112 – The Bard’s Tale 4 Has 350 Characters And They Will Not Shut Up

Some 10 years ago I made the mistake of kicking off a long weekend by rooting through a bargain bin and buying the PS2 game The Bard’s Tale. A shining example of the style of shoddy action-adventures that spawned, like mildew, during the console’s height, The Bard’s Tale featured a very confused Cary Elwes and a bunch of community theatre players gamely making their way through a third-rate Monty Python ripoff of a script that insisted that its fourth-wall breaking and gentle ribbing of RPG conventions was absolutely hilarious. As a particularly sadistic touch, the game actually shuts up and lets you play for as many as 15 consecutive minutes, and then, just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, it grabs your head and forces you to watch as its characters burst into songs–comic songs, at that, with the first one being a rousing celebration of beer and the second one being about how I took the game out of my console and promptly, deliberately misplaced it.

I could not tell you a single thing about the humor or the quality of the writing in The Bard’s Tale 4. Well, I could tell you about two early dialogues–a Hodor-style farmer who responds to every query with a list of vegetables, and a soup merchant who rambles on for a couple paragraphs about how great his soup is before deciding not to sell you the soup. If you are reading a review of Bard’s Tale 4 that praises the writing, you are reading a review by someone who has never played a well-written game, seen a good movie, or read a halfway decent book; you are reading a book by a geek with poor taste. I have skipped and skimmed my way through every single other dialogue. I have been given quests and completed them without knowing who my guest party members are or why I’m helping them. I don’t want to know these people. They’re extras from Holy Grail and Life of Brian and it is twenty-goddamn-eighteen.

One of the game’s marketing bullets is the more-than-350 characters with speaking parts. Like all voice acting in RPGs, it is utterly pointless here. As is standard, you are presented with a character’s talking head, reading the paragraph of backstory that they are spouting off, that you are supposed to politely pretend to be interested in, the voice acting redundant in the face of the text you can make your way through in half the time. Some 10 years ago, when I used to kick off long weekends by buying bad bargain bin PS2 games, I found myself working a heavy corporate job. (Neither I nor my boss had any clue what I was doing there, who hired me, what I was hired to do, but the pay was so good I showed up for three years until they finally fired me.) As part of this job, I would regularly have to sit through Powerpoint presentations which consisted of slides with dense text on them and the presenter reading, verbatim, the words on each slide. And in addition, to make sure we were all following along, the presentation would not begun until we were each handed a printout of the text of the slides. Entire hours of my week would be sucked up by this nonsense. It could have been an email. But a presentation on a screen feels more important, and a voiced character feels that much more cinematic.

But God, I mean I had the same exact problem with Pillars of Eternity 2, the presentation was about as engaging as a corporate powerpoint and the characters would not. shut. up. P2 might have even been worse–the game expects you to be able to tell the difference between several factions enough to choose one to ally with, and you get to choose between the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs; and the one who goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs. Lord help me, I’ve become an RPG gamer who doesn’t read. I hope that BT4 doesn’t have any choices, doesn’t expect me to have paid attention in any way. Multiple endings and consequences only matter when you give a shit about the world you’re playing in.

Because as a game, Bard’s Tale 4 is pretty great! (Something which it does not have in common with Pillars 2, which was a deathless, joyless slog.) So far I’ve encountered two hubs and one proper dungeon. The hubs are large and sprawling, secrets for return trips hidden around, and they’re clearly areas you’re intended to unlock more and more of as things progress. This is Good Dungeon Crawling–where navigating the environment is itself a challenge and not simply a series of hallways where challenges (i.e. combats) happen. Different abilities and items unlock puzzles, which are liberally scattered around the environment. All dungeon crawling, these days, happens under the shadow of Legend of Grimrock, which spawned a handful of successors that all missed what, exactly, was good about it; what, exactly, Grimrock saw in the old games and recontextualized for a new generation. BT4 is the first dungeon crawler post-Grimrock that I think is remotely worth a damn.

Grimrock is not a plot-heavy series. The sequel has a bit more going on, but both confine their plot almost exclusively to notes and books. That’s not surprising, given its roots in Dungeon Master which was also uninterested in NPCs; I appreciate BT4’s attempt at giving its world more character. But I guess I’m just over NPC interaction. I don’t want to deal with keywords, or with Bioware-style conversation trees–I’m not a horny 20-year-old who wants to fuck videogame characters by picking the right options , and I’m fucking tired of developers trying to trick me into thinking a conversation is interactive just because I had to pick every beat of the conversation one-by-one instead of, you know, just sitting back and watching the conversation. I am happy to just sit back and watch a conversation.

I’m playing Dragon Quest 11, and when I’m talking to a nobody NPC in the field, their dialogue is not voiced but merely rendered as a series of very pleasant beeps–the same beeps the NPCs in the series have been making for 30 years–and when there’s a major event, the characters voice their lines, and I can gamely skip through it since I’m usually done reading by the time the character has spoken their fourth word, and they only speak a couple sentences at a time, and the conversation happens on its own without me prodding them about every element of their backstory–like I’m fucking interested–and the only choice anyone asks me to make is whether or not to help with whatever predicament we’re in, and if I answer no, they scold me and make me do it anyway, and there’s no choice and there’s no consequences and what I do in this videogame doesn’t matter and it’s not up to me and I’m just along for the ride and I’m not getting any deep phil osophical meaning out of the ludonarrative dissonance and it is fucking wonderful.

You know, like, The Bard’s Tale 4 is probably a very good game, I am enjoying it, but it will not shut up and there is something off-putting about it whenever it tries to introduce us to one of it’s 7,000 voiced characters. I’ve talked to a couple dozen people so far and I haven’t found a single character I like. That’s not BT4’s fault; but–like Pillars of Eternity–it’s not clever enough to do anything interesting with conversation so it just spouts out pointless exposition that would have been cut out of even a mediocre fantasy novel. You know, it’s just–games are so loud, and they talk so much, and they try so hard to be funny and wacky and quirky and jovial, and, like, let’s just all fucking relax, okay? Because when Bard’s Tale 4 relaxes, it’s really great, and then an NPC comes on the horizon, and it realizes with a wave of terror that it’s going to have to be social for a minute, and it says, it’s okay, I got this, I’m cool, I’m relaxed, and it opens its mouth and a fucking joke comes out, and it’s all downhill from there.


105 – I Have Beaten Baldur’s Gate 2!

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.42.05 PMThe latter chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2 felt like padding, but man, did the game stick the landing. Chapter 7 takes place in two parts–an elf city that Irenicus is laying waste to, and a hell dimension where you battle his soul once and for all or something. (Metaphysics in these games gets kind of fuzzy for me.)

In practice, there’s not much different between this chapter’s areas and the ones in 4 and 5–a small, linear place, heavy combat focus–but at this point, the tight focus and pace makes sense, feels right. This is endgame: We’re funneling to our goal, and anything left is a distraction. That kind of pace feels restrictive when in midgame chapters, but when we’re approaching the final boss, that acceleration is great.

I don’t normally like Infinity Engine final bosses–Sarevok and Behlifet are difficult beyond what their games warrant, and I seem to remember Icewind Dale 2’s final bosses being way above my party’s pay grade–but I loved the Irenicus fight, largely because I was able to finish it on my first try. Baldur’s Gate 2 does something interesting with its combat in that, for the most part, direct damage spells are irrelevant. Spells like fireball and magic missile and all of that are staples during Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale; in 2, many of the enemies have magic resistance, and in any case your spells only do so much damage.

Buffing and debuffing become the order of the day–enemies throw up different kinds of shields, and you’ve got to put in similar shields to counter their attacks, and you’ve got different kinds of debuffs and penetration spells, and in some cases, it’s sheer attrition–waiting their shields out and keeping your fighters healthy until their shield fizzles away and you can whap away some HP. Irenicus’s first form is a mage battle; his second, he goes into slayer form and has a few friends helping him, and by now I’ve gotten so used to the engine–I have, after all, am working on my second playthrough of the entire franchise–that while I wouldn’t call it easy, man, I’m pretty decent at playing Infinity Engine games.

I’ll probably have some thoughts on my journey as a whole when I’m done, but as for Baldur’s Gate 2, one thing that’s been on my mind throughout this game is a line I half remember from, of all things, the GoG.com installer which, as many of you may know, pops up little advertisements for other games they sell. Their ad for Baldur’s Gate 2 mentions that BG2 is an RPG that’s “considered one of the best ever”. I’ve played so, so many RPGs over the years that I’m pretty qualified to evaluate that statement, and–with some caveats–I’d say it’s fairly accurate. In terms of what it brings to the table as far as breadth and depth, it’s pretty unmatched; its characterization of the world is excellent; it feels like a major adventure, and completing it feels like an accomplishment.

I just wish the game had been a little more even. What makes Baldur’s Gate 2 great is the large nonlinear sections of chapters 2-3 (and the bits of cleanup you do in chapter 6)–not the linear journey of 4-5. It’s a fine line to tread, though–my issue with Skyrim, for example, is its aimlessness, is that there’s too much to do, and that you never really do focus in on your main quest unless you want to. Skyrim is the kind of game that’s too unwilling to make choices for you–this is Your Adventure and You Can Do Whatever You Want In It, even if that means being one of those assholes who writes a blog about ignoring all the quests and hanging out in town farming cabbages. Baldur’s Gate 2 decides, at some point, that the main quest needs to take over, that you’ve bummed around its world long enough, and that it’s time to get down to business. I respect that…but I can’t say I enjoyed it fully.

Like I have said–a shorter midgame would have perfected BG2. But of course I am coming at the game from a particular position–that of it being 2017 and I have so many games to play, because games are really cheap commodities; and I’m 35 and I work for a living so I am not spending a dozen hours every day playing. (I mean, admittedly, the lion’s share of my free time is spent gaming–it’s not like I just duck into these things for a half hour every few days.) Tightness and minimalism are things I value at this point in my life, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a large, sprawling game–I wouldn’t be into RPGs if I didn’t–and, honestly, it’s not as if Chapters 4 and 5 take up two dozen hours on their own. Still, less is more, says the fellow who’s written about 10 posts on this game alone. And I do like that BG2 doesn’t quite play it safe. The game comes from a place of both supreme confidence–after BG1, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, the Infinity Engine knows what it’s doing–and heavy experimentation–because RPGs were still a very niche genre at the time, and because in general this period of time, for PC games, was a period of high experimentation.

In a way, it’s making me very excited for Pillars of Eternity 2–you can see a lot of parallels between the Infinity Engine and the Pillars engine–the two franchises mirror each other in many ways. PoE is an obvious standin for Baldur’s Gate, being a sprawling woodsy adventure that sometimes collapses under its own ambitions but remains fascinating even for every time it falters; Tyranny and Icewind Dale are weird side adventures that a lot of people don’t quite like but remain trimmer, more linear, more focused; and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an obvious cousin of Planescape: Torment. 20 years later, PoE2 might be a reincarnation of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I look forward to seeing the improvements it makes on its predecessors.

Ah fuck, every time I mention Pillars of Eternity I remember that I plan on replaying it in time for the sequel to come out. That’s a hundred hours I’ve got to brace myself for.

104 – Baldur’s Gate 2: I Am Getting Tired

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 7.53.33 PMThe Underdark was not so bad this time around. Due to being at higher levels, having better equipment, and a greater familiarity with the engine, I got through Chapter 5 in roughly two days of play. The Beholders gave me little trouble, the Kuo-Toa dungeon was easy, and even the Mind Flayers fell pretty easily.

Honestly, the only problem here is how unnecessary it all was.

I had thought that the structure of Chapter 5 would make more sense in context–that perhaps it would seem more relevant to the larger picture–but your diversions in the Underdark is just that–a diversion. Irenicus has a connection to the Elves, and the Drow in the Underdark are of course at war with the Elves, and that war breaks out in the end–but what strikes me about Chapter 5 is how relatively unconnected to the rest of the game it all is. It’s at least a little more dense than the pirate village, or the Sahaugin City, but it’s a series of fetch quests. You spend your time with the Drow in the Underdark being bossed around from one sidequest to another; the sprawling freedom that is the hallmark of the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 2 is completely gone at this point.

In many ways, the Underdark is pretty important to the lore of the Forgotten Realms; it’s a pretty evocative concept. Underneath the earth, it goes, is a massive series of caverns, of Dark Elf cities, of fantastical and horrifying creatures. In practice, it’s, you know, a big cave with a bunch of enemies. The terror that could be here just doesn’t translate well to the Infinity Engine–there’s a distance in the isometric perspective, a tone in the writing that never really hits fear. The biggest reason for the Bhaalspawn to visit the Underdark is, if I may be cynical, because there’s no other place to fit it in in any of the other games in the franchise. It would honestly have made sense as an Icewind Dale 2 dungeon–it fits that style well, being a combat dungeon with some twists.

Chapter 6, meanwhile, moves as quickly as you like it to. There’s a couple of additional areas which are completely pointless–a couple of enemies, a treasure or two, and a small adventure involving the BG1 character Coran which apparently came at the insistence of an annoying fan on the boards or something–but it really is a “finishing up the loose ends” chapter. A fight with Bodhi the Vampire, and it’s off to Chapter 7 and the endgame, where I am right now. Depending on how long that segment is, I can probably beat the game in one session, maybe two. It’s good: I’m ready for it to end.

Look, Baldur’s Gate 2 is a masterpiece, it’s just too much masterpiece. Had I the opportunity to remake the game, you’d go directly from Athkatla to Spellhold, and after your adventures in Spellhold, you’d go right back to Athkatla for the endgame. The “journey” segments of the game take away from the focus of what you’re doing. It dilutes everything. They’re fun in and of themselves, sure–but what Baldur’s Gate 2 does best is density. The city of Athkatla has gone down in history as one of the great RPG cities; the Drow city of Ust Natha is an afterthought in comparison. There’s obviously the urge, in an RPG, to make a long, sprawling epic, but man, that’s what kills a lot of RPGs. Few people even finish these damn things as it is–they don’t need to be longer. They don’t need to be padded.

At least BG2 is trying to give the sense of a huge world; even if the Underdark doesn’t add anything to the story, even if the Sahaugin City is a side journey, the picaresque feel of the latter half of the game does make the world seem large and vibrant. I’m thinking about Pillars of Eternity which was a legitimately wonderful game, an excellent successor to the Infinity Engine–and one where half of the areas could have been cut, where a lot of the map areas had no encounters beyond a few combats but otherwise simply existed as a way to get between Point A and Point B.

But then again, people complained that Tyranny–a tight, lean game which featured no extraneous areas, no combats for their own sake, no areas simply meant as bridges between two other regions–was too short, so I guess you can’t win with these things.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be telling you how the final battle with Irenicus went. Wish me luck.

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.