May Millennials 7: Gothic II: Night of the Raven (Intro)

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Bwahahahaha! Nothing like skirting one's own rules on a warm summer's evening. Or something. So yeah, I'm just going to play Gothic II for another week, determining its official expansion Night of the Raven as a separate release for the sake of this feature's stringent regulation on starting a new game every seven days. I'm not going to spend this whole intro talking about the same material as last time though, because there's a whole lot more I discovered about Gothic II and the wishes of its fanbase when researching what the expansion did to the game's core ruleset. First though, before we get ahead of ourselves...

Night of the Raven introduces a whole new region of the island of Khorinis, named Jharkendar for the ancient city that once stood there. One of the game's major questlines, introduced with this expansion, is an investigation into some missing people that has you cross paths with the Water Mages from the first Gothic. The Water Mages were one of the prison colony's factions: however, they weren't so much prisoners in the legal sense but became trapped after performing the barrier ritual that enclosed the place and made it impossible for the prisoners, or them, to escape. Unlike their rivals the Fire Mages, the Water Mages are a calm and scholarly lot who believe in balance above all else. A bunch of neutral weenies, in so many words, though a group that was friendly enough to the protagonist until the protagonist screwed over their plans with a bold maneuver that proved necessary to lift the barrier and help everyone escape. Relations are a bit prickly when the hero comes back and reintroduces himself to the group in this game, but only their leader seems put out by the hero's actions. I just love little bits of continuity like that: Gothic II is a rare series in that it carries over almost the entire surviving cast of the previous game, and they all remember you and what you may have done.

The new island's layout. The desert to the northeast is an entirely new template for the game. Southwest is this neat serpentine path through different elevations. The swamp to the west is incredibly hostile until you've found some bandit armor to use as a disguise, which you eventually get by running around the west side of the map for a while. Of course, the map tells you none of this, but it does helpfully point out the teleporters with those blue squares.
The new island's layout. The desert to the northeast is an entirely new template for the game. Southwest is this neat serpentine path through different elevations. The swamp to the west is incredibly hostile until you've found some bandit armor to use as a disguise, which you eventually get by running around the west side of the map for a while. Of course, the map tells you none of this, but it does helpfully point out the teleporters with those blue squares.

Anyway, the missing people and the Water Mages' investigation of an ancient temple end up leading to the same place: a northern region of the island normally only reachable by ship, but a teleporter in the ancient ruins that the Water Mages are excavating turns out to be a shorter land route. The Jharkendar chapter has the player helping the Water Mages with their investigation of the ancient city while also rescuing the nearby kidnapped citizens of Khorinis by one of the former prison camp lieutenants turned bandit king, Raven. Jharkendar also introduces a group of friendly pirates, their leader being someone you bumped into regularly while still in the main area of Khorinis, and a convenient fast travel system that recycles some powerful McGuffins from Gothic I. It's been a fun place to explore so far, with a few new enemy types that aren't found elsewhere in the game and plenty of optional areas which exist more for side-questing and treasure than the main questline of the expansion. Like Khorinis, there are also areas like caves and valleys which are downright lethal if you arrive there underprepared due to their high-level enemies, so the expansion region is also somewhere you're meant to revisit occasionally once you've gained some levels and better gear. I've already started taking notes of where the tougher enemies are - the shadowbeasts, for example, who tear me to pieces faster than I can blink, or the game's surprisingly sturdy and skillful skeletons - so I can come back later when I can safely take them on.

Moreover though, Jharkendar is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Night of the Raven fundamentally changes the game, and this is tied into what I've learned about the game's original fans that I intimated towards with yesterday's premature closing thoughts on the game. You see, almost every change that isn't new content is purpose-built to make the game more difficult. Gothic II was already pretty challenging, but it turned out its most vocal fans wanted it to be harder still. This meant more expensive skill gains at higher levels (my 75 strength now costs three points to increase instead of one), weaker permanent stat boost potions and fewer special herbs with which to brew them, stronger versions of enemies scattered across each territory, reducing the sale price of items to make money harder to obtain, and making items (especially weapons) more expensive to buy. Last time I spoke about some of the high-tier weapons having exorbitant stat requirements; they might actually be impossible to use unless you mainline your offensive stats and avoid anything extra like thief or hunter skills. This difficulty is offset, only slightly, by a new set of skills related to reading ancient tablets, each of which can bless the player with a small boost to various stats and skills. You will need to find a lot of these tablets before the skill investment to read them becomes worth it though. You can theoretically switch back to some of the vanilla game's values with a trainer, specifically sale prices and weapon stat requirements, but I've been fairly reluctant to do so. I'm making steady progress through the game, just about, so I've no need to make things easier on myself quite yet. That said, the game continues to be a fight for survival regardless of what I might be facing: the diminutive goblins, for example, are some of the weakest foes in the game but can still quickly surround you and pummel you into the dirt in larger numbers. Human opponents, meanwhile, remain very unpredictable due to the critical damage mechanic I elaborated upon last time: a single good hit with enough training and strength behind it, regardless of the weapon used, can bottom out your health gauge in a flash. I'm still regularly getting clubbed by "heavy branches," even with my enchanted longsword and special faction armor.

The Water Mages, the city ruins, and those beautiful teleporters.
The Water Mages, the city ruins, and those beautiful teleporters.

I've no idea what kind of relationship a developer might have with its community in 2003 (I'm guessing it was mostly forums, IRC channels, and maybe Friendster?) but it seems like the players who were very serious about the game were also very serious about making it a lot harder on themselves. What's remarkable is that the developers agreed to this new direction, apparently seeing no point in reaching out to a potentially larger audience by sanding off the game's rougher edges. I think that speaks well to what little I know about the German game industry mindset in general: they have their preferred genres over there and don't see the need to compromise for a foreign audience, beyond the customary localizations. It's why they carried the CRPG and point-and-click adventure game torches for so long when the rest of the world had left them behind, and I'm grateful to them for that. I also can't speak to how easy the original Gothic II was, as I've never played it, so maybe it really was too much of a pushover and all these changes were warranted. I think it's safe enough to say I'd probably be done with it by now without the expansion's new rules (let alone its new content), which is specifically why I'm making it the reason I'm extending my Gothic peregrinations for another few days.

My apologies to those hoping for something new from May Millennials this week. Blame a vocal German RPG fanbase from the early '00s. Gamers, am I right?

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