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.