Shadows of Undrentide  

Game Name:  Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide Expansion
Developer:  BioWare, Floodgate Entertainment
Publisher:  Atari
PC Release Year:  2003
Review Date:  December 13, 2015

After sitting on the fence since this past summer, I finally took the plunge with Windows 10.  For all of the news about surveillance, advertising, and performance with this new operating system, the reality is, I was going to do a format anyway so I may as well be up to date.  My employer prompted this all by finally issuing me a laptop.  Before this newfound mobility, working from home required a software suite for my home system that let me tunnel into the office network, but it came with the knowledge that someone in IT could always peer backwards to spy on me.  Naturally, the sooner I could sever this connection the better, so I sat down this past Thanksgiving to decide what needed to be carried onto a fresh Windows install and what could be wiped away for good.  Among the many games on my old setup, it turns out that only Neverwinter Nights had an incomplete save file.  While I had traversed its main campaign over two years ago with my cleric-fighter hybrid, named Quarto, he had never set foot in either of its expansions.  I figured if I had to bring him over in the move, it was only right to send him on his next adventure.  While Shadows of Undrentide is still not what I consider a top-shelf BioWare experience, it is vastly superior to the original game, and has me legitimately excited to try the third and final expansion.

Maybe it was a way to establish some distance from the bloated campaign of Neverwinter Nights, or perhaps it was simply an attempt to stay competitive with the Dungeon Siege expansion that released around the same time, but Shadows of Undrentide’s story lacks any direct linkage to the earlier narrative.  This can put returning players into a bit of an awkward spot, because while there is an option to import existing characters, the intent is clearly to create a new one.  I could not do Quarto dirty like that, so I rolled with the punches and decided to actually role play in an RPG.  Thanks to a broad range of text options, which are used to establish an avatar’s moral alignment, whenever someone happened to mention the plague that ravaged the capital city in the original game, I made sure to ignore my good-guy tendencies and respond in the rudest possible manner.  That would surely throw them off my trail!  How could they possibly suspect that I was the legendary hero of Neverwinter, and I was only cozying up to my so-called ‘master’ Drogan, as a way of pilfering the magical items in his possession?  If only those damned kobolds had not beaten me to the punch by raiding his home, I could have avoided this adventure altogether!

Unfortunately for those sentient lizards, which share no resemblance to the rat-like creatures in World of Warcraft, my 15 levels of preexisting awesomeness was enough to slice through their ranks with relative ease.  In fact, the same could be said for most of the other hostile, and some not-so-hostile denizens of Toril, who were never strong enough to challenge a character that always outclassed the game's content.  Two main acts and a sizeable interlude comprise the entirety of the campaign, and it was only in the final third where most enemies were not vanquished with a single attack.  Surprisingly, this works to the title’s benefit.  Sure, it was kind of lame to level up just three times during the course of the playthrough.  Scrounging for loot, which is a pastime in many RPGs, was also a little boring when Quarto only found two solid items upgrades on his quest.  In the end, though, a reprieve from the mindless battle system which repeats ad nauseam, except for short breaks to cast healing spells and drink potions, more than made up for it.  Compared to the 20 hour completion estimate from howlongtobeat.com, my own playthrough time of 12 hours saved me a workday worth of mind-numbing combat, and allowed me to better appreciate some of the expansion's true improvements.

Players of the original game can easily create a list of these enhancements, like the ability to customize companion characters with their own gear set, and the inclusion of new texture packs to stave off visual boredom, but none are as important to Shadows of Undrentide as the quality of its writing.  Contrasted against the narrative black and white of Neverwinter Nights, this is a case study in BioWare doing what they do best.  Characters are still classified into a quadrant between good, evil, lawful, and chaotic, but it is much more difficult to maintain a desired set of traits when villains are given sympathetic backstories and heroes ally themselves with malevolent forces to fight a common foe.  Do two wrongs make a right?  That is a question players need to answer when morally grey situations, like figuring out how to defuse an accidental hostage situation, or deciding which of two evil characters deserves to be stabbed in the back, inject a dose of much-needed reality to the experience.  Beyond my own silly roleplaying to rationalize Quarto’s presence in this tale, I found myself compelled to react in more natural manner than I typically do in such titles.  For a straight-laced gamer that is always trying to see the ‘good’ ending in a branching story, it is definitely a feat for a developer to bring out my inner pragmatist.

Of course, the other pillar of BioWare’s classic storytelling formula is the inclusion of companion NPCs that become as much a part of the narrative as the players themselves.  For the first time in the Neverwinter Nights series, this type of design philosophy is exhibited with Deekin; a character exuding enough humor and charm to supplant HK-47, from Knights of the Old Republic, as my favorite BioWare supporting cast member of all time.  He is one of the many kobolds that attack Drogan’s house at Shadows of Undrentide’s start, and players are tasked with tracking him down because he is the one who made off with a crystal containing enough magical energy to let a city float through the skies.  When the pair meets up in the snow-covered forest which sets the stage for the game’s first act, gamers discover that unlike his reptilian peers, he is no warrior.  He is merely a simple bard who wants to travel the world, but that dream is curtailed by his enslavement to the rather nasty dragon who ordered the raid.  Opportunistic players will get more than they bargain for if they agree to acquire his freedom in exchange for the mythallar, as he will essentially swear a life debt to his new ‘master’ and offer to craft an epic poem in his or her honor.  The two make an odd and entertaining team for the remainder of their journey, with Deekin frequently stopping to jot down notes, threatening to trivialize rude people in his soon-to-be-completed masterpiece, and singing goofy songs over the sounds of battle.

If there is one overarching problem with Shadows of Undrentide, it is that the time spent with Deekin is fleeting.  Considering his liberation is the primary goal of act one, players do not get a chance to quest alongside him until the episodic interlude through the deserts of Anauroch.  These enjoyable micro dungeons, which pay homage to the areas around Diablo II’s Lut Gholein, make up the game's shortest segment, so there is only so much time to develop a rapport between players and their little buddy.  Unfortunately, a very disgruntled gorgan cuts this bonding time down even further by meeting the pair outside of Undrentide’s gates in order to turn them to stone.  While a chance encounter with a slaver provides the protagonist with an out, it is incumbent upon the player to explore this ancient city’s halls for the magical potion that will change Deekin’s fate.  This is something I could not find until right before the final boss, so Quarto was on his own through the majority of an act filled with monotonous combat encounters that are designed to get players into fighting shape for Hordes of the Underdark.  If not for these long and lonely stretches of time, where it is easy to be reminded about the underlying flaws of Neverwinter Nights, Shadows of Undrentide might be a better proposition.

Verdict:  Not Recommended