It's Deja-Vu All Over Again

by Wardog

Wardog plays Mask of the Betrayer and thinks about it too much.
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Mask of the Betrayer is the first expansion for Obsidian's Neverwinter Nights II; it's meant to follow on from the original campaign and references it occasionally but basically it can stand quite comfortably as its own game. Of course, if you've played any or all of the following games - Knights of the Old Republic I, Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Baldurs Gate I, Baldurs Gate II, Jade Empire, Planescape Torment - you'll be in familiar territory. In fact, you'll probably come away, as I did, with more than a vague sense of deja-vu.

But, since this piece is masquerading as a game review, let's talk some tech. MotB uses a tweaked-version of the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine which means, in practical terms, that the game handles slightly less like a cow than it used to on mid-range machines like me and that the camera has now been overhauled in such a way that you can do a hundred and one things you didn't want to do in the first place. Like Neverwinter Nights II, the game looks exceptionally pretty and the level of graphical detail is genuinely impressive; unfortunately, like its mother-game, it's subject to all the same graphical frustrations. The game looks at its best when you've got the camera jammed into your own character's shoulder (the "hey, I can see the cracks in the cobblestones" view). However since it's got a party-control system basically inherited from the Baldurs Gate games the only way to actually control the AI-deficient fuckers who make up your party is to zoom right out and peer down from them above like you're God, thus completely ignoring the beautiful graphics that are glugging down your computer resources like they're cherry coke. It's the worst of all possible worlds. To be fair, the game does offer you an easy way to switch between camera modes but, in practice, I found I never did: the aesthetic view was all very awe-inspiring but I was too terrified of missing out on fallen loot and barrels to use it.

It seems petty to complain about such matters - and I'm usually an easy-going gamer, just happy to have an RPG to play - but MotB is also bugged to hell and back. Within thirty seconds of having installed it, I found myself back on the internet searching for a download to correct the missing text file. Yes, that's right. They shipped the game with no text. Words fail me - which is, ironic, really. There are various other issues, some of which are minor and some of which aren't. A couple of the quests are pretty much impossible to complete, they stuffed up one of the endings and, as far as I could tell, their first attempt to release a patch only messed the game up further. Petty or not, get your act together guys. I paid for this damn game. I know computer game production is subject to all kinds of factors, and that the internet makes it relatively easy to get game patches to the masses these days, but I'm sick to death of downloading multi-meg patches to fix stuff that should have never have been broken in the first place. I'm not so naive as to expect a seamless, bug-free experience first time but I do expect the fucking words.

Anyone who actually gritted and groaned their way through the NWN2 Original Campaign will probably recall that it has the worst computer game ending since Monkey Island II. Not only is it narrated by somebody who sounds like the janitor ("Dude, dude, yes I know you're washing the floor, but just come in here and a do a bit of voice acting for us, no, no, of course you don't need any ability, here have a swig of this and a puff of this - ready? Okay go, what do you mean you want a script, just make it up") but, if you're a good guy, it consists of "rocks fall, you die" which isn't exactly a satisfying conclusion to a God-knows how many hours long campaign. The developers met the frankly well-deserved criticism they received with knowing looks and smug references to Sarah McLaughlin songs (seriously) none of which justifies the blatantly dubious link between the first game and its expansion.

Miraculously not having been crushed by the falling rocks that took out the rest of the party you so painstakingly assembled during the first game, you wake up in a pool of your own blood surrounded by suspicious-looking runes, which is never a good sign. The Important Object you spent all the first campaign learning about and dealing with has been ripped out of your chest and there's a bald female love interest waiting to explain the plot to you. The plot follows the traditional "work out what the fuck is going on" format which, to be fair, is as engaging as ever. You find yourself in ye mystic lands of Rashemen (which probably means more to you if you're a fervent D&D player) and it soon becomes apparent that you are a Spirit Eater - a manifestation of pure hunger that seems to be rather like being a crack addict except with souls.

In game terms, this means you have a "spirit meter" which drops steadily as time progresses. As it falls, you take penalties of increasing severity and when it hits zero you are consumed by your hunger and you die. However, the more spirits you munch the greater your craving grows so it's always something to be treated with caution rather than rampant "I will devour you all mwahaha" psychosis. You can undertake a range of activities to deal with your spirit hunger, including temporarily suppressing it, chowing down on spirits of various sorts (including your friends and loved ones) or sacrificing your hard won XP to stop yourself keeling over. You can also pick up spirit-eater bonuses as the game progresses, which are largely dependent on the choices you made during play.

Like anything possessing a patina of innovation, the spirit business is tricky to evaluate. It is, however, the plot so whinging about it is ultimately a bit pointless. It does genuinely inject the sense of urgency usually lacking in cRPGs, avoiding the "World ending you say? I'll be right there, as soon as I've found this chap's lost boot" issues that come as standard with most games. On the other hand, MotB has made very little effort to modify its core game play in the light of its new game mechanic: you're still expected to barge into people's houses demanding side quests, you're still supposed to be rifling about in every barrel for diamonds and you're still occasionally dumped in large, sprawling puzzle-filled mazes that demand careful exploration - which is rendered rather difficult when your spirit meter is falling rapidly and you're running around like the proverbial headless trying to find something to eat. Therefore, it does feel occasionally feel like the is game arbitrarily punishing you for the very behaviour it demands.

Furthermore, the spirit meter drops while your character is trekking over the map and it drops while you're resting - part of the decision-making process that went into this, I'm sure, was aimed at making both these oft-exploited aspects of the cRPG format "mean something" about but, at the end of the day, it just means life is as annoying as all hell for spell casters while still failing to reconcile the eight hours you supposedly spend in a tent with the actual game chronology. It doesn't make sense, it'll never make sense: nobody cares. I mean, the first time I played Baldurs Gate II it took me about a week of in-game time to get out of the first dungeon. Lack of primary plot urgency, insane in-game chronology, meaningless serial resting: these are all part of the "willing suspension of disbelief" that most cRPGs demand. Making clumsy attempts to make them less risible only serves to draw attention to how risible they are in the first place without rendering them any more convincing.

And, although the spirit meter itself has been helpfully frozen during conversations, any spirit-deprivation effects currently working upon your character continue to occur. This is particularly devastating at the lower end of the scale, because your character starts haemorrhaging hit points at a terrifying rate. This meant that, on a few ignominious occasions, I dropped dead of cutscene. Which. Is. Just. So. Not. Cool. But nevertheless the spirit meter remains quite intriguing in principle at least, and it is a genuinely engaging device. It's just a shame that most of its in-game impact is a cause of minor irritation.

Storywise, MotB is quite a bit darker than NWNII - as you might expect from a game that casts you as a spirit-eater - and this is duly reflected in its moody, black and white shadow worlds and often macabre dream-sequences. Like just about everything else in the game, I'm in two-minds about this; the shadow world is certainly atmospheric (being cast in monochromes with occasional red highlights) but all the portal running from one world to the next soon becomes an annoying fuss - especially with your spirit meter dribbling away. The NPCs are, thankfully, less abundant (and annoying) than in the Original Campaign and therefore they feel like they have more of a part to play in the story as it unfolds.

The female love interest - a red wizard - is, like Elanee, her pointy predecessor, devoid of any personality; she's also bald, which failed spectacularly to float my boat. The male love interest, on the other hand, a handsome hagspawn (if you like your men grey and bishi which, as it happens, I do) spirit shaman, who hides his psychological wounds behind a charming faade of roguishness and devil-may-care (instead of whinging about them in a tedious and unattractive fashion as seems to be the popular trend), is much more successful. I can't help but think (perhaps unfairly) that it's because the majority of these games are written by men who refuse to pander to what they perceive of as teenage boy tastes in their female characters (God, I'd give anything for another neutral evil fuck with a hot drow like Virconia) but are quite capable of sitting down and analysing what women are supposed to find attractive - hence, I suppose, Casavir's halting confession that he wants to protect you in the original campaign. As ever, it's a matter of personal taste but whereas most male love interests make me want hit myself in the face with a scythe, Gann really charmed me; and there's nothing like caring for the NPCs to get you caught up in a game.

The supporting characters - a half-celestial waging a holy war, an ancient bear God, and, some kind of fucked spirit corpse thing called the Many As One - are also well done and the absence of a veritable stable of NPCs to rotate endlessly - while maintaining the conviction that you're missing out huge chunks of their dialogue and story arc by failing to intuit who you were supposed to take with you where - means you can just settle back and enjoy the story and the characters. A lot of care has clearly been taken to involve them in the plot but they have surprisingly little interaction with each other, which is disappointing.

But, in good news, the dratted influence system (which Dan has already analysed at length here) has been "improved." It still works basically the same (unsatisfactorily) but influence is now flowing like water and the mechanics of it are completely transparent; no longer a pointless guessing game, it is now essentially resource management. It remains, however, fundamentally flawed; in order to gain influence with the various characters, you have to say what they want to hear and this yields up in-game rewards like extra dialogue options and character bonuses. There is no alternative to gaining influence; not having influence nets you precisely zip and may often lead to companions not helping you, betraying you or just buggering off. I know selecting lines from a dialogue tree does not really constitute an intense and convincing role-playing experience but, unless I've chosen to play a compulsive arse-licker, I would rather be selecting those lines under the pretence that they sound vaguely like something my character might say, rather than because I know that if I don't I'll piss off my companions and screw up the game for myself.

In some (rare) circumstances the influence system does almost work: in your initial meeting with Gann, for example, you can garner quite a bit of influence by bantering cheekily with him, since this is clearly the sort of behaviour that would appeal to a person like Gann. However, Safiya (the red wizard) likes you if you perform Spellcraft checks; obviously that's an attempt to model the fact that Safiya respects those with intellectual interests similar to her own but it's still patently ludicrous. The influence system is founded upon the simple premise that characters will like a) those who agree with them b) those who are like them. This is, of course, ridiculous; although it is nice when people agree with us, we also very often admire those who don't - we like people as much for their differences as for their similarities. I really hate the influence system - and I think I always will - but at least in MotB, its workings are displayed very openly which renders it at least functional.

In conclusion, then, MotB is a fine game with the usual array of flaws and some intriguing aspects. The characters and the story are, for the most part, engaging with some truly wonderful moments and it's a worthy conclusion to Neverwinter Nights II - I would even say it's a superior game due to the reduced frustrations of the influence system and slightly more interesting NPCs.

You can stop there, if you like but, as much as I enjoyed playing, I couldn't shake a few nagging concerns.

Here Lie Spoilers: Venture forth at your own risk

The key to the story lies, of course, with your new found spirit-eating habits. It turns out that the whole business was initially created by Mrykul, the former god of the dead, as a suitable punishment for his High Priest, Akachi the Betrayer, who turned against him (in the "leading a crusade to the City of the Dead itself" sense of turn against) when Mrykul sentenced Akachi's lover to the Wall of the Faithless - a rather horrific afterlife for those of atheistic inclinations. As a spirit eater, Akachi now inhabits your body - which he will eventually destroy with his endless hunger - and your soul has taken his place in the Wall of the Faithless. This is all so much D&D metaplot to me but it's pretty damn cool.

Except it's also pretty damn familiar. I fee like I've played this game before ... many times, actually; we live, these days, in the shadow of Torment and nearly every cRPG that had emerged in recent times from Obsidian has felt like an exploration of similar subject matter. MotB even has a mad hag in a maze who fell in love with a human for crying out loud. I'm not suggesting that KOTOR II, Neverwinter Nights II, MotB and friends are the same game as Torment - or even that they're trying to be - but thematically and atmospherically, and in terms of the story-telling devices they favour, they feel very similar indeed. They're about choices and betrayal and selfhood and redemption and responsibility and the intersections between past, present and future. However, unlike Torment, the events in which you find yourself inevitably tangled are related to you only in the most arbitrary fashion. Part of the pleasure of Torment is discovering how what you did in the past has influenced the present. But the stories told in Neverwinter Nights II and MotB aren't about you really. They're about Black Garius and the King of the Shadows, and Akachi, his lover and his God. As the player, you do have the privilege of ending both stories but they never feel like they're really yours.

The ending of the MotB is also troublesome. The final scenes take place at the Wall of the Faithless, where Akachi's Crusade is still waiting for a leader. In some ways it's rather nicely set up because there doesn't seem to be (for once) any obviously "good" or "evil" route to take. After all, attempting to tear down the Wall could be a response to terrible injustice or simply an arrogant desire to defy the will of the Gods. Similarly, one could refuse to lead the Crusade out of respect for the laws of the planes or simply because of a selfish preoccupation with the fate of your own soul. Since my lawful good paladin couldn't bring herself to challenge the divinity of the Gods - no matter what the provocation - I single-handedly stopped the Crusade and was thus very satisfied when Kelemvor himself showed up to tell me how great I was. However, I suspect I would have been considerably less pleased had I made the other decision, whereupon I understand Kelemvor shows up to basically tell you that you've been naughty and you can't tear down the Wall.

Now, I'm not sure how I feel about this. Part of me feels that if you introduce something significant into a game - like the Wall of the Faithless - then the player should be able to meaningfully interact with it, even if that interaction involves attempting to destroy the damn thing. Now, I also know that the Wall of the Faithless is officially patented D&D canon and therefore not to be fiddled with - but MotB doesn't even offer you the option of failing to tear down the Wall, which could conceivably be an important conclusion to the story for certain types of characters. From a player point of view, there are few things less empowering than being bitch-slapped by a God for trying to influence the plot or change the world. I also tried to convince myself that the fate of the Wall was never presented as the player's goal and, therefore, it didn't matter that you couldn't tear it down or do something other than look at it a bit. It's a personal story, I said, making excuses, therefore the player's goals and preoccupations have always been personal ones, like responding the spirit hunger and rescuing his soul.

But no. Since they make an enormously big deal out of the fact you are Akachi's heir - a mask of the betrayer (d'you see?) - then you also inherit the weight of his story and you should be permitted to conclude it, or try to, as Akachi would have wished. Furthermore, one of the NPCs who can join your party is obsessed with tearing down the Wall and righting the injustices of Mrkyul, so the designers clearly intended for you to engage with the subject. The game seems be uncertain whether it wants to be an epic story or a personal journey; as it is, it's a personal journey with an epic backdrop - backdrop in the literal meaning of the word, in that it's painted on and you can't do anything except bang your head against it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Jen Spencer at 11:23 on 2007-11-12
The spirit meter and munching spirits reminded me a lot of Soul Reaver. I've not played any of the Neverwinter Nights games, so I don't know how alike they are in practice, but that's what your description made me think of.

Declining meters can be engaging, but also terrifying (see the Life Meter in Knightmare: "My skin's falling off! I need an apple and a piece of cheese, stat!"), but I think a)having it be able to kill you in a cut-scene is lame, and b)it's nice if people give you ways to be able to affect the speed of its decline. In Soul Reaver, for example, your little dead vampire dude collects runes throughout the game, and, like may games, when he collects enough of them his spirit meter increases in size, so when he fills it he has more time to piddle around before he needs another soul-snack. The other cool thing that Soul Reaver does with its spirit meter is having it recharge when he's in spirit worlds. Does MotB do this? If not, perhaps they should think about it for next time.
Wardog at 16:36 on 2007-11-12
The flaking skull Knightmare thing was fucking terrifying; and you'd hear this rapidly thudding heartbeat which got increasingly louder as the poor bastard in the horny helmet (or whatever it was called) slowly expired for want of cheese.

I've probably been a bit harsh on the spirit metre to be honest; you can get various abilities/skills/doohickies which reduce the rate at which you get peckish for souls. And if you go down the Munchies Route of eating everything in sight presumably you get skills that makes you soul consumption more efficient. So there are several (theoretically) interesting ways of managing it, it's just the whole time-pressure aspect of the spirit meter doesn't fit within a game genre that's notorious for its meandering, serial-resting, random wolf-killing, barrel-looting gameplay.

I think Death By Cutscene was a programming oversight rather than a design decision. At least I bloody hope so; I can't imagine they wanted to make extended conversation the most dangerou aspect of the game.
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