Thursday, June 16, 2011

Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, part 1

I think most people interested in reading this have probably already played the game, and are just curious to see someone else experiencing it for the first time, so for the most part I'm going to leave my spoilers unhidden. But first a brief hidden list of what I already know, since I had encountered a number of spoilers myself just from reading about this game series, I know that Sarevok somehow reappears in this game (even though he crumbled to dust last time I saw him), there's some kind of betrayal to expect from Yoshimo, there's a vampire named Bodhi, Irenicus is doing something that involves stealing souls, and that a couple of characters from BG1 have died offscreen between the last game and this one.

For BG2, I imported my character from the final save of BG1, but I realised too late that I hadn't been carrying the Golden Pantaloons that I had been advised to bring along, along with a few other items that are supposed to follow you into BG2. I did find the Helm of Balduran after all, though, which Minsc had been wearing. Oh well, I'm not going to worry about the pantaloons. From what I understand, all they did was eventually give you some cheat/god gear which I wouldn't use anyway.

I did have to make some edits to my character after importing her, though. Firstly I redistributed some of my stats using Shadowkeeper (no cheating either -- I removed as many points from some stats as I added to others) so that I'd have a decent amount of wisdom for the Wish spell. But even after reading up on stats for sorcerers, I'm confused about which stats are good for the class, if any. Later D&D editions say that charisma is the main stat for sorcerers, and that intelligence and wisdom do nothing (aside from the aforementioned Wish spell). But elsewhere I've read that charisma doesn't do anything for sorcerers in BG2, so I'm left thinking that sorcerers don't actually have a stat that affects their magic ability. I also went ahead and changed my name to a more classic fantasy name (after briefly experimenting with a comedy name which appears in most of these screenshots), and also picked a different voice set -- one of the few imported from Icewind Dale that worked (the sultry one). It's still Theseus' ship, right?

Next, the portraits. As much as I liked the cartoony style of the portraits I used for BG1, they didn't exist for all characters, and there just wasn't as much variety as there are for more realistic portraits, so I decided to go all-realistic this time. I changed almost all of the portraits. You can see some of the alternate portraits I'm using in that character record screenshot, a couple of which I collaged together myself. Minsc is the only one in my current party that remains unchanged. I don't really see any reason to change it, anyway, though it could benefit from better contrast and more colour saturation to better match the other custom portraits.

Finally, mods. I'm using quite a few mods, some of which are even new companion mods. Perhaps I should have opted to play it without extra companions the first time, but I have a feeling I'll be playing this game several times through anyway, so why not? I'll still keep at least half of my party occupied by default characters, and I'm sure if I don't like some of these new NPCs, I can uninstall them, thanks to WeiDU.

So, my installed mods are: Disable Startup Movies; Widescreen Mod v2.2; BG2 Fixpack; Banter Accelerator; NPC Flirt Pack; Unfinished Business; IEP Banters; Separate Avatars for Female Dwarves; Ascension v1.41; NPC Friendships; BG2 Tweaks.

And new NPCs: Allison, Alora, Auren Aseph, Chloe, Fade, Keto, Saerileth, Sarah, and Tashia. Alora is a recreation of my favourite thief from BG1, though I should really swap her out with someone else once I find another thief, since I'm currently without Imoen.

I also started with the Imoen Romance mod, but I quickly found it to be...unwelcome in my game, and uninstalled it before I reached the end of the dungeon.

"Just like old times! Well, except for the torture and all..."

Imoen showed up to join me, just like in Baldur's Gate 1, except she's a bit more shaken and disturbed by whatever torture Irenicus was putting her through. Probably something similar to what he'd been doing to me in the first cutscene, but the narrative suggests that my character doesn't remember any of it aside from that last interrupted one. Irenicus' monologue is a bit ambiguous about how much I'd gone through, since he says at the beginning "It is time for more experiments" (emphasis mine), and yet he also seems to be discovering my untapped power and potential for the first time. Possibly when he says "more" experiments, he's talking about the experiments that he's been doing on everyone else, and this is the first time he's started working on me.

Minsc and Jaheira were in cages in the same room, and they both hailed me automatically. Some of this seems like concessions to people who may not have played the first game, with all the dialogue explaining (if you claim not to remember) that they're old adventuring friends, and what happens with Minsc. It seems that no matter what you do or say, Minsc will take it to mean you're intending to abandon him, making him angry enough to go berserk and bend the bars open just so he can strangle you. He recovers quickly, though, and comes to the conclusion that you must have intentionally made him angry so as to get him out of the cage. This is a bit of a forced "choice" on Bioware's part, and I'm not sure why they thought it was necessary. There is an option to dismiss him from the group after this, but I didn't try it to see if he would actually leave or if he would refuse.

Jaheira's cage at least required a key. She said "If you're strong enough, maybe you can break it open", but even with Minsc in the party, I couldn't find any way to attack or bash the lock as you can in Planescape: Torment, and it was one of those "unconventional locks" that Imoen can't pick. The key was easy enough to find, and I freed her and invited her into my party. I didn't run with her in the first game, but that was mostly because I didn't like Khalid. Besides, even if Khalid were with her this time, it would be cruel to just leave her in the cage, and it would be stupid to not accept her into the currently shorthanded party once she's free.

While having Imoen scout ahead for traps (just like old times, if by "old" you mean "last year"!), there was an interesting but odd encounter with a genie named Attacker -- er, sorry, Aataqah -- who greeted Imoen by name, and seemed glad to see her. Interesting that the genie spoke directly to her, and expressed disappointment that I (the main character) wasn't around to talk to. Other times I've spoken with NPCs using someone other than the main character, the dialogue simply assumes that it's the main character talking, despite the name showing as the currently controlled character -- and sometimes that character will argue against herself with interjections!

Aataqah presented us with a hypothetical variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma, but he didn't seem to like my answer. His response indicated that he assumed my choice was for some other reasons than my actual ones, which is the same problem that plagues many so-called "personality tests" online, where intent and motivation are never considered. I liked Minsc's answer better, anyway.

Name pronunciations

I now know for certain how to pronounce the character's name "Khalid", since Jaheira's voiced dialogue includes her pronouncing it "ka-LEED". So far, I do not know how the name of our adversary Irenicus' name should be pronounced, but it reminds me of the name of the theologian Irenaeus of the Classical period. His name has a number of variations in English, but I'm partial to the ones that sound like "ear-uh-NAY-us" and "eye-ruh-NAY-us".

So, based on Irenaeus' name, I will assume, until/unless I hear it pronounced later in the game, that Irenicus' name should be pronounced "eye-ruh-NYE-cus", since it's the better-sounding of the possibilities.

The dungeon in general

Aside from quickly gathering more loot than my party can carry, I don't see why anyone would want to skip this dungeon. It actually seems pretty fast to go through, with a large variety in its décor, and some parts of it are entirely skippable, as I discovered by accident when I found myself outside without having used any of those trap-disarming rods I had picked up earlier. I had to reload to explore the other path (I had thought the side passage would lead me around into a control room or something) so that I wouldn't miss any of the content. I also almost entirely missed the elemental plane of air, as its doorway was not very well-distinguished from the rest of the walls around it. I probably would have missed it if not for it being marked on the map.

The encounter with the dryads was probably the most interesting part, as it seems to shed light on what's going on with Irenicus, and included some nice character development. They say that he brought them there because he wanted them to inspire emotion in him, and that he feels something missing. They also told a little about the (heavily trapped) bedroom of a woman of whom he seems to be mourning the loss. I'm guessing he trapped the room to ensure that no one disturbs the way she left it, and not because she usually preferred sleeping in a trapped room.

I'm assuming this is the same woman who was involved in the forgotten cloning experiment, in the room full of tanks containing partial and whole clones of one specific woman. That room, like many in this dungeon, was a tantalising tease, raising interesting questions and issues that I hope are foreshadowing for what's to come. Clones, vampires, and forgotten gods feature noticeably here, as well as portal travel to other planes.

I might even wonder if there was some significance to the library scene, where Imoen commented on the "dusty old tomes all over, bookcases nearly spilling..." Nearly? Books were piled up in, on, and around the bookcases, but strangely, the single desk in the room had nothing on it at all.

Earlier, I had found the room of tanks that were keeping some people alive, though most seem to have gone insane from the extended isolation. The one in the other room, Rielev, who could actually hear me and respond was the most effective in creating pity, and this is helped greatly by the voicing. He was a former servant of Irenicus, and Irenicus had been trying to find a way to cure whatever was killing him (or had killed him), and restore his youth, planning to give him immortality as a reward for his service, and keeping him alive in a tank in the meantime. But, like everyone else in that area, he had been forgotten, and was slowly going insane over an unknown number of years.

"Master! I no longer wish to come back! Let me slip into the oblivion that has been denied me! Please!"

Jaheira preached unwelcomely about how wrong and "unnatural" it is to try to preserve life, and unfortunately there was no "Shut up, Jaheira!" option. No one would want to keep enduring the situation he was in, but the problem was not that he was being kept alive; it was that he was being kept trapped in a small prison with no contact with other people. What if his tank could have been moved to the dryads' room? There, he at least would have had the company of three sympathetic creatures for as long as they were all trapped there. Regrettably, there seemed no obvious way for him to survive outside of the tank or to be moved, so death seemed to be the only option I was able to give him.

Doppelgangers again

Well, only one this time. A fat old man was imprisoned in a cell with glass windows instead of bars, and I went ahead and freed him, though I did think it was rather strange that his cell was outfitted with so much furniture, and containers that held pretty good weapons and gear. He insisted on tagging along with us to find the exit together, and I kept an eye on him.

I don't know if it was coincidental or intentionally scripted, but it turned out that he decided to drop his disguise and declare our stupidity at having fallen for his ruse at the same moment as the party encountered a group of hostile dwarves, but it worked out pretty well that it happened at that time. Jaheira had recently leveled up, and so I had just been reviewing her druid spells, and noted that she had a "charm person or mammal" spell memorised. I wasn't sure what a doppelganger qualified as (their hissing and their disdain for simians like us seems to suggest something vaguely reptilian), but I tried it out anyway.

It worked, and he was charmed, so I sent him into the group of dwarves to soften them up for a little while, before throwing a skull trap into the group, and cleaning up the weakened stragglers after that.

A nasty surprise on exiting the dungeon

So, my heavily-laden party finally emerged from Irenicus' dungeon, looking forward to selling off all the junk gear we could carry in the nearest town and to stock up on necessities. It actually took a lot less time than I was expecting, considering people have apparently found it too bothersome to keep running through on replays, judging from the existence of a popular mod that skips that part of the game. I was really expecting something more akin to the Circle Tower segment of Dragon Age: Origins, which I loved, but which was very long.

Anyway, in a scripted sequence, where my party is unable to act while events unfold, we see Irenicus fighting off the last of the invaders, and then he greets us before Imoen throws a magic missile at him. He responds with another spell (much less lethal than the ones he had just been using on the invaders), and then the bloody Ministry of Magic shows up and says they're both expelled from Hogwarts for their unauthorised use of magic!

So the result is that they took Imoen away to lock her and Irenicus up in Azkaban. I've lost one of my favourite characters, and I don't know how long it'll take to get her back. I hate that kind of plot twist! They did exactly the same thing in Planescape: Torment with Morte! Taking away a character from the party with me frozen in place unable to do anything but watch it happen.

Looking around, I found that we had actually emerged from the dungeon inside a major city. So...all this torture and hideous, Mengele-style experimentation was happening right under a busy marketplace? I'll have to see if they explain later how this had all been going on under the noses of the Cowled Wizards all these years.

So after selling off all the unnecessary loot in the many shops on Waukeen's Promenade (who all seem to sell nothing but weapons, armour, ammo, and other adventurer-centric items -- even the one in the fruit shop!), I learned that I could obtain a license to cast spells in the city if I go to the government district. As a sorcerer, I don't want to run into the same kind of trouble Imoen got into before I can rescue her. Strangely enough, I had actually cast Identify on a couple of items, and no one got angry. Maybe that one's not flashy enough to notice.

There seemed to be one major thing to do in that location other than buy/sell gear and rest up, and that was to investigate the trouble in the circus tent. And that's for another post.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Planescape: Torment trouble

Although Planescape: Torment posts will continue up to a point, I'm afraid I'll be unable to finish the game, due to crashes that I can't solve. It consistently crashes when I attempt to leave the main hall of the Fortress of Regrets through the portal that should take me to the Trial of Impulse.

An Assertion failed in C:\Torment\Source\chitin\ChDimm.cpp at line number 787

The game is not installed to C:\Torment, and there is no Source folder in the actual game directory. I see no reference to C:\Torment in the torment.ini file, where it's set up as:

HD0:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\
CD1:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\DATA\
CD2:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\DATA\
CD3:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\DATA\
CD4:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\DATA\
CD5:=c:\games\Planescape Torment\DATA\

Since this is the GOG version, and not a CD version, all the files were installed on the hard drive automatically. I tried going back to an earlier save, and it failed at the same place: the portal to the Trial of Impulse.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, part 2

Having played now for several days, I can say that once you get used to the interface and general mechanics, and allow for certain quirks, Arcanum is a very rewarding and fun game. I decided to take my time getting to Tarant, where Virgil says to go to advance the main quest, and went instead to Dernholm, since the map said it was a feudal kingdom. As a mage, I thought it would be a better place to start than Tarant, since I expect that a large city like Tarant would be more modern and probably tech-oriented, and I was hoping to pick up another companion besides Virgil. There had been a half-orc back in Shrouded Hills (which has a cowboy frontier town feel to it) that gave me a "maybe", but apparently my charisma isn't high enough to hire him. With as many social stats as this game has, alongside the other items to spend character points on, it'll probably be a while before I have it high enough. This game has not only a Charisma stat but also a Beauty stat, as well as a Persuasion skill, plus others for specific situations like haggling with merchants.

Alas, I found no companion in Dernholm either, since the only apparently recruitable NPCs there were a tech-inclined healer who would not join me (since herbalism and pharmaceuticals are considered "technology" in this game) and a shady individual that Virgil advised against (probably evil). The town itself was a disappointment as well, being very small, ugly, and full of rundown, abandoned shacks, despite being called the capital of Cumbria. It seemed to have no particular magical leanings, aside from the king banning technology, which some of the citizens cite as the reason for its decline. I followed up on a couple of quests anyway, including talking to Sarah Toone about the ghost of her mother haunting the Toone mine, and picking up a package for the alchemist in Shrouded Hills.

Dernholm led me to another town called Black Root (which is also spelled "Blackroot" in another listing in my quest log), where I was sent by the king of Dernholm to investigate why he hadn't heard anything from them for a long time, and to try to collect their back taxes. I was rather expecting that the place would be even worse off than Dernholm, and perhaps a ghost town, or a smoking crater of some kind, which would be one possible reason why there had been no communication with their king.

In actuality, they were doing just fine, and it was the best looking town yet -- clean and modern, with a seaport. They had defected from the technology-fearing king and formed an alliance with the thriving city of Tarant, which had thrust them into the modern age. It had a train station, as well! Now I could travel a great distance without the random monster and assassin encounters from walking overland (though the cashier asked me a list of questions about my magic ability and lineage which determined that I had to ride in the mages' caboose, so as not to damage the steam engine).

This is one of the advantages Arcanum has over the Infinity Engine games, by the way: you can travel anywhere without needing locations to be revealed to you or unlocked in any way. You can even manually travel anywhere overland without the use of auto-travel on your map if you really want to. Either way, if you happen to pass near a point of interest during your travels, that location will be added to your map. In fact, the map has a coordinate system, and I've recently heard a rumour in town that there's something of interest at a particular coordinate where I haven't yet been: 617W 528S. I'll be checking out that area whenever I go up that far north, as it's a bit out of the way of anything else I've discovered yet.

There were a few quests in this town, but I was eager to try the train. It only had two available destinations: Tarant and Ashbury. I had no idea where Ashbury was, since I hadn't noticed it on the PDF map that came with the game, so I thought it would be a good idea to travel there and get it on my in-game map. And that's how I ended up on the other side of the continent pretty much fresh out of Shrouded Hills.

Party wrangling and combat in Ashbury Heights

This was another modern-looking town, which I learned was all the way on the east coast, and it looked from the flora to be tropical or subtropical. It also had a bit of a magical feel to it with all the will-o'-the-wisps floating around town, called "love lights". I talked to several people in town, but I never got an option to ask about those lights.

I tried a little diplomacy quest from the mayor to try to settle a town council dispute about building a monument, but failed it, apparently due to insufficient stats in persuasion, or perhaps willpower or intelligence. I reloaded and decided to save that one for later, after I've leveled up those stats a bit or obtained an appropriate potion.

Meanwhile, a haughty and somewhat evil-leaning man was loitering by the cemetery gates, and I decided to investigate the zombie infestation the cemetery was having. I figured if he seemed dangerous I could deal with him later, so I accepted his quest to find an artifact buried with a dead sorcerer that was apparently animating all the bodies. I was also prepared to leave if I found the undercroft to be impossible for me at this level, like the town council one was. I was still level 7, and I only had Virgil with me, but I was also able to summon an orcish champion or two, and I had plenty of molotov cocktails.

Mostly there were just low-level zombies in there, but there were a lot of them, and I ended up having to go upstairs several times to rest and heal. This is also where I had to learn how to wrangle my companions, because unlike the other games I've been playing, in this one you can't control the actions of your companions. They are extremely stupid, much like Oblivion allies, in charging ahead to attack things as soon as they notice them, which is often into a whole group of enemies that would have been better pulled a few at a time. They also won't flee when they get hurt, and Virgil is very inconsistent about choosing when to heal himself or others. In Baldur's Gate, party members will flee if it comes down to it, and I can directly tell them to drink a health potion or tell a healer to heal them at any time. Here, I'm relying on Virgil to do the party healing, so I don't have any healing spells or skills myself.

This led to numerous deaths, before I got the hang of pulling enemies in turn-based mode, and this is what made the difference between the game having extremely irritating combat and a smooth and even enjoyable combat experience.

My tactic begins with hitting R (toggle combat) immediately after I make my first ranged strike against the enemy I want to pull away from their group -- the one who will aggro as few others as possible. Turn-based combat mode won't normally automatically activate until the attacking enemies close to mêlée range, during which time my party members are idiotically charging into the fray in realtime and screwing everything up. Forcing turn-based combat mode immediately means I can make my pulling strike, then use the rest of my turn to retreat a bit. It's not much, but the important thing is that my party members are frozen in place while this is happening, because it won't be their turns until the enemies have had theirs. So the small number of enemies that I pull come chasing after me, and usually don't get close enough to hit me before their turns are over. Only then do my party members get their turns to attack them, all nice and far away from the group, and they don't aggro the whole dungeon.

After the cemetery, I found an unconscious dog being beaten to death by a halfling gnome. I had actually seen this dog lying dead when I was doing the mayor's quest earlier, but my reload must have gone back to before the gnome started beating it. I thought it was a halfling at first, because he was going to kill the dog for eating a large, expensive dinner he had planned, but it was apparently a gnome, and I'm not sure if Arcanum halflings are gourmands anyway.

So I saved the dog, and found him to be a very useful ally. I wish I'd found him before doing that cemetery quest.

After that, I went back to Black Root to follow up on the quests there, which were probably more appropriate for my level.

Gambling and trivia

While exploring the services and facilities of Black Root, I met a woman in The Sour Barnacle tavern who challenged me to answer a trivia question for a wager of 500 coins, which was a rather significant sum for my character at that point. I had the option of making a counter-offer for a game of dice, as well, but as a character that favours the intelligence-related stats, I accepted her offer as it was stated. She then proceeded to ask me "What is the ancestral home of the elves?" Heh... Did she not notice that I am an elf? Almost everyone else in this town seems to notice, saying things like "What do you want, elf?"

Now, unlike Planescape: Torment, I was not actually told the answer by the game based on my character stats. I'm of two minds about that sort of thing, but I'm leaning toward it being a good thing when it comes to trivia, even though I as a player may or may not know what my character actually should or shouldn't know. In this case, I happened to know the answer, or know it well enough to recognise the correct answer as it was presented in the list of response options: Qintarra (also spelled "Quintarra" in other parts of the game). I knew it because I read that part of the manual (Appendix 2) that detailed the history and background information of the Arcanum races, and especially the section on elves, since that's the race I had chosen to play.

She only offered the one question, and thereafter gave only a general greeting. Out of curiosity, I reloaded to see what would happen, and this time she asked me which race is most industrially influential. Again, this was information that was in Appendix 2, so I guess the question is randomly picked from a list for each game, as a little reward for having read the lore.

For a lot of NPCs, you're given the option to role-play various levels of politeness or rudeness, whether in requesting/demanding a drink from the bartenders or bearing an insult stoically versus responding in kind. Your responses have some immediate effects on the NPC's reaction to you, visible numerically.

On the docks, there were dock workers who offered to play dice for money. It seemed to be a "craps" type of game. I don't know the rules of the real game, but I know that there is a special significance to rolling sevens and snake-eyes, and those featured in this game as well. Gambling is one of the non-aligned skills, and I have one point put in it (out of a maximum of 5). I won the first time, but didn't have much luck after that.

Magic items

Any magic items found as loot must be magically identified, and the spell to do that yourself is at the bottom of the Divination tree, the rest of which look absolutely useless. You can buy scrolls for it, but that only works once, and they're expensive. So the only real thing I've found to do is to find a gypsy wise woman to identify it for me, for 100 coins. There are gypsies set up on the outskirts of several towns, including Shrouded Hills and Tarant, but I haven't been able to find them in some other places.

No one explained anywhere what a "scroll of exiting" is. Most scrolls give a one-line description in-game of what the spell does, but these scrolls just have a blank line where the description should be. A text-search in the manual doesn't show any description either. Either it's supposed to just be self-explanatory, or that name was also used in some previous games and was well-known in some circles. No one seemed to state exactly what it was for in forums online, either, but I did find some people referring to it, and the context made it evident that they're used to teleport you out of dungeons.

Leveling pleasure

The more I play this game, the more fun it becomes.

Leveling up is a pleasant process. It seems to come more often than in other games, which is perhaps a way to balance the fact that you get only a single point per level to invest in its hundreds of possible stat and skill areas. It forces me to plan out what I want to accomplish with my character, and which skills I want to prioritise. I ended up writing a list to consult when I gain a level. Playing a part in my decisions is whether I expect to be in town for a while, or if I'll be out adventuring for a while. If in town, then I put the points into the social areas I want to improve, such as charisma, persuasion, and haggling. If I'll be adventuring, then I put them into the spell trees I want to unlock, or into the willpower necessary to do so. This judicious parceling out of points makes a new level feel like more of a reward and something to look forward to, and not something to be avoided, such as in games that raise the levels of enemies along with yours. So far it doesn't seem like Arcanum does that, because I've encountered level 30 enemies already, before level 10.

The level-up sound effect isn't very good, though. For many levels, I didn't even know that's what I was hearing, since it's so short and sounds like it could be just another impact or spell sound from combat, and because there's no accompanying visual indicator other than a message in the message area that tends to immediately get hidden by the other text that shares that space. I replaced the sound with the WoW level-up "whoosh" sound effect for better recognition. It looks like any .wav file works if you name it "level_up.wav" and place it in Arcanum\data\sound.

Speaking of lists, I've been finding it useful to take actual notes on certain information, in this and in other games, and I recently decided to unclutter my desk of all the small loose notes and printed maps and reference cards from all these games, and put them all together in a binder with some filler paper for taking notes and graph paper for drawings. (The hard-level modron maze of Planescape: Torment was the first map I've needed to draw out by hand here, so as not to get lost.)

Another pleasant surprise -- you can summon multiple minions! You can even summon several of the same kind! This summoning is a sustained effect, though, so aside from the cost of casting the spell in the first place, it also constantly drains some of your "mana" (actually stamina, but you know). Mana regenerates, though, so it's possible to strike a balance such that it keeps your mana stable if your regeneration rate is fast enough to keep up with it. Alternatively, you can just temporarily summon as many as you need, and unsummon some of them when your mana gets dangerously low.

More to come!