91 – Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter and Trials of the Luremaster

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.

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89 – Icewind Dale

–Replaying Icewind Dale after playing Icewind Dale 2 is instructive in how much more ID2 is. I love these games–it’s my favorite of the 3 Infinity Engine subseries, and I’m trying to figure out why. It doesn’t have the narrative heft of Planescape or the questy open-worldness of Baldur’s Gate. What it does have is an extremely tight structure. Baldur’s Gate’s looseness works against it a little bit–until you know the shape of it, it’s difficult to know where to go and when to do it. Sometimes you need to rush to the next area, sometimes you’re expected to meander and level up a bit. It is a structurally weird beast, but it’s also the kind of bad structure that, when you’re used to it, does make a lot of sense. BGII, the one and only time I played it, felt like it was going to be a freeform, open-world game set largely in and around a single, large city, until the point when you leave the city and go on a huge number of difficult adventures in the Underdark, at which point you realize you should have stayed in the city for a much longer time than you thought and so everything is a lot harder than it should be. I enjoy Baldur’s Gate much more during each replay, and when I decide it’s time to play II again, knowing how I should approach it will make it a much better game, I think.

Icewind Dale is much simpler. You’re given a single dungeon, and you’re expected to crawl. It is a firehose of combat. It’s some of the best incarnation of combat in the IE series, I think–probably my favorite druid build. There is, usually, only one thing to do at a time, and the dungeons are more winding than sprawling. You don’t have a lot of choice in this videogame. But that’s okay–it works for it. Icewind Dale 2’s dungeons have more in the way of gimmicks–I use the term positively–and the writing takes your classes and races and alignments into account, it’s a much better written game–and maybe that’s the true lost classic, I really hope Beamdog makes an enhanced edition of it. But for now, Icewind Dale’s crawling is really hitting the spot.

–Traps, however, are complete bullshit. The Infinity Engine silently ticks down rounds, and as far as I can tell, each round your thief is detecting traps there’s a skill-based chance that they’ll detect one and a section of the dungeon or treasure chest will flash red and you can disarm it. The problem is, this is a slow process and success is not guaranteed, and so in order to make it through certain hallways without damage, you’ve got to put your thief in, and hang out for a moment. The whole process is slow and laborious and there’s no advantage to it–it’s not like you get any XP for disarming in this game. Particularly considering how you can rest at any time and there are no resources consumed when you do so, it’s just a stupid holdover from the tabletop days.

I seem to remember Tyranny having traps be detected instantly and the checks to disarm never being particularly difficult. They’re even more useless there–even though you do get XP, it’s not as if you ever get caught in one. Just give me the free XP. As influential as the Infinity Engine is–and rightfully so!–I wish we as a society had given the traps a wide berth. I wish the Enhanced Editions gave the option to disable them entirely.

–The other area where the Infinity Engine falls is its handling of persistent area-effect spells. Icewind Dale depends on a lot of them–throw down a web and get the enemies stuck there, then throw down a Stinking Cloud and watch them go unconscious, then shoot some thornbushes into the area to lacerate their unconscious, stuck forms, maybe put a cloud of fire–there’s a lot of stuff you can do if you set up the geometry right, and the magical effects in ID are particularly pretty. The problem is, the spells all have a set time that they fire for. The game doesn’t let you save or rest while they’re proccing, which makes a lot of sense–the game doesn’t let you do either in combat, and you wouldn’t want to create an unwinnable situation where you’ve trapped your own party in a death room–but there’s no way to stop the spells. There are a lot of situations where you’ve defeated all the enemies you’re facing, but your spike traps and webs are still firing and so your party just hangs out cleaning their fingernails until a minute or so later the spell finally dissipates and you can save and rest.

It’s not a game killer, obviously, but I guess this and the handling of traps make the games a little slower than they quite need to be. You get a Dispel spell; it would be nice if that stopped the area spells, but it doesn’t.

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

57 – KOTOR, Pt 1

Knights of the Old Republic is proving to be a little difficult to love. Largely this is the result of bugginess: For whatever reason, the game doesn’t play nicely on modern systems, and it doesn’t have the advantage of ten years of patches like Bloodlines did. It took three separate configuration sessions to figure out how to get the game running in fullscreen mode. (Which is a necessity for me: I don’t know how people play games in windowed mode without inadvertently clicking outside the window into other applications every 30 seconds, and that’s not even taking into consideration that the edges of my desktop background–a picture of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and RuPaul holding a crying Francis Bean–poke through, utterly ruining any immersion the game has.)

But KOTOR is having some of the same issues that the first Mass Effect had for me, which is that after a really exciting initial mission, you’re umped into a boring planet and doing some beginner, kind of uninteresting quests. I’m an unusual-planets and weird alien species guy. When I think of Star Wars, I think about Dagobah and Endor and the Cantina and all of that; KOTOR, after a well-done tutorial sequence where you’re on a ship that’s being attacked–after, essentially, a recreation of the opening scene from the original Star Wars–you’re placed on a sprawling city planet. I know that Bioware loves it some cities. I’m assured that if I ever make it to the part of Baldur’s Gate where I make it to Baldur’s Gate, I’ll enjoy myself there. I appreciated the idea of what they were trying to do with Kirkwall in Dragon Age II. But Taris–the main city where you find yourself at the beginning of KOTOR–is one of those Star Wars-y cities with all white, clinical walls, and it’s, frankly, not much to look at. There’s an Undercity where the poor live, forever blocked from seeing the sun–but a series of graphical glitches make that area difficult to navigate (and kinda crashy), and, frankly, Final Fantasy VII did the atmosphere of that concept a lot better.

It might partially be coming off of Bloodlines, I’ll admit that. Bloodlines was only a year after KOTOR–they’re more or less contemporaries. I enjoyed exploring its hubs in a way that I am not enjoying Taris.

Well I am sticking with it, if only for Bioware’s reputation and the fact that I’m enjoying it enough–after all, Jade Empire had an extremely dull opening sequence that I played through twice and abandoned before finally muscling through and finding it was an absolutely wonderful game. The storyline is good so far–it is, in its way, fulfilling that little-boy need to pretend to be a Jedi from time to time. I know the major Twist to the game, and it’s nice seeing the foreshadowing starting from pretty much the beginning. I don’t love the character development system–there are too few skills and I am unclear how I should be diversifying them–I’m frankly using the Autolevel option for my other party members because I don’t quite care enough to think about how I want to build them. Combat is decent–and yet so far I haven’t noticed any better results from manually controlling my characters as opposed to letting the AI take over.

I mean, the game needs to open up, and I’m closing in on the end of this first planet. Give me someplace more rural and adventuresome next, and I think it’ll be enjoyable. I hear you get to go to the Wookkiee planet, and I’m cool with that. It’s just the kind of game I’ve been playing for 5 hours and am still kind of waiting for it to start, and that’s, obviously, Bad. The slow boil doesn’t always work.