Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Neverwinter Nights 2's Add-Ons

What the hell are you guys doing here, reading this rant? Do you not realize that Torment: Tides of Numenera comes out TODAY? The spiritual successor to the most brilliant, thoughtful RPG ever created is out, TODAY, and you want to waste your time on my rinky-dink rant nonsense? I'm flattered and horrified. Well, to celebrate the release of what by all rights should be the greatest RPG of all time, let's make the subject of today's rant a game which employed some of the great minds behind today's masterpiece: Neverwinter Nights 2! What could be a more appropriate rant topic than that, today?

Well, probably a rant on Planescape: Torment itself. But I didn't think of that in time, so you'll just have to settle for this. Enjoy! And then get Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Let’s see, how long has it been since Neverwinter Nights 2 was released? 10 years now? Excellent. Perfect time to talk about its expansions. Another stellar job at timeliness, Me. Well, at least with this rant, I can compare it to the original NN’s add-ons, and see how the sequel did. That’s sort of interesting, right?

Look, just come back 10 days from now and I’ll hopefully have a proper rant for you then.

Mask of the Betrayer: Uh...okay. Wow. Um. Wow. Words fail me.

This is the greatest add-on I have ever played.

No, seriously. The Mask of the Betrayer expansion is, hands-down, the greatest addition to an RPG I have ever encountered, by a tremendous margin. I loved Fallout: New Vegas’s Dead Money and Lonely Road, Fallout 3’s Point Lookout was terrific, the last third of Neverwinter Nights 1’s Hordes of the Underdark was epic, Mass Effect 3’s Citadel was absolutely great...but none of them even come close to the quality of Mask of the Betrayer.

Mask of the Betrayer is deeply philosophical and intelligent--brilliant, really--with a fascinating plot built on the deeper, more thought-provoking aspects of Dungeons and Dragons lore. It examines concepts of divine infallibility, the justice of the afterlife, love and punishment that transcend a physical existence, the nature of masks, which of our worldly desires and hungers are damning and which can break even the will of gods, faith and the fall from it...basically, if you were to walk a gloriously insightful and epic middle ground between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Planescape: Torment, you’d have Mask of the Betrayer. And hey, what a surprise, some of the people involved in MotB were also involved in KotOR2 and PT, including my personal hero, Chris Avellone. It shows.

Beyond the simple excellence of this add-on’s plot and the bounteous feast it provides for the mind, Mask of the Betrayer also shines in a few other ways, such as having some very strong and intensely interesting characters involved. Every member of the party is captivating,* and many of the non-party characters involved in this tale are likewise well-written, particularly the Founder, in whom there are definite echoes of some of Avellone’s other great female characters, though she certainly stands alone as her own entity. The add-on also provides a halfway decent romance for the protagonist, which sure as hell couldn’t be said for the half-assed quasi-bond you could form with Casavir or Elenaee in NN2’s main game. I mean, it’s not amazing, but it’s decent and believable, and in the case of Safiya, an appealing mix of both destiny and personal choice which I like, so yeah, that’s cool. It’s got a very effective soundtrack, reminiscent of Planescape: Torment more than a few times in its ability to set a deep and captivatingly grand mood. The villain of this expansion is great, 1 of those masterminds whose presence is legitimately felt all throughout the story even if he himself does not enter it very much. Lastly, Mask of the Betrayer helps to at least somewhat make Neverwinter Nights 2’s atrocious ending a little better by providing some concrete information (most of it positive, happily) about the fates of Ammon Jerro, Bishop, Khelgar, Neeshka, Sand, Qara, Grobnar, and the protagonist. I don’t know who at Obsidian had the genius idea to make "Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies" the actual ending of the game, but this expansion, thankfully, corrects some of that.

Just...there are so many moments in this expansion which are incredible! Seeing the Wall of the Faithless and speaking with Bishop...learning of the fate of the Betrayer through the dreams you walk with Gann...the battle within your own soul at the end as the memories of your allies, friends, and family in the main campaign stand at your side...meeting the Founder and discovering the truth of the academy of Thay and the voices of Safiya...meeting the hag mother of Gann...this story is just filled with so many awesome moments.

All in all, Mask of the Betrayer is a brilliant, truly epic story, one which completely eclipses the main campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2 (while, incidentally, building itself off of the original story and incorporating many of its plot points). This expansion, not the main story, is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2. I don’t know how much MotB originally cost to purchase, and I don’t need to--it was worth every damn cent, whatever the amount was.

Storm of Zehir: Okay, like, I know that Mask of the Betrayer is a hard act to follow, but I can’t help but be pretty disappointed with Storm of Zehir. Frankly, there’s just not much of interest going on in this one. The plot is just a by-the-numbers Dungeons and Dragons venture of uncovering a hidden plot by some snake people to violently infiltrate a region of Faerun, and stopping it. It’s not very compelling, just a little adventure for the sake of it...which is fine if you execute it well enough, but Storm of Zehir just doesn’t. The plot feels listless and drifting. There’s little personality to any of the party members, and likewise little for almost all the NPCs, which isn’t good when the only character who moves the plot along, Sa’Sani, is one of those boring NPCs. The villains are surprisingly absent...for all the (apparently justified) fear of the Yuan-Ti in the towns you come across, and in spite of the fact that their schemes are what drives the conflict of this story, you see remarkably little of the Yuan-Ti here. And unlike the dead god Myrkul in Mask of the Betrayer, theirs is not a presence nor influence that can dramatically sustain itself from off the stage.

Also, Storm of Zehir clinches what Dragon Quest 4 and Weapon Shop de Omasse had led me to suspect: merchant simulator gameplay in RPGs is just never a good idea.

It’s only fair to mention that it’s not all bad with SoZ. It lets you see how the Neverwinter region does after the main campaign’s events, while the original protagonist is running about in Mask of the Betrayer, which is nice. And there’s a tiny little bit of NPC interaction that indicates that Casavir managed to survive the main game’s ending, despite what Mask of the Betrayer indicated, so that’s a positive (a tiny one, mind you, Casavir isn’t all that interesting). And...uh...it was kind of funny to see Ribsmasher return as a party member, I guess? Funny for a minute or two, at least.

Honestly, though, those minor positive details really don’t justify the time and effort of this expansion, and it’s got little else of note. It just feels like it was made for the sake of spending more time with Neverwinter Nights 2, rather than any particular interest in storytelling or with any message to convey. I don’t know how much this was to purchase back when it was sold separately from the main game, but it doesn’t matter: it wasn’t worth the time to play, let alone any money.

Mysteries of Westgate: ...Sigh. And it had such a promising start, too.

Mysteries of Westgate is almost as generic and uninteresting as Storm of Zehir. The plot is more present, but it’s too short to do much of anything with its initially promising premise (a cursed mask through which you can see a spectral wraith which haunts and wounds you),** and in the end, it’s just another generic little adventure about stopping (or joining, I guess) the secret plans of bad guys to take stuff over. Nothing notable beyond a few plot twists forced clumsily in at the last minute...and didn’t we already do the whole thing with a city’s thief guild being a secret vampire hotbed in Baldur’s Gate 2? Didn’t need it again.

The cast is a little better than Storm of Zehir, I guess, but not as good as the main campaign of the game, and certainly nothing compared to the characters of Mask of the Betrayer. Your party members are serviceable, have some character development, but really aren’t executed very well. I mean, you take Mantides.*** He’s a former paladin who was excommunicated from his religious order for having lost his self control and gone too far in killing his enemies, and now he loses himself in drink because it dulls the pain. That’s a character with some potential, right? Sure. But that summary I just gave you? He practically tells you as much word for word when you meet him. It’s like...you know how an amateur writer who doesn’t understand how to show character behavior and depth to a reader over time will sometimes just hurriedly sum up their character in a few sentences? It’s like Mantides is doing that for himself.

It’s like if during Episode 1 of Scrubs, the first words out of Doctor Cox’s mouth were, “I’m an emotionally damaged man who’s afraid of giving up his own pride for long enough to get ahead in the world, and even more afraid of what success would do to change me, and my attitude, inability to connect emotionally with others, and self-destructive lifestyle is a result of my abusive parents and my ex-wife cheating on me and leaving me, the latter of which I am, deep down, damn sure aware is at least as much my fault as it is hers.” Only you’d have to elongate a few of those vowels, and maybe throw in a dig at Hugh Jackman, of course. Do you see how maybe that wouldn’t have been the best way for the protagonist and the audience to be introduced to the character? Come on, Mysteries of Westgate, I know it’s great for a person to be in touch with their issues, but you could maybe try to stretch that characterization out a little longer than the first 2 minutes of meeting the guy!

In fairness, the interactions between the party members, Charissa and Mantides in particular, are pretty decent, which helps make up a bit for what’s lacking in how the cast is otherwise portrayed. And there’s a couple other good points to Mysteries of Westgate. Like a rather fun sidequest in which you help a space hamster operative stop a cult from bringing an abominable dark ferret god into the world, all of which is anywhere between 10 - 90% the result of eating hallucinogenic underground trash berries. You may recall that I, like any sane individual, am quite fond of Minsc from Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, so I found this little bit of fun referencing Minsc’s little pal Boo quite enjoyable. Also, the conclusions for the character arcs of Charissa and Mantides are pretty decent.

But in the end, well, this add-on just doesn’t really measure up. The narrative’s amateurish in its directness part of the time, and unable to catch up to the pace at other times, the characters don’t really feel alive, the villain’s bland and doesn’t really sell the master manipulator schtick that he wants to take on...Mysteries of Westgate just isn’t good, I’m sorry to say. Like Storm of Zehir, I don’t need to find out what it originally sold for to know that it wasn’t worth it.

And that’s all for the official add-ons of Neverwinter Nights 2. Not nearly so many as the first game had, but that’s certainly no disappointment, given how tiresome and superfluous NN1’s DLC started to feel after a while. So how does Neverwinter Nights 2 stack up against its predecessor in terms of additional content?

Well, favorably, I guess. I mean, yeah, Storm of Zehir and Mysteries of Westgate are absolute throwaways, not even close to worth the time it takes to play them. But the same can be said of several of Neverwinter Nights 1’s add-ons; neither SoZ nor MoW are any worse than Shadows of Undrentide or Wyvern Crown of Cormyr. And while NN1 did have its positive moments with Pirates of the Sword Coast, what little we got of Witch’s Wake, and especially the third act of Hordes of the Underdark, none of those hold the faintest candle to the excellence of Mask of the Betrayer.

In fact, as far as I’m concerned, Neverwinter Nights 2’s add-on experience was a positive success for me. SoZ and MoW might have been boring washes, but they weren’t outright bad experiences, and more importantly, Mask of the Betrayer is, as I’ve said, just thoroughly magnificent. If NN2 had contained within it every single add-on I’ve hated in the past 10 years, and Mask of the Betrayer, I’d still come out of the experience feeling damn good about it. I fully expect that when I do my Annual Summary for 2017, Mask of the Betrayer will by itself be 1 of the best RPGs I play this year, and if it weren’t for the fact that Torment: Tides of Numenera is coming out this same year, I’d even have bet that MotB would have a strong shot at the top spot.

So kudos to you, Obsidian--though you packaged it with a couple subpar peers and wrapped it in a mildly good game, you have 1 hell of a gem in Mask of the Betrayer, and I’ll keep it with me as 1 of my finest RPG experiences.

* By the way, does anyone reading this have a script for the character One of Many’s lines in this expansion? I went the good guy route, meaning that I had Okku as a follower rather than One of Many, so I didn’t really get to experience the latter very much. But the character’s concept is spectacular, and I would SO love to be as familiar with One of Many as I am with the rest of the cast. If anyone happens to know a script of One of Many’s lines, or perhaps a video specifically dedicated to conversations with One of Many, it would be so appreciated if you were to share it with me.

** Odd choice, by the way, to make a mask the focal plot item in this expansion. What with, y’know, the first expansion to the game being Mask of the Betrayer. I mean, yeah, the titular Mask of the Betrayer is more figurative than literal, but still, it almost feels like they were trying to ride the earlier expansion’s coattails somehow.

*** Pronounced, incidentally, way too close to “Man Titties” for comfort.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Guest Rant: Bravely Second's Sidequests' Failed Potential, by Humza

Phew! Thinking up slightly amusing Valentine messages and slapping them on pictures of RPG stuff really took it out of me. I couldn't possibly make another rant so soon after that ordeal. Luckily, I don't have to! Today, my generous reader and friend Humza has provided me with another fine guest rant. I get to take a ranting breather, and you folks get to read something good for once. Everyone wins!

Disclaimer: As before, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. In fact, since I haven't played either of the Bravely games, it's a hard certainty that they don't. But who knows, they might someday. Time will tell.

Bravely Second’s Sidequests’ Failed Potential

November 28, 2016

I thought of writing about the sidequests from Bravely Second a while ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to submit something sooner rather than later since it shares some thematic relevance with the GrandLethal16’s submission considering how choice is a significant (maybe even the central) component of Bravely Second’s sidequests.

The basic premise is shared between all of the sidequests in Bravely Second: there are two parties (usually the asterisk holders from Bravely Default) that are in conflict, and they appoint Edea as a mediator (since she’s the daughter of the Grand Marshal and is expected to succeed her father as Eternia’s leader, which requires solving conflicts like this) to judge which side is morally superior.

The first sidequest that is available revolves around a conflict between Jackal and DeRosa, who argue about what the Wellspring Gem (which functions as a source of water) should be used for. Jackal wants to use it to sustain the people of the oasis as it traditionally has (a case that is made more compelling considering that there is currently a water shortage), while DeRosa wants to use the gem to produce somnial energy from water (which is similar to nuclear power, in its ability to produce immense amount of energy, but holds the destructive power to annihilate entire cities; DeRosa hopes that the power would help attain world peace since any aggressing country has the threat of being wiped out by other countries with the energy).

Ignoring logical errors on DeRosa’s part, this is a variation of the well-known trolley problem: would you rather save the people of the oasis at the expense of preventing any wars, or is their sacrificing a necessity for preventing even more lives from being lost?

At the same point in the story that the sidequest is made available, a city is enveloped by a wind spell cast by Norzem; those within it cannot leave and those outside it cannot enter the city. Norzem’s intent is to destroy the flying castle above the city, which also requires murdering the people inside the city. This could be interpreted as another variation of the trolley problem since the people of Ancheim would die, but many more lives would be saved as a result. This ties the sidequest neatly into the plot since both have a common theme that connects them.

The problem with Bravely Second’s sidequests is that none of the others follow suit in establishing a thematic connection to the plot. This might seem like nit-picking, but most of the other sidequests seem like short stories that the plot does not benefit from having (the game did set up these expectations itself, so it would be reasonable to expect the game to deliver on them). This is still quite good compared to most RPGs’ sidequests, which don’t provide much emotional investment to the player, but adding thematic relevance would likely make the side quests more memorable since there’s more significance attached to it (and it would also erase the feeling of disappointment from people that interpreted the first sidequest as I did, but it’s probable most others would not have cared or noticed the relevance while playing for enjoyment).

I’m aware that there would be some problems in tying each sidequest to the plot, but I think these problems would not outweigh the added benefits, and that many of them could be dealt with in some way.

The main problem is that the sidequests would need to be rewritten to some extent (or perhaps scrapped entirely), but I do not see this as a problem since some of the sidequests do not present an interesting moral problem (does anyone care about Gho summoning Amaterasu or continuing his current job, or who gets Arca Pellar’s lost song when there’s no clear positive or negative consequences on either side?) and those sidequests would likely be improved or replaced with better ones with such a rewrite, and most of the better sidequests in the game could be tied to the plot without losing any significant details. For example, the conflict between Ominas and Artemia could be moved to the point in the story where Revenant tries to avenge Geist since both involve the potential loss of a few innocent lives at the expense of [removing] a threat to more lives (I guess the writer likes trolley problems since this is another variation, albeit with the opposite outcome).

Another problem with the proposed improvement could be that the choice loses value because the plot would have reflected the “canon” choice that the player should have made, but a sidequest wouldn’t need to reflect a choice the party makes in order to establish a connection with the plot. Also, the main narrative purpose of the sidequests is to help Edea develop as a leader for Eternia (which is shown in the final sidequest) when the Grand Marshal retires, but there’s already a “best” or “canon” choice for Edea’s final choice*, which already makes it seem like the other individual choices don’t matter since the overall ending doesn’t matter (and you could make a case that the choices already have little significance since the localisation seems to have erased the bad consequences from the ending of each side quest).

I don’t know how something like this might be received on the blog since it reads more like feedback that one would send to a developer (it looks like Square Enix takes feedback seriously, at least for this series, so that might not be entirely worthless), but I’d be interested to see if others feel similarly or disagree.

*I wanted to add this as a note since it’s a significant spoiler (I tried to be vague about aspects of the plot beyond the beginning) and a spoiler warning wouldn’t flow well above (although I’d argue this criticism doesn’t really flow well in general...). For the final sidequest, Edea has the choice to use a sword or a shield to symbolise whether she rules with submission from her citizens or to protect them, and she would be judged depending on what she equipped. The decision treated as canon is if Edea were to get both the sword and the shield, but equip neither of them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

General RPG Valentines 1

Howdy folks! It’s February! And that means that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, the holiday all about love, joyous romance, and blowing your wallet to hell for the sake of appearances, because fuck me if we can have even a single goddamn holiday that our toxic level of capitalism doesn’t make into a cheap, crass cash grab.

Is there someone special in your life? Do you have a La Pucelle Tactics’s Priere-level disability that makes you utterly incapable of doing something so fucking simple as honestly communicating your affection to that someone special? Well, no worries, friends, The RPGenius has got you covered. Below are 20 RPG valentines guaranteed to win the heart of whomever you hand (well, copy-paste) them to! Or at least get him/her to look at you funny. But that’s still kinda like your senpai noticing you, right? Enjoy!

But hey, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, sourpusses! Are you the sort of person who feels the need to take a holiday about romantic love as a personal attack? No worries, cuz The RPGenius has got you covered, too! Here are a few RPG anti-valentines to help you blacken someone’s day...or, as previously noted, just make them look at you funny. Ironically enjoy!

Oh, and yes, the number in this rant’s title does indeed mean that this is gonna be a yearly thing. My only regret is that it took me this long to think of this.