Storm of Zehir – Final Review

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.

Storm of Zehir – Economics

One of the primary focuses of the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, Storm of Zehir, is building up a merchant trading company. When I first found out about that, I didn’t think it sounded very exciting but let me tell you I was wrong about that and I actually became quite hooked by the system.

It starts once you arrive at the Sword Coast. You’re told that in order to build up your own start-up trading company, you need to merge with one of three small, pre-established companies. So you travel to Neverwinter and meet with the three managers of those companies, with them representing, as I interpreted it, socialism, capitalism with a heart, and a ruthless, free market capitalism with no concern placed on anything outside money. I’m not an economics major but I think that’s more or less an accurate representation of your options.

From there, you travel around to different cities and try to establish caravan routes. Every town requires you to invest easy-to-come-by resources toward creating your local headquarters, though some towns additionally require extra effort to clear obstacles and road blocks. For example, Port Llast’s ruler, Haeromos Dothwintyl, has been imprisoned thanks to a Luskanite take-over. You have to free Haeromos and liberate the town before trade can be established (I only played the game once; I suppose it’s possible that if I had evil characters or sided with the free market merchant guild, I may have been able to trade with the Luskanites).

Once a route is established, you can build a caravan and get trade going. The cost of setting up a caravan is related to the danger of the route between the two cities. The greater the risk, the greater the cost. From memory, the cheaper routes cost as low as 1,500 or 3,000 gold, while the more dangerous routes could go for around 10,000 or so. (Again, that’s from memory.) Finally, you can either walk along the trade route ensuring the path is cleared of bandits and monsters and coming to the aid of your embattled caravans, or you can spend double or triple the investment costs to upgrade the merchants so that they can protect themselves (or you can ignore the situation as I did early on since you never run out of merchants; I suppose you make slightly less money when caravans are sacked, but it’s nothing I noticed).

If it isn’t clear by now, the addictive quality of the economic system is hitting every town and opening up every trade route and then building/upgrading the merchant caravans. Every successful journey by your merchants results in trade bars for you (1 trade bar equals 15 gold), which you parlay into upgrading your Keep, investing into the merchant group you initially chose, or enriching your company (for example, paying for advertising which nets you greater returns).

Sounds great so far, doesn’t it? And for a long while as you play, it really is. I invested almost every penny I earned back into the company and was having a blast with what seemed to be a perfectly balanced system. I loved going on long adventures, knowing I was making money back at town and waiting to see what new upgrades I could get.

And then it all fizzled.

There was a point where I went out adventuring and when I came back I was staring at tens of thousands of trade bars. I invested them back into the company, like normal, but discovered that there were no further upgrades available. I had max’d out. So from that point on, every time I returned to town, the pile of trade bars drastically increased. At first, I used the money to outfit my adventuring party (through the crafting system), but soon found that even that avenue had been exhausted. With nothing left to spend my money on, it started leaking out all over the place. I hit a million gold and then 4 million. I went into the final dungeon with 7 million and came out with 9.5 million.

In a sense, I suppose, since the game was over, it doesn’t really matter. On the other hand, it’s really disappointing to work so hard to earn money and then so quickly find the effort worthless. It’s also disappointing to think that even though I could play on after beating the game, there was nothing to do to make it remotely worth considering. I wish that Obsidian could have toyed with the system more — perhaps adding another couple dozen expensive, high-level upgrades (that don’t result in you earning more trade bars) or have a moment in the story where your company is brought down or betrayed and you have to start over to some extent or bandits overwhelm your merchants and temporarily shut down your trading or Lord Nasher raises your taxes too high or the start-up costs for most of the towns are much higher (10x, or more) or if you lose too many caravans to marauders the costs go up to attract new traders and protect them or you need to invest more heavily in the roads and patrols or — anything to create a better money sink.

Another minor criticism, some towns create certain resources. For example, New Leaf, buried in the forest, has an abundance of lumber and they sell it cheaply. Other towns pay high margins for specific resources based on their need. I really thought that was going to come more into play and I’d have to focus on fluctuating supply and demand and pay attention to happenings or manipulate them to some degree. Or, at least, I thought if I wanted to get richer/faster I’d have to exploit these structures. Maybe, thanks to too much trade, the forests would be over-cut and trade would cease for a while. A personal stockpile of lumber would become invaluable, if I had one. Or maybe a caravan hauling lumber to a town that didn’t need it as much could be axed in favor of doubling up lumber to a site desperate for it. Also, I thought there might be quests associated with these resources. For example, maybe dragons would burn down the forests of New Leaf and I’d have to adventure to enlist the aid of druids to re-grow the woods to balance the system. But no, nothing like that ever happened and the costs at the various towns never really entered into my thought process.

In all, I loved the idea and for a long while (about 10-15 hours of the approximate 20 hours where you’re engaged in trading while playing the game) the system was great, but it died off at the end and makes me hope we get to see a second revision in some future Obsidian game where it’s a little more polished and extended.

(Revised) First Impressions: Storm of Zehir

The thing I like most about these “rolling reviews” — that is, noting thoughts as I play a game, is that it lets you see a progression. In other words, if I play a game and end up loving it, a normal review will say just that — maybe with a started-rough-but-got-better preface.

My actual first impression of Storm of Zehir (SoZ) was not very good and it really put me off the game. The latest patch arrived (apparently, 5 months in the making) and I wasn’t sure I even cared. But tonight, I pushed myself (a little against my will) to install the patch, pop in the latest TonyK’s AI hack, read a few guides on the best way to succeed in SoZ, and then built an all-new party based on those readings.

The result? A much smoother, much more fun adventure. It’s almost like a brand new first impression of the game as a result — thus, the “revised” in the post title.

I started by building four characters and ensured there was no overlap between them. Clearly defined roles only! In other words, the leader, a rogue with a level of ranger, has a specific skill set. The fighter has her own skills. The healer has his. And the wizard has hers. Amongst other things, this neatly solves the original problem I had with the speech bubble icons; now, I know that if the rogue has a bubble, it’s probably because he has a Bluff or Appraise observation to make. If it’s the wizard, it’s probably a Lore or Spellcraft comment. Etc.

The opening encounter worked a bit better this time around. I used pause judiciously to scavenge for equipment and prepare myself, then watched as Volo worked his best to converse with the locals. Each successive wave triggered properly and that made the fights easier since I wasn’t fighting the entire group at once (or, by the way, micromanaging my group — which I hate doing). Plus, my party acted as expected — healing and fighting all the while, but also not getting carried away and using up entire wands on one weak monster. And when the soldiers joined in to help out? It was a neat moment, like “the cavalry has arrived!” Yay for functional AI.

I was a little more excited to get back to the overland map now that I had a survival/stealth expert in the group — and understood that you had to make that character active to gain the benefits — so I raced through the town section, but not without picking up a few quests first.

Once outside, I was much happier. I could walk around the map and explore. Monsters popped up occasionally (I made sure my spot/listen were zeroed out, which feels backward but whatever works), and I could choose whether to engage them. As well, thanks to the Search skill, special locations and loots popped up quite frequently. As a result, I spent the first chunk of my time outside walking around the entire map and getting map notes and crates of trade goods, potions, and so forth. Then I went back to the story and brought cargo from the wrecked ship back to town for experience and gold. And more quests.

By that point, I was getting hooked into the game. I felt the calming embrace of addiction overtake me as I told myself “just one more quest” more than a few times after killing an epic bore, clearing salt mines so a local village could get back to work, and rescuing the ship’s captured captain from cannibal humanoid monsters. My current quest is to track down the party thought to be responsible for wrecking the ship in the first place. Fun, fun!

Bottom line? I’m glad I pushed through. I kept reading on-line that SoZ is a game lacking in story and focused on killing monsters. That, coupled with the problems mentioned in my first, first impression, made me not want to play. But now that I’m a few hours in I’m finding that my experience is that SoZ is kind of like Diablo: lots of simple quests and simple stories combined with addictive gameplay made up in part by exploring/fighting and in part with the strategy of character advancement. I’m quite happy with that and looking forward to more.

First Impressions: Storm of Zehir

I just fired up the latest official expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir. I put about an hour into it and walked away unimpressed. I think I might not be in the right mindset for this. I’m going to come back in a week (after the 1.24 patch is released) and try again. In the meanwhile, here are the first impressions I jotted down as I played:

Told to scavenge shrubbery and wreckage after the ship crashes. I’m off doing that and find out I missed a battle. I barely had time to get situated. Should have made the first encounter a player-triggered encounter – that is, the monsters wait for Volo to approach, and you tell Volo when to approach. That way you can prepare yourself.

Player should have the option to speak with the monsters. I put a lot of points into dialogue and would at least like a chance, even if Volo is better. Let the player play.

Volo says he’ll talk to the natives but he just stands there. If I get too close he tells me to back up. Nothing happens here, so the player is forced to walk close enough that it triggers the monsters to go hostile.

A patrol arrives and tell me I’m under arrest but, again, nothing happens. I wandered around for a while and then eventually spoke with the patrol, at which point the game continued. If the goal is to give the player a chance to finish looting, perhaps the guards could have told us that they were giving us a chance to gather our belongings as a matter of civility before dragging us along. It would have felt less broken.

Dialogues when I scavenge for items are unclear. Feedback kept telling me I found an item but I didn’t think to look to the chat window to see what I had gained. I was expecting that information in the dialogue window where the game was telling me I found something. If it’s just the way the system works, then there should have been some hint — check your inventory, etc.

Multi-player dialogue interface is unclear. Every time I saw the speech bubble icon on a player tab, I’d click on those different character tabs to see their bonus dialogue options. But then I’d have to check back against the other character to determine which options were the new ones or unique ones. They should have all been listed on one page with a character name/names prefacing the line so you’d know which were the unique options.

In other dialogues, I was having trouble following along and figuring out who was saying what. Made me a little frustrated and made me feel like just skipping through the dialogue instead of immersing myself into the story.

I created a new character but she never was gifted the necessary XP to level-up to 4th like the others. Had to create an entirely new character.

Related, the game never tells you what level of character is appropriate to start the game with. I was initially tempted to drag over my character from Mask of the Betrayer. He’s close to level 30, I believe.

I clicked on the door to “belowdeck” and was given a confirmation screen (do you really want to start the adventure?). I accidentally clicked on it again later but there was no confirmation this time. I needed the confirmation as I was not yet done.

Familiar doesn’t follow. My cleric isn’t always healing like he should. My wizard used up all the charges on a wand in the first wave of the first encounter against the monsters with Volo.

Made it to the overland map and am giving that one a go for the first time. Wow, monsters spawning like crazy right around the town. Like, every few seconds new monsters are popping up. They’re everywhere and charging me constantly. And all different kinds — gnolls, orcs, zombies, ogres, and skeletons in the first 30 seconds of travel. This isn’t a JRPG! My party is getting decimated.

I saw a patrol fighting zombies. I decided to intervene but there was no dialogue or anything. Everything suddenly felt very generic and it made me not want to bother with future encounters. I was spotted by another group and led them in a circle until a patrol picked them up and I could continue. That felt very dumb during/after the fact.

Spotted a few typos and grammar errors but that isn’t even worth mentioning in light of the above.

User-Created Content

I recently posted that I finished Boom Blox Bash Party — but I had completely forgotten about the on-line component (you can download-and-rate tons of user-created levels) and had to edit in a reference after the fact.

And that struck me as a little funny because I would happily buy a brand new Boom Blox at this very moment. And I would be excited for that opportunity. But even though I would, and even though I bought Bash Party partly because I knew I could extend the gaming with user-created content, I’ve pretty much moved on.

Why is that?

The more I think about it, the more I realize this is a pattern, not an exception.

For example, I worked on the first Neverwinter Nights and I was so excited to play the user-created mods after spending so much time helping to make the game so that I could see what everyone else would think to do with our engine. Once the game was out, I didn’t have much interest in playing. 🙂 But even after I regained my enthusiasm for the title, I spent more time with the official/premium modules and have probably only played a few user-created modules — which is more than I have done with Neverwinter Nights 2 since I haven’t played a single user-created module. Similarly, I’ve downloaded a bunch of stuff for Oblivion, but it’s all to tweak how the game itself plays. I haven’t downloaded a single module. With the Witcher, I played both of the modules that come with the enhanced edition, but never went snooping around the internet for user mods. And then there was the Ultima V mod I kinda started playing, for Dungeon Siege.

I think it’s time I stretch my games a little further. Tomorrow, I think I might try some of the NWN1 and NWN2 Hall of Fame modules and see how they go.

What about you, denizens of the Internet? Do you milk your games for every potential ounce of pleasure they may provide, or is it more of a consume-and-forget relationship?