Critical Fumble

HIGH Faithful rendering of D&D 3rd Ed. rules. Cross-play with PC.

LOW Technical issues, cumbersome controls, poor tutorial.

WTF Why not include the D&D3E Player’s Handbook?

When BioWare originally released Neverwinter Nights on PC in 2002, they were still chasing the dragon. The Canadian game developers had come as close as anyone to creating a digital replication of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop experience with Baldur’s Gate, but they hadn’t found a way to incorporate the most important ingredient — the Dungeon Master.

However, with its Aurora Engine and an innovative DM toolset as a foundation for its “digital tabletop” multiplayer community, Neverwinter Nights not only became a vehicle for BioWare to advance their flavor of storytelling, but it became a fully-fledged platform for player creation as well. After over two million copies had been sold, BioWare moved onto bigger projects — they had finally slain the dragon.

Now, almost two decades later, the tables have turned and recent editions of the D&D tabletop game have been criticized for following design trends in MMOs and other videogames. Between Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and a host of other platforms for digital tabletop play, the territory that Neverwinter Nights once claimed as its own has become much more crowded.

Enter Beamdog, a studio co-founded by BioWare alumnus Trent Oster, with an Enhanced Edition re-release to introduce this classic to a modern audience. In addition to being the first release of the game on consoles, this reissue also includes a stunning variety of expansions and premium modules that bolstered the original PC release over the years. Unfortunately, if first-time console players are experiencing Neverwinter Nights on the Nintendo Switch, their first impression will be a poor one.

Though the pausable real-time combat of the Aurora Engine has served as the basis for a number of influential 3D RPG worlds over the years, including 2007’s The Witcher, this incarnation is a stuttered, hitchy mess. The original context-sensitive radial menus have been dutifully mapped to the trigger buttons, but all of the inputs are noticeably laggy in addition to a surprisingly stilted and inconsistent framerate. Somehow, despite being almost twenty years old, this game absolutely chugs at times, especially when flames or brighter particle effects are onscreen.

On an even more frustrating note, the NWSync multiplayer system — which does not include the dungeon master toolset on console — rarely completes a successful connection to a hosted game, with error behaviors that range from asking the player to rename their Nintendo Switch account nickname (what?) or just outright crashing to the home screen.

Even when everything is working, some of the usability choices don’t really mesh with console controls. Pausing combat with the minus (-) button literally brings up a mouse-style pointer, as a concession that character targeting often requires more finesse than the camera controls on the right stick can provide. Buying and selling equipment from merchants, easily handled through a simple drag-and-drop approach on PC, requires countless button presses to transfer items and navigate the various tabs and categories.

Finally, one other curious holdover of the PC UI is an event log of tabletop mechanics being resolved under the hood, such as dice rolls and saving throw checks. It takes up a distracting chunk of UI real estate in the lower left and provides little value other than as an unfortunate reminder that the game’s calling card of faithfully replicating D&D is somewhat obsolete.

All of this makes me wonder — how valuable is devotion to 3rd edition D&D orthodoxy, now that 5th edition is over five years old? BioWare’s sharp writing and clever design in the singleplayer campaign put a lot of time and resources into humanizing the quest and its characters, but all their hard work has to push through an endless torrent of archaic tabletop jargon with every step. Players who aren’t already entrenched in Dungeons & Dragons lore won’t find an easy on-ramp here.

Neverwinter Nights deserves better than this tragically compromised port for the Nintendo Switch. With no supplemental content to help explain the tabletop fundamentals or to describe the immense impact it had when it originally released, players are left with precious few reasons to struggle through a creaky real-time combat engine hampered by countless technical hitches and clunky controls. Even though its tale of plague-ridden devastation is especially haunting with the coronavirus lingering at the forefront of our collective discourse, everything else about this game fares poorly in modern times.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Disclosures: This version of the game was developed, ported and published by Beamdog. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch.Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was not completed. Approximately 1 hour of play was devoted to multi-player modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature 17+ due to Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a role-playing game in which players can engage in Dungeons & Dragons-style campaigns in the world of the Forgotten Realms. From a third-person perspective, players explore fantasy environments and use swords, axes, arrows, and magic to battle various enemies (e.g., monsters, demons, humans). Combat can be somewhat frenetic, highlighted by impact sounds and large blood-splatter effects. Some attack moves cause enemies to explode into blood, bones, and small pieces of flesh. One scene depicts several corpses and a severed head impaled on spikes; large blood stains appear on the ground and near the corpses. During the course of the game, players can visit brothels and interact with prostitutes (though no sexual activity is depicted); dialogue includes entreaties such as “Have you come to sample the delights of our company in the backroom. . .”; “Let’s knock boots, honey”; “Perhaps we could…retire to your bedchambers, my lady?”.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay and all voice acted text is accompanied by subtitles. There are no options to recolor text, though there are options for resizing and changing the font of text.

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable and there are no options for additional control setups.

Steve Gillham
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7 months ago

Biggest thing that bites my a55 is the fact I buy this to play online, and 3yrs later STILL every time I try to join a server the game crashes when joining. Ive tried all work arounds, this seems to be the only game I have this issue with and I def feel like I was robbed w no sort of refund system. Thanks NIntendo for that good Quality control work.