Review – Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition

Together, Skybound and Beamdog accomplished the impossible with the console release of the Baldur’s Gate Saga. It’s one of the most impressive ports I’ve ever seen, and turned PC classics into fun and playable console experiences. This unexpected success gave me hope that maybe lightning could strike twice. Sadly, whatever dark magic they were using has dried up as the console port of Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition is a mess. Their efforts were valiant, but this game is too clunky and unpolished to be ported with just some UI work. A fundamental redesign of core game design would be required, work which is far outside the scope of what Beamdog is willing or perhaps even capable of doing. This game is old and, unlike its Infinity Engine brothers, it shows.

For anyone unfamilar with the game, Neverwinter Nights takes the 3rd edition of ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons and builds a game around it. It’s one of the most faithful and complete attempts to convert an entire ruleset to a video game, and thus one of the most complex. It’s easy to get lost in the number of classes, feats, and skills, and the sheer number of options during gameplay can be overwhelming. On top of that, and in addition to the standard single-player options, there are also the Persistent Worlds (currently only fully available on PC with a handful compatible for Switch). Each one is essentially a player-built MMO, albeit smaller scaled ones. The amount of creativity this game inspired is staggering, and all these years later, the modding community remains one of PC gaming’s largest and most active. Little of this carried over to the current console versions sadly, but maybe Beamdog can implement modding capabilities down the line.

Cinematic

Story cinematics were low-budget, if well-drawn art slideshows. To think today we complain if a cinematic has sub-par lighting…….

The most important thing to note off the bat is that the game is playable. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but it’s possible. Movement is restricted to third-person, with the isometric camera option from the PC version being removed, but it works. The camera not so much, as the levels weren’t exactly made for this mode, so there’s a lot of walls getting in the way. It doesn’t really affect gameplay that much, but it sure can be annoying. Which is really the running theme of this port: nothing is technically broken but it’s annoying to work around.

No clipping issue here

Absolutely no clipping issues here. Or on every other piece of anything that gets in the way.

The radial menu is a perfect example of this. Hailed as the ultimate immersion tool when it came out, it was already clunky and ugly back then. Still, it did its job and allowed you to access a wide variety of actions tailored to the chosen target with a single button press. Since then the idea has been expanded and improved upon, even by Beamdog themselves for the Infinity Engine ports. However, this game has none of those refinements. It’s still obtuse and poorly labeled, and the design focuses far more on aesthetic over function. To top it off, it’s super-sensitive, and far too often I ended up hitting the wrong button over just a slight tilt of the stick. Given how functional and smooth the radial menus in Baldur’s Gate were, this was very disappointing.

Looks easy enough

I see absolutely no potential issues telling these buttons apart during frantic combat.

Nowhere is this more clear than inside of combat. Essentially an early version of the combat style of Dragon Age: Origins, this was where the game used to shine. The incredibly complex character customization and progression shines best in combat, where you could put it all to the test. The radial menu was key, and made the numerous abilities, actions, and items workable. To back that up was a hotbar where you could link anything from weapon switching to a health potion. If worst came to worst, there was always the pause button to slow things down and fine tune the battle from an isometric viewpoint.

Great Consistency

I love when a port takes the time to update simple text. It’ll be no problem to use right click to attack on a controller.

This version switches the hotbar out for another radial menu which, like the other ones that are a nightmare to navigate, makes the standard radial menu apply to whatever the camera and not the character is looking at, and removed the isometric tactical viewpoint. I also found the position of the pause button to be uncomfortable, but that’s a matter of preference. Overall these changes made any engaging combat encounter a nightmare to micro-manage. This is in stark contrast to the Infinity Engine ports which are far more micro heavy, yet used every resource possible to make them as convenient as possible. Now I don’t think these changes were made lightly or flippantly, excepting perhaps the puzzling removal of the isometric camera. Rather, this is a result of a variety of issues, namely the ancient code that bound radial menu movement to precise mouse movements and the finite number of buttons on a controller. It’s one of those times where I see the issue, but also can’t really think of a great way to solve it. Beamdog probably did the best possible here, it’s just not good enough.

Modules

Each one of these takes place in wildly different locations, with different tones, and lengths.

A decision they had to have made, however, was to not include all the game’s content, at least at launch. Make no mistake, there’s loads of things here as of now. There’s the original three campaigns for starters. The original Neverwinter Nights and Shadows of Undrentide campaigns are decently sized and fun, if a fair bit below the Bioware standards of the time. Though compared to their most recent games, they sure look a lot better. Hordes of the Underdark was where it was at though, and remains an ode to the golden age of RPGs. Separated into three Chapters, each one acts as a sort of tribute to the three great D&D franchises of the time; Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and of course, Baldur’s Gate. Each chapter takes a specific game’s style of play and blends them together into an epic tale of intrigue, epic battles, and classic dungeon crawling. It would be Bioware’s last work with the D&D license, and they knocked it out of the park.

Empty

Despite being a core part of the PC experience, this is all the Switch version currently has to offer. Maybe one day Beamdog will open the doors wide to the real Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition experience

In addition to the main campaigns, there are a wide variety of miniature modules, essentially smaller DLC campaigns before DLC was a thing. They’re fun but hardly noteworthy outside the brand new Darkness over Daggorford campaign which released just this year. This one is more in-line with the main campaigns, and when released was priced accordingly. This makes the absence of the other newly released module, Tyrants of the Moonsea, troubling as I can only assume this will be coming out at a price. I don’t deny that it’s worth the price, but given how this game plays, at least including all content at one price would have been appreciated. I don’t even know if the other missing piece of content, a randomly generated dungeon crawler called Infinite Dungeons, will ever even be released, as this is included in the base package for the PC version. Its exclusion is puzzling and missed as it was a fantastic way to test new builds. Plus there’s always time for some classic randomized dungeon crawling on-the-go. Diablo III on Switch taught us that.

So many options

There’s just so many options and so many words. So it sure doesn’t help that the text is blurry.

There’s just a few other miscellaneous tidbits about this port. Map navigation, especially for new players, can be impossible. The in-game map, which has never been the most useful, is now ridiculously hard to investigate due to the required use of a cursor, which we all know controllers were made to use. Also, the in-game tutorials have been removed and replaced with very unattractive and immersive diagrams. You’re essentially just reading the manual onscreen, and they’re not even as detailed as the original (and on PC, only) dialogue-driven version was. Finally the inventory is grid-based, as most inventories are. However, most systems either lock one item per slot or don’t, but move the cursor from item to item. Not here, where you will navigate each inventory or store window box by box. If it’s a 6×6 sized large weapon, you will have to move the cursor 6 times to reach the next item. Two of these weapons next to each other? Yeesh. This will do more damage to your joy-cons over time than the drift ever could.

Each damn box

Not only is clicking the stick to switch tabs very awkward, but they also turn nameplates on and on. So while you switch tabs, everyone’s names also repeatedly flash. Fun.

Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition for consoles is equal parts disaster and genius. The logistics of simply getting this game to run on modern console hardware must have been impossible, as anyone who’s ever fiddled with NN modding would know. This was the earliest use of the Aurora Engine, and Bioware had the audacity to shoot straight for the moon with it. The fact that it’s actually playable is commendable in my opinion. I genuinely feel overall that Beamdog and Skybound did their best with it, but realized at some point that there was only so much they could do to make it work. In the end, anyone willing to struggle through a game where doing almost anything is a chore will be rewarded with one of the deepest role-playing experiences possible. For everyone else, just pick up the PC version for cheap. It’s worth it and will run on anything nowadays.

Graphics: 3.0

It was ugly when it came out, it’s even uglier now. Spell effects are still pretty cool though, for what it’s worth.

Gameplay: 7.5

Character customization and progression remains one of the most complex in any video game.

Sound: 4.5

Soundtrack is unmemorable and voice-acting just plain bad. Effects, especially spells, are impressive though.

Fun Factor: 2.0

The game simply wasn’t made for this and other than the incredible Hordes of the Underdark, the campaigns aren’t worth the effort to fight the port.

Final Verdict: 4.0

Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition is available now on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition was provided by the publisher.