Often, I find myself looking for escapism, sometimes at an arguably alarming rate. Maybe I’ve had a bad day, or maybe I’m depressed; maybe I’m just sick and tired of what’s going on in the world and need a way to take my mind off of things. Some people find escape in cinema or literature, but me? Well, I find my escape in video games. There’s just something special about being sucked into a world full of interesting characters and plot developments, bonding with the cast throughout the journey.
This brings me to my main problem with MMOs. In these games, there’s usually no real cast of characters to grow attached to. You simply move from point A to point B, slaying some monsters and doing fetch quests along the way. Meanwhile, your actions are usually limited to a cool down meter coupled with a confusing (or, at the very least, messy) interface. I can certainly see the appeal of the genre, but it rarely appeals to me.
I say “rarely” rather than “never,” because Neverwinter is proof that I can enjoy these types of games. In Neverwinter, you feel like you’re part of a much larger world than just the area you happen to be in. It feels very organic, as if every player you see is on their own specific adventure, even if they’re really just doing the same content as you.
And yes, that content does essentially boil down to fetch quests and NPCs that ask you to slay a specific amount of monsters. But I found myself liking these more than I have in other MMOs because the combat is so much fun. Cool down meters still exist for most abilities, but they cool down much faster than in other staples in the genre — it’s very much action-oriented, offering you a real sense of empowerment as you destroy whatever beasts get in your way. When it comes to the PvP content, however, it becomes clear that combat isn’t very engaging when you’re not slaughtering things with a few presses of a button. Having to slowly chip away at another player’s health is mind-numbingly dull, and I found myself having no real desire to play against others.
While the game clearly favors its single-player story to its PvP content, the story never reaches the point of something along the lines of Final Fantasy XIV. That’s not to say the story is bad — far from it, in fact — but rather that it’s just not truly gripping. At the end of the day, I wasn’t interested in what the characters had to say or in the impact of the shocking revelation I had just unearthed. If you asked me what had happened during the hours I put into the game, I couldn’t possibly tell you; at some point, everything seemed to blur together. However, there exists a rich and vibrant world within this forgettable tale, and I found myself wanting to engage in reading up on the lore. I genuinely enjoyed learning more about the world, its culture, and its occupants. It’s also worth noting that while the story may not be the main draw for the game, there is something there, and I think it’s something fans of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise are going to appreciate much more than someone who is being exposed to this universe for the first time (like me).
As far as the atmosphere of tabletop D&D, Neverwinter absolutely nails it. You can choose your character’s background after selecting one of eight races (with the ability to purchase more), and then pick one of eight classes. These classes do have truly unique abilities, and the game gives you two character slots for free. Character names are tied to your ID, meaning you don’t have to worry about not being able to get the name you want. You then roll your stats, which can later be upgraded as you level up, and pick your starting location. From there, you can choose to type up an in-game summary of your character and their personality for others to see.
The similarities between Neverwinter and the tabletop games doesn’t stop with just the character customization, though. As you explore dungeons, you have to carefully sneak around traps or risk suffering an injury that will greatly impact your health. You also typically encounter a boss at the end of a quest line, and while the AI is never too challenging (provided you’re of the appropriate level for the quest), there were times that I had to reach for a handy potion.
There’s a very slick UI interface that works extremely well for a console MMO, and it rivals Final Fantasy XIV. As a Scourge Warlock, I could launch an onslaught of attacks, create orbs that surrounded me and blasted my target, and create soul puppets all at the press of a few buttons. Rather than having you cycle through multiple menus, the game lets you decide upon which skills you want to place on which button or button combination. This may sound limiting, but it actually works in the game’s favor, as it makes the UI feel clean while also encouraging you to experiment with your abilities. In the end, I didn’t need 20 different skills and abilities at my immediate disposal, but rather, simply the ones I used the most.
Unfortunately, the player base on the PS4 version isn’t the greatest. It’s here, in the largely important massively-multiplayer aspect of the game, that Neverwinter falls short. Like many games in the genre, the chat is often littered with spam in between players asking for help or looking for recruiters for a dungeon. A game can’t help its player base, but when dealing with an MMO, it’s hard not to be critical of how antisocial the community of my server seemed. There was never anything that made it appear as if players should have been engaging with each other, but rather, just that they could. However, there are guilds to join and create, and finding the right guild is made simple thanks to the UI. Within these guilds, it’s more likely that you’re going to find players who want to bring the social aspect of the game to life.
Being a free-to-play title, Neverwinter has a plethora of micro-transactions for you in the Zen Market, should you want to spend your money. These range from keys for locked chests, to new mounts, to more powerful companions that can accompany you on your adventure. For the most part, these don’t seem too intrusive, except that the game limits your inventory space, and while you can eventually upgrade it throughout the campaign, the real draw of the Zen Market is purchasing more bags to hold your loot. It feels a bit like Cryptic Studios is twisting your arm to spend at least some of your money on the game by doing this, and I found the experience of constantly having to choose between keeping or selling loot that I’d eventually be of-level to equip extremely off-putting.
The Zen Market also showcases another let-down with the game in its clunky handling of in-game currency. There’s your standard money that ranges from gold, to silver, to copper; ZEN, which requires real money; Glory, which you gain from PvP; Companion Upgrade tokens, which you gain from special Lockboxes; Astral Diamonds, which you get from either refining Rough Astral Diamonds or through purchasing them from the Zen Exchange; Arden Coins, which you gain from invoking your god at a rest area or alter; Celestial Coins, which you gain from invoking Sune for the first time on a given day; and Tarmalune Trade Bars, which you gain from Lockboxes. It’s a completely overwhelming and unnecessary system that’s needlessly complicated. It doesn’t completely ruin the experience, but having so many different currencies is confusing, and I often found myself forgetting how I was supposed to gain certain currencies without having to pause the game and look at the menu.
Overall, Neverwinter’s biggest achievement is letting players feel like they’re truly creating a character that actually exists in its vast universe. I felt like my character had an organic presence in the game instead of just simply being someone running around and taking orders from anyone offering a reward. Couple this good sense of immersion with fun combat and the free price point, and it becomes hard to not suggest that anyone interested in a new MMO give Neverwinter a shot. The best things in life might not be free, but Neverwinter is proof that great things can be.