The Let's Play Archive

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

by Lt. Danger

Part 44: The Dead Lie Dreaming

The Truth, Part Two - My Name Is Calliope And I'm A Spiritaholic

Remember this little sprog? Ku'arra's from the Hill Tribe that lives in the Wells of Lurue. She popped up in Mulsantir in Act Two to offer us the benefit of her headman's wisdom.

Last time, the Hill Tribe turned out to be cannibalistic ape-men that attacked us on sight. Let's hope things turn out better this time.

So good so far!

: :: The ape-thing, it sees me, Dark One. I am not certain whether to embrace it or slay it. ::
: Yes, I can both see and hear you, servant of spirit-eater. But do not be alarmed.
: Most others cannot see the construct as I can, unless it wants to be seen.

Although I said Obsidian allow the player to chop and change between Suppress and Devour playthroughs, they still do expect the player to stick to one most of the time. The content in today's update is only accessible if you devoured Okku outside the gates of Mulsantir.

: Okku, the bear king, once hunted and tried to eat me. I still bear the scars from Okku's teeth.
: I am glad Okku is dead, though sorry that I could not bring him down myself.
: I have lived since another time, centuries past. A time when stories walked the lands in flesh... and blood.
: I have known spirit-eater in many different shapes. Some I have befriended, learned from and taught.
: Others I have eaten, when they betrayed the Gift. It is a service I provide in respect to spirit-eater, so that the Gift may pass to one worthy of it.

This is what we're interested in. We missed out on Eternal Rest back at the Furnace, but the ability U'juk will teach us is better by far.

: Do not be frightened. I have great respect for spirit-eater.
: I'm not frightened.
: It would be most ironic if spirit-eater feared the uthraki.
: At full strength, spirit-eater alone is more powerful than six of my kind.
: Are you saying I am not at full strength?

Hah. Of course, there's a catch.

* * *

There are three potential victims we can lure to the Hill Tribe. We only need to trick one of them to learn U'juk's ability, but we'll get experience and treasure for all three.

First up are the two junior members of the Ice Troll Berserker Lodge: Radu the Untested and Beardless Vyk. They're the whipping boys for the lodge and they're none too pleased about it.

That wasn't too difficult.

And if we return to the Hill Tribe...

Nice. We can loot Radu's equipment off his bones as well.

: Spirit-eater has proven kinship to Hill Tribe. I will now share my knowledge.
: When spirit-eater looked upon Hill Tribe in our human forms, I detected no hunger. I take this to mean that spirit-eater has only learned to devour spirits.


Devour Soul is the evil-playthrough equivalent to Eternal Rest. We can now Devour humanoids in addition to the usual elementals, telthors and undead spirits. This makes keeping our Spirit Energy high a lot easier, since we have a greater variety of targets.

Unlike Eternal Rest, though, multiple uses will increase our Craving. Now that is a downside.

* * *

I have to admit I'm a little confused by the spirit-eater mechanic.

On the one hand it feels like a half-decent alignment meter. Devouring and Suppressing are the two ends of a proper, concrete dichotomy of choice; either you eat souls or you don't. Your reasoning, be it "power-hungry" or "principled stand" or "just trying to survive" is left to you because the game only measures your actual actions, instead of guessing at your motivations. Admittedly this is undermined by Obsidian tying the powers to minor alignment changes, but they eventually (partially) patched that out.

It encourages two very different playing styles without being confining. Suppressive playthroughs end up with characters that don't have much impact on the spirit world: Spirit Energy depletes slowly, is easily regained and requires little/no ecosystem management, and in exchange these characters receive low-key powers with limited effects and targets. In contrast Devouring playthroughs delve deeply into spirit-eating, requiring a faster pace of play and careful husbanding of respawnable spirit enemies in exchange for stronger, deadlier spirit-eater powers. Devour Soul is only the tip of the iceberg, believe me.

You're basically choosing between cautious low-risk low-gain play and high-risk high-reward. Suppressing is safe but boring; Devouring lets you instantly carve 25% of health off any enemy ten times a day and gives you tons of powerful Spirit Essences for enchanting, but you can't rest so often and need to deploy your Devours carefully to get maximum benefit. It even bleeds over into the rest of the game's design - two of the harder fights in Mask are only available if you kill Okku outside Mulsantir.

But there's another aspect to spirit-eating as well: Craving. Craving (or "corruption" in the game's script notes) controls how much Spirit Energy you burn each hour. At the lowest Craving, achievable only on a Suppressive playthough, you use only one unit of Energy an hour. At the highest, you're looking at about six units per hour, meaning that one night's rest costs you almost half your Spirit Energy bar. Devouring characters will spend a lot of the time around the middle or lower end of the Energy bar, meaning that they will suffer not-insignificant stat penalties all that time.

Craving is intended to simulate the self-destructive spiral of an addict. Devouring more than one spirit a day, or when Spirit Energy is high, increases Craving, which increases your need to Devour more than once a day, which increases your Craving... Suppressing lowers Craving, but it's almost impossible to go straight 'cold turkey' because Suppression doesn't increase Energy at the same rate as Craving depletes it, even when Craving is very low.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad thing. Craving is all part of the high-risk high-reward gameplay of a Devouring playthrough. From a high-minded 'games design' perspective, though, I feel it conflicts with the 'expressive' function of the spirit-eater curse. You can't simply have a 'Suppressive playthrough' and a 'Devouring playthrough' because the latter is also a 'manage your Craving' playthrough as well. Why demand system mastery from Evil players but not from Good ones? It's like if Renegade choices in Mass Effect forced you to min-max your skill build so that you didn't shoot yourself in the head while waving your pistol all over the place.

I'd feel better about it if the rewards for Devouring were better. The soft benefits are extra damage in combat (not enough to compete with normal Epic-level damage output, especially with five-minute cooldown) and more Spirit Essences (good but too few and far between to be a consistent reward - you need to devour eight enemies to get one usable essence). The harder benefits derive directly from high Craving:

The funniest thing about it is that Obsidian is so coy about these rewards. Even the manual, which spoils every spirit-eater power right up to Ravenous Incarnation, makes a big mystery out of three spell effects and a pared-down version of the Survival skill. "Ooh, maybe a high Craving will grant you special mysterious powers!" Will it fuck.

Perhaps these would be worth it if we weren't at such a high level. These powers would be amazing at low- and mid-levels, much better than those crappy Ritual powers. Of course, that'd require Mask to be a full campaign in its own right...

Alternatively, I'd negate the extra Energy cost of high Craving altogether. In fact, make it easier to get Spirit Energy by giving high Craving a bonus to Devouring and reduction in cooldown. Getting the player to micromanage their hunger bar is enough of a hindrance without forcing them down a 'cycle of addiction' as well. Let the drawback be the player's loss of humanity as they find themselves consuming souls and sacrificing innocents to monsters like U'juk - especially likely considering most Devouring players will be accompanied by One of Many, who loses Influence every time the player denies the spirit-eater curse. To be honest, I think it'd fit the overall aim of Mask much more than the current system: the game is an introspective semi-philosophical psychodrama, not a gritty, realistic dungeoneering-simulator.

* * *

It's tempting to turn against the Hill Tribe after learning Devour Soul from them. It's not like those damn dirty apes deserve to live anyway, is it?

But then you'd miss out on some of the most horrible stuff you can do in Mask.

Mabata and his family were travelling along the Golden Way when some asshole bear and his army of telthors overran their wagon and smashed up their goods. Now they're stuck outside Mulsantir without shelter, too afraid of the hathrans to go inside and buy supplies.

In the good playthrough, we'd buy them a wagon (for 10,000 gold pieces!) and send them on their way.

This time around, Mabata's not so lucky. Not only do we send him right into the claws of the uthraki...

...we make him pay for the privilege as well. Goddamn, Calliope.

And sure enough:

We get experience and the family's possessions as a reward. Plus lots of evil points.

That's not even the most despicable part of this quest chain, though.

Anya is one of Gann's old flings from a few years ago. Her dream-encounter with the spirit shaman left her brains permanently addled - she believes she communes with Gann in her dreams every night, but in fact is merely trapped in a fantasy of her own devising.

Normally we'd learn dreamwalking from Gann's mother, then enter Anya's dreams to sort her out properly. There's a completely different quest resolution available, though, so long as you kick Gann out of the party before you talk to Anya.

: Really? Where is he? Where? I must go to him!
: [Bluff] He is waiting for you amongst the crags.

Killing the berserkers was cruel enough. Sending the merchant family to their deaths was horrific. But intentionally deceiving a mentally-ill woman is unconscionable.

And Kaelyn finally speaks up.

It's about fucking time. We've already murdered half a dozen innocents by proxy - where were her objections at the berserker lodge? Or outside Mulsantir? Or anywhere?

In fact...

...she gets quite irate about it and leaves the party (temporarily - she just goes back to the Veil). -32 Influence is one hell of a hit.

Check out the punchline, though:

Take that, Kaelyn.

Our final reward is a Talisman of Pure Evil, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Hooray!