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SummaryBoth a nostalgia trip and a visionary experiment
The GoodIn their campaign to push the original NWN1 role-playing template in all kinds of unorthodox directions, this time around Obsidian expands the Aurora engine to host an extraordinary hybrid of Neverwinter Nights 2, Settlers, and Heroes of Might & Magic. That's right. No wonder it failed to get the attention of either NWN2 or the Mask of the Betrayer add-on: Storm of Zehir requires patience and time just to figure your way around the genre-bending weirdness of this package. Then it requires extra patience and time to make enough money by trading (Settlers portion), to reach higher levels by hunting down enough mobs and doing enough local sidequests (Heroes of Might & Magic portion), and to complete the overarching plot and its subquests (NWN2 portion) in order to finish the game. I did take the time and now I take my hat off to Obsidian realizing that they managed to push NWN2's envelope even further than Mask of the Betrayer and get away with it. Such bold and creative experimentation with an RPG engine and mechanics is to be commended.
Storm of Zehir catches us off guard because most of us approach it as "just another small scale NWN add-on". It does start off like that, but soon it blossoms into an epic experience that is only comparable to the most ambitious roleplaying games of recent times. And even that description fails to do it justice as essentially it's three games rolled into one. Let's count the ways:
- Part of the framework here is to go VERY old school. It's an unexpected move since NWN2 and MotB both excelled in being forward-looking and experimental. But Zehir actually far surpasses them as an experiment. It starts off by adopting the wide-eyed, enchanted feeling of typical 1980's RPG's -- which was the best bit about them -- without falling into their traps of repetitiveness and eventual boredom.
- This time, it's truly open ended, a game of the ignore-the-main-quest-and-explore-the-country variety which is vastly different from previous NWN games. It's a small miracle that the Aurora engine could pull this off.
- Obsidian serves us their own version of Heroes of M&M seemingly without even trying. Because it's all based on the pre-existing NWN character, prestige and leveling system, which is one of the most complex and better-implemented CRPG systems ever, the game ends up as something that's arguably more intriguing and deeper than the actual Heroes of M&M series.
- The trading system is not tacked on but forms an organic part of the whole. The game even manages to make this open-ended trading between towns a plot development device that makes the role-playing portion roll forward.
- Even if the focus is not on in-depth characterizations this time, the game does not sacrifice lengthy, colorful dialogues as a lesser game would. The result is almost overwhelming, in a good way: the characters are alive, and the trading system is alive, and the sidequests are alive.
- For once, the light, cheerful approach and the sunny tropical setting feel refreshing rather than juvenile, especially if you come to Zehir directly after completing the dark and oppressive MotB. This includes some odd characters like Volo who seem to be added mostly for comic relief.
- The engine's graphical aspects seem to be upgraded. All aspects of Zehir's graphics are pretty, even in 2012. The dimly lit tropical caves are some of the most beautiful ones I've seen in a game.
- The overland travel system is typical 80's stuff, well implemented. It surely is more interesting than the static region maps that most contemporary RPG's try to get away with for long distance travel.
The BadYes, there are trade-offs. The plot IS thinner than in any previous Obsidian games, and far less interesting than MotB's storyline. The random mob encounters every 2 minutes ARE frustrating and draining, but they are a necessary evil needed to propel the open-ended mechanics forward (by giving plenty of XP). Towns ARE tiny and forgettable this time, because the game scheme needs many of them. Our optional cohorts are NOT very interesting this time, lacking elaborate background stories, but there's a good selection of them. To sum up, it's often quantity over quality with Zehir. This is the first Obsidian game to feature some unsavory elements from the hack-n-slash genre, which is almost the equivalent of a Steven Spielberg stooping to direct a porn film.
The limited, mediocre Aurora engine creaks and suffers under the daunting task of having to support this hybrid monster. Even with the final patch I've encountered a nasty show-stopping bug that required me to edit my savegame so I could progress. Come on, Obsidian!..
It all sounds worse than it actually is. Zehir does deserve that you give it a try.