The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 026-027: NWN 2 Storm of Zehir and Might and Magic IX (SEASON FINALE)

Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir

It's extremely weird to think that this expansion was kinda the last major traditional D&D video game until Baldur's Gate III (or Siege of Dragonspear, I guess)
It's extremely weird to think that this expansion was kinda the last major traditional D&D video game until Baldur's Gate III (or Siege of Dragonspear, I guess)

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

Release Date: November 4, 2008

Time Played: A little more than three hours

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

Best 5e D&D Module: Curse of Strahd, probably?

Would I play more? Sure, yeah.

This was something I started to feel around the time of my Temple of Elemental Evil charity streams earlier this year, but there are a lot of broad and specific things about Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 that annoy me greatly these days. It’s fiddly and numbers-obsessed, but the number of viable options is disproportionate to how many of them there are. A lot of classes are straight up bad, or designed in such a way that benefits byzantine multiclassing configurations and various combinations of prestige classes. Level Adjustment is weirdly punishing in a way that ensures characters more exotic than a boring human suffer a pretty significant handicap early on. For as much as I’m kinda done with dense P&P rulesets in general these days, at least Pathfinder: Kingmaker and the upcoming Wrath of the Righteous fully commit to their brand of ridiculous customizable number crunching in a way no digital recreation of 3.5 ever quite managed.

So, as you can tell, I had a great time with this one, especially given that 40 minutes of my first stream were dedicated to just making characters. Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir is mostly on this feature because it’s the weird forgotten follow-up to Mask of the Betrayer (which depending on the day of the week might still be my favorite Obsidian story) and goes in the complete opposite direction. Rather than play to Obsidian’s strengths of eclectic storytelling, mature themes, and deep characterization it’s an attempt to… make a sandbox-y, open-ish Icewind Dale sorta thing using the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine? There’s something to be said for trying to more accurately replicate the tabletop experience, and Storm of Zehir is definitely trying to emulate a “Hex Crawl” style campaign, complete with full party customization and all of the nightmare fiddly bits I mentioned above in full display. It’s an extremely neat idea, and having run a hex crawl or two of my own it’s impressive to see the ways that open format is replicated.

The overworld map is a neat idea that isn't very fun to navigate around. So this expansion in a nutshell.
The overworld map is a neat idea that isn't very fun to navigate around. So this expansion in a nutshell.

But, alas, this is Neverwinter Nights 2 we’re talking about, and one of the bigger shocks upon this revisit was how the game’s camera and overall UI is far, far worse than I remember it being. As an ardent defender of real-time with pause combat, NWN2’s implementation feels like it’s designed to justify every criticism of it being a chaotic, borderline unmanageable mess. SoZ putting more emphasis on that makes those problems more readily apparent. I didn’t get far enough to tell you the quality of the writing, but the voice acting is weirdly… bad in a way that makes me wonder if this expansion got the resources it needed. Certainly wouldn’t have been the first time Obsidian got screwed over by a publisher, nor the last. It is funny that this expansion is set in the jungles of Samarach and Chult, with the Yuan-Ti as the villains nine years before the 5e module Tomb of Annihilation, but I think that’s probably more coincidental than anything else.

So of course once I got my bearings and remembered what I was in for, I actually had a pretty decent time with Storm of Zehir because I’m broken and if you tell me I can make a full party and do a hex crawl you have my attention. Sure I kinda hate the ruleset and think the game engine is a mess, but also what if I played through this entire thing? No? That’s a dumb idea? You’re a dumb idea. Maybe I should just replay Mask of the Betrayer and eat some souls instead.

Might and Magic IX

I've written about this game before and I will continue to say it's totally okay for what it is.
I've written about this game before and I will continue to say it's totally okay for what it is.

Developer: New World Computing

Release Date: March 27, 2002

Time Played: about three hours on stream, I’ve played plenty more on my own time

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Number of franchise-killing installments I’ve played for this feature that involve the number IX: 2

Would I play more? Not gonna lie outside of the part where the game broke multiple times on stream it did make me kinda want to do a full playthrough.

And so we come to the last game for this season of The Wheel of Dubious RPGs, Might and Magic IX. It’s incredibly fitting, honestly, given that Might and Magic IX absolutely fits under the “Questionable” part of “Weird, Obscure, and/or Questionable.” Shoved out the door by 3DO in a blatantly unfinished state, it got the worse end of the stick compared to Heroes of Might and Magic IV which I’ve previously argued is “better than people gave it credit for.” I can’t really make any similar excuses for Might and Magic IX, which I fully admit is not a great game. It’s probably also fitting that it’s the game that gave me the most technical headaches while streaming. You’ll have to forgive me for not archiving that last stream where everything broke, but you didn’t miss much beyond me going “OH NO EVERYTHING BROKEN” and discussing ideas for what I want to do next.

Just a reminder that this game came out the same year as Morrowind
Just a reminder that this game came out the same year as Morrowind

Do I like it? Yes. Even the worst Might and Magic RPG is still good in my book, which is more than I can say for its strategic counterpart (boy Heroes VI is real bad, huh? But we can talk about Ubisoft’s treatment of the series another time.) Every aspect of Might and Magic IX feels compromised by its troubled development (it’s ugly as hell, towns feel weirdly big and empty, there’s a distinct lack of polish everywhere) and it really doesn’t help that it came out a year after Wizardry 8, which actually managed to end the series on its own terms. Those are not flattering comparisons to make, but the core of what makes Might and Magic good (namely, it being the faster paced, more streamlined Dungeon Crawling Blobber of choice) shine through. Eventually. Not the stuff I played on stream though. It’s been long enough that I forgot how rough the game’s intro was, before your characters are promoted to advanced classes and you have access to a wide variety of skills. Building up a party of weak losers into an effective fighting force is one of my favorite things about any game of that style, and Might and Magic IX *still does that.* Paul Romero and Rob King still make really good soundtracks, and there’s still some of that cornball Might and Magic charm hidden underneath.

I’m gonna say it: For a game that very much feels like the half-finished mess it is, it’s better than it has any right to be. But also it’s a broken piece of shit and if you’re going to play one Might and Magic game play World of Xeen or Mandate of Heaven. I dunno why I find the idea of the franchise-killer so appealing (see also: one of those PS2 games I bought back in April was Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter) but I find that shit fascinating. Might and Magic IX is no exception and it’s absolutely worth it as a curiosity for people like me and probably not anyone else.

Conclusion

That's right folks! You can make YOUR OWN Wheel of Dubious RPGs at home! Got a backlog just bursting with questionable garbage, but don't have the heart to totally write it off? Why not turn it into a charity donation incentive, and then a whole streaming thing once you realize you've thought about it for too much?
That's right folks! You can make YOUR OWN Wheel of Dubious RPGs at home! Got a backlog just bursting with questionable garbage, but don't have the heart to totally write it off? Why not turn it into a charity donation incentive, and then a whole streaming thing once you realize you've thought about it for too much?

So now we come to the end of The Wheel, the result of me bullshitting around with 27 games over six months (YOU CAN PLAY ALONG AT HOME) as a way of staving off quarantine madness. It was nice to finally go through and purge my backlog of wickedness; there are like 10 games from this feature I’d consider playing more of, and roughly 17 I never want to fucking touch again. I think my ability to discern quality has been at least partially damaged because of this, because I’m still not against the idea of doing a full playthrough of Rise of the Argonauts. Here are some of my take-aways from doing this, in convenient bullet point form:

  • Eurojank is good when it’s ambitious and bad when it’s not. If you’re not reaching for the sky and roughly hitting a small hill, what are you even doing with yourself?
  • I’m super, super done with Diablo-likes, apparently. Part of that is probably the RSI talking, but I find the ramp on most clicky click loot games extremely unrewarding for the kind of streams I was doing.
  • Aside from “games I intentionally picked because I wanted to show them off” I think the big surprise is that my tolerance for middling action RPGs is apparently much higher than their more traditional counterparts. Like, at this point Sudeki might just be my gold standard for “this actually seems bad but exactly in the way I want it to be”
  • I don’t want to do this again for a while.
It's not over until it's over.
It's not over until it's over.

So then, what next? Well, for the near future, you can expect my Dubious RPG streaming slot to be sporadically filled by Dragon Age II until I finish it. I reserve the right to play it off-stream, on my own time, but there are some moments from that game I’m gonna feel obligated to show off. I still kinda like it, it turns out, so at least I’m consistent in that respect.

Besides that, and besides my threats to get a capture card and scan converter so I can stream console stuff (which may or may not happen, making no promises rn) I think I want to showcase some of the smaller, interesting non-dubious indie and retro RPGs I have hanging around (so expect Underrail, Tower of Time, Serpent in the Staglands, and more.) There’s also an idea I’m kicking around called “Somewhat Strategic, Totally Tactical” which will be a similar barely-veiled backlog cleaning house where I (unsurprisingly) play a bunch of tactics and strategy shit. I might even do a formal schedule and everything? Oh right, all of this is also pending various life circumstances, which may or may not change a little bit in the near-future. And at some point I’ll hopefully have a better computer to do all this streaming on.

Finally, I just want to thank everyone for coming along for the ride with this dumb thing of mine. It’s been a lot of fun to do, and I hope I’ve, uh, illuminated your perspective on CRPGs slightly less popular and relevant than Baldur’s Gate. I'm (not) sorry.

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