Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition Review
Onward, to glorious battle!
The first Dungeons & Dragons game of the 21st century, Icewind Dale was originally released within a year of Planescape: Torment and a few months before Baldur’s Gate II. Does Icewind Dale’s worldbuilding compare to the alien setting of Planescape? No. Does it rival the story and splendor that the Baldur’s Gate series has to offer? No. So what does Icewind Dale bring to the table? In lieu of a compelling story, Icewind Dale offers an action-oriented dungeon crawling experience, with much of the game spent on fighting off hordes of enemies with your chosen party in pursuit of an unknown evil that threatens the region.
Before you are dumped into the world, you must first create your party. It will consist of up to six characters or less—though it should be noted that you will not find any recruitable companions in your journey into the Dale. If you start your game with only one character, you will only have one character in your party the entire game, so be cautious when making your party. Character creation follows the rules of D&D, so if this is your first D&D experience, it is highly recommended to read the manual—it exists for a reason, after all! With a limit of six party members, time must be spent in making a group of adventurers able to endure fight after fight in the cold north.
You will begin your adventure in the game’s starting location of Easthaven, in the Winter’s Cradle Tavern. Right away, you will notice the graphics are about what you’d expect from a 2000’s game. Even with the Enhanced Edition, the sprites will look quite dated, but that’s alright. No one plays games of this genre for amazing graphics, after all. What is amazing, however, is the soundtrack of the game. Composed by Jeremy Soule, there is a track for each location in the game, some of which are admittedly generic, others being a defining element in how you experience the area. Unfortunately, the music sometimes overpowers the dialogue in the game in some areas, requiring you to lower the music volume lest you rely solely on reading comprehension.
Only key NPCs are voiced in this game, but of the ones that are, the voice acting is surprisingly decent despite the corniness of some of the writing. Trust me, you will know if a character is chaotic evil by how cartoonishly evil their intentions can be. Other times, though, the dialogue is intriguing when you desire to learn more about the lore of the Forgotten Realms. Many NPCs, even generic ones, will have lines about the location you are in, the history of that location, and a bit of backstory then and there about the world itself. There are books that can be read to learn more about Faerûn, such as the History of the North series that provides insight into the Northwest Faerûn, but there aren’t too many books in the game. Most magical items have flavor text that details the origins of the item, which is a nice touch, but unlike books there are so many items with flavor text that you just forget them and their backgrounds.
The story itself exists only to propagate your adventure through the Dale. Throughout the majority of the game, you are left not knowing who the true villain is, causing you to go from location to location, evil to evil, just to hunt down a particular individual or MacGuffin that will point you to your next destination. It is not too tiresome given the nature of the game, but when you look back after playing, there really wasn’t much of a storyline outside of vanquishing the great evil. There are side quests, however, that do go into depth about the history and purpose of your current dungeon. A fortress you visit may hold the ghosts of former residents, unable to find release unless you aid them. There are, however, no non-storyline locations to travel to. Of the optional zones that exist, they are only there to provide additional monsters to fight for the purpose of gaining more experience points.
And here is the most important question: how does the gameplay hold up? To me personally, it’s just ‘OK’. It’s not bad; there are many classes, spells, and equipment to play around with, and it’s a great feeling when you finally manage to overcome a difficult fight through a tactic that requires more than just throwing your fighters at the problem. But the issue with Icewind Dale’s combat lies with just how many fights you have to go through. The dungeon design prioritizes confusing the player with numerous passages hidden in the fog of war. In order to map out a dungeon, you must walk around to reveal more of it, and you never know what is around the corner, be it a trapped chest or yet another group of monsters you must face. I found myself simply exhausted in some dungeons because of how little breaks there are in between fights, and when your party spends more than a few seconds on a single low-level mob because you keep missing, you just want to curl up and cry because of how monotonous it can get.
Furthermore, on level design, the vast majority of the places you delve through will be a dark dungeon-like interior, be it a sealed tomb or a dirty cave. Monsters aren’t the only thing to worry about—it is essential to have a thief in your party because of the large number of traps that litter the area. They come in the form of either trapped chests or floor traps. It wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that there is a delay in when a thief will identify that a trap is in a certain spot. If you aren’t expecting it, your party will spring a trap if you run through a dungeon, even with your thief on detection mode. And another complaint—zone transitions. Sometimes, it will be easy to tell where the entrance to the next zone will be as it can come in the form of a giant door. Other times, you will spend a good minute waving your cursor around trying to figure out where the zone exit is because of the fact that there is no highlighting for it. If you are lucky, the local map will have a pin on where the exit is. If not, hopefully a quick search online will aid you.
So, there you have it. I chose not to go in-depth about mechanics such as armor class as it takes a lengthy amount of time to explain all the mechanics, even if you were to do so in a succinct manner. Plus, if you have played a different Infinity Engine game before, you’ll find the gameplay is virtually the same. If you have not, however, then I believe this game is actually a great starter to D&D video games as it can serve as a learning aid to how games like Baldur’s Gate will be like mechanic-wise without the loss of any story content due to the decisions you made. Icewind Dale is unfortunately the weaker cousin of Baldur’s Gate as Beamdog’s other series does things so much better than what Icewind Dale can offer. Still, if you desire a game dedicated to being a pure dungeon crawl with a significant challenge, this game can give you just that. And if you are ever struggling to beat an encounter, there is always story mode to bail you out. It’s a luxury very few games have!