Follow ups are never easy. It’s never easy to follow in the footsteps of someone or something that came before you, especially if what you’re following made a serious impact. The original Infinity Engine game, Baldur’s Gate, was released in 1998 by Black Isle Studios to critical acclaim. Baldur’s Gate’s impact is still felt to this day because of the way it iterated on the RPG genre, introducing tropes, concepts and systems that we take for granted in modern day RPGs. Two years later on June 29th 2000 Icewind Dale released and instead of following in the footsteps of its older brother, Icewind decided to be a special game all its own. Instead of focusing heavily on storytelling and world building, Icewind focused on combat and party management, which led to a markedly different, and some would say superior game.
The gameplay in Icewind Dale is completely different from most RPGs. In most RPGs, you start out as a single character and collect companions to travel alongside you as you progress through the main game and side content. In contrast, Icewind Dale gives you the ability to create a full party from the very opening moments of the game. It’s preferable to go with the pre-made party the game gives you because things will be balanced throughout the game, but you can also create your own characters if you so wish. Creating your own characters can be risky because if they’re not built properly, you can easily end up stuck at a certain section of the game with no way to progress, but a decent build will solve that problem. If you’re good enough, you can even finish the game with just one character, which unlocks a trophy on PS4.
Having multiple characters really impacts the gameplay, but that gameplay impact depends on the difficulty settling. Icewind Dale has a number of different difficulty settings that end up catering the game to your desired experience and or play style. For the hardcore tacticians that want the most difficult and challenging encounters, Icewind has a mode for you. For gamers like myself, that have a massive backlog and want to get through a good story, there’s a difficulty setting where your party members can’t die during combat. For the best experience, I’d recommend a difficulty setting somewhere in the middle so you can get a good feel for what the game has to offer.
How to Go About Combat
Going through the game with so many party members means you have to think instead of mindlessly deploying your companion characters like a yo-yo. Positioning is key, if you have your archers fighting in close quarters but your melee fighters at range, you won’t be doing optimal damage. If you have your ranged fighters at close range, they’ll get decimated by the enemy and die first because of their lack of health. If you have your spellcasters doing damage to the wrong target, you’re not only wasting time, but risking the health of your party. On lower difficulties, you can go through Icewind like it’s a breeze, but if you want a challenge you’ll need to take advantage of the tactical pause feature. Tactical pausing is nothing new to CRPG fans. Pausing the game mid combat allows you to assess the situation, make tactical decisions, issue commands and orders then watch as their end result plays out in real time. Icewind has some of the most challenging combat I’ve ever experienced on higher difficulties. Constant pausing and making adjustments is a necessity if you want to survive, especially if you want to survive with your entire party.
Combat however isn’t always a thrilling challenge. In some boss fights that require certain mechanics, it can be. For instance, fighting Yxunomei can be ridiculously difficult if you don’t have your party buffed properly with things like protection from evil, armor of faith and a restoration spell. After falling to her numerous times, I started experimenting with numerous buffs and debuffs, eventually settling on a strategy of provoking her into attacking me then kiting her around the room. This kept her away from the minions she spawns into a poison trap I set and into a web spell I had my mage cast. Surprisingly a simple tactic like that worked wonders on a boss like her. Poisoning her and her minions ticked down her health and allowed me to pick the minions off easily. With the minions out of the way, she was an easy target. Once she was alone, I cast web on her to trap her in place. Once she’s trapped she starts trying to cast spells to break free, but having ranged fighters with arrows allows you to disrupt her spells and stun lock her. It’s an effective way to kill one of the most lethal bosses in the game.
The normal combat of the game can be a grind, and unfortunately it’s a necessary depending on your difficulty level. The main story quest completion doesn’t give you nearly enough experience points to level your character properly to be ready for the endgame. Fights like Yxunomei, or going through content like the two expansion packs due to their sheer size and high level enemies will be brutal if you’re underleveled.
Survival is not guaranteed at all. In some cases, I’d say it’s not even possible without a high leveled party. As a result, the combat in the game is your most reliable source of experience points. This means you have to engage in combat if you want to experience the best content Icewind Dale has to offer, which I disagree with heavily. The main story path should give you enough XP to get you to the endgame with no problems and still make content challenging. Side content should allow you to level faster than the main story progression path, but not give you enough to over level to the point that you one shot enemies even on the highest difficulty levels.
Due to the nature of the combat, Icewind can feel like an absolute chore instead of a fun experience at times. Some enemies like shades are just downright unkillable, and in other cases you’re just going from fight to fight with no rhyme or reason. You’ll be going through room after room clearing enemies and finding yourself wishing the combat would end. Not only that, combat can spring up at the most inopportune times. Icewind Dale is heavy on environmental storytelling, clicking on caskets, tombs, basket, books and more in the environment can reward you with a small text blurb or a reaction from your party members. Spending so much time in combat takes away from that and can sometimes feel like it was added to pad out the length of it. This is one of the main differences between Icewind Dale and Baldur’s gate or Planescape Torment, those games all felt based around story instead of combat. Icewind does have a fantastic combat system, I just wish it wasn’t forced on the player so often.
Icewind Dale has a story that’s interesting, but more interesting in smaller and enclosed sections than it is in its all encompassing form. Conversations with NPC’s like Hrothgar the very first NPC you encounter, Everard who is a member of the Order of the Broken Blade, or a cult member you meet in a dungeon can prove to be more engaging than dialogue from the main story. Side quests and content are always intriguing, but it’s concerning when the side content outshines the main story.
My issue with the main story is twofold. First, the dialogue isn’t always very well written, which is surprising because Chris Avellone was one of the lead writers on the project. Mr Avellone is known for turning just about anything and everything he touches into gold. R.A. Salvatore is also another well known writer, in this case New York Times bestselling author that was attached to the writing team as well. So for the dialogue to feel as empty as it does at times, it’s confusing. My second issue with the game is the lack of role playing capability.
Lack of Roleplay
I mentioned earlier that the strength of the combat is the party system and how versatile it can be. However, this is unfortunately a detriment when it comes to story and roleplaying. When it comes to most RPGs, you create your own character, find companions and continue on your adventure. You shape your merry band of adventurers how you see fit with your dialogue choices and the missions you decide to undertake. Your actions have an impact on your character and the characters around you. While not an RPG, Telltale’s The Walking Dead franchise is an excellent example of this because of the constant reminder that the character you’re talking to will remember what you said or did in a certain circumstance. In Icewind Dale, the roleplaying is extremely limited by your party.
Roleplay Part 2
You either pre generate a party or create each member individually. You would think that with five companion characters, you’d be able to go on a wide array of branching story lines designed to slowly expose their story. that would allow you to get to know each character in depth but that isn’t an option. You’re constantly funneled down the main story path and into combat, you don’t spend much time with your companions or learn much about them outside of their biography screens in the menu. That isn’t to say the story is bad, just that it can be generic. It is, however, well presented with voice acting that is absolutely stunning to listen to. The quality of the voice acting is so high, I genuinely wish there were more NPCs that had full voice acted dialogue. I found myself exhausting dialogue trees even when I had no interest in what a character was saying just because I loved their voice over work. Jim Cummings does an especially impressive job as Arundel and Hrothgar.
Lack of Variety
One of the main story quests has you investigating a caravan of items that has gone missing because without those items, the town will starve during the winter. Your party ventures out to a cave and finds it completely full of frost demons, you kill the demons, find a manifest, bring that manifest back to an NPC and the quest is complete and you’re rewarded with a bit of dialogue to move things forward. That’s one of the first quests you’re given, and the rest of the main story quests follow suit. That’s the kind of story structure you get in Icewind Dale on a consistent basis, and I expected a bit more from a game held in such high regard. Quests like that don’t give you the ability to impact the world state, they just funnel you from one combat encounter and dialogue tree to the next. Side quests like curing a man of his nightmares, rebuilding an elvish settlement and repairing a bridge to get access to Joril’s lair and the secrets that lie within often stand out above the main story quests, which is a shame.
Icewind Dale also has two expansion packs included in the Enhanced Edition, Heart of Winter and Trials of The Luremaster. These two pieces of content can be brutally difficult if you aren’t properly leveled for them, so grinding out side quests and combat is highly recommended if you intend to play them. You can access Heart of Winter in Kuldahar, there is a barbarian shaman named Hjollder who speaks about Jerrod and the Order of The Broken Blade. This is a tie in to an optional NPC from earlier in the game. You have to be at the very least level 9 to access the content but I wouldn’t recommend touching it until level 13 due to its challenge. It takes you on a grand adventure through the Sea of Moving Ice all the way through the lair of a Goddess and genuinely features some of the best storytelling the game has to offer.
Trials of The Luremaster is a wonderful experience for anyone who enjoys poetry and a good dungeon crawl because you’re constantly given riddles and poems to decipher. These poems help you figure out how to escape a castle you’ve been locked inside. They’re both wonderful pieces of content provided you’re high level enough and willing to go through the effort of completing them. Luremaster is especially worth a playthrough because of the different style of gameplay, not only are you trying to escape from the castle, you’re trying to avoid traps and pitfalls that can give you and your party status effects and debuffs that can last your entire trek through the castle. Given the amount of combat you’ll have to go through, having a status effect on your character for multiple floors can make challenging fights nigh on impossible.
Graphically speaking, Icewind is gorgeous, the high resolution update has done wonders for the game, but its strong art design has helped up nineteen years after release. The pre-rendered backgrounds are a joy to behold. I was so amazed by the art style I often found myself just randomly exploring parts of the map to see what else I’d be treated to visually. Story wise the game may not have many surprises, but graphically there is always something around the corner to marvel at, the architecture and the details of the world design are staggering.
As I mentioned earlier the voice acting in the game is fantastic. Thankfully, that quality extends to the rest of the game as well. Ambient noise and sound constantly keeps you on your toes, while the actual score of the game is breathtaking. Now legendary composer in the video game realm, Jeremy Soule directed the score for the game and it hits all the right notes. It’s sweeping and orchestral when it needs to be in grand moments. My only issue is that the sound doesn’t play often enough, you can find yourself going large stretches of time without hearing a single piece playing. The sound outright disappears when you go indoors to talk to NPCs or go into dungeons for the most part unless there is a story component to that dungeon. Which is disappointing but quickly remedied when the score comes over your speakers or headphones once again.
Bugs and Glitches
Combat can be finicky at times because your companions won’t always line up where you tell them to. Sometimes your companions will randomly be deselected from your party screen, so instead of moving or attacking with six people, you’re working with just one. These things are frustrating, but not game-breakers. However, there was one error that made me have to try and completely reload a save. About eight hours into my playthrough, I was loading into a new area when a number of my party members got stuck between the boundary of the old area and the new area, even reloading a save didn’t fix the problem. I managed to get around it by moving each party member identically around whatever in the environment they were stuck on, but discovering I could do that took me quite a while.
Icewind Dale is a wonderful game, and a game that in many ways does live up to the praise lauded upon it. However this is a nineteen, nearly twenty-year-old game, so I’d highly recommend people temper their expectations before diving into it. The story is good, but the side content is more enjoyable. The combat can be extremely fun and challenging but it can happen far too frequently and be a drain on limited resources in the higher difficulties. The music is fantastic but unfortunately scarce in certain sections, like when you go indoors or into dungeons. However taken as a whole instead of the sum of its parts, I would highly recommend Icewind Dale to anyone that wants to experience a timeless RPG so long as they go in with the right mindset.