Disgruntled by recent RPG releases, and amidst the recommendations of your peers, you find yourself looking back to an earlier era, an era of grand adventures and excellent roleplaying. Tracing the ancient Bioware clan’s lineage back to its origins, you stumble upon the very beginnings of Bioware’s rise to power: Baldur’s Gate. Ever the curious individual, you set out on a journey of your own, journeying to discover the secrets of Baldur’s Gate’s success. Eventually, you find a fellow traveler who calls himself only “Laevatein”, who is willing to recount to you the secrets of Baldur’s Gate’s strengths.
Greetings traveler! Seems like you’re interested about Baldur’s Gate! Well, I’ve got a few opinions about it myself. Just to warn ya, I’m not the most knowledgeable sort of individual, having grown up without Baldur’s Gate’s influence, but I figure my opinion’s worth telling. So, with that, grab a seat, get close to the fire, and have a swig or two of this great mead, for my tale’s a long one.
Baldur’s Gate is a Dungeons & Dragons game. Specifically, Baldur’s Gate uses the AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset (with some specific changes), and takes place in the Forgotten Realms campaign, along the Sword Coast. You start off in the small college of Candlekeep as a 20-year-old who’s lived there all his/her life under the care of Gorion, along with a slightly younger girl named Imoen. Events force you out of your cozy home, and after particularly tragic night, you and Imoen are soon on your way to an adventure.
To be honest, the plot of Baldur’s Gate is nothing special. Basically, if you’ve ever played any other Bioware game, you’re probably familiar with many of the twists and turns of Baldur’s Gate. I can’t really fault Baldur’s Gate for that, considering it was Bioware’s first RPG. However, the main quest wasn’t terribly interesting. I suppose some of the subplots were decently amusing, though.
While Baldur’s Gate is a D&D game, I didn’t find it all that possible to roleplay as I wanted. As much as it allows you to explore to your heart’s desire, the game’s chapter structure and availability of side quests funnel you into completing the game’s plot. The not-so-compelling plot.
Baldur’s Gate presents a dialogue system, largely in place to allow you to “roleplay”. I’ve lately grown very tired of the standard Bioware dialogue model (good/neutral/evil answers), and while Baldur’s Gate was a lot better about this, it still follows the Bioware pattern.
Characters are… well, plentiful, I suppose. Decent characterization, too, or at least initial characterization. That’s literally it. While the main character is created and given life by you, other potential party members have initial characterization, but next to nothing beyond that, save for notable sound clips. NPCs aren’t much better, most of which live to only really serve one purpose. You’ll occasionally meet some very famous characters (Drizzt, Elminster) across Faerun, but these famous characters are little more than cameos. Hell, the only character who I’d say has any sort of depth would be the main antagonist. That’s still not even by much.
Maybe I’m not getting this game. Maybe I’m misunderstanding how roleplaying should work in this game. In fact, it’d be a damn shame if I didn’t get this game after playing through the whole thing. To be fair, compared to later Bioware titles, where you’re actively rewarded for sticking to one sort of morality, and punished for experimenting, Baldur’s Gate asks you to decide your morality upon character creation. This allows you to create the general mold of your character’s alignment. Beyond that, you can’t affect morality, but you can gain (or lose) reputation, depending on your actions. Positive reputation makes you seem heroic, while negative reputation makes you seem like an outlaw.
Basically, you can do stuff like be a villain with some pretty great PR (like a modern corporation from a civil rights’ perspective), or a misunderstood hero (though this is much less plausible). It also affects the disposition of your party members, and if they’ll want to stay in your party or not (they can even attack you if your actions severely piss them off, or due to other circumstances).
When push comes to shove, I think the roleplaying falls flat. The game rewards a good aligned character, and punishes an evil one. As I mentioned above, dialogue choices are usually pretty juvenile, and often look like the following sentence. “Sure, I’ll help you out./I’ll help, but for a price./Get out of my face, I don’t want to help you./How’s about I kill you instead?” Worse yet, you’ll find your good-aligned character progressing much faster than your evil-aligned one, as completing quests often nets you more experience then killing the quest giver.
I guess the roleplaying still works, in a linear, controlled sort of way. While most responses are like what I described above, sometimes responses to important questions are much less alignment oriented, and allow some flexibility. The plot itself does have its compelling moments, such as the plot twist (though Bioware seemed to love the THAT ONE TWIST gimmick, and have reused it in a number of their games). There is a pretty decent enough reason for your character to actually go on this adventure, and be involved with the plot, too. Still, Baldur’s Gate’s presentation leaves a lot to be desired.
The gameplay, meanwhile, is a lot better. Baldur’s Gate is a classic cRPG, and the interface is kind of reminiscent of older RTS games, for those who are unaware. Baldur’s Gate also follows many of AD&D’s 2nd Edition combat rules, for better or for worse. While I’m not if the AD&D ruleset automatically makes the game better or worse, I do know one thing about the ruleset that directly effected how I enjoyed the game for a while.
I hate low level D&D combat. At least, low level AD&D 2nd Edition combat. Low level characters really cannot fight for the life of them. Sure, that’s pretty realistic, I get that. But at the same time, low level combat is very tedious, as low level characters can barely hit anything. Spell users also cannot use very many spells at low levels, and the spells they do have access to rarely have the ability to turn the tides of battle. Combat at low levels, as a result, is not very interactive. It also happens to be pretty dangerous, as enemies can effectively cripple your characters if they get a lucky strike in.
I guess that’s the point of low level combat, where everything’s clumsy, but dangerous. However, even if that’s the point, I found the low level stuff much less enjoyable than the high level stuff. High level stuff is actually pretty fun, and thankfully pretty tactical now. Now you could designate one character to take hits (or, in the case of this ruleset, avoid them all), which is rather unconventional today, as it doesn’t really involve any concept of aggro. Archers get a ton of different arrow types, and have to pick the best arrow for the job. Mages, with access to many more spells, and many more casts of spells, too, have a ton of utility. Spells have a variety of different effects, and can easily turn the tides of battle. Unlike in other types of RPGs, buffs and status effects work really well, and are often much more useful than straight up damage spells.
What’s incredible about all this is the challenge. When I play a WRPG, I usually find any sense of challenge disappearing around halfway through, and by the end, I often become an unstoppable killing machine (in terms of combat). Not so in Baldur’s Gate. While my characters do become pretty strong, if I just screw around on certain encounters, I can very easily get killed. For instance, my max level party had a little bit of trouble with the final boss, which caused me to realize that I wasn’t prepared enough. In fact, in most encounters, being prepared will often secure you victory.
However, there are times when preparation isn’t good enough. Baldur’s Gate also asks you to micromanage your party quite well, from time to time. Sometimes, you have to coordinate what spells to cast, and when. For instance, while a web spell or a cloudkill spell on their own aren’t going to win you battles single-handedly, the combination of the two spells creates a death trap that can very easily kill everyone in it. It’s these sorts of things that can turn tough battles into much easier ones. However, pulling off the two spells at once certainly isn’t the easiest of tasks. However, this micromanagement can be very rewarding.
Despite what Baldur’s Gate (eventually) gets right, some aspects of the gameplay can be very frustrating. Getting around is generally pretty arduous, as it seems where the characters can and can’t go can be somewhat arbitrary. The absolute worst aspect of Baldur’s Gate is the pathfinding, however. I don’t know where to begin with the pathfinding. Let’s just say this: if the path from A to B is a straight line (A being where a character starts, B being where you want them to go), they’ll generally get there, no problem. If there’s an obstruction, EVEN A TEMPORARY ONE, the character will have no choice but to go from C to D to E then finally to B. For those three letters, pick random points in the surrounding area, and you get a decent picture.
You know, the game isn’t even designed to offset this. There are literally very narrow corridors everywhere, or areas with tons of obstructions, and often enough, you’ll find one character splitting off from the main group because the pathfinding calculated a “better” way to get where you want to send them. This, in turn, requires you to babysit your characters quite a damned bit if you want to send them places. I think over the course of the entire game, I may have lost a few hours to pathfinding stupidity, alone.
The graphics are pretty decent, for a 2D game from 1998. Character artwork’s alright, but is rather distinct, across the board. The areas look nice, though the city of Baldur’s Gate is pretty breath taking. Character sprites look a little city, and don’t seem to resemble character portraits all too well. Monsters look like your standard high-fantasy monsters. Spell effects do look pretty cool, however. Sound, on the other hand, is somewhat more forgettable. While I thought the soundtrack fit the game pretty well, they also happened to seem like your generic fantasy themes. Though there isn’t much in the way of sound effects, what’s there is pretty cool. Voice acting is largely forgettable, and can even get pretty annoying. However, some voices are very memorable and generally awesome. Who can possible forget what Minsc’s voice is like? Come to think of it, Minsc’s voice may be one of the only memorable things about the sound, in general.
Publisher: Black Isle Studios, Interplay Entertainment
Available on: PC
Release date: November 30th, 1998