This is Part One of my (soon to be) ongoing CRPG/Infinity Engine Marathon. I played Baldur’s Gate to completion using the Enhanced Edition on the Nintendo Switch. The review will be based on this experience. A review of Siege of Dragonspear will come separately.
Baldur’s Gate holds a special place on my nostalgia shelf. I first played it at the strappingly young age of seven, and I was immediately entranced by its world. That serendipitous mixture of swords, sorcery and subtle schemes across the sword coast stoked the flames of adventure in my once young heart. Don’t get me wrong, I sucked. Hard. I was only a bairn after all, and I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I quite literally replayed the first hour or two over and over again. A whopping 22 years have passed since then, and those memories are as vivid as they have ever been. I finally beat Baldur’s Gate at 7:34pm on 10th January 2021. Today, I am going to talk about it.
The strongest aspect of Baldur’s Gate is its story. By a country mile. When I say story, I don’t necessarily mean the quality or prevalence of the writing. Like trying to light a fire using moist logs, Baldur’s Gate is a slow burner. Your character has spent his life within the confined walls of Candlekeep – a fortress library. One day your dear Foster Father, Gorion, whisks you away in the dead of night after a brief tutorial. As is to be expected, things take a rather sudden turn for the worst. Your cushy life has come to an end, you are no longer welcome at your mega-castle-book-haven. For all intents and purposes, you’ve just been dealt a duff hand. The prologue is awesome as it gives you a nice injection of foreshadowing, intrigue and a real sense that you are basically a sheltered, very mortal (more on that later) man/woman-child.
The smouldering really kicks in during Act 1. You’re Not the messiah, there is no chosen one and if there was, you also wouldn’t be it. Your destiny isn’t grand and the fates couldn’t give a hoot about you. You are an orphan out of your depth. So you just go and explore and stuff. Along the way, you might help some locals with some minor tasks, overhear some rumours in the local tavern, find caves filled with treasure and equipment. Your reputation will slowly grow, for better or for worse, and once you have become seasoned, the story starts to dangle a couple worms to hook you. Once you reach Act 3, you stop being an adventurer, and the story becomes the focus. Interlocking plots, schemes, subterfuge and betrayal surround the Act and by the time you get there (maybe 30 hours or so), you, and your character, are ready. The transition is beautifully executed.
Sprucing up the overarching plot is the dialogue itself. Most NPC’s can be spoken to, and you can be fairly certain you will get an entertaining box of text for your troubles – more so if they have a snazzy name. Every line spoken by practically every character is oozing with fantasy charm. On occasion, the game will even throw in a dash of humour or emotion turning your run-of-the-mill side quest into a swanky dive into your morality. The decisions you make have an impact on the world, albeit a small one, and repeated good or evil interactions will eventually have a knock-on effect as you plod around the Sword Coast. In terms of gameplay, this tends to boil down to helping people or killing people, which is a tad basic. On the plus side, a peaceful resolution often rewards you with a nice bundle of exp, so you aren’t necessarily gimped because you aren’t a murder-hobo.
Whilst you can complete Baldur’s Gate alone, you’d be missing out on getting to know a massive cast of companions. I mean, who doesn’t want a Barbarian/Ranger/bodyguard hybrid whose best friend is a miniature giant space hamster called Boo? As the game has a morality/reputation system, certain companions will be locked off if you are too heroic, or too villainous. It is entirely possible to mix and match companions across the spectrum providing you maintain a degree of neutrality in your dealings. That being said, certain people simply hate others, which can lead to some violence should you insist on keeping them in close proximity. They add a nice dynamic and interactions they share, whilst somewhat rare, are enjoyable. They do, unfortunately, end up being interesting takes on character classes, and not necessarily interesting characters in and of themselves. A bit more development or interparty nattering would have gone a long way.
You can’t go off on a grand adventure without making a character first, of course. As Baldur’s Gate is based on the Second Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, you have hodds of options and next to no comprehensible guidance on how to utilise them. Things start off easy as all you’re doing is picking a gender and a dank portrait. Then you are bombarded with half-a-dozen races, each with their own quirks, abilities, stat modifiers and even class restrictions. Then you have classes, which is equally as overwhelming, if not more so. Heck, you can even combine classes to make a hybrid god of everything. But it doesn’t stop there either. Once you pick class, you get to pick a kit or subclass. Each class has about five, although some have closer to ten. Each subclass radically changes how the base class plays. You better believe there are paragraphs of jargon to dig through to figure out what all of this does. Your dude use spells? Don’t worry, you have the D&D equivalent of War and Peace to read if you want to know what they all do, and which ones to start with. At least it ends simply as you just slap a name on your guy, give them a voice and hop in.
Needless to say, the character creation is a mixed bag. One that is amazingly in-depth and customisable, while also being dense and uninviting. There is a lot of reading to be had if you want to get the most out of your character, and the majority of that will mean nothing to you if you have no experience in this specific version of D&D. There are numbers, acronyms, percentages and stats being thrown around willy-nilly, so good luck figuring out if your character is a wet noodle prior to actually slapping something.
The worst aspect in my opinion is the archaic attribute generation the game uses. As Baldur’s Gate is a dice game at heart, your stats are completely random. You can reroll them as many times as you like, but this ultimately leads to minutes on end just watching numbers flicker until you decide you’re bored enough to accept a result. Depending on how long you spend doing this, you could have a character that has terrible stats, mostly average stats, or a character that has maxed basically every stat and has become God. It’s not satisfying and it stopped me from going back and experimenting with other character choices. I made my Paladin and stuck with him right to the end, regardless of how much I wanted to try Bard, or Mage etc. Thankfully PC users can bypass this with cheats and mods, however, console users are not so lucky.
Once you have navigated the great wall of Jargon and absorbed its bountiful knowledge, you can actually start that awesome adventuring stuff I mentioned earlier. There is a real sense of freedom on offer in Baldur’s Gate, which is weird considering this is not an open-world game, and there are indeed loading screens separating every area in the game. You can almost go anywhere from the get-go, with very few areas locked off for story reasons. This freedom is intoxicating and also incredibly dangerous.
I accidentally stumbled into a den of basilisks early on and was immediately turned to stone, ending my life and forcing a reload. This was a combat encounter that was beyond my current skill set, although was well signposted due to the overabundance of stone statues that littered the unassuming forest. I perused my scroll collection and realised I actually had a spell that counteracted their stony gaze, cast it, and beat the ever-loving crap out of them. Turns out, these enemies are terrible at fighting, and even a low-level party can kill them without any hassle, providing you use your noggin. I was rewarded with a hefty amount of experience and some pretty fine loot.
This is where Baldur’s Gate’s combat is at its finest. You have control over six diverse characters who have access to a plethora of powerful spells and abilities. Preparing for encounters, being cautious in your exploration and learning from your mistakes is crucial, and damn addictive. Blinding a group of Ogres and cutting them up whilst they’re defenceless, or mind-controlling their wizard and killing them from behind is awesome. It is a shame then, that most encounters aren’t like this. It is rare to have a fight in Baldur’s Gate, especially early on, where you need to really do anything other than click to attack. If a group of enemies isn’t supported by a wizard, then you are pretty safe in the assumption that you can just let the fight play out. The wilderness is mostly animals and bandits which pose a fair threat early on, but becoime minor distractions rather quickly.
This juxtaposition is dangerous for the newbie, as the difficult fights in Baldur’s Gate come out of nowhere. The game simply doesn’t prepare you for an intense battle that requires constant positioning, spell usage, ability management, buff upkeep, healing and target priority. This is also when you will be using the incredibly powerful pause function, so you can plan your actions with the utmost accuracy. These are skill checks that you haven’t been shown how to overcome. It is very possible that you will play for hours and think you know what you are doing, only to bump into a party supported by a single wizard, and your life will be ruined. The game does have a number of difficulty options, including one whereby you simply cannot die. If the story is all you are playing for, then this ideal. For everyone else, however, getting dunked on because some decrypted old codger decided to cast Horror and wipe your party, feels cheap.
As with many things in Baldur’s Gate, combat just isn’t beginner-friendly and is jam-packed with jargon. Clicking on a dude is easy, but what isn’t easy is figuring out why your characters are murdering X, but getting krumped by Y. That’s because understanding the dice in the background requires some mental gymnastics. There are two primary statistics that will determine your success – THAC0 and AC. THAC0, or To Hit Armour Class 0, is what you need to roll to hit an enemy. Armour Class is how difficult it is for an enemy to hit you. Counter-intuitively, the lower these numbers are, the better. That being said, if you want to improve, then you need to find equipment, or use spells, that provide a +1 to AC or THAC0 (for example), and not -1. Once you understand what these are, then the game makes more sense. The game, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually explain this to you, so you might think your AC-2 Fighter in full plate with a THAC0 of 5 is less effective than your AC10, THAC0 23 wizard. You’d of course be incorrect.
Then we have stacking, which is as clear as a teenager’s skin. Magical properties from items don’t stack. The game won’t tell you this, but you will be unable to equip two pieces of equipment that share effects. But what about spells? Do they stack with magical items? Do they stack with special abilities? Do they stack with other spells? Do they stack with Bard songs? Honestly, I still don’t know all of those answers for certain even after 50 hours of play. What I do know is, is that certain buffs can actually make a character weaker. If you cast something like Strength on a character with an already hefty Strength stat, they will receive a potentially hefty nerf. Again, this is Baldur’s Gate expecting you to know how to play an old pen and paper RPG, but also not being particularly interested in teaching you how to do it.
The most grating aspect would be traps, however. Traps are tiny pockets of rage that will, more often than not, force a reload. Whether you stumble into a web trap and are forced to stand still for a few minutes, or you activate a lightning bolt trap that instantly kills your mage, these little buggers will ruin your life. To counteract them, you need a rogue. Rogues can not only detect them, but also disarm them. The problem is, your detection range is very small and there is an invisible timer that is ticking which determines when traps are being detected. You have to move very slowly and hope to Bhaal that you find a trap before you step in it. In the end, I resorted to running through them, reloading if it was bad, then sending the rogue forward and disarming. It was tedious, to say the least. Dungeons don’t tend to be filled with them, they do, however, like to sneak a couple douchey pockets of them here and there.
I played Baldur’s Gate on a console, Switch specifically, and the controls are another hurdle you may have to cross. Whilst not unmanageable, they are not very well explained. It took me about 25 hours to realise I could rearrange my part order without having to remove and re-add my companions, for example. The worst aspect of the console controls, however, is the removal of certain actions. You cannot rotate your party when you move them. This means you can’t position your units effectively in combat without individually selecting and moving them. This is beyond tedious.
All this aside, Baldur’s Gate, once it clicks, is a wonderful experience. You get a sudden burst of divine understanding, then it really opens up and lets you enjoy its complex story and systems. What surprised me the most is how well the game has held up in terms of presentation. Sure the graphics are mostly just blurry sprites, but from the default isometric viewing distance, it looks great. It has an almost timeless style that delves deeply into western fantasy. Watching as a throwing axe slowly whirls through the air, or as a crackling lightning shield encompasses your paladin, just looks awesome. The attack animations are probably the most dated aspect of the game, often looking like soggy pasta duels, but that is more than made up for with the occasional exploding corpse when you land a meaty critical hit. The Enhanced Edition has done a lot to make this old-timer look at the bee’s knees, and it is certainly appreciated.
The sound design in particular is outstanding. The music is memorable and epic, the point I have been able to hum most of the soundtrack for over two decades. Everything from jolly tavern jingles, to wilderness exploration backings to epic combat ballads. This game has it all, and it’s glorious. The voice acting, despite being sparse, is top-notch. The sound quality does sound a tad dated at times, but the stellar vocal talent on display knocks it out of the park. I still get a beaming smile whenever I talk to Winthrop and hear him proclaim how clean, and arsey, his hotel is.
I played the Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate, and this particular version includes a fairly lengthy expansion called Tales of the Sword Coast which adds a decent amount of content that fits seamlessly into the main game. It also adds a number of new companions such as the Wild Mage Neera and the Dark Paladin Dorn. These new characters stand out like a sore thumb. Not only is the quality of their voice recordings noticeably better, but the amount of voiced dialogue, and the quests that accompany them, are radically different. Their inclusion, despite being obvious, is welcome though. They add a bit more life to the cast, a bit more content to the game and their classes are unique enough that they are a joy to experiment with.
Whilst the Enhanced Edition made some, in my opinion, worthwhile changes, it is a shame that Beamdog didn’t go that extra mile. There are very few, if any, quality of life changes. The maps in Baldur’s Gate are massive, which makes for quite the sprawling adventure, but also the slog when you want to backtrack. Additionally, the combat against grunt mobs is quite mundane. An easy solution to this would have been a toggleable speed option. This seemingly minor addition would have improved the experience quite substantially, especially when you start doing laps around Baldur’s Gate itself.
When all is said and done, Baldur’s Gate is a wonderful title that is held back by not only its age but the age of the system it was built upon. The combat can be enthrallingly addictive, the sense of adventure is intoxicating and the story masterfully unravels around you. Despite my Half-Orc sized bias though, I am not blind to its flaws. This is a game that will hook you from the get-go or will stab you in the back and leave you playing other games. I don’t really think there is a middle ground. That being said, I loved my time with Baldur’s Gate, warts and all, and I would absolutely sink another 50 hours into it if I had the time.
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