I think I spent more time preparing to play Storm of Zehir than actually playing it. No, not really. But it feels that way. I really agonized over my character choices and read a lot of player reviews. For some reason, I really stressed over the suggested difficulty and wanted to make sure I was prepared. Once I started playing the game, however, I never came across that supposed difficulty. Either the game wasn’t as hard as suggested or I need to upgrade my perception of my gaming skills. :p Maybe it’s a little of both, though the final encounter did kick my butt a little.
But before we discuss the final encounter, let’s back up a bit.
I had read Storm of Zehir was roughly 30-35 hours and broken up into three distinct chunks.
The first 10-hour session has you exploring the first map. You quest in typical, satisfying RPG fashion (receive quest, enter dungeon, kill everyone, loot, repeat) with the added tweak that you get to move about the map via the overhead exploration mode. That is, instead of wandering across a map in a zoomed-in, first- or third-person viewpoint as you might in Neverwinter Nights 2 — in Storm of Zehir you see an extremely zoomed-out map of the entire region and your tiny avatar (representing your group) travels across it. I’d say it’s more similar to the Japanese RPGs like Phantasy Star or even Western RPGs like Ultima.
I like the set-up of a fixed map that you move back-and-forth across, discovering new areas as you travel and becoming familiar with the region. Like I mentioned in my Bully review, recycling content is a good thing. Why have an artist make dozens of original maps when they can make one filled with content that keeps you hooked?
After about 10 hours of fighting my way through caves and towers, tracking down shipments of ore, and killing 10 of this or 10 of that, I received word that a portal was available which would take me to a new map. Ah, I said to myself. I must be about 10 hours in and this must be the transition to that second chunk. And it was!
I transitioned to a new map (The Sword Coast, featuring such locales as Neverwinter and Port Llast) and discovered I’d continue to explore and adventure — but now I’d also be setting up a merchant company. I made a post specifically about trading so I’ll keep this short and say it was fun to adventure, knowing that I was making money which I would in turn use to further build-up and promote my trading company (alas, if only those further advancements weren’t specifically focused on generating money, and if only there were more upgrades to invest into the company, it may not have played itself out of its enjoyment as it did).
After playing across this map for some time, I received word that I’d be heading back to the first map — to meet a plot-critical NPC at a temple. I assumed that the Temple would lead to a new map, and while I was correct — it didn’t come off as I expected. The new map was only an extension of the original, first map — and featured two or three very small quest maps and the final dungeon map. As I was expecting, even at this point, to transition to a new map — the ending caught me unaware. I crept my way through the map until I reached… the end of the game. I should have expected it, since everyone was telling me that this was the end, but it still surprised me. Regardless, that brings us to the final fight.
I walk into a room and see 4 or 5 priests hugging the rear wall, each one lit up by a specifically colored cone of light. I instinctively assume this is a puzzle but I never end up finding out if this is the case. Closer to me, I see two lizard creatures and a couple other fighters. They charge my party and my party is annihilated. It’s not pretty. And I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised I’m ended so quickly because a) I’m still thinking this isn’t the end of the game and b) I’ve completely annihilated everything else I’ve come across as I’ve played.
I re-load and try three or four more times and have no luck throughout. It’s looking worse each time, to be honest. The end boss has a ridiculous number of immunities which are effectively neutering my party and making the ending less satisfying. Besides, at this point my group is pretty exhausted from the slog just to get to the final boss. That’s when I figure that, since there’s nothing locking me in the room, I may as well leave and rest, to recover my abilities. I will admit that I find this to be a bit of a failure for the game and its story. The balancing is rough but I can almost forgive that. My problem is that it’s frustrating to have an end encounter that you can walk up to and then away from. What “end boss” is going to stand still, after you butchered the entirety of his defenses, so that you can leave for days, or weeks, before coming back?
And that’s what I end up doing. I leave, intending only to rest for 8 hours and re-try, but I return to the Sword Coast and, over the course of a few weeks game-time, discover a few missed adventures. I clear them out and gain a level in the process. I use a few thousand of my millions of gold to upgrade my equipment and buy some new spells, and then I head back to the end boss. This time? I took him out on my first try, probably within the span of a few minutes. In fact, while my character snuck into the back of the room to riddle the colored priests with arrows (just in case!), my fighter, cleric, and wizard (fully run by AI, as they were the rest of the game) finish off the boss. Hm, I thought at the time — that was anti-climactic. Was my equipment that much better prepared for dealing with the boss and his immunities? I can only guess as much. Either that, or a simple refresh of my abilities was really all it took. In that case, maybe the balancing wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe it could have stood to be a tad more difficult (no, nevermind that comment, haha!).
But was it the end of the game? Yes. Although a voice booms out from some other foe about his anger at my actions, suggesting at a sequel of some sort, that is indeed the end of the game. The player moves on to the final cinematic, which is a fun (but not quite original) recounting of your various deeds throughout the game. More fun, even if it breaks the spell to a degree, is your choice to say, afterward, “No, that’s not how it went” and re-define the ending. I do have to admit seeing what variables, exactly, made up the ending disappointed me somewhat. I went to great length to complete every single quest that I could find. But ultimately, your end-game cinematic only takes into account a few of the major quests.
This, and the other comments, may sound like I’m bagging on the game to a degree, but that is not the case at all. I really enjoyed the game and felt quite hooked throughout the experience. I loved leveling up my four home-made characters (regrettably, I didn’t use any of the henchmen — though since I did have them join my group and hang out at the inn, they were all featured in the end-game cinematic. I learned more about them than I did while playing. I’d call that a bug.) and moving through lots of fun, simple dungeons that weren’t the grind of the Neverwinter Nights 2 dungeons. If there were a more polished, Storm of Zehir 2 on the horizon — I would definitely be buying.