Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Finally Winter Night

Through sheer force of will, I have finished the Original/Official Campaign to Neverwinter Nights. Looking back over my previous post, I realize that I may have been overly harsh on the game. No, not because it ends up being more fun and interesting later on - honestly, it remained a slog for virtually the entire duration. But, I eventually came to understand that this game's aims are pretty different from the other Bioware fantasy RPGs I have played, and so it isn't completely fair for me to rag on it to the extent that I have (and will continue to).

I remember that during the pre-release publicity campaign for Neverwinter Nights, the overall pitch was actually something fairly radical: the idea was to translate the feel of a pen-and-paper D&D game to the computer. Anyone who has actually participated in a "true" roleplaying game knows that it's a fundamentally different experience from a computer or console RPG. Since it's run by a human gamemaster/dungeonmaster, every game will have a unique flavor and tone to it. Additionally, individual player characters have an order of magnitude more agency than PCs in a CRPG have. The experience of a pen-and-paper RPG is highly collaborative, with the DM responding on the fly to the wild ideas generated by his or her PCs, and while certain mileposts may be visited along the way, it's impossible to predict the path taken to reach them.

A long time ago, I was the GM for a campaign of Middle-earth Role Playing. This was tiring, but also one of the most entertaining and creative experiences of my life. The campaign was roughly based off of a pre-made adventure that shipped with the core rulebook, but I liberally adapted it well before we started: I kept the Trollshaws setting, but changed the chronology to fit my early-4th-age setting instead of the early-3rd-age concept, and modified some of the characters and locations of the adventure to tie in with my PCs personal backstories (which they had largely developed on their own with just a little input from me). Once we got rolling, I learned the value of flexibility and thinking on one's feet. My players would get antsy and obstinate when it felt like I was railroading them into a scenario: if someone walked up to them in a tavern and asked for a moment of their time, they would say "no" and leave. One player in particular delighted in trying to trip me up: when they stumbled into a library, he spent all of his turns pulling random books off the shelves and asking what was inside. Of course, I hadn't planned an entire library's worth of reading material, so I had to think on my feet ("The Ballad of Frodo the Nine-Fingered Hobbit") and then invent a distraction to make them move on.

The point is, a pen-and-paper RPG allows for infinite variations: anything a creative mind can conceive, can happen during the course of a single journey. A successful DM will provide plot and guidance, but the best campaigns will only give the skeleton of a structure, to allow PCs the greatest degree of freedom and agency while playing. A CRPG is fundamentally different: since the computer is the DM, it can't think creatively; since all assets (art, speech, music) needs to be built into the game, it can't create new concepts on the fly; the PC will need to choose from the set of pre-determined options that the CRPG presents.

Traditionally, CRPGs have dealt with this limitation in one of two ways. The first, which I think of as the "Final Fantasy" solution, tells a tightly constrained story. The PC's background is rich and detailed, but it's one that's handed to you, not one that you create. So, it tells you that you are Cloud Strife, and fills in information about your parents, your employment, your ambitions, and so on. You can slightly guide the path of your story (going on a date with Aeris, Tifa, or Barret), but for the most part it follows a well-known path. The things I do when playing Final Fantasy VII are probably 95% similar to your experiences. The second way, which I think of as the "Elder Scrolls" solution, provides a minimal story, but sets it in a vast and random world to encourage emergent gameplay. You and I have almost certainly created different Skyrim characters, who may come from different races or species, have different combat styles, married different spouses, and took very different approaches to the world. If it's successful, the game will prompt you to emotionally connect with "your" character: you may develop your own personal story for what happened before they became a prisoner, decide how you relate to the world (kind, greedy, violent), and lets you act out all sorts of quirks (collecting an insane quantity of sweetrolls, or stealing every spoon in the world, or breaking into the king's bedroom and staring at him while he sleeps). Because the game can't anticipate these things in advance, though, it's largely a story you tell yourself, and not one that the game provides feedback on.

Well, Neverwinter Nights was kind of created as an attempt to bring CRPGs back to their pen-and-paper root by restoring the missing element: the human DM. While I've been almost entirely focusing on the front-end experience of playing the game, the back-end is really the most interesting part. NWN was designed from the ground up to support multiple players; and unlike Baldur's Gate, which had a sort of kludged way to make multiple PCs join the same party, NWN actually supports a player occupying the role of a DM. So, for the first time ever, it really was possible to get something like a traditional RPG experience in a CRPG. For example, the DM could "possess" an NPC questgiver, so you could carry out an actual conversation instead of selecting choices from a menu; the DM could also provide your quest rewards, perhaps giving an item that better matched a character's proficiencies or that had some significance to their personal quest; and the DM can also create more monsters, place traps, move around objects, and otherwise personalize the experience of the players. At the extreme end, the Aurora Toolset was the only Bioware game engine designed from the ground up to be easily moddable, and the company strongly encouraged players to create their own "community modules", which are entire adventures that other DMs and PCs could play together.

I remember how exciting all of this sounded back in the early 2000s. I still think it could be really cool, if you could coordinate a group of players and had an experienced DM running things. Sadly, that isn't the environment within which I'm experiencing this game. It's very difficult to find a group of friends who all want to do something like this at the same time, and, frankly, even if we did, I think we'd almost prefer gaming over Skype instead. So I'm essentially playing something that was designed as a multi-player game in single-player mode, which goes a long way towards explaining all the disappointments I'm encountering. Of course all the NPC henchmen seem thinly drawn and totally unintegrated into the plot: if multiple PCs were in a party, the game wouldn't have any henchmen at all, so it doesn't make sense to make them at all important to the story. Of course the plot seems simple: a simple plot is perfect if you have a human DM, since that makes it easier to elaborate it in ways that matter to your PCs.

So, I get it. I just don't much like it. Most of the rest of this write-up describes my subjective experience as someone who was hoping for another experience like Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age and was sorely disappointed.

My character was Cirion Bartleman, a male halfling rogue. I do enjoy the vast array of races and classes available in the D&D games, even if it has almost no impact on the story. (It is a little funny to note the difference between the text in dialog and the occasional voiceover parts: a line like 'Welcome Cirion, my halfling friend!' might be spoken as 'Welcome my friend!')  I almost always like to play as thief/rogue characters in RPGs, and halflings are one of the best race options, with a nice bonus to DEX and some boosts to stealth checks. Plus, I haven't ever played as a halfling before. Between BG and DA, I've played humans, elves, half-elves and dwarves, so it was nice to add another race to my set. It makes no real difference to the roleplaying aspect of the game - nobody treats you differently as a little person - but it does have some interesting mechanical implications. The biggest one I noticed was the way a small stature affects your weapon wielding. Basically, each item is treated as being one "tier" larger than it ordinarily would be, so items that most races can wield one-handed (longswords, rapiers, morning stars, etc.) require two halfling hands to hold; two-handed weapons (battleaxes, dire maces) can't be wielded at all; and most shields cannot be equipped at all. I eventually went with a two-handed weapon style since I couldn't use a shield anyways, and rotated between three small weapon types: daggers, maces, and short swords. I probably should have chosen a specialization and dual-wielded weapons of the same type, but this did lead to the nice situation where I was almost always at least somewhat equipped for any enemy I ran across (bludgeoning weapons for undead, bladed weapons for everyone else).

After consulting a couple of online rogue build guides, I eventually took one level in the Ranger class, and another level in the Shadowdancer prestige class. The Ranger level is basically a cheap way to get the dual-wielding feats; it isn't quite as strong as what you would ultimately get with Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, but requires far fewer feats. Once I got this class and took the Weapon Finesse feat, I started contributing a respectable amount of damage in combat (though never anywhere near as much as Daelan accomplished). I liked the idea of Shadowdancer, but most online guides recommend stopping after the first level, which is enough to unlock Hide In Plain Sight. This is a perfect feat for those "Oh, $#!*" moments when you are close to dying and need to break off combat swiftly.

I'd initially dumped a decent amount of skill points into Pick Pockets, but came to regret it. Picking pockets in this game just isn't very fun. In BG and DA, there are plenty of rich officious merchants, or arrogant nobles, or upper-class twits to gleefully rob blind. In NWN, virtually every single person you run across is desperate and miserable, with their way of life under assault, and despairing of any hope in the future. Plus, since the economy is out of whack, you won't even benefit in an appreciable way from stealing. I quickly stopped investing new skill points in here; fortunately, there are still plenty of other skills that can benefit from a raise. I always maximized my points in Hide, Move Silently, Detect Traps, Disarm Traps, Pick Locks, Tumble, and Persuade; I also dumped a decent amount into Appraise, and near the end of the game I started putting a lot into Use Magic Device. The first set of those are all obviously thief skills. Stealth was generally only helpful for preparing sneak attacks on enemies, though there were a couple of points where I was also able to remove traps from a room while remaining unseen. Tumble lets you move around the battlefield more easily, which was helpful for battles where I wanted to skirt the frontline fighters to reach mages, clerics, or archers in the rear; tumble also slightly boosts your AC, and is a pre-requisite for Shadowdancer. (Thanks to Tumble and other items and perks, I ended the campaign with an AC in the high 30s.) Appraise helps you get more gold from selling and buy items for cheaper. This felt fairly useful early on, but I ended the came with over 600,000 gold and nothing to spend it on other than Heal potions (which also turned out to be pointless; more about that later). Use Magic Device had exactly two purposes: it let me cast from scrolls of Remove Blindness on the very rare occasions when I was blinded, and it let me wear the Robes of the Dark Moon near the end of the game.

Persuade is the one option that would seem to be useful for all PCs regardless of class: theoretically, it should open up new dialogue options. (There is also an "Intimidate" skill. I never saw this appear as an option, though that might be because I didn't invest anything in it.) In practice, though, Persuade was only marginally useful. Half of the time, it convinced NPCs to share some extra information with you. This was almost always something that you could also find out through other means. (Though, I think there may have been a few conversations in Chapter 1 where this led to alternate solutions to quests, particularly when it came to entering certain buildings.) The rest of the time, you can [Persuade] people to give you a larger reward after completing a quest. Just asking for money can shift your alignment towards Evil, but apparently if you [Persuade] them there's no penalty. Usually this means a bit more gold, but there are a few cases where you can get a nice magic item in addition to your normal reward.

But, yeah... on the whole, the dialogue was not interesting. It's probably the most Manichean of any Bioware fantasy RPG I've played. BG dialogue often had a whole bunch of options to choose from; some would be transparently evil or good, but there would be a lot of choices. DA:O similarly had pretty big menus that allowed for a fair amount of nuance in how you reacted to information. DA2 had a more limited Diplomatic/Sarcastic/Aggressive division, but each individual option was well-delivered and interesting, and often situationally appropriate to the point where I felt like a particular set of circumstances deserved a certain response, even if it was outside my standard "type". In contrast, the PC's prompts in NWN border on the cartoonish. Often your only options will be along the lines of, "I shall do this thing, because it is the right and virtuous thing for me to do!" and "I shall do this thing, but there had better be a huge reward for me!" Which... well, if we're making the campaign generic anyways, I guess that makes sense, but it's about as painful to go back to this dialogue after DA2's incredibly well-written script as it's painful to go back to NWN's clunky graphics after DA2's incredibly pretty world.

I know I've complained before about the henchman AI, but it's so incredibly awful that I need to bring it up again. It is H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E! I practically wept with frustration near the end when Linu would charge into the middle of a group of enemies at 51% health, lose a few points of health, then start casting Cure Light (!!!) Wounds on herself, provoking an immediate Attack of Opportunity on a TON of monsters, who weren't even targeting her to begin with, and crying when she died. Plus she never buffs herself before fights, or heals herself outside of combat, and as far as I can tell there's no way to tell her to do so. I eventually realized that the best thing I could do was to buff her myself before combat (by carrying around Potions of Bless, when she should be blessing herself!) and tossing her healing potions in the middle of fights so she wouldn't try to cast healing magic on herself. Ugh. If you're ever tempted to play this game, I highly recommend NOT picking a henchman with any spell casting abilities.

Combat in general is often quite annoying. When it's good, it's very good: D&D 3rd edition is a nicely complex system, and it can lead to some terrific tactical situations that reward good planning and careful management. Much of the time, though, it just sucks. Many fights are poorly tuned and feature rewards that are far out of whack with their difficulty. In one sequence, you need to fight Huge Fire Elementals, which are extremely powerful enemies that can usually kill my henchman and require me to resort to cheap tactics and/or consume a lot of valuable potions to survive. My reward for killing one? 3xp. Other times you'll run into a group of orcs and simply slaughter them, earning a decent amount of XP despite expending no effort or thought whatsoever. Some fights feature both sides with relatively high ACs and relatively low THAC0s: I just click on the bad guy, and then wait for ten minutes while they swing swords at each other. A few boss fights seemed virtually impossible, at least with my character build. In the first 3 chapters, I could bring in Daelan and have him roflstomp the boss, but in the fourth chapter I was "stuck" with Linu.

It wasn't until the penultimate boss battle in the entire game (fighting two dragons at once) that, in a moment of frustration, I looked for help online and stumbled across a bit of information that I had totally overlooked before: it's possible to use your "Stone of Recall" while in the middle of a fight! I had just assumed that, much like resting, it could only be activated when no enemies were around. So, I'd gotten in the habit of, you know, healing myself and Linu in the middle of fights. But, all along, I could have just teleported out of anything when it got too tough. Once I realized that, I actually got a little mad. I'd recently begun buying Potions of Heal, which cost more than 2000 gold each. Why on earth should I bother? Teleporting back from the temple with the Stone costs only 400 gold, and if I return to the temple I can heal both myself AND my companion AND clear any other conditions, buff, and rest as necessary.  Frankly, it's crazily easy to exploit that, and I wonder if some of the boss fights might have been over-tuned with the assumption that players would take advantage of this mid-combat escape option. (Of course, as soon as I figured it out, I got to the very last part of the game, where you can not teleport out. Phooey.)

On the plus side: the music is quite excellent. I didn't realize until the closing credits that it was composed by Jeremy Soule, who has a really impressive video game composing resume, and recently completed a successful Kickstarter for his first symphony. (If you're the slightest bit interested in video game music, I highly recommend listening to the Minnesota Public Radio program from Top Score earlier this month, which covers his career and plays some of his best music.) The videos are fine, but very much on the same level as the cinematics from Baldur's Gate: basically just pan-and-scan across interesting fantasy art. My game apparently had some problem that kept the video for the end from playing at all (though I could hear the audio), so I had to look it up on YouTube after I beat the game. Lame.

The graphics were fairly primitive, though I did really like some of the monster designs that they did, and a few of the environments turned out well. For no particularly good reason I took some screenshots, which have ended up in an album for your perusal.

All right, let's get into plot. This will be short. Let's cut right to the


Looking back over the game, I guess a lot of stuff happens, but I just can't make myself care about it very much. The structure is one where you're constantly peeling back the layers of a dark and evil conspiracy, at each level realizing that the force you thought was the "big bad" was just the pawn of someone else. So, at first you search for the culprit behind the Wailing Death; then you realize that Desther was behind it; then you realize that Desther himself is just a pawn for some bigger, darker force; you eventually determine that the City of Luskan was behind the attack; then you realize that the City of Luskan has been taken over by its Captains; then you realize that the Captains are in thrall to the Arcane Brotherhood; then you realize that the Arcane Brotherhood has been infiltrated by Maugrim; then you realize that Maugrim serves a mysterious cult; then you realize that the cult is seeking to awaken the Creator Race; then you realize that the Creator Race is being led by the queen Morag. I remember when I first played Final Fantasy Tactics and was simply amazed at the depth and intricacy of the conspiracy in that game. I don't know if I dislike NWN's plot because it feels like more of the same, or if it just isn't pulled off as well.

I've previously complained at great length about the naked padding that fills much of the game: pointlessly long main-quests and side-quests which require tasks to be performed an arbitrary number of times while providing nothing in the way of story or background. It really feels like, when they were planning the game, someone decided that they wanted to be able to put "Over 100 Hours of Gameplay!" on the back of the box, and they copy-pasted a bunch of quests until the desired length was reached. I'd probably feel much better about the game as a whole if it was only 10% as long. A single Waterdavian creature to recover; the confrontation with Desther; a single cult operative to follow (perhaps the one with the trial, which was decently interesting); all of Luskan; the Red Dragon and Creator Race Temple; and the endgame. I do think that some of the late-game levels were actually quite interesting: the Creator Race temple had some fairly well-constructed puzzles, and the time-travel aspect, while certainly not original, was fairly well constructed. However, by the time I reached that place, I had gotten so fried by staring at dozens of dungeons and caves that I was pretty sick of it all. (Unlike DA2, at least each environment was unique - no maps were reused. But, DA2 gave you unique stories for each recycled environment you entered. NWN gives you one story for dozens of environments. Both are grating.)

Almost all NPCs in the game suffer from the same copypasta that infects its quests. So many times in the game you will encounter a group of NPCs, that will look different and have different names, but will each give identical dialogue. This isn't too bad when it's just floaty text that appears over their heads. Often, though, they will each have the same dialogue trees, often going four nodes deep. And, since the dialogue in this game is so shallow, there really isn't any way to express, "Yeah, you are saying exactly the same things that the other person over there just said to me thirty seconds ago, so thank you, go away now." Your only options are to say "Bye" or feign ignorance at what they have to tell you. Again, this just feels like an artless way to pad out the game. I increasingly like Dragon Age's model of having lots of people walking around in the scene, but only allowing you to interact with a handful of unique people who actually have unique and interesting things to say. Heck, even Skyrim's redundant dialogue is slightly better, if only because your character sounds less imbecilic for repeating him- or her-self.

The entire game really only has a handful of semi-interesting NPCs, and only one truly interesting one, Aribeth. (I'll get to henchmen shortly.) Aribeth was the one character who actually managed to surprise me over the course of the campaign: I totally saw Desther's betrayal and Fenthick's downfall coming from miles away, and understood when she became upset by this, but never imagined her actually switching sides like she did, even after she described her dreams to me. It was the best kind of surprise, one that I didn't see coming but that made perfect sense in retrospect. I think it was effective partly because of the writing, but also due to some clever usage of game mechanics: since she's the character who heals you and sells you items, she feels very permanent by belonging to a class of characters who traditionally have remained static throughout the game. It's not like Lord British ever joined the other side, or like a merchant would decide to fight you.

I felt emotionally connected to Aribeth's situation, and replayed the battle with her in Chapter Four a bunch of times to get the outcome I wanted. (Either she would slaughter me, or I would get in a critical hit that would immediately kill her. You need to get her down into the Near Death range in order to make her surrender, which is incredibly difficult since she will Heal herself as soon as she reaches Badly Wounded.) As with everything else in the game, I'm a bit bummed that there was no closure on what happens to her at the end. Given my conversations with Lord Nasher, Aarin Gend seemed to think it likely that Nasher would show her some clemency. I'm all for that: not only because I'm Chaotic Good, but because Aribeth was clearly under the influence of Morag and not fully responsible for her actions. Anyways. I'm usually happy with movies or books that leave plot elements unresolved at the end, which makes them linger a bit longer for me and lets me imagine how things would turn out. For some reason, I'm less happy when that happens in a video game. I suppose there's a chance that her fate will be addressed in one of the expansions. For now, I'll hope that I'm right and she was able to find forgiveness. I don't see her easily rejoining Tyr's service, but she may find another way to atone for her sins.

Other than Aribeth, Aarin Gend was decently interesting. His voice actor was good. I was pretty annoyed by his dialogue, though, which constantly references how his spies know everything, even if there's no way they could know (e.g., you used the Stone of Recall to teleport to him right after recovering a Word of Power from a fiery pit of lava several miles below the earth's surface, and he says that he's already received reports of your actions), but that never know anything of importance before you figure it out. It just seems to constantly undercut the importance of what you're doing while not providing any useful information about things you need to do in the future. Actually, now that I think about it, that's what much of the experience of playing NWN feels like. Someone tells you, "Go and do X four times!" So you do X four times, which takes an incredibly long and boring time to do. Then you get back, and they say, "Thank you for doing that, and please take this measly 100 XP, but unfortunately circumstances have evolved, and now X no longer matters. Please go forth and do Y!" Ugh. Even if the mechanics of the game were identical, I think it would go down more easily if you felt like you were actually making progress, instead of constantly going on side-quests that become moot as soon as you complete them.

And really, that kind of sums up the overall tone of NWN: it's set against a scene of entropy, with the whole world gradually sliding into chaos, regardless of what you can do. I was going to write that it's a particularly dark and bleak story, but now that I think about it, it isn't that much darker than either BG or DA: the former is about the resurrection of the God of Murder, and the latter is about a race of corrupted creatures seeking to exterminate all life on the surface. I suppose the NWN is kind of a combination of those: the resurrection of a powerful creature who will wipe out all warm-blooded creatures in the hemisphere. But BG and DA posed external threats to peaceful worlds. Wandering through Beregost or Tradesmeet or Denerim or Kirkwall, you get a sense of a bustling city, with some dark sides but generally a place where people can thrive. In NWN, you never experience that home place of peace: your city is always under attack in one way or another, its social fabric unraveling, people turning against one another, choosing between fleeing or dying. The threat is no greater or worse than in other games, but the baseline it's assaulting is much darker than the baseline in other RPGs. Maybe that's why it comes across as so dark, and so hopeless. Even if you do manage to stop a bad thing from happening, you're only preserving the status quo, which is pretty rotten to begin with.

All this could be interesting, of course. I like it when games do something new, and presenting a literally hopeless situation is fairly innovative. But, it's also emotionally draining, particularly in a story with as few distractions as this.

Sorry, I think I lost the thread there. After Aribeth and Aarin Gend, the roster of interesting NPCs swiftly dwindles. Lord Nasher seems like he could have had an interesting story, particularly in relation to Vengual, but he's barely in the game at all, and when he is he might as well just be another copy of Aarin. Fenthick was... ugh, he was so annoying. Even after everything that happened, I'm still kind of happy he got executed. Desther and Maugrim seem like pretty rote villains: they're transparently evil, enjoy taunting people, and get agitated when their plans fall apart. Morag has some cool backstory, but feels very isolated from the plot of the game. Haedraline was potentially interesting, but her dialogue was impossible to listen to, and I always get annoyed at those needlessly contrived mechanisms for doling out plot information. ("I have some important information to give you! No, I can't answer any questions! We will speak again in 10 hours when you have accomplished this same quest another time!") Other than that, it was pretty much all one-note characters... buxom madames, stiff military men, crazy inventors, serene servants of nature.

As I noted earlier, the plots of the NPC henchmen are particularly frustrating. They aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they're completely divorced from anything else that takes place in the game. They never once interject in a conversation, never once make any observations on what's going on; even when you're on a quest to acquire a particular item for them, they seem to pay no attention at all when you spot it. This particularly strains credulity in a few instances, most notably if you bring along Daelan to any of the Uthgardt  locations in Chapter 3. He has plenty to say about the Uthgardt tribes in his own dialogue, and the Uthgardt you encounter have lots to say as well, but nobody will ever acknowledge one another. It's very frustrating, and feels like an enormous step back after the richly reactive stories in the Baldur's Gate games.

In my particular game, I spent most of my time traveling with Linu, but also spent a fair amount of time with Daelan and Sharwyn. To be shallow for a moment, Sharwyn was the prettiest of the bunch. Her portrait's very nice, and she looks quite fetching in a cape. I generally dug her overall approach towards life; she's a true neutral, and not terribly concerned about the forces of good and evil. Her story is very bound up in her personal life: her past humiliations and desire for vengeance and closure; eventually, she seems to re-focus on her identity as a bard, seeking to rediscover some lost old songs and creating a new one about your journey. She's also "romanceable," although that means something far less here than in the Baldur's Gate games: you can express romantic interest in her, and she will acknowledge it, although she ultimately says that she doesn't feel the same way about you. There's no in-depth conversations specific to romance or any personal quests like there were in BG2. I actually did kind of enjoy this outcome in a slightly perverse way - it's a rare thing for an NPC to have a mind of their own and say that they don't think that the PC is the greatest person ever, so it's fairly interesting on its own.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I thought it was interesting that all of your potential romance interests in NWN have surprisingly similar stories: all three of them were in long-lasting, committed romantic relationships that were violently ended, and are currently single and adrift. You see Aribeth's affair with Fenthick crash to a halt at the end of Chapter One; Linu seems to be in mourning for her husband who died on a quest; and while Sharwyn's lover is still alive, she seems like she'd be pleased to see him dead after you free him from the witch's spell. It reminds me a bit of the odd composition of BG2's love interests, where all four of your potential lovers were the four NPCs who were potential healers.

Daelan was by far the most effective NPC fighter, and his story was decent, but suffered from being so isolated from the main narrative. It was actually quite well-written, and I can dig that kind of tale of pathos, where his deep sense of shame and not belonging pushes him to achieve as much as he possibly can. He came across a bit like a friendly version of Sten from Dragon Age: he's very alien, but in his case he makes a great deal of effort to overcome the boundaries between him and you, and you can develop a good rapport with him far more easily than you ever can with Sten.

Linu was the henchwoman I traveled with most often, and was probably my favorite character overall. She has some inadvertently amusing stories, mostly dealing with her incredibly clumsy nature. These reminded me a little of Jan's stories from BG2, specifically the way they keep spinning farther out and endlessly delaying the punchline. This was also yet another point where I was a little irritated at the simplicity of the dialogue menus, since your only options are always "say something really mean and cutting" or "say something nice." As you continue to travel with her, you gradually get to know her better: she's not just a clumsy elf, but has a fairly epic backstory describing her improbable salvation by Sehanine Moonbow, her devotion to the goddess, her tragic love of Synth La'neral, and her firm sense of duty. She isn't as obviously clever or charming as Sharwyn, but she has a much better heart. She also gives several upgraded versions of the "Pendant of the Elf," which provided a very useful boost to dexterity for my rogue. Her romance seems ultimately successful: after you profess your love, she reveals that it is reciprocated, and you can have a very pleasant conversation before heading into the final battle. (And, of course, her awful AI caused her to die almost immediately after. And it's not possible to return to the temple and get her back, so I still don't know if there was any more dialogue from her after the final fight. Phooey.)

Frankly, the entire conclusion of the game is a letdown story-wise, even if the final fights are cool. There's a cool fight against two dragons, but it's excessively difficult, and there's really no particular reason for there to be two dragons there. Morag turns some of her awakened creators upon you; they quickly killed Linu, and without recourse to the Temple I resorted to chugging lots of Heal potions and making liberal use of Hide in Plain Sight plus sneak attacks. The very, very last fight had some cool mechanics: there's Morag, and her two Hands, and an altar, and some priests. As far as I can tell, you need to kill the Hands in order to cross the threshhold to where the priests are. I started off by smashing the altar; whenever the Hands got close, I hid in plain sight to escape, then revealed myself far away to lure them closer, then snuck back to the altar and resumed smashing. Morag casts a lot of spells, but I had crazy-high universal saving throws, plus a lot of resistances thanks to the Ring of Power, so I shrugged off everything. I was able to lure her into the hallway, then ran back inside and slammed the door shut. Many enemies in the game will open doors and follow you, but for some reason Morag never did; my theory is that she lacks opposable thumbs. I launched some sneak attacks on the weaker Hand, then fought the other Hand normally.

With the Hands dead, the rotating razors near the altar seemed to finally stop, and I could cross over to where the priests were conducting their rituals. They're all flagged as hostile, but none will actually attack. Each priest seems to maintain a type of invulnerability on Morag, and killing that priest will make her vulnerable to that type of damage. I was able to kill the one named something like "Protection against Maces"; I tried attacking the others, but couldn't damage any of them, so I suspect that each priest is only vulnerable to its own damage type. Finally, I opened the door and stood toe-to-toe against Morag. She had finally exhausted her spells and switched to combat; my high-30's Armor Class meant that she didn't land a single blow on me for the entire, lengthy duration of our battle. At last she fell, thrillingly but also somewhat anti-climactically. I dunno... I do really dig the complexity of the final battle, it was neat to have so many actors on the field and multiple environmental components to interact with, so it would probably have been overwhelmingly difficult if they had also tuned Morag herself to be even stronger.

Once the final battle is done, though, the endgame is very "blah." There's initially an awesome environmental effect where the plane starts to collapse, represented by sweet flaming fireballs shooting down from the sky and exploding on the ground. You teleport out through one of three (?) portals, where you meet Haedraline in another pocket plane. She provides some summing-up exposition in her standard annoying hissing voice: Morag is gone, and you've not only saved Neverwinter and the Forgotten Realms, but other worlds as well. You step through another portal and... well, hop onto YouTube to see the final video, because for some reason it wouldn't play for me. It describes how the forces of Luskan were driven away, Neverwinter was saved, and it all feels oddly ho-hum. The video basically ends with the narrator saying, "And then, you know, a bunch of other stuff happened. Whatever. It doesn't matter. It could be anything!"


And, to close the circle, that gets back to the fundamental disconnect with the way I'm playing this game. As originally conceived, the Original Campaign wasn't meant to be a story where The World was Saved Forever and the Hero would Live Happily Ever After. No: the OC was meant to introduce you to the mechanics of NWN, and hopefully connect with a social group of other human PCs and DMs. From there, you would keep the story going, playing other community modules and creating new campaigns of your own. It's a pretty different end point from what we expect from most CRPGs, which typically have epic climaxes and either lead directly into a sequel or provide a satisfying permanent denouement.

It looks like I don't even have the excuse of a sequel to hope for. The next game to tackle in my long slog towards Mask of the Betrayer is "Shadows of Undrentide", and while the game allows me to import my Cirion Bartleman post-game save, the manual warns that it was designed for a new Level 1 character. So, sigh. I guess I'll set him aside and create yet another character.

Based on what I've experienced so far, I really can't recommend NWN itself to any modern PC gamer. It's stuck in an awkward technological place, between charming sprite-based games and gorgeous current-generation 3D games. It's also stranded on an evolutionary branch that has largely been abandoned, promising a small-scale personal multiplayer experience that's different from the MMO and epic single-player subgenres that dominate the RPG marketplace; the concept still sounds cool, but very few players today will ever experience it this way, and instead will experience a singleplayer RPG that feels like an afterthought. It's too long, too repetitive, and too thin. I really hope that the pace picks up, and that I'm not disappointed by the well-regarded expansions that await.

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