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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Neverwinter Night - Hex Coda 1

Hex Coda 01 (NWVault page)

The files :
Hex Coda 01 - Module
Hex Coda 01 - Music Pack (optional)

From the NWVault page itself :

A Scifi/Fantasy Adventure for NWN by Stefan Gagne.

...modern civilization is one of prosperity and safety, with all magic legally controlled by a monolithic business called the Cathedral Corporation. As part of the underground magic movement known as the Hex Coders, every day is a race to develop new arcane technologies and evade persecution by the Cathedral. That alone would be trouble enough, but add the sins of an ancient civilization rising in the present day and you've got more than your fair share of problems. Can you lead the team through this interlocking puzzle across time and space, and avoid getting twenty to life for unauthorized use of magic..?

Using the sewers tileset to make a polluted town? Brilliant!

My review

Preemptive note : I will try not to spoil the best parts and keep "revelations" to the very beginning of the module. I hate spoilers myself, so I tend to be careful about them.

I downloaded Hex Coda a long while ago but never played it. Not that I wasn't thrilled at the idea, since I knew Stefan Gagne, the author, was very good at this trade (Penultima series, Eternum series). No, I was simply a bit scared that this new "sci fi" universe wouldn't be my cup of tea. I expected something steampunk-ish, a forbidden-magic world... and it seemed a lot more serious than Penultima, for example, and a bit less "out there" than Eternum. I was just scared the good streak of great modules would end there.
Also, I had to be attracted to NWN again. Thankfully, this happens every few months.

This module requires a 10th level character OR a whole new one which will be leveled up. Given the unique universe this takes place in, I went with a new character : an illusionist wizard gnome female named Nayusimi Nayudunt. Um... Yeah, I only give pun names to my NWN characters. Easier to remember :)
I thought beginning at 10th level might be difficult, what with not being used to a mid-level character, but the game gives you plenty of time to get used to the world, battles and your capabilities and it never was a problem. And I know you could use an existing 10th level character, but it's not "just another D&D module" there, and I think it wouldn't work as well.

There is a recommended reading of the world story before playing. The most important parts are summed up within the game (good call!) and, while the reading is quite interesting, it felt rather separate from the adventure to me. It explains how magic is restricted and even goes to the length of explaining the place of the various classes in this universe, and more specifically in the Hex Coda (your fighter is probably interested in forging magic weapons). The Hex Coda being a group of dissidents who want to freely study magic (shades of "open source" development are all over this theme, which I found amusing) as opposed to the Cathedral, who wants to control magic uses to avoid repeating a previous magic war that destroyed the world (but is felt overcontroling by the rebels). Yup, that's your team!
But really, for a world where magic is so controlled, I imagined being a wizard... and a gnome at that (they're barely considered, according to the write up), would be quite difficult. I roleplayed it by not using magic in public and going with a torch even though I could cast Light. Admittedly, though, I misunderstood one point : magic is not forbidden. It's just that you only cast spells that are sanctioned and sold to you by the Cathedral. And of course, they wouldn't sell anything of epic proportions. I guess that's disappointment by misunderstanding.


The adventure begins in a most simple manner, in vitae : you are a wannabe member of the Hex Coda and have to prove your worth in a short mission. It's a very simple and short one but you're already given a few ways to solve it, which is already a sign of good module design (to me at least!)

Your first mission : will you be a worthy member?

From there, you slowly integrate the team, made of unique characters who will become your companions as the story unfolds. Tough blacksmith lady, always-smiling-and-secretive cleric and his not-quite-right endearing sister and a angsty rebel bard. The whole troupe is led by Dayvid, a gnome with a love for freedom and magic.
The second "quest" has you gathering the whole gang, allowing you to discover their personalities and already score a few points with them by acting the right way. They all appreciate a specific behavior which allows both metagaming "gotta find the best answer" and simple roleplaying.

The relationship points you get, very reminescent of japanese dating sims, are linked to one of the new mechanics of this module : the team powers. Basically, each member has a team power based on his style (heal the team by vampirizing the enemies, randomly boost team members, ...) and the efficiency of this power is based on the relationship level. The better you get along, the better the results.
These powers are limited by tokens (used up by each use) but I never it to be limitating because I mostly forgot about this new mechanic until I reached more difficult battles, towards the end. The game works well enough without them, so maybe they are a bit "tacked on", but in all honesty, I had enough fun just interacting with the team to miss a mechanical aspect of battles.
The other mechanic is based on gifts : throughout the game, you will find fluff items that have only little or no game use. Instead of dropping these or selling them, you can give them as gifts to your companions. There is no real way to "miss" these as they are described as potential gifts and you don't lose points for giving the wrong item to a person. It's just politely refused. While this removes a bit of gaming, it probably avoids frustration in the long run, which isn't bad.
Relationships are also made and unmade through dialogues, where you get the most points usually. I only ever pissed off someone once, but I'm sure there are more occasions in there :)

Team interaction is mostly done through these gifts actually. Once you've learned the basic background of each character (which can be done right from the beginning, through simple conversation), you will still get some automatic interjections from team members, but I felt they were rare. But I remember some of them were also very well integrated, and I probably missed how many there were. One great thing, at least, is that I remember feeling like, having chosen the cleric and his rogue sister, I was playing with the "right" duo. As if there was no way things would work out with other characters. It's when I knew the author had done something right.
I also remember you get special items for the companions at various points and they do intervene once or twice with a "I need to speak with you", so it's not like they fade in the background. They *are* present and you won't feel like you have cardboard henchmen once.

I won't touch on the story too much, but as the descriptive blurb indicates, it involves time and an ancient civilization (and oh so much more!). What I will say is how bluffed I was by this module in terms of length/content. I went in expecting a short "first episode" for a classic campaign àla Penultima and co. After many hours of play (a whole day and then some, it was the weekend), I reached a point that looked like a logical conclusion to the adventure. Things were getting wrapped up, we would beat up the big bad and be done with it, yay, see you in Hex Coda 2 (which is unfinished, not yay). I was satisfied and all, basically. And lo! It goes on. Team regroups and splits up again. Multiple times after this, I thought "this is the last sequence". And I kept being awed at how it just kept going and going! My main thought was "what the hell will there be left to tell in Hex Coda 2 ??". In the end, I've clocked well about 20 hours and more into this single module... quite a feat! It's definitely a very complete module, almost standalone if not for a few questions left unanswered at the end. But it's nothing of the cliffhanger variety that has you scream for the next part. It might have been bad for your usual campaign module, but considering Hex Coda 2 will forever be in an unfinished state, it's for the best! You get the sense of completion and yet some stuff to mull over with "what ifs".

The adventure grows into epic proportions, touches cool themes and pushes the "cool" forward a lot. It's full of amusing dialogues, lots of little details (item and monster descriptions, optional finds) and just full of fun. If you don't mind a universe that doesn't take itself too seriously, yet throws *some* serious topics at you, go get this module and enjoy!


The goods :
Great story
Epic feel
Team focus
Henchmen with a story and personality
New game mechanics with the henchmen (gifts and team powers)
Combat mostly well balanced
Good use of environment settings and some custom content to make things look unique
Nice background universe
Custom music
No breaking bug! Wow!
Replay value with other duos

The bads :
Main story is (probably) quite linear*
The background universe didn't come through that much for me
A few awkward design decisions with some quests (a particular back-and-forth I thought could have been avoided)

* I haven't played it twice yet, so it's speculation : I just don't see how terribly different the story and even most quests could go

Overall? Pure blast.

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