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July 25th, 2013, 01:36
Neverwinter Nights 2 - Mask of the Betrayer

I feel like I have to make clear that since the following is going to be heavily skewed by expectations that MotB was not just a thoroughly enjoyable experience but also one of high quality. There's an interesting world and story to explore, the quality of writing and degree of reactivity is probably good enough to be compared with any remotely modern game. All that coupled with the perfectly adequate levels of polish and production values should be enough to produce a modern classic or a least the closest thing (expansion) to it.

With that being said and knowing just how ridiculously hard this test would be for any game I have to make clear MotB is not as good as Planescape: Torment. It's not even in the same league. While it clearly draws some inspirations from PS:T, they‘re more evident in its stylistic rather than the thematic focus (hope that makes sense) . Most importantly the actual effect itself is not comparable.

I'll begin with the story and try to keep is as spoiler-free as possible. My main gripe with MotB's plot is that it's just not personal enough. The Betrayer's story is interesting in itself but since it's about someone else's "torment" (pardon the pun) rather than your own your character's involvement in it is rarely more than an inconvenience or an attempt to deal with bad luck. The difference with the identity searching that PS:T is all about is tremendous. The fact is, I already had a sense of identity for my character due to him being the OC's harborman so the entirety of MotB felt like a mere case of "new lands-new adventures" and not something deeper.

My second point is related to the story's delivery. There's a chance the fault for what I'm about to describe lays on my end but the fact that the game even allows that to happen is bad design. Let's just say that after less than 20% of the game you'll reach a hard area which has a door that you won't get to open until very late in the game. I'm not sure when is that area supposed to be explored but the game really just seems to leave it up to the player. With enough patience and a correct use of the ridiculously overpowered epic spells and the tank companion Okku it can be thoroughly explored as soon as you find it. The problem is that apart from the main-quest related door there's also a library in which you can find a scroll which recounts the Betrayer's story in detail. Since you spend 80% of the game collecting the pieces of that very story and just 20% in trying to figure out how your character got involved, reading the scroll pretty much spoils a huge part of the game's story and puts you firmly ahead of your character in terms of knowing what happened. The quest tied to the scroll was the 13th quest I completed in the game, out of probably over 100. Furthermore even when it comes to the rest of the events, the connections (when some bits of info are presented) are fairly easy to make and I can honestly say I figured 90% of the stuff way before my character.

Another major issue that wasn’t strictly connected to the main story’s focus but should have annoyed me more than it did and is generally just inexcusable is how the game misguides you until the very last moment into believing that you can actually have a huge effect on the world but has your character walking away from the action as soon as your own little problem is solved.

On overall, if I had to compare MotB’s tone and story with another I think the closest would be KOTOR2:The Sith Lords rather than PS:T. Aside from the setting and universe which are obviously much more suited to the themes and the ending which is certainly closer to a proper closure than a disaster, it really felt like a better TSL set in Dnd.

Having covered the story extensively I think the rest of the game can be summed up as NWN2 with the very bad bits fixed. Case in point the beginning which not only doesn't waste endless hours but spends less than 1h before you're both properly introduced to the story and free to go your own way. The game is deceptively long with its 2nd act lasting 4 times as much as the 1st and 3rd put together.

One of the most apparent improvements is in the area of companions who while limited in number (3+1 depending on your choices) are both better written and better voiced. Gann is particularly good but my personal favourite is the criminally underdeveloped Kaji, who is as good in terms of comic relief as HK47 or even Morte. The voice-overs are better all across the board and thankfully the difference (with NWN2) is most noticeable when it comes to game's narrator who actually does a solid job reading even the lines describing your character's inner thoughts.

It seems the less generic plot also helped the art department be more inspired since this game easily matches any other of its kind in locations and maps. Even the depressing/dreary maps are well designed and the various dreamwalking and plane-traveling offer a variety which puts NWN2 to shame. The astral plane in particular is the best location created in a Bioware/Obsidian 3D engine (Aurora/Odyssey/Eclipse/Electron) and so good on its own I'd be willing to pick up any other Dnd game that features it.

One important reason the level design was so much better is the fact that in MotB the concept of planes is much more prominent than in NWN2. I find that (probably due to their importance in PS:T) I enjoy the lore around Dnd more than the actual mechanics. This was certainly the case in MotB as the high-level Dnd gameplay as a wizard was probably its weakest point. Since there weren't any spells past the 9th circle the existing dozens of spells were mostly useless and the new ones were delivered as Feats (with a Spellcraft requirement) and so had to make up for their scarcity in power.

The rest of the mechanics were definitely improved. Resting stopped being a glorified 5sec break and was turned into what I expected from my IE experience. The difficulty was bumped up significantly with each major fight needing a couple of reloads to get right, one could use Okku but the other companions were more interesting. Crafting was simplified although my NWN2 experience kept me away from it. I'm not sure if the notorious soul eating mechanism was tweaked since release but apart from the first hour or so of realizing it was there (late) and suffering the Stage 4 problems it was hardly a problem. Sure it wasn't introduced properly but it's not like any NWN2 mechanism was. Giving into the craving could potentially make it a significant gameplay element but in my case it just wasn't.

MotB also gets bonus points for providing what seems to be a genuinely tempting evil playthrough. The game presented me with enough occasions where it was impossible not to be vengeful and even beyond those the whole soul eater thing is much more than your usual puppy kicking bad guy. Had I not been so saturated I would have fired up a new playthrough as soon as I ended the first one. Having read how different some seemingly trivial encounters could have gone if I wasn't trying to suppress the craving I know I'm going to return to this game soon.

All in all I think by the end of it I was becoming a little sick of the NWN2 gameplay and would certainly appreciate an engine that allowed for more open gameplay with less number fiddling. This is mostly related to my FN:V comparison at the end but if I had any doubts over which type of RPG I generally prefer I don't have them anymore.

Trying to rate MotB has made me question whether the rating I gave the OC was too high (as DArtagnan had pointed out). I'd give MotB a 9.2 but the quality gap between it and the OC is certainly bigger than 0.6 (even taking into account how important decimals are in the 9s). Someone mentioned in another thread the other day how MotB is (regarded as) Obsidian's magnum opus. I disagree. To put things in perspective, I'd say it's about as good as The Witcher 1 but not quite as big an achievement as their own Fallout: New Vegas.
I'd just like to interject here and point out that I'm not going to say anything to spoil the mood, Chief. I'll just float here and watch. Don't mind me, just sitting here, floating and watching, that's me.
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