetar. By then Sebrina had recovered and was back on the Improved Alacrity kick (oh, and in case you still aren't seeing why this is such a big deal, I should mention that she was wearing the Robes of Vecna and the Amulet of Power. So, basically, she can unload something like 10 spells in the 2 rounds that IA lasts. If the first spell is a Time Stop, then... well, you're waking up to a very different world than the one you left), raining fiery death down and distributing Improved Invisibility to everyone. Irenicus ran away like the little coward he is, and the two Planetars (!) chased him down and continued rapidly whacking him all through his cut scene.

Finally - dah dah dah dah! - Irenicus is dead, you can reclaim your undivided soul, and you and your companions ascend from Hell back to Suldanessellar. There's a nice, if brief, segment where Queen Ellesime assembles all the Elves together in the palace to praise your actions, and (shockingly) admit some culpability for their setting Irenicus's wheels of revenge into motion. I got a kick out of this bit - it just reminds me so much of the end of Sierra's old Hero Quest / Quest for Glory I, or the end of the original Star Wars. It just feels RIGHT when I end a long computer game with a bunch of animated sprites clustering up a screen, telling me that I've done a good job.

And, with that, Shadows of Amn draws to a close. There's a creepy final video where you see Irenicus face his final (and probably eternal) punishment. This rapidly segues in to a teaser about the upcoming conflict in Throne of Bhaal. I no longer remember exactly who those mysterious hooded men seated around the table are, and am looking forward to finding out.

Throne of Bhaal automatically kicks off after you've finished SoA, so I won't be able to resist playing through that, but enough stuff went down in this game that I wanted to write it up first while it was still relatively fresh. As with my re-play of BG1, I was blown away by the quality of the user-created mods for this game, and found that they significantly improved what was already one of my all-time favorite games. And, like my original play-through of BG2, I was thoroughly impressed by the depth of the story, the high level of NPC interactions, the wonderful variety of optional quests and other amusements. It felt very rewarding to experience so much that I hadn't encountered in my first game, and to often not be entirely sure whether I was playing a mod or a side-quest that I had simply overlooked.

I'm sure I'll play BG2 again, though realistically it'll probably be another wait of many years. That's kind of comforting in its own way: by then my memory will have another chance to slightly fade, and get fuzzy around the edges, letting me feel surprise again at parts of the game. And it's exhilarating to see that the mod community for this game is STILL thriving - Eilistraee's Song was released just last December, for example, and last updated a few months ago. By the time I return, I imagine that there will be a whole other set of mods created. It seems like Tutu might be obsolete by then, replaced by BGT or The Big Picture or whatever comes after them, similar to how Baldurdash of old was replaced with the Fixpack.

I find that part of my mind is already thinking forward to that speculative next game, thinking of what I'll do differently. It does seem like I should give a shot at playing some sort of evil character, or at the least something like Chaotic Neutral. I'd like to play a pure thief - I've always resisted this in the past, since Imoen is a thief and so becoming one seems redundant, but if I want to build an evil party Imoen won't be in it anyways. And being an evil thief would be important if I wanted to make a full-on evil party in BG2 - I think most players will take Yoshimo or Jan since they're neutral, but there are only three evil NPCs in the whole game, and none of them are thieves. Anyways... just something for me to think about while I get ready to bring Sebrina to her deification at the Throne of Bhaal.

In the meantime - kudos a decade later to Black Isle and Bioware for making such an amazing game that's withstand the test of time, and mega-kudos to the dozens of modders who have transformed their passion for the game into an amazing creative endeavor. Let me selfishly encourage them all to keep up the good work!

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