Obsidian Entertainment attempts to turn back the clock with Storm of Zehir, a Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion that tries hard to emulate the seminal single-player role-playing game Baldur's Gate. But even though nostalgia makes this notion appealing, this attempt to shoehorn an old-fashioned strategic RPG boasting a full party of adventurers into an engine built to showcase a story-driven tale about a single lead character hasn't really succeeded. So while taking a trip back in time might seem like a nice idea for an RPG vacation, the result is a clumsy affair that plays more like an above-average homebrewed mod than a full-blown official add-on.
Storm of Zehir feels different from the very beginning. The story is extremely stripped down, especially in comparison with the cataclysmic original Neverwinter Nights 2 showdown against the King of Shadows and the epic first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer. Here, you play as a pedestrian low-level hero not looking to save the world but to escort a trade mission on a ship heading from the overexposed Sword Coast to the never-before-seen jungles of Samarach. The game takes this concept so far that you can even sell goods between towns and set up trade routes to make a few bucks as actual merchants. The plot won't necessarily grab you throughout its 20 hours or so of play, and the first few hours seem to have plenty of RPG clich's--you'll lose all your gear early on in the game, for instance.
Dull quests take a lot of the shine off the bright and colorful visuals.
Instead of tackling the usual earth-shattering events of a Dungeons & Dragons game, here you take on the duties of a mop-up crew coming in after the party's over. The King of Shadows has already wreaked his havoc, and you're just some poor schlub out to try to make a buck by ensuring that merchants can once more ply their trade. The quests reflect this mundane storyline. You run a lot of lame errands to kill specific monsters and recover lost or stolen merchandise, and you clean out a bunch of formulaic dungeons, caves, graveyards, and the like. Most locales are fairly small, so they seem more like minor obstacles that can be raced through in a few minutes than the huge strongholds and lairs typical of RPGs. Trading feels more like a minor irritant than a worthwhile feature. Generally, you acquire the game's three goods--ore, lumber, and skins--in one place and then sell them at a profit somewhere else. Transactions are handled on simple menu screens when you enter a town, so you don't do anything more than hit a few buttons to add money to your coffers. And the concluding reveal and battle come up so suddenly and are so anticlimactic that you won't believe they're the ending of the game until you've exited to the desktop.
Rather than playing as a solo hero chosen for some great destiny, you roll up a party of four average joes just like you did way back when in D&D classics like the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale franchises. While you start off with a single lead protagonist meant to be your alter ego, you add three adventurers to the party roster almost immediately and can then add two more cohorts as the campaign moves along. You can take total control of all of these characters and fight battles in a style similar to the quasi-tactical struggles of old-time strategic RPGs, which makes the campaign ideal for multiplayer adventuring online. Where both the original campaign and the one in Mask of the Betrayer didn't seem to do much with the outstanding multiplayer options in the Neverwinter Nights series, this one seems almost designed to be played with friends, even though, oddly, Obsidian doesn't recommend the scenario for multiplayer games.. The atmosphere is different from that in the previous Neverwinter Nights games; the emphasis on a single hero and a heavily scripted story has been dumped in favor of more traditional, more wide-open role-playing. If you pause the game enough or play with some friends, you can almost pretend that you're back in a turn-based game circa 1989.
Unfortunately, it seems like the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine wasn't quite up to the task of making this experience consistent. Artificial intelligence is a big problem. You can switch between having full control of your party members and letting the AI handle things, but neither option works all that well. If you go for total control, you're constantly pausing the action to wrangle with an interface geared for looking after just one character. The pull-down menu that never worked smoothly for the original Neverwinter Nights 2 is far worse when dealing with at least four characters. A proper turn-based interface would require a lot less messing around and investment of your time. You can turn on the AI to automate party decisions during combat, though this can lead to even worse results. Leaving the game on its default settings leads to suicidal melee attacks and all-out magic assaults that can empty your spellcasters' arsenals in moments, often in battles with piddly opponents, such as a swarm of bats. Actions can be thoroughly customized, but it's tough to come up with a formula that works in all battle situations. You can find yourself fussing with the settings so much that it makes more sense to simply shut the AI off and do everything manually.