Video Game Review – Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir

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You readers are probably used to my backstory rambling by now, so here’s another dose before the actual review.  I’m a CRPG lover.  Have been since Baldur’s Gate.  To me, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is still the best video game ever produced.  It’s the gold standard by which I judge all others, the 10/10 that’s never been touched.  From gameplay to graphics, plot, sound and replayability, BGII delivered an unparalleled gaming experience.  Its epic scope, extraordinary voicework, immersive plot and compelling characters made the game feel more like an incredibly well-written fantasy novel than a mere video game.  As the years have passed, there have been many Baldur’s Gate imitations like the Icewind Dale series, Planescape: Torment, the original Neverwinter Nights and its two expansions Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark, and finally Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions Mask of the Betrayer and now, Storm of Zehir.  One could easily infer that every single CRPG since BG has been influenced by it as well.

 I have to admit, the original NWN was a slight disappointment for me.  The true gems came from its Aurora toolset, which allowed players to craft their own campaigns.  A vast majority of fan content that I played was significantly better than the officially licensed campaigns created by Bioware.  When the NWN franchise switched hands to Black Isle (the creators of the Baldur’s Gate series) offshoot successor Obsidian Entertainment, my interest was piqued (Bioware was the other offshoot).  Though the game itself had some incredibly steep system requirements that were semi-disproportionate for the quality of graphics required, it was a true return to the epic storytelling of the Baldur’s Gates.  A phenomenal conversation system (taken from Knights of the Old Republic 2), excellent voice-over work, an interesting spin on the typical “hero’s journey” and compelling plot came together to form the closest thing to BG2 I’d yet played.  Unfortunately, the inability to travel with more than three other characters, buggy gameplay and recycled NWN music prevented the game from reaching true greatness.  Its first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, was an interesting exploration into a rather underdeveloped area of the Forgotten Realms.  It fixed certain gaming issues common in NWN2 but lacked a compelling plot.

 Enter Storm of Zehir, which feels more like an entirely different game than an expansion pack.  Its plot is lighter, its color palette brighter, and the overall feel is more swashbuckling than epic.  Storm of Zehir is a CRPG of sheer fun and surprising humor.  So buckle your swashes, draw your swords and prepare for my review of the most singularly summery of Forgotten Realms-set CRPGs.

 Plot

Storm of Zehir ditches the rags-to-riches hero’s journey clichéd fantasy epic origin story that’s been the standard plot for virtually every single fantasy RPG.  Instead, you start out on a ship with a group of four adventurers of your own creation.  A brief tutorial ensues as you interact with the ship’s crewmembers (and continues whenever you encounter a new game feature).  Upon confirmation of your four party members, the ship is swept up in a storm and crashes upon the banks of Samarach, a hostile, xenophobic human nation.  My party consisted of a Human Ranger (my main character), a Sun Elf Favored Soul (my healer), a very short Human Rogue and a Half-Elf Wizard.  I almost always play a Paladin and wanted to try something different.  Lacking a truly brawny “tank” type character, I wanted to challenge myself a bit with the party. 

Samarach is a bright green jungle with enormous plants

Samarach is a bright green jungle with enormous plants

Once discovered by the soldiers of Samarach (who arrest your party), your character is rescued by a powerful merchant named Sa’Sani.  She had hired the ship your party was sailing on and asks for your assistance.  Thus begins your adventure…uncovering what went wrong with the shipwreck, revealing corruption within the merchant organization, establishing yourself as a valuable member of Sa’Sani’s cartel and exploring anywhere and everywhere within a vast, colorful and dynamic fantasy world.

 While not as darkly epic as the Baldur’s Gates (where your character is dealing with severe daddy issues…you’re the son of Bhaal, former God of Murder), or as sweepingly urgent as NWN2 (where a portion of the game involves preparing a castle for a massive siege), expanding a gigantic merchant organization is a great deal of fun and adds a deeper level of strategy to the way you play the game.  Sub-plots and sidequests are well-written and enjoyable, often venturing beyond the usual “fetch” quests that most RPG gamers despise.  Character development isn’t nearly as deep as in past Obsidian titles, but I actually liked that I wasn’t worrying about party members leaving if I ticked them off too much (or backstabbing me during the final confrontation like 2 characters did in the NWN2 campaign…I can still hear their dying screams).  This reduced character development lent itself to the more light-hearted plot and in no way detracted from my gaming experience.

 Overall, the sunnier plot and enjoyable quests created a world less dangerous and more fun than previous Forgotten Realms game installments.  However, the game deals with the emergence of a new God and foreshadows the coming doom of the Spellplague (an event that occurs soon after the game ends and changes the world of the Forgotten Realms forever).  Including this foreshadowing was a brilliant move on Obsidian’s part.  They also toss in a few very surprising plot twists, each of which I had to re-read the dialogue for several times.

 Gameplay

Storm of Zehir has had some significant gameplay improvements over its NWN2 predecessors.  First up is the character creation system, which allows the player to create from scratch four members of their party.  The increase in maximum party size to six characters (five without a special feat) is also a vast improvement over the 4 character cap of previous installments.  This allows for a more diversified combination of abilities and skills within your party, as the plentiful in-game companions are also valuable options to include. 

Every highlighted character on this screen can be a member of your party.  Mix and match at your own risk.

Every highlighted character on this screen can be a member of your party. Mix and match at your own risk.

As I had previously mentioned in my first impressions post, another changed aspect of Storm of Zehir is the World Map.  Obsidian replaced the good ole’ “click on a location and encounter a random band of enemies in transit” map system of most RPGs with an Overland Map.  The Overland Map is a zoomed-out gameworld where you actively move your party from location to location.  Depending upon the skills and feats of your primary selected character, you can avoid wandering monsters, find hidden treasure, encounter friendly patrols and sneak up on enemies for surprise attacks.  While my Overland Map skills were abysmal when I started playing Storm of Zehir, I absolutely fell in love with it after a little bit of practice. 

Overland map of the Sword Coast North.  It's a great way to get around.

Overland map of the Sword Coast North. It's a great way to get around.

The new trading system is fantastic.  Once you establish your merchant company, you may create trading posts in different towns, start trade routes between cities and collect your profits.  Profits can then be either invested into your company or traded in for cold hard cash.  It’s a great way to make money and a lot of fun to micromanage.

 Conversations were also changed.  Rather than using the KOTOR-inspired cinematic conversation system from NWN2, Storm of Zehir opts to use text boxes similar to the original NWN.  However, all members of the party partake in conversations.  Characters have different response options based on class, skills, alignment or race which really flavors each dialogue within the game.  While there is not much character development within the party, the conversation system gives each party member their own voices and adds to the player’s immersion in the game.  I still wish they could have worked these options into the film-like KOTOR-style conversation system.

 New classes include the aptly titled Swashbuckler and the two Prestige Classes of Doomguide and Hellfire Warlock.  After some time, I decided to multiclass my ranger into a Swashbuckler/Ranger, which actually turned out to be a REALLY fun idea (with all his equipment, he looked like a purple cloaked cross between D’Artagnon and Robin Hood).  Tweaks were also made to the crafting system, new races were added, as were new spells and new feats.  Overall, the gameplay was a real improvement over the previous NWN2 titles, with the non-cinematic conversations the only real let-down. 

May I present D'Artagnon of Locksley

May I present D'Artagnon of Locksley

Graphics

While not earth-shatteringly impressive, the somewhat dated NWN2 graphics are brighter and bolder than in past series titles.  New face options for characters, fantastic spell effects, frightening adversaries and some beautiful environments ensure that the game still looks good (but not jaw-droppingly amazing).  The Overland Map is fun and stylized, but almost reminds me a little too much of 2002’s Warcraft III.  Graphics are perhaps Storm of Zehir’s weakest area…but the game’s good enough that it doesn’t matter. 

At this castle I shall build peasants.  I need a barracks to build my footmen.

At this castle I shall build peasants. I need a barracks to build my footmen.

Sound

WE FINALLY GET NEW MUSIC!!!!  Where previous NWN2 installments recycled themes from the original NWN, Storm of Zehir gives us a lush new score.  I’m absolutely grateful for this.  Voicework, unfortunately, is a little weak.  As a trained performer (I did just receive a B.M. in voice performance, which is just as much about using one’s speaking voice as it is about singing), the work of several characters (especially Sa’Sanni’s voice-over artist) was just sub-par.  The actors for previous installments all did fine jobs, but the voice-over work in Storm of Zehir was mediocre at best.  As for regular sound effects…they were fantastic as always.  Forgotten Realms games don’t generally get any marks taken off for basic sound.

 Bugs

Storm of Zehir is the most bug-free of the NWN series I’ve played.  I only encountered one bug.  I couldn’t access an exit from a room because the carcasses of fallen comrades were in my way.  Shouldn’t I be able to climb over them or something?

 Conclusion:

Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir is one of the best expansions I’ve played.  Refining and changing an already great game into a truly shining one, it provides massive amounts of dungeon-crawling, dragon-slaying, swashbuckling, sword-fighting, magic wielding fun.  A light-hearted and enjoyable plot, vastly improved gameplay, great music, few bugs and decent (yet dated) graphics are tempered only by lackluster voice-over work and a loss of cinematic scope.  Storm of Zehir is the perfect compliment to my “best movies to watch in the summer” article, as it may very well be the perfect summer RPG.  Filled with buckets of sheer gaming fun, Storm of Zehir is easily an 8.5/10 in my book (add an extra .5 if you know what a kobold is).  I cannot WAIT to see what Obsidian cooks up next (and with the effects of the Spellplague…can I please hope for a Baldur’s Gate III?)!  If you already have NWN2, Storm of Zehir is definitely worth the investment.  If you don’t and you’re a self-respecting RPG fan, you probably should go get them both!  So sayeth the wise Alaundo.  Necca out.

And they all disappear beyond the horizon, capes billowing gallantly in the breeze...
And they all disappear beyond the horizon, capes billowing gallantly in the breeze…

Note: All screenshots were taken from my playthrough of  Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, which is a property of Atari and Obsidian Entertainment.  I am in no way profiting from their use in this article.

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