Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide is the first expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights and features a completely new and unrelated story. It takes place simultaneously to the story of the original Neverwinter Nights, as if to further encourage the player not to use the same character from the original campaign (hereafter abbreviated as OC); aside from the fact Shadows of Undrentide would be entirely too easy for a level 16-17 character since it is designed for a player to start at level 1.
As with the original Neverwinter Nights, a highlight of the Shadows of Undrentide is more monsters, tilesets, and other goods for the make-your-D&D RPG builder. There are several news monsters, two new tilesets (desert and snow), and on the palyers end of things, new spells, feats, familiars, and prestige classes (advanced classes the player must meet certain requirements in order to use). For existing D&D fans, perhaps the most recognizeable of the additions is the family of Bigby spells (Bigby's Interposing Hand and the like). Most of the new spells are more obscure, though it's somewhat surprising that it took an expansion to introduce the tried and true Shield spell, which is a boon for any arcane spellcaster who wishes to avoid bring hit by the ever popular Magic Missile spell.
Personally I wasn't too thrilled with the prestige classes offered in Shadows of Undrentide. The Assassin and Blackguard are evil only classes, which leaves me with the Arcane Archer, Harper Scout, and Shadowdancer. I usually play humans, which leaves the out Arcane Archer, which needs to be elf or half-elf; I'm not particularly interested in the Harpers, either as a character or a player, so that takes out the Harper Scout; which leaves me with the Shadow Dancer, which I do think is a nifty class. I just don't have a character concept for it.
So I ended up not using any of the prestige classes and opted for a straight wizard. In tabletop D&D my groups rarely played to a high enough level that I'd actually get to use anything above a 4th level spell, so I never felt like a magical powerhouse. Well, even with all those spells (I even got one extra spell per spell level because I chose to be a specialist) it still wasn't easy getting through the game. I think I had an easier time with my ranger in the original Neverwinter Nights. I've heard that it's harder to play through Shadows of Undrentide as a spellcaster than a warrior and I think I can see why.
There appear to be more group battles in SoU than the OC. You'd think group battles would work in a wizard's favor, what with the ever popular Fireball spell that no self-respecting D&D mage would be without, and it's true that Fireball and its ilk do a wonderful job at damaging several enemies over a large area at once. The problem is: if Fireball doesn't kill outright the half dozen or more enemies charging at the you, your wizard suddenly finds at least two of the buggers have gotten through and are waling away at him. SoU seems to have more masses of minions battles than the OC, and an unfortunate tendency to spread them out so it's difficult to catch them all with a single area attack spell.
And then there's spell resistance. It's only fair, really, that certain monsters, particular magical ones, are resistant to magic. But unlike a warrior who can bash at a physically damage resistant monster for as long as necessary to break through (assuming he can stay healed), a wizard could blow every spell he has for the day and still see that barely injured demon chasing him around the ritual room. Going toe to toe with a demon as a wizard to "finish" it off? I think not.
While it's more than likely some monsters had spell resistance in the OC as well, I did get halfway through the game playing a second character (a sorceror/monk) and up to the end of chapter 2 he was doing quite well. Granted he could physically fight as well as cast spells, I don't recall ever having much of a problem with his spellcasting side. There are also a few monsters in SoU that are not just spell resistant, but spell immune, and those are really unfair. You'd never put a fighter up against a monster completely immune to physical damage. Sure, the fighter might need a magic sword or to discover some doohickey to remove that damage resistance, but he can still beat that monster by doing what he's best at. With a spell immune monster your spellcaster is left with summoning monsters and hoping that they (and your henchman if you have one) are strong enough to take that bad boy down. Considering that you can have only one summoned monster at a time this can get dangerous since there will be a brief period of time after your monster dies and before you can summon a replacement that your enemy can chase/attack you. One of the bosses towards the end of the game was spell immune. My henchman had died and none of my weapons would hurt him, so I was left running around in circles casting varients of the Summon Monster spell while dodging the Shadow Lich and hoping my creatures could defeat him.
I found myself resting to recover spells a lot in this game; ridiculously so. I could scarcely go two battles without needing to rest either to recover spells or because my henchman was too stupid to heal herself otherwise. (You can command her to heal you, but she won't heal herself unless she's in the middle of combat and needs it.) This slowed the pace of gameplay down and also told me that the encounters were nonsensibly difficult. In a real campaign any given battle would not be so lethal that a player feels obligated to drop two Fireballs and a string of Magic Missiles in an "average" encounter.
There was even one fight where I rested multiple times just to defeat the same set of enemies. There's one undead blackguard in the interlude who's accompanied by four skeleton warriors. All of them have spell resistance, which drove me crazy, because half the time I couldn't hurt them. The way I eventually beat them was only by taking advantage of some of the AI's stupidity. (And to be fair, the AI has an unfair advantage in other respects so I view it as a give and take.) In that particular dungeon there is a secret passage running parallel to one of the corridors. I found the undead's lair, blew all possible spells on them, and they followed me until I ran into the nearest secret door. (Apparently, they can't figure out how I go through it since they can't follow.) I then ran to the other end of the passageway, rested to get back my spells (because the passage is just long enough that I can get out of hostile enemy range and rest), popped out of the other secret door at the other end, and then waited for the enemies to "find" me again. Since the enemy AI seemingly can find a character anywhere on the map once it's in chase mode (which is the unfair advantage), I would see them bouncing towards me before long. So I'd unleash as many spells as I could before they got too close, then duck back into the secret passage, run back to the other end, possibly rest, and then repeat. Needless to say, this battle was not fun and even stupid because of the way I had to beat it. Leveling is not really possible in this sort of game (areas with unlimited enemies are rare) so a similarly leveled wizard could not be expected to be able to do much better than I did.
The way experience worked felt weird too. Because of the difficulty, I often felt gypped when I defeated a particularly difficult enemy. Sometimes they gave a decent 200+, but other times a particular tough enemy would fall and I'd be left gaping at the computer with the words "That was it?!" coming out of my mouth. And yet, given the length of SoU versus the OC, the player is actually leveling faster. SoU is about half the length, but the player finishes around levels 12-13, whereas 16-17 is more common for the OC. Much of it I suspect involves the numerous story awards in the second half. I gained my last two levels very quick, given that it was late in the game, with only two tower dungeons and the final one to go.
On the topic of henchmen, they sport quite a number of changes from the original campaign. For one thing, there are a lot fewer of them now. In chapter 1 of the game there are only two to choose from, and by the time the Interlude rolls around a third becomes available. This somewhat limits a player's selection of available resources and I think to some degree they even made the game easier knowing that a player would not have as large of an available skill set to draw on. For instance, there were a few chests and traps in the OC that only Tomi had a prayer of getting through, but in SoU I don't think I've found a single trap that exceeded the limit of DC 35 that prevents a non-rogue character from being able to disable it. Dorna is the only available Rogue henchman and, as with all the henchmen in SoU, is a multiclass character (probably to give the player a limited ability to customize the character to be the type of helper most needed). In her case she is a cleric/rogue and will advance evenly in both classes unless told otherwise. If she advances evenly, then unsurprisingly she won't be as skilled at disabling traps as she could be, and if the player is not a rogue at all, that means all the traps have to be relatively easy or the player will be stuck triggering traps for the hell of it just to get through (or learning a skill they really aren't suited for). I ended up taking Dorna and after she hit level 2 as a rogue I made her go cleric the rest of the way. I figured I needed a healer more than a rogue since I opted to make my wizard learn the Disable Traps skill. Only rarely could I not disable a trap on my own or Dorna could not open a lock with her meager Open Lock skill. In those cases, my familiar would either take the hit for me (if it dies, no great loss--I'll summon another) or would break open the locked object.
I kept Dorna for the duration of the game because as a wizard with a meager amount of HP, a having a healer around is always handy. I originally thought I might take Xanos because he's a sorcerer/barbarian, forcing him to concentrate on being a barbarian (as a wizard I have no need of a sorcerer) and it's always good to have some muscle up front when you're playing a wizard, but he has such an insufferably annoying personality that even though I knew he was "abrasive" going into the game--calling him abrasive might be an understatement. I'm not such I could put up with such an egomaniac for the entire game.
Deekin, the third henchman, I kinda wanted to bring along because I find him funny and he's actually the only good-aligned henchman of the trio (Dorna and Xanos are both neutral), but he's a bard/rogue which I didn't think would be a good complement to my skill set. He already had five (six?) levels of bard when I met him, which might have been awesome if I was the melee type (I'd used a bard henchman in the OC), but as a mage it doesn't do as much for me. Bard song is better for buffing warriors and he wouldn't have as many healing spells as a cleric. Deekin is rather entertaining though, if only because he's a kobald bard. All the songs and stories he tells are horribly morbid and he actually doesn't like them himself, but his last patron was a white dragon so naturally he performed whatever the dragon liked best.
There is a fourth character, Mischa, who looks like she was originally intended to be a henchman since she is a paladin and another student under the same mentor as the main character, Dorna, and Xanos, but oddly enough, even though she's still in the game she's not selectable. She just putters around the busted house and it's never suggested by anyone that she actually go out and help you, and talking to her does nothing. I'm really not sure why she's in the game at all, and that's too bad, because had she been available she would've been my first choice of henchman.
The developer tried something new with the henchman this time and I'm not entirely sure I like it. They decided to make the henchman actual characters this time, and by that I mean you can go into their inventory and change it however you please. Also, they don't disappear on you and then reappear on level-up with brand new equipment like they used to. This means that upkeep of the henchman falls squarely onto the player's shoulders now. The henchmen won't resupply their stock of potions once it's gone and they won't provide their own equipment (with one exception where they upgrade a few things on their own). What that means is if the player wants their henchman to be as useful as possible, they should outfit them with their finds from the dungeon or pay out of pocket for stuff in the store. In some cases I'm fine with that. I was a wizard so nearly everything I found having to do with weapons and armor was useless to me. But I drew the line at buying new equipment, and henchmen cannot be trusted to use magical items rationally. They have no concept of "save it for the boss fight" or how to use their spells and items strategically. Dorna will sit there and keep trying to turn undead until she runs out of turning attempts, even though the undead are so powerful she could turn all day and never affect them.
There are also odd bugs with the henchmen that I never had a problem with in the OC. It used to be that when they died they would vanish and reappear at the spawn point, so picking them up again was just a matter of using the Recall Stone to teleport back to town and then they'd be good to go again--full health and all. This time they die and slump on the ground where they fell at 1 HP (sometimes the enemies will be too stupid to realize they're "dead" and keep attacking them). After the battle is over (or during if the player is daring) it's possible to use a healing kit or potion on them to restore HP. Ostensibly after that they're all ready to go, but I've had weird bugs where I'll heal my henchman, her HP bar goes up, she'll stand up looking woozy, and then she'll slump back down to the ground. Even transitioning to a different map won't fix this bug. The henchman will spawn in next to the player on the new map and then slump back to the ground "dead" and unresponsive.
I eventually found a workaround for that kind of situation (basically, if you run far away enough from the "dead" body the henchman will leave your party and it's then possible to heal them and re-recruit them without them being stuck in their dead pose), but it's not something I should have to put up with.
The only real bonus I found to the new henchman system is that it's now possible to use them as pack mules. Sure, it's not realistic to weigh down your poor dwarf cleric with 200+ pounds of gear to sell no matter how strong she is, but buying and selling equipment is no longer the convenience it was in the OC so I try to get as much treasure in a single run as possible. It doesn't help that there are no bags of holding for sale this time around and while the problem is exacerbated by the fact I'm playing a wizard (with only average strength), a wizard character with sufficient bags of holding usually can manage a substantial load of loot on his own. My sorcerer/monk in the original campaign had no such pack mule and is only a little stronger than my wizard, but manages just fine.
On a smaller note, while the henchman also have stories to tell this time around, I miss having subquests associated with them. Even though some of the henchman quests in the OC were rather contrived ("I want to find this particular old song piece" and wow it just happens to be in this ruin I'm visiting), they at least involved the player doing something to help out the henchman. In SoU all the conversation is just getting-to-know-you fluff. Since conversations with them have no impact on the main plot and even seem a little out of place, I have trouble accepting them in the flow of the story. (Why would the main character need to have getting to know you conversations with Xanos and Dorna considering they're fellow students of his? I don't buy the "too busy to talk to you sooner" excuse.) It's different when the henchman initiates the conversation though. I love how the henchman will now ask to talk to you on their own so they can comment on current events and even participate in conversations with prominent NPCs, but all the player-initiated conversation are pretty weak, just being backstory that seems out of place given that the players really can't stop and rest at an inn where such events would normally occur.
The lack of the buying and selling convenience is largely the result of the lack of a Recall Stone, which in the OC allowed the player to teleport to safety from almost any location in the chapter to the designated safe area (usually a temple) for that part of the story. The safe area usually had both a healer and a merchant nearby so it made for an incredible amount of convenience. A character could be five levels deep in a dungeon, laden with treasure, and still make it back to a store in a matter of seconds. Then it cost just a mere 50 gold to jump right back into the dungeon where you left off. Being that the OC tended to make a player quite rich this wasn't a problem.
On the contrary, the SoU player will likely be dirt poor throughout chapter 1, which is the only segment of the story that offers an item even remotely resembling a Recall Stone. The player does get three free teleports since each use of the teleport ring uses a focus crystal and you start with three, but after that the player has to use materials he/she could otherwise sell for money. Also, the ring that enables the teleporting actually takes the player back to their mentor's house rather than into town, so the player has to walk all the way across town to get to the store, which is still better than five maps away (which is the farthest the player ever gets from a home base), but considering that it's still not all that much of a convenience and it costs potential money too I usually walked. Even then, I didn't start feeling rich until about halfway through the Interlude and only after hoarding resources like a maniac. If I can count on money and supplies coming in I'll keep using my limited number of potions and such in battle, but if I can't then I turn into an item miser, saving any limited use items for those boss battles that I wind up dying six or seven times in a row on.
Because there is no Recall Stone this time around, the designers took a rather odd step to make running between locations easier for players. They made all the maps smaller. Five maps away in SoU is nothing like five maps away in the OC. The result though is a rather claustrophobic feel to the game. All the wilderness areas in the first chapter are incredibly cramped and close together, giving the impression that a white dragon and its lair of kobolds, his traitorous half-elf half-demon rival and her lair of gnolls, and a long forgotten elven crypt all reside within two city blocks of each other. Later on, after the teleport ring is removed, the ends of dungeons will often teleport or fast forward the player out of the dungeon after the objective is complete. It's a rather console RPG-ish touch, but feels odd in D&D. Why can I only teleport from the top of the tower to the bottom, but not the other way around?
The story in Shadows of Undrentide was supposed to address some of the issues in the original campaign; such as the game's indifference to whether or not the player was playing a good or evil character and that certain skills (such as Animal Empathy) had limited use. To some degree SoU succeeded in that, and in others it didn't. The druids and rangers definitely get more out of their Animal Empathy now, with at least three different occasions they can obtain special rewards because of their affinity with nature; two of which are unobtainable for other classes. There's also a paladin-only quest in the interlude. And evil characters can actually be evil if they want to be--actually making a bargain with an evil villain without being backstabbed and forced to do the same thing as a good character anyway. But they just feel like token gestures. I can't see an evil character even starting out under the conditions he was supposedly trained in. Despite the fact the stakes potentially turn out to be greater in Shadows of Undrentide (we're looking at more "the world" rather than Neverwinter and the other cities of the Sword Coast), the story is much less engaging, with the player feeling like nothing more than errand boy throughout the first chapter. Considering that the plot consists of two chapters and an interlude, that's a third of the story.
Not only that, but while the OC took on the feel of gradually unraveling a mystery of a vast conspiracy seeking to harm Neverwinter, SoU starts out with a bunch of random artifacts being stolen from your mentor's home, only one of which is actually crucial to the main plot, but it's necessary to recover them all in chapter 1 in order to get the final piece that lets the story move on to the interlude. A little over half the interlude is filler with a token bit of backstory to account for "travel time" in the Anarouch Desert. And then the second chapter makes the player do what amounts to two runs of "gotta destroy/collect them all" before the final battle. Granted the OC made use of the ever-popular collector and FedEx quests, the dungeon design spread everything farther apart with more to do in between so they did not feel as obvious. Getting the three Words of Power in the OC involved doing a lot more than just ascending to the top of three small towers for the three Winds. None of the Words of Power appeared in the same environment. Each had its own story and complications involving those who now possessed it, and they varied in the ease and number of steps to get them. The Winds have different tricks to getting to them and different enemies to face, but they still felt too close together to make much of a difference.
Possibly the only thing I think SoU did better than the original campaign was the way it handled the drama of the ending. Usually the tension in the final boss battle arises because the boss is being difficult, not because the player really feels that the boss must die here and now or it'll be the end of the world. But Shadows of Undrentide does a little trick that makes it different. The last boss starts out invincible and you have to destroy her power source to hurt her. That sounds straight forward except that you're on a flying city and destroying the power source will cause the city to fall with you on it. But the player knows ahead of time (from a conversation in the interlude) that the main character may be expected to sacrifice him/herself as a last resort.
The battle occurs in real time, but after the mythallar power source is destroyed, a surprise journal entry pops up. If the player pauses the game to read this entry, it explains that Heurodis (the last boss) must be destroyed here and now before the city crashes to the ground. Since she has become a lich she will likely survive the crash and remain loose on an unsuspecting world unless the player can stop her--because the player is the only person aware of the danger and by the time anyone else becomes aware of Heurodis it may be too late. Of course, the player, being mortal, hasn't a prayer of surviving Undrentide's impact on the ground, which gives a real feeling of "If I'm going to die then at least I'm taking you with me!" And the battle is pretty neat, since stones will fly up from the stone floor as though the city is really falling during the fight. The here-and-now nudge towards defeating Heurodis gave me an immediate sense of drama I would not have gotten otherwise. I had naturally expected that even if my character died, it would be a double-KO, but to know that she could survive even if I didn't make it made it much more urgent to defeat her.
When I won, I expected the screen to go black or something to signal the crashing of Undrentide, but my character is apparently more resourceful than me because the resulting cut scene shows my character opening up the portable door to the shadow plane obtained earlier in Undrentide and jumping inside, thus allowing him to escape the destruction of the city. But because the side of the door in the real world (the prime material plane in D&D parlance) is now either high in the sky or buried under rubble, the main character cannot return to the world and does not as far as anyone knows. He's trapped on another plane of existence and that's where the game ends. In a way it's too bad that there isn't a happier ending for the hero, though at the very least he is lord over an estate on the plane of shadow with a shadow servant to look at him--spoils from a previous victory earlier in the game--but he's stuck in that one room which can't be a very fun way to spend the rest of his life. The shadow servant implies, if the player talks to it prior to the end of the game, that if the player remains on the plane of shadow long enough he will become a shadow himself and not be restricted to the walls that prevent him from leaving the estate and venturing out into the rest of the shadow world. So there's the possibility that the hero could eventually enjoy a vastly different existence as an inhuman being, and the disappearing and never coming back bit makes for great traditional legends.
We do know that eventually the player comes back though, somehow or other, because the hero of the second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark is supposed to be a continuation of that same character's adventures, but that discussion will be left for that later date when I play it.