Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Neverwinter Nights: It's Miller Time.

After playing and loving Maugeter I wanted to thrust into something at the other end of the Neverwinter Nights scale - something big and epic, where I was there hero, I had a destiny, and I'd adventure across the lands crushing evil underfoot, saving villages and kingdoms and all that kind of jazz. And in the NWN community there's nothing bigger or more acclaimed than Adam Miller's trilogy of campaigns: Shadowlords, DreamCatcher and Demon.

I was wary. A long time ago I had some dealings with various fan fiction communities, and it taught me that if there was one thing creative online communities like to do it's slap each other on the back. I reviewed stuff for my own amusement, I wasn't afraid to pull punches when it came to criticism - in truth, I was an asshole. Not being an asshole is not an easy thing for me, especially when it comes to creative talent - which is funny because my ego's as brittle as frost. With the Internet open to everyone it's easy for anyone to self-publish their own work to a wide audience, and most of the time they're doing it because they want to feel justified that yes, they are an artist. Their paintings are Van Goghs. their words worthy of Wordsworth.

Most of the time, they aren't.

These people cluster together and, in the company of wannabes such as themselves, indluge in epic bouts of back-slapping, often while the real talents of the community are ignored. There are real talents lurking in these communities, and they're often not getting the praise they deserve. That's why I reviewed so much dreadful fan fiction. When someone displays real talent that's overshadowed by people louder and more charismatic than them, it's nice to get a bit of recognition.

So before I began work on Adam Miller's magnum opus I'd practically made up my mind: This was not going to be good. I didn't care how highly the modules were regarded; none of them could possibly be any better than Maugeter. Maugeter was the sole diamond in the rough. The community be damned; Neverwinter Nights couldn't get any better than this.

The first module was pretty bad. I'm not going to say it was terrible, because I'm sure there are modules far worse than Shadowlords 1, but was it as good as the community claimed it to be? No, it wasn't. It felt old (which it was) and stilted. and poorly designed, and was lacking in imagination, and everything I loved that was present in Maugeter was missing here. It scored pretty highly on the Neverwinter Nights vault, which was worrying, because it didn't deserve a good score. The best thing about it was when I intimidated a guard into letting me pass by claiming to be a woman and flirting with him. I was a burly bard at the time, and after flirting worked (or failed, depending on how you view me scaring him away from his post) my alignment slipped into the chaotic spectrum. It was a single nice idea in a module lacking in nice ideas, but it showed that Miller at least had some ideas, even if he wasn't using them.

Things had changed by the end of the Shadowlords campaign. While the writing still wasn't great (as of DreamCatcher 4 it's still not great, but it's a hell of a lot better than it was) the scope of the adventure had opened significantly. The final battle for the fate of the world took place in three realms created from a fragment of my character's subconscience, each with a moral dilemma I had to unravel. It was a long way from the go here, kill things along the way quests of the first module.

And then came DreamCatcher.

By DreamCatcher Miller's mastered the toolset. Nothing illustrates that better than the opening, where we're treated to a cut scene, a dream (of the portentous non-Maugeterian kind), a moon-eyed discussion with your love interest from the first campaign, (I ended up with drippy Anera, largely because she was the only one of the three who was competent in a fight) a brief bit of domestic questing in an enormous pub and a outdoor carnival replete with magicians and performing bears. There is more character and confidence in this opening series of events than in the entire Shadowlords campaign. If I didn't know better I'd think it had been written by a different person.

Then meteors rained down upon the carnival massacring the townsfolk and I was summoned by the lord protector of the town, who sent me to a swamp infested with hags, elemental loam beasts and tribes of brain-washed lizard people to retrieve a fallen star.

This was different. Moreover, this was good.

It got better. The meteor I'd worked so hard to retrieve was swapped by the town's arch-magician, who took it and fled. I searched his quarters to try and find where he might have gone and instead found a portal leading to a vast underwater base filled with magical oddities he'd stored there over the years. Now that's the kind of shit I love in an RPG. For me, gaming doesn't get any better than the Clerk's Ward in Planescape: Torment, where there was precious little combat but loads to see and do. While the undersea fortress was nowhere near as wonderfully involved as the Clerk's Ward, there were echoes of it here and there, just as there were in the museum and menagerie sections towards the end of Shadow Lords. Solving riddles, lengthy conversations, whacky mystical gizmos - I love it. There was a seat that transported me into a woman's dream. She blamed the death of her son in a fire upon herself, and combusted accordingly. I ran away with her in pursuit until I located a ice mace which I used to club the guilt out of her. I love that, too; that in the middle of all the worthy adventure there's time enough for an unrelated subquest where I can go and make someone's life better. It's pleasant, you know? It warms the cockles of my stony little heart.

Back on track, my partner and I were to sail to an Elven island for the next part of the master quest. Along the way we were attacked by pirates, and although we managed to repel the boarders our defence against a flurry of cannonballs did not go so well. The ship was sunk, my love was apparently drowned (yeah, right) and I washed up on a mysterious island where I treated with suspicion and thrown into a dungeon.

Ah yes, the old 'dungeon escape' trope. No man's ever managed to escape! Of course, I managed it, but the escape showed off some more tricks Miller had picked up. There were elements of old graphical adventure games as I constructed a torch from pieces of rubbish, and some kind stealth as I pushed a crate down a hallway to trigger the traps strewn across it. All the while I was weak, diseased and dying, and without the gear I'd spent hours accumulating. I foraged for sustenance, killing and eating sewer frogs and drinking water from which I had to pick floating bits of god knows what. Once escaped there was a little girl whose dead mother wanted her to stay in the afterlife with her, and a new companion (and potential love interest, not that I strayed) who was worried about her father, the crazed mayor of the town who had me thrown into the 'inescapable' dungeon in the first place.

And then there was the dragon. After a nice long dungeon crawl that took in elder god frog people and a demon with five lives I escaped from a collapsing tower on the back of a golden dragon. I was impressed. I was even more impressed when the dragon informed me there were pirate ships ahead of us and would I like to rain some vengeance for my lost Anera upon them? As Bruce Campbell once said, I might be good, but I ain't that good.

We torched them and we smote them, and we went to the islands where they live and killed every one of them. I don't know what Anera's going to say when she makes her inevitable reappearance but damn it, I'd already given up one avenue for revenge. When I defeated the dwarf skeleton king and his cronies I gave their cursed spirits freedom. I could have bound their spirits in a weapon and used it against Anera's killers, granting myself a certain satisfaction but prolonging their torment. But I thought to myself, what would Anera do? And I let them go.

There was no such leniency for the pirates who took Anera from me. I hunted them from the skies and razed their towers to dust, and only when they lay in piles of ash did I feel sated and command my steed to move on.

This is what a good game does. When the talent is there, the experience is there, and when the experience is there the war stories flow easily. DreamCatcher is a good game. It's uneven, the difficulty veers from one end of the spectrum to the other, and as I've mentioned before, the writing isn't great. It's good enough, though. Good enough for me to get caught up in the story of Torin Lance, and good enough for me to want the pirates who robbed him of his love dead and scattered to the four winds.

Only one module of DreamCatcher remains, and then it's on to Demon, Millers final campaign for the original Neverwinter Nights toolset. Frankly, I'm looking forward to it. And - and I rarely, rarely say this - for once I'm glad I was wrong.

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