Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Enhanced... enhanced... enhanced...

My most recent run through Baldur's Gate was by far my fastest yet. It wasn't specifically a speed run, or a solo challenge, or anything like that. However, with so many games on my immediate docket, and the relative familiarity of the game's rhythms, I felt comfortable bypassing my usual OCD approach to completing every single sidequest in an RPG, and instead focused on exploring the new content available in the Enhanced Edition and other aspects of the game that I hadn't previously experienced.

To be honest, I'd kind of resisted starting this game for a while. This is largely because I had just finished a replay merely two and a half years ago, so a lot of it was still very fresh in my mind. However, that has turned out fine, largely because the old game was a fresh enough memory for me to recall its old appearance, and recognize the improvements made with the enhanced edition.

Speaking of which, let's run down the good, bad, and same. The changes I liked best were:
  • Zero effort to run on modern machines. A lot of what BGEE does was possible before, but it required spending a great deal of time reading online guides, downloading unofficial mods, and installing and troubleshooting patches. My recent plays of the classic game have required spending multiple hours before even starting the game to set them up, and some ongoing bugfixing throughout. That time saved alone makes BGEE's sticker price worthwhile to me.
  • The journal is vastly improved, with related messages now grouped by quest, compared to the original's endless sprawl. This is nice at any time, and seems particularly useful for most non-obsessed gamers who might let quite some time pass between starting and finishing a quest. (It's worth noting that they don't seem to have updated any of the journal text, though, so you're still often left knowing that you need to turn in a quest but not knowing where you need to go to do it. By this point in my BG career I'm perfectly willing to run a Google search for fiddly things like this rather than tromp all over six maps looking for a particular NPC.)
  • Redistributed items. Tutu also let you run BG1 with the BG2 engine, but that led to some oddities, like being able to pick weapon specializations that didn't really have any good weapons available until the second game. Almost all of your character creation choices will result in a viable game. (But, as I noticed to my chagrin, it still does not warn you if you pick a weapon specialization whose weapons require a higher STR than you rolled. More on that later.)
  • Speaking of rolling: your pointroll total is now displayed during character creation! I'm not at all obsessed about this, and didn't spend a ton of time to get an optimal roll, but it was a really nice convenience to hit the particular minimums I wanted.
  • The recreated movies were really nice. I've read some complaints about the art style, but honestly, the originals have aged very poorly, and I thought this was a great approach to communicating the same content in a much more palatable way.
  • The new NPCs are great. I hardly used Dorn at all, but it seems like he would be a solid addition to an evil team. (Though I am a little curious why they didn't pick an evil thief, since that's a notorious gap in BG2's NPC roster, but they were probably reluctant to add yet another thief to BG1's already-overrepresented population.) Rasaad was pretty cool, maybe a bit more interesting mechanically than narratively, but still worth picking up. Neera is awesome, one of my favorite BG1 NPCs now and at the same level of quality that I associate with the superior offerings in BG2.
  • The romance is nice. It has a bit of an arc, while still leaving plenty of time for further development in BG2. (Considering that all other romances start essentially from scratch in BG2, you wouldn't want this one to get too far ahead, but it still has a nice resolution.)
  • There are a couple of new areas, which all are as good or better than fan-created areas. Some of them very nicely match the flavor of existing regions, making them seem like something that might have been created back for the original. One major new area has a really cool look that doesn't look like existing areas, but is a very plausible expansion to the world.
Changes I was rather indifferent to included:
  • The new kits didn't do much for me, one way or another. The existence of kits at all was a neat innovation that's been around since BG2 and Tutu, but I wasn't terribly excited by the new ones they added like Dwarven Defender and Red Dragon Disciple (which seem to have backported from Neverwinter Nights). 
  • The window experience, while improved from the original, are still pretty awkward. Playing in fullscreen was too blurry for me, so I needed to use a window. Unfortunately, scrolling in a window is really awkward; it's still mouse-based, but since your mouse isn't locked to the game screen, you have basically a 1-pixel zone to hover for scrolling. I ultimately ended up scrolling using the arrow keys on my keyboard, which worked but was annoying. I play a lot of strategy games in windowed mode, and this is the only one I've had trouble with; it would have been really nice to, for example, be able to drag the map by holding down both mouse buttons or the center button.
And, while I was overall very happy with the enhanced edition, in a few ways it did fall short of my last experience playing with Tutu and mods:
  • Mod support in general is somewhat lackluster. Only a few seem to have maintainers actively supporting BGEE, and some of my favorite ones aren't fully supported for BGEE. In general, it seems like mods that affect gameplay by adding new weapons, monsters, items, etc. are fairly successful, while old quest and NPC mods have been lagging. I'm curious if this will continue. I kind of suspect that a lot of modders may prefer to prioritize their work for BG2EE, since that tends to be the more popular game.
  • Specifically, I found myself really missing the Unfinished Business mod and the BG1 NPC Project. The former restored and fixed a bunch of incomplete or disabled quests that BioWare had written but cut from the final game. It was weird to find stuff like, say, Yeslick's rage towards the Iron Throne conspirators totally gone; I've grown so accustomed to beats like that that I have assumed they were always part of the game.
  • Banter in the game felt very lacking. This is very true to the original game, which didn't have much banter at all, but I've grown accustomed to the chatty, involving NPCs of BG2 and the BG1 NPC Project, so it made me a bit sad to have such quiet followers. From what I've heard, Beamdog didn't have permission to modify existing NPCs, so they couldn't write their own banters; and they can't just take the mods that others have written and include them in their own. The one bright spot is banters with the new NPC followers, who chat with you about their history and life and feelings and stuff. However, these are strictly PC-on-NPC affairs, without  intra-party banter, my favorite kind of all. I think there was a single time that Rasaad said something like, "I must do what is right," and Ajantis interjected, "Yeah, you're awesome!" (note: not exact words), but that was pretty much it. I was a little surprised that they didn't even have inter-NPC banter among the new companions; I had Rasaad and Neera for virtually the entire game, and they never spoke to one another. (I should haste to point out that I totally sympathize with this. There are just so many NPCs in the first game that it would be a nightmare to try and write content for all possible pairings.)
My overall recommendation would be for folks to wait until there's a smidgen more mod content available, but absolutely to play with BGEE once they can. I don't think I'd ever be able to return to fiddling with Tutu after this, even with the vast amounts of content it offers.

Mechanical stuff out of the way, here's a fairly brief summary of how my last game went down. I don't think that Baldur's Gate needs spoilers after being out for fifteen years, but I suppose the Enhanced Edition additions qualify, so I'll treat those separately in a spoiler section waaaaay down below.

As is usually the case for any new RPG session I start, I spent a fair amount of time planning out my character long in advance of actually starting the game. My prior games had been with Cirion, a half-elf male Chaotic Good bard, and Sebrina, an elven Neutral Good sorceress. I keep claiming that I'll do an evil character, but I never do; particularly for these games, which last for so long, I don't like occupying that headspace. So, after some consultation with my brother, I landed on a new approach: playing as a Lawful Good paladin (human, natch). I've never played Lawful Good in any BioWare or Obsidian game, so it would be relatively new territory for me; I typically eschew fighter classes, with the notable exception of my recent outing as Toman Benton in NWN2; and I also tend to avoid humans (again, except for Toman Benton). Since my last long RPG was a somewhat similar character, I decided to mix things up a little and roll my paladin as a woman this time.

Rolling Raenir took a little effort, though she wasn't too fiddly. Paladins have really high minimum requirements, including a mechanically useless 17 CHA. As a frontline fighter and the one essential character on my team, I would need to max out my DEX and CON at 18 each. WIS could stay at its minimum of 13. Many people take INT as the dump stat, but I'd read that this can cause huge problems when fighting mindflayers in BG2 (each hit drains 5 INT, and going below 1 kills your character), so I knew I wanted at least 11 here. That left STR as the dump stat, which seems bizarre, but nobody uses their natural STR once you hit BG2 since you can find Belts that boost it much higher than you can naturally make it.

For my kit, I picked the Cavalier, a really fantastic subclass. You get a permanent resistance to acid and fire; are permanently immune to fear and charm; get many casts of a special ability to remove fear in companions (which is very useful in BG1 where low morale is often a problem and enemies love casting Fear); and are permanently immune to poison. Nice! Unlike many other paladin kits, you get to keep all of the standard Paladin abilities, including Turn Undead, Lay On Hands, and divine spellcasting at high levels. The only downside to the kit is an inability to use ranged weapons, and frankly that isn't a problem at all since your role is to be a melee tank. If you do want or need to use ranged weapons, there's even a workaround available: just take an Axe proficiency, and use throwing axes; these are ranged, but since they aren't in your missile slot, they aren't blocked. There's even a boomeranging axe if you're concerned about the weight.

The one thing I messed up on was my weapon. I picked Two Handed Swords with the long-term plan to wield Carsomyr in BG2. Of my initial 4 weapon skill points, I maxed out this skill completely, putting two dots into Two Handed Swords and another two dots into Two Handed Weapons. However! I had only taken the minimum 12 STR (again, with the idea of making this up with equipment), and had completely forgotten that two handed swords require a minimum 13 STR to wield! Aaaaaaa!

In retrospect, I probably just have just gone back and re-rolled, but I did kind of like the idea of having a sense of urgency to drive me through the game. I knew that I would need to reach Baldur's Gate in order to get the Gauntlets of Ogre Power that could boost me to 18/00 STR. Baldur's Gate isn't available until Chapter 5. Fortunately. I could describe the plot of BG1 in my sleep, and so I knew exactly what I would need to do to get there as quickly as possible. So, I semi-glumly started whacking bad guys with my quarterstaff while I built up my team and raced through the main plot.

This might be a good point to observe what's probably my favorite aspect of BG1: the exploration. BG1 would also be the last BioWare game to have actual exploration; everything from BG2 onwards has focused on creating hotspots that you quick-travel between. From what I hear, it sounds like Dragon Age: Inquisition will finally be bringing exploration back, and that makes me tremendously excited. Anyways, a typical game of BG will involve moving from map to map, gradually scouring the entire contents to remove the fog of war, reaching the endpoints to discover what lies beyond, and then continuing to explore the new territory you've opened up. That's still mechanically what I was doing, but I knew exactly where I needed to go, and so I completely skipped many of the wilderness areas, particularly in the early part of the game. (This isn't at all to say that these areas are boring or not worth doing; pretty much every place in the game has fun side-quests, interesting personalities, and/or valuable equipment. But, when you have a date with a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Power, you learn to streamline your experience.)

Roleplaying Raenir was pretty fun. In some ways, it simplified and streamlined my gameplay. I remember how in my initial playthrough as a Chaotic Neutral Bard I attempted to pickpocket everyone in the entire game, up to and including Duke Eltan himself. As a matter of course I would also break into every house, rifle through barrels and drawers, amassing a petty fortune for myself on the way to saving the Sword Coast. Raenir was far too virtuous for that sort of nonsense, and never took anything from a non-hostile source. She also kept Imoen and Alora in line; among other things, this meant that they had a good in-character reason to focus entirely on skills like Find Traps. She was also very straightforward in her conversations: friendly, but blunt. She refused to ever disguise herself or pretend to be someone she wasn't; this meant that, for example, infiltrating the Iron Throne was a far more direct and straightforwardly violent affair.

While Raenir is Lawful Good, she certainly prioritizes the Good aspect over the Lawful. This meant that, for instance, in cases where a vanquished opponent yielded before her, she always spared their lives. This sometimes had negative repercussions, as with Mulahey in Nashkel, but generally worked out for the best. She had a way of shutting down her opponents early on when they would try to corrupt her, in contrast to Cirion or Sebrina who would try and play along to gain an advantage.

All in all, it was a fun new approach for me. I think I still prefer my "deceitful kleptomaniac with a heart of gold" archetype, but there's certainly room for variations like Raenir in my repertoire.

Besides changing up my character, I also wanted to roll with a different party this time around. Fortunately, even though this would be the third time I've played this game as a good character, there are still so many NPCs that I could make an almost completely new party this time around. I knew that I wanted Neera, so she was my one Neutral companion. Rasaad was the other new Beamdog companion I recruited. I'd been tempted to pick up Dorn as well, and had a brief encounter with him, but ultimately felt uncomfortable including such a clearly evil character in my party and so gently let him go.

Raenir was my main frontline fighter, but I also picked up Ajantis, another Lawful Good paladin. I'd run into him before, but had never had space in my party, so it was a nice change of pace to have someone new. Like many of my classic party members, he's a bit lacking in stats compared to canon party members (few people can match Minsc), but he was decent enough, and knowing the game as well as I do probably lets me get by with sub-optimal characters. Anyways, Ajantis has good strength and constitution, and was pretty effective as a co-tank. His one weak point is his DEX, but I eventually got some Gauntlets of Dexterity, after which he was nearly as effective as Raenir; considering his sword-and-shield style, he even had some advantages in absorbing damage.

Rasaad was a weird addition. I had to chat with Andrew a bit before figuring out the best way to use him. He's very quick, can get a high number of attacks, and has decent STR; but his CON is very low, and like all monks he can't use armor. I ended up moving him further back in my party formation so he wouldn't be targeted as often, then either had him join a fight late to start whaling on the bad guys, or else had him flank the enemy and strike their rear archers or spellcasters. He has very fast movement, which makes him very well suited for this sort of thing. You can get Rashad's Talon fairly early, which is a +2 Scimitar; Rasaad is better off with melee weapons over his fists in the early part of the game. By the time he reached level 6-7, his fists had gotten strong enough, plus he had extra hits, to make them superior; however, his fists aren't considered magic weapons until BG2, so you should still keep an enchanted weapon on hand for enemies that require it. The most important thing, though, was getting him Bracers of Armor. I tend to associate these with spellcasters, but they're hugely helpful in getting him a decent AC. I think that after a few levels in BG2, his natural AC will drop low enough that they can be discarded, but adding those bracers was the single most important factor for me in keeping him alive.

The cleric slot was the one part that was a repeat from last time around: Jaheira for a little bit in Chapter 1, then Branwen once I reached Nashkel, then finally trading to Yeslick in the Cloakwood Mines. I like clerics, and Yeslick is a great addition to a Good-aligned team. As noted above, though, I was a bit sad to see that much of Yeslick's dialogue was actually part of the mods I was used to playing with, so he didn't have a personal arc in this play-through.

Finally, the thief! This one is always tricky. Imoen is a no-brainer; she has the best stats of any thief, can (and arguably should) be dualed to mage, is with you from Level 1 and so can be customized as you desire, is totally loyal to you (will always rejoin regardless of your actions or reputation), and has a fun, upbeat personality. Still, I've always kept her through both parts of all my prior games, so I knew I wanted to try substituting her for one of the many sub-par thieves available. I eventually traded her in for Alora once I finally reached Baldur's Gate. Alora was really fun, though I doubt I'll pick her up on future games. Alora is a Good-aligned halfling thief. She's notable for having a natural 19 DEX, and she also has a very useful personal item that gives +2 to Luck (which means +2 to all rolls!) and bonuses to many thief skills. Most of her other stats are pretty bad, though, particularly her CON which makes her very squishy. For some reason she has skills in Two Weapon Fighting, but you'll definitely want to keep her far in the rear. Also, because you get her so late, she has spent her Thief Skills very poorly, dumping them into useless skills like Pick Pockets. I felt fine about using EE Keeper (the update to the venerable Shadowkeeper) to re-allocate her thief skills; I don't consider it cheating, since it's just doing what I would do if I could level her up myself. In terms of personality, Alora is absolutely a stereotypical D&D halfling, practically to the point of satire: relentlessly cheerful, smiling, encouraging, and upbeat. It would be grating to go through both games with her, but the period from Chapter 5 until the end of the game is a nice enough stay with her.

Oh, and speaking of potentially grating dialogue: whenever I revisit Baldur's Gate, I'm always re-surprised at just how corny some of the dialogue can be. There's a lot of jokey stuff in there like pop culture references, fourth-wall-breaking lines where they yell at you for clicking on them with the mouse, etc. Alora's selection prompts include the Ren & Stimpy line "Happy happy, joy joy, happy happy, joy joy!" and the classic folk song "Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now!" It's surprising the first time you hear it, funny the next few, then gradually grows more and more annoying. BioWare has clearly turned strongly away from this stuff in their recent games, to the point where Isabela's "I like big boats, I cannot lie" line stands out as the single bit of referential humor I can recall across both major Dragon Age titles.

But, the flip side is that I'm also surprised at how dark and macabre the story can be. I tend to think of Dragon Age and Mass Effect as the first "mature" BioWare games. I suppose that's technically true in terms of ratings, since the BG games and KOTOR were both rated "Teen" by ESRB, but they fit a surprising amount of blood and anguish into the story. Which is an interesting thought on its own; you can get away with much more violence in text than you can in video, as has long been apparent when comparing our restrictions on books to our restrictions on movies in American culture as a whole. Anyways, stuff like the dream of drowning in blood and the nightmarish slaughter below Candlekeep are fairly horrifying, even though they're communicated entirely in words.

Back to my game: I raced to the Nashkel mines, then immediately started exploring east of the Friendly Arms Inn to locate the base of the Chill mercenaries. There's a longish trek to the Cloakwood Mine, but I made sure to stop by the spider den to pick up Spider's Bane. Once I got this, I was delighted to find that, unlike all other two-handed swords, this one only required a STR of 9 rather than 13, so I could actually wield it! I suspect that this may have been so non-fighter characters would have a higher chance of taking advantage of its unique Freedom ability, but hey, I'll take it. I immediately noticed a huge improvement in my entire team's effectiveness, now that Raenir was hitting at full strength, in addition to her ability to crit 10% of the time.

With this sword in hand, reaching Baldur's Gate was less urgent, but I was still far enough along that I decided to press forwards. On the whole, I was really surprised by just how effective I could be with almost no breaks for leveling. I think I needed to reload twice in my fight against Mulahey at Nashkel, and thrice in one of the fights soon after where we were ambushed by Iron Throne assassins, but otherwise it was very smooth sailing practically until the end of the game. This is mostly because I know the encounters well enough to go into them with solid strategies from the start, but I think it's also due to the nature of XP gain and leveling in the game. Gaining a new level usually requires roughly twice as much XP as the level before, so almost all characters will end the game with about the same amount, regardless of how much grinding they do. I finished the game with shockingly low XP, somewhere between 75-80k; however, this took me to Level 7, and going all the way to the level cap of 161k XP would only have gained me a single additional level.

I also had ample opportunity to consider the sources of XP. BG seems somewhat unique in its strategy for gaining significant XP to advance. In typical grindy games like classic Final Fantasy games, the most important factor is the sheer number of battles you do: quickly fighting a large number of moderate enemies is the best way to level up. In many modern RPGs and MMOs, XP rewards tend to be more quest-oriented: your best way to quickly level up is to accept and complete as many side quests as you can. Both of these approaches are pretty poor in BG1. Many common weak enemies like gnolls and xvarts give 35 or fewer XP, so even a swarm of 10 will only give ~350 XP. Sidequests are also not particularly lucrative; it's common for a quest to require visiting multiple maps, slaying enemies, completing conversations, searching for an item, and returning to the quest giver, only to end up with ~750 XP. Instead, the best way to gain XP is by focusing on a few high-level enemies. For example, spiders are relatively easy to kill, and can give 1400 or 2000 XP for a single enemy. So, the bulk of your XP ends up coming from fights against significant enemies, and this is by far the most time-efficient way to quickly level.

Once in Baldur's Gate, I quickly grabbed the Gauntlets of Ogre Power; even though I would keep wielding Spider's Bane, I still wanted the STR to increase my THAC0 and damage; plus it was nice to FINALLY have a single party member with a high enough encumbrance to handle the absurdly high number of dead corpses you're required to lug around for various quests. After securing the gauntlets and recruiting Alora, I could finally relax a bit, and set about doing the optional quests on my agenda.

By this point, I'd crunched the numbers and figured out that I didn't need to do all the side-quests, so I could just focus on the ones that I remembered as being most fun. Since you lose all your equipment at the start of BG2, and I already had the most critical gear to finish the game, the only stuff that actually felt important to building my character was acquiring the various Manuals and Tomes that boost your stats. These are scattered around, but by Chapter 5 you can get all but two of them, so I did. The important effects here were boosting my CON and DEX to 19, which pretty much made me the Ultimate Tank; after this point I would gain 15 HP on each level up, and would end the game with 105 HP at just Level 7. The DEX gave me a straight -4 to AC, and as a paladin I can wear any armor, which means that despite foregoing a shield I could tank pretty effectively with a final AC of -5. Boosts to WIS and INT didn't really matter, and STR definitely doesn't matter (except for Irenicus's dungeon) since I'll be artificially setting that with belts in BG2. (I would have been very tempted to give the WIS and INT tomes to Neera, since she would be much better with an INT of 18, but I'd learned from my brother that Neera's stats don't transfer to BG2 and so it would essentially be wasted.) CHA wouldn't really matter that much, but having a natural 18 here does free up a ring slot in BG2 since I won't need to rely on the Ring of Human Influence.

It was a bit funny to look at the map and see all the places that I'd never even visited in my entire game: I never set foot in High Hedge, or the Firewine Bridge, or Gullykin, or Ulcaster. And these aren't boring places, either: I remember each of them having fun or funny quests, and decent rewards within the context of BG1. Their very existence is indicative of one of the things I love most about BG1: its extremely open ended and non-linear design. It's a bit of a truism that western RPGs tend to be less linear than their Japanese counterparts, but even by those traditionally relaxed standards, BG1 stands out for its lack of direction at the start of the game. Most games will typically start the plot with an immediate quest to start work on right away, and a glimpse at the end-game storyline. You don't really get either of those at the start of BG1: you're free to wander pretty much anywhere along the Sword Coast, just stumbling into various quests and adventures and building up a party along the way. The plot starts picking up steam after you visit the Nashkel Mines, but it's an incredibly organic thing that's driven by the world itself, with various rumor of tainted iron vaguely pointing in that direction but no artificial system pulling you there.

Along the same lines, I think that the plot for BG1 doesn't get the credit it deserves for being so unique. I love that the villains of the game aren't trying to conquer the world: they're a merchant cartel, trying to build a monopoly and manipulate politics in order to increase their profits. Sarevok obviously plays a large role, but I think he becomes more significant in the context of the plot arc in BG2/ToB; if you look at BG1's story strictly on its own, it's this really weird, fascinating, twisty plot that's mostly about greed, and even Sarevok's strange role as a demigod avatar of wrath can be viewed as a twist within that larger story (Rieltar was too driven by his ambition and greed to recognize the threat posed by his son, and the chaos he sought to sow for his own advantage ended up overwhelming him). Anyways, for all the complaints about major fantasy RPGs having formulaic plots, I think that BG1 really stands out as doing something different. (I might even go so far as to say that, strictly comparing one plot to another, BG1's is better than BG2's. What I love most about BG2 is the overall story, including much better developed characters and relationships. Its plot deserves praise as well, but hews much more closely to the traditional tropes of fantasy.)

All right, now let's talk about the new NPCs!

MEGA SPOILERS for Beamdog NPCs in Baldur's Gate 1

First up, Rasaad. He felt like a perfectly solid, though not extraordinary, character. His voice acting was good, and manages a convincing accent that doesn't come across as cheesy (which can't always be said for the original BioWare NPCs). His personal story felt a bit heavy on the "Let me tell you about the significant events of my past!" side of things, along with some relatively vague pseudo-philosophy around the Sun Soul Monks.

As you get to know him better, you start to dive into his past, particularly a painful childhood incident where his brother Gamaz was killed by Shadow Thieves. Rasaad is Lawful Good and generally serenely confident in his beliefs; Gamaz's death is a rare sore spot and an occasional source of doubt for him.

Rasaad's personal quest kicks off after you arrive in Baldur's Gate. They somehow managed to integrate nicely with the existing map, opening up a legacy building into a new space containing villainous Dark Moon Monks who are trying to kill Rasaad for some reason. This leads to discovery of a monastery they have captured in the Cloud Peaks, so off we went! (Most of the dialogue choices with Rasaad felt a bit ho-hum to me, but I did like this part, where you help to determine his motivations in pursuing his attackers. Is he seeking revenge? Justice? Closure?)

The actual monastery is the largest new area created for BGEE, and looks fantastic. It's a snowy mountain, which I'm guessing is somewhat familiar to people who have played the Icewind Dale games, but it's the first time I've seen something like it in an Infinity Engine game. Anyways, it looks cool and is very well designed, with snowy banks, tracks along heavily-traveled routes, and then "climbs" up a large number of "stairs" to reach the actual structure. It's a really nice way of evoking 3D space in a strongly 2D pre-rendered background. Passing through the monastery takes you to an outcropping at the very peak, which includes a very pretty and very unusual background showing the mountain range drifting off towards the horizon. It's a kind of perspective that's unique to the game, and is visually striking, while also being slightly awkward; since everything is still really a 2D background, the same fog of war rules apply to this background as a regular flat one, leading to some effects that don't look right. Regardless, it's still cool, and probably the best visual addition to BGEE.

(Oh: I guess those images don't directly link to the web album. It's there if you want to check it out; fortunately I was much more restrained this time around when it came to pressing F12.)

Rasaad's story has a bit of a twist: it turns out that Gamaz hadn't died after all, but was instead recruited by the Dark Moon Monks, the evil counter to his virtuous Sun Soul Monks. The monks surely held much of the blame, but Gamaz also was corrupted by his pride: Rasaad was always the better fighter, and Gamaz felt humiliated by the knowledge that Rasaad would secretly hold himself back and not commit to his sparring matches against Gamaz. Rasaad goes through some soul-searching during this segment and after Gamaz is defeated; I chose to buck him up, keep him on the virtuous path, to mourn Gamaz's death while remaining confident in his own righteousness. There were several other conversation options available that felt more like "turning him towards the dark side", and I'm curious what would have happened if I'd pursued that route: would he start to abandon his faith? Or just get mad at me? Either way, it was a nice arc; not my favorite storyline, but I think that's just due to my own personal tastes.

Next up, Neera! Neera was wonderful! She was a very well-realized party member, with a different play style and a super-interesting personality and background. The Wild Mage class has been around since classic BG2, but like the Monk class, we haven't had any NPCs in that mold before now. Wild Mages are a bit like Specialist mages since they get an extra spell at each level as soon as they unlock their first one, which means that for almost the entire game they have double the normal of their most powerful spells compared to a vanilla mage. Unlike specialist mages, they aren't locked out of any opposing schools, which makes it much more viable to run with a single mage in your party.

The most obvious impact of a Wild Mage, though, is the uncontrolled nature of their magic. Quite often, when you cast a spell, it will end up being cast at a level higher or lower than normal. This doesn't have any effect on spells with a flat impact like Armor, but can make a difference for spells like Magic Missile that increase (or decrease) in power with your level. Less often but more spectacularly, a Wild Surge can sometimes occur, which can have spectacular effects. In one of my climactic battles against the leaders of the Iron Throne at the end of Chapter 5, I had killed off two of their leaders and was struggling against the rest, when Neera attempted to cast Magic Missile and ended up healing everyone in the battle. Not my party: everyone. Anyways, stuff like that occasionally happens, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it can force you to rethink your strategy on the fly to respond to the unexpected, which made fights more fun.

I suspect that wild magic will become more interesting and feasible in BG2. The tempting-but-dangerous hook of the class is the Reckless Dweomer, a Level 1 spell that lets you cast any spell in your book. Any spell. Any spell. Meteor, Time Stop, Summon Planetar... you name it. The catch, though, is that you always cause a Wild Surge. In BG1, the odds of successfully casting a spell seem so low that it isn't worth trying. However, higher levels increase the odds of a favorable outcome, and higher level spells like Improved Chaos Shield can also boost your chances. And, frankly, even if only 1/3 of your Level 1 spells were converted to Level 9 spells, that's still insanely powerful. So, in BG1 wild magic was mostly a flavorful burden to endure, but I can see it becoming a keystone for Neera's gameplay in the future.

There's a ton that I like about Neera's dialogue - she's funny, and independent, and engaging - but the thing that impresses me the most is probably how closely tied her character is to her conversation. She isn't just a bundle of stats connected to a set of lines; her identity as a wild mage is a single force that drives both her personality and her gameplay. So when she talks about how she's driven away friends in the past as a result of the disastrous spells she's cast, it's a touching character moment that's amplified by your memories of the times similar things have happened to you in your own battles. And her quest to find a mentor that will help her control her wild magic isn't just interesting for character-development purposes: it's a dream that you can totally buy into and see how it would benefit your entire team.

Neera also has a very well-designed romance. I felt just a tiny bit guilty about installing the Neera Expansion mod to allow my female PC to romance her; this is standard operating procedure for the straight-only original BioWare NPC romances in BG2, but Beamdog had included both straight and bi characters as romance options, meaning that Neera's straightness is an artistic decision. My greed won out over my guilt, though, and I was thoroughly pleased with the experience. The mod did a great job at slightly tweaking the romance dialogue to be gender-neutral; I think there's a single line where she says something like "Hey, mister!" but that was the only slightly jarring moment. Also, the mod adds flirts similar to the classic flirtpack, for which I've always had an irrational fondness.

Anyways. I'd been a bit curious about exactly how the romance would play out, given that she would also be an NPC in BG2 and would presumably have an arc there as well. It feels very natural here, maybe roughly equivalent to the first third or so of a romance arc in BG2. Like all the best conversations, these tend to drift into her background and outlook, not so much focusing on your immediate quest as exploring her as a human (er, half-elf! sorry!) being. She's funny and sharp-tongued; I initially started out being very earnest and encouraging of her, gradually shifting to a more playful and humorous approach as the relationship deepened. It can sometimes be a little hard when reading text to figure out whether a particular line is meant to be tongue-in-cheek or not, and I was occasionally unsure whether she was playing along with my jokes or reacting in horror. However, it certainly helps that Neera's voice actress is so terrific. She has a great tone, and done a fantastic job at selling her personality: young, impulsive, very aware of the difficulties she has caused in the past, to the point where she's become inured to them and has developed some effective emotional armor to protect herself.

Her personal quest was pretty good, though the graphics weren't as striking as Rasaad's, and completing it helps you feel like you're cementing your connection. Late in the game, you continue to learn more about her background, and at one point run across a dwarf who claims she stole money from him. (I feel lucky to have clicked on this guy; he's one of the only plot NPCs on the streets of Baldur's Gate who doesn't automatically initiate conversation with your party, and one of the only ones I specifically spoke to. I could easily have missed him, which might have locked out some of the later content from Neera.) She initially denies this, then admits to it, then says she was going to pay him back, then makes it pretty clear that she won't. There were a couple of options here; I chose to back her up, which started a fight with the dwarf. We killed him, which made me feel bad, and the journal entry made some very ominous comments that seem to imply Neera may attempt a similar betrayal on me in the future. I want to deny this - it feels like I've shown enough trust in her that she would be reluctant to abandon it - but it could certainly be effective foreshadowing for more twists and turns in her romance for BG2.


Finally, here's something I've barely been able to contain my glee over: an uber-cute drawing of Raenir and Neera!

This was created by the incredibly talented and friendly Choco-Minto. She's a fan of BioWare games, and has made a ton of particularly adorable Mass Effect doodles over the years. She recently accepted some fan commissions, and I was stoked to see her take on my character.

Phew... I think that's it! I have to say, I do really enjoy this less-comprehensive approach to replays of RPGs, and think I might do it more in the future. I'll probably hold off for a bit on BG2EE even though it's already installed; in the short term, I need to wrap up my NWN journey with Mask of the Betrayer, and I think I'll want to make sure that my favorite mods are in good shape before I embark on BG2EE. Still, curiosity about what happens with Neera is making me very motivated to continue the story, and I look forward to experiencing a fresh take on my all-time favorite game.

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