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Mask of the Betrayer Review
Review - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 26 October 2007, 00:31:06Tags: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer; Obsidian Entertainment
My thoughts about Mask of the Betrayer:
I can't stress it enough. The choices are everywhere. There are plenty of consequences. What you did may even cost party members their lives. Many characters respond to and recognize your choices, commenting on what you did and affecting your gameplay. I couldn't believe how many opportunities to do things differently the game offers.
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Mask of the Betrayer – so good even the Codex likes it!
That’s what the word on the street is. MotB - so good that even those elitist assholes at RPG Codex liked it. It’s so good that even Vault Dweller, the infamous internet hooligan and miscreant, liked it! Pretty much, gentlemen, pretty much. It’s definitely, 100% one of the best RPGs I've ever played. It’s that good.
Now before we open the game’s hood and see what’s under, let me amuse you with my old, but relevant rant, creatively called “Why fantasy RPGs suck?”
Fantasy RPGs often suck because the fantasy aspect isn't overly "fantastic". In fact, usually it's generic, boring, and bland. Let's say that you’ve bought a new fantasy RPG and have just installed it. What do you have there? A young guy/gal in a small place is forced to get the fuck out and explore a very predictable world and eventually save it. When you see a town, you know pretty much what to expect. It's not a place of wonder and strange customs, it's a place to get quests and buy/sell shit. You can easily replace a town with 3-4 NPCs standing in the middle of fucking nowhere offering quests and shopping. In fact, that probably would be more interesting than a generic and boring as fuck fantasy town #3471.
Now, compare it to Planescape: Torment. You wake up in a mortuary. Dead. Yes, DEAD. A gravity defying skull starts chatting with you.
WHAT! THE! FUCK!
That alone throws you off. Suddenly, you realize that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore. The rules are completely different and you have no idea what they are. Where are the familiar elves and orcs – the foundation of quality storytelling? Why aint the ancient evil stirring? Where is a kind lord of the realm to send you on a mission of great importance (usually involving killing some poor fuckers)?
You open the door. OMG! Zombies are everywhere! Ok, I know where this is going. Where is my trusty weapon... WAITAMINUTE! The zombies are not attacking. You can kill them, of course, but you can also walk around studying them and even get some unusual items from them. You finally manage to leave the mortuary. You are in a city, and what a city it is! It's a city of doors, filled with portals that can take you anywhere, assuming you have the right key. You see a bar, a familiar place in this strange land. The first thing you see is a floating, burning, yet still alive body - a lovely conversation piece of decor. Some ugly looking demons are having a drink; they greet you as an old friend. Great, that's just fucking great. Wait, it gets better though. The bartender casually informs you that he still has your eye - my WHAT? - and if you have the money, you can have it back. You buy the eye, mostly because it's so different from the usual selection of RPG goodies, wondering what the fuck you should do with it. An insane option to rip out your existing eyeball and shove in the new one, which was floating in a jar like a pickled egg a minute ago, presents itself. You do it and your old memories start pouring in. At this point you are absolutely lost. You, the player, are a stranger in a strange fucking land, and that's the fucking beauty of it.
Your quest? To find out who you are. *sigh* What, did you guys run out of demons to kill and worlds to save?
Let's compare it to recently released NWN2:
A young guy/gal in search of adventure living in a small village - check. The village is attacked by monsters killing everything in sight - check. The monsters are after you, because you are - you better sit down - the chosen one and special in every possible way - check. You leave your village and fight your way to a large town filled with thieves who steal shit and guards who, well, guard shit - check. You accidentally run into your enemies in every major dungeon, spoiling their plans - check. Instead of throwing everything they've got at you, they continue to underestimate you, until you level all the way up to the MegaUberPrestigeFighter, the Destroyer of Worlds and Crusher of Hopes - check.
Don't know about you, but I can hardly handle all the excitement. Give us something different, put us in a strange place with strange rules. Discovering these rules, understanding laws, habits, and customs of these places and its denizens are an important aspect of gameplay that shouldn't be discarded.
Well, what do you know? My hopes and prayers have been answered. Ironically, the savior is an expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2. While I had to force myself to play NWN2 (and still couldn’t finish it due to a complete lack of interest in knowing what happens next), I couldn't stop playing Mask of the Betrayer and was completely immersed in the game. If only the original game was that good.
Now let's pop that hood:
The character system
You start the game at lvl 18 to reflect your legendary NWN2 accomplishments. That gives you a nice opportunity to try different classes and skills combinations before you start the game, instead of discovering that your build sucks in the middle of the game.
If you’ve played computer DnD games before: More of the same plus new prestige classes, epic feats & spells, and uber weapons. Whether it’s good or bad depends entirely on your point of view.
If your experience with Dungeons & Dragons games is limited or non-existent and idiotic reviews led you to believe that DnD is only slightly less complicated than rocket science:
You pick a race and a class, increase your 6 attributes: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha, increase skills and select feats (feats are various abilities like Combat Expertise, Dodge, Spell Penetration, Two-Weapon Fighting, etc.) Then you kill some monsters, do some quests, level up, pick a class (you can continue improving your original class or pick a new one to gain different skills and abilities), increase skills and pick new feats. As you gain levels and abilities, new classes, spells, and feats become available. That's all there is to it.
The character system is the least interesting aspect of the game, but that's not the designers' fault. DnD, as most other game systems, is at its best during the early levels and start losing its appeal after lvl 18. The epic levels simply don’t offer anything interesting and could be filed under “more of the same” category, offering you original feats like Epic Weapon Focus, Epic Toughness, and “stat” +1.
It's the second least interesting aspect of the game, mostly because DnD was never meant to be real-time. Once your spellcasters join the party and start casting spells like "orbital bombardment", "tactical nuclear strike", and "summon Death Star MK2", the party is pretty much over, but then again, what do you expect from an epic real-time DnD campaign? Overall, the game is not very challenging when your spellcasters are fully rested (i.e. ready to nuke anything in a 5-mile radius) and very challenging, when your spellcasters are out of heavy spells and start casting lvl1 spells purely out of boredom.
Let's just say that while the combat is more challenging and interesting than NWN2's battles, which may or may not say anything to you, it’s rather mediocre overall and less enjoyable than the Infinity Engine games.
The setting & story
The setting is glorious. Gone are vanilla locations of NWN2. Instead Obsidian takes you on a trip to a real fantasy land that doesn't need to be saved from some ancient evil, to the land of Rashemen, where spirits walk among men, witches rule the land, ancient hags plot in sunken towns, granting audiences to all manners of creatures, shadow versions of the reality are a portal away, and the planes themselves and the City of Judgement are waiting for you. And this pretty tree.
Quests, choices, consequences...
That’s where the game starts to shine so brightly that you completely forget about any flaws the game has and get lost in a well crafted gameworld. It’s like a dream come true – a non-linear game loaded with well-written dialogues, interesting quests, more choices than you can handle, and enough consequences and to make the game highly replayable. It’s hard to imagine a better feature list.
I can't stress it enough. The choices are everywhere. There are plenty of consequences. What you did may even cost party members their lives. Many characters respond to and recognize your choices, commenting on what you did and affecting your gameplay. I couldn't believe how many opportunities to do things differently the game offers. Here is an example:
So, I was told that I have this curse. Well, that kinda sucks, but oh well... Then some kid shows up and says that it's a gift. Well, well, well, isn't that interesting. The motherfuckers lied to me about the curse thing. My buddy Okku the bear-god and I go to visit that place where the kid is from. Nice touch, I'm thinking. Instead of going with a one-dimensional “you are cursed, sucks to be you!” approach, you are given an alternative opinion and path. Anyway, these, uh, "people" are kinda evil. They want to eat me and pass the gift on to someone more worthy. Well, not exactly what I expected, but I guess these days you can't expect meaningful choices and truly different options.
Then I replay the game with a different character. I devour Okku's spirit and decide to visit my old evil pals. This time the conversation is completely different. Turns out they approve of my choice to end Okku’s existence and see it as a sign of awesome – in a very evil way - things to come, so they won’t eat me and will even teach me a new power that my predecessors had. After I bring them some people to eat. Even here I was given a choice. I could send them a sweet girl or give "I know a good shortcut" tip to a merchant and his family. Then I was given a choice to use the new power on my new friends. Then I was given an option to spare or kill their kids, which isn’t something you see in games often these days.
Here is another example that surprised me. There is a small garrison near a spirit-infested forest. Two witches are in charge of the garrison: one helps you, one doesn’t. At a certain point you are a presented with a reasonable option to start a revolt against the witch in charge, the one who doesn’t help you. You even get a quest to talk to all berserkers and get them on your side through persuasion, intimidation, or other abilities. It seemed to me that that’s the only option to move forward and the only real choice here is how many berserkers you manage to sign up. Sure, there was a “no” option somewhere in the dialogue tress, but I thought it was one of them fake options, i.e. you say “no”, she says "well, if you change your mind, I'll be, like, here" and then the game waits for you to change your fickle mind and aint going anywhere. On my next playthrough, I actually said "no". Much to my surprise, this option was viable and actually gained me a short-term ally in an upcoming battle. Overall, there were 3 outcomes there and different reactions from the witches in a nearby town.
The game is filled with stat and skill checks, so just like in Planescape: Torment, playing a straight fighter could be the least interesting of all options. Lore, Spellcraft, Wisdom, Charisma get a lot of love, so don't miss out.
Even after finishing the game twice, I haven’t explored all the possibilities and outcomes, and if that aint the highest praise the Codex can give a game, I don’t know what is.
The party members
MotB offers you 5 companions: a red wizard, a hagspawn shaman, a winged celestial cleric, a bear-god spirit, and an undead construct, who is the most awesome companion you could ever loot dungeons and kill people with. As your influence over the construct grow, you can ask it to manifest different personalities: rogue, berserker, or warlock, which is very handy. Every now and then the construct encounters characters he would like to devour and add to its collection of spirits, which unlocks special abilities and classes (like warlock). One-of-Many has quite an appetite and even gods won’t be safe with it in one room. Whether or not you let One-of-Many devour its victims souls it do is entirely up to you.
Once your influence reaches certain levels - now you can see the influence number and state on each party member character screen - your party members offer you certain powers, which you can refuse or accept. For example, Safiya gives you "The loyalty of a red wizard" feat, which gives you +1 INT plus DC spell bonus, if you like to cast spells. Later on the feat could be upgraded to "The devotion of a red wizard", upping the INT bonus to +2 and increasing your spell casting abilities. Gann the hagspawn gives you “The Dreamer’s Eye”: +1 CHA and a bonus to your Devour Spirit ability. One-of-Many graces you with a negative, intimidating aura, and so on.
Overall, the party members are well defined and much improved. They don’t argue about stupid things, and don’t act like 12 year olds. Suffice to say, I doubt that many people would prefer to play solo.
My best friend and I!
One-of-Many is born!
Say Hi to Brute. He aint that bad once you get to know him. Well, actually, he kinda is.
"Let me show myself to the lich so that it might know fear for the first time in its unlife"
I have to mention the spirit meter because it was criticized in every review for being confusing, hard, and just not fun. Well, guess what? It's a pretty damn good feature and an excellent moron indicator. If you failed to understand this feature, odds are you’re a fucking moron. Sad, but true. Let's blame the clearly failed education system and the leniency toward degenerates in your homeland.
Anyway, a handy guide to the spirit-meter.
The game revolves around your condition. Some say it’s a curse, some say it’s a gift. You are a spirit-eater. You consume spirits and sometimes souls (if you choose the evil path). Game mechanics-wise, your condition is represented via two meters: % level of your spirit energy (100% is good, 0% is dead) and your hunger level. The higher your hunger level is, the faster the spirit energy level drops. The lower your spirit energy level is, the heavier your stat penalties are.
- STAT PENALTIES?!! WHAT THE FUCK?!!! THIS GAEM SUCKS!!!!
Now that you understand the basic idea, here are the two basic paths the game offers.
The good path: You consider your affliction a curse. You suppress your hunger, thus significantly slowing your need to feed. Eventually you acquire “good” feats like Eternal Rest, which allows you to grant rest to undead spirits and restores your spirit energy without increasing your hunger. Soon (very soon) your hunger is pretty much at zero and you focus on the rest of the game.
The evil path: You realize that you've been given a power and that only a fool would give it up. You devour spirits and eventually learn to devour souls. You gain very powerful spirit essences (to craft VERY powerful items) this way and once you fully unleash your gift, you gain significant combat bonuses.
So, what does it all mean? It means that if you are a good person, you can pretty much ignore this feature by suppressing your hunger and enjoy what it adds to the dialogues. If you are an evil bastard, you can "go with the flow" and become a powerful being through the special spirit essences, feats, and abilities. However, all that power - and that's the brilliant part - comes with a price. You must constantly look for spirits to feed on to stay alive. Compare that to Knights of the Old Republic, for example, where the difference between good and evil is purely cosmetic as both sides are equally balances and it doesn't cost you anything to join the Dark Side.
The only problem with the spirit meter is the alignment adjustments. Whenever you make a spirit system related choice, you gain a few alignment points, becoming more Lawful, for example. Since the DnD alignment system is a subject to many interpretations, some players would disagree with how the spirit system handles your alignment. I don't think it's a big deal, to be honest, but if you care a lot about this aspect, I suggested getting a mod that can remove and change the adjustment to fit your own alignment beliefs.
The influence system
The biggest problem with the influence system is its name. It’s like calling a boy a girl and then complaining about the penis and hairy legs. So, let’s flip it around and call it a “How much people like me!” system. See, it’s perfect now. Basically, the goal is to get people to like you as much as possible. Much like in real life you accomplish it by telling people what they want / like to hear and sucking up to them. The system works like a charm. You can’t, however, influence them and, for example, force the celestial chick to change her beliefs, so don’t expect any of that.
And in conclusion
To put it simply, the game is a masterpiece. Sure, it has flaws and things-that-should-have-been-done-better. Overall though, it’s one of those rare games that people will remember for a long time and I definitely expect to see it on “top 10 RPGs” lists in the near future. It probably won’t get any “RPG of the Year” awards from the mainstream media as such honours are reserved for awesome games like Halo 3 and cult classics like Oblivion: Fighter’s Stronghold Expansion, so if you liked what I had to say about the game, go and buy it today. Support Obsidian's efforts to bring us something different and vote with your money.