How I long for those halcyon days of West Harbor. At least there, in the original Neverwinter Nights 2 prologue, I woke up in my own bed, meandered about a cozy hovel nestled quietly on the northern edge of the Sword Coast, looking forward to nothing more dangerous than an archery contest at the town fair.
Then again, that’s not necessarily the stuff of adventures. And in the Forgotten Realms, nothing stays quiet for long.
Disquiet, however, describes the dark imagery and murky imagination forming the unlit façade in Mask of the Betrayer, the first official expansion to the original Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign. Your epic-level character can be carried over into the new story, although staring “Fresh” with a new level 18 – 20 character is an available option at the start as well. There are loose dovetails in Mask of the Betrayer that trace back to the original campaign, but this is a standalone adventure, to be sure.
You awaken underground, alone, and not immediately able to stand up. There’s an empty feeling in your chest cavity, and an inexplicable brooding within you that is rearing its ugly head. You’ve managed to open your eyes in the eastern realm of Rashemen (that’s north of Thay and bordering Lake Mulsantir, for those of you keeping track at home). Amidst this rude awakening, clutching pillars surround you, and they have a feverish vision to bestow – not unlike the shadowy themes clawing their entire way across this dans macabre.
On your feet once more, the opening’s flat, cavernous run-through reminds all to readily of the camera’s need to be babysat, despite purported improvements to its general implementation. At its best, the near-object fade is as lazy as ever, keeping your fingers poised on the pause button, haggling for a decent angle on the action. The stutter-stop motion of Dungeons & Dragons, however, is still rather conducive to this style of gameplay.
The roof is now raised to level 30 for your character, from the previous 20, but nobody promised a cakewalk in the getting. The optimization going into the game engine not only keeps Mask of the Betrayer running a tighter graphical shift, it makes way for bigger epic-level spell effects to bedazzle audiences near and far on the game screen. No longer casting cantrips and dancing lights, you’re officially mired in territory with spells named “Avasculate” and “Cacophonic Burst.” Having a dictionary nearby is helpful.
The difficulty level is decidedly unfriendly to newcomers, and eve to rusty returning players. Becoming a proactive team leader has never been more important, but running your companions marionette-style is strictly reserved for only the hardiest micromanagers. Earning your way across this beautifully-sculpted narrative now proves taxing of your skills and patience.
The most notable gameplay change is the introduction of Spirit Energy. Your travels take a through-the-looking-glass approach early into Mask’s chapters, and the hungry, menacing spirit within you desperately forces your hand in devouring other spirits. Like a soul-sucking vampire, suppressing your hunger takes a heavy toll on you, while succumbing to your hunger naturally keeps your gauged abilities on full.
Kindly enough, the developers saw fit to equip one of your party members with an Enchanter’s Satchel, which works as a mobile workbench for alchemists, freeing up commute time for transmute time. The crafting procedure is -- just as every other square inch of the world -- rife with rulesets and wracked with number-crunching, made all the more apparent since the nature of D&D constantly exposes the “man behind the curtain.” There’s no fourth wall protecting you from your statistics, and the dice (metaphorically) clatter so loudly across the gameboard that you’ll wonder if anything happens in the game without a 20-sided die tumbling on the tabletop.
And that’s the great wall separating D&D players from the other Jello-mold computer game RPGs. And, frankly, D&D players are rather proud of their wall and wouldn’t have it any other way. Mask of the Betrayer introduces six new sub-races? Viva la Genasi! The Spirit Shaman and the Favored Soul, not to mention five new high-level prestige classes, come sharply into play? A classless society is a sham! And half of any instruction manual accompanying a D&D game is made up of spells, spells, spells. The more the merrier, and that’s true for every aspect of Mask of the Betrayer.
The polluted learning curve, however, has purchased a multitude of carbon offsets in the form of grand, high-fantasy storytelling; none of it watered down. No dialogue is wasted, and character development is meaningful and sensibly pieced together in tangible snippets. The soundtrack is as lush as ever, the cutscenes continue to be the antithesis of action-packed, but the scripting is massive and occasionally lights atop the Shakespearean (we’re still talking contemporary video games, though, so don’t overrate that statement).
No masquerade this; the first expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2 inherits the family jewels, lines up a commendable dramatis personae, and simply continues to ladle up what D&D fans grab their bowls and spoons for -- although there’s no room at the table for newcomers.
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