Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer | Principal Platforms: PC | Developer: Obsidian Entertainment | Publisher: Atari | Genre: Role-playing | Year: 2007
I’m struggling to think of an RPG that dissuaded me harder upon release than Neverwinter Nights 2 did. The 2006 sequel to one of my favourite video games shipped with overly demanding PC requirements, a mind-numbing campaign story, and a whole heap of software bugs. For years I had tried to stomach it, only to suffer problems with stuttering, and glitches, and all sorts of related b******t. Has anything changed since then?
Well, the final build of Neverwinter Nights 2 is in somewhat better shape, and its ‘Complete’ edition includes the expansion content that Obsidian Entertainment developed years later. Mask of the Betrayer was the first official expansion pack that promised brand new gameplay features and another big campaign. The new single player story contains some of Obsidian’s finest storytelling to date, and the overall experience is a huge improvement over the original.
Although the plot directly continues on from Neverwinter Nights 2, this expansion wisely keeps those events at arm’s length to instead focus on a fresh tale that’s more adventurous and entertaining.
Rashemen is our focal land this time, with the player’s character awakening in a dreamlike barrow after being possessed by a ravenous spirit. Thus begins a journey across the fabric of existence to cure this affliction whilst also tracking down those who were responsible for its conjuring in the first place.
The plot is a lot darker in tone compared to the swashbuckling yarns of Neverwinter games prior. Your character is vilified and hated by pretty much everyone, as the violent history of previous spirit eaters is recounted in great detail. The gloomier style may be an acquired taste, but with this darker palette comes the sort of atmosphere that seemed to be M.I.A. in the original campaign.
It helps that the voice acting is so much better this time around too. Companions like Kaelyn the Dove and Okku the prismatic bear are blessed with marvellous voices that lend gravitas to every portentous conversation. The recycled music from the base game is also gone, reinstated with fresh pieces of ambience for exploring the Rashemi highlands, and battling malevolent spirits on the Plane of Shadows. Even little touches like the reinstating of illustrated portraits is effective in re-establishing the sort of immersive quality that’s expected of a Forgotten Realms adaptation.
My favourite part of Mask of the Betrayer might actually be its level design. There are a few sections that get a bit cute with their set pieces (the red wizard academy springs to mind), but on the whole this expansion has a lot of well-designed areas. Most notably, for a game produced under the Dungeons & Dragons license, there’s almost no reliance on dungeoneering at all. Mask of the Betrayer is an epic campaign that’s packed to the brim with overpowered spells and abilities, and some truly absurd crafting bonuses, yet the most poignant combat encounters all arrive early. None of them take place in a large room at the end of a long cave or dungeon trek.
Dungeon crawling is brief, as the developers were clearly more preoccupied with building more imaginitive outdoor areas and dreamscapes. The chapter set in Ashenwood stands out as a memorable one, as the spirit eater undertakes quests in an enchanted wood to gain favour with the forces of nature.
One of the encounters here asks you to displace a band of bothersome frost giants. The minigame that ensues is a bit of silly fun, but the real laugh comes from the resulting success notification that announces:
“XP granted for becoming honorary jarl of a clan of frost giants and then immediately kicking them out of the clan”!
You can see evidence of the stronger writing in other quests. Such is the case during a dream episode where you must help a slumbering sorcerer overcome a devil’s bargain. You won’t be smiting anything here though, as the solution is to read the devil’s comprehensive contract whilst trying to find a loophole in the smallprint!
And of course, no mention of Mask of the Betrayer would be complete without referencing the scene involving Myrkul, the former god of the dead. It’s a rather superb moment and clear evidence of how players get to see and do the sort of crazy stuff that lesser RPGs would merely tell you about in some boring prophecy. Devouring the spirit of a dead god on the astral plane is a highlight for sure, and it’s just one compelling moment in a game that already has plenty.
However, the focus on plotting has left some mechanics feeling iffy. Take the spirit meter that gets introduced after the first act. In an obtuse system that relies way too much on tiny description windows to explain itself, your character is expected to satisfy their spirit hunger by draining enemies of their souls. It’s a thematic idea that pressures you with penalties should you ignore the craving for too long, and yet the whole affair is still a pain to deal with. Devouring spirits in combat requires timing and precision; two things that are hard to secure when you’re surrounded by minions who chuck around level 9 spells like overexcited toddlers.
It seems at odds with a player’s natural inclination to take thier time, and after one look at the recommended ways of best managing the meter – a process which involves repeating encounters over and over again – I cheated in a quick console command to disable the stupid thing altogether.
Players also have to endure the typical frustrations of the Aurora Engine; characters getting stuck on terrain features, enemies standing still for no reason. That sort of thing. One particularly sore encounter has you battling a lich king where the real challenge is actually getting your party down the preceding staircase without them tripping over their own dodgy pathfinding.
The difficulty curve also feels a bit dizzy because combat is much harder at the beginning of the campaign than at the end. An early (albeit optional) battle versus a lodge full of barbarians is easily the hardest battle in the game. Conversely, most later battles and bosses actually become cakewalks once you’ve dipped into the potent crafting system.
Nevertheless, this remains an entertaining experience bolstered by solid replay value. More than just the usual decisions between good and evil, there are quite a few options your character can explore with regards to the type of spirit eater he/she wants to be. There are several opportunities to devour important NPCs, and there is a wealth of intriguing dialog options and ending sequences awaiting those who aren’t afraid to experiment with the power dwelling inside of them.
Mask of the Betrayer is quite the turnaround then. Its status as an expansion pack risks obscuring what is surely one of Obsidian’s finest works, if not its best. This is an adventure that never loses sight of its goal to make your character the most interesting thing in its world, and for any good CRPG, that’s still a goal worth celebrating.