It’s been a big year for Baldur’s Gate, the classic RPG franchise. Just as it was announced that the Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Shadows of Amn, would be released on PS4, Xbox One (and Switch, of all things), Larian Studios (who recently made Divinity : Original Sin 2) announced that they were developing the third instalment in a series which has not had a mainline release since its last expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, in 2001. So naturally, the big question is : Why should you play the Baldur’s Gate games in 2019?
For some the answer is fairly obvious, playing through Baldur’s Gate 3 will most likely require some foreknowledge of the series, but given that the third game will apparently play out a hundred years after the story of the first two, and the eighteen years gap between the games, we’re also tempted to expect that the story will be relatively self-contained. So again, why play those games now?
Well because they’re totally awesome of course, and because to this day they are still two of the best RPGs ever made!
A Forgotten Realms Adventure
The series takes place in the Forgotten Realms, the classic high-fantasy Dungeons & Dragons settings, and therefore uses a similar ruleset to the tabletop game. What’s beautiful about Baldur’s Gate is that it manages to contain a very complex ruleset into a fairly simple, intuitive interface, which controls almost exclusively with the mouse (or a controller soon), and some keyboard shortcuts. Everybody is one key or one click away. There is a learning curve here, although not a very long one ; and while the difficulty of the first game can seem crushing early on it swiftly lets down to get at the core of what those games are : exploration.
Within minutes of the first game, your main character is thrown into the wild, fairly open world of the Sword Coast, which he can explore at will. There are many things you can do in this vast expanse ; kill monsters and bandits to earn character levels (all of which feel extremely rewarding as they are sparse and far between), recruit companions to accompany you and fight alongside you on your adventure, or take on quests. Those range from silly – one quest involves restoring a talking chicken to its human form – to absolutely epic, as is your main quest to save the Sword Coast from the crisis and impending war which threatens it.
A Wonderful Combat System
Yet where the two Baldur’s Gate games really shine is in their combat systems. It is turn-based, but it also takes place in real-time, with spells and attacks happening seamlessly. Sometimes it is all too fast, so the developers at Bioware came up with two genius ideas : a combat log which informs you of both your allies and your enemies’ actions, and a pause button which allows you a respite from the intensity of battle to plan your strategies and achieve success. This allows both games, in spite of their difficulty, to never feel frustrating as all players will always be given a fair chance.
Baldur’s Gate II : Shadows of Amn
The saga truly takes off with the second one, which allows you to import your character from the first game to carry on his or her story. Ironically, Baldur’s Gate II does not actually take place anywhere near Baldur’s Gate (one of the most important cities in the Forgotten Realms setting), rather taking place in the somewhat exotic country of Amn, where magic is forbidden (posing a rather serious gameplay challenge). The second volume of the saga takes your protagonist on a hunt for Jon Irenicus, the elven wizard who has stolen your soul, through environments more diverse and more detailed than the first one.
The visual design of Baldur’s Gate II is one of its greatest strengths : the hand-painted environments are stunningly beautiful, crafting incredible and breathtaking atmospheres from the lowest, most common settings. The city sewers turn into an elaborate, mysterious and engrossing maze, a seemingly innocuous quest takes you adventuring into a grove so beautiful you’ll want to stay there forever. Even the seemingly mandatory and generic pirate town has a charm of its own. Each corner you turn offers its share of surprise, each step you take fills you with a sense of wonder and adventure that few games have ever matched.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason why those games should still be played today is because of how unique they are. Even among the genre they stand out because of their fully defined and characterized world, the open-endedness of the experience they offer, the sheer quantity of gameplay options they exploit, the absolute discipline with which every aspect of the games are executed. Few other games have ever found such a perfect balance between player-friendliness and complex gameplay mechanics, sheer difficulty and a rewarding sense of accomplishment. Few other games provide the player with such an exhilarating feeling of victory and pride when they finally bring down a difficult foe. Few other series allow the player to see their character fully progress through three games, allowing them to reflect at the end on how far they have come.
The releases of the Baldur’s Gate games is especially exciting in that they are actually releases of the Enhanced Editions of the games, which provide extra content, extra playability, enhanced graphics, and most importantly the Siege of Dragonspear DLC which bridges the gap between the two mainline games and offers the player the opportunity to explore regions unmapped in past playthroughs.
RPGs aren’t everyone’s bag, but if they are, you need to do yourself a favor and get those games – they’ll stick with you for a very long time.