Neverwinter Nights was one of Bioware’s first attempts with their new 3D Aurora Engine and a big leap in production value for the company. It was the hotly anticipated follow up to their classic Baldur’s Gate 2 and gamers wondered where they could go next. During its production, Bioware’s main publisher Interplay went bankrupt, and, desperate for funding, Bioware went to Atari which were already on a downhill at that time. Yet despite everything that was facing it, Neverwinter Nights is a role playing classic, so much so that when it was released back in 2002 it received near universal critical acclaim. It became a genre touchstone when it comes to inventive quest design and storytelling. It’s still lauded to this day as one of the studio’s best works.
It’s fitting then that it is the last of the RPG essentials that Beamdog Studios has lovingly recreated for the home console, alongside Planescape: Torment & Icewind Dale Enhanced Edition and Baldur’s Gate & Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition. And while performance-wise Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition might be the worst of the bunch, it’s easily aged the most gracefully out of all in the collection.
It opens with a mystery: a strange and widespread plague has come down on the city of Neverwinter. Corpses pile the streets, the guards are in complete disarray, criminals have taken over the whole districts and people have seemingly lost all hope. In a desperate search for help the city creates an academy for adventurers, however on the day of your graduation the school is brutally attacked. You’re left as the sole survivor, tasked with finding the cure and being a beacon of light for the city.
It’s an intriguing plot that evolves past its simple beginning, in fact much of the game’s writing seems to evolve as it progresses. Starting out, the narrative seems cliche and features trite fantasy stereotypes, but it quickly moves past that. Once out in the wider world the storytelling becomes much more nuanced and complex. Talking with the many inhabitants of Neverwinter and beyond, it’s impressive how much truth and naturalism they manage to breathe into the traditional DnD setting. It’s a satisfying plot and will keep you hooked till the end. While the companions are not as good as they are in some of the previous works by Bioware, they are still lively and interesting. Tomi Undergallows is still one of the best first companions in any RPG.
Setting that aside, it’s the gameplay that really distinguishes this experience to the other console ports that Beamdog have done. Being the only one of them in a 3D space makes a massive difference when it comes to the combat. While there is still much of the same DnD framework behind the curtain – much of the stats and classes are the same from Baldur’s Gate – the new dimension does wonders for engagement of the fighting. Positioning plays a much bigger role as you can move around the enemy, hits and misses can be determined by location, and it opens a whole range of strategy. Enemies are interesting and varied – they put up a formidable fight especially in large groups – and some of the boss fights throughout the game are deviously clever.
There’s a shockingly large array of character builds that you can make with a huge amount of classes, albeit some are only unlocked after certain requirements in the game. You can be a glass cannon mage with awesome spells but little health, a long range archer that can do sneak attacks, or giant half orc tank that eats attacks. Building out your character is one of the best parts of DnD based RPGs and Neverwinter does not fail in that department.
The 3D space also makes this game the easiest to pick and play for a newer audience; this came right before Bioware’s jump to console and you can tell. It works fluidly and completely naturally on a controller. I never felt like I was playing a computer game transferred to a console, and it genuinely felt like it was made for the controller in the first place. They have actioned some ingenious moves to ensure all the menus and inventory management feel easy to use, and not once have I felt like I was wrestling with controls.
That’s good too, because there’s a lot to do in the Enhanced Edition. Just the original campaign will take around 60 hours and after that there are the two major expansions included – each being the size of their own game. There’s quite literally hundreds of hours of content in this package.
What’s so disappointing however is the graphical performance. Neverwinter in its own low-res way can be beautiful, yet it’s hard to appreciate that when the texture pop-in and glitches can be so bad. While it’s not gamebreaking by any means, some areas constantly pop as you turn the camera and sometimes it can get seriously hard to look at. Adding on to that are the very occasional frame rate drops, which by themselves wouldn’t be so bad but added on to the horrible pop-in can give Neverwinter an insanely bad look. It can really grate after a while and seriously brings it down. Also, the chat log is almost entirely unnecessary in a console release and it boggles my mind why it takes up so much space or is included at all.
In some ways, Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition on Xbox One is Beamdog’s finest translation to consoles, yet in other ways it is one of their worst. However the strengths of both the original game and the excellent new control scheme make this adventure one that is more than worth taking in.