Reviewing re-releases of older games is a difficult prospect, especially when a decade or more has elapsed since the title was first released. Fortunately Baldur’s Gate was a gem when it was first released and though time hasn’t been entirely kind to this slice of RPG history it has managed to retain its key appeal.
Baldur’s Gate is a game set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting that utilizes the 2nd of Dungeons and Dragons. The story begins simply with some extremely familiar tropes. Your character is an orphan of unknown origin who was taken in by a kindly mage. Yes, your adopted father is going to be killed faster than you can say “Ned Stark” and your mysterious parentage is a crucial component to the storyline. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling anything, but the entire game is well conceived and written.
The original was largely mouse-driven with some options for keyboard shortcuts and this interface has been switched over to a touchscreen interface with only a few hiccups. The biggest problem I found was in navigating the inventory screen. Moving and equipping items is simple, but pulling up the description of an item, which is essential in identifying new magical items was often tricky and took several attempts. Given that while you’re in any of the inventory or spell selection screens the game is paused it’s not a hindrance to the pace of difficulty of gameplay but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
An aspect of Baldur’s Gate I had forgotten about from when I first played it at its release was just how punishingly difficult it is. They didn’t set out to make a hard game, but the mechanics of second edition D&D always presented a significant challenge. Fortunately for those prone to phone-tossing there’s an option to scale down the difficulty and the game runs so swiftly that frequent saving and reloading isn’t a hassle if battles go wrong. There’s also a difficulty slider under the options that allows you to tweak the mechanics for a more relaxing experience or ramp it up for a trip down the rabbit hole of masochistic madness.
I have to discuss the look of the game. It’s something I’m not sure how to address. The game is viewed from a static, isometric overhead view which allowed the developers to lavish a lot of attention and care to the landscapes and buildings which have a timeless, painted quality. The animated sprites however have not held up as well. They’re relatively undetailed and while the different equipment and customizable color schemes allow you to easily differentiate between your characters even in the heat of combat if you zoom in too far they become pixelated and grainy. That being said, resisting the urge to update the graphics keeps the original feel and tone of the game intact.
One of the best parts about Baldur’s Gate is just how many options you have. In some ways this re- release is superior to the original. In its sequel the developers added a greater degree of customization; you were able to choose from a few new character class options and the existing classes were all given “class kits” that allowed you to further specify your character both in terms of abilities and flavor. BGEE takes all those options and dumps them into the original, plus a few new additions of its own. Of course nobody wants to adventure alone, so along your journey you’ll meet a plethora of allies to build out a party of up to six characters. These aren’t faceless drones either; each has a personality that will be expressed in dialog and action alike. Put too many good and evil characters together in the same posse and eventually someone will take up arms against their former comrades. As with so many RPGs there are areas to explore and quests to complete that have nothing to do with the main storyline. These are rarely just fetch quests and usually have an option for players to side with good or evil depending on your motivations. Playing through the game multiple times and seeing the varying outcomes is an extremely satisfying experience, particularly since there are so many classes and NPCs to choose from.
Baldur’s Gate is a very story driven game and there’s a lot of reading to be done. Even descriptions of the higher level magical items can come with their own embedded story about their origin. It’s possible to play the game without delving into the rich world but that’s like ordering Chinese takeout just for the fortune cookie. NPCs will rarely deliver the same canned responses you get in so many other RPGs and random encounters in the wilderness will often have some miniscule plot of their own.
In addition to the lengthy plot of the original game BGEE comes with a separate adventure entitled The Black Pits where you can create a party from whole cloth and take on a series of battles in a story structured around a familiar premise; unwilling creatures being forced to battle for the entertainment of a magical tyrant.
It may seem like a steep price tag for an old game, but the only part of Baldur’s Gate that hasn’t aged well is some of the animations. Otherwise the Enhanced Edition still holds up extremely well and the game has enough depth and replay value that it’ll keep you interested for some time to come.
Is it Hardcore?
A near-perfect port of one of the all-time classics that adds substantial new features, this is a must for RPG fans everywhere.