Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oblivion Mod Review - Tears of the Fiend

Mod Review - Tears of the Fiend
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Overall: OK story, deeply flawed quest design choices. I don't recommend playing this without being willing to read the walkthrough in advance, doing multiple reloads for critical events, and possibly using the console for "impossible" situations. WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Why You Would Download This: If you've never played Planescape: Torment or Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, you may actually find the Legacy part (first part) of the story interesting. There are some clever scripting and interesting events.

There's a saying: "Don't judge a book by its cover". From the number of kudos and endorsements, I suspect this is the case here. There is clearly really good scripting ability and there's a lot of work involved. However, at critical points, the storytelling makes such bad choices, and with such severe consequences for progress or completion of the mod, that unless you are okay with reloading (possibly reloading very far back, depending on how much stuff you do in between the quest stages), you may find this mod to be very frustrating. If you haven't before then unloaded it because you found it irritating.
It's very sad to give a mod a bad review when it's so big and so much work has gone into it, but bigger and shinier isn't necessarily better--For example, there are tons of commercially produced games that look great but suck.

Storywise, Tears of the Fiend puts together earlier mods into one integrated whole. I've played through only the Legacy portion at this stage, and will probably not continue further.

The Legacy has more than the usual amount of dialogue, and several cutscenes/flashbacks that convey information to you in a more interesting way than being told by so-and-so, reading it in a book found in-game, or getting a quest update.
There's also clearly more effort put into fleshing out character interactions, with (one) background music for certain intimate conversations with the key character of Allecia Ehothorn, and adding descriptive passages in between what they say to give more insight into character emotions beyond the facial expressions that can be scripted into dialogue in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

And this pretty much sums up the pretty-book-cover part of this mod. Storywise, it's short, linear, and predicatble. You will have dialogue choices, but some of them really have no choice at all.

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING - We will now be critiquing various plot points in the story. You will obviously find SPOILERS, but you may also find various tips as well.

(1) Near the end of the Tears of the Fiend Guide that is included in the mod package, in a section that is a sort of novelized backstory, we find this paragraph:

"And so the Player's tale began. He defeated Mankar Cameron and Dagon, placed Martin Septim on the Throne and closed shut the gates of Oblivion forevermore. The Player made a name for himself, and demonstrated that he harboured something more than that of an ordinary mortal citizen of Tamriel."

Something this suggests is that Tears of the Fiend is meant for a high-level character. There are some pretty annoying situations (which we'll touch on later) but the very first one is at the very start of the mod in the game, when you are faced by Edward Pellew. It is entirely possible that your character, sleeping for the first time out of the Tutorial and with very few resources, will be killed in under three hits. Your only choice is to unload the mod and reload it later, get a third-party mod-delayer for Tears of the Fiend, or read the walkthrough for help:

"All you need to do to end the fight is hit him 5 times, and he will surrender to you. ... If you are a low-end character and are having trouble defeating Pellew, the best strategy is a "Hit and run" attack, or alternatively try switching to a Bow and attacking from a distance. You will notice that different Inns and Taverns have a slightly different layout for the "rentable rooms." Try to find one which has a reasonable amount of running space, or enough objects that you can exploit the pathing in the close environment in order to avoid his hits, and deliver yours in return."

Instead of such extremes, a clearer solution would be to simply make a check on the character's level and location (e.g., not in jail) before initiating the mod. Or, have Pellew appear nearby when they are in town (or a particular location, and generally not leave the vicinity) and hover around, following the character. Then give a journal entry stating that the player might want to talk to him to find out why he's following the player around. This would (probably) give the player more time to prepare.
Pellew isn't a problem for a better equipped character, but if you are starting a new character, this could be a problem. Sadly, this sort of do-it-this-way-or-else mod design is pervasive in the mod.
What is particularly baffling is that the author of the mod even recognizes these situations in the walkthrough, and yet chooses to do nothing about them.

(2) At some point you will pick up Allecia Ehothorn, your guide to where-to-go-next. She will direct you to the Old Ehotorn Estate. I didn't have trouble finding it, but the guide explains, "It should be noted that the quest pointer for the Ehothorn Estate is deliberately wrong at this point, and you will need to search around slightly for the ACTUAL location of the Ehothorn Estate." Why it should be this way is mysterious: After all, your guide supposedly has been there and knows where it is. One might even suspect the pointer was actually misplaced by the modder.

TIP: If you need to do so in order to momentarily dump your companion (who may end up complicating other quests you might want to do) and acquire resources you may find you need later on in some irritating combat situations, now is the time. Go to the Estate (otherwise she'll keep following) and simply do not pick up the two clue items necessary to further the plot. Just leave the area and go about your business.

(3) At the Ehothorn Estate, shortly prior to leaving, you will be attacked by wolves. They literally just appear out of thin air and in your midst. How? Why? Who knows. For what reason? Probably just to make sure you have a fight, and possibly to try to kill Allecia. The guide says:

"Remember, Allecia is NOT invulnerable, and if she dies the quest is over. You need to draw as much attention from her as possible (by dealing as much damage to as many of the wolves as possible) and endeavour to take the hits FOR Allecia."

And this seems to be the reason for having the encounter at all: To make you care about her by making her vulnerable. By this time you may also have had one or two of four dialogues that can help you find out more about her and her backstory. Other than giving her an attractive face, there's really nothing, however, to make your character actually want to have a relationship with her, although the romantic music and dialogue choices make this approach possible. Whether you consider this to be a storytelling flaw probably depends on how irritated you are by rush-to-kiss-and-sex Hollywood movie love-and-romance done in less than 2 hours.

The wolves do not make for a particularly difficult fight unless you have, despite the encounter with Pellew, insisted on continuing this mod with very few resources. The fight itself isn't the focus of this particular critique. It's the "why": Why have such a pointless encounter, and one designed in this way? There are other less obtuse ways of forcing an encounter, such as by making it an internal cell and having creatures already camped inside the ruins of the Estate. Instead, the modder chooses to have wolves teleport in by forces unknown. Storytelling wise, I feel this is a poor choice.

There will be another time when you must protect Allecia, who is deliberately put in a vulnerable position, and it'll be even more irritating than this one. If you need to drop her off, as mentioned before, don't further the plot just yet.

(4) You will have to speak with Archaeologist Bsarnn to find the location of where to go next. You get one chance at this dialogue, with no chance to change your mind later, even though there is nothing particularly critical: He offers to tell you where it is if you give him one of the clue items found at the Old Ehothorn Estate. Why you can't change your mind and take him up on his offer is very strange and there isn't a particularly story-related compelling reason. After all, the archaeologists just stand there after you talk to them.

(5) Next comes a very irritating fight at the Excavation Site. One which needn't happen at all, except it is forced on you by the modder. In short, you will be swarmed by some monsters that can take time to kill and that can dish out a lot of damage. The guide states:

"Once inside you WILL be attacked by numerous undead (called "Scourge of Armindale") who CAN quite easily kill Allecia. There are two tricks to getting through this section. First of all, you can cast either Convalescence or Shield on her to make her a bit more durable, or -and this is the method I usually use- simply charge ahead, and endeavour to kill the undead (or grab as much attention as possible) before she arrives. It is actual possible to kill all the undead in this section of the Ruins of Armindale before she reaches any of them."

Allecia lights a torch and walks straight ahead, forcing you into this situation. Once in the midst of this, if it doesn't kill you, you have to save her. The so-called tips provided by the author -- using Convalescence or Shield -- are also dubious at best, considering that she will do a lot of running around, making spell targeting very hard and very irritating. And while you're stopping to do that, the zombies are still attacking.

Sure, you can just let her die, but that defeats the whole point of having a big mod loaded in the first place. Depending on how much you got out of the four dialogues with her, you may not yet care enough (or think you can proceed without her with clues yet to be found) to actually try very hard. Without the walkthrough, you might not even know to reload and try, try again.

The most reasonable approach would be to simply drop off Allecia somewhere and proceed alone, or call a retreat (running away and having Allecia follow). Why this isn't offered is just one of the many too-linear dumb-choice situations in this mod.
Being linear isn't on its own wrong in a quest. Simple stories are often linear. In Oblivion, almost every quest storyline is linear. But the big difference between the vanilla quests and what often happens in Tears of the Fiend, is that your actions aren't often as tightly scripted. Typically, you are given a task, and only for tricky tasks (e.g., forging a letter, which requires a third-party to do the forging for you) are you guided through the resources that are made available for you in the game to complete a task.

When a modder forces you into making a dumb choice, one which can potentially break the quest (Allecia being story-critical), then this becomes a very questionable choice in mod design and storytelling.
Also, the difficulty jumps a LOT from the time you met Pellew, to the wolf ambush, and now a swarm of zombies. Just because you could handle a few wolves isn't indicative of whether you are ready for the next stage. And since this quest can start with a brand new character, I feel this is another poor mod design choice.

IMO, a better way of handling this encounter would be to have a couple of zombies early on during entry into the Ruins, and then allow the story to pause again -- drop off Allecia, go travelling for resources, then come back, now that you have an idea of what's coming.
Yes, adventurers do get ambushed by suddenly difficult situations. But it's pointless to do so at an early stage in a quest since you would lock out the rest of the mod. And for a supposedly story-driven mod, there is a surprising amount of badly designed critical combat.

(6) TIP: You can start the Butcher of Armindale story once you get the appropriate flashback and ask Archaeologist Biff about him. However, what the mod or walkthrough doesn't tell you is that you actually can't get very far because the scripting is buggy: Renoit will tell you that you need to wait for Kashaan to come back, by sleeping in an inn. However, this doesn't work (or at least it didn't work for me). Only after you finish the Legacy will it work, and in a strange way: By entering the Wait menu, even if you didn't choose and accept a timeframe to wait, you may be transported into the flashback.

(7) More running around, then another flashback. You enter through a roof into an orphanage.
Later you go to the orphanage, and you supposedly catch Allecia in a lie -- that she somehow knew about entering through the roof when she couldn't have know.
But wait! -- Didn't you recount the dream to her? So actually she _could_ know that information.
Here starts what feels like the most linear and badly plotted part of the Legacy story.

Even if we let it slide that you didn't really catch Allecia in a lie (even if you suspected long ago that she knew more than she was letting on), now the story tries to impose a sense of urgency when there really is none. What drives the supposed race against time is that Allecia believes Pellew and his accomplice Maris to be en route to the Ruins to, presumably, stop them or kill them. Because of this, the player must hurry and lie on the altar to mysteriously have everything explained.

Why someone would agree to lie on an altar, especially without properly knowing what will happen, just so that everything will be explained (how exactly?) is ridiculous. Clearly, Allecia can explain more.
And why someone would do so with hostiles on the way is even more ridiculous. The obvious choice is not to make yourself vulnerable by becoming unconscious, but instead wait for them and deal with them first. And so far there is little to suggest that Pellew and Maris are more competent than simply throwing firebombs to start fires.
Instead, the mod railroads you into a false time crisis.

(8) On the encounter with The Fiend (in a dream sequence from lying on the altar), the guide explains:
"If you gave away 5 or more pieces of information (in other words, the Information Pool is 5+) you will have only 50 seconds to complete the sixth flashback before Allecia is killed, beginning from when you FIRST enter the "dreamscape." ... The trick to getting through this in 50 seconds (aside from taking every shortcut possible) is to also ensure that you simply "click through" the Fiend's dialogue instead of reading it (I usually suggest reading it the first time, then -if Allecia ends up being killed- going back and clicking through it.) Also be sure that your character has a reasonable Speed and acrobatics rating, and you take advantage of the other advice outlined later in this section.".

How you are to know any of this is dubious at best. That you are forced to do something very very specific, including shortcutting through dialogue (which, IMO, completely defeats the purpose of having dialogue in the first place), to save a quest-critical character (Allecia is important even after the Legacy storyline in Tears of the Fiend) should be a clue that this part of the story is completely broken. That the modder hasn't changed it is utterly baffling.

There is an "good" option, to reject the fiend. This requires you to run away. If the fiend catches up, you die. You get a few seconds of a head start, but the probability of fleeing is very low because:
(a) There is a visual distortion effect, which makes it hard to see where you are going, and running into things will result in lost time. The AI-controlled Fiend, however, is under no such handicap.
(b) The bridge to the exit has lots of stairs and twists. One false step, and you can lose time or fall off and be trapped.
(c) Good luck doing all this and still getting out of the dream sequence in time to meet Pellew and Maris before they kill Allecia.

TIP: If you can access the console, you can do the following:
(i) As an additional backup, save your game before activating the altar and entering the dream sequence.
(ii) Save your game as soon as you enter the dream sequence and are notified that you "have to run".
(iii) Do the dream sequence however you like. BUT, when you first encounter the Fiend, open the console again, and click on the Fiend. This will set the Fiend to be the target of certain console commands. You will know if you clicked correctly because in the top middle of the your screen, the name of the item you clicked will show up.
(iv) If you want to shortcut things and be out of the dream sequence in time to save Allecia, just reload your game (either from step i. or ii.). When you enter the dream sequence, step forward a bit, and then open the console. The Fiend should still be selected as the target (his name should still be in the upper middle of your screen assuming you didn't have to exit Oblivion and restart the application). Type the command moveto player to bring the Fiend to you. This saves you a lot of time running around.
(v) If you want to run from the fiend, move back to the starting point (the altar in the dream sequence). If you are not immediately transported, move away from the altar. The trigger point is very close by, but not exactly at the altar itself.

(9) Now that you are back, you may have to fight Pellew and Maris. Pellew has a superweapon, despite what the mod author claims:

"Pellew on the other hand doesn't do a great deal of damage, however he has the Sword of the Celestial which gives him the ability to dominate Fiends (such as yourself) by knowing their REAL name (you will have learned this if you read Pellew and Other Children's Tales. It was how he defeated Quuarll - Allecia.) If you are hit 5 times by Pellew, you will see a message box advise you that you have spoken the first syllable of your Fiendish name. If you are hit a total of 15 times, you will instantly be killed, regardless of the damage dealt. Obviously the trick here is to either Hit and Run, or to use ranged attacks (eerily reminiscent of how you found Pellew the first time, wouldn't you agree?)"

In the story mentioned, Pellew did NOT defeat Quorrol by beating her on the head with his sword. He talked to her and found out her lineage first. As you are an orphan neither you nor Pellew can know your lineage. Also, it feels like utter rubbish that getting hit by a sword will cause you to speak the first syllable of your Fiendish name. If the modder wants to give Pellew a superweapon, just give him one. I'm not sure whether a bad story is worse than a deus ex machina weapon.

Further, Maris will heal Pellew, which means you will probably want to deal with Maris -- which also means Pellew gets free hits against you. Its an irritating encounter, and if you have survived this long, you will probably cheese them with spells or poison, if not for sheer practicality then just to get past this irritating encounter.

(10) The final stage of the Legacy story involves talking to Allecia. There is apparently only one correct dialogue path IF you want more story later on, since Allecia plays an important role in the other storylines.
The choices are obvious if you've paid attention to the flashbacks and dialogue, but it also railroads you into a certain role, one which can be very out of character or just against how you want to play. But if you want to play out the rest of the mod, there's really no choice here. You MUST fall in line with the modder's vision. It's their way or the highway.

Overall, the feeling in Tears of the Fiend is that someone has a character in mind, and you either play out that particular character, or don't bother. There's a story here (whether it is a particularly good one and worthwhile to play through is up to individual opinion) and a lot of scripting and work to try to enhance the storytelling. For some people, that might be worth the download.
But for those who don't like to play someone else's character, who want to feel like they have choices and a certain freedom in how to resolve tasks, who didn't pick up a mod to essentially just read a novel, then this mod will probably be frustrating and disappointing.

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