For going on two years, the biggest mystery about the Mysteries of Westgate adventure pack for Neverwinter Nights 2 was whether or not it would ever be released. Developer Ossian Studios finished the download-only module way back at the tail end of 2007, but the powers that be at publisher Atari held the game back for ages due to unexplained issues with digital-rights management. So, was it worth the wait? Not entirely. Even though this D&D adventure delivers plenty of bang for the buck, with more than 15 hours of dungeon delving for the low price of $9.99, two years of sitting on the shelf did not do it any favors. Although you can feed your swords-and-sorcery jones with this solo jaunt through an exotic new corner of the Forgotten Realms, the graphics and gameplay are lacking, especially by comparison with more modern role-playing games.
The story is quite rough around the edges, in that it abruptly starts and stops without much character development and motivation. The plot is centered on your discovery of a domino mask belonging to a guild of thieves and assassins called the Night Masks, but this actually takes place offscreen and is recounted in a brief cutscene at the start of the game. All you're told is that the mask is cursed, that it's giving you nightmares, and that you've taken a ship to the crime-ridden Dragon Coast burg of Westgate to hunt down the Night Masks and get rid of this leftover from the filming of Eyes Wide Shut. It's hard to care about any of this. For instance, the impact of the mask itself is negligible. It's a minor-league MacGuffin that has no impact on anything that you do. You can fight, rest, cast spells, and generally go about the business of an adventurer unmolested. Aside from being prompted to put the mask on a couple of times, you can pretty much forget all about it.
The quest structure is also forgettable, given that there is no narrative drive to what you do. Most adventures involve taking on unrelated odd jobs for various characters, including the grumpy dwarf commander of the city watch, an arrogant priest of Lathander, a merchant involved in a childish feud, and various lowlifes including a guy rigging a dog race. At least many of these assignments are enjoyable distractions. There is a lot of variety and many moments of real role-playing through dialogue choices and puzzles. Combat isn't always necessary, or even advisable. The only serious string of battles here takes place in the town arena, which you unfortunately can't avoid due to a plot twist that forces you to raise a crazy amount of money to push along the main story. Westgate is also loaded with colorful rip-off artists that underline the town's seamy nature. And the module has a great sense of humor, which is provided by these not-so-lovable Westgate scumbags and a few in-jokes about D&D games of the past.
None of these jobs has much to do with your mask, though. You eventually become involved with the Night Masks and their rivals, another gang of goons called the Ebon Claws. But this takes hours to heat up, and during that time you're really connected to the main story only by one of your companions, a former Night Mask by the name of Rinara. And even she is hard to figure out. The neutral-evil rogue pops up unexplained at the start of the game as your friend and traveling companion, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you're playing a good character. There is at least some satisfying interplay between her and your other two party members, a guilt-ridden fallen paladin named Mantides and an obnoxious cleric of Tyr named Charissa, both of whom you run into the moment you step off the boat. Yet even though their dialogue is well written, most situations feel forced, with the gung-ho Charissa always goading for a fight and the righteous Mantides forever getting into it with the in-it-for-the-loot Rinara. These exchanges don't have much impact on the story, either. Your alignment never moves much one way or another, and even the worst arguments never shift your influence over a character more than a point or two that you can quickly regain.
Wildly careening difficulty is another issue with quest design. Some battles are amazingly easy. You can soar through many scraps in moments, with your party carving up the opposition before you can tell if you're fighting a mummy or a zombie. However, others are absolutely brutal--Throne of Bhaal brutal. There are more than a couple of moments in the game in which your party is ambushed by enemy spellcasters that rip you to pieces before you can even think about a proper response. You can generally get through these battles by dropping into puppet mode and taking control of each party member. Yet even fighting in this quasi-turn-based fashion isn't a quick ticket to success. The toughest brawls in the game require a good half-dozen or more reloads, which makes victory in them seem more like pure "Hey, I finally knocked down that mage!" luck than any sort of spellcasting strategizing that you might concoct.
The graphics create further issues. Virtually all of the artistic improvements made to the game engine through the two retail NWN2 expansions are missing in action here. Character models are often afflicted by featureless faces and odd "flashlight under the chin" lighting in close-up dialogue sequences that make it look like your party members are telling stories at a kiddie Halloween party. The cityscape level design is a generic medieval affair marked only by the inclusion of a new sewer tileset and a few ornate chambers such as the church of Lathander. There is a dark eeriness to the surroundings, though, due to the run-down neighborhoods and the rainstorms that pour down into the grimy gutters. Nevertheless, having virtually all of the action take place in and around the constricted streets of Westgate is a drag because the game engine doesn't handle close quarters very well. You spend a lot of time swiveling the camera down narrow laneways and navigating past buildings. All in all, it's kind of hard to look at Mysteries of Westgate if you've gotten accustomed to the more elegant art in the two retail NWN2 expansions.
It can be hard to listen to the game, too. Although the new music is fantastic and merges into the existing soundtrack so perfectly that you don't even notice a transition, the voice acting has been done in a slipshod fashion. For once, though, this isn't due to the quality of the thespians bringing the script to life. Most of the acting is actually quite good, at least on a par with what can be found in the original NWN2 campaign and the retail expansions. But there isn't much of it, and what is there has been scattered all over the place. Some dialogue sequences have no vocal component at all, whereas others begin with a few spoken words and then lapse into silence, which is so stilted that it seems like the result of a bug. These awkward silences ruin a lot of the most dramatic moments in the game and make some cutscenes impossible to understand.
Admittedly, that is a lot of negativity. But even despite its many flaws, Mysteries of Westgate offers a reasonable stopgap for NWN2 fans desperate for new content for an even more reasonable 10 bucks. It also finally includes the downloadable adventure-pack program for the D&D franchise, which at least offers the promise of bigger and better modules to come.