Friday, November 11, 2011

Neverwinter Nights 1: Wyvern Crown of Cormyr

This premium module was not included with the GOG package for Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition, and in fact was one of the ones that are no longer for sale, but Bioware seems to be making them available for download from a prominent stickied post on their forum, which downloads the installers from Bioware itself, so I seem to be in luck in that regard.

The basic premise of this module is that you, your sibling, and a friend are forced from your land by a terrible raid, and you travel to the town of Thunderstone in the Kingdom of Cormyr, your landlord's seat of power, where you can seek revenge, justice, or perhaps just a fresh start on life.

This one has a more serious tone than Kingmaker, but has strengths in other areas. The quest log has quite a bit of useful information that your character should know in the form of open quests, and certain dialogue gives the option to copy non-quest-related information into the quest log as well, acting as a kind of codex in that regard. XP seems to flow a bit more freely, in the form of rewards not only for quests, but for successful use of skills -- even persuasion. (Makes me glad I invested a good number of points into persuasion at the start of the game.) It also rewards you with XP for making decisions in conversations that the writers judged to be in harmony with your chosen character alignment. I don't know if any XP is taken away for playing against your alignment or not, but the module description does mention that some XP is taken away for any automatic resurrections.

The description of the module said it favoured martial players, so instead of my first choice of playing a magic user, I went with my second choice of a rogue. I decided to work toward the Shadow Dancer prestige class on this one, and I think I'll be able to pick that class on my first earned level-up. The game starts by granting you 4 or 5 levels, and I got all the skill points and feats to satisfy the Shadow Dancer requirements with the last of those freebie levels.

I started writing this post while I was playing it, but now I've finished the module, so I'm going to give a general overview of it, including its pluses and minuses.

Early part

There were a lot of crafting components lying around in this module. I had no recipe books, so I didn't know what they were for, and whether I should have been carrying them around or not. I also didn't know where it would be safe to store them, since each place I'd been to became inaccessible once I left, and most vendors wouldn't buy them. Thunderstone turned out to be the "home base" town, though, and ultimately I was given a bedroom with storage chests as a reward for progressing in the plot. I eventually dumped all the crafting components once I found someone who would buy them, since the only crafting seemed to be at the one smith in town who could only use very specific items.

Death in this module is handled very much like in NWN2. If your companions die, they come back to life once you've finished fighting (assuming you survive). If you die, as long as at least one of your companions is still alive, you can choose to "respawn", with the understanding that your companion(s) managed to drag you to safety after you "died". A "fall back" or "retreat" command would be very useful to have, or even a "heal yourself" in addition to the "heal me" that the game provides. There is a "flee" command in the voice chat menu, but it appears to be just for talking to other people in multiplayer, because AI companions ignore it completely.

On getting to the town of Thunderstone in Cormyr, it became evident that when they said that the module is aimed at "martial characters," they meant knights. This mod is heavy on the romanticised notion of a chivalric order. I personally don't care for knights, but my taste is strongly coloured by having read medieval French chivalric literature. Even though I shouldn't be dragging Earth history into a non-Earth fantasy world, the module authors made that difficult to avoid by including real-world technical terminology in their jousting matches. Thankfully, the jousting was only a brief hoop that needed to be jumped through to advance the plot, and get on to more of the engaging and interesting content.

There's a bug that manifested to me shortly after I met the satyrs in the forest. When speaking to my companions, an option appeared allowing me to level them up. I had thought that the companions would just automatically level up as I did, but since this option appeared, it looked like I'd have to do it manually. So I chose it, but the option didn't go away. I thought maybe the companions had enough experience points accumulated to level up several times, like perhaps they had never gained a level since the beginning, so I chose the option several times, until it became clear that it was just going to let me keep adding levels forever. When I checked their character sheets, and compared them to mine, it was completely unbalanced, with me being level 4, and my companions being level 17. I suppose this might be a debugging feature meant to make it easy to get through all the combat, but that would take away a lot of the fun for me, so I had to reload a previous save to undo the damage. The option went away after I leveled up once more myself, but it periodically returned throughout the rest of the game.

I also ran into a bug that crashed the game, when investigating the first barrow. Opening one of the doors spawned some enemies, but when it did I was frozen in place at the door, unable to move, while my companions fought. After the battle ended, the door closed, and the game crashed.

The module seems to encourage swapping out party members and experimenting with different classes. At first my only options were a fighter and a fighter/cleric (and myself). Later, a sorceress offered to join, but the party is considered "full" at only two companions in this module, so I kicked out the cleric. Later, a paladin offered to join, and shortly thereafter a noble's bored daughter offered her services as a rogue. I'm a rogue myself, so I decided on the paladin and the sorceress at this point.

The paladin has cast "turn undead" many times during my play, and it actually works when he does it. I never see any results when I try to cast it myself in NWN2 or the Infinity Engine games. When he casts it, several undead creatures run away with little flaming skulls surrounding them, which looks like what casting "fear" on someone would look like, (though it doesn't make much sense to show a skeleton running away from skulls). I wish I had more control over that aspect of his casting, though, because it mostly just made it more difficult to fight certain mobs as a rogue. As a caster it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

Later part

The module was much longer than I was expecting. I didn't expect it would take me two weeks to get through it. If I had followed just the main quest plotline, perhaps I could have gotten through it in half that time, but then I might not have been at a high enough level to finish it with so much fewer experience points. Of course, my purpose for playing this wasn't just to get through it, but to enjoy as much of the content as possible.

I was dubbed a knight, which is little surprise considering the theme of this module, but I have to say this module does a better job of it than the knighting ceremony in NWN2's OC. The one in Wyvern Crown has an actual animation of Sir Hawklin tapping the sword on my character's shoulders, and the one in NWN2 didn't.

I thought Polter's Fort was going to be the last area of the game, since the module would have been a good length at that point, and the fort was large and full of interesting gameplay (in truth, I was only about 75% finished after that place). Particularly enjoyable in this location was the ancient elven tomb that doubled as a lair for a clan of vampires! I had never fought vampires quite like these before, though they seemed more or less the same as the vampires in Baldur's Gate 2. These vampires regenerate quickly, meaning you have to hit them hard and often to kill them, but that's not the end of it. Upon reaching 0 hit points, these vampires change into a gaseous form and flee. Now, that happened in BG2 as well, but I never saw them again after they did that. In this case, the vampires returned shortly thereafter at full health!

That was when I remembered a clue given by a prisoner elsewhere in this fort, who spoke in rhyme about creatures who would "never go away" unless I "destroyed their beds". It was a bit difficult, but I managed to destroy the stone slabs while my companions kept most of the vampires occupied, but I did end up having to die and respawn a few times to do it. After destroying the slabs, the vampires stopped returning. There are other puzzle-type challenges of this sort throughout the module, and they're very welcome.

One thing I think a player should know up front when playing this module is that the special magic weapons that you can reforge over the course of your play should probably be reserved for later. It wasn't clear to me that having more broken weapons meant the weapon would have a stronger enchantment. I thought that the crafting component that you supply along with the broken pieces was the only source of enchantment, and that using more weapon pieces was only for making larger weapons (like a greataxe as opposed to a dagger). In actuality, using one broken weapon gives you a +1 reforged weapon, using two gives you a +2, and so on, and there are only 4 of these broken weapons to be found in the game.

Beware the air sharks

There was an underwater section of this game, which I certainly wasn't expecting. It contained mako sharks and some sahuagin (humanoid amphibian monsters that I first encountered in D&D Online). It functioned as a kind of "locked door", because I couldn't progress until I had found the "keys" as it were, which were in the form of diving helmets. One such helmet was right there in front of the area, but I had to find two more to give to my companions, otherwise they would quickly drown. At first, though, I thought its function was as a "gear check", to make sure I could survive an upcoming challenge by making me send my companions back to town to wait for me, and testing my ability to survive the area solo. Alas, I found it extremely difficult to beat the first two sharks, even one at a time, and when I saw the big group of sahuagin, I knew it would be hopeless, so I decided to come back later. This is also where I found that the sharks would pursue me back up to the surface, and fly through the air chasing me.

I found the second diving helmet later in a completely different area, and so I knew there would have to be a third eventually. When I got that, I was able to go back and clean the place up. I'm just pleasantly surprised that they had an underwater area. I don't know if the vanilla game had anything like that, but I'm going to assume it didn't.

The bad

I've been reading a lot about the difficulties and disappointments this mod team went through during the course of their development on this and other materials for NWN, and they have my sympathies, as do the other teams who were affected by the mishandling of the premium module program. This module is, on the whole, a very good one, but I must say that I do have some critiques of certain elements that impeded my enjoyment.

I'll start with a minor nitpick. There was one place, late in the game, where having an alcoholic beverage to offer an NPC would open up a dialogue option. Never having such a thing come up before, I unsurprisingly didn't have one. So, because I wanted to find out what he had to say, I had to ride back to Thunderstone to buy some. On leaving the area, I was given the option (as you usually are in this module) to travel back to town either with or without stopping to rest at inns, which costs a bit of money but makes you arrive rested and lessens the chance of random encounters. Just one thing about that -- I was told that I was stopping at inns. An inn is exactly where I needed to go, to buy a bloody drink, but my options didn't include anything logical, like the option to just buy one automatically in the dialogue and come back. I would have thought that the designers should understand that there's no in-game reason for a player to happen to have some alcohol on hand at this stage, and would make some kind of contingency for what the next logical step would be (that being going to get some).

This leads to the problem with the horses. So I got back to Thunderstone, rode to the nearest inn, hitched the horses, went inside, and bought 4 drinks: one of each type, just in case he had a preference, and just in case it wouldn't work unless my party and I also had drinks, to share with him a toast. Exit, unhitch horses (one at a time), mount each party member (one at a time, waiting for the animation to finish each time), return to location, resting at inns all along the way.

At this point I was coming to the conclusion that when you factor in the amount of time it takes to mount and dismount your party and deal with the hitching and unhitching, there is no speed advantage at all in using horses, and may even take longer to get places with that factored in. Pathfinding with these horses also seemed much more clumsy and difficult than walking on foot, regardless of whether I used click-to-move, click-and-hold-direction, or keyboard control, which made the narrow winding pathways on the seaside cliffs and in one of the denser forest parts into an infuriating exercise that had me expressing my frustration vocally. I actually grew to hate the horses, and the fact that there are several places in the game that require the use of horses to get through. I never want to play another NWN module that requires the use of horses again, if there are any. The one good thing about them, in my opinion, is that they provide extra packs in which to carry loot.

Horses aside, there were combat issues which may have been just problems with the engine, and nothing specific to this mod. I ran into many times during fights when Edgar would just stand around right next to me for several turns doing nothing, while I was getting hacked to death by a group of enemies, and would ignore my commands reminding him to "attack nearest" until suddenly several turns later he'd wake up and remember to do his job. Other times he would "forget" to follow me out of a room, leaving me fighting in mélêe alone (with Lacinda casting from behind, as per her job description). Lacinda largely didn't have any trouble following orders like Edgar did.

Then again, Edgar didn't seem to like Lacinda, because when I would tell Edgar I needed him to use his "lay on hands" ability to heal someone, the only options were to heal himself or heal me. He acted like there was no one else in the group. Previously, her name was in the list, and he had healed her successfully, but something seems to have happened. Possibly during one of the many times Lacinda died in battle because there is no "flee" or "fall back" command for the companions.

There were certain quests that lacked options that logically should have been there, given the characters that were available and what their roles were, and certain avenues were closed off to me because I didn't approach them in the way that the producers expected me to, but which would have made just as much sense as their expected paths.

The endgame was exceptionally tedious and irritating to get through, beginning from the point at which you must launch an assault on the Barrow of the Wyvern Crown (though as implemented here it's more of a defensive battle than an assault). You play as the general of a small army of troops, assembled to hold off oncoming hostile forces, directing the troop placement and distributing any extra equipment you might have on hand to better equip them, in advance of the fight to come. You get to determine when the battle begins, and then you can command the troops to either attack or fall back.

It was a novel gameplay mechanic, and I don't fault their execution of it. It's just that I'm playing a party-based RPG, and changing the gameplay style to large-scale combat against waves of enemies (a mechanic I particularly hate) with no opportunity to rest made that part of the game very unpleasant, and a chore to get through.

Then, we got to the barrow. The barrow was beautifully designed. I loved the look of it. More roleplaying choices were given here, which was nice, and then it was time for the penultimate task: fighting golems to get their hearts, which were the keys to raise the bridge to get the crown.

Fighting the golems was worse than the military assault, even though it was back to the style of gameplay I'd been enjoying the rest of the time. Even using the special golem-bashing mace I was given, and outfitting my two companions with the best crushing weapons I had, the fights were excruciatingly lengthy, due to near-constant "missing". The golem missed a lot as well, but not as often, and it hit us for a lot more damage. I didn't have any items with me that could increase our hit chance, and I don't think going back to town to pick up some potions or scrolls was an option at this point. I had to deal with party member and self death many times just to get through one golem, and it took at least half an hour.

I hoped the second golem would be easier than the first, but it was harder, because it was a ruby golem, which regenerated its health faster than my party could deal it! I made a good faith effort with this one, but ultimately enough was enough, and I cheated for the first time in this module, and killed it with the developer console. It's possible that a more min-maxed character with foreknowledge of what kind of weapons to bring to the final section might have had an easier time with this part.

The third (and last) golem was easier, and I defeated it normally (only somewhat faster than the first one).

The ultimate fight with the module's villain was significantly easier than the golems (justified in that he was presumably weakened from the earlier fight with the army), and I was treated to a little cutscene showing the aftermath, and some text revealing my score, which was based on how well I played my alignment.

Ending on a high note

The module is packed with high quality content, which might not be evident from my writing here, because I went into a lot more detail about the things that bothered me and the reasons for that.

What I read in the producer's background information indicated that most of the tilesets (or possibly all of them) were original to this module. I can't say, because I'm too new to this game to be able to distinguish what was original from what wasn't. I do know from a developer's comments that castles were featured so heavily in the module in order to showcase their new castle tilesets and resources.

The plot had some interesting twists and turns, and many opportunities to make decisions with consequences, and alternate ways of approaching situations (both toward the extremes of personality as well as multiple neutral options). There was honour and reputation to be won, and there were betrayals, grudges, and insults, and opportunities for several kinds of comeuppance. In one case, I remain unsure whether I had made the right decision in bringing one character in on treasonous charges based on a letter she had allegedly written, since she steadfastly maintained her innocence. The crown officer assured me that her trial would be fair, however, and that a powerful wizard would determine her guilt or innocence through divination. But there are other aspects of the circumstances that could make even that suspect. I think they did a good job with the ambiguity in that case, and I expect it would have been addressed if there had been a sequel.

I mentioned earlier that the module was abundantly supplied with side quests. These were varied and interesting, and were generally of the same high quality as the main quest. Unlike in Kingmaker, the side quests generally didn't involve dungeon crawls (though that wasn't a bad thing in Kingmaker), as those seemed to be reserved for the main quest. Instead, there was a lot of investigation and exploration. I wasn't able to get the ideal results out of all of them, but I accepted that and moved on. It's better, I think, than leaving a conversation node active for a player to try using a skill check over and over until succeeding. As long as it doesn't cut off a significant portion of gameplay on a bad skill check roll, I think it's preferable.

There were numerous mini-games that provided the opportunity to wager money. At one of the taverns you can play darts. At the tournament grounds you can play archery competitions, martial competitions, and magic competitions. Then of course there's the jousting (though that doesn't involve money), which the developers described as a kind of rock-paper-scissors game, where your input is restricted to where you want to aim your lance and how you want to position your defense.

The horses may have handled badly and took too long to mount/dismount, but they were better than the horses in Oblivion, mostly because you could fight without dismounting. And they looked good.

I liked how they made the town NPCs seem more alive by giving them random vocal barks. Some of them were the same barks you hear if you click on any random NPC, while others spoke their "yes" or "no" lines, and so on. There were also a good number of unique-looking and very appealingly-designed areas. Even though I went back to playing NWN2 after finishing this module, just going through these screenshots to decide which ones to include in this post reminds me that both games are full of worthwhile content to enjoy.

There's a lot to love in this module, and it's well worth playing. Its scope and quality put it on equal ground with full-length games.

No comments:

Post a Comment