Bitter Nerd™ Review: Spiderweb Software’s Geneforge 2

Only slightly less addictive than popcorn-flavored crack! — AtAT

Geneforge 2 is a continuation of the story started in Geneforge, except from the vantage point of a different novice.

Geneforge 2 offers good gameplay, welcome new features, some nice surprises, and is a fine game in itself; unfortunately, it raises more questions than it answers.

Synopsis

As a neophyte Shaper, you and your instructor are making a routine visit to an obscure outpost. During the investigation, you uncover a conspiracy of rogue Shapers attempting to resurrect the forbidden knowledge of Sucia Island.

Pro

Rich storyline, many more spells, more interaction especially with other Shapers, NPCs can join party.

Con

Plot incongruent with original story, endings unsatisfactory (see below).

Goal

The goal in Geneforge 2 is much more fluid than the one in the original Geneforge. Survival is paramount; making alliances and deciding where your loyalties lie is the overall objective.

Having Characters Join The Party

One of the nicer new features is the ability to have NPCs join your party (if your leadership is high enough). This is a much-needed feature for people who want to create powerful creations or conserve enough essence to sling spells.

Heust Blade, the sword-wielding servile in the group below, is a powerful fighter and a friendly (if somewhat reserved) fellow. Countless times I had to restore when he got aggressive and took on a rotghroth by himself. It is evidence of the designer’s skill when a game encourages affection for NPCs.

NPCs in party

NPCs in General

There is far richer interaction with the NPCs in Geneforge 2 than in the original. Part of the problem was plot: on Sucia Island, the majority of the interactions were with submissive serviles, the slave race created by the Shapers to do menial labor. The much larger cast of the sequel leads to much more interesting interactions.

A prime example occurs about halfway through the game: the player character encounters a Shaper who has been taken prisoner by rogue creations. He refuses to be rescued, insisting that in the end his superior mind will prevail: a beautiful vignette that underscores the complete arrogance of the Shaper race.

Interaction with Prisoner

New Monsters

Not too many new monsters. Turrets (spine-spitting fungi) have a new look which is more intimidating then how they appeared in the original. Otherwise, we have:

Spinecores
Turrets that can regenerate. Uncontrolled party members will go after the buds rather than the stalk, wasting precious opportunity.
Spraying Shrubs, Flaming Shrubs
Man, those things piss me off. But they’re designed to, so that’s not really a criticism.
Rotghroths
Zombies with a putrefying touch. Very scary. I have to use every single protection spell to survive, and I still end up losing a creation.
Drakons
Basically an advanced Dryak that fires essence orbs instead of fireballs. The sprite is intimidating, but that’s about it.
Gazers
Like drakons, you just have to power on through. Often, diplomacy works wonders with Gazers.

Annoyances

One problem that was bothersome in the original Geneforge but became downright aggravating in the sequel was a bug I nicknamed “scrum lock.” When your character and his creations want to go through a door and non-hostile NPCs are trying to go through the same door in the opposite direction, the response of the game would become incredibly sluggish, the pointer would not follow the mouse, and only random clicking would break the lock. I suspect that the bug appeared more often in the sequel because of the large number of NPCs the storyline required.

Golems, party battle to get through a door

The Barzite town of Rising had a lot of problems with its map, requiring manual navigation through the buildings: a serious problem when you’re trying to escape after murdering the boss and releasing his creations to the wild.

Plot Inconsistency

One of the problems in designing a game like this is that it is almost impossible to make a continuation because the original game had an ending that was definite and incontestable: your character survived, almost everyone else died.

The story mentions the original: NPCs allude to the neophyte Shaper who landed on Sucia Island and assisted the serviles stranded there. But where are the references to the subsequent carnage, the collapse of Shaper society, the rise of Trajkov and the Sholai? These “minor” events seem all but forgotten.

One excuse would be to have this game occur centuries in the future: after all, it is obvious that new technologies—new spells, new creations, new machines—have appeared in the meantime. Coupled with the Shaper Council’s brutal totalitarian control of society, and you get history modification straight out of Orwell’s 1984. This would be a fine explanation if it were not for Learned Pinner, who is aged in the original yet still holds a commanding presence in Geneforge 2. Serviles do not live long (as the game repeatedly notes) so therefore we are forced to conclude only a short time has passed between the the events on Sucia Island and the disaster brewing at Drypeak.

Gameplay

I really looked forward to Geneforge 2, and when I finished it, I was a bit… disappointed. It took me a while to figure out why, and the reason is the change in game philosophy:

When playing both games, I tried to finish the game without making any alliances. In the original, the result was just a more difficult game; in the sequel, the result is my execution and a bloody stalemate. In other words, making a moral decision is forced upon the player.

This unpleasant dénoement was resolved quite easily. I simply restored my most recent save, made an alignment with a faction, performed one final quest, and exited the valley with a radically different ending. One that was slightly more satisfactory. Just slightly.

Curiously enough, the other factions produced almost identical endings, with only slight modifications—achievement of ultimate power, achievement of ultimate honor. The story is the same, only the players differ. Compared to the distinctly different possible endings of the original Geneforge, this is a letdown.

The two alliances that seemed doomed to failure actually ended satisfactorily. The problem I had with these endings (following the Shaper way, aiding the Takers) was that the personalities involved would not have allowed such things to happen, leaving more questions than answers. Why would the Takers bother with a prisoner swap? Why would the Shaper council allow a highly modified shaper to continue to exist?

Both aforementioned endings only appear unusual if one has played the original game; in this game’s timeframe, personalities differ making the alternate endings more palatable. Still, the Taker ending seems especially incongruous; and it is unlikely that the conservative Shaper Council would suffer an augmented shaper to live.

Of course, one simply has to note that this game, unlike its predecessor, left a door wide open for a sequel; Geneforge 3 is all but definite, and if we are very very lucky, Blades of Geneforge will come to fruition allowing third-party adventures in the Shaper universe.


Available for MacOS 8.1 or later (MacOS X native) and Microsoft Windows 98