"It has always seemed an impossible task to capture the true freedom that a well-crafted Dungeons & Dragons campaign offers tabletop players and distill it into a finite video gaming space, but BioWare excelled at making the experience feel like there is a great deal of agency over the story."
The classic isometric titles from BioWare are a lot of what I cut my role-playing game teeth on and were my introduction into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. It was easy to get lost for hours in the various towns, numerous character interactions, or kobold-filled dungeons that made up the adventures that were synonymous with "tabletop RPG." Neverwinter Nights first launched for PC in June 2002 and I did not have the system to run it, so I sadly missed out. This time around, getting this exciting entry in the Forgotten Realms' many tales on Switch offered an exciting opportunity for me. While I know this Enhanced Edition couldn't possibly escape what made it of its era, Beamdog has put in a lot of effort to modernize this classic title.
The Enhanced Edition offers players a variety of campaigns to engage in, whether you are new to the title like myself, or a veteran that never dabbled in the continued support BioWare has offered. To get the best grasp of this edition, I took to the base campaign so I could find out what I had missed. While the Switch version doesn't offer all the flexibility of the PC version in terms of fan-created mods and adventures, there are still a few exciting tales I look forward to coming back to.
Avoiding the classic trope of starting your adventure in a tavern, Neverwinter Nights has you craft an adventurer newly arrived in the eponymous town with hopes of helping the city's officials find a cure for the Wailing Death. The Wailing Death is a horrible plague that has brought Neverwinter to its knees, leaving the city reeling as its several districts have descended into chaos. Your character is recruited by Lady Aribeth, a noble Elvish Paladin, to track down four mythical beasts that could hold the necessary ingredients to craft a cure. Unfortunately, a well-planned raid on Castle Neverwinter where the creatures were being held has seen them released throughout the city. While the story is quite straightforward, necessitating that players visit each district to find the creatures that have likely been entangled in some deeper plot, the order and method to how you pursue them is your choice.
It has always seemed an impossible task to capture the true freedom that a well-crafted Dungeons & Dragons campaign offers tabletop players and distill it into a finite video gaming space, but BioWare excelled at making the experience feel like there is a great deal of agency over the story. Neverwinter Nights' expertly crafted characters populating the city contribute to this and make the storytelling truly engaging, offering problems to solve, favours to curry, or coin to be made. You feel for the citizens you meet, investing you in their part of the story, no matter how small. Or you feel nothing for their miserable existence and feel it best to cull them: the choice is yours! While the choices are finite, how you choose to roleplay your adventurer will truly affect the interactions throughout the city, and it still makes the campaigns as compelling now as they were in 2002, giving the Enhanced Edition a great deal of mileage for modern gamers.
The gameplay has not held up as well, at least in its transition to a console like the Nintendo Switch. Beamdog has done an admirable job of interpreting the flexibility of a keyboard and mouse setup to the Joycon, but it still comes out incredibly clunky and dated. In combat, the game flows well enough, though targeting can suffer now and again as you find yourself wanting the precision of a mouse pointer. Combat and skill-based interactions are rooted in the 3.0 d20 system, with blows exchanged in an auto-combat fashion and actions handled via simulated dice rolls, making the moment to moment gameplay fairly straightforward. However, once you want to do anything aside from swing a sword in combat, you find yourself looking at your hands and exclaiming, "Where did this Rubik's Cube come from!?" Hyperbole aside, in the panic of combat as you frantically try to call up your assigned quick actions to chug a potion or dive down the rabbit hole of your character skills submenus to find an infrequently used spell, that's how it feels. And the many gods of the Forgotten Realms pantheon forbid interaction with a hireling during combat.
Many a quest results in loot, much of which you will convert to gold once you figure out how to navigate between your inventory window and the shopkeeper's to earn five coins for that short sword your character doesn't have the proficiency for. Making your way through the more mundane menus like your character sheet, inventory, spellbooks, or even the map, all become a chore that bogs down the experience with unfortunate obtuseness. This is less a result of any ineptitude from Beamdog and more symptomatic of the game's age and that these transitions from PC to console rarely end well for games that rely on a player's knowledge of the hotkeys for mastery. While Beamdog has done their best with the tutorial in the opening moments (which unfortunately had one or two missed references where the text spoke about the PC commands instead of their Switch counterparts), it will be a steep learning curve as you build the muscle memory and quick action assignments that will make the gameplay flow beyond a trickle.
That being said, the true fun in the gameplay is the character progression. As in any D&D campaign, growth is slow but often offers a notable increase in power (with the odd new feat or attribute bonus) and skill point assignments at each level. Each time your character portrait lights up to denote a level earned, to use the parlance of the game, it's worth being encumbered by menu navigation. Character creation is, for many, the best part of D&D, and Neverwinter Nights gets it right. For myself, I felt at home with the modified 3.0 edition rules I spent years familiarizing myself with on screen and at the table, and much of that knowledge has been interpreted well into these mechanics.
While the nearly "vintage" 3D models also show the game's age, the updated textures add an impressive level of modern polish. A short draw-distance makes the city of Neverwinter feel small after the open-world epics BioWare has since crafted, but it at least looks crisp with the enhancements. The characters' faces are no longer muddy, bruised messes attempting to show features and now clearly show the rage of thugs barrelling towards you through the plague-ridden streets. Sure, the character models look oddly crystalline in their composition, but the finer details of armour, clothing, and weapons go a long way to soften the edges somewhat. Spell effects are flashy as ever and the then dynamic lighting still holds up well enough to sow dread in the darkest reaches of Neverwinter's bowels. What strikes me as odd, though, is how this game is not optimized for console performance, showing the odd framerate drop in more populated areas whether docked or in handheld mode. Shifting from the isometric look of Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale to this back in 2002 would have surely blown me away, but now it shows its age. While graphics may be a deal breaker for some, it is rather neat playing what feels like an N64 title as a handheld experience.
One area of Neverwinter Nights that aged gracefully is Jeremy Soule's wonderful soundtrack, engineered by his brother Julian, which makes every step of the campaign feel grander than it may visually be. The sweeping soundscapes bring the magic of D&D to life as each moment in the story unfolds, describing the troubles plaguing the city. Combat has all the engaging flourishes one could want to heighten the senses as spells, bolts, and other monstrous things come at you. Further enhancing the world are the sound effects designed by Frank Bry and Paul Gorman, which add significant weight. It is haunting how mournful cries shatter the quiet of the city, or hearing the groans of zombies telegraph their eerie approach, and of course the unique ways magic manifests itself in a given moment, all creating a sense of immersion that pulled me into the otherwise rough presentation. The few bits of voicework from the original game are less consistent, with some performances feeling just right, while others are far too over the top and theatrical, indicative of the time. Performances aside, though, the audio quality is sound even after nearly two decades.
While consoles may not be the best place to revisit the streets of Neverwinter, whether alone or in a party with a friend, the title still feels fun to play. It has suffered graphically through the years, certainly looking dated despite the refurbishments made, but the story and adventure at the heart of Neverwinter Nights are truly worth experiencing. As a friend once said in reference to a book being battered over the years, that means it was well-loved. The analogy isn't a perfect parallel, but it's worth noting that the team deemed it worth bringing Neverwinter Nights back to audiences with an Enhanced Edition that would hopefully do the title more justice. They weren't wrong to do so.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.