Friday, August 9, 2013

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

I had heard bad things about Neverwinter Night 2's first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer. Namely of its hunger clock mechanic that supposedly only manages to be a pain in the ass rather than an interesting feature.

I feel such mechanics often lose their annoyance once you learn how to deal with them. And thus I researched the subject before starting my playthrough to make it a more pleasant experience right from the beginning. The spirit energy bar took its time to appear, though -- the whole of Act I you're free to take your time. But then the fun begins...

I think overall the spirit-eating theme is pretty neat. It gives a sense of urgency to your quest to find what's going on. And during the journey you slowly discover more abilities, mastering your new power. The problem is just that there is a handful of small things that make it bothersome. For instance, you have to remember to pause the game when fiddling with your inventory or leveling up a character, as the hunger clock will keep ticking otherwise.

To get the most out of the mechanic, I believe one should either keep suppressing the hunger all the time or go all out and devour everything. But even with my pre-research, I did not dare to max out craving on my evil wizard, as I was afraid there would be places where it would get me in trouble. And there indeed were couple such areas that had very few spirits to eat, yet took time to get out of.

I was also restrained by Kaelyn, who is a good-aligned character. She was the only tank available and I kind of wanted to keep her happy. Though I was surprised how many clearly evil decisions one could make without her saying a thing. But as I could not devour everything, I did not get to see the most evil ending where you, among other things, get to fight your party members once again. Instead I got a fairly neutral one, which was quite alright.

Not getting a chance to take on the companions was not a big loss. Mask of the Betrayer's companions lack the annoyance trait many of the original campaign's party members have. Increasing influence with them was also much easier. And there never was moment when one companion would agree and another would object. I just wish the party size had been larger by one so I could have taken One of Many with me as well. That might have caused problems with Kaelyn, though. The lack of player housing was also a big bonus.

The expansion takes place mostly in Rashemen, a wild land ruled by witches. Baldur's Gate's Dynaheir and Minsc hail from there and there actually was a reference to Minsc's space hamster; an Astral Rodent Charm. Rashemen has also been visited in Elaine Cunningham's Starlight and Shadows trilogy. Quite a cool place, and the new music really suited it. (No re-used NWN tracks this time.) However, I feel the remote location kind of takes away the feel of epic level adventure that MotB is.

And even in Act III, when you take on the City of Judgment on the Fugue Plane, everything feels half-assed. No sense of epicness like in Throne of Bhaal. Otherwise I liked the story, though. The plot twists and reveals were entertaining to go through. The name of the expansion is quite clever, too, as -- spoiler -- you are the mask of the Betrayer.

The start of the story was bit awkward, though. The game did not acknowledge the fact I had levels in the Red Wizard of Thay prestige class, and probably should have known what Safiya is without a Lore check. But I guess it is only my fault. It does not really make sense for the Shard-Bearer to be a Red Wizard.

The expansion is easier than the original campaign. I did not face the game over screen even once. Although in the final showdown it got pretty close. The epic spell, Vampiric Feast, pretty much saved me there and I beat the encounter on my first attempt. I probably should have used the Silver Sword's abilities as well.

You start the expansion wearing whatever you had when you exported your character, but your weapon is gone. I think the game assumes it was the Silver Sword you had been wielding so that you can be given it back later. The game also seemed to assume I had defeated the King of Shadows instead of joining him. Or maybe I missed a dialogue option where you can state that. Like in Knights of the Republic 2, where you are passingly asked your KotOR character's gender and the color of lightsaber(s) for when you find it/them later in the game.

MotB introduces a new, simpler way of crafting -- or rather -- enchanting things; enemies drop essences you can then use to make your equipment better. You still need the item crafting feats and casting of spell for the most of them, though. I enchanted few things, but again, the whole crafting thing was hardly required. The expansion generally has more impressive equipment than the OC, but there is also quite a lot of stuff that also has big penalties in addition to the bonuses. And I did not really like those.

I would say Mask of the Betrayer is better than Neverwinter Nights 2 and quite entertaining once you get into it. It could have been better with more polished spirit-eating mechanics, though. And throwing more enemies into the fights at the City of Judgment. Even defending West Harbor in the original campaign's prologue felt more epic.

The Shard-Bearer's story no longer continues in the next expansion, Storm of Zehir. Time to make a new character. But what class and race, I wonder. Maybe a non-caster for a change.

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