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Review: Neverwinter Nights: Kingmaker

With this expansion consisting of three entirely separate modules, I’ll review each of them separately, tackling them in turn here but also keeping the MobyGames review format in mind, to be able to relatively easily make the necessary changes and post there as well. One thing I need to make a note of, however, is that Kingmaker is the only complete module out of the three, with ShadowGuard being a first chapter or prologue and Witch’s Wake downright incomplete, ending quite suddenly, but I finished it almost three and a half years after starting it, while I played the other two from start to end after it, within the past year, so details or aspects I’d have otherwise mentioned may well slip my mind, especially when it comes to its early parts, which I played before taking a break that ended up lasting over two and a half years.

Getting right to it, on top of being the only included module that’s actually complete, containing the entire adventure, Kingmaker also tries to do some interesting things. Even the, if I may use the term, initial beginning may fall under this category, but I’d start with the first “character” introduced after what is in fact the real beginning, which is another talking weapon, taking good cues from Hordes of the Underdark but improving upon the concept, as this time around you get to choose the type and it also improves as you level, the improvements also being chosen by the player out of the available options. Then, there’s something to be said about the manner in which choosing companions is handled, and they all have their own personalities and stories, all of which can gradually be revealed, at least for the ones that are chosen, and the voice acting is also competent. And then there’s the overall story, which does try to have interesting elements, and twists towards the end, though how successful and engaging it ends up being is likely a subjective assessment, a matter of personal preference. One manner in which you can fail, angering your weapon, is a nice touch though.
On the other hand, I wasn’t keen on the actual gameplay. It’s rather straightforward, with tasks to complete in order to gain the required support before advancing to the final confrontation, and there’s choice when it comes to the order or even whether to attempt some at all, but what really frustrated me was the time limit. It might be possible to do and explore everything if you make haste and also accept the experience penalty and actually use your companions, but considering how the passage of time is triggered, I’m not sure even then, and either way I ended up missing out on a few things despite using every trick to gain more time. Admittedly, much of my time was spent grinding on the weak enemies that constantly respawn and I’d have managed much more without doing that, but wonder if it’d have even been possible to complete those quests without the levels gained in that manner, seeing as I wasn’t going to sacrifice even more experience and therefore didn’t take my companions to help in combat. And what added to the frustration towards the end was that, if you complete a quest’s objectives but can’t also turn it in before the vote, you can’t do so later, even if the NPC in question is still available and you talk to them.
I’d actually call this last issue a bug, and the same goes for the fact that the viewing angle is left in that “cinematic” one after cutscenes. Having all weapon upgrades available from the beginning may be another bug, seeing as the dialogue seems to indicate that they shouldn’t be, but at least that was a useful bug instead of a frustrating one. Other frustrating issues, however, had to do with constantly needing to hold my character back from rushing to Alias, and with how little money can be gained, how little loot is available, especially when it comes to useful loot, in my case the characters being rather naked most of the time and even so and despite only selling and buying at the end, to earn the most and pay the least, and obviously also reloading until I was sure I got the best possible prices, I was only able to afford a few things before moving on towards the ending.
Overall, it’s not a bad module, and it’s definitely much better if played as intended instead of how I played it. But the way it’s intended to be played is a way I’m not in the least comfortable with, so for me it was quite frustrating in plenty of ways. That said, the developers did try, and there are quite a few positive aspects as well, mainly when it comes to the characters and a couple of gameplay “tricks”, and maybe to some extent also to the overall story.

Moving on to ShadowGuard, I unfortunately don’t have many good things to say. Some interesting things are done with the cutscenes, but probably the one moment that truly is notable is offered by the book that is “played out”. Other than that, I definitely appreciated being able to have unlimited uses of the best damage cantrip on the staff, plus other items with uses per day, even if just one most of the time. And I also welcomed the attempt to limit resting by making it require food, though mostly as a concept, since food is cheap and more than enough, at least in my view, can simply be found.
The negative aspects, on the other hand, start with the very beginning, or more exactly with the fact that not even the slightest hint is ever offered about why it starts as it does. Of course, explanations were likely planned for later, this clearly having been intended as the first chapter or prologue of a much longer adventure, but that’s in no way an excuse. It may be an excuse for the fact that it’s so short, takes place in so few areas, is limited to low character levels and ends pretty much when the “real” adventure would begin, but that doesn’t make those facts less frustrating either.
Speaking of frustration, high on the list of causes for it was not only needing to accept the experience penalty for having companions along, some enemies being impossible to kill otherwise, but also having plenty of kills “stolen” completely by friendly NPCs fighting the hostiles, plus one place where Markus automatically shows up next to you before the battle even if you left him behind and therefore “stealing” kills completely in that situation. Other than that, at the Control Stone it’s likely a matter of repeatedly reloading until you happen to survive, and that definitely is the case with the slavers, while once you do you may find that you lost some weapons, if you were carrying too many around, and Markus won’t recover his at all. In addition, there’s no decent source of equipment left once things get nasty, until after the Control Stone.
Another issue was a particularly strange bug I only experienced while playing this specific module: I couldn’t take screenshots, the file created whenever I tried being empty, having no extension and being replaced each time. And, while I’m at bugs, companions normally want to hold on to their equipment, but if you make one dual wield, you can then take the main weapon away, in which case it ends up being treated as a plot item, can’t be sold and if you attempt to give it back, a copy will be created, creating infinite weapons if for some reason you care to. But equipment you give companions may also end up treated as theirs, so they’ll refuse to give it back without using this trick, which may lead to other issues later, especially if you mean to take something back from one and give it to another. On the other hand, I guess the fact that it instantly autosaves when loading the game in some areas is intentional behavior, not a bug, but it makes the autosave slot pointless.
Overall, ShadowGuard might have had some merit if complete, especially if those bugs and frustrating design choices would have also been fixed. As it is, however, with pretty much only those interesting moments offered by some cutscenes going for it and a couple of other storylines that seem to begin and then get completely forgotten, I’d say it doesn’t even serve to create interest for a potential continuation, and I for one wasn’t even curious enough to check whether one exists. Not that it’d have been much of an excuse for its inclusion in this expansion either way, a first part intended to generate interest in the full product being the basis of the old concept of shareware, meaning that it should have been distributed for free, while Kingmaker, as in the expansion, wasn’t.

By contrast, Witch’s Wake shows immense potential, alongside creativity and attention to detail, much effort being made to push the editor. A long list of custom subraces are supported; there are custom models even for some of the basic gear and common enemies; experience is granted bit by bit, little of it for combat and more for advancing the story, learning new things, entering new areas or obtaining important items, which also makes the low character level much less of an issue; there seems to be an entire system, a small game in itself, for dying and resurrecting; there are a lot of checks in many situations and they’re clearly spelled out; crafting also seems important, or at least intended as such… Above all of that, there’s good writing, there’s lore, there are hints of depth and promises of many twists and turns to come, and it all really feels like a story, which is greatly aided by the manner in which it is narrated. Choosing this form of presentation, relying on a single voice, that of a narrator, is a risk, but in Witch’s Wake it works beautifully and she delivers a stunning performance every step of the way.
The main problem is that Witch’s Wake is incomplete. I checked and no continuation seems to exist, and what’s here can’t even be called an episode or prologue, as it just suddenly ends in a manner that brings more questions than answers and even leaves what seems to be this part’s main quest hanging. In addition, as I repeated that final conversation, wanting to make sure I went through all the options, the very end failed to trigger more often than not, making me need to force the game closed. What’s apparently an important side quest is also impossible to complete, and that side quest, if completed, struck me as possibly offering another method of gaining access to what you miss out on if you refuse to do what the Night Hag asks, the fact that you miss an entire aspect of the game in that situation being another thing that bothered me, especially since you can’t know the consequences of the choices you make then, or what it may mean if you’re told, and given, one thing or another, since there’s randomness involved. Strangely, the journal entry states that you did accept even if you didn’t, but then again the journal’s not exactly helpful in general, even side quests not being listed, much less other information.
In terms of gameplay, Witch’s Wake can be seen as a brief demonstration of different things to do, creative ways of pushing the editor, but the obvious effort put into it and the story and all the depth and complexity it hints at seem to indicate that the aim was much higher. It oozes potential, showing effort, talent and creativity. If completed in a manner fulfilling all of this apparent potential, it might well have surpassed Hordes of the Underdark as the best content included in Neverwinter Nights: Diamond. Unfortunately, it seems to have been far too ambitious for what the developers could actually do, ending up abandoned but nevertheless included as it was, without even being given an ending suitable for an episode or prologue, leaving it a memorable but ultimately frustrating and underwhelming experience.

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