Saturday, April 18, 2015

Neverwinter Nights 1's Add-Ons

Is it pointless to look at the add-ons of a game that came out over 10 years ago and is nowadays sold with its add-ons automatically included in the purchase, removing any influence this rant could have on the reader’s purchase decisions? Yup. Has the subject being pointless ever stopped me from making a rant before? Nope. So let’s take a look at the expansions and premium modules of the original Neverwinter Nights.

Shadows of Undrentide: Meh. A cookie-cutter plot wrapped in generic Dungeons and Dragons events. People complain that the second half of this expansion is rushed in its storytelling, and they’re totally right, but I can’t find that upsetting in the least because this expansion is frankly just not interesting enough that I’d want it drawn out at all. Frankly, I had more than my liking of drawn out, tedious plot cliche from the game proper, thank you. The first 2 party members aren’t bad, I guess, but they’re not good, either. They kind of feel like unfinished prototypes of Bioware characters rather than the real thing. I’ll admit that Deekin, and the kobolds in general, do tickle my fancy, so Shadows of Undrentide isn’t a total bore. Still, one amusing henchman does not a boring plot excuse. I don’t know how much this expansion originally sold for, but I know it wasn’t worth it, because even in its role nowadays as a free addition to the game, Shadows of Undrentide still isn’t worth the time it takes to play it.

Hordes of the Underdark: Like Shadows of Undrentide and the main story of Neverwinter Nights 1, the first 2 chapters of Hordes of the Underdark is plodding, largely mindless dungeon-crawling busywork, particularly the first chapter. The first chapter is just schlepping through a big dungeon, as if that were something novel for Neverwinter Nights by this point, and while Chapter 2 does finally see fit to grace us with a plot, it’s pretty generic stuff. The return of Deekin as a companion is welcomed, the return of 4 of the main game’s henchmen is not. The latter bunch clearly had their character development explored to its limit the first time around, and add nothing to the experience here, while Deekin (though he gets only a little more development) is amusing and appealing by nature, so he helps add a chuckle here and there. The new companion Nathyrra is okay, I guess...she’s sort of like an extremely watered down version of Viconia from Baldur’s Gate 1 and particularly 2. Like, if Viconia’s character depth and personality were filet mignon, Nathyrra would be a Slim Jim. Still pleasant, but not even in the same league as what it could be. I did like the part of Chapter 2 involving the mirror-cursed town of flying elves, too, but yeah...overall the first couple chapters of Hordes of the Underdark are no better than Shadows of Undrentide was.

...But then Chapter 3 starts, and suddenly the game pulls a complete 180 on you. No longer are you just going back and forth for one minor sidequest after another, waiting for something real to happen. Now you’re traveling alongside the soul of Aribeth, a paladin blackguard seeking to regain her faith even as she walks through the frozen hell of Cania itself, as you retrace the steps of an ancient, slumbering angel who gave up paradise for the sake of love in order to find a primal being who knows every person’s True Name--the name the gods bless each person with that holds ultimate power over him or her--all while the eternal Blood War rages on closer and closer, all so you can gain control of an interdimensional reaper and confront a hell lord before he can turn your home plane into his new domain to rule over. Filled with philosophy and beauty, the draw and power of the ancient and epic, and finally a companion with some real depth, Hordes of the Underdark’s third chapter finally delivers on the promise of a grand and meaningful Dungeons and Dragons story.

Is it worth it? Well, again, I don’t know how much HotU sold for originally. But the answer would almost surely be yes either way. Despite the majority of Hordes of the Underdark being generic filler, the third chapter makes up for that lost time in a big way and gives you something substantial and epic to enjoy. My policy is that if the payoff is great, I’ll happily suffer tedium to reach it (I really don’t know how I would play most RPGs otherwise, they’re so boring gameplay-wise), so Hordes of the Underdark gets a thumbs-up from me.

Kingmaker: Kingmaker is a Premium Module for Neverwinter Nights 1, which as far as I can tell is just what people called Downloadable Content before there was any widely recognized name for the concept. It’s, uh...odd. On the one hand, it’s just too simple to be interesting--the premise is just doing some quests for people to get their vote on making you the new lord/lady of a city (and oddly, it’s a position always listed as lord/lady, never king or queen, so I don’t know where the title of this DLC comes from), and then a short romp through some bad guys set on conquering that city for bad guy reasons. Boring. And yet, it’s also too complex to be enjoyable--the truth of the protagonist’s lineage, and the identity, nature, and purpose of the individual who sets this whole conflict up, are only half explained, even though they’re the major underlying factors that drive the entire story. Too simplistic on the surface, with inadequately explored complexity as its backbone: it’s a tough line to walk, but Kingmaker manages to do so and fail you twice over. To Kingmaker’s credit, some of the party members are actually pretty decent (particularly Kaidala and Jaboli, though Trip and Calibast are fairly unique, too), and there’s a decent effort put into developing the party members both in their own right and in their connections to one another, which I certainly appreciate. And even if it’s not compelling, Kingmaker is at least short and direct. After a full game, a full expansion, and 2/3rds of another expansion that are mostly just long, drawn out generic boredom, it’s hard not to appreciate a boring story that at least doesn’t dawdle and delay on and on.

From what I can tell, Kingmaker sold for $8 originally. Oddly high price for the time, and definitely not worth it. But as it is nowadays, a bonus that comes free with the game, I would say...well, I wouldn’t recommend it, like I recommend Hordes of the Underdark, but I wouldn’t recommend against it like I do with Shadows of Undrentide, either. It’s a bit of a time waste, but not a huge one.

Witch’s Wake: Alright, finally! It took a while, but Neverwinter Nights 1 at last delivers a consistently engaging story that’s written well, has compelling atmosphere, interesting ideas, a good narrative, and some decent NPCs. Wooo!

Too bad it’s the first part of a planned series of DLC packages that was never continued.

Yes, after only the first leg of a mysterious and potentially awesome quest to remember one’s purpose and self, and to deliver a cryptic message to a king once known but now forgotten, this DLC ends, and you are left with no satisfaction whatsoever. Apparently Bioware planned to make this into a multi-part story, but the Premium Module program was shut down before Witch’s Wake could ever get past its first chapter. A damn shame.

Although I would like to express a serious level of disgust with this plan, had it come to fruition. I mean, consider this fact--back when it was released, you paid $5 for Witch’s Wake (and Shadowguard; they came in the same package), and what you were doing was paying for an unfinished story. If all had gone according to Bioware’s original plan, you would then have been paying more money for each subsequent chapter of the story! A common complaint with Downloadable Content is that if it’s handled dishonestly (and it so, so often is), it’s basically a case of consumer extortion, where you pay for a game but then have to pay an extra fee to actually play ALL of the game you ALREADY PAID FOR. Well, that’s pretty much what we would have had here, if Witch’s Wake had ever been continued. You’d have to keep paying over and over again to fully experience the product that you had already purchased! I tend to think of Bioware as having slowly descended further and further into greedy, amoral corruption over time, but finding something like this makes me wonder if perhaps the company was just always rotten, and we all just didn’t notice it as much back in the day.

Shadowguard: Oh for Phosphora’s sake! It’s Witch’s Wake all over again! While not nearly as intriguing or narratively strong as Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard nonetheless presents an interesting, engaging story with some actual personality for its protagonist...and then drops off into nothingness. Yes, as with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is meant to be the first part of a multi-chapter story which was never continued. As with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is something that’s enjoyable while it lasts and which you’d actually have some interest in seeing continued, unlike most of Neverwinter Nights 1’s content that we’ve seen so far. And as with Witch’s Wake, the intended concept of paying several times for the privilege of actually playing Shadowguard, the product you’ve purchased, to its conclusion is utterly repulsive, shameless extortion on Bioware’s part. What a load of bullshit.

Pirates of the Sword Coast: How much you get from Pirates of the Sword Coast is going to greatly vary depending on how much you like pirates and the whole swashbuckling adventure genre in general. Myself, I am pretty ambivalent towards pirates. By themselves, they are not interesting, and most stories involving them and the whole idea of seeking fortune on the high seas don’t pan out to be all that compelling. Nonetheless, there’s enough opportunity to the whole pirate thing that you can certainly get some decent plots and characters out of it if you’re a decent storyteller. So I don’t care one way or another about the pop culture pirate genre.

That said, I was surprised to find myself enjoying this DLC pretty well as it went along. Pirates of the Sword Coast isn’t kidding about being pirate-y. A jabbery, smartass parrot, recruiting a pirate crew, undead curses, being marooned on islands with (sort of) cannibal tribes, treasure map hunts, krakens, pirate-filled island towns...this side-story has pretty close to every pirate trope out there, and it plays all of them pretty well. It never feels like any of these common pirate story devices are forced, though, and the overall method of the DLC is pretty good. It’s only sparsely narrated, but what it has works, and overall the story is average, but the characters and NPCs, and the item descriptions and environmental text, are all lighthearted and even a bit clever. It’s kinda like a combination of the fun of Pirates of the Caribbean 1 (and only the first movie; none of that crummy drek that followed) and Muppet Treasure Island. So I did end up liking this one well enough, and I expect people who are more into the high seas genre of books and movies and whatnot would find it all the better.

Pirates of the Sword Coast was a bit costly for its time, selling at $10 (from what I can tell, at least; it’s been long enough since it was sold that my sources are only old forum posts about it). Nonetheless, it’s fun enough that I wouldn’t necessarily call that a waste of money, depending, again, on how much of a pirate fan you are. Maybe not worth that much to me, but I could understand why someone else would think it worth that. Moot point nowadays, of course; Bioware long ago stopped selling it and if you can find an installer for this module (or any of the ones below), it’ll authenticate itself and let you play it even though you haven’t purchased it (at least, mine did). But anyway, yeah. Decent DLC, this.

Wyvern Crown of Cormyr: Meh. Nothing especially bad (besides the damn jousting minigame; expect that bit of annoyance to get its own rant at some point), but likewise nothing interesting, either. Not worth the time to play it, certainly not worth the $10 that Bioware originally charged for this module.

The Dark Ranger’s Treasure: This DLC is among the 3 tiny little modules that Bioware made and released for free. On the one hand, it’s hard to find fault with something a company provides completely for free. On the other hand, this brief little venture could barely even be called a boring sidequest. I’d pass on it, but if you try it and don’t like it, at least it won’t waste much of your time.

To Heir is Human: See what I just wrote for The Dark Ranger’s Treasure? It applies to this one, too.

The Winds of Eremor: Ditto.

Infinite Dungeons: If, after a full game, 2 expansions, and over half a dozen DLCs of various sizes, you are, somehow, still in the mood for running around killing things in a dungeon for hours on end, then this is definitely your module. If, however, you are someone who plays an RPG to experience storytelling in the video game medium, who has become sick to death of the repetitive gameplay mechanics after experiencing them for 100 hours and frankly was not particularly interested in them to begin with, then this DLC is a thoroughly unappealing prospect.

Darkness Over Daggerford: Bioware designed this final DLC with the intent to sell it, but apparently someone pulled the plug on the idea of continuing to produce Neverwinter Nights 1 content before it was finished. So, from what I gather, one of the employees of Bioware decided to finish DOD after he left to form his own company. Thus, Darkness Over Daggerford is legally considered to be user-created content instead of official, but since it was mostly developed by Bioware, I’m still counting it here.

Darkness Over Daggerford, decent, I suppose. Nothing special, but a little better than the par for Neverwinter Nights 1; I at least didn’t feel outright bored at any point. The party members are alright, and the plot is generic but acceptable. Being unofficial content, this was released for free, so I guess the price was right, at least.

And that’s the last of’em. There are plenty more modules for Neverwinter Nights 1, of course, but those are ones made by fans, not Bioware. So how’s it all stack up? Well, good if you look at it one way, bad if you look at it the other. I mean, Neverwinter Nights 1’s main game is a highly uninteresting venture. Almost every part of its plot is generic and doesn’t hold the attention at all, and that plot is padded out ineptly by having most of its chapters being multi-part fetch quests that take so long that you almost forget sometimes what the hell you’re doing all the run-around for. Its characters are generally only a little better, with only Aribeth having depth that stands out in the game’s cast--and despite having said depth and being vitally essential to the plot as a whole, Aribeth is only barely present in the damn game, relegated to a quest-giver in the first half, while in the second half of the game she’s a plot device whose actions and development are blandly told to you second-hand.

So compared to Neverwinter Nights 1 proper, the game’s add-ons are a cut above. Some, like Shadows of Undrentide or those 3 tiny freebies, are no better, but Pirates of the Sword Coast, Shadowguard, and especially Witch’s Wake and the third chapter of Hordes of the Underdark are certainly better. It’s inarguable that the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 can be found in its add-ons, and frankly there are parts of Hordes of the Underdark that are awesome and epic by any RPG’s standards. So in the context of the game itself, the add-ons are the highlights of Neverwinter Nights 1.

But speaking in a more objective sense? This is a lousy showing. Its best moments are Witch’s Wake, which is incomplete and would have been flagrantly dishonest, and Hordes of the Underdark, which is only good in its last third and requires you to just slog through a bunch of average dungeon-crawling nonsense to get to the good part. The majority of the packages just aren’t good, and almost nothing here is worth its price of time and (back in the day) money. It’s not the worst set of add-ons I’ve seen, but it’s a much further cry from being the best, that’s for sure. I suppose add-ons were still a pretty new idea at this time, at least in a sense of downloading them instead of going out to purchase physical copies of expansions, but still, not great.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins's Lack of Asami

Sigh. So, over my Christmas break between semesters, I went on a crazy Avatar binge, watching the entire series of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra from start to finish. I had seen neither before, but always heard only great things about them,* and with Korra having just finished its run, it seemed like a good time to finally get around to checking them out. I was not disappointed with either show; they are both excellent and well deserving of the frequent praise given them.

What I WAS disappointed with, was the Legend of Korra RPG.

“Cheap, lazy cash-in” is basically how I would describe this game. The facile plot barely manages to string itself together in between-battle cutscenes lasting all of a few seconds before the next mindless combat begins, the whole game feels like unimportant filler, and the characters are barely more than mouthpieces for a plot which almost doesn’t even exist. RPGs are a genre thankfully free from the curse of movie adaptations, but this title is clearly no less of a halfhearted, manipulative franchise-milker than any given movie-based game. And while I’m sure she would have ended up just as pale an imitation of her true self as all the rest of the characters in the game do...where the hell is Asami?

It may be a small flaw in a title that’s little more than the video game equivalent of a cheap t-shirt found in a second-rate amusement park gift shop, but the fact that Asami isn’t even in the game at all is nonetheless greatly annoying to me. I don’t deny for a moment that a lot of that annoyance is subjective, of course. I like Asami, I make no pretense otherwise. She’s an enjoyable character with subtle but significant depth who contributes a positive dynamic to the show and connects well with virtually every character and benefits their character development. She’s sharp, active, and dependable, and she rounds out Team Avatar very well. I want to see her in any and all Legend of Korra-related ventures.

But even from an objective standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense to have Asami absent from the game. There’s no plot-related reason that I can think of for her not to be present--the game takes place during a time in the show when she’s as available to be out and about with Korra as any of the rest of the gang is, and the game says and does nothing that would require her to be elsewhere. I suppose you can make the argument that just because Korra has an adventure, that doesn’t mean she always needs to have her friends present (there are plenty of times in the show where she’s going it alone, after all), but Korra’s pals Mako and Bolin are party members. What sense is there in having some members of Team Avatar on the adventure, but not all of them? It’d be like making a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game where you could play as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, but for some reason Donatello wasn’t available, or even present, and his absence was never explained or even brought up in passing. It’d be like if a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic game was released where Twilight goes on an adventure with 4 out of 5 of her best friends, but leaves Applejack behind for no given reason. It’d be like if Kingdom Hearts 3 comes out and it stars Sora and Goofy, but Donald is just completely missing and no one seems to even notice.

It’s not even like party spots are being reserved only for the most essential show characters anyway. Yeah, you’d expect Mako and Bolin to be there, that’s a given, and of course Tenzin is an obvious choice, but while Lin is important in the show, she’s certainly not at the level of main character that Asami is, yet she’s a party member in this game. And Kya? The game throws freaking Kya into the party, but not Asami?

Now, I suppose you could try to make the point that Asami has no elemental bending powers, so she wouldn’t really be able to hold her own as a party member in combat alongside all the other characters who can throw elemental attacks around willy-nilly. And I could certainly understand how you would think that...if you were a blind, slobbering moron, because anyone with even the slightest shred of familiarity with the show knows that non-benders can still be fierce combatants. Lacking bending never stopped Sokka, Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai from being formidable opponents in the first Avatar series, and it sure as hell doesn’t stop Asami in The Legend of Korra. She regularly takes down trained benders and warriors on her own with ease. In fact, I’m relatively sure that if you took all the fights Asami has been in, and averaged out how many of them she won, and then took all the fights Korra the kickass Avatar has been in and averaged out her success rate, you’d find that Asami actually has a way higher win ratio!

And it’s not like the game’s elemental system wouldn’t support Asami as a team member. The game has an element for physical attacks. Plenty of enemies use it, and at one point in the game, Korra has her bending blocked temporarily and has to rely on physical attacks only. So it’s not like the developers couldn’t have just coded in a non-elemental party member if they’d cared to. Hell, it would have given the player a chance to take advantage of the strategies inherent in applying the physical elemental to combat, providing the game with a tiny bit more gameplay variety. Which it could certainly use, since the gameplay of TLoKANEB is only marginally better than its story elements.

Even if you want to take a stickler approach that the combat team has to be benders only, there’s no reason Asami couldn’t have been in the game as a team-helping NPC. There are plenty of times where she could have been driving/piloting an escape vehicle, or flying the team to their next destination, or something like that. Asami’s got mad driving and piloting skills, so she’d do great in the role of the party-helping NPC who ferries everyone around.

I know it’s not a big deal, particularly not when compared to the game’s other shortcomings, but it just strikes me as dumb to leave as major a character as Asami out of The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins. It would have hurt nothing to include her, her absence is puzzling and conspicuous, and as a character she tends to enhance the depth and development of those around her in the show, so who knows, maybe she actually could have interacted with some of the other characters in the game and made them seem a little more like the cast of The Legend of Korra, and less like standing cardboard cut-outs of the characters that some 6-year-old crudely snipped from the back of a cereal box. Probably not, I suppose, careless writing is gonna be careless writing anyway, but still. And if nothing else, having Asami around would have allowed for at least a tiny extra bit of time she’s spent connecting with Korra (even in as limp a way as this game would no doubt portray), and maybe help make the ending of the series just a little better grounded as a result.** Ah, well. The Legend of Korra’s a pretty popular show, even if it has ended...maybe someone will make another RPG based on it, a much, much better one I hope, and Asami will be invited to the party then.

* Well, almost nothing but great things. I had heard many people mention that Korra’s romance with Mako in Season 1 is stupid, spontaneous, has no chemistry, and, by far worst of all, takes attention and time away from the important parts of the plot and characters rather than naturally work within them. This is all true, unfortunately, but at least that nonsense resolves itself by the end of Season 2, so it’s not a big deal.

** Not to say that I wasn’t pleased that Korra and Asami end up together, or that I don’t think they should. I definitely agree that Asami is the person for Korra; they have such a natural connection from the first season on that their chemistry is almost tangible when they’re on screen together, and they relate perfectly to one another and compliment each other in the best ways. It’s one of those rare times when fictional characters are built right for each other from the get-go; in most romances I see in games, cartoons, animes, comics, and so on, the people involved have to be worked up to the point where they’re a perfect fit for one another. You’re sold on how genuine most characters’ love is through the interactions that play into the romance. With Korra and Asami, the genuine connection is there, clear and easy to see, without any of that work needed.

The only problem is...the romantic work isn’t needed to see that they’re right for each other, but it IS still needed to make their falling in love seem legitimate within the story itself, and Korra and Asami don’t actually spend a whole lot of time in the series together building their natural connection into something more, realizing its romantic potential. Besides the unfortunate fact that the show is skittish about outright showing their interest in one another until its famous ending, they just don’t actually have much together time on screen. What they do have is terrific, of course; I really love the scene at the end of Season 3 where Asami is trying to raise Korra’s spirits after her near death experience with Zaheer, I love the letters they exchange and the fact that Korra feels comfortable sharing herself in a letter only with Asami, I love their talk during the recap episode, and so on. But it should still be more, to warrant an ending as unambiguously about their being in love as The Legend of Korra concludes with. Korra and Asami being together is the right answer, there is no logically or emotionally rational argument to be made otherwise, but the writers rushed past a few steps getting to that correct conclusion.

How fun is it that a Korra RPG essentially gives me full freedom to rant like this on anything I want about the show? Fair warning right now, I may shamelessly abuse this privilege for more rants in the future.