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RPG Codex Retrospective: Roguey smashes the patriarchy in Josh Sawyer's Icewind Dale
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Thu 30 May 2013, 19:35:35Tags: Black Isle Studios; Icewind Dale
Savage things wash over me
Black Isle producer Chris Parker once dreamed of a Bard's Tale-like dungeon crawl with a stronger emphasis on story.* As fortune would have it, Black Isle had a license to make Dungeons and Dragons games and a ready-made engine with enough reusable assets. And thus the slam dunk machine went into motion and Forgotten Realms: Icewind Dale: A Baldur's Gate Engine Adventure came to be. The Heart of Winter expansion and Trials of the Luremaster dungeon pack followed shortly after, adding more content along with some much-needed improvements.
Nah bitch I'm talking 'bout mother fucking THAC0 and shit
Icewind Dale uses a slightly improved version of Baldur's Gate's adaptation of 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules (so I trust I shouldn't have to describe them in detail considering how well-documented they are). Those esoteric ability score rules remain as is, so don't expect to get a magic defense bonus from wisdom. However, racial abilities, such as the elf's resistance to charm and sleep magic, are included. The ever-dilettantish bard class has been given a selection of songs to make it a worthwhile part of the team, though thieves remain useless as a single-class. Additionally, druids have more nature-themed spells to make them feel less like lousier clerics, paladins get to smite evil, and rangers can track enemies and get an extra attack per round to simulate dual-wielding (it's clumsy but it's something). Weapon proficiencies are a mix of groups and single weapons, presumably to keep your party from mastering everything. Heart of Winter provides stores with a variety of magic weapons in both the base and expansion campaigns so there shouldn't be a problem with choosing a less-than-well supported single weapon type... except when it comes to short bows. There's only one unique short bow, it comes with a penalty most other weapons don't have, and it's buried all the way in Trials of the Luremaster. Can't win 'em all.
The biggest bonus from using D&D comes from its large list of spells and monsters, and there are plenty of both here. Want to throw a swarm of snowballs at some fire giants? Turn the blood of snow trolls into fire? Infect a group of sahuagin with a contagious mold? Totally possible, though not always the optimal course of action. It's easy to get caught in the rut of relying mostly only on bog-standard buff and damage spells, especially since some of them work a little too well (here's looking at you, Haste). Josh Sawyer expressed an interest in providing an optional spell-nerfing balance pack*, but it never materialized.
I used a mod to make inventory management less cumbersome by removing the arbitrary stack limits and bag of holding restrictions. Some purists may be outraged, but I've already played with these annoyances; getting rid of them only improved the experience.
And then someone told a story about something dead and gory
The most important thing you need to know about Icewind Dale's "greater emphasis on story" is that by "greater emphasis" they mean more words (not so much through environmental storytelling though it exists to some extent), not higher quality. The plot itself involves a group of adventurers meeting at an inn, setting out for profit, killing anyone who gets in their way, and saving the world in the process, much like many other fantasy adventures. Occasionally it acknowledges the class, race, gender, and ability scores of the character you've chosen to speak for the party. It doesn't alter much, but reactivity is always a welcome feature no matter how minor. I also like how plot hooks are dangled and then explained in later chapters. As an example, in the third chapter, a librarian's ghost tells you about a woman who had recently stopped by and was interested in two particular books. You meet the woman and learn about her motivations in the sixth chapter. While not particularly riveting, these mini-mysteries work as a motivation to continue forward.
The Icewind Dale team didn't have a creative lead to keep the writing style consistent, so most areas tend to have their own voice and method of structuring dialogue. For example, the recursive exposition dumps of chapter 5 feel out of place compared to most other dialogues. Chris Avellone's writing is also particularly conspicuous, considering his characters (e.g. Wylfdene and the Seer) speak at length and with a gravitas not found elsewhere.
The plot unravels.
Josh Sawyer is the other writing superstar, bringing his naturalistic style to most of the unique weapon descriptions* and his respective areas. Pale Justice* is a shining example of writing with That Josh Feel. His areas also deliver what I believe are the funniest moments in this generally hum drum campaign.
"Can not." "Can too." "Nuh uh." "Uh-huh." "My dad can breathe fire, and he has a big hammer." "Yeah well my dad can shoot lightning from his fingers and throw giants around."
The party's crashing us now
Icewind Dale's gameplay largely consists of pressing the equals sign, left clicking on a target, pressing the space bar, waiting for the autopause to kick in after the target dies, and repeating the process until you finally run into an encounter that demands more of you. A bit like Diablo, only with a party and less emphasis on quick thinking (unless you choose to play without pausing for a self-induced challenge). Some of these mindless fights serve a purpose when it comes to introducing you to new creature types before throwing you into the deep end, and a few are made more interesting thanks to Heart of Winter adding call-for-help scripts in a few areas (mostly Josh's); however they're largely there to pad out time that would be spent in dialogues or exploration in other RPGs. Any arguments about resource management don't hold up considering nothing stops you from resting after every fight or every few fights to get all your hit points and spells back.
I'll be spending the rest of the review detailing what I consider to be the most interesting battles in each chapter. I suggest skipping to the concluding paragraph if you haven't played and don't want any potential surprises ruined for you. My list is rather subjective considering difficulty depends a lot on what kind of classes and builds you have, your willingness to both read and comprehend spell, item, and ability descriptions, and how often you feel like resting (casting Haste and other buffs and resting every time they wear off will make killing almost everything effortless). Sometimes I'll find an encounter interesting if it has a unique aspect to it even if it's not particularly demanding.
A note about difficulty modes before I begin: Even though post-HoW insane difficulty modifies (Josh's) boss fights to make them more difficult*, it also doubles the amount of experience you receive (there's a double damage component as well, but it can be disabled in the ini). I played on normal because I didn't want to gain levels too quickly.
The prologue is pure tutorial with nothing that can actually come close to hurting you, save the ogre boss in Easthaven's cave. The hundred orcs, goblins, and wolves that exist to be effortlessly cut down are a sign of things to come. This is how it's going to be from now until the credits roll.
The first chapter makes up an extended tutorial that drags on for much too long. Sawyer tries to retain interest inside Kresselack's Tomb with call-for-help scripts and normal-weapon-immune, Magic Missile-casting imbued wights, but it's not enough to make up for the boredom of clicking on yetis and undead for hours or the frustrating missteps of a junior designer's first area. The second floor inexplicably starts with an unavoidable, undetectable ambush-springing trap; a railroading mistake that's thankfully never repeated. Once you reach the bottom of the tomb and think it's finally over, you have to backtrack to a cave outside, backtrack back to the end of the tomb, and then backtrack again to the exit. It wouldn't have killed him to add in a couple of dialogue teleports to reduce some of that pointless walking.
Things finally start shaping up with chapter 2. It still goes on for too long with too many repetitive trash fights, but there's something interesting on every level. The first has the lizard king with his two shamans and small army of lizardmen; nothing particularly amazing, but it encourages you to use spells unlike nearly every battle up until now. The second has you juggle four Hold Person-spell loving clerics along with their troll bodyguards. There's also a long hallway full of bombardier beetles with some nice magical weapon prizes at the end. Sure, you can use a protection from acid scroll on someone to soak up damage while the rest take them from range, or even send in someone invisible to get the loot without a fight; but I preferred the degenerate tactic of sending my token straight white cismale mage to aggro the beetles one by one so the others could pelt them from range.
Sound exhausting? Well don't worry, Josh Sawyer can't design everything, and as a result chapter 3 goes back to the doldrums. It has some beautiful levels, but they're filled with nothing but more standard undead, undead orcs, and undead pointy-eared white supremacists*. Some of them like spawning on top of you for extra annoyance. The final fight is a bust despite its haste and area-of-effect-damage spell casting mages; partly because of the layout of the map, partly because two hasted fighters are nothing to get worried about.
There's nothing noteworthy about chapter 4 except a nice battle where you have to deal with two Stoneskinned Drow spellswords, two Mirror Imaged mages, archers protected by a chokepoint, and two phase spiders who pop in from behind. It's a shame you can make the fight easier by exploiting the fog of war since Sawyer was the only developer who had the time and inclination to intelligently place call-for-help scripts in his base campaign areas. Sadly, the rest of the chapter has you facing even more undead and one of the easiest Liches on record (whose weakness is explained by a botched ritual). I'm guessing playtester experiences were involved in its nerfing.
Chapter 5 manages to be less interesting than the previous by offering nothing of value. The ice temple definitely could have benefited from call-for-help scripts, but placing them would be difficult because the mobs are grouped so close together that you could very well end up having to fight the entire floor at once (like certain Storm of Zehir single-digit-room dungeons). A particularly strange thing about this chapter is how most of this boring combat is completely optional: you can avoid everything in the temple's main floor just by not visiting it again after you free the slaves (if you choose to free them at all), and you can coerce the frost giant leader into handing over his badge without a fight. Of course since this is a combat game I had to kill them all for their loot and xp (plus they're evil and deserve killing).
Josh Sawyer delivers again with chapter 6. First up is a cramped room full of archers who snipe you when you approach their tower. Later on you have to deal with the mad mage Malavon. After killing the Cloudkill-casting jerk and his iron golems and confusion-inducing umber hulks, his real self shows up with a Corrosive Fog and a lot of teleporting. Finally, you have to survive a throng of greater mummies, zombie lords, and boneguard skeletons in order to destroy a statue.
Chapter 6 is also host to Icewind Dale's first and only moral dilemma: you can choose to kill an abusive creep to avenge his victims and/or to get his stuff or spare his life to free a Drow woman with a bad case of battered person syndrome. The creep in question isn't some would-be conqueror but rather a practical ex-adventurer indulging in the banality of evil. The drow herself has a history of abusing her brother and male slaves; a challenge to your possible empathy. While I enjoyed the choice agony, I imagine most people care little about the emotional problems of virtual people and would choose the option that gets them the loot.
"You're a funny guy, Marketh. I like you. That's why I'm going to--damnit I already promised I wouldn't."
Sawyer didn't design frozen Easthaven (though he did help tune the final boss), but I like how it's a short victory lap instead of a meat grinder like most endgames tend to be. I'm not fond of the Pomab fight though; without using an area of effect instant death spell like Cloudkill or the appropriately-named Death Spell it would be an irritating slog thanks to those constantly teleporting fakes. The final battle itself is pretty easy (even though it's mined with traps, starts off by trolling pre-buffers with an immediate disspelling, and has two additional horned devils if you've already finished HoW), but it's just gatekeeping a cinematic so it doesn't matter. I believe more games should follow the dramatic structure of other works of fiction and have falling action after the gameplay climax.
Heart of Winter content starts off with a surprising amount of talking and ridiculously large xp bribes for choosing non-critical path dialogue options; feels very much like Chris Avellone at play. Sawyer comes to the rescue yet again with the immediate removal of kid gloves at Burial Isle thanks to aggressively fast wights and Harm-casting shamans. The addition of slow-but-strong drowned dead and cowardly, bard-like wailing virgins make the isle the best area when it comes to non-boss fights. The boss battle itself is a tense race against time against a wailing virgin's insta-killing Death Knell.
Unfortunately, Gloomfrost goes back to using trivial mobs. To make matters worse, it's one big linear narrow corridor (predating standard 3D RPG level design by some years). The ice sentry golems in the second part of the cave are appropriately tough, but that's literally all you fight (and this is after the first cave where you fight nothing but remorhazes). There's only one interesting gimmick in the entire thing: teleporting into and out of a pit to loot an item. Fortunately, after you deal with the nonsense here and at the barbarian camp you get a nice rival adventuring party to deal with outside the inn. Who doesn't love those?
Icasaracht's island is another victory lap, only with the novelty of cold-spell casting undead and The Great LaRouche Toad-Frog Massacre* near the end. Icky Thump herself isn't particularly special; control the crowd, then tank, spank, and heal when necessary. What would have been adequately excellent back in chapter 1 is now a routine; this is usually how it goes with higher level D&D video games.
"I CAN SEE THEIR EYES! YAAAAAAA!" Image shamelessly swiped from GOG.
With Trials of the Luremaster, Steve Bokkes and John Deiley finally deliver content on par with Josh Sawyer's (at least as far as gameplay goes; when it comes to writing, forget it, the story barely makes sense and fizzles out at the end). It's unfortunate how it took an add-on to an expansion for them to finally catch up. Though don't start thinking it's great by any means: there's still a lot of trash, some player-character-teleporting nuisances, and time-padding backtracking at the beginning and end. It also makes no attempt at having a verisimilar creature ecology if you care about that sort of thing (I don't).
First up is an encounter with another adventuring party, this time with a whirlwind-creating genie. Next is an undemanding-yet-spectacular roomful of mummies with an adjoining room filled with reinforcements; using the cleric's turn undead ability on them is a truly button-awesome moment. Later on a beholder decides to flank you while you're pre-occupied with another. The designers use this newfangled flanking trickery twice more with a large mass of minotaurs and harpies; the latter are also fond of casting Aganazzar's Scorcher multiple times on the same person. One of the penultimate fights has you dealing with a large group of jackals, four greater jackalweres, two shamans, and two magic resistant, slashing/piercing/missile immune, Magic Missile casting stone nuisances at once.
The luremaster fight is the most difficult boss in the game since you're dealing with a rival undead adventuring party (watch out for the disspeller) plus a teleporting bastard. I ended up losing two to his Chain Lightning (my first and only acceptable casualties in this run); I had two Resurrections lined up right after of course.
What ten thousand armies can't even fight through
Nearly 2600 corpses later and I'm left feeling as though I played an acceptable timesink with brief glimpses of fun content. There have been better RPGs released before and after, but this one has pretty art and was developed by Black Isle Studios so it gets remembered and placed in top ten lists. I'm mostly grateful it contributed to the rising star of Josh Sawyer, who moved on to greater, worse, and many canceled things; but only after slam dunking an Icewind Dale sequel of course.