Mask of the Betrayer Review
Don’t ask about the image, there wasn’t a whole lot of options.
I have a friend and he hates me. After forcing me to finally finish Neverwinter Nights 2 the Original Campaign (OC), he was adamant that we begin the expansion. As a brief overview, Neverwinter Nights and Mask of the Betrayer are two computer role-playing games (cRPGs) set in the fictitious world of the Forgotten Realms. The Forgotten Realms, themselves, are one of a myriad of different D&D campaign settings published by Wizards of the Coast. Forgotten Realms has the auspicious distinction of being, arguably, the most famous of all the settings. So here, you get a Mask of the Betrayer review.
You have your dwarves, elves and halflings all running around such exotic locations as a city in the north (Icewind Dale) a city in the south (Baldur’s Gate) and a city with stupid names like Neverneath (Neverwinter Nights). It’s all very derivative Tolkien-esque fare made quite palpable for the masses. There isn’t any weighty christological morality, however, so it’s freed to explore more complex situations and conflicts than Biblical good vs evil.
It usually doesn’t, mind you, but the opportunity exists. Now, as I mentioned, my friend and I finished the OC and there hasn’t been many words devoted on my blog to this monumentous achievement mostly because the OC was probably about as exciting as parliamentary debate over a new highway infrastructure. Actually, if given the choice, I’d probably go with the debate to be honest. The plot for the OC was uninspired, convoluted, irrelevant and most offensive of all – boring. And to top it off, it was long.
It also had an annoying dwarf. Screw dwarves. The stumpy midgets aren’t useful for anything beyond dragon kibble. But given they’re all developing alcoholics, you’re more likely to upset your dragon’s stomach more than anything. At least they’ll slide down nicely.
I am pleased to announce that Mask of the Betrayer is everything that the OC is not. It’s short, interesting, explores the nature of love and faith and is, shockingly fun. I find this in direct negative correlation to the number of dwarves present. Which is to say there are none. Though the game adamantly insists on reminding you that there used to be dwarves like some sort of dangling punishment that they’ve been so benevolent in staying their hand over. However, we’re on the final act and we haven’t seen hair nor stench of the runty creatures so I’m feeling quite in the clear on this issue.
The story itself, however, poses a curious conundrum. I’m going to discuss spoilers but given the brevity of the game and the way it constantly reminds you about every plot point no matter what you do, I feel this isn’t too disruptive. Now onto my discussion!
For those not aware, there are two essential “magic” systems at play in your standard D&D setting. You have the arcane – purview of wizards and sorcerers – that often requires rigorous study and is usually theorized to shape the very fundamental nature of reality and the universe(s). Then you have the divine. This is the domain of clerics and is the powers bestowed upon them by their god for their strict piety and devotion. So separated are these two sources that they have unique interactions with their own spells and other profane creatures that stalk the realms.
Which is to say, it’s really, really, really obvious that when a cleric says he’s getting powers from a big bearded dude in the sky there’s probably some truth to that. Couple this with the fact that the Forgotten Realms has a serious issue with gods coming down from on high, getting killed and promptly shuffling around their seat in the celestial bureaucracy like a minority government trying in vain to oust their opposition, it seems that their existence based on the very nature of the world really isn’t one of uncertainty. For the Forgotten Realms, gods are and it would take an incredible amount of ignorance to deny this fact. Worship is more like a trip to the tracks where you chose the horse you think is likely to give you the greatest pay-out at the end.
But the story for Mask of the Betrayer revolves around a curious structure called the Wall of the Faithless. As the name suggests, it is a wall… formed of faithless individuals. As explained through their own characters, for all the people who insist on not laying a bet at all, when they die their souls are shunted into this ever stretching, moaning and howling structure to add their body onto its swelling length. The major events of the story are propelled by a character’s faithlessness but I find it most curious that the actual reason for this lack of belief rather perplexing.
It’s like basing a story on the actions of a globe-trotting journalist who insists that the world is flat. At some point there must have arisen a conflict when it seemed reality factually contradicted this person’s own beliefs. At the end of the day, Mask of the Betrayer doesn’t really delve into true issues of faith and faithlessness but uses these concepts as plot points to further the story. It tells a great tale without actually examining the elements that compose it.
Which is a shame since it’s almost a third shorter than then OC. I can’t help but feel like this is a gross missed opportunity. Wherein the OC had this plodding tale of some swamp man stumbling out of coddled ignorance into a world filled with two dimensional individuals and hours of inane fetch questing, Mask of the Betrayer jumps erratically between some rather heavy existential ideology with barely a moment to even ponder its own intrinsic consequences. There’s so much stuff here to actually explore, like self identity and the nature of souls, but it gets shuffled to the sidelines to push the story further at it’s frantic pace.
Why would someone believe? What causes people to lose their faith? What is the nature of man and gods and are either intrinsic or important to its own world’s functioning. For example, the nature of good and evil, justice and law. Are these the true creation of these divine beings (remember, they get shuffled about any time one of them has the misfortune of stumbling into the machinations of an epic level character) or are these concepts something far grander and primordial than petty deities squabbling over who gets the worship of stubborn hicks who refuse to move out of their swamp.
At one point, your party comes face to face with a dead god and have a brief conversation about how this divine hierarchy functions. The god then points out that one of your companions himself is faithless, and yet standing on the enormous spine of this echoing skeleton, said companion continues to profess his beliefs that gods don’t exist. Yet you’re given no time to actually point out or examine this contradictory moment as the narrative quickly pats you on the bum towards the next big point and click killing moment.
It’s the stuff you can write great stories about but they’ve given themselves so little time to actually explore it. The brief taste you get is tantalizing and I really wish that Mask of the Betrayer was the OC and that the OC was… well… just a unfortunate memory much like the dwarf.