The way I see it, there are two primary schools of role-playing games; The first are the RPGs which are inspired by pen-and-paper dice-rolling games in which you design your own character and choose how you would like them to develop, and how they respond to the choices set out for them in the game. The second is the Japanese style, which basically says, "this character that we designed for you is the role you'll be playing for the next 80 hours. Get to it." As you can probably already deduce from my tone, I do tend to prefer the former option, and games like Darksun: Shattered Lands and the Fallout series are great examples as to why. For me, the entire point of an RPG is to create and develop the character as you'd like them to be, and to truly feel as though the way you play through the game is, in your own way, a fairly unique experience from how others might play it.
As such, the success of an immersive RPG relies heavily on creating a game play mechanic that feels more like playing a role than playing a game; Hence, "role-playing game". In this regard, my role-playing experience can be easily shattered when the character I control talks without my permission; an extension of such a scenario is the gratuitous use of cinematic cutscenes that paradoxically remind me that I'm playing a game by refusing to let me play it.
And so, having recently been craving for a good ol' RPG just like the ones I remember growing up with, I started looking into tracking down games that I missed out on, like Baldur's Gate 2, and Neverwinter Nights. Baldur's Gate 2 was not at all available to me through any reasonable convenience, and the Neverwinter Nights Diamond edition was selling for $25, and so my choice wasn't just easy, it was non-existent.
Now, you'll notice that this is a "first impressions" review, and I'll readily admit that I haven't gotten very far into the game, and I'll even go on to say that this will look less and less like an actual review and more like a commentary, as my main focus will be addressing NWN based on the themes I have already illustrated above.
The game starts with the character creation, naturally, and although customization of your character's physical qualities aren't quite as in-depth as you'll find in today's games (like Mass Effect and Oblivion), it's still pretty good for its time, I assume and at any rate, good enough for me. When it comes down to assigning your stats, you'll see all the familiar categories here, like strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma, etc, and of course, you're given a budget of points to assign. You'll also notice that the game comes with a "defeat the entire point" feature, which can be accessed through a button labelled "Recommended" in which you place the assignment of your statistics entirely in the hands of the computer, no doubt for people who want their characters to be generic.
And so the story begins with a brief history of Neverwinter; a town that was once thriving and almost utopian, which has fallen to a vicious plague that is wiping out the civilians, causing social unrest, and running Neverwinter chaotically into the ground. A number of selected wannabe heroes are accepted to train in an academy that will will teach them the skills of their trade and unleash them upon their quest to get to the bottom of the plague's origins and hopefully find a cure.
The training academy is a fairly clever way of integrating a tutorial into the game, but unfortunately, the fourth wall is immediately broken once NPCs begin telling me to left-click on objects and to pull up my menu screens. My role-playing fix was also torn away from me by having everyone in the academy telling me how great I was, and how I'm sure to be the saviour of Neverwinter, only to release me into the city streets where I get routinely beaten up by hobos who have nothing better to do with their time. The difficulty curve gets even steeper once you factor in that I created a rogue character so I can strive to become an assassin, but my stealth skills were so underdeveloped that not only can the hobos spot me really easily, but they call in all their friends to partake in beating me up.
Given that I was having a very difficult time getting into my role as a badass adventurer when I'm constantly being mugged by street urchins, I decided that I would cheat a little bit, just to boost me up to the level that I felt I should be at. After much guessing and testing, I ended up with a character that I imagine I might not have even achieved by the time I reached the end of the game, and even still, I found that my stealth skills were fallible enough to result in having every single guard, dog, giant beetle, and imp joining in on a piñata party that involved me as the piñata, and my severed limbs as the bats.
It was around this time that one of the loading screens informed me that the game is balanced based on me hiring a henchman to accompany me, and that choosing to go solo is the reason why the game is so God-damn hard. Unfortunately, hiring on a lackey simply because I feel that I have to in order for the game to take pity on me is not a good way of helping me feel like I am any sort of self-respecting rogue.
To compare it to previous role playing experiences, at the beginning of Darksun: Shattered Lands, you and your party start off as slaves who are forced to fight in a gladiator arena for entertainment, and it is through these battles of increasing difficulty that you grind your experience up enough to break out of the slave pens and progress to the main plotline.
In the Fallout games, you are basically just a mostly average guy that has been chosen to set out upon a task, and it's up to you to develop the skills that you need in order to complete your tasks. In Neverwinter Nights, everybody kicks off immediately by telling you that you're one of the top students at the academy, that you've got the talent that it takes to be a hero, and that they have confidence in you to be the saviour of the land. And then you walk a few screens over and get beaten up by hobos.
As a game, however, it is nothing short of excellent, though I'm probably going to have to start the game over with a demotion to the Easy difficulty, since Normal mode is constantly bending me over the table. The gameplay mechanics are constructed of many of the ingredients that I appreciate, such as open-ended interaction with the world, free-roaming environments, good character customization, class systems, and weapons and armour, and it's always a very nice touch to be able to see your character actually wearing the armour that you've equipped them with. It is unfortunate, however, that a few simple details can detract from my role playing experience in such a significant way. It's hard for me to stay in the game when I'm being touted as a natural born hero, and yet not even having enough skill and ability to predict a coin toss with 50% accuracy. In fact, guessing heads or tails probably requires me to roll 1d10 and get 8 or higher.
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