Welcome to Part 4 of a critical look at Beamdog's creative contributions to Baldur's Gate
. We're going to analyze and discuss the Enhanced Edition characters and their storylines, their strengths and weaknesses, etc.This is not the place for statements of blind support or blind hatred of Beamdog. If that's all you have to contribute to the conversation, please take your comments elsewhere.
Having covered the half-orc blackguard Dorn il-Khan
, the vampire thief Hexxat
and the Sun Soul monk Rasaad yn Bashir
, today we'll be talking about:Neera
Last time, I made an offhand comparison between Rasaad and Anomen, but as it turns out, the parallels actually run a lot deeper than romance dynamics. Both characters experience a crisis of faith exacerbated by the death of a sibling; both can be steered along different routes by the player; and both are unable to exact revenge - Rasaad can't kill Alorgoth, and Anomen's decision regarding Saerk will always have the opposite outcome (he's innocent if Anomen kills him, and guilty if he lets him go). However, Rasaad's more pleasant and sympathetic personality, coupled with the fact that his epilogue acknowledges the end result of the player's influence, leads me to consider him a "better version" of Anomen.
Now, this isn't necessarily a negative point. If we set aside our nostalgic affection for the games, I'm sure we can all agree that BioWare's original writing had its fair share of flaws. And since Beamdog is prohibited from altering existing content, I suppose it's not unthinkable for them to offer new characters who serve as correctives.
If so, this may explain why Neera seems to have been designed as a "better version" of Aerie.
Some background to consider: in less than two weeks, "Baldur's Gate 2" will have its 14th anniversary. Given its age, we can perhaps forgive its use of certain antiquated stereotypes, such as the fact that all the female love interests (Aerie, Jaheira and Viconia) are elf/half-elf spellcasters who must be rescued by the player (from slavery, from a baron's machinations, from being burned at the stake) and then talked through their personal traumas (the loss of Aerie's wings, the death of Khalid, and Viconia's escape from the Underdark). I'm not even going to discuss BG2's facepalm-worthy outlook on sex and sexuality, because we'd be here all day.
At first glance, Neera seems to conform to this pattern. She's a twice-exiled half-elf who can't control her magic, and your first meeting immediately segues into rescuing her from Red Wizards. It's a classic "damsel in distress" scenario, reinforced by Nicola Elbro giving Neera a high-pitched, cheerful voice that doesn't quite
meet the standard set by Marriott, Malani and Meer: she does well enough with lighter moments, but can't manage gravitas when the story calls for it.
However, once you've had her in your party long enough to trigger her BG:EE quest, two traits become apparent that set Neera apart from the other women (especially Aerie). First, she enjoys her wild magic: she may not intend to harm anyone, but she also acknowledges the positive aspects of her surges, and therefore doesn't view herself as irreparably damaged in the way that Aerie does.
Far more important, though, is the fact that she's proactive. All three of Neera's quests start with her decision to do
something, to act
. By comparison, Aerie and Viconia don't even have personal quests; you can't hunt down the slavers that took the avariel's wings, or do anything to stop Lolth's pursuit of the rebel drow.
In BG:EE, this proactivity manifests when Neera asks you to help find an older wild mage named Adoy, under the not-unreasonable assumption that anyone who's lived that long with surges must have figured out a way to control them. So you head off to Adoy's Enclave, dealing with a minor subquest involving goblins, and finally meet this supposed mentor figure... only for him to promptly deflate Neera's hopes. Adoy attributes his survival to nothing more than luck: there's no trick, no technique.
In terms of length and complexity, Neera's BG:EE quest is more substantial than Dorn's, whose content basically amounts to three fights, but less so than Rasaad's. However, Adoy's final words of advice are exactly what Neera (and the player) needs to hear: all you can do is take the bad with the good, and roll with the surges. This doubles as gameplay advice: you'll eventually find items that improve the odds of beneficial surges, but wild magic will never
be 100% safe.
The SoA reunion starts on a very clumsy note: to get Neera to appear, you have to initiate the Skinner questline in Athkatla's Bridge District... but since the following cutscene immediately leads into Neera's story, pursuing it means tabling the Skinner resolution. It's an awkward bit of interrupted pacing that could probably be fixed by moving that encounter to the Government District, or some other part of the city.
Neera's reintroduction deliberately invokes that first meeting in Beregost, but with a twist that stresses her differentiation from Aerie: the Red Wizard Lanneth tries to abduct a young wild mage, only for Neera to interfere and spirit the girl away. Upon finding and recruiting her, Neera informs you that the Thayvian Order of Eight Staves have stepped up their hunt, and in response, she's set up a Hidden Refuge for wild mages. Again we see this character taking action independently of the player.
BG2:EE crystallizes Neera's role as comic relief: she trolls Anomen, has hilarious exchanges with Haer'Dalis, brainstorms with Imoen about names for anti-Red Wizard groups and so on. But there's a deeper side to her that comes out when you reach the Refuge: she has connected with these people, has something to say about each and every one of them.
The Refuge - and, indeed, the entirety of Neera's SoA quest - is a roleplayer's delight: many small-scale miniquests and decisions can affect how the story plays out. There's a bit of this in the Twofold Temple, but it's much more prominent and interactive here. Barad Ding, Mironda, Reginald and the other wild mages are quirky and amusing in their own ways, though Zaviak's miniquest is problematic for reasons we'll get into next time.
You are then instructed to retrieve Daxus, a mildly amusing blue elf whose bluster threatens to expose the Refuge. This gives you an opportunity for further interaction with Hayes (players well-versed in RPGs can probably guess what his role will be going forward), and while you're away, the Refuge is raided by the Red Wizards. Here is where you first see the outcome of those small choices, as only the wild mages you helped will survive. Admittedly, some of this is counter-intuitive: the variable that determines Daxus' fate makes sense, but Reginald's requires a strategy that goes against every gameplay instinct BG2 expects you to have.
The next stop is the Red Wizard Enclave at Waukeen's Promenade, where Neera deftly straddles lines of morality and alignment by straight-up exploding the bouncer. Again, this plays into the idea that she has more of an edge than Aerie, though Elbro doesn't really manage to communicate that very well. As with the Twofold Temple, you have the option of infiltration versus outright slaughter, and just as with Rasaad's scenario, the subtle approach gives you so much more to play with.
This culminates in a final battle with Lanneth, though the close quarters and AoE bombardments can really
screw up the sequence of events (characters unintentionally going hostile, or flat-out dying before you even find them). And just as Rasaad's overall questline is structured to lead us from one threat to the next, the linear structure of Neera's arc lends itself well to escalation, as Lanneth's defeat brings a foreshadowing mention of her mistress Vicross.
Before we get to that, though, there's a bit of an epilogue to the SoA story. Neera and Telana conclude that gathering the wild mages together is too dangerous - though, oddly enough, most of the camp apparently decides to follow Telana anyway - and there's one final, optional, marginal scene in which you find Hayes and deal with him as you see fit. Telana's reaction is an effective final note, as we once again return to the theme of things not turning out the way you might expect.
This subversion of expectations also plays into Neera's romance. Admittedly, it's somewhat frustrating that BG:EE doesn't give you an option to reject her without being downright rude, but her function as a love interest inevitably furthers the comparison with Aerie. Neera doesn't get jealous if you draw her into a triangle, she's grateful for her "freedom" if you turn her away, and - most critically - she eventually reveals that she had a fling with another man while the two of you were apart, and unlike the Aerie/Haer'Dalis romance, the disintegration of that relationship has nothing to do with you. Generally speaking, Neera is afforded a measure of agency and independence: she may fall in love with you, but it's hard to argue that she'll ever really need
As an aside, dummied-out dialogue implies a potential romance conflict between the player, Neera and Hexxat, suggesting that Neera was, at some point, considered as an option for female characters. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that: when the inclusion of a same-sex romance was first announced, almost everyone assumed it would be Neera simply because that would be the most popular stereotype to exploit. At the same time, I've already commented on the unintended coincidence of both Dorn and Hexxat being Evil.
In any event, ToB finds Neera in a somewhat different state of mind. She's failed twice now: Adoy was a bust, and the Hidden Refuge has been destroyed. So, taking charge once again, she suggests setting a trap for Vicross, leader of the Order of Eight Staves. The trap goes too
well, and Vicross inadvertently teleports the entire party to Thay. As Neera's final nemesis, Vicross is an intriguing character, just below Cabrina in terms of my favorite non-NPC EE characters. Fitting the overall theme of Neera's content, she's just not what you expect at all: young, violent, and - most surprisingly - a wild mage herself, obsessed with the impossible task of controlling her surges.
Unfortunately, this part of the story hits two snags in rapid succession. First, it ties into "The Black Pits II", furthering Beamdog's rather unfair assumption that everyone will play it. We saw this with Mercy Whitedove's out-of-the-blue appearance in Dorn's epilogue, and we see it here with Dennaton and the other BP2 gladiators. (Curiously, Stannel Eibor doesn't appear. As an aside to Beamdog, you've got the anagram wrong: it should be "Stanhel Eibor" or "Stahnel Eibor"). And while I don't really want to talk about that content, it's worth noting that BP2's ending will make no sense unless you play through Neera's ToB quest first
Which brings us to the second speedbump: Szass Tam, arguably the most infamous Red Wizard of all time, recruits you to kill Vicross, as a way of shaming her sponsor - who just happens to be Tam's rival, Aznar Thrul. This goes back to the problem we have with Larloch and Alorgoth: because of Tam's canonical status, the player has no choice but to do as he says, and can't prevent the inevitable double-cross. And where is Thrul? The true target of Tam's scheme doesn't even figure into the story; for a scenario that is supposedly meant to evoke the complex entanglements of Thayvian politics, there's only one way to proceed. (Tam's presence also creates an unavoidable missed opportunity, as the one character whose reaction to the dreaded zulkir would have been priceless is the one character who's mutually exclusive with Neera.)
In any event, Vicross' last stand is masterfully done: as Neera herself will admit, there are uncomfortable similarities between them, and when Vicross finally cuts loose, it brings to mind everything Neera has said in the past about how much she enjoys her own power. The aftermath of the quest brings Neera's distinguishing trait back to the forefront: she's achieved this huge victory, but doesn't feel any different. The situation has changed, but she's still the same person - there's no transformation, no epiphany. I suppose it might have been nice for Adoy or Telana to turn up again, just for a sense of closure, but it works well enough as is.
I'm of two minds about the fact that Neera's default and romance endings are almost identical. On the one hand, it drives home the idea that the player can't really have the kind of monumental impact he'd have on other women. Neera does her own thing, whether the player is with her or not. But the near-verbatim repetition can create the impression of laziness, especially given her final confession after defeating Amelyssan.
Still, as a character who addresses so many of the weaknesses attributed to other female characters (and other female love interests in particular), Neera is a success. There's even something amusingly appropriate about the idea that of all the new characters, her story - the wild mage, the Chaotic Neutral free spirit - is the one that doesn't require big choices or variant outcomes.
Next time, we'll ponder a perplexing pair of participants painstakingly planted in puzzling places: Baeloth Barrityll and Wilson!