The vampire Bodhi is dead, my sister Imoen's soul reclaimed. The elves of Suldanessellar stand ready to reclaim their city. My party is rested and ready to fight, their many disparate struggles put to rest for the time being. All is in place for my final battle with Irenicus. Both of us share a single soul, a single spark of godhood. But only one of us can keep it. One of us must live and one of us must die.

For the purpose of slaying Irenicus I chose to take with me a group of some of my most trusted and experienced companions. Minsc and Jaheira were the first two that came to mind, in large part due not only to their long association with me but because they too had personal reasons for fighting Irenicus. I also brought Viconia along, so that she could fulfill the oath she'd been forced to swear toward the purpose of Irenicus' destruction. My next choice was Neera; she'd made clear that what she wanted was to be with me through thick and thin and after leaving her behind to face Irenicus the first time, I wasn't about to do it a second time. Lastly, I brought the thief Hexxat, largely as a substitute for Imoen. I'd already lost Imoen to Irenicus once; I had no intention to let it happen again.

Before I could attack Irenicus, however, there was one more thing I felt compelled to do. When I returned to the eleven camp, I confronted the elven leader Elhan about my suspicions that there was more to Bodhi and Irenicus' feud with them than he had let on. The elf was reluctant to let part any more information, but I managed to wring out of one detail: Irenicus and Bodhi were former inhabitants of Suldanessellar who had been exiled. Elhan would not elaborate on the nature of their crime or why they were banished, but his reluctant revelation did at least confirm something Bodhi had alluded to shortly before her death: that Irenicus' choice of Suldanessellar as a target was far from random.

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Unwilling to explain any further, Elhan urged us to get started with the reconquest of Suldanessellar. Somewhat eager to get started myself, I agreed and the seven of us (my party and Elhan) left for the fabled elven city, using the magical lantern Bodhi had stolen to guide our way. Upon finding the city we discovered it overrun by a combination of fiends, constructs, and illusions, summoned by Suldanessellar to destroy all intruders and to keep them from his intended goal, whatever that was. Defeating these creatures proved no easy feat and I ended up spending several days slogging my way through the horde, until at last I reached the priestess Demin, who Elhan had informed me could help us reclaim the city.

As it turned out Demin was of great service. In addition to providing us with an idea of how to drive out Irenicus' army - to perform an elven ritual to invoke the wrath of the god Rillifane - Demin was also able to explain the "Exile's" quarrel with the elves and the principle purpose behind everything he'd done so far. As it turned out, Irenicus and Bodhi had once been elves, powerful and influential within Suldanessellar and favorites of the city's queen. Their lust for power, however, had led them to commit the ultimate sacrilege, sapping the life force of the city's magical tree in order to ascend to godhood, almost destroying Suldanessellar in the process.

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For their crimes, Irenicus and Bodhi were not only banished but their elven nature stripped from them, leaving them frail in life and forsaken in death. It had been hoped (rather foolishly) that their punishment would give them cause to atone. Instead, it had driven them both to desperate measures: Bodhi had purposefully sought out the curse of vampirism to reclaim her agelessness and Irenicus had hunted me down in order to steal my spark of godhood. Now, with another soul to power him, Irenicus sought to finish what he'd started those many years before and had returned to Suldanessellar to drain the Tree of Life's power for good.

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Understanding Irenicus' motives did not make me any less inclined to stop him, however. To the contrary, however extreme the elves' punishment of him had been, it was clear that Irenicus both before and after his exile was a dangerous madman who - regardless of my personal qualms with him - had to be stopped. With Denim's help I performed the ritual to summon an avatar of Rillifane and banished Irenicus' army from the city, leaving the path open to pursue him within the branches of the Tree of Life. Once there, it was a simple matter to cut off his power source and slay him.

One might have expected that to be the end but Irenicus' dabbling had made things more complicated. As it turned out, the fact that Irenicus had stolen a majority of my soul meant that his death spelled mine as well - and my party's, interestingly enough. With his last breath he dragged us with him to the depths of the Nine Hells where it seemed one last task awaited me... the recovery of my soul.

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To do this I was required by the local powers - who seemed curiously to all be manifestations of my own mind (or perhaps of my deceased father's divinity) - to pass a number of tests of the heart, pitting me against my darker impulses and self-doubts. To a large extent these trials were fairly straightforward and easy to pass, though they did remind me somewhat of a similar sequence from the later game Mask of the Betrayer, which I don't doubt was at least partially influenced by Shadows of Amn.

Once I'd passed every test I came face to face with Irenicus one final time. The mage was defiant to the last, insistent that he would defeat me and keep my soul, perhaps allowing him to return to life or simply to annihilate me once and for all. To aid him he summoned several fiends, including both a balor and a pit fiend, and transformed himself into the Slayer, the manifestation of my dead father's bloodlust. Fortunately, I had some help of my own and was able to meet Irenicus' power ounce for ounce, bringing down his allies and finally cornering him and slaying him (though it was Minsc who dealt the final blow).

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With Irenicus slain a second time, this time for good, my soul returned to me and my party and I returned to the world of the living. We were greeted there by the elves of Suldanessellar who, surprised by our sudden recovery after days of attempts to resurrect us without success, celebrated us as heroes and gave us a place of honor within their city. All seemed well in hand.

Little did I realize that a shadowy conspiracy had taken an interest in my activities and was even then plotting my doom...

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So that was Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. On the whole, a much better game than Baldur's Gate, which wasn't even bad to begin with. In almost every way, BG2's an improvement over its predecessor: the story's more interesting, the characters get more development, and the gameplay's more varied.

There's only really a couple of areas where BG1 excels and BG2 does not. First off, whereas BG1 had a slow beginning but begins to pick up around the middle, BG2 has a bit of the opposite: the beginning has a solid hook but it starts to lose its way a little toward the middle, where it suffers both from mission creep (there's a strong inclination to ignore Imoen's plight during the second and third acts when the game throws a ton of material at you, which I resisted) as well as unnecessary distractions (the Underdark, for the most part). But the game begins to pick up again after this middle section and for the most part has a stronger arc than BG1.

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The second area where BG1 might be considered superior is in its open-world nature, which allows characters to explore pretty much every corner of the world map (literally) and go about the quest however they like. Comparatively, BG2's a bit more linear: you can only go to certain locations on the map and you really have only a few (very similar) ways to carry out the main quest. The main choice of significance seems to be around the second act, where you choose either to support the Shadow Thieves or Bodhi's vampires, but no matter which way you choose it seems obvious Bodhi will eventually turn on you and you'll have to kill her. Likewise, whether you pursue Irenicus over sea or through the Underdark really doesn't matter: the game will force you to do the latter regardless.

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Again, however, I feel the game's strengths more than make up for these flaws. The more personal weight of the story and the expanded depth of the game's characters - both those present in the original release and those who were added by Beamdog - makes Shadows of Amn a game that really grows on you as you play it. BioWare clearly learned a lot in the intervening time between the two games and may have even picked up a few lessons from their publishers Black Isle, who produced the thematically similar Planescape: Torment during that time (and which seems to have possibly been an influence). I really have no compunction to go back and play BG1 again on a solo run but I'd be strongly tempted to give SoA another try at some point in the future.

In the meantime though, I have one last part in the story to finish: the expansion Throne of Bhaal, which actually started immediately after the final cutscene finished rolling. For the time being, I'm putting the game aside; I'd like some time to sit and reflect on Shadows of Amn and to finish a couple of other games that have been waiting on me. But some time soon I look forward to finishing the Bhaalspawn Saga, which I began with somewhat skeptical eyes but which has since won me over.