Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Neverwinter Nights 2: Dark Waters, chapter 1

A few days ago, I started playing Dark Waters, a module in 3 chapters for Neverwinter Nights 2 by Adam Miller. It was one of the ones that has been in my priority queue since I started playing NWN2 and heard much about it, but I chose now to play it because I'm planning to have some ocean material in my own upcoming module, and I wanted to make sure I wasn't unknowingly rehashing old ground.

"Set sail on the high seas for this grand piratey adventure. From humor to horror this epic story spans dozens of islands, contains new powers and weapons, and countless voice actors. Grab your flintlock and raise your Jolly Roger today!"

--description of Dark Waters on its download page

Even before I got started, though, I had read an interview with Adam Miller, and he said that the nautical theme doesn't really show up until after the first chapter. Still, I expected there would be some in the first chapter, considering the title and the above description. Unfortunately, the entire first chapter (aside from the intro and the flashbacks) took place inside a mountain "clanhome", which seems to be the kind of undermountain city I tend to associate with dwarves, and tells the story of some youths growing up in a tiny village in the aftermath of some kind of war between the psionically "Gifted" and the "Normals" -- a war that left the world's ocean level permanently risen, with only the mountains remaining, as islands in the global ocean.

Following are my thoughts that I wrote out as I was playing through the module, with all the ups and downs and changes of opinion left intact.

The beginning

So far this is the most unconventional module I've played yet. It appears to be told in an omniscient narrative, because the point of view is constantly changing. I've barely had 5 minutes of free roaming gameplay, with the rest made up of jumping around into different characters' heads and roleplaying their parts in conversations. And just when I thought it had basically settled into a cast of characters, I was suddenly sent into a dream vision, in which I took the role of yet another character in another group of strangers!


Roleplaying one of my companions' parts

Once my party of three got into the mysterious sealed complex, though, everything got much more interesting. The story seems to have stablised, as well. No more jumping around from character to character. Now, the backstory is unfolding gradually through notes and museum plaques, and I'm being introduced to some of the interesting features of this module. First is the gem socket system, which I think is a substitute for the enchanting/crafting system in the vanilla game. The other is a nice little achievement tracking panel which displays various accomplishments and statistics.

The banter between the characters is also fun, and well-written. It's not only well-written in terms of believable and enjoyable dialogue, but it has proper spelling and punctuation, as well!

Throughout the module, you can also have chats with your companions. They have different things to say as the story progresses.

Beginning forgiven

Once the story progressed to the "war" flashback, the purpose of the flashbacks became clear. This is a kind of reincarnation story. It's a good one, too. I can forgive the rocky start now, though it would have benefited mightily from better pacing in that area. We players should have been given more time to play as this set of characters to ground us before introducing the flashbacks.

There was a "ghost" level, which reminded me of some of the good parts in Thief: Deadly Shadows (notably the note from Widow Moira, and the ghost of Laurel). It loses some points, however, for being dark. There were no lights, and it was a very large level with a lot of running around without my companions. My candle, when I tried equipping it, cast no light. I don't know if it was burnt out from all the use in the previous level where it did work, or if there was something specific to this level that was preventing it from working, but it was annoying. It is my position that function must take precedence over form when it comes to playing a game. That means being able to see, even if in the real world, a place would be pitch black.

It's possible that the game expects me to be able to use one of the two Gems of the Morning to provide light, since that is one of their properties, but that property only works on weapons, and as a druid, I had not yet found any weapons with gem sockets that I was capable of wielding. (I found a socketed dagger after this part.) Fortunately, as a druid, I did have the light cantrip, and resting was permitted, so I was able to keep casting that spell, and resting every time I ran out of uses.

Eventually, I was reunited with the party, power was restored, and I found two weapons that various party members could use to generate light. When it rains, it pours.

I think these levels could have been a lot smaller. As it stands, it felt a bit artificially padded out due to the size of the maps compared to the running speed. I noticed many rooms were very sparsely furnished, and occasionally completely unfurnished. Exploration seems to have been the intended design of this place, and a reduction in scale would have made that exploration more enjoyable.

Puzzles

Scattered throughout this module are unique gameplay elements, especially in the puzzles, though some others seem to have been included just as novelties, with no clear purpose in the game itself (such as the magic hockey game). One of the puzzles made no sense to me (the one needed to turn on the fan), but an alternative was kindly provided to bypass it.

Another of the puzzles was frustratingly designed -- the combination lock based on a girl's birthday. First of all, it was unclear which date-writing format the author was using (was the year at the beginning, or at the end?) I couldn't tell, since the numbers were 1 and 2 digits, and I have no idea in what year system this story was supposed to be set anyway. It was especially frustrating, since one of the numbers was a single digit on one side, but it expected a leading zero on the other part of the answer. I conclude that puzzles are quite a risk to include in a module, since the potential frustrations are rather high compared to the potential player delight. I don't think I'll include any puzzles in my module.

I did like the crafting of molotov cocktails, though.

Puzzles again

Well, once again this module has made me change my mind. It turns out that the next level was almost all puzzles, and it was the most fun section yet. The choice of music contributed to the sense of fun, as well.

The party was greeted at the stairs by a phantom academy proctor, who explained that he (and the ghost girl from the previous level) were bound to the earth as ghosts by the main character's prior incarnation, as a favour. At the base of the stairs was also a dead body carrying a gem that acted as an academic record, presenting me with the goals for the level -- pass a series of exams. Now, why my character would hang around playing these mini-games and working on the exams was a question I couldn't answer. I just assumed it was a prerequisite for advancing through the game. I eventually learned that I was correct, but I didn't get that confirmation until after I had finished all of the exams and made my way toward the exit. I think the proctor should have made some reference to the exit being off-limits to anyone who hadn't passed the exams when he appeared at the beginning of the level.

This was also the first level outside of the flashback sequences that had any substantial combat. A good thing, too, since combat is rather tedious at level 1, and the party had just reached level 2 before this section of the game. As has been the case throughout, gear continued to be slowly doled out, until most of us were comfortably outfitted. I'm glad to say that the combat was provided in small, manageable chunks between going from mini-game to mini-game.

Some of these mini-games were fun in their own right, like the dice game, and I wanted to play them more than once, but the proctor usually told me that I didn't need to do it again since I'd already passed. There was one instance where I actually had the option to go again, "just for fun", and that was the tank battle.

The climax and end

After the puzzle level, there was an underwater level in a flooded room that required breath management, and then an even more massive level to explore than the previous ones. This one was broken up into several sections, all radiating out from the ultimate destination in the centre of the complex. Here, there were yet more new gameplay mechanics to try, in the form of psionic power crystals that temporarily allowed my characters to cast some spell-like abilities. It seemed to be little more than a novelty, though, because the crystals only lasted a few minutes before disappearing, whether I used them or not.

There was a strange, unexplained item as well -- a focus crystal that allowed me to summon the ghost of Lucy, the little girl from earlier. I tried it several times, in many locations, but the result was always the same. She would appear, say "Hi!" and wave, and then stand there for a few seconds before disappearing again. I wasn't able to talk to her or anything. I thought maybe if I summoned her in a special location, it might open up a special dialogue or event, but it never happened.

Another unexplained mystery involved one of my party members. On entering a particular room, I think on the same level, Daniel disappeared from the party after a brief fade to black. When he reappeared, he was not in the party, and when I talked to him, it said "Daniel simply smiles". After visiting another room, I came back to that hallway and found his dead body, which didn't respond to anything. Ultimately, he returned, good as new, with nothing to say on the matter.

There was also the matter of locked doors. The game addresses the frequent use of locked doors, but there were some that I was never able to open. It's possible that I was meant to go back throughout the earlier levels with the late-added party member who seems to have a talent for opening secret doors, but I really didn't want to run through those massive levels yet another time.

I have to say I didn't like the bit where I had to take control of a lizardman to open a door from the other side. It seemed like I was supposed to sneak through it with stealth, but the enemies always detected me. I had to fight through a large number of enemies on that side, who regarded me as hostile even though I was one of their own, and every time I died, whatever weapons I had picked up to fight with disappeared. I was eventually reduced to a tedious series of kamikaze attacks, trying to get in at least one bare-handed attack before I was killed in one strike and had to respawn. This was probably the worst part of the whole module.

The final showdown was well done. The enemies seemed fairly organised and fought intelligently. One shortcoming was that the "villain" of the final big confrontation was a bit...vague. Although we started getting hints and information about him early on, the information came from an unreliable source, and I wasn't sure he was the villain at all. We also never actually saw him or any hint of his presence until that final confrontation.

Epilogue

It all ended with a very nice epilogue, with the party members saying farewell to their families and going off on an ocean adventure, where the second chapter of the series will pick up. I wish more games ended this well. Some stories (such as my earlier reviewed Witch's Wake) just end with poor cliffhangers, leaving everything unresolved, or ending with more questions than answers. I hate those endings. This module did it in the best way -- a solid ending, with the primary conflicts resolved, with the beginnings of what is clearly the start of a new story showing up as a preview. The old friends set off to follow the map onto the wide open seas, unsure of what they would find there. It was a bittersweet ending, full of regrets for things lost, and uncertainty of what was gained, but with the promise of each others' company along the way.

Not to mention an optional final joke. Self-aware jokes like this are scattered throughout the dialogue, and I personally appreciate them.

What few bugs I encountered weren't major, though the game did crash a scant few times while playing it. There was a very minor bug during a dream sequence, in which my normal PC was present on the level and selectable in the portrait list. She was stuck in a no-walk zone, though, so there was no trouble with her accompanying me where she shouldn't have been. The bit with Daniel's mysterious smile may have been a bug as well.

Since I'm running the full campaign, it transitioned seamlessly into the second chapter, but I stopped and saved at the beginning of that for now. It's looking very exciting, though, and it seems to go fully into the nautical theme I was expecting at the beginning. According to the journal entry, I can expect a very developed seafaring system, complete with trading and tactical ship-to-ship combat with ship upgrades and strategy, sounding very much like the systems in Patrician 3. This should be fun!

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