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Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (PC) artwork

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (PC) review


"The magic of Baldur's Gate"


Classics are often thought to be timeless for future generations to enjoy, but the same cannot be said for Baldur's Gate--and it's not because CRPGs are uncommon. To go blind into BG in 2016 is practically impossible because how modern expectations are at odds with the brutal accessibility of '90s computer games.

Baldur's Gate, simply put, is an sarcophagus; it is a coffin of a bygone time of design philosophies and of late '90s player expectations, immersed in the counter-culture of D&D and of fantasy-fiction that is written in its code like hieroglyphics to modern eyes. The game's reverence is both a nostalgic call-back as well as an appreciation of BG's systems as a traditional role-playing experience.

As someone who has started with modern CRPGs (Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin), it is difficult to recommend this game as others are more forgiving, even with BeamDog's inclusion of Story-Mode. However, if you can adjust your expectations and give the game some time it may prove to be as enriching of an experience for newcomers.

We're THAC0, and AC-0 and--What?

Perhaps what many might find hard to believe is that Baldur's Gate is not a difficult game; it's a game that lacks the conveyance to understand it. (Although this comparison is often misused, it's like Dark Souls in how you have to know things before you play.) This is because the greatest hurdle of mastering BG is to understand its language, Advanced D&D.

The game literally brings the rule-set of AD&D that only that '80s to '90s tabletop fans would understand. The tutorial goes only so far to explain the UI and controls; it doesn't explain how combat is tallied nor what key factors will improve your odds. (The key three reminders: THAC0, your chance to hit; AC, your chance to deflect/dodge; and you want BOTH to be low or negative values.) Another issue is the dialogue box doesn't list the calculations to show what you're doing wrong nor is there an in-game codex to explain it, so you will need the manual or a Wiki page on hand.

All of this is said from someone who has played Pillars of Eternity for 110+ hours on hard mode without a guide. I had to play Baldur's Gate on Novice with Wikis and video tutorials. (Even then, I still often died for all the various status effects.) This highlights that the game's coherency is the issue, not the difficulty, although the game can be feel frustrating because of its systems' unclearness. (Ex. How do you know what is an Evil spell that you can protect against?)

BeamDog has somewhat addressed the difficulty with the inclusion of Story-Mode (only v2.2). If you want to play in its original form Novice and Normal is as hard you should play. Story-mode removes the permadeaths and offer a lax experience to enjoy the narrative. Unfortunately, BG lacks a sweet-spot for people who are not familiar with AD&D; you either make the combat too repetitive or too brutal.

In several cases, neutering the difficulty will rob you of the enjoyment of BG, especially in the most D&D areas such as Durlag's Tower. The plot, the "non-linear nature", and systems revolve around how brutal of a game it can be and how BG can be forgiving in its own ways. I would like to think one day I would tackle the game on its own terms, but the time required to invest into one series feels too much to ask.

The BioWare Renaissance

Nostalgia is often reserved only for fans, so it must say something when I felt it having never played BG before. The reason for that feeling is because many of Bioware's core ideas are found in BG. (Some for the better--and some habits are hard to break.)

The companion system is the first relatable aspect for Dragon Age fans. Although there are twenty-eight companions, they are often caricatures to establish their personality and stick to their tropes. It works because you are meant to exchange companions whenever they die as they're irrelevant to the plot. The result is that it's not their personalities that establish their character but what happens during gameplay that fosters your attachments. Characters' deaths are quests; interruptions to the storyline that shape how you get through with the lives you can save--or reload from a quicksave.

As someone used to modern BioWare titles, it's hard to let companions die for good because I've been accustomed to the characters being part of the experience. It's a change I personally can't agree with, but it isn't a flaw; it's an interesting deviation.

Another similar aspect is the cliché storyline coupled with subversions that make for some interesting moments. The story was a D&D taboo for its time because of how the storyline revolves solely one player, not the party, and the formula of "One person must stand against a great evil" has ever since been applied to BioWare's games.

In terms of its world building, it's great for fans who know the references to D&D. However, it remains interesting for non-fans who are clueless because you cannot ask random NPCs for information about the game's world, factions or beliefs. It forces your attention on the smallest of details and to read the lore. For example, the moral alignment system is only one aspect that handles the complexities of the lore and game mechanics just fine in this adaptation. (For the most part...)

The game's biggest issue of its moral alliances is how numerically rigid it is. Towards the final chapter, you cannot kill too many guards before your good party members leave you because your reputation points were lost. The result is playing the final act to the Benly Hill theme. The greater problem is how mechanically restraining it is to develop a party of various alignments when the variety helps to keep the party feeling lively. It's a great idea on paper, and with a Dungeon Master to give it some leeway, but as a videogame it feels too gamey.

Unforunately, that issue is not the only story-related problem. What can also be taken from BG is BioWare's problem of having endings made into cliff-hangers or being in media res at the end. BG1 ends after one small hurdle has been accomplished, shortly after a major revelation, before foreshadowing that the experience isn't over. Then it knocks you back to the title-screen with a save file for BG2. The conflicts of the main plot with Amm and Baldur's Gate are not even addressed in an epilogue.

It's quite telling how Mass Effect and Dragon Age have carried on this tradition of having issues to resolve each game's narratives with a fulfilling climax. In BG1, the problem is taken even to a further extreme. Your level cap isn't 1/4th of the level cap of BG2, and chances are if you are not a completionist you will stay at Lv 7/8. The end game will feel as though you are just establishing your character, getting into the world-building conflicts, and then it ends.

Whatever Greatnesses Arise are Destined to Beneath the Earth

Civilizations are doomed to fade with time, and the same can be said for Baldur's Gate. Its legacy lives on in modern BioWare titles trying to recapture the same feelings, with various levels of success, and other games have adapted its ideas for modern audiences. In some way, however, the classic of Baldur's Gate cannot be repeated in modern times as it's a vestige of games long since forgotten.

If anything killed the late '90s CRPG craze it was the games themselves. Their inaccessible barrier for entry, among many other issues, isolated them into obscurity and further made whatever wonders they created lost to modern eyes. If Baldur's Gate isn't for you, then know that it probably wasn't meant for you. Baldur's Gate Reloaded may be more accessible as it uses Neverwinter to recreate the experience as best as it can be done. However faithful it may be it won't recapture all that makes BG what it is.

That is the magic of Baldur's Gate.

4/5

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (February 25, 2017)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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