Get ready to bookmark this page because for once, I'll be pouring superlatives.
For the last few days I've had an enormous amount of fun with Beast of Winter, far beyond my expectations. Rarely has any cRPG given me this sense of actually roleplaying, like in a PnP game, in the way in which this addon module did in the 20 hours it took me to complete it.*
What's the greatest thing about Beast of Winter? Something that Obsidian has been trying to achieve since PoE has been to recreate the feeling of playing a D&D module, same as the Infinity engine games did. And if Obsidian came close to capturing that D&D feeling with PoE and Deadfire, and especially with The White March, in Beast of Winter, for the first time, they absolutely nailed it.
Beast of Winter offers an experience which falls in the best traditions of the isometric fantasy RPG classics. This extends both to story, area design and atmosphere, and - if properly configured by the player - hardcore difficulty.
Part of the reasons why this feels so much like an RPG module has to do with the size and scope. It's a self-contained adventure, which doesn't drag on too long or become too convoluted, but offers great combat and enough mystery and revelations of the world's lore to keep you hooked on. I played through it in three long sittings, and I haven't felt hooked in this way to a cRPG probably since my first playing of Baldur's Gate II.
The story follows the classical epic template which goes down to the Culture Hero myths - there used to be order in the world, but it has been breached by the coming of forces of chaos, but the hero arrives, defeats chaos and restores order to the world so that it will not be breached again. The story structure is nothing pretentious, it's downright traditional, but it is perfectly executed. And this is exactly what I am looking for in a fantasy RPG.
Beast of Winter is less of an expansion in the way that The White March is for PoE, and more of an add-on big quest, and that is completely OK. The DLC consists of an introductory area, and a multiple-level "dungeon" whose challenges the player must solve in order to reach and overcome the boss at the end of the dungeon. The story and structure of the DLC remind of the big self contained quests of Baldur's Gate II. The best news is that BoW's overall quality also evokes the same comparisons. BoW is a top tier adventure in the vein of The Severed Hand, The Planar Sphere, Windspear Hills, and other hallmarks of the Infinity Engine games' dungeon and quest design.
Here is a list of the things I think were all very important and the Beast of Winter team got right perfectly in making the DLC:
- Maintain mystery around the main quest, so that the main quest becomes an investigation
- Exploration of areas is hindered in a way that's relevant to the environment and context, so that fully exploring an area has to be "achieved" by solving mini puzzles where you must find a path through an area, in addition to clearing it from enemies in your way. And this area design feature fits the character of the areas which should be difficult to traverse, such as the frozen temple or the sunken city.
- There is a good balance between hand crafted combat encounters, exploration and inching forward feeling your way for laid down traps.
- The story and purpose of an area is revealed through details in the environment.
- The player is given the sensation of descending into further and further depths of a dungeon, with further levels feeling progressively more surreal than the ones before - An out of place iceberg in the corner of the map, then a village built by a cult sharing an irrational and self-destructive worldview, followed by the wild parts of the iceberg outside of the settlement, then the mysterious frozen temple, and finally another dimension into which the player is sent by one of the gods. It's a technique of gradually building up the player's perception of progression into danger and adventure, in spaces where the normal rules don't apply and anything can be expected. The classic example of this technique can be found in the novel "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad.
- The storytelling manages to give the feeling that time is of the essence, through both dialogue and graphics - once you arrive you have to talk to a character named Vatnir. Once you talk to him, you have to go outside immediately. Once you go outside, you have to get back to him at once. Once you get back and speak with him, you have to continue the pursuit right away. Every next step feels urgent.
- Beast of Winter provides all the party-companion reactivity you may wish for. If it makes sense for one of your party members to take notice of something in the course of your quest, they will comment on it, and either express their opinion, or share their more in-depth knowledge of the situation and environment you find yourselves in. This contributed much to the feeling of immersion, and of leading those characters through an adventure with real stakes.
One issue I had, and something I would have liked to see would have been for the newly introduced party member to still be recruitable after the adventure ends, but I am sure this can and will be patched in, if there is enough demand for it by players.
Overall, my hat is off to the team of junior developers who totally stole the show with the Beast of Winter DLC. I am anticipating with the greatest interest what will they produce next, and also further into the future. I wish they just kept on working and working on more Deadfire expansions, because for me they started on a great note, and with their first work wrote a golden page in the history of isometric Infinity engine-like RPGs.
* - I play on Veteran with level scaling only upwards, and I turn the combat speed at least one grade slower, so you may complete it faster, depending on your difficulty settings and on how thorough you are.
Edited by Gairnulf, 13 September 2018 - 03:33 PM.