Don't you hate it when you're on a big important mission and then suddenly something comes up on and you're forced to go on a detour? Well that, was my experience with Chapter 5 of Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, where my quest to reunite with my old party, find Bodhi and Irenicus, and regain my divine spark took a sudden and unexpected turn into the realm of the drow.
When pursuing Irenicus after my rescue of Imoen I had one of two choices: to pursue him underground through the Underdark or travel back across the Trackless Sea to Amn and intercept him on his return to the surface world. Heeding Viconia's advice and my own knowledge that the Underdark is a rather scary and unpleasant place to dawdle about, I sensibly chose the latter option.
Only it turned out there wasn't a second option, because on our voyage over a group of githyanki attacked us and sank our ship, sending it to the ocean's bottom, where we were rather improbably rescued by a group of sahuagin or "shark-men." Even more improbably, the sahuagin, instead of eating us as might have been expected (and as their king desired) offered us a job, saying we were the fulfillment of a prophecy to restore their people. Are we sure the githyanki ship wasn't powered by the infinite improbability drive?
Having little choice between shark chow and helping the sahuagin, I agreed, though I later learned the head priest who'd saved my skin was actually interested in overthrowing the king. Feeling it was practical to side with the sahuagin who didn't want to eat my companions and me, I followed his plan and enlisted the aid of the rebels the king had ordered me to kill, toppling the regime and reuniting the fractured elements of the sahuagin people. So, on to Amn, eh?
Nope. Now that I'd fallen to the ocean's bottom my only hope of returning to the surface world was to tread through the very realm I'd been trying to avoid. With some grumbling at being railroaded in such a manner, I accepted my fate and delved into the Underdark, searching for a way into the drow city Ust Natha, where Irenicus had taken refuge.
The Underdark is one of those things about D&D that often feels like it works better on paper than in practice. The idea of an enormous, cavernous realm of secret empires and subterranean races, hidden beneath our feet, is a pretty compelling idea. But I've never really seen a story that utilizes such an idea in a truly interesting way, with the possible exception of Dragon Age's deep roads (which benefits from the Attack on Titan-esque battle for survival between the dwarves and the darkspawn). Hordes of the Underdark didn't and I'm sad to say Shadows of Amn doesn't either.
To a large extent, the entire Underdark portion of Baldur's Gate II feels like a distraction. You never really learn anything new about Irenicus (his entire alliance with the drow is just a diversion from his real plan), you don't really do anything that significantly advances your character's arc (unless you count temporarily impersonating a drow), and none of the new characters or factions you meet seem to play any kind of significant role after you leave the Underdark (at least not so far). Indeed, it feels like the designers just felt like the Underdark was a cool locale that they wanted to feature, rather than something that was actually integral to the story.
Part of the problem with the Underdark is that there's not really much of anything to latch onto or anyone to root for. The drow are (as always) over-the-top evil, the mind flayers are a frustrating but strangely unmenacing enemy, the duergar are distrustful louts, the kuo-toa are just fodder, and the svirfneblin are just kind of mildly helpful up until they no longer need your assistance. In summation, the Underdark's just a really big dungeon. And while I do like dungeons, I like them in small doses, balanced by towns and social encounters. The Underdark has none of that: it's entire design suggests a combat-heavy approach to everything.
It doesn't help that the entire chapter feels forced. If the designers were going to force me to go through the Underdark no matter what I decided to do, I feel like it would have been better for them to just say so upfront instead of presenting me with a false choice and then contriving some bizarre series of events which sends me in that direction anyway. I was hoping Chapter 5 would be a bit like like The Witcher 2's second act, which plays very differently depending on a choice you make in the first act, including different featured areas (which, admittedly, are adjacent to one another). Instead, Shadows of Amn gives you an illusory choice that's more transparently phantasmal than most.
Don't get me wrong - there's actually a number of moments I really enjoyed in the Underdark. Turning Solaufein from a path of evil towards one of good (or at least non-evil) was somewhat interesting. Presenting a surprised Matron Ardulace with the elder brain blood she needed for her ritual immediately after her requesting them (I'd already slain the beast) was also pretty funny. And triple-crossing the drow, switching the real dragon eggs with fake eggs and then with another set of fake eggs to undo both the Matron Mother and her treacherous daughter was satisfying, in a twisted sort of way. But when I finally finished my business with the drow and the dragon Adalon, I was relieved.
Back on the surface world, my quarrels with Irenicus and his sister are far from finished. But at the very least, I have a choice with how to approach them and the ability to regroup and resupply. And there does seem to be some small sense of progress.