The end is nigh and things are ramping up quickly in Shadows of Amn as I make preparations for my final confrontation with Irenicus. Tensions rise as an elven kingdom is besieged, my party's remaining problems are dealt with, a vampire is slain, and my relationship with a friend changes significantly. This is the story of my experience in Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition, the penultimate chapter.
As soon as I left the Underdark it became clear that Irenicus and Bodhi's ambitions were more elaborate than stealing my soul and Imoen's. Irenicus' dealing with the drow had been - as I'd suspected - a diversion. What I hadn't expected though, was that Irenicus' chief target was not me or my party, but the elven city-state of Suldanessellar. By unleashing the drow upon their surface kindred, Irenicus provoked the elves into leaving the city undefended, allowing him to move in and seal it away. In retrospect, I suppose this gives my maligned tour of the Underdark a little more significance.
Upon meeting me on my exit from the Underdark the elves of Suldanessellar were wary of my party (particularly the drow Viconia) suspecting we might secretly be Irenicus' allies. Once I made clear my intent and the nature of my dispute with Irenicus and his sister, the elven leader Elhan relented and allowed us to leave, on the condition that we seek out Bodhi and slay her, taking from her a magical lantern the elves needed to recover their fallen city. It was an agreement I was hardly inclined to refuse.
Still... I saw no reason to get about to it right away. On one level, this was a bit of metagaming on my part: a desire to get back to all the things I'd put aside when I'd journeyed to the Asylum to rescue my sister. But the game also encouraged me to do this, as characters noted the battle with Bodhi and her undead minions would be a difficult one and that it was in my best interest to recruit as many allies as I could. I took this to also mean I should probably bump up my party's XP total. Which I did.
My first stop on my way back to Athkatla was the Hidden Refuge, where I'd left the wild mage Neera some months before. As much as I'd enjoyed Neera's company and as close as I'd grown to her over our shared journeys, I'd thought it best to leave her behind before my departure to a prison run by evil mages who might share the Red Wizards' unhealthy interest in wild magic. But upon escaping the Underdark, she was the one character whom I'd been parted from I was most keen to reunite with.
As it turned out, Neera needed my help. An elven sorcerer had been dodging her and the other wild mages' attempts to recruit him into their camp for some time.. The elf, named Daxus, was making a decent living as a comedian but Neera and the other wild mages feared his popularity would soon draw the attention of the Red Wizards, who'd made a habit of capturing and experimenting upon wild mages in their ruthless pursuit of arcane knowledge. I aided Neera in this and together we (and an ill-timed Red Wizard attack) managed to convince Daxus. However, as it turned out, our efforts had been for naught. We returned to Neera's refuge to find it destroyed and the wild mages abducted, the Red Wizards having found it some time earlier.
What had started as a simple recruitment drive quickly turned into a desperate rescue mission as Neera, the rest of my party, and I left for Waukeen's Promenade to root out the Red Wizards in their den. We eventually succeeded, though much of the damage was already done: the refuge was no more and the wild mages knew they'd soon have to flee again, lest the Red Wizards recapture them.
Seeing her humanitarian enterprise fall apart into shambles shook Neera. Later, during a spare moment, she confessed to me that the refuge had given her - for some brief time - a sense of control in her life that had been missing ever since her talents as a wild mage had first manifested. For once, it had felt like she had a purpose and that the universe was going her way. Only for it to fall apart, leaving her adrift once more in a world seemingly intent on pranking her. With no idea of what to do, Neera decided she'd like to stick with my party on a more permanent basis, at least until she figured things out.
It was not long after this that our relationship, which had skirted the boundary of friends and more-than-friends since before I'd left for the Asylum, tilted toward the latter. Though uncertain of herself and unsure of where her future would ultimately be, Neera and I agreed that we wanted to be there for one another, for mutual support and comfort. For now at least, we were a team (though she wasn't ready to commit to the word "couple").
Having never played the original Baldur's Gate II, I can't really say how Neera's romance compares with Jaheira's, Viconia's, or Aerie's (or Anomen's for that matter). But I will say that compared with most RPG romances Neera's feels a little deeper to me. The relationship has built up over a long time - from friendly exchanges in the first game, to a little flirtation in the second, to a much deeper connection now - and it also feels very mutual. It doesn't seem as though Neera depends on my character - at least not to same degree as a lot of romanceable characters do - and we provide one another what I feel is a roughly equivalent level of emotional support. She as her own life and agenda, outside of my own (admittedly important) quest, her own story. Additionally, the sex - contrary to a lot of similar RPGs - isn't the culmination of the relationship; it appears to just be one step along the way (and one that happens entirely off-screen).
I can't put a final judgment on the writing here - I still have a whole other game to beat - but I can honestly say that Neera feels like a strong addition to the game. As do Rasaad, Dorn, and Hexxat for that matter. I'm glad Beamdog added new companions to the game, even if their presence no longer feels as necessary as it did in the first game.
Neera was not the only companion I assisted however. I also reunited with Rasaad, who I'd actually missed on my first run through Amn, and helped him pursue a dark cult to a remote monastery. I met with Keldorn, a paladin of the Radiant Heart, and reconciled him with his family. I journeyed with Jaheira, my long time druid companion, and battled alongside her against corruption within the Harpers' ranks. And these are but a few of the adventures I had as I prepared myself and my party for our impending battle with Bodhi.
These are the parts of RPGs I love most: helping your party, fighting their battles alongside them, and growing closer along the way. Don't get me wrong, I like solo RPGs but there is (in my own personal opinion) more charm to a game with a large cast of diverse personalities than one without. A dungeon trek with friends is always more fun (for me) than one on your own.
Eventually - after raising my party's level significantly and finishing nearly all of the quests in my journal - I felt the time was right to face Bodhi and renew my war with her and her brother. In my preparations for the fight I'd managed to recruit three very different allies for the fight: the famed drow ranger Drizzt, the Shadow Thieves of Amn (who neither trusted me nor I them), and the paladins of the Radiant Heart. Together we attacked Bodhi's underground lair en masse, slaying dozens of vampires and other undead creatures as we ventured closer to her inner sanctum.
Although she threw everything she had against us and though many of the Shadow Thieves and the paladins were killed, Bodhi was finally corned and staked and Imoen's soul returned. Before she met her end though, the vampire let slip a number of details that put into question what I'd been led to believe about her and her brother. With more questions than answers, my party and I were left with little choice but to return to Suldanessellar... and find out what they really know about Bodhi and Irenicus.