A year ago at Christmastime, I introduced my sister to D&D 5E through tackling the module: Storm King’s Thunder. It was one I wanted to try out for the longest time and as of now, is still going strong and one book I highly recommend. However, after looking through the lore, maps, and events, I began to reminisce of another D&D adventure that I never got to finish. That one being the title of this review. Made by Black Isle Studio, who is probably just as well known for making Planescape: Torment and Fallout, I was quite excited to go back and take another look at this gem. That is until Overhaul Games stepped in and made an enhanced version that is nothing short of magnificent, and the one I will be looking at mainly for this review.
The reason for why I love RPGs
“They say that history is the greatest of all teachers. And that tales of past deeds define who we are in the present, and what we shall be in the future. It is said that such tales shall, with each telling, illuminate us all with the light of truth. I shall tell you of such a tale.” This is just a part of the game’s introduction to set the mood, before introducing you to the harsh region known as Icewind Dale. Your party of adventurers have come to an old fishing town in this region called Easthaven, where they rest at an old tavern, sharing stories, and planning their next step. One of the villagers, Hrothgar, sees your party and wishes them welcome to the humble town of huts, while also offering advises for their journey onward and an opportunity for a new adventure all together.
From the start, I need to apologise as I honestly cannot do this writing any justice. Icewind Dale is a vocabulary game with plenty of strong sentences that always feel impactful and mature, while simultaneously replicate the characters’ personalities. This gives every dialogue and narration a wonderful flow, making the journey exciting by simply how things are told. No script goes on for too long or becomes pretentious thanks to keeping the dialogue consistently strong and characteristic.
Every NPC will talk from what status they have, their feelings toward you, and their experiences, making just how they speak have a personal weight to them. A great example is Hrothgar actually, with how he sounds tired in his voice, but still stern and welcoming, wishing to create safety for those who visits and the inhabitants of his town. The story really becomes memorable and effective because of this level of detail provided. In fact, this quality is always at a high and I am shocked that for an RPG with plenty of dialogues, it never falters even once.
Similarly to how well written this title is with clear transitions and tone, the story builds upon this by having a perfect progression from humble beginnings to battles that will go down in sagas. The game always gives clear chapters that build upon stories affected by the overall plot, showcased through their struggles. Every triumph over one of the main fiends leads you closer to the end, while still keeping the journey mysterious by only providing you with subtle lore to go by. This makes it so there are virtually no downtime, as you are always moving forward and see how your heroic actions are healing this land.
This tale is loosely based on R. A. Salvatore’s The Icewind Dale Trilogy, and thus takes place in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, this is one of my favourite settings where you are in a cold and dangerous world, and human interactions are scarce, but important. Similar to a role-playing game, you will have plenty of dialogue options and I love how you can always choose whether you want to be humble, strict, kind or an outright snark. It is a lovely way to make this adventure personal and interactive.
However, Icewind Dale is simply magnificent as it understands how to escalate the adventure with perfect progression, create a world filled with fascinating lore, and make every spoken word sound important. This is truly an RPG that is at its peak from how it is as inviting as it is deep, with every session being long from the fact that I did not want to stop playing it. I honestly do not know of a better story told than the one here.
Story Score: 10/10
No downtime and you need to up your game
Behold: this is all based on D&D 2E, where there are probably tons of concepts you might not be familiar with. If THAC0 is one strange word to you, there is a handy manual included to give you insights on how this game works. And no, this is in no way a heavily simplified take on the tabletop setup like in Dragon Quest or even Fallout 3. This is almost one to one with what an actual role-playing game can be like (similar to other old CRPGs), making this adventure feel as authentic as possible. Minus the turn-based combat in order to make the game more fast-paced.
However, there are tons of new elements added in the Enhanced Edition to make this title more approachable for newcomers. There are premade characters, a cleaner interface, and the possibility to even tweak additional rules, like implementing 3E sneak attack, gaining max HP when levelling up, and different aspects of the game’s difficulty. This both shows that the developers cared about all kinds of players, but also acknowledge that veterans of the tabletop version are accustomed to homebrew rules that are more popular than others.
Upon starting the game, you can make upwards to six party members. You will then be able to choose their race, gender, class, implement skill points for weapons, locate stat points, and choose their voice and portrait in order to give them a personal tone. As you can tell, there is a lot to do in order to make your team, but you are always given a description on what the class includes and which stats points are best suited for them. Even then, XP is always shared between the players, so you can either have a diverse cast of fighters or be restricted to a few that get stronger more quickly. It is certainly dangerous to go alone, but the option is there as well.
After creating your cast of characters (or a single adventurer if you are a mad RPG veteran), you will be presented with a window of the area your characters are in, all set in an isometric view. All actions can be performed with the click of the mouse button or hotkeys, and all the needed info, such as character sheets, spells, inventories, journals, and so on, are readily available on the sides. You also have access to a map, where the black areas show where you have not been, and grey areas being the areas you cannot see at the moment. Basically a form of fog of war, showcasing clearly where your field of vision is at the moment.
There will be use for charisma in the form of talking to NPCs and choosing how to respond, and while there is a lot of dialogue to get to grips with, all are intriguing due to the excellent writing and are always kept in a log for future references. The dialogue options are useful for creating a setting and to gain benefits from being a smooth talker, but does not alter the quests necessarily. This is because Icewind Dale focuses more on dungeon crawling and action, rather than complicated conversations. Since the game is upfront about this, I am perfectly fine with charisma being an important extra than a focused method for proceeding the adventure. Although, getting discounts at stores can be very useful and important.
Every single encounter is exciting and devastating, with tons of options to take into account. You will have to consider elements like who fighters are going to charge at, whether rangers should go stealth or shoot from afar, spells that can alter stats or directly attack, and much more, making the combat severely strategic. It is to the point where you have multiple formations for your party, all being important to use for the best outcome. The fiends are no slackers either, as they come in all shapes and forms, which is appropriate when we are talking about Dungeons & Dragons. Trolls needing to be defeated by fire, ghosts not being affected by certain materials, traps laid out by enemies waiting for your approach and more, adds to make every fight tense and entertaining.
The combat can be severely demanding, especially since you can find yourself fighting a huge bunch of varied enemies at once. To add to this, Icewind Dale is not turn-based as mentioned earlier, but action-based where you are always able to pause the fights in order to take strategic actions easier. There are tons of elements you can do in the middle of battles, but this important mechanic makes sure that the game never becomes overbearing, giving any player all the tools they need to be ready for any encounter. However, you still need to be careful as your characters can permanently die in this title. There are no ways to revive them, forcing you to either accept the loss or reload one of your earlier saves. You can always save when not in combat, so use this to your advantage.
This adds to the challenge Icewind Dale presents, and I love how it forces the player to be on guard. It demands you to be one step ahead, such as having a healer ready to cast protective spells, make rogues scout ahead, and more, making every area feel unsafe. However, it is never impossible and Icewind Dale always rewards your accomplishments by the possibility of finding new gears, spell scrolls, gain more XP, and more. Actually, your equipment and items are severely important to study, as they can heavily affect your approaches. Even a simple potion can win a struggling fight.
What makes Icewind Dale so fantastic in this regard, is that while you have options on where to search and how to approach fiends, you are always getting a step further. Fights always improve with interesting difficulty due to the enemies’ designs, exploration and investigation are intriguing and rewarding, and you are always progressing through the plot. There is never a dull time, further helped by the design of the levels. Traps are one thing to consider, but also hidden doors, switches that can alter setups, and more, making everything have a purpose. There are even some nice ideas, like sleeping outside for free instead of an inn, which can lead to creatures attacking you. A nice risk versus reward system, if you will.
I am surprised by how Icewind Dale makes this tactical combat and exploration so inviting. There is a manual that you will need to read in order to understand the basics of THAC0, and should there still be elements you are not accustomed to, the game gives plenty of ways to alter itself in order to make it into your adventure. The Enhanced Edition even adds more items and options for multiclassing, giving the player the experience they want to have. This is basically the perfect DM: giving the player the ability to customise as far as they desire, while still packing in a fantastic adventure that always stands strong and only pauses when you want the game to.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
Like glacier shining from the sunshine at dawn
Utilising the BioWare Infinity Engine, Icewind Dale is a magnificent sight to behold and still looks beautiful to this day. The pre-rendered backgrounds are wonderful at making each cold location feel distinct with many minor details, be it Kuldahar with its vegetation and the giant tree in the middle of the town, the uncomfortable and dark Tomb of Kresselack or the remains left in the Severed Hand. All areas come with their own stories and memorable set pieces, making them visually intriguing to inspect. This is a perfect example of how a project can stick to a theme, but still become as vibrant as possible within its setup.
I also simply love how small you are in this world when you zoom out, making each location provide a strong atmosphere. This is further enhanced by how enemies, items, and constructions are placed for clear purposes. Ghosts haunt old tombs to protect it, towns are structured to be easy to navigate through, and chests are placed for keeping valuables safe. It all makes this world feel alive and believable, yet still keeps its sense of wonder and magic.
It is amazing how this title still looks gorgeous to this day, and the added widescreen support is a wonderful inclusion. This is made possible through the updated Infinity Enhanced Engine, and it is amazing how it makes the visual quality on par with the original’s, with the modern day improvements added in to only show more of the game’s beautiful world. Even the sprites for the characters are implemented perfectly, with subtle details to make every pixel perfectly utilised. Their animations for deaths, attacks, casting spells, and using items are all smooth and effective, making every action feel significant.
The same can be said for the monsters that are so diverse and different from one another, it is easy to tell that they are taken from a monster manual. Then we have the magical spells that are superb in terms of look, with the game having its own interpretations of them. Spells like cure light wound, doom, and magic missile, all have intriguing visuals that are hard to explain other than what visual psychedelics could offer. Complementing these animations, are fantastic sound effects of weapons clashing, magic being performer, and enemies drawing their last breath, all being impactful and unique. Even the environmental sounds add to never make you forget about the world around you.
The cast contains stellar voice actors, and it is wonderful to hear their talents being put to perfect use. You have fantastic actors like Jim Cummings, Tara Strong, Gregg Berger, and Kath Soucie to name a few, all of them being able to do multiple voices with clear directions and create varied personalities by their tones alone. This extends so far to even provide your own cast with entertaining remarks depending on whether you made them honourable, casual or annoyed! This makes every conversation engaging, with the narrator being the icing on the cake.
I probably could just end talking about the music by mentioning Jeremy Souls being the composer, but that would honestly not do him justice. Although, who can? This man has created some of the best orchestrated scores ever, and Icewind Dale is among my favourite video game soundtracks ever. The focus on using violins, drums, and flutes to create a clear setting of familiarity and make them work within the game’s theme, adds to the atmosphere. Furthermore, every track is varied, complements the events occurring, and have perfect highs and lows, making the adventure feel grand and more than what you can ever grasp.
Presentation Score: 10/10
You are not alone on this journey
There are plenty of sidequests, optional secrets, and hidden treasures to find to extend your playthrough, and there is even replay value from going through the game with a new cast of characters. All of this adds to make Icewind Dale contain tons of content for those who want a long RPG to loose themselves within. However, if that was not enough, there is also the expansion pack in the form of Heart of Winter. This is a challenging campaign that feels like an interesting contrast to the main game, though requires your characters to be at level nine before you can take it on through the original campaign or a save file with the campaign finished.
It originally also came with a special “Heart of Fury” difficulty setting, for those who are well versed in CRPGs. Since this content is not playable until much later, I will not spoil anything and just summarise it with that it is a lovely extra campaign that lasts between 8-10 hours. Should that still not be enough, you can also tackle Trials of the Luremaster, which features a large dungeon-like location with more areas and enemies to encounter, adding in about 5-6 extra hours.
The best part about the entire experience though, is the multiplayer. With up to six other players, you can tackle through the entire campaign and implement what features they can do, such as spending money or pausing the game. This amount of options make it truly feel like a campaign where you adventure with other players, and with cross-platform being implemented in the Enhanced Edition, it is hard to not take on this adventure one more time with friends.
Extra Score: 10/10
Icewind Dale takes everything that is wonderful about Dungeons & Dragons, and simply polishes the experience with the Enhanced Edition. A fantastic narrative, inviting story and world, exciting and demanding fights, magnificent presentation, and tons of reasons to come back to it, I really have nothing but praises for this title. This is an essential game to play for anyone interested in video games, and even if you are not into RPGs, try to give it a fair shot. This is truly a showcase for how video games can excel over any other forms of media.