I said last time I was starting to get burnt out on Icewind Dale because of the DLC. I finished it this morning with a sense of relief. ID’s main campaign is great–about the best “wave after wave of monsters in the Infinity Engine” as you can get before its sequel. Baldur’s Gate’s dungeons are kind of terrible–it’s obvious this is a team that hasn’t figured out the limitations of its pathfinding and so you get a lot of areas with winding paths that your pikmin refuse to go through, tiny rooms that you can’t do combat in, etc. Baldur’s Gate II and Planescape Torment are better in that regard, but I dislike both of their structures–they both start off as sprawling explorations of a single city and some environs, dense with quests and plot, only to branch off into a series of combat-heavy maps that aren’t as strong as the first bit. By being simpler, Icewind Dale is a lot stronger structurally. It’s a shame about its final boss, but there you go.
Its DLC is a mixed bag, The DLC is split into two parts–Heart of Winter, which came first; and Trials of the Luremaster, which is an expansion-to-the-expansion which was added after, I’m told, people complained that HoW wasn’t long enough. There are a lot of theories about the best way to play the DLC. It’s possible to access Heart of Winter within ID itself–a fellow in the main town will be happy to whisk you away to the extra content as long as you’re a certain level or higher, or you’re welcome to export your endgame characters to the DLC after you’ve completed the main campaign. The latter is my preference–the initial level you’re able to access it is fairly low-level for the HoW content; a happy medium is also often recommended–ID asks you to find six macguffins to access the endgame, and once you’ve collected them, a lot of people suggest doing HoW at that point. It’s up to you. (Plotwise, if you’re the kind of asshole geek who insists on canon and continuity, HoW seems to take place after ID is complete; and notably, there’s a sword you can get in ID’s endgame which has some plot relevance to HoW.)
The point is, HoW is a separate map from the original areas. Unlike Baldur’s Gate’s Tales of the Sword Coast, which adds several points of interest to the main map, HoW does not let you go back to the main campaign to grind if you find yourself too low-level for it. For the most part, that’s okay–Heart of Winter is some good waves-of-enemies content, and while you might struggle if you go into it at the very moment you’re able, it should be all right to muddle through. And since the content can take place after the endgame, it’s all right that you can’t go back. You’ve done everything there is to do.
The problem is Trials of the Luremaster, which is a matriyoshka doll–a fellow in Heart of Winter’s town will offer to whisk you away to his portion of content, and once you’re there, you can’t leave until it’s finished. And the problem with Trials of the Luremaster is its encounters are poorly designed, its puzzles irritating, and it’s content totally separated from everything else that’s gone before. Where Icewind Dale loves its waves of enemies, TotL is relentless with them. My level 20-23 party kept getting slaughtered by a series of guards; eventually I put the entire thing on Story Mode and just whapped my way through because, you know, it had gone beyond the point of sanity or fun. There is a thoughtfulness to many of the most difficult areas of Icewind Dale–a careful placement of enemies designed to challenge. TotL overwhelms. Two dozen olive slimes! Spiders upon spiders! A pile of harpies next to a pile of wyverns! Half of a cavern which has rooms in which six umber hulks pop out, then six minotaurs, then six wyverns, then six of those overpowered guards–and then you get to do the same exact set of encounters in the other half! Beholders after beholders after beholders! The whole thing is relentless; the whole thing feels like busywork.
TotL is similar to Durlag’s Tower, part of Baldur’s Gate’s expansion, in that it’s a puzzley, difficult dungeon which involves solving riddles. But you can leave Durlag’s Tower–if you get bored with it, you’re able to leave and do other stuff, level up a bit, hang around Baldur’s Gate itself and do some sidequests. TotL’s castle forces you into it, forces you to solve its puzzles, and they’re generally poor. The final area involves two interconnected maps, only one of which allows you to rest. (If I ever design an RPG like this, I’ll have to resist the temptation of including a map which features the message, “You’re unable to rest in this area because fuck you.”) These winding caves feature five chests, each of which is next to an altar. Inside each chest is a flawed gem. Putting the gems in a sixth chest transports them to the altar, this time shining and able to be used as a macguffin in a portal area. In practice, you end up fighting a bunch of tough/annoying encounters, having to go to each chest and pick up its gem, then to the magical chest, placing the gems inside, then traipsing back to the altars near each chest, picking up the restored gems, and then finally to the portal area.
In short, Trials of the Luremaster is exactly the kind of content designed to placate the kinds of people who complain that a DLC isn’t long enough. (And frankly, Heart of Winter is, in my opinion, exactly long enough.)
Icewind Dale is named for its region, a snowy area to the far north of the Forgotten Realms setting of Faerun. Heart of Winter also takes place there, dealing with some more of the land’s history and steeped in the setting. Trials of the Luremaster takes place in a desert castle that could have just as easily been a snowed-in castle. I can appreciate that maybe they wanted to go to another region, but it feels very out of place. And while its story is fine, it’s what the kids on the internet would call a Big Lipped Alligator Moment–it’s just kind of this weird side venture that your party goes through and that no one ever refers to anymore.
The entire experience is padding.
Which is a shame, because interrupting Heart of Winter as it does weakens it. It would be fine if the option to access Luremaster would come afterwards–Heart of Winter distracts from what’s going on in Icewind Dale, true, but you can take it after your business there is done. This doesn’t give you that option.
And I guess my final thoughts on the subject is that Beamdog has probably done a lot of great things with their enhanced editions, but honestly, I wish they’d done more. The Infinity Engine has a lot of quirks–its pathfinding, its traps, its nonsense with sustained area of effect spells–and while I can appreciate from an archival perspective the need to include the original stuff, I wish they’d have enhanced the engine a bit more. Story Mode is, for example, a nice edition, and there’s some class kit stuff and some extra items and content that are across the franchise, but man, it’s 2017 and we’re really feeling some of the limitations of a late-90s engine. Look, the Infinity Engine is one of the finest RPG engines that’s been made, but in a world with the Pillars of Eternity engine and the improvements on the formula that’s made, it really feels like we should have some of the kinks worked out. Those asshole geeks I keep talking about, they flipped the fuck out on Beamdog on the extra content in Baldur’s Gate–apparently there’s some SJW crap which, you know, fuck you asshole geeks, get out of my fucking blog–but, I mean, I guess I can’t blame Beamdog for being conservative. Asshole geeks are such conservative, boring, picky eaters. I’m just always surprised, I guess, to find that “Baldur’s Gate, exactly as it was in 1997 with nothing added” is, you know, the equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese made exactly the way their mommy made it.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Baldur’s Gate and I love mac and cheese. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 2017 and I’m 35. We can get fancy. It’s okay. We’re adults.