Playing the Hits
Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 entered early access on October 6, 2020, and while the game is still a ways off from being fully released, many are already buzzing about the game. In the months to come, the game is set to get larger, character customization more in depth, and so many other changes that will make it a massive experience to play through.
However, being the third game in a series, and the first sequel in over twenty years, Baldur’s Gate 3 has a lot to live up to. Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are often listed as some of the best CRPGs of all time, with Baldur’s Gate 2 having a legacy that can still be felt in western RPGs to this day. The name alone conjures memories in players’ minds of their adventures with their Bhaalspawn and the journey they took from Candlekeep to explore the Forgotten Realms.
But how does that experience hold up? Games have come a long way since 1999, both on the tabletop and on the screen, and advancements in both visuals and design can make revisiting once storied classics hard for players that are coming to them for the first time.
So, I took a look at Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, released in November of 2013 to see how the latest iteration of the game plays, and whether or not this Bioware classic holds up to the test of time.
Dungeons, Dragons, And Design
As an adaptation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition ruleset, Baldur’s Gate 2 already has a lot it has to overcome in translating that era of the game’s mechanics as well as communicating them to players who might not be familiar with how these rules work.
Thankfully, Baldur’s Gate 2 automates much of this process, giving players control over their primary Bhaalspawn PC, and the NPC’s they will be controlling along the way, without bogging them down with unnecessary systems. While it doesn’t do so perfectly, breaking down how the game works generally looks like so:
Creating Your Avatar
Arguably the most important step of the game, creating your Bhaalspawn is the first step on your adventure. The game gives you a good deal of control, allowing you to choose your gender, race, class, alignment within your class restrictions, ability scores, appearance, and name.
This is all standard fare for CRPGs, but all of them come with some caveats. In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, class options were restricted by race, and certain classes like Druids and Paladins had to be certain alignments. While these restrictions don’t have major impact on gameplay (Paladins are given a good deal of leniency on what counts as Lawful Good), their age does show in an era where D&D, and many fantasy games as a whole eschew such gating.
Likewise your control over your appearance is quite dated compared to where the genre sits today. Portraits are the name of the game, and while there is a limited number of pre-existing ones, savvy players can import their own for use. Otherwise, the only other visual options you have are over a paper doll-like avatar in which you can control skin, hair, and clothing colors for a default scheme.
That then leaves your character’s skills and attributes. While skills boil down to a basic numbers allotment, your stats are able to be rolled for, with the ability to pull stat points and relocate them elsewhere. This does a fine enough job simulating the experience of throwing some six-sided dice about to create your character, with the addition of being able to reroll at the click of a button, and store a set of numbers you like in case fortune doesn’t want to favor you with good numbers.
Once that’s finished, you are ready to start (or continue if you’ve played the first game) your adventure. Though you don’t have control over facial sliders or other granular details that people have come to expect from RPG create-a-character systems nowadays, it’s still serviceable, if a bit limited at points due to the wonderful, but dated Infinity Engine.
Exploring Sights and Sounds.
As a game from 1999, Baldur’s Gate 2 has a dated, though pleasant look to it. The Infinity Engine the game is built in uses an eagle-eyed isometric perspective that doesn’t really allow for getting right into the thick of things. It also means you have to rely on portraits and your imagination to know what characters look like. There is a charm to their animations and the style, but given where games have gone since then it can be hard to not yearn for more.
Maps however, are a totally different affair. No matter the location, it is brimming with personality. Each district of the game’s hub city of Athkatla have large set pieces that as you traverse the streets become familiar, even comforting sights. Environmental storytelling does a lot to describe the character of an area, setting a mood and tone that even two decades later permeates through the screen.
Accompanying this is a suite of songs and masterfully constructed ambient audio to help fill the spots between voiced conversations. After a minute you’ll be no doubt humming along with the battle tunes, and able to identify locations purely by whatever rapscallion or shopkeep is perking up as you jog by.
Though it can’t hope to match the visual fidelity of modern big-budget RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 2 still manages to capture a sense of fantasy adventure and charm that does well to immerse the player in the world of Faerun.
To Battle, and Victory!
Dungeons and Dragons is a game that features a lot of fighting, a lot of talking, and a lot of delving through ancient, strange places in search of loot. Baldur’s Gate 2 has all these things in spades as you and your party journey through the countryside of Amn.
As previously mentioned, gameplay follows the 2nd Edition AD&D formula, though with a more real time spin. Thankfully, Baldur’s Gate 2 takes things like calculating THAC0, saving throws, and other systems of the game’s combat and bears the load, allowing for players to focus on the more tactical elements. Where your party is positioned, how spells are being cast, and what abilities are being used. If you need a moment to breathe, the game does allow you to pause at the push of a button, and the ability to simulate a more turn based style of play is available in the options
There is also a pleasant level of control over your party. What spells they have prepared, their weapons and armor, all of these are in your hands to allow you to mix and match gear to optimize each character to their strengths. You might not always look fashionable, but you will be prepared!
The game however, is still tough as nails. Save or die spells and traps, level drain, as well as just tough encounters mean that you will want to save often, or keep gold handy to resurrect fallen party members. This falls in line with the era of D&D the game is based on, but there are situations that can seem like cheap “gotcha!” moments that are always frustrating.
Menus are also a thing that any player will have to get used to navigating. While this is common fare for many RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 2 has numerous menus that can often compound upon themselves. Menus for leveling, menus for your gear, menus within menus for both of these things, a quest journal, spell books, casting bars, ability bars, and many others can mean you are micromanaging your play style as much as you are your party in combat.
That said, the game does have several difficulty settings, all of which allow for players to further customize their experience to be able to focus on the parts that interest them most. Though it doesn’t allow for robust AI protocols of some RPGs, it can help to ease players into the experience who are not familiar with this era of computer gaming.
RPG’s are little more than math battles without the stories and worlds that surround them. Thankfully, of all the places this is where Baldur’s Gate 2 shines. Taking control of the child of a dead god, the first moments of the story throw you into the thick of things as you try to break free from a mad sorcerer’s prison. From there, your journey takes you on an epic quest of self discovery, choice, and divine consequences as you chase this sorcerer down in search of answers, and vengeance.
Each of the game’s numerous available party members are brimming with life. Whether you are engaging in bizarre banter with the gnome Jan Jansen, musing on the nature of your quests with Jaheira, entertaining the delusions of grandeur of Edwin, there is plenty of life to them all. All of them have their own motivations and wants, often leading to interesting quests that will test loyalties and motivations. After all, a chaotic evil character won’t appreciate all the good you’re doing most of the time. Still, the characters feel nuanced, and the game’s robust conversation systems allow for actual discussions to be had about situations when they arise.
Quests likewise shine. Though your main quests will always be at your forefront, sidequests are plenty, and offer a stunning variety of stories. Whether you are trying to solve a murder mystery, attempting to drive shadows from an old temple, or helping a suitor convince his lover’s father that he’s worthy, the game has plenty to do to leave your mark upon the world.
Voice acting is sparse in the game, but a stellar cast that features the likes of Jim Cummings, David Warner, Grey Delisle, and others breathe life into key moments that will leave their performances lingering long after the game is finished. Coupled with some excellent writing and party banter the characters do more than engage you, they start to make you care about their wellbeing. While that should be done in any RPG of this sort, Baldur’s Gate 2 does so with a confidence that makes it seem effortless rather than flaunting its good writing in the player’s face.
Despite not having modern graphics and limited voice work, the narrative remains incredible in the game all in all. Themes of self, destiny, and one’s place in the world all shine through, allowing you to forge these choices meaningfully for yourself. Additionally, the Enhanced Edition of the game features new quests and NPC’s to interact with, furthering the possibilities of your adventure.
A Timeless Adventure
Over two decades after its release, and the game still stands as a monolith of the CRPG genre. Though some of its edges have roughened with age, the game is still manages to deliver an engrossing story packaged with challenging gameplay and enough variety to warrant playing through the game multiple times. The additions made by the Enhanced Edition, as well as fan made patches and content have all done wonders to keep a great game alive, filled with content, and easier than ever to experience.
Whether you are a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, or just looking for a new RPG to sink your teeth into, Baldur’s Gate 2 is an achievement unto itself, and is well remembered as one of Bioware’s best games for a good reason; It’s just that good.