Friday, February 25, 2011

Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast

This post is a detailed review of, and contains spoilers for, the Baldur's Gate 1 expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast.

Right away, I'm delighted by the expansion. The little fishing village of Ulgoth's Beard is a nice little quest hub, with memorable characters and lively dialogue.

At the tavern I was greeted heartily by a smiling dwarf who hailed my party as a "merry band of heroes" and promised a glorious adventure to retrieve his grandfather's dagger "Soultaker" from Durlag's Tower. Maybe it's because it was late into the night when I was playing this, but this really appealed to me. Sign me up! And speak not a word of recompense, my good man -- whatever it is, I'll do it for free! At this point, I'm quite rich anyway, and the only rewards I'm really interested in anymore (aside from a fun story) are special items which are more likely to be found in challenging fights than as quest rewards. Plus, I'm almost at the end of the game, so rewards don't really even matter.

Then I learned the story of Durlag's Tower from a man who had been there on tour. All I had known of the tower up until this point was that it was added by the expansion and that it was full of traps, and not to touch it until I was high enough in level. I had assumed it was the home of some evil necromancer named Durlag who needed to be defeated, or something along those lines. But what he told me was instead a very sad and moving story about high hopes and grandfatherly intentions being dashed to bits and turned to grief. What happened to Durlag was similar to what I was afraid might have happened to the people of Candlekeep, but more tragic.

Then I met a poor mother who had lost her son due to the hucksters who were making profits selling tours and special keys to supposedly treasure-filled areas of the tower. These quests given by grieving family members always touch on my empathy.

The mood was lightened considerably with the interactions of the old sailor Calahan, "Scourge of fish in th' seven seas", who had some lighthearted and funny dialogue, and the disgruntled dwarf merchant Delsvirftanyon, with an interesting manner of speaking to match his unusual name. This merchant is selling off his stock, but he speaks as if he's in a shop, though he's standing far away from any buildings. There is a strange building on the other side of town that looks like a shop, but with no merchandise or NPCs, which I'm thinking may have been where this vendor was supposed to be. But the building also has a very strange basement, also empty, with nothing but false doors in it, and a large symbol on the floor. Maybe a purpose for it will show up later.

But first, there's a wizard named Shandalar who wants me to go to one of those islands.

Ice Island

Here's my review of this quest (the shortest one), An interesting premise, but the execution was rather unbelievable. The premise is that a remote location on a tiny frozen island acts as a "magnet" to capture powerful mages that are teleporting nearby. A handful of these mages are trapped there, living off of seabird eggs in an elaborate underground fortress that was allegedly built by some of the bored mages trapped there long ago. (Perhaps there's some kind of "carve chambers" spell I'm not aware of.)

The quest unfortunately just amounts to "everyone here is evil and attacks you", which is also unbelievable because if these mages are so hostile as to attack every newcomer that arrives, and also don't work together, they should have wiped themselves out by now.

No special encounters, no interesting characters, and if there was any special loot, it was forgettable. I'm guessing this quest was either the first one they wrote, and never went back to polish it, or it was simply one last quest thrown in as an afterthought, or to have more than two quest locations for this expansion.

Mendas and Balduran's shipwreck

This one was a much longer and more satisfying quest, with interesting locations, lots of NPC interactions, some interesting loot, and even a sort-of romance (the first I've experienced in this game, in fact). This quest plot had several twists and turns, and though the major one was pretty easy to guess, some things were unpredictable enough to keep me guessing. After killing the werewolf boss in the ship, and I found Balduran's diary, I suddenly had a sinking feeling that it would tell me that I had actually killed a cursed Balduran himself! Alas, this was not the case, but it would have been quite a twist!

For those who played this part, didn't anyone else feel bad about fighting the innocent villagers who are only attacking you because their two leaders basically betray their own people and whip them up into a frenzy? Especially if you kill one, and find the quest items you retrieved for their quests on their bodies. I avoided as many as I could. At least two of the villagers refused to fight my party because of the quests we'd done for them.

Back on the mainland afterward, there was one last twist, but it was to be expected after everything that you learn on the island. Makes the "hints" the NPCs drop feel a little heavy handed, much like the doppelgangers back in vanilla, who wouldn't have fooled anyone in reality with all their "slips of the tongue" and bizarre behaviour.

All in all, a good questline. The next bit is the main attraction, Durlag's Tower.

Durlag's Tower upper levels

This tower is the largest location in Tales of the Sword Coast, even though Balduran's island includes two exterior maps, several levels of ship, numerous buildings, and an underground cave system. It also has three different NPCs sending you there for one reason or another -- two quests and a guided tour. The tour is worth it for the chuckles and the background information.

As an aside, I've noticed that the expansion begins right away with several very expensive transactions (2 quests to settle bar tabs at 900 gold each, 500 gold to spend on a mystery grab bag of the merchant's stock, and instances of bribery to get people to talk. The tour isn't too expensive, but then the guide wants to sell you a 300 gold runestone on top of it). I guess this was supposed to be a gold sink, acknowledging that the player is probably filthy rich at this stage of the game. And I was, so why not spend it? I'm near the end of the game anyway, so what else am I going to spend it on? I bought some of the expensive magical items from the tavern owner, while I was at it.

I think I slightly broke the tour, though, since after the guide stopped talking the first time, I had Imoen check around the place for locked chests and traps, and she found a trap in the kitchen that apparently one of the other tourists was supposed to trigger, as later dialogue would indicate. When the guide called for a break, one of the tourists walked to where the now-disarmed trap had been, and the next time I talked to the guide, he warned us not to go wandering off like that tourist who we just saw get burned to death, though no such thing had happened. Ah well, I guess it was included to remind us, in case we'd forgotten, that Durlag had heavily trapped the tower before dying, as everyone had been saying.

Checking for the traps was tricky for the upper levels, since I couldn't do it while stealthed, and that meant facing possible monsters around every corner. It only occurs to me now that I should have had Edwin cast Improved Invisibility on her to do double duty in trap-disarming and monster-scouting.

So far, as of the upper tower, there has only been one fight that was a real challenge, and that was more of an irritation than a challenge. The succubus near the top. At Core Rules difficulty, it's a long, seemingly-impossible fight, with these four innate abilities she has. First, she keeps casting Dire Charm with no casting time, and even though she's a succubus, her charm works on the male and female members of the party (I had read that succubi could only charm males, regardless of whether or not the females are bisexual or lesbian). Then, she keeps teleporting around the place. Then, whenever she gets slightly injured, she turns ethereal and disappears, returning at full health. Even with my party under Haste, I can't hurt her enough to kill her, because she seems to be able to go ethereal at will, not even waiting 2 turns sometimes. And lastly, she's immune to every spell I cast at her, leaving my mages mostly useless. She isn't even affected by Skull Trap or Greater Malaison.

There's an evil solution that involves luring another adventurer to her clutches, but I'm not going to do that. I'd rather just avoid her and leave the quest alone. But before giving up, I tried it again at Normal difficulty. This time, she just stood there, never turning hostile, and didn't fight back at all as we killed her. Not a very satisfactory outcome. I didn't want auto-victory, I just wanted a fair fight. So I reloaded and tried again. This time she turned hostile as she should have, and she dire charmed Minsc just before she started running away with her circle yellow, indicating a morale failure. Her death came shortly thereafter.

So I don't know what to think here. At normal difficulty this is an easy fight, or at least it's easy when I'm all buffed up and prepared for as tough a fight as it was under core rules, where it becomes nigh impossible. Are succubi supposed to be this tough in the core rules?

By far, though, the toughest part of this tower is the pathfinding. Directing a character to stand in a strategic location often sends them running off in the opposite direction to go all the way around to the other side through a corridor. This is often a problem when an area hasn't been fully scouted out or cleared yet. Likewise, not being able to tell where the line-of-sight is on these curved corridors means sometimes my mages try to walk right into a crowd of monsters instead of throwing a fireball where it looks like it should be straight ahead.

Lower levels

Now things are getting really good! Once we got underground, the round rooms of the tower gave way to more extensive spaces, the first of which was an elaborate high class dwelling fit for a king, with all the amenities. They're very well-connected rooms with many logical exits, completely unlike the usual one-route-only corridor mazes seen elsewhere. This place would not be a fire hazard. It's still not a city/home for a whole clan, though, which is what the story says the tower was built to be. Maybe it'll look more like one as I go deeper.

This first underground level might be the first place I've seen in Baldur's Gate 1 that has special interactions with machines and tools, like what I saw in the first few rooms of BG2 when I tested it out. Places that you have to hunt for with your cursor, and find when the cursor turns into a circular shape. There are also a lot more of the things I had seen occasionally before -- the question mark cursor which gives you a textual description of the item, which in this case gives clues as to how they work and what you need to do.

This level has several puzzles to solve, which sets it apart from anything else I recall from the game. The first indication I got that there were going to be puzzles (aside from a fellow thief upstairs who mentioned puzzles) was when I found a gong mallet head, without its handle, and I knew I was going to have to find both its handle, and a gong to hit with it. Then I met some ward-keepers, who indicated that there were going to be four puzzles in total to solve in order to move on to the next level. The place is also, of course, heavily trapped and littered with bodies.

All in all, the puzzles were enjoyable, and I'm glad to have gotten such a nice change from the usual kind of questing. It's something that I didn't even really notice was absent until now.

Lower level 2 (with the doors)

This level of the tower was full of door-opening puzzles and special encounters. I thought the previous level was refreshing in its open layout, and how it specifically didn't include the kind of single pathway through the level that you usually see in games, mainly because they're usually illogically-floor-planned labyrinths of corridors. This level, at least, had a reasonable floor plan, and became an open layout once the doors were opened. The keys for this place were mainly wardstones instead of actual keys, though there was one real key in the bedroom. I have to say I'm not a fan of the "unpickable lock" game mechanic, in a game that includes lockpicking skills. But even though this was something of a key-hunt level, it did its best to keep it from being monotonous or routine.

The location design didn't seem very consistent. Separately, the set-pieces were very interesting and varied, but perhaps a little too varied. What was the room of three different bridges over lava for? Or the teleport room? Were they just for the traps? As an aside, I wonder if I missed out on some of the creativity here, since I was able to disarm almost all of the traps. One of the traps I missed was one that seemed to make a block of wall slam into the corridor to crush you.

The torture chamber was also quite unexpected. Nothing I had read about Durlag, the purpose of the tower, and nothing I'd seen of his ghost, indicated that he would have had need of a torture chamber. Perhaps it was just one of those things added entirely by the craftsmen he hired to devise the traps after the tragedy of his kin?

Lower level 3 (with the masks and four foes)

This level was also a strange mix of some rooms that looked like they were designed as part of a family home, and others that were just plain death traps. Who decided to put a pleasant hedge garden right next to a device that constantly explodes in fireballs? Actually, as we go deeper, it seems that more and more of the pretense of this being a home base is abandoned, or else the lower levels were most heavily redesigned by Durlag to revolve around challenges and death traps. This, of course, is fine with me. It made for some great gameplay and exploration.

This level included four themed challenges, with several giant speaking masks which offered clues and hints on strategies for the upcoming challenges, described fairly cryptically, which was nice and atmospheric.

One of the challenges, however, was a bit over-explained by Minsc (from vanilla game, or from NPC Project? Not sure), who explicitly said what to do against the slime, (use fire) even though the mask's clue made it clear enough.

Now, unlike the previous level, this level was completely open, with the entrance hall having three doors that could be explored in any order, which all eventually accessed the same areas. But also unlike the previous level, this one included a room that would have actually made more sense if you were restricted to approaching it from only one direction. There's a room with some rather tough enemies by one entrance, and some petrified adventurers by the other entrance. The statues are there to help you with the enemies, as was explained by an NPC on that side of the room. Unfortunately, I entered from the other entrance, and so I fought the enemies without help, and found the help too late. Too bad, because it was a pretty unique new thing for this game.

At the end of the four themed challenges, we got teleported to a life-sized chess board, for a very interesting and unique new encounter. My party was assigned chess roles depending on which square they were standing on, and the rules stated that if any of us stepped on an illegal-move square for our piece type, we would be punished with lightning. It didn't actually tell us which characters were which chess pieces (but they were lined up on specific squares), so you have to know the default arrangement of pieces on a real chessboard, and their moves, to know your restrictions.

Unfortunately, the enemies on the other side of the board didn't seem to have any restrictions, and they liked to cast spells like confusion or fear or something else that made some of my party members go running around on illegal squares, so it ended up as more of a free-for-all rather than a strategic challenge like I was expecting. Still an interesting idea, and I enjoyed it.

Lower level 4 (with the compasses)

This level was really good! It seems they decided to have each level have a different approach to gameplay, which really helped keep the whole thing fresh and interesting. This one again had three areas to explore in any order and "solve" in order to unlock the final challenge. I like this design. Somewhere in this level, I think, was also a bit of useful loot illustrating some halfling humour, to add to an earlier amusing Alora interaction.

Strangely, this was the only level that didn't allow you to just go back up the stairs to leave. Even with my bag of holding, I kept filling up with loot, and at this point I don't bother picking up any un-enchanted weapons or armour, sticking only to ammo (that I can use), jewelry, potions, wands, and scrolls. But I still had to trek back up to the surface several times to unload with the vendor at the map's entrance. I wish he were placed a little more conveniently, since it was annoying and monotonous walking up all the paths past the respawning doppelgangers to get back to him. I probably should have ignored the jewelry, too, considering how close to the end of the game I was.

Anyway, to get back to the surface from this level, you actually have to find and talk to an NPC down one of the corridors, and it was down the last one I picked to explore. Nevertheless, I still prefer that the place could be explored in any order.

The unique feature of this level was a set of three reading comprehension quizzes dealing with the backstory of the tragedy of the tower. Pretty daring to include that sort of thing, and very refreshing to have that kind of challenge for a change. I lament that we'll probably never see that kind of puzzle in a modern game. Dragon Age at least had a section of riddles in the Mage origin, but I still kept finding people asking for the answers to them. Were they that hard? They were multiple choice!

This is the last of the levels in the tower, and once you've accomplished everything here, the ghost of Durlag wants you to fight some demon knight that decided to move into the tower recently. It was another challenging boss fight that I had to attempt multiple times, but I did it without using the magic mirror that was talked about by an NPC outside the room and by the demon knight himself. I'm thinking maybe I should have used it, just to get more out of the special content they included for this fight. I could have a conventional fight any time, right? Maybe I'll go back later and try it with the mirror. That's why I keep plenty of save files.

Not quite over

To my surprise, there was still one last bit of content left in the expansion beyond going back to turn in the quests at Ulgoth's Beard.

Awaiting me back in town, as I returned with the dwarf's dagger Soultaker, was a band of cultists for some kind of demon, who wanted the dagger to use in a ritual to bring the demon to the earth (or whatever the name of the planet is in D&D). Apparently the dagger had taken a sufficient number of souls to use in this ritual.

Anyway, despite not giving it to them, and despite that they never had my party imprisoned or otherwise unable to stop them, they somehow took the dagger from me anyway.

So now I see the purpose of that conspicuously empty and ominous basement under the shop I mentioned before! That's where the cultists are having their ritual. I guess they had all gone out to eat when I was investigating the place the first time. Perhaps, in an earlier design of the expansion, this was the original reason the departing shopkeeper was selling off all his wares? It probably would have made more sense, but perhaps would have distracted the player from the tasks that needed to be completed first.

So I went to the shop and had to fight another small group of cultists who confirmed their nefarious intent, then got inside and fought another small group, this time with a mage or other kind of magic user. If I had any use for plate armour at this point, I could have outfitted every single recruitable NPC I've met with all the plate I picked up from these cultists.

So then I got into the basement, and found myself in a new boss battle, with the raised demon! This demon thoroughly thrashed me, worse than any other boss fight in the game (unless I count Sarevok and his helpers). Mainly it was because he kept silencing and paralysing everyone, making it impossible to do any real DPS or heal my wounded. In this encounter, you have to kill off all of the frozen cultists first (who thankfully never move or attack), because any time the demon dies, he just takes over the body of one of the cultists and comes back with full health. The cultists had a hell of a lot of hit points on their own, though, so this took a while.

A couple of times I was lucky enough to debilitate the demon with one of my spells (maybe Emotion), but I didn't survive those times. Another nasty thing this demon does is to infect random party members with its death gaze, which perma-kills the party member and turns him/her into a hostile ghoul. You have to dispel magic on the infected characters to prevent it, and several times I didn't notice when one was infected (it's a little icon that looks like either a ghost or a snake, or a Death Eater tattoo).

I fought this battle maybe a dozen times or more, and actually won a few times (including one of the first tries), but something was wrong. There was no spoken scene at the end as there should have been, I didn't receive XP for killing the demon, and in fact the demon died too early! As mentioned above, the demon is supposed to come back to life if you kill it before killing all the cultists -- and thanks to my use of AoE spells and potions, the demon happened to die a few times even though I wasn't aiming for him, and occasionally he would simply not reappear, despite not having killed all the cultists yet. Definitely a bug. The dwarf that gave me the quest acknowledged that the demon was dead, at least, but I was still cheated out of a proper ending.

This happened every time, in fact, in the 3 or 4 times I beat it successfully (some attempts of which included the use of Cloudkill, but not all). Once I found out what was supposed to happen and after I watched a video of the ending narrative I missed, I just went through it one last time after enabling the cheats (first and only time I used them) to see if it would complete properly if I killed all the cultists first, and then the demon (first enabling cheats, then using Ctrl-Y cheat to kill the cultists, then unpause/repause to be sure, and then Ctrl-Y on the demon). Still no proper ending and no XP for the demon, so I just considered it done, talked to the dwarf, and left Ulgoth's Beard.

All in all, buggy ending aside, I found this expansion to be extremely enjoyable and in some places it was much superior to the original game. At the very least, it added several more dimensions to the BG gameplay, and more than makes up for that horrible end-game maze back in vanilla.

With the final battle with Sarevok described in the previous post, this marks the end of my play of Baldur's Gate 1.

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