Neverwinter Gate, Baldur’s Nights and the Mask of the Sword Coast

And thus ends my tour of the BioWare RPG portfolio.

A few weeks ago, I decided to return to Baldur’s Gate and finish what I never had before.  To me, it was always a crime to never have completed what is universally applauded as one of the greatest classics in the genre, of all time.  It was a seething sort of guilt that hung in the back of my mind and nagged me whenever I would happen across nostalgic threads about RPGs on reddit or other forums.  It ate away at me relentlessly until, finally, I found a copy of the game for cheap and set about making things in the universe right again.  Not only that, but it would provide an excellent opportunity for me to research the RPG tradition and observe it as it grew.

Once I was done cringing at the sight of the graphics, I went about my adventure like any completionist would.  Every map uncovered.  Every nook, cranny and crevice explored.  The game was engaging despite the clunky and obtrusive interface, out-dated gaming systems and irritating character sound-bytes.  I was so irritated by Khalid’s whimpering and Jaheira’s incessant nagging that I actually murdered them.  Yes.  I did.  I sent them headlong and gearless into the hands of eager gnolls, and never resurrected them.  I cheered when Khalid got insta-gibbed.  I was relieved to be done with them.  Of course, this wasn’t until about half-way through the game.  By the time I commited this atrocity, my fledgling mage had already amassed a decent array of spells and protections and could weather the storm of a few attacks before unleashing certain doom upon whatever enemies dared cross her path.  But all-in-all, my experience was a good one.  I made my way slowly, carefully, thoroughly to the final encounter with Sarevok and finished the game.  I was redeemed.

And with that, I booted up Baldur’s Gate II.  Immediately, one could see the improvements from it’s predecessor.  The graphics seemed to be more crisp.  The interface was cleaner.  Even the method for delivering story was refined.  The first stride out of the gates and already, this timelessly classic franchise was ahead of the pack.  After breezing through BGI, however, I felt as though I needed to step up the challenge a notch.  So, my elven thief/mage was chaotic evil this time.  And yes, Jaheira was left to rot in her cage.  It’s really too bad Minsc was able to break free.  I would have preferred to leave that hamster loving pervert to die as well.  I went so far as to murder or shun every possible companion in BGII that I was left to utterly solo the entire game.  And it was actually pretty challenging, up until…   Up until I learned Mislead.  Combined with invisibility (on the glamer) and Improved Haste the game became a joke.  I would enter a room cast my combo and proceed to score sneak attacks on hordes of enemies.  The only enemies that really presented a challenge were Liches with True Sight and even they would go down eventually.  The game got pretty boring after that, right up through to the end of Throne of Bhaal.  I think I reloaded at least 100 times in my fight against Draconis at Abazigal’s Lair.  At some point, I just gave up.  I simply couldn’t continue on.  The game could not be solo’d at that point and my companions had all been neglected to the point of being completely useless.

As I look back on Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, two things in particular stand out as resounding truths about the series and these two truths stand testament to the direction games in this genre eventually took.

1) The story was deeply engaging.  No matter how you look at it, the incentives for the player to continue progressing the story were consistent and almost always rewarded the player meaningfully.  That carrot was too orange, and too delicious to ignore.  Whatever formula they discovered, BioWare had unearthed a gold-mine of intelligent plot design and immersive story telling.  They had to keep that part of it right.

2) The rules systems were unforgiving.  I would even go so far as to flat out accuse the game system of hating the player.  These games were merciless.  These core systems had to change.

And they did.  As my adventure progressed, I loaded up the original Neverwinter Nights and allowed myself to once again be swept up by the lilting voice of Lady Aribeth and to be filled with seething hatred for Desther.  It’s interesting to note here that NWN almost completely eschewed the companion systems from the BG series in favor of allowing the player to adventure confidently alone.  Sure, there were henchmen and hirelings, but they were entirely unnecessary.   The game system was also a lot more forgiving.  There were tough fights, absolutely, especially in the beginning of a multi-class character’s career.  But they were do-able.  Not like the previous games (I’m looking at you, Draconis).  The fight with Morag was almost frustrating, but fun nonetheless.

Neverwinter Nights II was next.  I don’t remember my first time playing through very well, but I’m almost certain I didn’t blaze through it as quickly as I did this time.  Perhaps it was my character choice.  For NWN2 I took a path that had previously been taboo for me.  A cleric.  And it was deliciously fun to be lawfully good for a change.  Although, I tried my absolute hardest to stay Lawful Neutral to stay in keeping with my chosen deity, Kelemvor.  When I look back on my fight with the King of Shadows, it occurs to me that the game had become far more forgiving than BGI or II.  Additionally, I didn’t feel compelled to murder any of my companions (and thank God for a lack of Noober).  Perhaps taking the healer/tank spot in the party allowed for a stronger DPS core with Khelgar, Qara and Neeshka.  Whatever it was, I’m sure the core game systems also had something to do with it.

So, the story telling has remained in tact, and the game systems have become more and more user friendly over time.  It’s just sad that they didn’t know when to stop.  I mean, look at Dragon Age 2.  Too far, guys.  Too far.

 

Thanks for reading,

SZ.

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Pre-review: Risen

Recently, I decided to get back into Risen, and took the path to the bandit camp rather than becoming a mage.  It’s really difficult to say which experience is better when all things are considered.  For the mage path, I remember feeling as though I were really in a school learning to cast spells, make potions and write scrolls.  It truly was an academic experience.  The path of the fighter/rogue, however, has its own ups and downs.  On the positive side, the combat system in Risen is much like one would experience in a game like Age of Conan, wherein all combat is decided by skill and timing.  With that said, however, even while the system requires the player to learn all of the various monster tactics it does tend to get very frustrating as there is never really any indication of determining whether an enemy is too strong.  Because of this, there are several occasions when the game must be reloaded due to having adventured too far into dangerous territory.

One aspect of the game that is universally excellent is the world in which it is set.  Although the entire game story takes place on a single island, the island itself is huge, fully explorable, and seamless.  There are dozens upon dozens of caves, hidden groves and secret passages to explore.  What’s more is the magic system in Risen lends itself to creative interpretation, and sets itself aside from other games in the genre.  Rather than focus on the traditional fireball and icebolts that are all too common, Risen puts emphasis on those magics which bend the laws of physics.  Levitation, polymorph, and telekinesis all become invaluable tools to further the exploration effort.  For example, one can levitate across perilous chasms, or use telekinesis to manipulate a distant lever.

The spelunking in Risen is top-notch.  But so is the role-playing.  The voice acting and script are prime examples of what other games in the genre should strive to achieve.  Humour, sarcasm, perspective, and morality all come into play with the myriad of people one will meet on the journey.

Finally, the game world is simply breathtaking.  I have been set aback on multiple occasions by vistas that stand testament to the wonders and beauty of real life nature.

Risen is a hidden gem.  A must-play for any dungeon-crawler-at-heart.