Achilles and The Grognard: Athkatla, City of Coin

By Bob Case Posted Saturday Nov 23, 2019

Filed under: Video Games 32 comments

Achilles: We are now, in my opinion, cooking with gas.

The Grognard: How’s that?

Achilles: Everything’s better now! For one thing, Top Hat Guy and company are all level seven and above, meaning we can actually do stuff now besides whiff attacks repeatedly and cast magic missile twice a day.

The Grognard: I would say that overall, combat is more interesting in this installment. Some high-level magic duels get downright crazy, in fact.

Achilles: I can believe it. I salivate when I read about some of these high-level spells. But it’s not just that. Everything’s… cooler. For lack of a better word. They drop you right into a big city right away this time. And instead of a generic medieval-type city, it’s a crazy Arabian Nights place.

Link (YouTube)

The Grognard: The first time you hear the Waukeen’s Promenade music is the time that a playthrough really starts, if you ask me.

Achilles: And the circus tent quest. It has everything. Unique art, a cool self-contained story – and it gives you both a party member that’s a dual-class caster AND an item sets your CHA to 18, correcting the most common dump stat.

The Grognard: I thought you might like that one. And I thought it might compare favorably to quests in the first game.

Achilles: In the first game, a typical side quest was “There’s a mage in the middle of the woods, for no reason, who summons slimes and attacks you, also for no reason. He drops a +1 dagger.” I like the new way better.

Even though I rarely choose them, I like the presence of 'I'm going to be completely obtuse about this and just attack you' dialogue choices like #4 here. Good to have options.
Even though I rarely choose them, I like the presence of 'I'm going to be completely obtuse about this and just attack you' dialogue choices like #4 here. Good to have options.

The Grognard: The game opens up pretty quickly after that.

Achilles: Right. There’s this guy Gaelan Bayle, whose accent swerves unpredictably between what I think was “attempted Brummie” and “Australian with a head cold.” He says he can find Imoen for me for the low, low price of 20,000 gold pieces. So it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

The Grognard: This particular campaign element is a bit of a famous one. Sven Vincke, the head honcho at Larian Studios, has referenced it in interviews like this:

Vincke: It is similar to the original Baldur’s Gate, and especially in Baldur’s Gate 2 it has a really cool mechanic that I really liked and I referenced a lot throughout Divinity Original Sin to the team where it had earn I think it was 20,000 gold to be able to take a ship, that was the type of freedom that was present there which we offered in DOS and you will see in BG3.

Achilles: It’s a good trick. It gives the player freedom while also giving them a goal to work towards. Plus, the cutscene afterwards tells you that Imeon isn’t any immediate danger – her and Irenicus are both being held at this Cowled Wizards place for the time being.

The Grognard: That’s important, you think? Knowing she’s not in immediate danger?

Achilles: Definitely. This is, I assume, the “faff about doing sidequests” part of the game, which they were considerate enough to put right in the beginning. I can’t faff about properly if I’m worried something might be happening to Imoen the whole time.

The Grognard: I would agree with that. I don’t like it when a game communicates one sense of urgency through the story, but then a different one through the gameplay.

Gaelan's quest, which kicks off chapter two.
Gaelan's quest, which kicks off chapter two.

Achilles: I’ve also noticed something about the dialogue.

The Grognard: What?

Achilles: There have been several times when the game has asked me, in a highly conspicuous way, whether I care more about saving Imoen or catching Irenicus. Dialogue options where I have to pick one or the other.

The Grognard: How have you answered?

Achilles: Well, I want both, obviously. But I had to chose I guess I would choose saving Imoen. I mean, she was my go-to lockpicker and trap disarmer for most of the last game. And Minsc is right, the mage could be leering evilly at her even now!

The Grognard: You said you wanted emotional stakes, didn’t you? Here they are.

Achilles: I’m not complaining. I definitely want to know what this Irenicus guy’s deal is.

The Grognard: Here’s how I would describe what you call his “deal”: Irenicus is, in my opinion, the best villain the genre has ever seen. His writing is good, he’s placed in the story properly, and they got a cracking performance from the voice actor, David Warner.

Through this Noblewoman's dialogue, the game lets you know that even after all the work you put in, there are STILL bandits robbing people in the Nashkel area. God dammit.
Through this Noblewoman's dialogue, the game lets you know that even after all the work you put in, there are STILL bandits robbing people in the Nashkel area. God dammit.

Achilles: So we’re gonna find out what his deal is? It has something to do with a dead wife or something.

The Grognard: We are. But consider this: this is one of those RPGs where you’re not playing a set character. You’re not Commander Shephard here, you’re Top Hat Guy, whose character and backstory are left undefined by necessity. Right?

Achilles: Right…

The Grognard: In a game like this, the villain is, in effect, the main character. Or at least they’re the most important part of the story.

Achilles: Funny you should say that, because I had started to think that Imoen was the main character.

The Grognard: Imoen? No she’s not. She’s the spunky sidekick.

Achilles: But she’s who we care about, isn’t she? All the stuff that’s happened to me has happened to her too, more or less. And since I’m a blank slate that can look like anything, she’s the real protagonist – the one the audience likes and sympathizes with. She’s this game’s Alyx Vance.

The Grognard: Well, you’re not wrong. That may be a way around the old “silent protagonist” problem: give them a companion who’s an actual character, for them to feel protective towards.

Achilles: Exactly. So I’m gonna team up with this ambiguously British questgiver, raise 20,000 gold pieces, and prepare for a righteous swoop-in-and-rescue-Imoen operation. This guy Gaelan has given me a bunch of promising leads. Sound like a plan?

The Grognard: Sounds like a plan.




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32 thoughts on “Achilles and The Grognard: Athkatla, City of Coin

  1. tmtvl says:

    And to think the original plan was to not make Imoen a real party member, what a waste of potential that could’ve been.

    1. raifield says:

      Wasn’t the original plan for Imoen to be encountered later in Spellhold, hostile and driven mad? That appeals to my grimdark side, but her interactions with Sarevok in ToB are just too funny to pass up.

  2. raifield says:

    I don’t like it when a game communicates one sense of urgency through the story, but then a different one through the gameplay.

    And here’s the massive problem I had with Oblivion. Major invasion from a demonic dimension, a city razed, and the countryside occupied by Daedra?

    Well I’m sure a skilled mage such as yourself would love to travel to each city in order to solve issues no one there seem able to handle. No, we don’t allow exceptions during times of existential crisis, why do you ask?

    Maybe I “played wrong” by not using fast travel, but I felt I kind of had to walk everywhere for the sake of the blog I was writing. Either way you had to walk there at least once to enable fast travel, but that was probably modded out on Day 2.

    1. Syal says:

      “Someone set the orphanage on fire! We have to save the children!”

      “Yeah, but… let me just find this guy’s keys first. Should only take a couple of trips around town.”

      1. Geebs says:

        According to Oblivion logic, the correct thing to do would be to go and find the least-skilled firefighter in town, since they would have the easiest time putting the fire out.

    2. The Puzzler says:

      It was a pretty chill demonic invasion.

      Sure, you’d get the occasional daedra roaming the wilderness. They were somewhat dangerous, but no more so than the trolls and bandits.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        And besides which. all the bandits in Oblivious were carrying expensive, powerful weapons and armour. The Daedra didn’t stand a chance.

    3. Chad Miller says:

      If anything, Bethesda’s gotten worse. I mean, if you want to make a game where the primary new contribution to the series is “Another settlement needs your help!”, you’d think that you wouldn’t make the main quest be about the main character searching for their kidnapped child. Or failing that, at least don’t have a literal psychic tell the player where to find their child, then go to great pains to prove the psychic right at every turn.

  3. Thomas says:

    Outerworlds does a great job of giving you quest gates that are flexible.

    One is straight up ‘Earn 10,000’ gold, but before that there’s one about having a ship impounded which has a bunch of solutions including ‘Not making the mistake that gets your ship impounded’

    1. Syal says:

      I want to say I like the occasional money gate appraoch, but the only two games I can think of that did it are Recettear, where you’re a shop owner and money is the end goal, and the Dragon Quest 4 quest, where you’re a shop owner and money is the end goal.

      I think it’s a pretty good way of making sure the player is powerful enough for the next part of the game. Surely nobody’s going to spend their money on plot advancement before they buy equipment.

      But then Shenmue 2 had a bad money gate where you had to bribe a villain to let you pass, even though you had to fight your way in to talk to them in the first place. And No More Heroes had money gates for every single level which they dropped for the sequel.

      So yeah, all positive, no downside.

      1. Thomas says:

        To get more conceptual on this, a lot of The Breath of the Wilds goals are ‘get to this place’, but getting to that place can involve dealing with difficult monsters, or taking a long climb or some clever use of the mechanics. They’re not specifying a solution, but you can only progress when you’re competent enough at some form of the games mechanics, and if you aren’t then you need to spend some time preparing first.

      2. Mattias42 says:

        I honestly rather liked the money gate system in No More Heroes, at least on the whole. Kinda added a really weird level to both the characters and world that every boss basically had a price tag for when you’d be allowed to try killing them.

        Do admit that the mini-games could have had more variety, and a fast travel system would have been really nice. That bike and city were really cool—doubly so on the Wii of all consoles, but even a big Travis Touchdown fan like myself have to admit the money grind rather overstayed it welcome towards the end.

        Do think that’s more the… pardon the pun, but execution rather then the central idea, though.

    2. Zagzag says:

      Does Outer Worlds really let you avoid being impounded?

      I thought I was being all clever by going around the customs point instead of passing through it, but when I subsequently hacked the customs terminal I got a note about how my ship had been impounded (as well as an amusing note about how they couldn’t find me anywhere to tell me about it) and had to do the same quest anyway. I would imagine you can avoid having this happen by not going to Groundbreaker in the first place, but is there a way to go there without having to deal with this?

    3. Ninety-Three says:

      The ship impounding thing was a quest? The game told me “Your ship’s impounded, go talk to NPC Bob”, I walked fifty feet over to NPC Bob and he unimpounded my ship without me even asking. I thought it was just a narrative hook to make sure I talked to a questgiver, it didn’t even register to me as a problem, let alone one with multiple solutions.

      1. Chad Miller says:

        Yeah, that “quest” is so little trouble that if there’s a way to skip it, even the speedrunners aren’t bothering:

  4. “In a game like this, the villain is, in effect, the main character. Or at least they’re the most important part of the story.”

    In effect, yes, and this highlights one of the major issues that they had with Dragon Age: Inquisition . . . they stopped doing those “Meanwhile, in the Evil Stronghold” sides that in BG2 and DA: Origins give you huge insights into the bad guy’s character, motivations, personality, etc. Or they do what they did in Neverwinter Nights where the major “bad guy” is someone who starts good and turns evil toward the end of the game, which also maintains the bad guy as a continuous presence.

    Couple that with the secondary villains getting one big action scene but pretty much no build up in Inquisition (outside of text) and you have a story-based game where *the main character* basically never puts in an appearance. It ceases to be a fantasy story and becomes Waiting for Godot.

    It’s not always a bad guy who is the main character. In Oblivion it’s Martin, in Fallout 4 it’s Shaun, in Fallout 3 it’s your dad.
    Pillars of Eternity and Planescape: Torment have a weird thing where the main character sort of IS you, but you don’t actually remember you, so the main character is kind of a disembodied you. In Pillars 2: Deadfire the main character is Eothas and/or the gods, or, rather, that’s the main conflict.

    1. tmtvl says:

      And in Breath of Fire 4 the main character is that unfairly maligned guy against who the Empire uses that awful weapon and everything is horrible and I’m crying now.

    2. DerJungerLudendorff says:

      It didn’t help that Inquisition had a bad case of turning magic lore-based mumbojumbo in the core premise of its plot. Or the unfocused MMO structure of the story.
      I wouldn’t even know what the main villain of Inquisition would DO offscreen. The first game had a scheming noble as it’s main antagonist to focus on, and an evil dragon with a horde of minions for the overarching threat. I can imagine what they would be doing.
      Inquisition had an Ancient Magic person with unexplained Ancient Magic Superpowers who wants to Destroy The World. And he just…. sat around in a cave? Whispered in people’s ears like a Wormtongue? Convened with Evil Mage Supremacists? He’s got “influence” all over the place, but it seems more by plot convenience than any actual logic.

      1. It wasn’t even particularly clear why he wanted a demon army or an army of templars or mages . . . his actual plans had no need whatsoever for an army, they were all magical in nature. The only thing his various military attacks and intrigues managed to accomplish was to enable you to figure out what he was doing and stop him before he could actually do it.

        If you follow the lore closely, you actually defeated Corypheus BEFORE THE GAME STARTED, by causing his initial attack to fail. The ENTIRE GAME was the big bad flailing around trying to come up with a plan B and failing.

        Now, if they’d made the secondary bad guys INTERESTING, this could have actually worked as a cool plot, because it would be all about dealing with Corpheus’s various “advisors” and THEIR motivations. But they weren’t given any proper buildup and they barely had any screen time, so you’re left with a story that doesn’t really have a driving motivational force behind it.

        1. tremor3258 says:

          There’s a very, very solid story with this concept that Inquisition didn’t manage to tell, the hero wins at the start and much of the villain’s plot is to make sure no one realizes that while working on Plan B.

        2. Daerian says:

          Pretty much main problem of Inquisition is not main villain, but the fact that everything important about main villain motivations and his plans comes from postgame DLC.

          While you spend entire main game hunting his patsy not even knowing there is deeper story there.

    3. Misamoto says:

      And then there is KOTOR where you’re a “clean slate” character, main character, and main villain all at once.

  5. Zekiel says:

    Man I love David Warner as Irenicus. I still maintain that the starting dungeon is extrmeley effective at using environmental storytelling to give insight into his character and backstory. He’s just great.

    1. It really was, the interesting part is that on the first playthrough you really don’t have any clue what the purpose of all the weird stuff in his lab is, so you’re likely to gloss over most of it and forget the details that would have later made it plain what was going on there.

      They went to a lot of effort to give you considerable backstory without giving you anything definitive, such as whether Irenicus was actually evil or just incredibly callous.

  6. Joshua says:

    +1 Dagger. The good old “this is useful only if the game decides to throw a monster immune to normal weapons at you so early you haven’t got proper +1 swords or the like yet, and then vendor it as soon as possible”.

    Divinity: Original Sin (2 at least) had a variety of ways to get through a challenge, such as “Figure out a way to escape Fort Joy”, or “Find someone to teach you to use Sourcery effectively”, but I don’t remember any straight up monetary “You need X amount of gold, up to you how to get it”, apart from the constant need to upgrade your gear to keep up.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Well, Divinity OS 2 suffers a bit from, let’s call it ‘Fake End Of The World Syndrome’.

      I’m currently (re-)playing through Act 2, and while a small number of various NPCs are trying to persuade me that I need to hurry up and complete the plot goals because The End Is Nigh, I know out-of-character that the world will be fine until I’m done with all the side- and companion- quests around. Of which there are a LOT. It would really benefit from a flexible, no-great-rush-but you-want-to-do-it-eventually personal goal like Baldurs Gate 2 or Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

      Like if there was an earn-able magic sword that allowed you to beat Malady the NPC Author’s Pet to death. THAT goal would motivate me more than the end of a thousand worlds.

      1. Joshua says:

        Running back through Act 2 myself. Granted, it’s like half the game so it’s not hard to be sharing that same act with someone. One funky thing about the game to me with the side quests is that there’s a weird tug of war between “Approach things however you want, in whatever order, it’s a sandbox” and “Pretty challenging tactical RPG”. I don’t feel the gun to my head of “You must save the world now” as much as the threat of “You must do ALL the things or you’ll get your butt handed to you before long”. IIRC, BG2 avoided that a little bit since you started at level 7 and the levels past 10 weren’t that huge a deal for many classes, so side quests were slightly more optional, although getting the best loot didn’t hurt.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          One funky thing about the game to me with the side quests is that there’s a weird tug of war between “Approach things however you want, in whatever order, it’s a sandbox” and “Pretty challenging tactical RPG”. I don’t feel the gun to my head of “You must save the world now” as much as the threat of “You must do ALL the things or you’ll get your butt handed to you before long”.

          Mmm. I think Act 2 has the worse aspects of this. Both the Divinity: OS games’ ‘sandbox’ elements appears to have three choices: 1) find the quest / area that’s at your level and do that, 2) attempt to go somewhere else too early and die horribly, or 3) very rarely, miss out on a quest and find it later, only to then be a little insulted by how easy it is now you’re overlevelled.

          I’m currently at the Blackpits which has to be the worst example of this. The final boss(es) there are just a level or two higher than the rest of the area – and as a result it’s actually more fun / less stressful to get to the last room then turn around and leave, coming back to finish the quest when you’ve gained a level.

          Sorry, Fane, I want to complete your character quest too, it’s just that I’ve been TPK’d by those goddamned lightning dogs 4 times now and it’s REALLY annoying.

  7. MelTorefas says:

    Interesting. I played the game when it was fairly new, and I found Irenicus so boring and obnoxious that I literally could not engage with the story. Every single thing he said or did struck me as completely cliched, generic, and so long-winded I was inevitably rolling my eyes or eventually outright skipping ahead through his dialogue. I didn’t end up beating the game until after Throne of Bhaal came out, which looked more interesting to me. I had to force myself through the main story and abused the Infinity Engine Editor to change my race, class, character graphics, and abilities many times to keep enjoying it. Once I got to Throne of Bhaal I liked it a lot more and finished the game feeling overall fairly positive, but I don’t think I could ever play through the game’s main storyline again.

    …All of which is to say I really like this series you are doing, thank you for writing it, and screw Irenicus. XD

    1. Mattias42 says:

      Seconded. Really didn’t care much for Irenicus myself either. He’s got some brilliant voice work, but other then that, he’s pretty dang dull.

      Oh~, a brooding mad person using the darkest arts for frankly stupid and petty personal reasons. We’ve never seen that in high fantasy before, even back in the day. /sarcasm.

      Think its how smug he is that really grinds my gears. That, and how you’re not allowed to best him in any way, shape or form until the game says he’s allowed to lose. Not for you to win, oh no, but for it’s precious Villain Sue to lose with maximum drama attached. There’s a small but important difference in that that effects how the entire story feels to experience, and I found it infuriating even my first time through the game.

      Like, my character didn’t matter. This was the Irenicus show, if that makes sense. .

      Still, getting dangerously close to spoilers, so I’ll stop for now.

      1. lurkey says:

        Thirded. Also to add — not only you are not not allowed to best him until script say so, you cannot even sass him, just be in helpless awe at every next iteration of his ~*ingenious*~ plan. He’s just like Kai Leng, up to the goofy outfit. >:-D

        1. Gethsemani says:

          You all have a right to your opinion, but I think it is a bit unfair to compare Irenicus to Kai Leng, mostly because Kai Leng is a children’s anime character in a serious space opera, but also because Irenicus earns his superiority by outwitting CHARNAME as opposed to Kai Leng always being a punk in gameplay but gaining cutscene superpowers to the max because the Writer loves Kai Leng.

          When exactly is CHARNAME supposed to be able to beat Irenicus prior to meeting the Elves after leaving the Underdark? During his appearance in Waukeen’s promenade he surrenders to the Cowled Wizards and there’s nothing to indicate that he’ll be able to escape the inescapable Spellhold (even less that he’ll take it over and set a trap to steal your soul). But he does take it over and sets a trap, from which CHARNAME can’t escape. He then leaves CHARNAME humiliated in the hands of his sister, where CHARNAME would have died had they not turned into the Slayer. It is after that, when Irenicus at first believes you dead and later doesn’t have a plan to stop you that CHARNAME can get their vengeance (and gets it in a pretty supreme fashion by tearing down all of Irenicus works, revels in his old shame and kills him both physically and spiritually).

          Irenicus is smug because he’s a centuries old wizard who has worked for most of his life to get his soul back. When he gets that chance, it is by using his immense cunning to steal CHARNAME’s and the first half of the game is CHARNAME literally playing into Irenicus’ gambit of getting captured, then overtaking Spellhold and waiting for CHARNAME to bumble in, unaware of the soulstealing that’s about to commence. It stands to reason that Level 11-ish CHARNAME can’t beat Level 20-something Irenicus, especially not when Irenicus has centuries worth of experience and preparation to pull upon. And unlike Kai Leng, Irenicus is actually really hard to take down in gameplay, especially if you aren’t endgame leveled with endgame gear.

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