110 – Planescape Torment: Intellectual Lusts

Screen Shot 2017-12-18 at 9.11.07 AM.pngAt some point, no matter what the RPG, you’re going to get to the Obligatory Brothel Level. People joke about start-to-crate time in FPS games–the amount of time it takes in between the beginning of the game and the first crate that you see–RPGs have start-to-hooker. It doesn’t matter how vibrant or magical your fantasy world is; invariably, the game will show its grittiness by letting your characters have sex with women–or, if the game is a particularly progressive one, with men–for money. Most of the time this is a bit of suggestive dialogue and a fade to black. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get a temporary buff; if the developer is being moralistic, you’ll get a debuff. If you’re playing Gothic II, you’ll get the finest videogame sex scene ever made. (If you’re playing a Bioware game, you won’t get a sex scene unless you go through the romance arc, because women are not commodities to be purchased–you’ve got to navigate a quest chain and sacrifice a couple of consumables, because Bioware is the most progressive developer of them all.)

I don’t know why this is. I mean I know why this is, but I don’t know why this is. I don’t know anyone on any point of the sexuality spectrum who actually enjoys the brothel levels in RPGs (or, for that matter, to echo Pauline Kael who voted for Donald Trump). Could it simply be that we’re all too old for that particular brand of wish fulfillment to be simulated? If I want a hooker, I can go out and get a hooker. I don’t play videogames to simulate the possible–I play RPGs so I can pretend to kill monsters with a sword and cast spells and stuff, things that can’t happen in real life. But, I mean, that’s my response to romance quests and sex in games in general. If I want to get laid, I’ll get laid. I don’t need a videogame to do it for me. Is it just a gay thing? Is sex so easy to get that I’m unable to understand why we need depictions of it, why we need the promise of it, because it’s not a commodity for straight guys? Is this the fault of the incels–you know, those fucking assholes who can’t get laid because, they say, women be bitches who only have value by withholding sex, not because they’re, you know, fucking assholes?

I’m edging into being moralistic, and I’m not intending to be. I don’t find Hookers in Games offensive; I find it hilarious. And while, yeah, I like to make fun of straight people, the same goes for queer games. If you want porn, go ahead and look at porn. It’s 2017; no one is stopping you yet. (They’re working on it, though.) One of the reasons I used to mock the queer games movement was the need to make a political point by suffusing queer sexuality into everything. I’ve softened on it somewhat–queer games is, by and large, a bunch of horny kids expressing themselves hornily, and I’m beginning to take an as-long-as-no-one-gets-hurt view of it–but it’s silly. It’s as silly as the Last Rites Bible’s edgy promise of sexy chicks everywhere. (See, this article is indeed about Planescape: Torment!) Is everyone just, you know, really thirsty, and I happen to notice it in RPGs because that’s the lion’s share of what I play?

But, you know, why hookers? Sex in games is one thing, but why sprinkle hookers everywhere? I’ve lived in plenty of seedy neighborhoods in my day, mostly in New York City, and there are a lot fewer hookers on the street than RPGs have led me to expect. (Most of them make appointments online these days.) Is it just equal parts Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women As Background Decoration” and the thought process of developers who haven’t spent much time in the world?

Planescape: Torment has its share of hookers–the preferred term for the street workers you see in its early stages is “harlot”–and it’s definitely attempting edginess. You’re in The Hive, the slums of the city of Sigil where you find yourself, and here it’s grit. You can get a fade-to-black sex scene. It’s all very standard and lurid and–again–silly. And then you get to the better neighborhoods, and you find the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and it’s here that the silliness reaches a peak for me. Because the BoSIL is, in many ways, a pretty funny joke at the expense of every Obligatory Brothel Level that came before or after. In the BoSIL, there are beautiful women in a decadent setting, but none of them will have sex with you–rather, they’re there for conversation, or playing chess, or trading insults, or–well, it’s not clear what some of them do, like the lady who’s some kind of medusa, or the one whose voice has been magically stripped from her. It’s a premise that’s very similar to the Woody Allen short story “The Whore of MENSA”, although we must remember that Allen does exist somewhere on the scale between “utter creep” and “full-on rapist”, so. The women in the BoSIL are referred to as “prostitutes”, incidentally.

The madam, a succubus named Fall-From-Grace, explains that she founded the brothel as a sort of school–she’s a member of the faction of Sensates, which is devoted to understanding the multiverse by experiencing everything it has to offer, and the Brothel is a training ground for the ladies to take their first steps towards becoming Sensates. (You, as the main character, get to join the Sensates simply by describing the opening scene of the game, although you were already a member in a previous incarnation, and you have hundreds and hundreds of lifetimes’ worth of experience under your belt, so maybe it makes sense that it’s easier for you.) And if you can convince Fall-From-Grace that she’ll gain more experiences traveling with you, she will leave her business and join you, and I highly recommend this because she’s the only healer in the game.

The ladies of the Brothel of Intellectual Lusts are more than simple background decoration. You end up spending a bit of time there; Fall-From-Grace insists you get to know all of them before she’ll join you, and you spend your time talking to them, doing their quests–all of the RPG stuff that you’re doing in the rest of the game. They all have different secrets and problems, and whether or not you’re intellectually stimulated by the experience, well, you do get a ton of XP for completing the quest chain, so that’s something.

Brothels in RPGs are the ultimate “roll the dice to see if I’m getting drunk” kind of thing–if the game just fades to black and takes your money, it doesn’t even justify itself by at least giving you a quick softcore clip. But RPGs pretend–or at least they sometimes claim to be–to be a more cerebral experience. Sure, things are changing, everything has RPG elements and every jock loved Fallout 4, but this was, once, a genre where you had to read a lot, where there were a ton of numbers. The Brothel of Intellectual Lusts exists to just utterly make fun of that. It’s a pretty funny bait-and-switch, particularly when you read some of the marketing material which suggested that the game, one of the most text-heavy non-Interactive Fiction games out there, was a titfest. And all of the RPGs which came after and just throw a bunch of hookers here and there come off as lazy. It’s all very–

Well I’ve been saying “silly” this whole time, but maybe “lame” is closer to the word I’m thinking of. I don’t know anyone who’s bought an RPG because there’s a brothel in it; I don’t really know anyone who enjoys them. Everyone I know just, you know, gets through them, does any quests that might happen to be there, and then goes, because come on, we’re adults here. But, you know, people did vote for Donald Trump, even if I don’t know any of them, and somebody must enjoy brothel levels. Feel free to say hello. I love getting comments.

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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.

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.

102 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Spellhold And Environs

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 9.05.27 AM.pngStructurally, Chapter 4 of Baldur’s Gate falters a little bit. It’s strange to say this after the epic that was Chapter 2–that pile of quests–but Chapter 4 feels very unfocused. If you remember, the chapter is nominally about going to Spellhold to rescue your pal Imoen and confront the evil wizard Irenicus.

But before you get to Spellhold there’s a little detour to the pirate town where Spellhold is. There’s a single sidequest, and some light branching–there’s two ways to enter Spellhold and you can pick your favorite, and you get a slightly different introduction to the asylum depending on which you choose. But the entire area feels like an afterthought. It’s a pirate town, yarr, without a lot to do–maybe it’s a final opportunity to pick up some items and prepare your party, if you missed the game’s exhortations to do so at the end of Chapter 3–but mostly, it’s time spent waiting for the real action to start.

And the Spellhold level itself is great–you meet some inmates, briefly, and you have your confrontation. You find Imoen. If Yoshimo is in your party, it’s revealed that he’s working for Irenicus and he’s killed off (to make room for Imoen, I assume), but he wasn’t in mine because why have Yoshimo as your thief when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Yoshimo was in my party the first time around, so I know about his betrayal and stuff, but it is a shame they didn’t figure out a way of getting him into Spellhold to have his scene–I’m curious what’ll happen when I go back to Athkatla to seek him out later.) Irenicus captures you and performs one of his experiments and awakens…something in you. The evil vampire Bodhi appears. Imoen becomes available to join your party again but why have Imoen as your thief/mage when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Sorry, Imoen lovers, I know there’s many more of you than there are of me, but I ain’t apologizing.) And then…there’s an unnecessary dungeon.

It’s not a bad dungeon by any means–it’s got some good puzzles, a couple of decent combats, but for the most part, it’s a dungeon under Spellhold that has a flimsy reason to be there. I suppose there are some Revelations there–it’s revealed that Bodhi is Irenicus’s sister, and you get your first taste of a power called Slayer Form–but it feels like a breather you don’t quite need. And after that dungeon is another quick dungeon–a test concocted by the former director of Spellhold, and so nominally connected to things–and then, only then, can you have your battle with Irenicus that you’ve been waiting the whole game for. He of course teleports away before you finish fighting him, but that’s okay.

And then you’ve got some more light branching–you can either go directly to Chapter 5, or you can take a detour to a Sahaugin city where you do another short couple of quests to determine their ruler. (This was a section I missed the first time around–I took the direct route that time.) It’s fine. It’s all fine–Chapter 4 is a fine chapter. But it’s not a tight chapter like Chapter 3 was. I suppose it’s got a clear goal and motivation–find and escape Spellhold, and if there are some detour adventures along the way, more XP and magic items for me, I guess. And I’m sounding a little more down on it than I am–I enjoyed all of it. I’ve certainly earned a little bit of a right to nitpick, and–Extended Edition content aside–Baldur’s Gate 2 doesn’t deserve more than nitpicking.

I’m going to run into this exact issue with Planescape Torment–in many ways it and BG2 are structured similarly: There’s a long time spent in a dense city in the first half; and a broader, shallower journey in the second half. The effect is of things moving very quickly–you establish a routine, a life, a presence in the city, you get to know it intimately, learn its ins and outs, befriend its people, assimilate into its ways–and then you move. You don’t have the luxury of time to get to know the places in the second half of the game–your quarry is on the move and you’ve got to follow them. It’s a much different mood, and it’s effective at giving that mood–but at the same time, Sigil and Athkatla are what people remember those games for. I don’t think anybody has much nostalgia for that Sahaugin city. I said that Baldur’s Gate 2 was, in some ways, a trial run for Dragon Age 2, and again, while I had my problems with DA2, setting the entirety of the game in Kirkwall makes the game about that city in a way Baldur’s Gate 2 isn’t quite about Athkatla or Planescape Torment isn’t quite about Sigil. I know I’m going to be going back to Athkatla soon, but there isn’t a lot left to do. Maybe I am feeling the beginnings of the end–while I’ve got a while to go, the majority of my journey through Baldur’s Gate 2 is behind me. Nitpicking is the most criticism I can give–it’s a hell of a game.

Off to Chapter 5 and the Underdark, the section that defeated me the first time through. I’ve got a few more levels under my belt, a lot more magic items, and a better handle on the spell system this time through. I won’t let those Mind Flayers get me down.

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.

71 – Planescape Torment

And from the frustration file: So I spent the majority of the day just firehosing Torment, cause I had the day off, and why not? And close to my normal bedtime, I notice that I’m actually about to enter the endgame. Okay, fine, I’ll stay up late, beat this sucker, and go to bed accomplished(?). I finished up my last few sidequests, including retrieving a certain item that, according to Ben Chandler, unlocks a really really cool segment in the endgame.

Now, the last half of the game is *extremely* combat heavy–to its detriment, I might say, but I’ll save that for another post–but the final dungeon is ridiculous. Your party members are taken away from you and you have to make your way through a large room pulling switches and avoiding enemies that, while no particular challenge with a party, can really easily surround your single character. Fortunately, you’re immortal, remember: If these things catch and kill you, the worst thing that happens is you appear in the next screen with full health ready to try again.

And for the first three of four switches, that’s exactly what I did–maybe I died a few more times than necessary, but whatever. Right before the fourth switch, however, the stars aligned and a group of enemies surrounded the entrance to the room; since you basically portal in, there’s no way of retreat or escape. The enemies beat me up, and then a nice little message letting me know that I’m incapacitated pops up, and an actual game over screen appears. My last non autosave was about an hour and a half previous; while I could probably run through that bit fairly quickly, I don’t necessarily want to have to.

Fortunately, I have all of those editors from the crowbar incident the other day. I’ll spare the details–suffice it to say it involved directory switching and renaming files and just all this bullshit–but the easiest solution turned out to be maxing out all my stats, letting my character easily defeat the enemies blocking the way. Okay, so far so good. Go through some more story bits, meet a character who says, hey, remember that item Ben told you to hang onto, well take it out now because here’s what it does–and I look in my pockets and son of a bitch, I gave the fucking thing to one of the other characters who is now God knows where.

My last save file is now about two hours before that point, and I don’t fucking care. The thing that the item turned out to be, it is pretty cool, and I do want to see it, and I guess I’m just gonna have to bite the bullet and redo the endgame. Looks like I won’t be beating the game till the morning or maybe even tomorrow night. But hey, that’s still pretty fuckin’ quick, right? I rule.