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.
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.