The Ruins

When I was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (second edition rules) I created a Ranger. I identified with that particular class because in real life I’m a bowhunter, and the two share many similarities. I thought the idea of a character that could survive in the wilderness, use a bow or swords effectively in combat, and had the ability to track creatures was a neat idea. When I played pencil and paper Dungeons & Dragons, I played rangers. Then the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games hit my computer, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the ranger was a completely useless class.

Computer games have inherit limitations in them that make some of the more flavorful classes, like the ranger, more difficult to implement, and thus less attractive. In computer Dungeons & Dragons, rangers became nothing more than weak warriors. The skills that made them unique, like their ability to navigate the wilderness, or track game, couldn’t be properly implemented, and so they were removed from the computer games or severely weakened. This impacted the way I played those games, and thus I never created another ranger. Why play a weak ranger when you could play a strong warrior?

I’ve often wondered what a game might look and play like if it were to do justice to a ranger’s abilities. Now I know. Storm of Zehir is that game.

Storm of Zehir is an expansion to the Neverwinter Nights 2 game. It boasts two new important features:

  1. The ability to create an entire party of characters, a la Icewind Dale.
  2. An overland map that is used for travel, and which makes use of many ranger/druid skills.

Storm of Zehir leans heavily on these two new features. It succeeds because of them, but it is also dragged down by them. This is a game that doesn’t play nearly as well as it should.

For starters, while the game is billed as allowing you to create a full party of characters, similar to the Icewind Dale series of games, it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. In Icewind Dale you could create a party of six characters. Six slots turns out to be just about the right size, allowing you to create a robust team of adventurers, complete with the necessary rogues, wizards, clerics and fighters. But Storm of Zehir limits your custom party size to four. Any experienced player will tell you that four just isn’t enough.

You are allowed one extra NPC follower. Two if you blow a precious feat slot on a “Leadership” ability. Unfortunately, unlike NPC characters in previous games, the NPC followers in Storm of Zehir are rather bland, and lack any fun or meaningful dialog. There exists no reason bring them into your party other than to fill a character slot, and most players are going to want to create their own characters anyway. Fortunately, there is a simple configuration fix that will allow you to create a full, six-character party. But that it something that should have been available out of the box.

Then there’s the overland map. This is Storm of Zehir’s greatest strength, and also its greatest weakness.

The overland map achieves something that no previous Dungeons & Dragons game has really been able to do. For the first time, abilities like Survival, Spot, Listen, and Move Silently are not confined to the realm of rogues and thieves. These skills are used extensively while your party is on the overland map. They allow your adventurers to avoid dangerous encounters, find hidden treasures, or discover important locations. Finally, it pays to have a Ranger in the group.

On its own merit, the overland map is a successful new feature. The problem with Storm of Zehir is not the overland map itself, but what the developers did with it. Or more precisely, what they did not do with it.

What they did not do is create a big, vibrant world. There are no large cities to frequent, no majestic ruins to explore, no labyrinthine dungeons to plunder. Everything in Storm of Zehir is small and absent of grandeur (or fun, for that matter).

The game plays very much like a Final Fantasy game. And that’s a shame, because the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine is capable of so much more. Like Final Fantasy, your party spends most of its time wandering the overland map, and when it finally does encounter a ruin, dungeon or random group of bandits, the encounter is small (a single zone), and is over in seconds. In fact, I have yet to encounter one dungeon that is larger than a single zone.

The cities are equally pointless. The main storyline sets your party up as a group of traders (a flaw in itself, since you should be adventuring, not establishing trade routes) and so the cities you encounter along the way are nothing more than trade points on the overland map. You can visit the pub or temple of a city directly, but that’s it. There’s no actual “city” to wander around in; there are no NPC’s to talk to, no quests to be had. The cities exist only to act as points of trade. Even the grand city of Neverwinter, a many-zoned metropolis from previous games, is limited to a single zone, and only a portion of that.

On top of the poor utilization of the overland map, Storm of Zehir turns out to be the most bug-ridden of the Neverwinter Nights games. It is overflowing with glitches and broken code, to the point that there is a 29-page post on the official forums full of complaints.

One of the biggest bugs you’re likely to encounter is watching your characters get stripped of their buffs each time they enter the overland map. This presents a problem when you run into your next random group of trolls or bandits, as you will only have enough time to cast one spell before your enemies are upon you. The four or five spell buffs your character might need to be efficient in combat will be missing. Fortunately, there is a player-created fix available. But this is such a huge flaw that it speaks to the quality (or lack thereof) on the Storm of Zehir development team. It’s the type of bug that should have been discovered in play testing and fixed long before the game came out.

The end result is a severely flawed game. Many of the new features, while welcome, are overshadowed by flaws in the game. The trading mechanism is dumb and boring; crafting was “simplified”, making it more of a money sink than anything else; the plot is thin; the cities are vacant entities; the overland map is relied upon too heavily; the encounters are too small and simple.

Storm of Zehir shows that it is not enough to create a cool, new game mechanism, but you have to actually utilize that mechanism to its fullest potential. Final Fantasy VII was released in 1994 and contained pretty much the same gameplay as Storm of Zehir. Hard to believe that after 14 years, we haven’t advanced the genre any further.

There is hope, however. The overland map gives us a glimmer of what is possible with this sort of game engine when used in conjunction with a lot of previously ignored character skills. Here’s hoping that if there ever is a Baldur’s Gate 3, or even another big expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2, that the developers learn their lessons from the failures of Storm of Zehir and build a better game next time. It would be a shame to have to put the Ranger back on the shelf.

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