Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Misplaced Mimics

Spoilers: Neverwinter Nights.

Oh, mighty hero! What plights hast thou thwarted? What foes doth thou vanquish? What deeds dost thou tout?
Oh muse of roleplaying, Munchkina who art both minima and maxima, guide my quill that I might with life imbue these ever epicker epics.

A dragon, yes a Dragon! didst our hero slay while merely an apprentice in his one-horse town, seeking a lost marble. A sphinx he did insult, a mummy unravel, the remote control to ancient guardians dug from beneath a plethora of sofa cushions, the stare of the medusa most valiantly held and lo at his touch cities did rain from the skies! Thence to Wateverdeep, to brave the ever darker hordes of under-darkest: from doughty duergar to dastardly drow and fearsome umber hulks, to even those against whom none dare stand: beholders and mind-flayers both! To the netherworld our hero was then banished, to stand unbowed in the bitter wastes of Cania against ice trolls and devils.

Lo the great tale draws near its thounderous conclusion: an archfiend himself shall soon fall to the hero's power! Angels weep, the Heels yawn ope and the climactic world-slaking battle looms ever nearer!

But first, you need to get your pants stolen and run around tossing shiny pebbles in front of a magic box yapping at you in a Mickey Mouse voice.
Welcome to the mimic's chamber. Prepare for epic nuisance.
Wait, what?
We're doing what now?
Are we seriously faceplanting the entire heroic epic into a goofy little breadcrumb puzzle? There is a time and place to introduce a comic relief bit player, you knuckleheads, and as a general rule it's not halfway through act five! Ugh.

I spent some time over the holidays revisiting old favorites, including the two expansion packs for one of the first cRPGs I ever played, Neverwinter Nights. It gave me a chance to try an oddball character type: half-orc Cleric / Weapon Master with a dire mace (a.k.a. a quarterstaff with better stats.) Very Friar Tuck-ish, if not the most practical. It also gave me a chance to rethink my unduly rosy memories of these expansions. I first played NWN in my early twenties, with my RPG experience limited to the likes of Diablo and V:tM - Redemption, in comparison to which Shadows of Undrentide was clearly better written. True, but that's setting a very low bar.

Trudging through it now, Undrentide is pretty weak and Hordes of the Underdark isn't much better. For one thing, the Aurora Engine's three-dimensionality turned a lot of heads at the time, but most environments in NWN appear sparse even compared to older Infinity Engine decor, which made more lustrous use of its two dimensions. Noticeable once you get over your ability to turn the camera OMGWTFBBQ! Much seems to have been ignored for the sake of offering players that moddable 3D wonderland.

Dialogue in Undrentide and most of HotU only extends to <insert villainous boast> and <insert heroic rejoinder> of such shallowness as would make Snidely Whiplash cringe. The voice acting, after playing games like V:tM - Bloodlines and Dragon Age, seems painfully amateurish after only a few lines from Xanos or Drogan. Ironically, the hammiest NPC from the original NWN campaign, Aribeth, actually got the best treatment in HotU by playing down her voicing, playing more with her dialogue and an added layer of moral depth.

Odd storytelling choices didn't help matters. The mimic's lair pictured above is doubly puzzling, jarringly out of place in Cania's grim escalation toward the showdown with Mephistopheles, and even more so when you consider how well it would have fit into the first third of HotU, in the mad wizard's demesne of Undermountain. Also, reintroducing companions from the main NWN campaign only to replace them later with a drow/tiefling duo was needlessly convoluted, especially considering that the only permanent companion remaining was... Deekin, NWN's answer to Ma-Ti's monkey from Captain Planet.
Don't even get me started on all the good-aligned drow.

Still, though the NWN games by now count as obvious low points between Black Isle and the newer Bioware / Obsidian games, they had their place in the development of the genre. Shortcuts to the start placed at the end of long instances, a rudimentary crafting system, base building in NWN2, custom weapon upgrades, prestige classes, for better or worse NWN 1 and 2 introduced a lot of us to these notions. HotU even dared to offer a noncombat option for the grand finale (commanding Meph using his True Name) allowing the combat option, as optional, to impose truly epic-level gear requirements. Something I might've liked to know fifteen years ago when my poor mage got his elvish ass spanked by the devil.

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