109 – Planescape Torment

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 10.39.52 AMHow the fuck do you even begin to talk about Planescape Torment?

The game has, these days, such an outsized reputation. It is THE FINEST RPG EVER MADE. It is THE FINEST STORY EVER TOLD IN A VIDEOGAME. It is CHRIS AVELLONE’S MAGNUM OPUS. It is A MASTERPIECE OF PHILOSOPHICAL FANTASY. And it is all these things and more. It is a legitimately amazing game, a surprising and thrilling and daunting work. It is not perfect, and it is the weirdest use of the Infinity Engine, but I am, of course, damn glad that it exists. PT was the first game I bought on GoG back when it was called Good Old Games, and I picked up the Enhanced Edition when it wasn’t even on sale. That’s how worth it it is.

Contemporary reviews hailed the game as an instant classic–everybody loved it–but apparently nobody played it. Its initial run sold about 75,000 copies, which is a number I would kill for, but compare that to Baldur’s gate which sold 175,000 in its first two weeks, or even Icewind Dale’s first-year sales of 145,000. Planescape: Torment is an odd duck, one that was difficult to sell in its time–and given that its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera has faced similar challenges, it’s kind of easy to see why.

I think it’s pretty instructive to read the “vision statement” for PT, particularly if you’re familiar with the game, written when the game still had its working title of Last Rites–it’s particularly hilarious if you’ve played PT, because the tone could not be any different. The vision statement is about as late-90s badass edgy as you can get–it swearily promises violence and sex and all of that mom-offending stuff that PC gamers apparently wanted. “This game will have lots of babes that make the player go “wow,'” it promises. “There will be fiendish babes, human babes, angelic babes, asian babes, and even undead babes. These babes will be present without nipple-age and will all regrettably behave within the TSR Code of Ethics.” This, to pitch a final product which includes “The Brothel of Intellectual Lusts,” which oh man, do I have a lot to say about.

For all of that, though, it’s just a tough, posturing skin on a document which describes a game that’s extremely close to the thoughtful, ponderous game that we actually got–difficult moral choices, a complex story, a reactive world, unusual characters and locations–and so I wonder if this had anything to do with Interplay’s difficulty selling the game. Were they trying to capture that sweet, sweet late ’90s meathead gamer dollar? Was it the fault of Fallout, Were they trying to have it both ways–come for the sex and violence, stay for the philosophical musings?

Today, in 2017, with Planescape Torment having that BEST RPG OF ALL TIME reputation, it’s almost an irrelevant question. The meatheads are going to go to the big explosion games–to, uh, Fallout–and Planescape Torment is only going to be played by people looking for something else–but I think about how Tides of Numenera had a poor reception and low sales, and I remember reading the criticism of the game from the meatheads in the Steam boards. And most of the complaints surrounded the perceived lack of combat in the game.

I’ve begun to DM my own games of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the theories surrounding combat that I’m interested in is that combat isn’t a separate type of encounter: Combat is merely a method for solving an encounter. Periodically, in Numenera, you get into a situation called a Crisis, where everybody’s tensions are high, people are about to start killing each other, and the interface changes slightly. And you can stab your way out of the crises, or if you can, you can figure out other ways to defuse it. You can talk your way out. You can use the environment to stop the fight. It’s a fascinating system, and one that many people who played the game disliked, preferring to have trash mobs running around that they could kill.

The idea of solving problems by methods besides combat is one that comes up in videogames from time to time, and the late ’90s was one of those times. Fallout was a big influence on that–coming out of some of Interplay’s other experiments with the concept, such as Wasteland and Dragon Wars, Fallout famously let you logic your way out of the final boss if your intelligence was high enough–convincing him that his plan was wrong and letting him stop it himself. Planescape Torment is a successor to that. It’s not as sophisticated as Tides of Numenera’s take on it–game design has progressed in the past twenty years, of course–and in practice, there’s a dialogue tree that you can fuck up, encouraging the person to attack you.

See, part of PT’s reputation is saying “there’s no combat”–that’s how it was described to me when I first played it. But I’m not sure if even the more cerebral-minded members of its contemporary audience would have been open to a pure adventure take on Dungeons and Dragons, and honestly, “there’s no combat” is a bit disingenuous. As you wander the streets at night, thugs break off and attack. There’s mobs of rats–interesting rats, cranium rats, which work through a hive mind and so a group of cranium rats is smart enough to cast spells at you–which can’t be reasoned with. Early on, you can gain access to a dungeon where a bunch of animated skeletons, set out by a wannabe lich, are wandering about. You can certainly avoid a lot of these areas–although “ignore major areas and there won’t be any combat” is pretty shitty advice to my mind for playing an RPG–but there are trash mobs running around. Now, the combat isn’t particularly challenging. Most of the thugs will run away after you whap them a couple times and they realize you’re not an easy target. Compared to Icewind Dale and even Baldur’s Gate, the focus is much more heavily on the dialogue. I’d say it’s about 80/20. But it is there. The remaining 80%, though? It’s enough to stake a reputation on.

How the fuck do you begin to talk about Planescape Torment? I guess you just dive in.

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108: Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 10.13.21 PM.pngThe question is, is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing? The expansion was apparently initially intended to be a full-on Baldur’s Gate 3, but a lack of time and money meant that everything was relegated to a 15-hour expansion pack to tie up the loose ends.

It shows. At times, Throne of Bhaal feels like the outline of a game rather than an actual game. There’s two tiny, tiny hub cities–Saradush and Amethkran–which are glossed over pretty quickly in-game–there are a couple of very short, cursory sidequests in them, and you can see both of them being an Athkatla in the “real” game. The villains–called The Five, a group of Bhaalspawn determined to do something murdery–are barely characterized–you meet most of them the moment you’re expected to fight them. The eleventh-hour revelations that the lady who’s helping you is really evil come out of nowhere–not because the game doesn’t try to pull it from somewhere, but because there’s nowhere to pull that revelation from.

In the place of everything that we like from Baldur’s Gate–exploration, freedom, a massive quest list–is a series of very high-level dungeons and battles. We are in Icewind Dale’s wheelhouse, and as the journey segments of Baldur’s Gate 2 demonstrated, Baldur’s Gate is not good at being Icewind Dale. The design focus was obviously spent on Watcher’s Keep, and I’m glad it got that attention, because the rest of the expansion is just kind of there.

Its biggest problem is that Dungeons and Dragons, as interpreted by the Infinity Engine, is not very good at low or high levels. In the first few hours of Baldur’s Gate 1, when you’re at level 1, you can vaguely survive a couple of hits, maybe cast a single spell if you’re a wizard, and that’s all you can do. If you’re a new player, you don’t know what your tactical options are–and even if you’re an advanced player, you know you don’t *have* many tactical options. This isn’t unsurmountable by any means: You know, of course, that you won’t stay at level 1 forever and that your options and skills will increase as the game goes on. That you can find new party members and weapons. Baldur’s Gate caps somewhere around level 7. And each level becomes very, very meaningful. I ended its sequel somewhere around level 20, and while that makes each individual level slightly less significant, taken as a whole, you leave the game much, much more powerful than you begin it–and given that you’re spending a good 60, 70 hours in it, leveling up is still an event.

Throne of Bhaal, however, saw my party grow to around level 33 over the course of 15 hours–sometimes after every major battle. And by this point, the returns have diminished greatly. A few HP and maybe a spell–at high levels, that’s meaningless. The damage your enemies are doing now soaks up several levels’ worth of HP as it is. The game tries to compensate by giving you what’s called high-level abilities–special attacks and spells–but you get so many of them that I ended up selecting one at random. When you’ve got 3-4 uses of a bunch of different skills, an extra one doesn’t matter, particularly considering that the game gives no restrictions against rests.

You may have a wealth of tactical options by level 30, but the game does its best to minimize the impact of many of them–most of your options become useless. Enemies have so many resistances and buffs that the majority of your damage spells won’t work. There comes a pattern of throwing up a set of buffs on your own party and launching a bunch of debuffs at the enemy and tossing your fighters on them and hoping for the best, and while there’s probably a much more efficient way than I figured out–a certain combination of debuffs might take down the enemy’s shields more effectively–I just didn’t have the heart to. Because at that point I wasn’t having any fun. The bosses, in particular, have so many hit points and do so much damage and have so many shields up that it’s no longer a challenge, it’s a chore. At the halfway point I switched Story Mode on–thank God for Story Mode–and just muddled my way through to the end.

I have genuinely no clue how one is supposed to beat the final boss honestly: It’s a multi-stage thing which doesn’t allow you to rest in between. Every stage of the boss summons a bunch of monsters and continues summoning them until you beat her, and in between each stage you’ve got to fight a mini-boss and a scattering of elemental monsters. A weird quirk of story mode is that the game handles your invulnerability by automatically healing a chunk of your damage when it gets too low, and during the final boss fight, I was overwhelmed by a bunch of summoned monsters that knocked down my health faster than the game could replenish it, meaning that during the final confrontation I died in story mode. Even the design of the level is tired at this point: You fight air elementals, ice monsters, fire monsters–but the game gives up and gives you the final phase of the boss before bothering to pit you against earth monsters, because this shit has gone on long enough.

In the end, you get to make a choice in a videogame: Do you remain mortal and go on more adventures, presumably getting to level 40 and 50 and beyond, or do you take the Throne of Bhaal and claim your destiny as a god? Whatever your choice, you see the same cutscene with different narration, a bunch of epilogues about your party members, and then the credits roll on the saga of Gorion’s Ward, the Bhaalspawn, on Baldur’s Gate.

So I ask you: Is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing?

As a game, it sucks. It’s too rushed, too difficult, too sketchy. It is a gigantic case of what might have been–a properly paced third game could have been amazing. One of the pleasures of Baldur’s Gate 2 is its attention to continuity–in having characters reappear, in referring to events from the previous game–and Baldur’s Gate 3 could have done that wonderfully. There’s an amount of fanservice that, as a fan, is a lot of fun, and the couple of references that Throne of Bhaal does throw out make me think that it wishes very badly that it could revel in its continuity. I wish there had been the opportunity for the team to try to create another Athkatla–to create two Athkatlas, really–I feel that RPGs as a genre are poorer for not having the opportunity for the team to build on that foundation. And the game takes the lazy way out with its combat–it’s difficult instead of challenging. It’s a slog.

But gaming has so many unfinished stories. There are so many sequels that never got made, so many conclusions we never saw. It is fairly amazing that we have any epilogue to Baldur’s Gate at all. Baldur’s Gate 2 ends on a cliffhanger–on a shadowy council vowing to kill your character–and the promise of some revelations about your true place in the world. If that shadowy council looks completely different when revealed and ends up not entirely filled in, if those revelations are rushed and half-assed, if the ending is worse instead of better, at least there is an ending. Imagine: If Throne of Bhaal didn’t exist, maybe Beamdog would take it upon themselves to write the epilogue. And if Siege of Dragonspear is any indication, that incarnation of Throne of Bhaal might have really sucked.

But it is a shame to see that degradation. Baldur’s Gate is scruffy and weird but full of promise and charm. Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of the finest RPGs ever made. Throne of Bhall is…better than nothing.

I think I’m going to put together some thoughts on the series as a whole and then be done with Baldur’s Gate for a very long time. It’s been a hell of a journey.

106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

95 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Irenicus’s Dungeon

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 8.06.16 AM.pngOf the Infinity Engine games, Baldur’s Gate 2 has the finest introduction. Baldur’s Gate 1 begins with Candlekeep, which is, as I’ve said, comfortable and friendly but not exactly exciting–it’s a tutorial-focused quest where nothing much happens until the end, at which point you’re thrust into a gigantic world with only vague direction. Siege of Dragonspear’s first dungeon has nothing to do with anything. Icewind Dale sets you up in a town where you can either Talk To All These Assholes until you find a couple goblins to fight. Planescape Torment wakes you up in the Morgue, and you’re given all of these cryptic suggestions at the larger story, but there isn’t exactly a time pressure and it did lose me the first time or two I played. Icewind Dale 2 acquits itself well–you land in a city under siege–but it’s a long, extended sequence with many parts. (I’m fond of games that essentially have no intro–that start off and you’re simply playing, and ID2 does that well!)

Baldur’s Gate 2 starts off with you captured and held in the dungeon of Big Bad Jon Irenicus. He appears, says some cryptic things, tortures you a bit, and then leaves to deal with an assault on his dungeon. Imoen appears (he-ya, it’s her!), sets you free, and now the two of you plus any companions you can get have the opportunity to wander around and escape. It’s the best starter dungeon in the franchise, and, frankly, should be taught in schools because it’s actually one of RPGdom’s best starter dungeons. It:

Is not a tutorial: There’s pretty no “how to play this” information given in the section. If you’re here for the second installment, the game assumes, you know what you’re doing, and if not, you’ll read the manual. This frees the dungeon up to be pretty cool–while combats are certainly simpler than they’re going to get, you’re facing bunches of goblins and some new foes and you’re doing some actual puzzle challenges. None of Baldur’s Gate 1’s “Go into the thing behind me and get a thing and then talk to me again.”

Tells you what to expect for characters: Baldur’s Gate 1 has about 500 potential playable characters; 2 trims down the cast while giving those left expanded roles. Khalid and Dynahier are slaughtered between installments. While I could give a tinker’s damn about Khalid, it gives his wife Jaheira a lot of fun emotions to work with and some clear motivation. Dynahier is a loss–one of my favorite characters both mechanically and personality-wise. It’s fridging, but at least it’s equal-opportunity. (Hey, Siege of Dragonspear, when you were busy telling your story about nothing at all interesting, why didn’t you, you know, include these moments? This is something I actually was interested in!) We also get an introduction to Yoshimo, who is going to have a big role in the plot to come, and in addition, he’s of the Bounty Hunter class–a “class kit” (alternate build) for the Thief, so even that’s new!

Shows off the expanded dialogue: Character dialogue was largely reduced to barks in the original Baldur’s Gate–characters don’t really comment on the particular situation you’re in, they only slightly interact with each other, and they’re mostly just people you have along for the ride: There’s little difference between the pregenerated characters in Baldur’s Gate and the people you create in Icewind Dale. In BG2, which is the start of Bioware becoming Bioware, your party members will initiate conversations with you and with each other, ones where you can choose between multiple bits of dialogue. Many of them have personal quests, if I’m remembering correctly. The reduced cast gives everyone left more opportunity to get their personalities fleshed out.

–Characterizes the main villain: Irenicus has very little screen time so far: A minute at the beginning of the dungeon and another minute at the end. During that time, he tortures you, makes cryptic portents about your potential, brutally kills a few fantasy cops, and figures out a way to legally abscond with your friend Imoen–in just a few short strokes, he’s already a more effective villain than Sarevok. If that isn’t enough, his dungeon is spent giving you a lot of clues to who this fellow is: His dungeon has a bunch of denizens, all of whom talk about his cruelty, his lack of emotion. Other characters allude to his past and great changes in the man’s character. There’s a soft bedroom filled with pretty things–a shrine to a lost love that several characters insist is an emotion Irenicus cannot feel–and the moment you enter, a klaxon bursts out and a pair of golems attack. Irenicus is a violent, terrifying figure with a very large plan and a complicated personality and he’s the fellow you’ll be chasing after for the next 50-10- hours.

–Alludes to larger plot developments: The assault on Irenicus’s dungeon has nothing to do with you–it’s the result of a “guild war”, which is something we’ll learn about in the next chapter or two. I love RPGs where your character isn’t the focus of every plot, and that’s the case here–the couple of assassins you talk to don’t even give a shit who you are, they’re just trying to kill everyone in the dungeon. It’s nothing personal. But you are important, too–all of Irenicus’s portents add up to you being even more special than you know. Baldur’s Gate’s closing hours reveal that you’re the child of Bhaal, God of Murder; BG2 promises to go into what, exactly, that means.

Features the weirder shit: Sure, there’s goblins living in the dungeon, but there’s also Dryads, mephits, and a portal to the Elemental Plane of Air and a djinn inside. There’s arcane magic and horrific experiments. We’re going to see a lot of the more outre elements of the Forgotten Realms setting before this game is done. But what I particularly like–especially in contrast to Dragonspear’s random “Well, let’s have Demons! Here’s a Lemure! Isn’t that cool!” in the zero hour, BG2 ties them in. Not only is all of this weird shit living in the dungeon, but it’s under Irenicus’s control. He’s captured that. That’s another characterization of him: He’s playing with some very dangerous things, and he’s contained them very well.

I am expecting to have some fun with this.

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.

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.