Crispy Gamer

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer (PC)

Obsidian?s Neverwinter Nights 2 was a sprawling story whose wonderfully grand moments were undermined by some major technical issues: a fussy camera, poor interface choices and curiously inept patching to name three. The promise of new mods and adventures via the toolset never quite materialized because of the steep learning curve and broken Dungeon Master tools. It was still a great adventure with rich characters and certainly good enough to earn an expansion. With a new version of Dungeons & Dragons on its way, Mask of the Betrayer will probably be the final computer translation of the 3rd Edition rules.

The story picks up where the original game left off. Your character has been magically transported to a continent months from the Sword Coast, chest aching with the pain of having the Githyanki silver shard ripped out. You are greeted by a helpful Red Wizard and have to fight your way out of a cave full of hostile spirits. Why are they hostile? Because you?ve been cursed (again) and will have to consume spirit energy every so often if you want to stay alive.

Your mission is to find a cure for your curse, a quest that requires exorcising more demons than your own. A forest under threat needs to be purified; people trapped in a dream world need to be freed from their nightmares; there has been a coup at Wizard School; and a mysterious coven of masked witches thinks it has the answers you need, if you can prove that your new illness hasn?t turned you into some kind of monster.

Many of the technical problems of the core game have been worked out. Drag select works as it should and the camera is less annoying. Packrats will appreciate the new ?sort loot? button on your inventory screen. It neatly arranges your treasure by type; a handy tool when you run into a hoard. The artificial intelligence can still be a little wonky, requiring you to repeat ?follow? commands because an earlier script seems to have stuck, and though it makes good use of its spells most of the time, it doesn?t do very well against the undead, preferring to summon water elementals instead of throwing sunlight on the problem.

Because Mask of the Betrayer continues the original tale, it?s probably a good idea to import your character from Neverwinter Nights 2. But if you never finished it -- and lots of people didn?t -- that?s OK. If you only played for the first couple of chapters, you?ll still get all of the allusions to the original campaign and there are new epic character classes and races with which to experiment. Feel free to roll up a new adventurer, starting at level 19 and have at it. Plus, you can now easily craft epic magic weapons since your Red Wizard friend has a magic bag that serves as a portable workbench. You collect ?essences? -- each of which now has a recipe list attached -- and refine them for further use. The better your wizard and purer your essences, the better the item.

The spirit-eating part of the plot is more than color; it serves an important purpose in the game. You have to eat the souls of spirits every so often or your powers will degrade. You will lose hit points, lose abilities, and, eventually, die. You can restore this life force by eating spirits or, if you are damaged enough, spending experience points for soul nutrition. However, if you are low in spirit energy, long-distance travel and even resting to recharge spells is a risky endeavor. You may not wake up. So, the rest-spamming that was so prevalent in Neverwinter Nights 2 is impossible. Every healing potion becomes a precious commodity, and sometimes you will want to return to a spirit-rich environment just so you can feed. Provoking and consuming animal spirits is a chore at times, but here it works to increase the tension, because otherwise your high-level spellcasters would cut through the dungeons like a bastard sword through butter. Real heroes show up when you are running low on spirit energy, have only a third of your hit points left, and are in need of more flamestrike spells.

There are some curious choices in plot structure. In chapter one you can access areas for which you won?t be ready until chapter three. If you can?t beat them, why would they let you in? In one dungeon, ?The Skein,? many important rooms are difficult to find, and if you don?t find them, you are left with a course of action that will prevent you from ever finding them. Some paths close off some side-quests, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to do and see everything. Some areas require specific characters to be in your party for full plot value, but you won?t know that until you?ve been there. Be prepared to retrace your steps or return to an earlier save.

Even though the story is short and confused at times, it takes you to some really interesting places. You will find yourself in the ?shadow world?, a place that looks very similar to the normal world only everything is in black and white except for you and spell effects. This is a simple graphical trick, but it works because it is so unexpected, sort of like ?The Wizard of Oz? in reverse. This shadow plane rewards you for exploring places a second time, leading to new quests and new characters.

You will also visit the Academy of Red Wizards, a school where faculty conflicts are fatal. A recent coup has left corpses all around you, but classes still go on. If you like puzzles in your role-playing game, this is the location to enjoy.

Your companions aren?t as interesting or varied as they were in Neverwinter Nights 2. You won?t even find a true tank to sign on until the end of the first chapter, almost forcing you to play something that can both deal out and deal with serious damage. Personality-wise, only the spirit shaman Gann really stands out as an individual. If you win great influence with a particular character, he/she will confer bonuses on you. Suck up to the Red Wizard and she?ll give you a spell reward, for example. (Not terribly useful for a fighter or barbarian, of course, but she?s sweet on you.)

Because you have epic characters, some battles are over fairly quickly. Spell spam litters your screen with special effects until only your guys are left standing. But you?ll run into the other extreme, as well. Chapter three throws a half-dozen ancient vampires at you in a single battle, and there?s no way you win this the first time through. The variation in challenges gives the feeling that you are leading a powerful party, but that other more powerful things exist. Even superheroes need to feel vulnerable.

Obsidian hasn?t managed to create the tools and support system that have made Bioware?s Neverwinter Nights a modmaker?s dream, and Mask of the Betrayer has done little to lower the entry barrier for user-created content. What they have done, though, is demonstrate -- once again -- that they are storytellers with a good sense of the pacing and plotting that a strong adventure needs. Though far from perfect, Mask of the Betrayer has good writing, interesting subquests and spectacular battles. It?s good enough to make me look forward to whatever Obsidian plans for the 4th edition rule set.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the writer.