Saturday, July 06, 2013

Under Shadows

I can confirm what many before me have already said: Shadows of Undrentide is a much better game, and has an infinitely better story, than the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights. I found that nearly every single one of my complaints from the earlier game had been answered satisfactorily in this follow-up. This game is imbued with many of the qualities that I associate with my favorite BioWare RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age. I can't say it quite rises to their heights, but it's still a stunning elevation from the disappointment of the OC.

The single best improvement is the revamp of henchmen. SoU has fewer on offer than NWN did: only two to pick from at the start, with a third available roughly one third of the way into the game, in contrast with the six to choose from in the first game. My very immediate response was negative: I was playing as a Thief again, and wanted a tanky fighter to fight alongside, but could only pick between another thief or a barbarian/sorcerer. (Frustratingly, a paladin who would have been perfect is non-recruitable.) My disappointment quickly faded, though, once I realized that my companion was actually engaged in the story in a way that henchmen in the original campaign never were. He would offer his thoughts about my current quest, interject himself into conversations, field questions from onlookers, and generally act like an actual person who cared about what was going on around him. What a relief!

Along the same lines, dialog options have drastically expanded, to the point where you can actually do some role-playing. I've complained before about how NWN usually only had two options available when responding to someone: aggressively mean or cloyingly nice. In SoU, it's quite common to have four options or so, which might cover attitudes such as tough love, blind justice, amoral greed, or friendly curiosity. I found myself actually thinking about my choices for a few seconds before responding, which is one of the hallmarks of a great game.

Consequences feel more consequential in SoU, in ways both big and small. One thing I quickly noticed was that small gameplay decisions you make would be noted by the game and responded to accordingly. In NWN, you could break into peoples' homes and steal their stuff, and at worst they would ask you to leave. In SoU, even if you aren't spotted, your Alignment will shift more, towards Chaotic or even Evil. You're likely to be noticed by a guard, though, and sternly asked to stop. I found that this was very quickly shifting the style of my gameplay. I had deliberately created this character as a Neutral Good Rogue, in contrast to my Chaotic Good of the first game, and decided that she wouldn't engage in the same sorts of shenanigans that Cirion Bartlemann had.

Side-quests have even more interesting choices, and more noticeable consequences. I was delighted when, a short way into the game, I ran into a quest that actually had multiple solutions! I know; isn't that incredible? I could fight my way through some bad guys and risk the life of a hostage; I could try to talk them into releasing the hostage; I could offer myself up in exchange. After the situation had been defused, there were additional choices to make: do we kill the bad guys, or show mercy and let them go? Importantly, you are able to articulate your intentions and the game takes them into account. If you let them go because you want to unleash a wave of evil upon the unsuspecting populace, you'll get one type of alignment shift; if you let them go because they've held up their end of a deal and pose no immediate threat, you'll get another type of shift. This wasn't a one-off experience, either, and I was happy to see similarly nuanced quests sprinkled throughout the campaign.

The campaign itself is shorter than NWN, but frankly, that's a very good thing. As I've complained about at length before, NWN's main campaign is... too lengthy. Specifically, it has a great deal of padding that requires you to accomplish seemingly-redundant tasks that seem to exist merely to extend the playing time and don't advance the story. SoU has some of the same structure (I groaned when I realized that my first quest was to retrieve 4 stolen artifacts), but it does a far better job at making each leg of a multi-prong quest feel unique, and its overall story structure is a lot more enjoyable than NWN's.

Mechanically, SoU has some nice enhancements over NWN. I'd inadvertently experienced some of these since I was using the SoU/HotU engine when playing the original campaign, so I've already seen things like Prestige Classes and new skills like Appraise. Other features had been visible in the NWN UI, but not actually accessible until now. The single best one is probably being able to access your henchman's inventory. For a low-STR character like me, that immediately has some major benefits as I can turn them into a pack-mule to help bring back that Chain Mail +4 armor back for sale; it also lets you customize their equipment, so you can set them up with powerful armor, upgraded weapons, and other good stuff. On a related note, you have many more tactical options when talking with your henchmen. NWN pretty much just let you toggle whether they would help open locks and control how close they followed. In SoU, you can ask your henchmen to cast specific spells, activate particular abilities (such as Bard Song or Barbarian Rage), identify your equipment, and so on. This is incredibly useful for tough fights, since now you can actually buff up before starting combat; in NWN, even in the best case, your companion would lose the first couple of turns just activating all their helpful abilities.

I'm not totally sure if the in-combat AI is better in SoU than in NWN, but I know that I spent far less time swearing at my henchmen here than I did in the earlier game. The worst part is still the AI for spellcasting and using ranged weapons: they have a habit of getting in too close to enemies before using those abilities, which can provoke massive Attacks of Opportunity. On the plus side, they seem to actually cast spells now; in NWN, they would often get stuck doing repeated spell animations that never produced any actual spells. Oh, and also there are a lot more battles in SoU with friendly AI, where you can recruit a small squadron of allies who will show up for a boss battle. They mostly serve as extra bodies to feed into the maw, but still, it's a really cool dynamic that makes these fights feel even more epic.

I found my skill usage shifting quite a bit in SoU. I still maxed out Persuasion, but it is far less useful in this game. In NWN you could use it all the time; it would often give you higher rewards for quests, and it would also unlock some parts of the game that were otherwise difficult or impossible to reach. In SoU, the skill is practically useless; you can use it a few times in Chapter 1, and hardly at all in the latter two-thirds of the game. Also, as a thief, I felt much less essential in this expansion. There are far fewer locks to open here. There are still a decent number of traps, but since you can sleep off a trap's ill effects, that isn't too essential a skill to have. I personally was a bit bummed by this, since I enjoy being a thief, but honestly I think it was a smart decision to make. In NWN, it was absolutely essential to have a thief along, which meant that if you weren't playing as a thief, you pretty much had to take along Tomi Undergallows in your sole companion slot. In SoU, many players will probably still want to take the thief (for various reasons), but you won't be as badly penalized if you'd rather not have any thieves in your party.

From an aesthetic perspective, I think that SoU is a nice improvement over NWN. They added some new tilesets to give a wider variety of terrain, and overall you spend much less time in dark cities and gloomy dungeons than in the previous game, which is a welcome change. There seem to be more cut-scenes (or at least they come more frequently), and they're a bit more cinematic than those in NWN. They're still nowhere near the peaks that would be reached in Dragon Age, but there's some cool camera movements and neat environmental effects that make them more interesting to watch.

For the curious, my character's story continues in the


SoU lets you import your NWN character, but recommends starting at Level 1, so I ultimately decided to roll a new one. In what has now become a tradition for me and BioWare games, I followed up my Chaotic Good Male Rogue with a Neutral Good Female; unlike normal, though, I decided to stick with the Rogue class instead of my customary shift to a Mage. Rogues are just fun to play, and in any case I don't trust the AI to handle trap-related operations.

So: instead of Cirion Bartleman the Halfling Rogue, I was now playing as Erianna Talissan, the Elf Rogue. SoU gives you more of a backstory than NWN did: NWN was basically, "You answer a Help Wanted ad from Neverwinter," while SoU starts you off with a father figure and several companions with whom you have studied for years. But, there are still ample opportunities to not only define your personality, but also fill in other elements of your background. I loved it!

I picked Xanos as my companion, of course, since two thieves would be ridiculously redundant. He was annoying, but I got happier once I realized I could ask him to ignore his Mage training and just focus on his Barbarian levels. He never quite became the tank I needed, but he did fine. Personality-wise, he was very different from Erianna, but still fun to engage with. As in other BioWare games, I try and engage my companions and win their sympathy, even if we have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

The early going of the game was actually surprisingly difficult. In the first (annoying!) chapter of NWN, I could follow each of the Waterdeep Creature quests to their conclusion before switching over to the next one. Here, the difficulty seemed both higher and more consistent, with fights that I couldn't win even in repeated tries. So, I ended up switching between quests: follow one artifact as far as I could until the going got too tough, then switch to another lead and follow it for a while, and so on. In this way, I was able to gain a couple of precious early levels; so, when I later would return to the first artifact, I could breeze past that difficult fight and make more real progress. (The difficulty curve leveled off considerably after the first chapter; probably not coincidentally, it also gets more linear then.)

The personalities in the game are pretty interesting and well-drawn. Beyond the companions, who I've already talked about a bit, allies tend to have their own stories and motivations. Even better, though, villains also have unique agendas of their own. A lot of the mystery of Chapter 1 focuses on untangling the web of deceit and betrayal spun by multiple powerful players, and canny characters like Erianna are able to manipulate the circumstances to their own benefit.

Oh! I should also mention that the game is funny. It's not a comedy, and it certainly has a lot of bleakness in parts, but there are several welcome flashes of comic relief. Some of this is just goofy, other times there are clever references or amusing dialog. Anyways. Add that to the ever-growing list of things I prefer about this installment.

Back to the villains: I ended up pulling off a nifty double-betrayal, defeating both J'Nah and the White Dragon, thus freeing Deekin and getting back the remaining artifacts. In the Interlude (a section of the game between Chapters 1 and 2, though I'm pretty sure it's about the same length as the other parts), I ended up switching to Deekin as my henchman.I'd intended to stick with Xanos, just for class-composition reasons; his Fighter/Mage classes would balance out my Thief orientation well. However, some bug kept me from being able to even talk to Xanos, let alone recruit him. I ended up taking Deekin, and am really glad that I did. He's a great character: well-written, funny, curious. He initially presents as a sniveling, grovelling sycophant, but over the course of your quest he gradually grows more confident, embracing his dream of becoming a famous author. He has a habit of narrating the action as it happens, which was tremendous fun. Weirdly enough, he ended up also being a better combat companion than Xanos: I set him up with a ranged crossbow, so he wouldn't be tempted to get too close to the action. That way he could cast spells without provoking attacks of opportunity (unlike Xanos, who operated in melee range). He actually turns out to be quite powerful: once he reaches high levels of his Bard class, he has access to a bunch of really useful spells like Haste and Improved Invisibility, which you can have him manually cast prior to a fight.

My own build was a bit different here than in NWN. Since the Elf preferred class is Mage, I couldn't easily do the Rogue X/Ranger 1 multi-class that I liked so much on my Halfling. Instead, I stuck with pure Rogue, focusing early on the Feats to fight with DEX and then the ones to help me dual-wield. Because of this, I didn't get the Dodge and Mobility feats needed for Shadowdancer until near the end of the game, and so never took Shadowdancer. But, life as a pure Rogue turned out well. There aren't quite as many opportunities for DEX boosts in SoU as in NWN, but you can still boost it and your AC up to quite high levels, and so I ended up actually doing all of my own tanking. For a difficult fight, I would typically have Deekin buff us first, then have him hold his ground while I snuck forward and sneak attacked my main target. Once I had their attention, I'd direct Deekin to attack from afar. Thanks to my high AC, I could dodge almost all blows directed my way. Also, this time around I was able to take advantage of some good Resist and Soak clothing, so if I knew that, say, I was going to face a mage for a fight, I could equip accordingly and then tank on Resist instead of via dodge. As a result, Erianna got much less use out of her sneak attacks than Cirion did, but this was still a fun playstyle. I also played around a lot more with traps on this character, and they proved a crucial edge in a couple of fights.


I won't recap the remainder of the plot, except to say that it's good, notwithstanding my one complaint of the annoying mythological mishmash that plagues so many D&D settings. The story surprised me far more than NWN's original campaign ever did, and goes through some varied settings while still following a coherent thread. There are some particularly creative segments that I enjoyed, such as a clever story-within-a-story construction that nicely frames what could otherwise be a rote fetch quest.

For reasons I myself fail to understand, I've continued taking random screenshots of this old game. Those are posted in a fresh album for posterity's sake.

Getting through the original NWN was a slog, but (despite the interruption) SoU has been invigorating, and is providing me with a nice burst of energy going into Hordes of the Underdark. From what I understand HotU is the best installment of the first trilogy, and one of the better games of the franchise (behind Mask of the Betrayer). So far conventional wisdom has proven accurate, and hopefully I'm justified in looking forward to this next entry.


  1. Wow, you're going back and playing original NWN? Brave man. I could never get anywhere with it, even when it was new. What's next, Icewind Dale?

  2. NWN definitely suffers in that the first campaign is the most mind-numbingly boring game imaginable. Now that I'm finally past it, the remaining adventures seem excellent in comparison. I'm currently about halfway through Hordes of the Underdark and absolutely loving it.

    After this I'll be hitting NWN2 up through Mask of the Betrayer (which was written by many of the folks now working on Torment: Tides of Numenara). I like your idea of Icewind Dale, but it's always seemed a bit too hack-and-slash-y for my tastes. I might re-play the old Raymond E. Feist Midkemia games, or some of the more obscure Ultimas (Savage Empires, Martian Dreams). Let me know of any more suggestions!