Neverwinter Nights 2 told an epic but by-the-book story of a farm-bred yokel with a mysterious destiny who winds up saving a kingdom from evil. But the game's first expansion takes a much different tone. You wake up in a strange cave, cursed but clueless as to what's happened to you. As you solve the mystery, the knights and castles of the first game are replaced by shadowy villages, spirit-filled woods, drama geeks, and dreamscapes, run by matriarchies that wear masks or float around in the swamps. Add some weirdo sidekicks, wacky religions, and top-shelf writing, and you get a story that almost nudges into Neil Gaiman territory.Of course, with so much lore to unpack, the game sometimes drowns in exposition or pushes key details into the loading screens. The engine could also use repairs: The graphics look fantastic—from the weather and ash effects to the rainbow-colored spirit bear and luminescent trees—but even a new top-down view doesn't rescue the frustrating camera control. And tactically, the game is rarely a challenge. Even if you haven't memorized the nuances and opportunities of the Dungeons & Dragons rule-set, your characters carry a nuclear arsenal of spells that can smear almost anything into the ground, which leaves you free to enjoy the story.
Beyond the game: The team at Obsidian includes key players behind what's arguably the greatest modern role-playing game, Planescape: Torment. While Mask Of The Betrayer doesn't measure up, it's rich with brainy dialogue, unconventional characters, and piles and piles of dead stuff.
Worth playing for: Mask Of The Betrayer picks up from the original Neverwinter Nights 2, explaining what happens after that game's abrupt ending, though the two stories are so dissimilar in tone and content that there was no good reason to tie them together.
Frustration sets in when: Early on, your character is cursed with a "hunger" mechanic that has to be managed throughout the game. This has annoyed many players, but it's easy to deal with once you get the hang of it—so ultimately, it's kind of pointless.
Final judgment: An eerie, enthralling role-playing game that never settles for a cliché.