At the same time, I can also see why Obsidian continues to hold a reputation for developing brilliant, flawed games. The best stuff of NWN2 meets or exceeds the high standards held by my all-time favorite RPGs including Baldur’s Gate 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. This awesomeness is mitigated by bugs (ranging from the cosmetic to the game-breaking), stuff that feels incomplete or half-baked, and a handful of very odd character moments. I really admire the creators’ ambition, and, as with many of their other games, it feels like if they’d spent another six months or so fixing and polishing the game it might have been an undisputed classic.
I’m eager to address the story, but first, the spoiler-free stuff. High points:
- Gorgeous environments. It includes by far the most green and lush landscapes of any NWN game I’ve played, along with the normal assortment of dungeons and towns. Nothing feels repetitive, and most areas look epic and dramatic.
- Beautiful lighting. For most of the game I’ve admired the weather system, which includes a true day/night cycle and wonderful mood lighting under twilight starry skies, rosy dawns, or blazing suns. In the third act, though, I started getting access to the highest-level spells, and was floored by how crazily great their dynamic lighting looks. Cast a lightning storm and see your shadows grow to ten yards in length!
- Terrific party AI. I almost never needed to micro-manage my allies, and they were smart about things like positioning, casting appropriate spells at the right time, etc.
- Immersion. In combat, characters do a good job of speaking up when they need assistance, so even under AI control I’m alerted when they could use a hand.
- Character designs. Everyone looked unique and interesting, and each person had a vibrant, special story. I would have liked more for each, but that’s a good sign of how much they appealed to me.
- Combat animations. You don’t get quite the same awesome boss-killing moves as what we saw in DA:O, but the round-to-round moves here are stylish and fun to watch: my fighter PC twirled his sword around in a big arc, leapt high in the air to deliver critical blows, and lunged forward to unleash powerful dragon fire attacks. Spellcasters and rogues also have compelling movements, and I frequently found myself pausing the action mid-combat to try and capture something especially cool-looking, which almost never happened in the earlier games.
- Party size. For a while I thought that this game had a fixed party size like the NWN1 games. Then I got a permanent companion added in Act 2, and figured she was a one-off thing. Throughout Act 3, though, the party continues to change from scene to scene depending on the action. I very nearly grew misty-eyed at one point in Act 3 when I realized that I had direct control over six (non-summon) party members. That hasn’t happened to me since the glory days of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I had thought I might never experience it again. (It doesn’t continue for the rest of the game, but the realization that the engine finally has no hard limit on characters you can control felt revelatory.)
- The music was good, but honestly not particularly memorable. I can’t think off hand of any major themes.
- Pathing. For the most part it’s vastly improved over the earlier NWN games, but I still sometimes had trouble getting folks to move the right way.
- Looting. NWN2 is exactly what you would expect from the time it is released: much better sorting and storage limits than earlier RPGs, but still far too time-consuming compared to the streamlining in DA:O and, especially, DA2.
- Party size/composition. This is probably mostly my own fault, but there are a LOT of NPCs (I think one for each major class type except monk), and even with a bigger roster than any of the NWN1 games, it’s tough to find spots for everyone in your party. I ended up almost always traveling with my favorite folks, and some of my companions never entered my party before the final fight. There’s no equivalent to DA:O’s camp, so without traveling with people, you won’t have any opportunity to explore their personalities.
- Peaceful companion conversation. I mentioned above that there is no equivalent of camp. That isn’t technically true; you have various bases of operation where you can rest and chat with all of your companions. What’s annoying, though, is that everyone keeps the same topics throughout the entire game. So, in Chapter 3 you’re asking Neeshka the exact same questions as when you first met her. In a couple of cases, getting a higher Influence will unlock a new response; but these are rare, and often buried several layers deep in conversation trees. I would have preferred for topics to disappear after being questioned, or even switched to one-time conversations, over the stultifying repetitiveness we got.
- Bugs. Even with the latest patches and a fan-based patch, I still ran into a game-stopping bug less than an hour before the end of the game. A critical enemy failed to spawn, leaving me fighting an invulnerable opponent untiL I gave up and looked online for a solution. Thank goodness for PC gaming, where at least I could run a debug script to force my game past that point.
- Some bad/broken conversation loops. You spend much of the second half of the game improving a fortress. The dialogue here is generally really good, giving you good flavor as things continue to get better. But, after you’ve fixed up everything, the conversations all revert to talking about what a dump it is. It doesn’t have any impact on gameplay, but was still a deflating annoyance.
Okay, I think that’s enough technical stuff for now. Let’s talk story!
I’d complained in my last entry about how the plot for this game feels rather cliche: ancient evil power is awakening and wants to take over the world. That is technically true, but in Act 3 I started to realize how nuanced the situation actually is. There’s an extra layer of… hm, maybe irony or melancholy behind the King of Shadows. He was originally created to be a protector and defender, and has been confused/warped in his mission to become the opposite of that. I’m trying to think of an analogy to another work of fiction and keep failing… the closest I can think of is General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, though the King of Shadows doesn’t share his insanity, just his fanatical devotion to duty.
So, I was happy to see that while the plot had all the rhythms of a typical epic fantasy, the story could still feel a little original. It was also spun out fairly nicely. Typically, especially in the NWN games, these stories are all about increasing revelation: you start out knowing nothing, then learn a little more, then a little more, and gradually collect full knowledge about the enemy you face. NWN2, though, has a slightly more kaleidoscopic approach, where you hear from a variety of sources about the King of Shadow’s background. In Act 2, you meet the ghosts of the Illefarn Empire, who were involved in the events around the creation of, battle against, and eventual imprisonment of the King. Based on these conversations, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how things went down. However, later in Act 3, I met a planar dragon, who had appeared prominently in the tales as a heroic but tragic figure. Talking with him, though, I learned that he was actually just an incredibly powerful mercenary acting out of pure greed and, later, self-preservation. I liked the way that shook the legend a little: it isn’t a twist, but it’s a reminder that we’re only experiencing mediated information, and can’t gain direct knowledge of something that happened so far in the past.
Another would-be-cliche element was Ammon Jerro. More than a few RPGs have had a villain, who might even be built up as the main villain, whom you eventually defeat, and who then joins your party. General Leo in FF6 and Loghain in DA:O immediately spring to mind (though, granted, Loghain postdates NWN2). I was still surprised when it happened, though, so I suppose that means that it worked. I also liked how he kept his personality and goals. Given that he’s hundred of years old, and has devoted his entire existence to a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred war against the King of Shadows, it would have been unbelievable if a simple Diplomacy check could have turned him into a kind and loving side-kick. He continues to see himself as the most important component of the war, and is explicitly joining with you solely because it aligns with his primary objective.
Hm, let’s talk about romance. Mine was with Elanee; from what I understand, as the game shipped only Elanee and Casavir (!) were available as romance options, although there’s disabled dialog in the game which shows that they were working on adding Neeshka and (I think) Bishop at the time the game shipped. Romance is one of the more glaring examples in the game of something that felt like it was decent, but also rather rushed and could have been done much better.
I liked Elanee, and dug her quest and the very gradual evolution she undergoes. In some ways, she’s much wiser than your PC, and she’s very confident in herself and her abilities. But, she clearly has some major gaps in her education, which she openly acknowledges; she’s a bit proud of this, which was a nice touch. As far as the romance itself, though, it felt very light, one of the most passive I’ve encountered yet. She definitely doesn’t have the edge of, say, a Viconia or a Morrigan. It felt somewhat similar to the romances in HotU, which basically consist of you not being a jerk to someone, and then late in the game they say “I LIKE YOU DO YOU LIKE ME CIRCLE ONE Y / N”. There’s a big finale romance scene up on the battlements of the fortress the night before an epic battle that will determine the course of both your lives and the future of the world. It’s touching, and special, and all of your dialogue prompts feel like they were written by ten-year-old boys, culminating in the worst pickup line in the history of the universe. Then, after tastefully fading to black before a presumed night of passion, you’re woken up by an early start to the battle, in your bedroom chambers with Elanee. And, if you speak with her (after consummating your love and facing likely death), you have the EXACT SAME DIALOGUE OPTIONS AS WHEN YOU FIRST MET HER. Ugh. Anyways. I’m glad we got what we did, and I also wish that we could have gotten much more.
So, NPCs… a year ago or so I listened to a podcast with Mike Laidlaw, the executive producer of Dragon Age, in which he mentioned that since BioWare has integrated telemetry into games like DA:O, it has finally gotten solid data about the ways people play its games. One major discovery they made was that the earliest companions you encounter are always the “stickiest”: players in DA:O have FAR higher “attach” rates to Alistair and Morrigan, since they’re they ones you’ll encounter first. Members you get later, like Oghren, have far lower attach rates. This isn’t intrinsic to the characters, either; in DA:O:A, Oghren has essentially the same stats and personality (perhaps just slightly more intoxicated), but he’s one of the first you encounter, and so the vast majority of players will keep him in the party for most of the game.
I had that in mind while playing NWN2. For most of the game you can bring along 3 NPCs. No matter what, you’ll get 3 NPCs in the early portion of the game: Khelgar at the inn, Elanee on the road, and Neeshka before reaching Fort Locke. Regardless of your PC archetype, these 3 provide your party essentials: Khelgar is a melee tank, Neeshka is a thief, and Elanee is a healer. You certainly CAN change things up, especially if your PC duplicates one of those roles, but from a mechanical perspective you could stick with that group through the entire game.
And so, for the most part, I did… but I was impressed at how the game managed to shake things up. In BioWare games this is traditionally done via companion quests. One of your companions asks you to do something, and you’ll need them in your party to accomplish that task. The hope is probably that you’ll spend the time with them to get to understand their advantages, and will swap them in later. There were a couple of examples of that here, though weirdly it seemed to emphasize your starter characters: Khelgar’s Ironfist arc, Elanee’s Circle arc, Neeshka’s Leldon arc. There were shorter encounters or mini-quests for Grobnar (finding the Wendersnaven), Qara (defending against her father). Bishop has a forced plot-critical plot. If there were any quests involving Sand or Casavir, I missed them.
Anyways, the mechanical innovation I liked was the use of True Names scrolls which were introduced in Act 3. There were good lore reasons for Zhjaeve and Ammon Jerro’s unique abilities to use the scrolls, and good story developments from their pursuit of the power contained in the scrolls. I hadn’t had a lot of experience with casters before - I typically just brought Elanee and knew her selection of druid spells decently well - so it took a bit of time to bring myself up to speed on Zhjaeve’s cleric spells, and even more with Ammon’s fundamentally different Warlock abilities. But the rewards were powerful, and I grew to fundamentally like Zhjaeve’s odd personality, so much so that even after I no longer needed to keep her in my party, she essentially replaced Khelgar in my lineup for most of the game.
On the topic of Zhjaeve, it was pretty intriguing to see all the ways in which this game did and did not connect with lore from other games. One of the most immediately obvious factors in this, the first Obsidian NWN game, was the prominent role of the githzerai and githyanki. They've been almost entirely absent from NWN (save a brief segment in HotU), but were very important in Planescape: Torment, which was created by Black Isle by many of the folks who would go on to found Obsidian. I also really liked their treatment of the lizardfolk, which indirectly referred back to the Creator Races that featured heavily in the earlier NWN1 expansions, and retroactively made those plot elements seem more interesting and melancholy. And, of course, NWN2 has a much bigger role for Lord Nasher, who briefly appeared in NWN1 and wasn't a factor at all in the expansions. His role here felt fairly consonant with his earlier introduction, though there's admittedly been a lot of changes in Neverwinter in between the two games. Along the same lines, Aribeth and Fenthick are briefly mentioned in a single book I found, but don't seem to play any major part in the narrative. Which is fine. Their story has been told, and is now over.
I wrote a bit last time about fortress management in this game. There’s a lot you can do in Act 2, and they held back a few elements that can only be done in Act 3, like deciding what to do with a ruined church and guard tower. I opted to turn the church over to a priest of… hm, I want to say Helm though that’s probably wrong. The alternative was a monastery, which also sounded cool, but I figured a church would be more likely to heal my soldiers during the inevitable battle. I provided the tower for a mage, my reasoning being that I was very strong in the arts of physical combat and a mage would compensate for my weakness in arcane matters. From what I could tell, though, the main advantage of getting the mage is access to a new store, which had some exotic gear that looked very useful for a caster but was useless for me and my standard party. I now wish that I had gotten the Neverwinter Nine tower instead, since that presumably would have given more options for weapons and armor. Oh, well. Once again, my pursuit of a Chaotic alignment had blocked me off from a desired but minor in-game benefit.
One bigger and more annoying block was realizing that I had failed to recruit a potential sergeant back in Act 2. There are only four available, and each can provide a significant benefit to one of the many aspects of military leadership (recruiting, training, patrolling, special operations). By missing out on her, I lost my chance to achieve a “Best of the Best” training rating. Still, despite that loss, I was very happy with how things ended up. Starting in Act 2 I’d prioritized the quality of my soldiers over quantity, building up a small but elite fighting force. I’d initially focused on clearing the roads, which helped promote merchant traffic and provided revenue for the keep. In Act 3, after all my infrastructure was done, I followed Kana’s advice and turned their focus back to training, eventually reaching a rating of Best. During this time our security around the keep had deteriorated somewhat, so I had them return to the task, eventually building up a solid support zone that ensured a happy and productive peasant population in addition to numerous merchant trains. I knew that money wouldn’t be a problem, so I kept taxes low or nonexistent. By the end of the game, I had gradually built up enough soldiers (even with supporting Breliana’s request for levies) that I had a good-sized force by the big climactic fortress battle.
Which, incidentally, was awesome. I need to remind myself that this game was released BEFORE DA:O or ME3, since I keep wanting to say that this battle reminded me of those games, when, if anything, those games were influenced by this one. All of the decisions and preparations you’ve made over the second half of the game influence the form and flow of the series of battles taking place during the siege of the Keep. Alliances you strike result in different controllable forces appearing to battle by your side; the training and equipment you’ve given your Graycloak soldiers determines how effective your personal guard is; fully upgrading your keep’s defenses gives you additional benefits like archer cover fire while the enemy tries to scale the walls; recruited mages will use fireballs to blast siege towers into flaming pieces; the confidence you’ve instilled in your companions will determine their leadership effectiveness while leading their own troops into battle. It’s tremendously exciting and cathartic to see all the hours of preparation pay off in such spectacular form.
The very end of the game is really cool: your ENTIRE party all comes together for one big, epic battle. But before that came yet another surprise: Black Garius tries to tempt various party members into joining the dark side. D’oh! I’d thought that Influence would only affect dialogue options, and so hadn’t worried much about Influence with characters I didn’t much care about, but it was now growing important.
At least in my game, Garius only tried to tempt my Neutral or Evil-aligned party members. I’m a bit curious about that: does he always try to tempt them, since they’re closest in alignment to him and his masters? Or is it because they are most different from Toman Benton’s Chaotic Good alignment, and if I were playing an evil character, he would have tempted my Good companions? Or is it the result of the choices that I’ve made so far, and pursuing a more evil path would have turned my better party members against me? I’m continuing to deliberately stay away from spoilers even after beating the game, to protect against the (probably unlikely) chance that I’ll inadvertently find out stuff about Mask of the Betrayer, but I remain curious about the mechanics of betrayal.
Neeshka was first up: she was snatched away when we entered the final lair, and navigating its trap-strewn interior without a thief made me miss her even more. It turns out that, in addition to her demonic heritage, she also descends from elements of the Illefarn Empire, and Garius undertook a very disturbing-sounding bloodletting ritual to coerce her to joining his side. Fortunately, Neeshka was probably my second-highest-Influence’d character (alongside Elanee), and I passed both Influence checks to take her back.
Next was Bishop, who abandoned me during the siege of Crossroads Keep. I think I had a net positive Influence with him, thanks to my chronic habit of agreeing with whomever I’m speaking with. I passed both Influence checks with him, but failed my Diplomacy check (which I now think might be impossible, seeing as I had maxed it at ~22 points on my Level 20 character), so he abandoned the field altogether.
I was a bit nervous about Ammon Jerro and Sand; I had gained only a couple of points with each of them, and hadn’t spent much time with either of them. Fortunately, they saw through the lies of Garius. Ammon, in particular, made some great in-character comments about how he would choose my actions over Garius’s words.
The one member I lost was Qara. As soon as I realized that my members would be tempted, I had a feeling she would likely abandon me. I’d barely interacted with her at all, and I think that the fact that Sand was standing by me increased her desire to leave. So, that was a bit of a bummer, but more for story reasons than anything.
The final fight itself was terrific. Big, epic, many stages, lots of mechanics. I only had two characters in my enormous 10-person party left alive by the end of the first phase. I fumbled my way through the King of Shadows fight before figuring out the best way to use (and position and recharge) my Ritual of Purification powers. I lost pretty badly in the final phase, then reloaded and breezed through the earlier portions again, and absolutely nailed it on my second try.
And, like that, it was over! The ending to the game seemed uncannily like the ending to the original NWN1: you and your companion(s) are trapped in a faraway fortress, having defeated an ancient evil, and everyone praises you for saving the day; you aren’t heard from again, but surely are continuing your adventures elsewhere. As I noted back in NWN1, this is a pretty lame way to end a single-player RPG, but actually a very decent way to cap a campaign that’s meant to usher people into a series of future user-created campaigns. You want to set up a template implying that your character is free to roam and pop into whatever random situation you want, rather than have an expectation that he/she will settle down at home and continue protecting Neverwinter.
The non-PC parts of the ending, though, were much more fleshed out. It’s closer to the ending of HotU or DA:O, with customized screens explaining how certain story elements were wrapped up. So I got to see Captain Breliana find continued success in Neverwinter’s employ; the Harbormen survive and band together again to rebuild their destroyed homeland; Kana oversees Crossroads Keep which becomes a major center of trade in the region, et cetera.
So, yeah! All in all, a great game, which manages to overcompensate for its rough edges with some great story and good technical achievements that continue to look and feel good even today. I wasn’t necessarily expecting this to be the case, but it seems to continue the trend of every NWN entry being superior to the one that came before it (though the gap between HotU and NWN2 is smaller than the gaps between NWN1->SoU and SoU->HotU).
I’ve skipped over a bunch of interesting side-quests and stuff in this writeup, including a fight against a real live dragon! I outdid myself in taking an embarrassing number of screenshots for this act, which as usual I have collected into yet another spoilerific album.
I’ll be taking another little break, then plunging ahead into Mask of the Betrayer, which you may recall was my original reason for starting this insane project in the first place. And I think it’ll likely be my last entry, too; Storm of Zehir sounds interesting, but not exactly my cup of tea when there are more narrative-heavy games floating around out there.