Imagine if you bumped into an old friend you hadn’t seen in 17 years. You spent ages with them back in the day and over time you just drifted apart, but now you’re finally face-to-face with them again and you realised you’re delighted to see them after all this time.
Now imagine if you and your newly-reunited chum went out for dinner to catch up, and while you’re sharing old memories and happily discovering they haven’t changed one bit, you can’t help noticing that their eyeball keeps falling out and landing in their soup. It’s extremely distracting, but you’re enjoying their company, so you pretend not to notice.
Could you keep that renewed friendship going, though? Would you be able to invite them over to your house, or go to the pub with them, or join them in an anti-government protest if you knew that every time you were with them, their eye would keep falling out and splashing weird eye fluid everywhere? That’s our problem with Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition. Look, just stick with us here.
For the uninitiated, Neverwinter Nights launched way back in 2002 and was roundly praised for being not just one of the best games based on the Dungeons & Dragons universe, but generally a ruddy good RPG in its own right. Its success led to a couple of expansion packs which were then followed by ‘premium modules’, a bunch of smaller downloadable adventures that were essentially an early example of paid DLC.
This new Enhanced Edition on Switch gathers almost all of this previously-released content in a single package, offering well over 100 hours of adventuring goodness. But now that the original game is old enough to drive, questions inevitably have to be asked of how well this remaster modernises its 17-year-old source material. And the frank answer to those questions is: “not very well at all”.
First, let’s look at the positives. Neverwinter Nights absolutely deserves the praise it got back in the day, and at its core, many of the factors that contributed to that praise are still here. The writing is brilliant and genuinely amusing at times, the soundtrack is brilliant and the environments – though clearly showing their age now – still do a good job of getting across the idea that this is a living, breathing world. This is classic BioWare, from the days before dodgy alternative endings and grindy Destiny rivals.
Once you eventually get into it, it can be extremely compelling and hours will become mere dust. There’s an absolute shedload to see here, too; as well as the main adventure itself you also get the two major expansion packs that were released for the game, Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark. Make your way through all that and there are 10 ‘premium modules’ – these are the aforementioned extra adventures that used to be sold separately, but now they’re all available as part of a single free download.
Be wary if you have limited space on your Switch though: if you want to play the additional premium adventures the download essentially doubles the game’s size to about 10GB. This is mainly because the pack includes not just the 10 premium modules, but also full French, German and Polish voice support for the main campaign and both expansions. Annoyingly, these hefty sound packs aren’t separate downloads to the 10 missions – you need to download them both together.
To recap, then, there’s a lot to see and do, and the plot and dialogue are entertaining. So what’s the issue? Well, you still have to play the thing, and the reality is that this port is a complete mess when it comes to performance, controls and stability. It was always going to be tricky to port an old PC game over to a console with handheld functionality, but we were still expecting something a little better than this.
To be clear, Neverwinter Nights was never a looker in the first place; a review on GameSpy (RIP) from back in 2002 stated that the game already looked dated at launch, saying: “you can tell this game has been in development for five years”. Today it looks even worse. While you can forgive the low-poly designs of the characters and environments – it’s too much to ask for everything in the game to be rebuilt – there are other issues that really could have had a bit more time spent on them. Shadows appear out of nowhere, draw distances are abysmal in outdoor scenes and the text is occasionally pixellated and hard to read.
By far the biggest victim, however, is the frame rate. It aims for 30 frames per second, but hits its target about as often as a seven-year-old footballer doing a crossbar challenge. There are wild stutters all over the place, it almost constantly feels like it’s chugging and in some situations in particular – such as one of the premium modules that starts outside a burning house – it completely collapses and begins to resemble a website’s screenshot gallery instead of an actual moving game.
Put up with its performance and you’ll encounter another issue: the controls are so convoluted it’s unreal. The developer’s less at fault with this one: the game was originally designed for a mouse and keys, so mapping all that over to a controller was always going to be a bit unwieldy. Some choices are still horrible, though; you switch between inventory pages by pressing in the analogue stick, for example, and one button just brings up a mouse pointer as if to say “yup, we know”.
What if you’re able to cope with the controls and fight your way through the performance issues, though? What’s your reward for such noble persistence? Well, there’s still an entire public park’s worth of bugs for you to discover. In the first five hours alone we hit game-breaking glitches that forced us to quit out and reload an earlier save; one was a classic case of getting stuck in the scenery, two others were events failing to trigger.
For example, there’s a scene in the Prologue where there’s a short fight in a stable, then you have to talk to two NPCs before you can leave the room. The game glitched out and didn’t give us the option to talk to them, leaving us stuck in a situation where we couldn’t go back through the door to leave; instead, we found our helper character constantly saying “I can do this” and punching hell out of the door to no effect at all.
Those are the more major examples; there are plenty of smaller ones. Pausing and selecting the map only for it to sometimes not open (meaning you have to do it again). Some items not working when you try to assign them to a quick slot, meaning you have to manually activate them from your inventory. The chat window occasionally locking over the button prompts, meaning you can’t talk to anyone or attack anything until you bring up the chat and put it away again. And the continuous struggle that is selecting which enemies and NPCs to interact with based on the tried-and-tested method of looking vaguely in their direction and hoping they glow (because you don’t have a mouse pointer).
Look. We don’t expect miracles. This is a 17-year-old game, so it was always going to have some rough edges. But this is an absolute trainwreck of a port. Stuff like the Turok port – which, granted, is a different genre – shows how you can take a low-poly game and still make it more palatable for a modern audience by improving the frame rate, removing fog and the like. This, however, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum, with the key word being ‘falls’.
Buried deep within Neverwinter Nights' loins remains an entertaining, engrossing and lengthy RPG adventure, bundled with oodles of extra campaigns and one-off adventures. But to enjoy that you're going to have to put up with some of the most stuttery, bug-riddled nonsense we've seen on the Switch. Fun and frustrating in equal measure.