This is Part Three of my ongoing CRPG/Infinity Engine Marathon. I played Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn to completion using the Enhanced Edition on the Nintendo Switch. The review will be based on this experience. A review of Throne of Bhaal will come separately.
The Baldur’s Gate series, and the Infinity Engine that powers it, is something special. Even after all of these years. The first entry in the series invoked a tangible sense of adventure and exploration. Before you delved into labyrinthian dungeons and sent the big-bad back to the fiery pits of Avernus, you simply existed. You were in a world where nobody gave a toss about you, your story or whatever divine globins you may or may not have possessed. Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn takes that formula, beats it to death, throws it into the sea and presents you with something altogether different. All together better.
Shadows is a sequel in a way that no other game has ever sequeled before. Shadows will not hold your hand for any length of time, it will not explain any of its systems and it will certainly expect you to have played the original before jumping in. It is unabashedly dense from the get-go, and whilst it can be played individually, it certainly doesn’t appreciate the cheek of the players who decide to do so. This is a narrative-driven game, and it wants the player to appreciate the complexity of its weave.
The game kicks off a couple of months after the conclusion of the original. Something went terribly wrong (see Siege of Dragonspear for more details on that) and I found my canonically faithful compatriots and I were imprisoned in some Shelluvian-inspired steampunk torture cell. I was then quickly introduced to the big-bad of the module, the undeniably inconsiderate Irrenicus. This chap, for lack of a better word, is a bit of a tinker. Not only did he want to experiment on me, my friends and my family (if they weren’t all dead of course), but also he wasn’t against a bit of murder and mutilation from time-to-time.
I give the guy the slip, getting hit with some emotional revelations along the way, and then the true power of Irenicus is revealed. You see, I was told Sarevok was powerful. I was told Caelar was powerful. They both got slapped around by me when the time came, and both spent an awful lot of time in the shadows manipulating people for their own ends. Irenicus on the other hand, is a doer. This guy blows up his own dungeon, murders countless members of a wizard cabal designed to kill wizards, and, of course, he managed to overcome me and my companions between games. This guy acts as if he is a god and has the power to back it up. As far as villains go, Irrenicus tops my “most intimidating antagonist” list. Easily.
As Shadows is a narratively driven experience, I don’t really want to get into more than I have to. Despite that, the introductory hour or so is something truly amazing. The amount of weight behind every line of dialogue combined with the visual and emotional impact of its storytelling hit me hard. This continued throughout the game and Baldur’s Gate 2 has one of, if not the most, compelling stories I have ever experienced. This is a dark tale filled with revelations, betrayal and death. It hit me like a truck and stuck with me for days after I reached the credits. I suspect it will stick with me for quite some time.
I mentioned Shadows was a true sequel, and I meant it. Not just in terms of narrative impact, but in terms of gameplay and difficulty. Most sequels are sequels in terms of the story alone, not gameplay. You are essentially reset to level 1 and have to regain your power for whatever reason – if there even is one. Not here. Baldur’s Gate 2 sets you at level 8 (at least) and expects you to not only understand the sheer complexity such a party of characters entails but to grow even more powerful over its course. There is no ludo-narrative dissonance in this regard. You ended the last game as a hero who killed a god, so you better damn believe you will begin this adventure capable of doing so again.
This overflows to the exploration aspect of Shadows. The original was a vast semi-open world that ended in the titular, and massive city of Baldur’s Gate. Because I’ve already proven I’m worthy of experiencing civilisation – it started me in one. This might come across as a downside, especially if you were an avid fan of the adventuring aspects of the original, but Shadows has something that Baldur’s Gate simply didn’t – density.
This game is so unbelievably packed with content that it took me well over 15 hours to ever advance the story. This has the downside of drawing the unfortunate ire of ludo-narrative dissonance other parts of the game managed to avoid, however, there are some benefits. Many games in recent times are loaded with non-tent – content that is pure fluff and does nothing but pad. Shadows, on the other hand, is full of compelling side tales and activities that truly baffle the mind. One moment I was exploring the streets of Athkatla and the next I had accidentally stumbled into a circus that ended up being a portal to another dimension controlled by a Djinn, who, in fact, was just a prodigy gnome. Just as an example.
Questing in general has a focus on discovery, not just ticking some boxes on a menu. I encountered an underground slave pit. I even watched as some of these slaves were put to death in gladiatorial combats. This didn’t trigger a quest, because why would it? How would talking to a slave master, or the audience of a blood-pit, trigger a quest? They wouldn’t commission a hero to save slaves from themselves. You, as a player, have to seek out the quest by exploring and use your initiative. I eventually found a slave who requested my aid and only then did I get a quest notification. It might seem small, but there’s a reason such a small, and ultimately minor, quest stuck with me tens of hours later.
There is even foreshadowing. So I bump into a Dwarf by complete chance. This guy tells me to leave him alone and makes an offhanded remark about him being haunted by ghosts. You can’t follow this line of dialogue further because he wants you to bugger the heck off. Hours (literally) later, I bump into a ghost. The ghost is of a murdered child who needs his doll to sleep. A quest triggers, I remember this completely random dwarf nattering about this stuff, and go and confront him. Again, this may seem small, but I cannot remember any sidequests in any other game I have played in recent memory that do this kind of thing. It makes everything worth doing, and there is a lot to do. As I said, I spent 15 hours here and never once left the city. When I did, I did so via a story sequence and went to a completely different part of the world – there was an entire wilderness to explore that I simply didn’t. This game makes tungsten look floppy.
But all of this pales in comparison to your companions. In Baldur’s Gate, your companions essentially boiled down to interesting, or unique, takes on certain character classes or combinations. There was very little inter-party communication and they rarely, if ever, interacted with you or the story that was unfolding around them. Shadows abandons that idea. This game will hound you with dialogue from every companion in your party. This would have been annoying had it not been so well written. Jaheira had lost someone close to her and had to try and balance her faith, her emotions and her personality in a way she simply couldn’t. Minsc had lost his purpose and desperately tried to rekindle his life by finding someone to replace what he had lost and failed to protect. Aerie struggles to adapt to her new life after living a life nobody else could ever possibly imagine. These are deeply personal stories, and what’s more, they intertwine with each other. Minsc and Aerie’s stories collide, as does Jaheria’s. You can have up to five companions in your party and have a whopping 20 to choose from. The amount of replayability just to experience each characters unique tale is enough to go through the game again – not to mention the gameplay differences.
The companions somewhat tie into moral and directional dilemmas as well. Whilst I only played through Shadow’s once for this review, it is immediately apparent that the story, and associated locations, you will visit change based on what you decide to do. I felt a real weight to my decisions, and my companions would often chime in and give me their opinions as well as advice. Because they were all so damn likeable, it added a sense tension as I didn’t want to make the wrong choice gameplay-wise, but I also didn’t want to let my team down. Inevitably, there were tensions between the team, so I inevitably annoy someone, which kept things tantalisingly difficult.
Speaking of which, Shadows is not an easy game. Baldur’s Gate tended to be a bit boring when it came to combat. It almost resembled an ARPG like Diablo until nearer the end when wizards became more prevalent. Shadows pulled no punches and threw everything it had at me almost immediately. Wizards are a common enemy, which meant I needed to plan for them. It was a requirement that I needed to understand the complexity of the magic system, how to counter every spell and how to break through their defences. It was that, or die. That’s not all though, some enemies are immune to certain weapons, or magic. There are enemies, such as vampires, that drained experience from my companions and can kill them by reducing their stats to 0. The number of times Minsc died because he became so stupid he couldn’t continue to breathe, beggars belief. I needed to know how to handle every potential debuff, and you better believe the game didn’t help me.
This makes combat engrossing throughout, although a tad longwinded from time-to-time. Magic is king, but learning how to kite with my less magical companions certainly helped. Bosses, in particular, are a highlight of combat. They often require a balance of buffs, debuffs, healing, kiting, offensive magic and even summoning magic just to get by. Things only got more complicated as I grew in power, as the game tends to scale. The more my options expand, the more options my enemies have at their disposal. Despite this scaling, don’t assume the game always plays fair. Let’s just say if you encounter a lich early on, it is very unlikely you will have the tools, or more accurately, the knowledge to overcome them. This is a thinking persons game through and through.
If combat is not for you, the Enhanced Editions do have several options to alleviate the struggle. Core is the intended difficulty, but dropping to Normal will give you a fair challenge without some of the more annoying rules Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition is known to throw your way. Easy should be simple enough for most people to get through whilst ensuring total newcomers still get a bit of challenge. Story Mode is there if you want to just enjoy the story and don’t mind being invincible. Honestly, any of these modes is fine, and missing out on combat won’t ruin the experience as the story is the star of the show.
For the sadists among you, you can ramp up the challenge to insane levels if you really want to. I for one don’t have the patience to ram my head through concrete, not do I have the intellectual skill required to pull off such a feat. It is there though should you desire the ultimate challenge.
Considering Baldur’s Gate 2’s short development cycle, one would expect very little in terms of visual refinement. Heck, I was expecting more of the same. This is absolutely not the case, and Shadows manages to show the Infinity Engine off in all of its glory. The variety in locations is truly staggering, with every one of them being instantly memorable. You know exactly where every shop, NPC, building and quest is because everything is so well made. Enemy sprites have been redesigned as well, with buckets of new enemy types making this not only a visually distinct treat in terms of exploration, but also in terms of combat.
The original was filled with forests and that’s really about it. Within a couple of hours of playing Baldur’s Gate 2, I experienced an entire middle-eastern-inspired city, an illusory realm, an extra-planar prison controlled by a demi-god, and multiple dungeons filled with all manners of beasties and gribblies. Variety is certainly a spice worth sprinkling. This is all backed with quality sound design. Voice acting is truly outstanding, and not just for a game this old. Each character bleeds personality thanks to the efforts of the phenomenal talent on display throughout. The music perfectly accompanies the gameplay and narrative too. It doesn’t matter what’s happening, the music will invade your soul and fill you with every emotion known to man. This may be an old product, but the foundation supporting it hasn’t shifted an inch.
Baldur’s Gate 2, like it’s forebear, has an incredibly in-depth character creation suite, however, I would advise against using it on a first playthrough. If it wasn’t already apparent by multiple instances of me telling you to play the original first, you should play the original first. You can transfer your character over to Shadows and this is my recommendation, as well as what I assume is the intended way to play.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn is an achievement of leviathanic proportions. It is an improvement over the original in every conceivable way. Whilst the game’s density in both content and mechanics may be off-putting to some, will make this game magical for others. Thankfully it is as accessible as it is brilliant and I advise everyone to play this game at their earlier convenience. If you have already played it, play it again. Everything from the story, to interactions, to quest design to gameplay is utterly staggering in its polish and delivery. There is a reason Baldur’s Gate 2 has been remembered for so many years – it’s because it’s a gosh darn masterpiece.
If you liked this review, then check out my review of Baldur’s Gate and Siege of Dragonspear. Keep an eye out for my Throne of Bhaal review, as well as Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment – all of which are coming soon.
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