Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Dragon Age: Origins

I mentioned earlier that I was planning on going through the rest of the origins in Dragon Age: Origins that I hadn't played through yet, as well as trying out some quest mods. I started up a Dalish elf rogue, and enjoyed the origin story very much. And it makes me realise how much more depth this game has than DA2. Each origin that I play reveals more about the world and how it all fits together. I had no idea until now, for instance, that Merrill from Dragon Age 2 was also in DA:O. The focus of the origin was the discovery of some ruins which contained some kind of portal/communication device in the form of a large mirror. Is this the same kind of mirror that I've heard is involved in the Witch Hunt DLC?

The only origin left for me to play is the dwarf commoner, and I wonder what new perspective I might gain from that one.

But in the meantime, I've discovered I really like playing as a rogue, and ended up playing beyond the end of the origin at Ostagar, and have actually gone through Redcliffe, stopping after fending off the undead attacks. From there I headed to Denerim, because that's where the Community Contest 7 quest mods begin. But before I began those, I found an NPC I'd never seen before, named Slim Couldry, offering rogue-specific quests! As a mage in my first playthrough, I had never encountered this character, and I'm not sure if it's because I was a mage, or because I hadn't had Leliana pick any pockets until after getting to Denerim. In this playthrough, I had picked some pockets in Lothering, so it could have been either that or just the fact that I'm a rogue that triggered his quests.

His quests were pretty simple for the most part. Pay him increasing amounts of money for increasingly lucrative thieving opportunities that simply don't exist unless you have the quest. I went through all that he had available, though he said he was planning on getting more. I don't know if he'll really have any more in the future, but I'll check. They may be related to my level, since the last one was actually very tough -- fighting a warehouse full of Arl Howe's men to get the cargo they were guarding. It's the first of the thieft quests that actually involved violent crime, but it is Arl Howe's crowd we're talking about. When I say this one was tough, I mean it took me 4 or 5 tries to do it successfully (without being wiped). This was the toughest fight I've experienced yet in this playthrough, and I'm playing on Hard with two dual-wielding dagger rogues (Leliana and myself, with Leliana specialised as Ranger for the animal summoning), Morrigan respecced to mostly entropy plus the ice line, and Alistair on sword and board. The first time around, I used Sten as the tank, and had 2 mages (myself and Morrigan), and Leliana using bow and arrow.

Not all roses

Despite how much I like DA:O compared to its limited competition in the current market, there are still some issues which are very annoying. I mentioned the frequent crashing in my last Dragon Age post, which had not been a problem during my first playthrough. That's a strange development that I don't understand, but I have found a couple of workarounds that dramatically reduce the number of crashes.

First thing is to add a command switch to the game shortcut to force it to use DirectX 9. The switch is "-dx9". I'm not sure how much this helps, but it doesn't seem to hurt, and I use it combined with the second fix. The second fix apparently must be done while the game is running, each time you run it. Start the game, then switch to Windows task manager, find the "daorigins.exe" process under the Processes tab, right-click it, choose "Set affinity", and set it to use only one core (like "CPU 0"). It doesn't seem to reduce the performance of the game (most processing is probably in the GPU anyway), but the game's stability is markedly increased.

On my last session, I forgot about doing this, and I loaded up a game as normal. When it loaded, the first thing I did was to check the inventory to see what I had equipped, and it crashed immediately on trying to show the inventory. Starting the game again, and doing the same thing resulted in another instant crash. Then I remembered to set the CPU affinity to a single core, and it worked without crashing again.

I'd love to know of a way to force it to always run like this without having to manually change it each time while it's running.

The other, non-technical issue with the game is perhaps a design choice. There are many combat encounters that force you into dialogue before the hostilities begin, once you get close enough. This happens regardless of whether you're in stealth mode, and/or have the rest of your party waiting back down the hall in another room. Suddenly, the game teleports everyone right into the middle of the ambush, kicks your rogue(s) out of stealth, cancels any spells that were in progress, and shows you walking casually up to talk to the clearly dangerous, threatening NPC and his army (or showing you and your party charging in recklessly and stopping short in apparent surprise at the enemy, as if you hadn't been scouting ahead in stealth mode). Forget positioning! Forget preemptive tactical strikes! Forget even having your weapons out and ready! If the game decides you should have a little chat first, there's nothing you can do about it. You can't even use a preemptive ranged AoE attack against the group, because they're immortal until you talk to them!

Contrast that to the Baldur's Gate games, which don't restrict your attacks in this way. If you're sneaking around in a dungeon, and you find the boss, and the default action when you click on him is to initiate conversation, you don't have to. You can instead sneak up behind him, click the "attack" button, and make a preemptive strike. You might miss out on interesting information or even a quest if you do that, but so be it! It should be your choice.

Not having looked into the settings in the toolset, I don't know if this is hard-coded into the game engine, or if there's a flag the quest designer can set to prevent forced dialogue from happening if the player is invisible, or prevent it from teleporting everyone else into the room, etc. Seeing how well some mod quest designers have been able to script encounters, though, I'm pretty certain there must be a way around it, even if it is hard-coded.

Combat issues

Speaking of problems with stealth, I'm also not happy with the mechanic that rogues can't enter stealth if the game thinks they're in combat, unless you get the "combat stealth" talent. I'm not talking about situations in the heat of battle, where you'd just vanish in front of an enemy's eyes, but a situation where you've cleared out a whole room full of enemies, but you find you're still "in combat", because there are some enemies in another room behind a closed door that's never been opened, who can't see you and do not suggest they're alert to your presence! (This is possibly caused by the enemies in both rooms being defined as part of the same "team", which all aggro at once.) I think you should be able to enter stealth mode whenever you're out of view of enemies, like in Baldur's Gate, where if you could just get around a corner, you could lose a pursuing attacker.

But perhaps it wouldn't be a problem if we could just tell the game that we're not in combat anymore, in those situations. Or, it would cancel combat mode if you got far enough away from the enemies. It's especially annoying since the game doesn't let you save if you're "in combat" either.


Rangers can summon animal minions, and mages can summon skeletal warriors, but these summons disappear on any area transition. This ranges from entering or exiting a building, to simply walking from one section of a forest into another. This shouldn't happen (especially in the latter case).

Even worse, the forced unsummoning causes the summon ability to trigger a cooldown period. Ridiculous! Not only has my minion been taken away for no reason, but now I have to sit around waiting for the cooldown to expire so I can summon it again! Either that, or I have to look out for area transitions coming up, and unsummon my minion ahead of time so it'll be off its cooldown by the time I cross the threshold.

This works all right for the ranger, but the mage can only raise a skeleton from the remains of a recently killed enemy, so it really screws the mage.

Dungeon design

Did they hire the ghost of Sarah Winchester as house designer?

In general, Dragon Age dungeons seem rather uninspired, at least in the vanilla game without DLC. Instead of being unique spaces with personality and purpose, they rather seem to be just a jumble of tileset corridors with an occasional large room for bosses. No regard for architecture, no logic in design, and almost no spaces that make you stop and simply admire the place. Not having seen any of the DLC aside from the Stone Prisoner, I can't say whether this is improved elsewhere.

I'll highlight a typical example, as shown in this screenshot. This isn't a cave or a mine, which could have such a rambling structure, but a supposedly abandoned house, with a badly-hidden secret door leading to this random sequence of rooms and hallways. Imagine how much real estate this building must occupy! Is land that cheap in the heart of Denerim?

Bioware used to be pretty good at making unique, interesting interiors which had believeable floor plans, as I highlighted in some of my Baldur's Gate posts. When I say "unique", I mean that each "dungeon" should be a noticeably different experience from another, with its own special flavour, to make these places appeal to the players' sense of exploration and discovery.

Nevertheless, despite all of these various criticisms, I still consider DA:O to be the best overall choice for designing a Baldur's Gate-style quest/adventure mod in a modern engine. I must say, though, that I've very recently become aware that Neverwinter Nights 2 has the elements that I found missing in Neverwinter Nights 1, and I understand it has a very large set of resources to build with, so I'll be investigating that soon, as well.

Quest mods

Speaking of which, I'm also enjoying some excellent quest mods, including the two quest mods from Community Contest 7. Spiders and Knives is a good one to start with, since it's pretty short and straightforward, adding a couple of new quests and locations and an NPC with a fun personality to Lothering. Eye and Shadow is good for Mengtzu's creatively orchestrated and challenging boss fights, set in a beautiful new location from one of the previous community contests.

Now I'm playing an even bigger treat: Dark Times: The Confederacy of Malkuth, Act 1. I'm not sure exactly how large this mod is, but if I take the new world map as an indication, I should call this an unofficial expansion pack, or even a sequel! I had many hours of play time racked up doing quests around the first town before the world map was unlocked, and when I saw it for the first time, a huge smile came to my face at the prospect of more hours of enjoyable gaming to come.

I don't think I can adequately communicate how enthusiastic I am about this mod. It has everything you could possibly want in a Dragon Age expansion. 32 new locations, many new NPCs and 3 new party members, lots of personal stories and side quests, new factions to join or fight, new loot and artifacts with background stories, new unlockable character specialisations, possible new romance(s), and some really heavy-duty moral choices to make.

Some areas need some polish -- mostly in spelling, a missing mesh or two, and some various bugs, but this in no way casts a shadow over the incredible overall job this team did with what I've seen of it so far. They've accomplished a great deal, and I'm very happy to know that they're working on a second act.

One very interesting thing here is that they seem to have cracked the 4-member party limit. Multiple times I've been joined by one or more NPCs, and although they don't get their own portraits on the side of the screen like other party members, I am nevertheless able to access their character screens, level them up as I like, add and remove equipment, adjust their tactics, and even directly control them. I wonder if the Baldur's Gate Redux team could use this kind of system to allow a full Baldur's Gate 6-member party in their mod.

There are numerous other quest mods that I've saved and I'm eager to try out, from some well-respected names in the modding field. It's also been somewhat inspiring to try my own hand at it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Space Trader: Merchant Marine

One of the other game genres I enjoy is economic trading games. I own and enjoy Patrician 3: Rise of the Hanse, Darkstar One, X3: Terran Conflict, and X3: Reunion. I also own Port Royale, but I haven't actually tried it yet. All of these games involve running your own goods transport business. You purchase a ship or fleet of ships (seafaring or spacefaring), buy goods at low prices, and transport them to other places where you can sell them for high prices. Most of these games offer modes that set up specific challenges for you to meet, usually with a time limit. Each of these games also has something unique that sets it apart from the others, but for now I'm going to focus on my latest acquisition, which is Space Trader: Merchant Marine.

The campaign begins with you as a new, unknown person with no money and no ship. In the first chapter, you have to find someone willing to loan you the capital you need to get started, then earn that money back in a certain time limit. In this first chapter, you're limited to only two ports to trade between (Earth and the Moon), which is expanded more and more in each chapter. As you make more money, you can upgrade your ship to carry more cargo, and you can also afford to buy the more expensive wares that return a much larger profit than the cheaper items that take up the same amount of space.

I bought this during the latest Steam summer sale, when it was cheap enough to take a chance on, especially since I'd never heard of it, and it showed very mediocre reviews. The trailer, which was an unusually helpful trailer showing actual gameplay rather than a pre-rendered cinematic, showed that this game includes one thing that's missing from every other game in this genre that I've ever seen, and it's one that I've really wished would be included: the ability to leave your ship and walk around in all these locations you visit. In X3, you never leave your ship, which must smell pretty bad after a while. In DS1, your character leaves the ship only in cutscenes, and never under your control. In Patrician and probably Port Royale, you don't really have a noticeable presence at all, and just exist as an omniscient overseer of your operations, able to see any town where you have an office or a ship in port.

Space Trader sort of reverses this setup. Here, you don't actually experience the travel parts of the game. You mark where you want to travel to, and you get a summary screen showing what's changed in the time during your travel, and then you arrive! This sacrifices the freedom and scenic starscapes of the X series, for certain, but travel in the X series is, for the most part, extremely slow and tedious, so this is a very welcome change.

The campaign

Once you've arrived, you're free to walk around the place, talking to people, making new contacts, buying/selling, picking up side jobs, and following the main quest. Bartenders offer bounty missions, various NPCs offer story-type missions or want specific items (with familiar yellow question marks and exclamation points over their heads), and random events (such as famines or plagues) on different planets can provide opportunities for extra profit.

Boxes of free cargo are also scattered around all over these maps, sometimes hidden, and sometimes placed in locations that require careful jumping. Of course, you can get along without any of this free stuff, but you can take it as part of the challenge of the game, too, if you like, since the percentage of boxes you found is one of the things that's tracked in the summary screen whenever you leave a location.

Another feature that eliminates the tedium of travelling (in this case, walking from one trader to another while you're in port) is the option to instantly teleport to any other trader on your contact list for that location. This makes it easy to check prices, since they each carry different wares, and can also be used as a shortcut to teleport to a different section of the port for cargo-collecting purposes. Don't do this exclusively, though, because there are usually a couple of extra traders in each location that don't appear on your contact list until you find them in person.

There's also a bank system that allows you to either put money into your account to gain interest while you travel, or to take out money as a loan with interest if you happen across a very profitable opportunity. The bank is always instantly available, and there seems to be no penalty for transactions aside from the interest, so there's no reason not to put all your spare cash into the bank every time you travel.

Taxation seems to be a random event in Chapter 5, and it can be pretty outrageous. It goes along well with the general corruption and dirty dealings that take place throughout that chapter. If you like, you can choose to resist the taxes, in which case you enter combat with the Ministry of Accounts soldiers who board your ship. If you do, however, you gain a criminal record, and attacks will become more frequent and more difficult to overcome.


Speaking of combat, this is the part that's really different about this game from the others. The other games involve ship-to-ship combat (space flight combat in X3 and DS1, and cannon-based sea combat in Patrician), but this game never actually has you visibly travelling in your ship, so the combat here is first-person shooter combat!

The movement and gameplay of these missions remind me of Quake 3 Arena (or OpenArena), or Unreal Tournament. Fast-paced, with health, shield, and weapon pickups, automatic doors and lifts, and a bunch of bots running around the map looking for you. A handy minimap shows the items and enemies around you, as well as the free cargo lying around for you to take. Enemies drop money, and bosses drop money and a good amount of cargo.

You get three chances to beat such an instance, respawning with the default pistol each time, but any enemies you killed are still dead, and the boss seems to retain whatever damage you did to it before dying.

No matter how rich you are, however, you start every FPS encounter with no shields and a default pistol, and have to scavenge your gear from the level pickups. I can forgive this mechanic, though, because if your money influenced your loadout, then it would add several problems. First, the missions would be too easy against simple bounties. Second, the money should also influence your enemy's loadout, so well-connected targets that are much richer than you would be almost impossible to beat.

One of them did seem to be impossible for me, at first, and that was the final boss of chapter 3. Even with three respawns, I failed the scenario twice, and had to wait before being allowed to try again. I was getting dangerously close to the time limit for the chapter, as well, which made it rather tense. What made it especially difficult was that several times I was respawned in the same room as the boss, who immediately began shooting at me before I could even orient myself, let alone find a better weapon! Luckily, I did succeed on the third try, and completed that chapter to unlock more locations to trade with.

These combat missions are offered by various NPCs at various times, but the bartenders at each of the ports usually have at least one available. Strategically, it seems like it's best to take as many combat missions as you can find as soon as you've sold off your cargo when you arrive at a new location, and before you start picking up free cargo around the port or buying anything, so that you'll have as much free cargo space as possible to pick up all the loot in these combat missions.

Non-campaign challenges

There are three challenges outside of the campaign, which isn't very many. They need to be played in order, since you have to unlock the second and third by beating the previous challenge. The first one is a beginner's challenge, and in some ways it's just as much of a tutorial as the first chapter of the campaign, though it includes several things that the campaign didn't mention. It seems that a beginner to this game should play the first challenge here first, and then go on to the first chapter of the campaign.

There are numerous conditions and mechanics that exist in one challenge or chapter, but not in others. In the campaign, there seems to be absolutely no disadvantage to dealing in black market goods, but in the challenges there are some legitimate vendors who refuse to do business with you if you're carrying certain kinds of contraband. The Ministry of Accounts is also said to do raids and crackdowns randomly during travel between planets if you're carrying any contraband, but it's apparently only in the challenges, and not in the campaign. The campaign's 5th chapter, on the other hand, requires you to set up a trade office and hire some merchants of your own, which doesn't happen in any of the other challenges.


The 3rd chapter of the campaign throws an unexpected twist into the gameplay -- that being that if you start doing jobs for the leaders of any of the trade conglomerates, you'll suddenly find that members of rival conglomerates will start refusing to do business with you. I've read about that kind of underhanded anti-competitive dealing in Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential, but never saw that sort of thing in a trading game.

The impact it has on your trading is that although you can still sell any items you're carrying, you lose the ability to buy anything at that location that only those merchant sell. This also means you can't compare those prices to the market value, since it's shown in their inventory screens, so you'd be selling without knowing if it's a good deal or not.

This mechanic was only in Chapter 3, though, and not in the later ones, and doesn't seem to be in any of the challenges, either.


There's plenty of comedy in this game's dialogues, and it adds a great deal of enjoyment to the experience. Much of it is self-aware or self-referential, with the game poking fun at itself, such as in a dance club on Venus, where the bartender says "This place is pretty dead. Everyone's just standing around!" Robots tend to use internet acronyms in their vocal greetings, such as "OMG 1337", and one of them is named XKCD, likely named after the webcomic of the same name.

I think one of the voice sets was supposed to be comedic, as well, but it rather comes off as annoying. I'm speaking here of the whiny, lisping, mush-mouthed voice that really stands out from the others in its campiness.

The story missions have a lot of whimsical and goofy situations, and even some dark comedy on occasion, which is really good for a laugh. One NPC claims to be turning into a werewolf, and demands some silver to prevent it. A technician in a water treatment plant mentions that one of the job perks is getting to swim whenever he wants to. Your dialogue responses are usually amusingly sarcastic or snarky, too.

Graphics and music

The graphics are nothing special. They pretty much resemble the graphics from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, actually. Rather low-poly, with interesting but basic texture work. The plus side is that it plays quickly and smoothly with the resolution and graphics settings maxed out, and graphics aren't the draw of this game anyway.

The music is light electronic music. Inoffensive, but unremarkable and repetitive. I turned the music off and played my own music in the background after a while.


I like this game! I had a great time playing the campaign, and was sad to see it was over, with only the challenge modes left to play. There are also still numerous Steam achievements I can shoot for, which is more or less equivalent to another challenge mode condition. The game was exactly as the trailer made it out to be, and I'm quite satisfied with it.

I do wish it had a longer campaign, and that the FPS parts would always respawn me in a safe location. I also wish there were more locations to travel between, with a more developed supply/demand mechanic. Patrician 3, for instance, has 24 cities that you can sail between, and most of those cities have certain items that they produce, so it's best to buy those items from those places, and never try to sell those items there. The other games have many more locations than that! Space Trader, on the other hand, has only five locations in the biggest part of the campaign. More locations would certainly help with its scope.

In what turned out to be the last chapter, some NPCs started dropping some hints that another faction-based challenge was coming up, and the ending text of that chapter also sounded like I was in for a difficult time, but it unexpectedly ended there, which was a bit disappointing. Perhaps more was planned, but cut out.

I'm not sure how much replay value it has, aside from the two times I had to repeat a chapter due to running out of time. After figuring out what I needed to do in those chapters, time was really not much of an issue. This is the kind of game that should be easy to write new challenges for, and it would be nice if there were some community-written ones, but I'm afraid it's too small of a niche game, and those bad reviews are certainly not helping.

I had fun, though, and it brought me smiles, so I'm satisfied.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, part 2

There was only one place in the Promenade that sold things other than weapons and armour (though they sold that as well), and that was a shop just to the left of the crumbled remains of the exit to Irenicus' dungeon. It had a nice look to it, with interesting curios in the multi-level décor, and a surprisingly obvious dig at the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series, with pictures of two characters from that show on the wall, with text describing their deaths.

In front of those posters was a woman who sold some special items that made more reference jokes. I'm not sure how many of them were specifically references to Planescape: Torment and which were just integrating the Planescape campaign setting in general, but she was selling Dak'kon's Zerth blade and Vhailor's helm, both of which specifically mentioned the Nameless One in their descriptions, and there were items referring to the Sensates and the Mercykillers. I believe this vendor is one of the "bonus merchants" included in one of the patches I installed. The items are very expensive, but that's good, because this game needs a money sink.

There's a great deal of humour in this game, in dialogue and absurd situations, and I love it.

The circus tent

The circus tent was undergoing renovations as a TARDIS, apparently, containing a caverous space with an elegant bridge over a bottomless chasm, leading to a lavish arabesque building. There was another genie there to greet us. Three genies already! If doppelgangers were the big recurring theme in BG1, it's looking like genies are the theme in BG2. Amn seems to be the D&D equivalent of Arabia (and, unless I miss my guess, Minsc's descriptions of Rashemen sound like that's the D&D equivalent of Russia). This genie asked us a riddle, and unfortunately this riddle was actually a mathematics problem (a weakness of mine), and I apparently miscalculated and got it wrong, but surprisingly enough he gave us a second chance with another, much easier riddle, then let us pass.

A character named Aerie was there, in the form of an ogre, inside the main building. I already knew the name before playing the game, so there was no doubt that I should believe her when she said she wasn't really an ogre (because the master of this place is an illusionist), but even if I didn't know her already, she sounded so earnest I'm sure I would have believed her anyway.

The way everyone in this place was talking, I was preparing for a major boss fight, especially when one creature explicitly offered my party time to rest after a fight, and prepare for the final room. It was a surprise when the supposedly powerful wizard (who had supposedly created all this architecture in this pocket plane, and bound all these slaves) went down so quickly and easily. I guess it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So Aerie joined my party after talking to her dear uncle Quayle, the gnome wizard I never picked up from BG1, and she seems like a cheerful, upbeat girl, and romanceable. And a cleric! So I'm concerned that she might make Viconia superfluous, and I really want to have Viconia, since I liked her so much in BG1.

The genie from the tent showed up again when I investigated the magic lamp I acquired during the adventure and obtained the control word from a malicious "man" named Jafir. Jafir seemed certain that if I got a wish from this genie, I would end up in as much trouble as the one who used it to create the things in the pocket plane, but perhaps this is where my high wisdom comes in. The genie offered a selection of quest-specific wishes, as well as a secondary list which appears to be the usual list you'd get if you used the Wish spell, all of which seem to be combat-focused, and disappointingly limited, but it is one of the larger lists of options, and it's understandable given the nature of this medium, as opposed to the free-form wishes I imagine you could make in a pen & paper session.

The combat wishes weren't useful in this situation, of course, so that left the quest wishes. Perhaps my wisdom wasn't quite high enough to give me a really good wish option, though, because none of the options were very satisfying. I could free the genie, attempt (and fail) to wish for more wishes, resurrect the insane gnome who caused all those deaths to "give him a second chance" (but no option to resurrect the people he killed), send the genie to kill Jafir, or try (and fail) to kill Irenicus and rescue Imoen -- the genie claimed something was interfering with his powers on those last two options. I love the fact that the genie uses the classic line, "Your wish is my command!" when granting a wish! I ended up freeing the genie, for lack of any better options.

Chapter 2, and names again

Chapter 2 began surprisingly enough shortly after I left Waukeen's Promenade. I hadn't even taken two steps when some rogue named Gaelan approached with a vocal tic causing him to exclaim "Coo!" every few sentences, and said he could help me find Imoen. And although I was wary of following a vaguely shady rogue into his house, which he suggested, the game actually transported me into it automatically, despite him saying "You can decide for yourself if you want to come in when we get there."

But despite the forced action, it set out the goals of the next chapter nicely, telling me to raise 20k gold, and suggesting a few places to look for work (or in other words, quests).

Then Chapter 2 began, and to my dismay I learned through both the chapter narrator's speech and one of the voiced cowled wizards that Irenicus is meant to be pronounced "eye-REH-ni-cus", which doesn't sound anywhere near as good as "eye-ruh-NYE-cus".

Now, Gaelan advised me to not spend any money until I've raised the necessary amount, but by this time I had raised enough to pay off the government to allow me to cast spells in the city, and that was priority one for me, as a sorcerer, so I went as quickly as possible to the Government District, through several minor encounters on the streets.


I actually came across my old friend Viconia upon entering the district, being treated to the same kind of hospitality she was enjoying when I found her in the first game, except that instead of the firing squad, they had set up a cosy stake to roast her on.

After the fanatics were dead, she said she would wait for me in the graveyard after I'd freed up some party space. I'll probably have some space soon. One of the mod-added party members (Chloe) is starting to wear out her welcome. There's just the issue I mentioned before, that I already have a cleric, and I like her. Then again, Aerie's also a mage, and Viconia is a much more powerful cleric, so perhaps I'll try it out with both of them. I really have a lot of party members with healing spells this time. Even Minsc can cast a minor heal now, unlike in BG1.

Speaking of Aerie, though, she's suddenly started bringing up her handicap rather often. She's a winged elf, but she was crippled by her former captors, who kept her in a cage so long her wings started getting necrotic, and they sawed them off. But I got the impression that this had happened quite a while ago, since she said she'd been under the protection of Quayle for some time, and the wounds had clearly long since healed over, so why is she suddenly getting more and more upset about them? I'm being nice to her about it, but I'm having trouble believing this aspect of her character. Jaheira, on the other hand, is being quite cruel to her about it, and it's clearly because she was getting interested in me herself, though she hadn't said so yet. Her attraction was clear from the little hints given in her interjections, but I'm not interested in romancing Jaheira. Her personality is rather abrasive and domineering, and she shouldn't be falling for someone so soon after finding her husband dead, in my opinion.

Anyway, after finding the person to bribe to allow me to cast magic and asking around to see if anyone had more leads on Imoen (unsurprisingly, they didn't, though I did pick up a rather vague quest from them to find a missing outlaw named Valygar), I spoke to a boy named Delon outside who was begging for some help with some strange creatures attacking his village of Imnesvale, with rumours of an ancient witch returning to curse the place. Ah, just the sort of thing I wanted! As much as I like exploring the city and talking to people, I was looking forward to some regular adventuring again. I guess I didn't need to spend that money on a magic license yet after all, if I'm going outside of the city. Ah well, no matter. I expect an excursion out there will make all that money back pretty quickly anyway.

The Umar Hills

Imnesvale was an interesting place with its own side quests, and plenty of people to talk to. Opinions differed amongst the townspeople as to what kind of creatures were attacking them. The bartender promoted the ancient witch hypothesis, and was only too happy to provide me with a copy of his book about it, which was a reference to the Blair Witch Project. What made it really funny was when I snooped around in the containers behind his bar, I found that they were all filled with dozens of copies of that book!

Other villagers blamed a band of ogres for the killings, and still others believed a pack of large wolves was responsible. I did a little scouting around, and found the ogres, but they convinced me they were peaceful, so I left them alone. I found some caves, as well. One of them contained an unexpected monster -- a mimic. They're the monsters that disguise themselves as treasure chests to lure unsuspecting adventurers close and catch them off guard. On killing it, I obtained a vial of its blood, but it had no obvious use, and the description mentioned uses that weren't immediately applicable, but I kept it in case there was a use for it later.

In the other cave was a werewolf, gnawing on some human bones. Mystery solved, eh? Except she said that there was someone worse that was controlling her kin, and he's the one responsible for the recent killings. My experience with werewolves is rocky, to put it mildly, but I know from Tales of the Sword Coast that werewolves aren't automatically evil, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

A diary from a fighter named Mazzy was in one of the houses, and I recognised the name as a potential party member, but from the sound of it she was some kind of fighter, and I don't need any more of those. I explored just up to the point where I found the temple that the town quest seemed to be leading to, and turned back, because I didn't feel up to the challenge of a dungeon crawl at the moment. I went back to town to report all this.

In town, I found a few side quests that I'd missed when I went on the scouting run. Simple local concerns such as paying a man for a lucrative secret involving some chickens, and buying some ale for a small group of teenagers. There was the option of also buying them some weapons, but that had the potential to end badly, so I stuck with the ale.

It's strange that they'd need someone to buy it for them, though. What else is there to drink in these towns? For much of human history, in many regions, fermented beverages were the standard drink for everyone, children included. Fermentation renders the drinks sterile, and thus wines and beers were safer to consume than water in places with poor sanitation. The only other things I can think of that they might have drunk would be fruit juices or fresh milk, but in a society without refrigeration, both would have to be obtained fresh, since fruit juice would quickly ferment into cider or wine anyway, and milk into cheese.

So, I bought the boys their ale. There'll be no cholera deaths on my watch!

Outside a house, I met a young man who wanted me to convince a girl's overprotective father to let them go out together. The father turned out to be a Cowled Wizard who was working on building a big stone golem to use as a guardian. He was unreceptive to my speaking on the boy's behalf, despite the pleas of his daughter, but he offered me a fetch quest to get him a needed ingredient for the golem. As it happened, it was the blood of a mimic, which I already had with me, so it was a quick and easy bit of XP and reward.

Now, it was pretty obvious that this was a thinly-veiled Frankenstein plot in the making, so I began positioning my party strategically as the wizard began to activate the golem. Surprise, surprise, it woke up hostile and out of control, and we managed to beat it down without the wizard or his daughter getting hurt.

He was shaken and relieved at the narrowly averted tragedy, and decided that perhaps he was wrong about knowing what was best for his daughter. It ended with the two lovers joyfully running off together with the wizard's blessing, and all was fine. I imagine there were different endings if one or the other or both were killed in the golem's rampage. This was one of the more enjoyable quests in this town.

I happened to find Valygar in this area, too, from the other quest given at the government building, and in a little plot twist it turned out he was being framed because of his anti-magic stance. His story sounded genuine, and it seems the Cowled Wizards just wanted his dead body to use as some kind of genetic key to open up a sealed sphere that had teleported into town recently. So, to finish up that questline, it looked like I'd have to add him to my party and go on another dungeon crawl. Again, I decided to put it on hold for now, and head back to Athkatla for a while.