Blog 432: Icewind Dale

The final piece of the Infinity Engine puzzle is mine at last. I had been waiting for Icewind Dale to either appear in a shop or for me to finally be bothered ordering it online. Before crimbo, it appeared in a shop and I decided to add it to General Grievous’ Starfighter as part of Santa’s booty.

And now, since all those strategy games are done with…

Living By Numbers

Icewind Dale doesn’t focus on a single character the way Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment do. You are, rather, a group of travellers — all nobodies who just happened to be in town at the right time to begin the adventure. In that sense, it’s probably truer to pen and paper D&D than the other Infinity Engine games; there are no DM characters to join the party, and your main character is not special in any way. It’s just some guys against the world.

(Having said that, the AI scripts that defend the leader still consider your “main character” (i.e. the first one you make) as the leader regardless of how you reorder the party in-game.)

Therefore, I assembled my completely generic party by the book:

  • Dilahk the Human Fighter
  • Erika the Human Paladin
  • Navik the Half-Elf Ranger
  • Bega the Dwarf Cleric
  • Chloe the Elf Mage (couldn’t be bothered find e with umlauts and then getting it in-game)
  • Annaka the Half-Elf Thief

No halflings or gnomes because they suck (which is a bit annoying, because I bought a good +3 helmet without realising it was limited to these races (that makes it balanced, you know)).

Because I’m a bit of a whore, I also kept rolling the stats for each until they became powerhouses with their main stat maxed, and sometimes another alongside. Considering how the game plays out, though, I’d hate to see how bad it was if I hadn’t kept re-rolling…

My dice are also creaking from over-exertion.

Dungeons… Dungeons Everywhere

Icewind Dale has a large emphasis on combat and adventure. There are no wilderness areas like in Baldur’s Gate, no huge cities to wander around finding quests. New areas are revealed along the main quest path and are reasonably linear dungeon crawls that throw punishingly difficult fights at you around every corner. Lizardmen in a small group are fine, but fling more than ten of them with a few casters in…

It’s a bit of a spectrum, I suppose. Baldur’s Gate is the archetype, the balance of open-world, story and combat. Planescape: Torment is the game you can complete without fighting, the game so mired in lore and story you can speak to some characters for hours.

Myconids, woo!

Then there is Icewind Dale, the action-orientated one, the other end of the spectrum. The plot is relatively minimal, and includes such gems as “I think the bad-guy is in the Vale of Shadows, go and clean out all the tombs there” (in flowerier language and delivered with such panache by the single dramatic male voice actor, of course). Most conversations are as linear as the dungeons and choosing different options has little effect except to provide more or less plot exposition, though occasionally you get experience points for at least trying to avoid a fight.

Unfortunately, unlike Baldur’s Gate or Torment, the game is linear to the point where reaching an “impassable” blockade in the main plot is completely final. There is no going away and finding another quest line to grab a few levels and better kit, no wandering around wilderness areas hoping to be waylaid by quests. There is the main plot line — and that’s your whack. Aside from a few minor sidies in the towns, of course, and the occasianal rescue-this/find-that-as-you-go.

And it is a difficult game. Playing on true AD&D rules, the default setting, the game continually throws fights at you that are completely rigged. Mass ambushes, enemies that can one-hit your strongest character, mass ambushes of enemies that can one-hit… I have struggled on through with a combination of meta-gaming (lure enemies next to an exit so you can cut and run, know where the ambush people will appear and drop Glyphs of Warding/Skull Traps) and abusing the engine (drawing enemies away one at a time with careful fog of war movement) and resting every five minutes.

What do you mean I could turn the difficulty down?

The whales... We are looking for them.

The Strange Middle Child

From everything in the game it’s distinctly obvious that this was made between Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. The inventory artwork, item icons and the paper dolls, are unchanged (barring new icons for new non-generic items) from Baldur’s Gate, while the in-game character sprites are Baldur’s Gate II — right down to the funny-shaped shields jarring with the original generic-shaped shield icons. This is in sharp contrast to Planescape: Torment, which changed almost everything except for some basic sound effects and the font. Of course, they still re-arranged the inventory screen just a teensy bit to keep you on your toes.

Even though a lot of the spells are familiar, some are mechanically quite different. Aganazzer’s Scorcher, for example, doesn’t just burn one target — it now burns the target and everything in between for two rounds. As anyone who’s played real D&D with me as the controller will realise, this tends to entail Chloe nuking half the party along with the enemies. Then there’s Chromatic Orb, which is pretty much nerfed; rather than it randomly doing one of a number of awesome effects, the effect is based on the caster’s level (small chance to petrify at level one? Gone). Fireball also seems to have a smaller radius (probably for the best).

The game is, however, based on 3rd editon rather than 2nd edition rules so that probably explains the mechanical adjustments.

This is possibly the most surreal fight -- those Shriekers seem to do nothing but make a lot of noise. At least in BG2 the Spore Colony summons more Myconids...

Heart of Winter & Trials of the Luremaster

Luckily, after you’ve ground through most of the game, you will have become high level enough to access the expansion content by talking to Hjollder in Kuldahar. He will whisk you away to a far off land… or just to the other end of the Dale.

Wherein you will be beset by horrifyingly difficult enemies once again, and you’ll have to grind through those painfully slowly before you get the chance to return to the main game. Luckily, that grinding gave me a very slight edge on the main campaign (the experience cap for the game was 1,250,000 or something; the expansion makes it 8,000,000), making it not easy but certainly a little tiny bit less annoying.

Naturally, the end boss of the game is magic immune (motherfucker), and without the ability to spam Wands of Monster Summoning (you actually seem to need +3 weapons to stand any chance of hitting him anyway), I decided to abandon that and go back to the expansion content. It’s pretty much more of the same; mostly linear, tight plot, little opportunity to deviate…

Then there is the free mini-expansion pack Trials of the Luremaster (do you remember when DLC was free?), which is full of epic loot. It also includes somewhere you can buy slightly-bigger-potions-of-healing, which are naturally quite handy — since healing 7 hit points in a turn isn’t particularly useful when the bad guys can still two-hit you at 100-odd health and Bega has a habit of only auto-casting Cure Light Wounds and not Cure Critial Wounds.

The only mistake you can make with Trials of the Luremaster is talking to the man who takes you there too early, because he won’t take you home until it’s over — so if you’re not prepared, then you’ll die horribly at the first fight. Which includes Wyverns and Harpies — the former of which will poison you, and the latter of which will disease you. Joy.

Trials of the Luremaster takes you to the Anauroch Desert. It seems I inadvertently ripped off IWD pretty bad with This Wreckage's Granter of Wishes quest.

The Verdict

I’m not convinced that I can recommend Icewind Dale to you unless you’re a bit of a masochist, or an Infinity Engine completist (so… a masochist). A combination of rigged fights and some nasty puzzles (that often boil down to “you didn’t mouse-over this very small area of screen”; the actual logic/lateral thinking parts of the puzzles are fine. I rather miss BG2‘s press-tab-to-highlight-actionable-polygons) make the game often rather frustrating. It artificially extends itself with the number of hours you’ll spend just saving and reloading when you die again and again and again.

I don’t mind a game being challenging; that’s good and I can deal with it. But Icewind Dale isn’t just difficult, it’s lol-difficult. It gleefully charges into the territory of “fuck you, and fuck you again, and again and again”. Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, it trips you up and starts kicking you once more.

But it’s very pretty in the way the only old 2.5D isometric games can be. As always, the Forgotten Realms setting is full of wonder and excitement — even if the game’s main plot is a bit sparse, there is plenty of additional lore and semi-related plot stashed away in item descriptions.

As I said, though, it’s probably only for completists. I’m not entirely sure I can say I’ve enjoyed my time playing it.

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5 thoughts on “Blog 432: Icewind Dale

  1. Onward to IWD II? I’ve read that the story is better, to some extent. Could be something to look in to before buying, though.

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      • 2’s story is a bit better and I’d say the game as a whole is a bit better paced–not as many stupidly hard fights nor as many pushovers. After playing through IWD a few times I find it pretty easy on the highest difficulty even without abusing stuff like skull traps (which are just stupid), so I think a lot of it comes down to how good you are at figuring out the quirks in the game and knowing about which party composition is ideal and which sort of items you need (for example, it should be noted that longswords, broadswords, and greatswords are so much better than any other melee weapon that you’d be crazy speccing anything else on your fighters/rangers/paladin, and in fact certain characters /need/ certain specializations, such as Paladins and Long Sword considering there is a really good [ie broken] long sword available near the end of the game). That said, I’d still say it’s safe to consider IWD and its sequel extremely unforgiving for the uninitiated, and I would never consider using the built-in AI or in fact anything other than micromanaging my party if I wanted to make my way through it.

        Also, there is an equivalent of BG2’s TAB in IWD–Alt. I think the only IE games which don’t include highlight-all-interactables are PS:T and BG1.

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      • Bah, IWD never told me it had alt. IWD2 did in a loading screen, but I’ve only got as far as building my party… no doubt sub-optimal again.

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      • I luckily figured it out because of Diablo 2 using the same key so it was the first thing I tried. If I recall correctly I played IWD before BG2 as well, so I wasn’t stuck in the TAB mindset.

        Also, if you didn’t work it out, buffs are really crazy strong in IWD, so my party build is basically:

        Paladin (will wield best longsword in the game)

        Ranger (will use a bow)

        Fighter (will wield other best longsword in the game)

        Thief (has to be human since you want to spec him to Fighter later since Thieves are garbage in combat in IWD. Will use greatswords or something when he gets specced to fighter).

        Cleric (Buffs part 1. Bless, Chant, Prayer, Recitation, Defensive Harmony, Strength of One etc)

        Mage (Buffs part 2. Emotion: Hope, Emotion: Courage, Haste, and then some random offensive spells so that you’ll actually be doing something the rest of the time).

        I did this composition except a Druid instead of a Fighter (who I ended up not using) and an Elf thief (so he ended up doing basically nothing but open locks and disarm traps since I couldn’t dual class him), and my Paladin+Ranger wielding the two super powerful swords basically attack moved through everything including both final fights. I think I had to have my Druid cast Creeping Doom in the Isacaract (or whatever she’s called) fight, but other than that it was just buffs + attack moved melee characters with super powerful longswords.

        IWD1 Spoilers:

        Pale Justice (paladin sword) can be found in the Artisan’s District. In one of the houses that a Umber Hulk bursts from (you can go in many of them, check it out!) there’s a corpse of a person which is holding it. It’s a +4 sword with +7 against evil (!!) and protects you from all sorts of nasty stuns, instant kills, and so on.

        The Restored Blade of Aihonen (generic longsword, use it on a ranger or fighter since Pale Justice is paladin-specific) is acquired if you do Jhonen’s quest in the starting town–he’ll give it to you when you return to Easthaven just before the final fight. You can upgrade it to the Singing Sword of Aihonen in the expansion assuming you did the expansion as a follow up to the main game and not interrupting the main game–the dwarf who smelts ice will upgrade it for you. It’s a +1 sword which is +5 near Lac Dinneshire (ie all the time you can have it, except probably not in TotL) and gives some stat bonuses as well.

        On top of this you can get some really nice armour (Bathed-In-Blood) from one of the brothers in the palace in Lower Dorn’s, and other than that the viable armour should be pretty easy to find on your way through the game.

        Also, if you are having trouble with Yxonomei, make sure you save Conlan’s son, because he will give you Conlan’s Hammer for completing it–an okay hammer, but the important part is that it hits any creature which requires magic weapons to hit (Yxonomei requires +3, hence why she is so tough). However, the way I solved it (probably the easiest way) is to give your Ranger a good +2 bow (like the Messenger of Sseth or the Longbow of Defence +2), some +1 or +2 arrows, and buff them with Haste, Prayer, Recitation etc–Arrow bonuses stack (so a +2 bow with +2 arrows is considered a +4 weapon and will thus hit Yxonomei) and you should be able to bring her to Near Dead right after she turns hostile and before the priest nearby is able to cast Dispel Magic. The priest will probably get a Dispel Magic off before you finish off Yxonomei, by which point you should be able to finish her in one or two more hits and before she is able to attack you. From there, run back to the rest of your party and killing off the Priests and Yuan-Ti Elites should be pretty straightforward. Note that you should keep the rest of your party in the nearby room and *not* in the hall because four Yuan-Ti Priests will quickly go there after the fight starts and cast all sorts of nasty spells like Feeblemind if your party is nearby.

        All this is from my cranked up (difficulty wise) runthrough recently, which was my third or fourth playthrough of the game. The first playthrough was nightmarishly hard on the Normal difficulty (especially the Temple of the Forgotten God and the Yxonomei fight) but subsequent ones haven’t been that bad, even on higher difficulties.

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