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Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition (PC) artwork

Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition (PC) review

"The Nights May Not Last, yet the Dream Shall"

For the longest time, Neverwinter Nights was something I never thought could be for me due its shortcomings in single-player as well as my stubbornness to play original campaigns before any mods or expansions. While these problems are still relevant, and the game is flawed if it took me the fourth time around to get invested, NWN has quickly become not only the greatest tabletop adaptation for RPGs but also the most expansive, memorable tapestry of adventures. The reality is NWN is more than the sum of its problems or its qualities of excellence; it’s a library full of heroic tales that continues to add new chapters, new insights and new worlds that never loses its luster. As a result, to evaluate the game for the shortcomings of one story would be missing the point as there are literally thousands to choose; you can simply put the book back on the shelf and open a new chapter instead.

Evil always pays in advance.

Underlining this impressive volume of grand adventures is the extensive capability of the Aurora Engine itself, which is not only used in BioWare’s future titles (Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins) but also licensed to CD Projekt Red for The Witcher. These examples should demonstrate the sheer creative freedom when these tools are in the proper hands, and the most impressive part is how well the engine balances both single-player and multiplayer. At first, the limitations of NWN1 may seem detrimental to the single-player experience compared to the Infinity Engine due to the lack of feedback for party management. (As for multiplayer, it’s mainly focused as a PVE type of game rather than a balanced PVP mode.) However, once you learn to manage its clumsy, yet simple, interface the benefits of the 3D environment and the scripting capabilities for wider role-playing outshines its issues. Even with marginal quality of life improvements, BeamDog continues to refine this game—the latest patch allowed cloud downloads of modules when joining servers, and they have hired official developers like Ossian studios to create MORE premium modules—and every developer involved should be applauded for keeping Neverwinter alive in 2018.

When you roleplay as a character from another game, and the game recognizes and goes along with it.

In addition to these impressive qualities, the most amazing feat is to believe a game like NWN exists when modern games fail to bridge single-player/multiplayer RPG hybrids without sacrificing their core role-playing elements. Neverwinter Nights manages to provide an experience, alone or with two or hundreds of other players, to make each new roll of the dice a new adventure worth the gamble.

”What Are Modules? Is this ‘Ye Old Paid Mods?’”

Modules are probably foreign to millennials who have grown up in a time when individual cosmetics are something you purchase, but they are proper expansions that come with their own content, campaigns and additional features. The Enhanced Edition comes equipped with the original module, the two official expansions, and the three premium semi-official modules from the Kingsmaker expansion. The pirates module, the infinity dungeon module, and Darkness Over Daggerford are all amateur projects by outside studios—yet their quality rivals any Creation Club content by miles. These latter three pieces of content are between two to ten dollars each, or they are bundled with their soundtracks for sixty dollars (or forty dollars for the modules themselves available on BeamDog’s website.)

Before you get your pitchfork decrying a rip-off, allow me to explain some important details behind the “complete” version. The former Diamond Edition, which was only $10 on GOG, did not come with these three latter modules—you couldn’t even officially get them anymore from BioWare’s website— and you can now purchase these content far, far cheaper than their original $12 - $20 prices. In addition, as stated in the updated Darkness Over Daggerford expansion, which added 500 NEW voice lines and bug fixes, “Buying the enhanced edition of Darkness over Daggerford helps to support Ossian Studios’ goal of bringing you more great Dungeons & Dragons adventures!” Essentially, BeamDog has done with Bethesda cannot do by making officially licensed third-party content profitable for both parties, and one would hope this would inspire more amateur projects to keep NWN thriving into the next decade—or perhaps far longer if this dream can truly be never-ending.

As controversial as it may be to say, I welcome this method of paying for continual development as BeamDog continues to update the game across platforms—even on the iOS—and I hope they attempt to create their own content like Siege of Dragonspear. This aspect is what I think BeamDog will attempt to capitalize on as they played it safe with the Planescape Torment Enhanced Edition with only quality-of-life improvements. Even if they cannot use the official Wizard of the Coast license, they can follow the Kingsmaker expansion by creating their own worlds. What makes me more tolerant to this idea is that this method is the most ideal situation to become more professional with their own projects, and if people don’t want the content they don’t have to purchase it. (This is why I would prefer original content rather than fanfictions living off the predecessors, which would be fine too if done correctly.) These developers could pull off safer projects like officially translating the Infinity Engine games into NWN or modernize the 3rd Edition ruleset with 5th Edition D&D, and it will still provide players even more reasons to support its development. No other developer is sitting on the means to create a bigger name for themselves more than BeamDog, and they also have the benefit of expectations compared to the original campaign, one of the dullest RPGs ever created.

Everything Wrong about Neverwinter Nights is Learned by Others

Although this word of caution is unnecessary, please do not start with the default module as the expansions like Shadows of Undrentide or Kingsmaker—or even the forever incomplete modules like Witches Wake and Shadowguard—offer better introductions as to what works in NWN. Instead of detailing each individual module, it would be more useful to illustrate why the original campaign is often derided by examining the lessons learned by its successors. The simple truth is the original campaign, if you know how to make it tolerable, can be enjoyed, yet its problems are more at the core with the issues with NWN itself when it has poor pacing.

One of the better districts of Neverwinter.

Much like many modern-developers, the original NWN is a victim of its own ambitions to provide a sense of scale as well as quality with its vast design. Perhaps this issue is more pronounced for the single player audience, yet it’s apparent how vacant and spread out everything is in the city of Neverwinter compared to the close-knit community of Hilltop (Undrentide.) One might argue that the vast city of Neverwinter should feel big despite the numerous amount of NPCs, especially if it must hold a hundred players, yet no other module shares this problem. On the one hand, the size and the open-ended nature of the game allows players to truly feel like it’s a world they are exploring; however, providing an immediate sprawling map with mobs in the way makes it feel like a chore. It would be more likely to assume the allure of translating the isometric 2D D&D games into the third-dimension is the culprit as many gameplay mistakes from the base-game are corrected and acknowledged by BioWare.

Outside of the core problem of its world-design, the other major shortcomings come from not properly updating the 2D-style of gameplay into 3D with as much care as the changes made from updating the 2nd Edition ruleset into 3rd Edition. Part of the problem is the cumbersome radial wheels for every action that relies on players hotkeying the most vital (search, pick-lock, spells, etc.) as well as how you issue suggestions to companions. (In addition, the original module allowed only one companion per player—you could summon a familiar and a summoning creature for four max.) The only reason I can fathom why BioWare chose not to allow players to create six-man parties with total control is to balance them for PVP. (NWN2 thankfully corrected this problem, which is why you can play total conversions like Baldur’s Gate.) It’s understandable, yet it doesn’t excuse how it interferes with the core gameplay as you never have proper control over your teammates. It also doesn’t excuse how often the developers divvied up random loot between four or five locked containers when one would have been enough. If the tedium of issuing lockpicking commands and waiting for several minutes to clear a room doesn’t grate you, the constant “Aye, it’s done!” line will drive you mad. (Tip #2 to enjoy NWN: Ditch the Halfling Thief and get the female Bard, Sharwyn, as she has a likable personality and a pleasing voice.)

A neutral evil Bard with a sense of irony.

Speaking of one-note companions, the main campaign features several one-dimensional characters with a set routine that they never deviate from, which leads to what many D&D players would call the “Lawfully Stupid.” While the three-act structure does match its sense of scale with the conspiracy behind a city-spreading plague, the characters feel more like templates or illustrations you would find inside the D&D handbook. Some of these characters like Sharwyn do have some personality behind them, yet they pale in comparison to many BioWare characters before and after NWN. However, even the worst characters like Aribeth or Tomi are somewhat redeemed by the Hordes of Underdark expansion, and there are absolute classics like the Kobold bard, Deekin’. The quality from the worst parts of the main module to some of the better moments later on as well as its follow up adventures can become jarring. Given how much character and personality can be found by the developers, such as an option to defeat a dragon by preying on his fear of frost-giants, the more likely conclusion is the result of development hell rather than poor writing.

The worst you could describe this module, although you’d have to be more cynical than I, is that the campaign was created to be deliberately underwhelming in order to incentivize players to create something better. That lesson would be at the core of the modules that follow as all of them apply some new technique or improvement on this faulty foundation. Undrentide and Underdark—yes, that is hard to keep them separated in my head—trimmed down the worlds and made them denser with richer characters, quicker pacing, more complicated quests and even fewer chests to unlock. The Kingsmaker expansion tried various storytelling techniques like an omnipresent narrator monologuing everything, a complicated roleplaying scenario with a neglecting father, and a companion consequence system that feels more BioWare than anything they ever created. Even the stranger ventures from outside studios played with audience expectations like the infamous jousting combat system that left a more vivid impression than the monotony of the main module. These teachings are perhaps the cornerstone of what makes many modern RPGs take for granted as someone had to make the most obvious mistakes before others can learn from them, and if Neverwinter has taught any valuable lesson it’s that anyone can invent anything as great as the masters of their craft with enough ambition.

Paying respects to a fallen prince.

Never Say Never, Except for Neverwinter Nights

When it comes to the future of Neverwinter Nights, it’s perhaps the only franchise I can say remains alive in its past as I cannot imagine Atari giving up its MMO pedigree. (Yes, NWN was intended to be the proto-MMO before the days of WoW when MMOs were not mere imitations, and no, I do not care to invest into a free-to-play game.) The reality of a true successor to NWN is ever fleeting as it seems the fanbase itself is more than capable to continue its name as they continue to develop new stories, and one can hope its community manages to outlast itself beyond the memories of a bygone era that will truly never come back. Much like the ability to save your character sheet at any time to carry on the same adventurer onto a new quest, you can cherish these journeys to whatever games may come.

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (November 24, 2018)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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