Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast

Last week, I reviewed Baldur’s Gate.  I explained that, while the game was very light on actual roleplaying and plot (and characterization was practically nonexistent), there’s some pretty good gameplay in spite of the pathfinding issues (and my general dislike of low level D&D combat).  However, it was a very important title when it came out, as it’s often credited for resuscitating the cRPG genre (even though Fallout technically did come out a year before).

Tales of the Sword Coast, Baldur’s Gate’s only expansion, is not as big as some other expansions are.  Rather than continuing the story in some way, Tales of the Sword Coast introduces four new areas (and opens up one area previously inaccessible in the original), with a few side stories here and there.  I went in to Tales of the Sword Coast expecting some throwaway stories and some more general mid-level combat (not that I would’ve complained, of course).  However, what I did get took me by surprise.

The first major expansion content you see will probably be Ulgoth’s Beard.  It’s a generally small town (as opposed to the larger towns that take long periods of time to run across and are generally annoying to navigate), and merely serves as a quest hub.  Ulgoth’s Beard is pretty good for a quest hub though, as nothing’s too far away.  There may be more to Ulgoth’s Beard, but for now, there’s some questing to do.

After the hustle and bustle of the city, I suppose a small town is a nice change of pace.

You’ll likely come across the old mage Shandalar almost immediately, whose daughters you may have run into in Baldur’s Gate.  Shandalar soon sends you to an ice island and the labrynths beneath, where mages teleporting around occasionally get trapped and left to die.  This area is… fortunately, short.  Why fortunately?  Because it uses the most dreaded environment one can use in Baldur’s Gate: narrow labyrinths.  Baldur’s Gate always had an issue with pathfinding, but navigating narrow corridors with terrible pathfinding can be an absolute disaster.  Add to that traps and tough-as-nails mage encounters, and you have a ridiculously tough and infuriating place.  Fortunately, the labrynth is really short.

What I’d really like to know is how a labyrinth can form underneath this very tiny island.

Still, though that island was literally the worst part of the expansion, it did serve as an excellent wake up call, that I can’t just breeze through things.  What I didn’t learn quite so fast is just how difficult the game could actually get.  The next expansion content sent me to a previously-unavailable area in Baldur’s Gate, the Counting House.  This portion did not last long at all, however, and upon returning to Ulgoth’s Beard, I was soon treated to the actual second expansion area: Werewolf Island.

The founder of Baldur’s Gate, Balduran, disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  Tasked with discovering what happened on Balduran’s last voyage, you set out in the same direction he traveled, but your party soon finds itself shipwrecked on a small island, home to a small village of people with a funny accent and a clan of wolfweres to the north. The villagers soon get you to help them fend off wolfwere attacks, and your party finds themselves heading towards the wolfwere’s home.

If I say any more, I’d find myself spewing spoilers, so I’ll stop there.  The story of this second segment is pretty interesting, and you do indeed learn just what happened to Balduran and his final voyage, as well as the secrets of this seemingly quaint little island.  Very noteworthy is the presence of Bioware’s first romance subplot (though I struggle to call it one).  It’s not long (compared to every other Bioware romance, though in the context of Baldur’s Gate alone, it’s pretty long), and I suppose it’s nothing special, but I suppose getting to see the first Bioware romance is a nice treat.

Ah, Werewolf Island, the land of funny accents and… not-so-funny other occurrences.

From a gameplay standpoint, the island was very infuriating.  Where the ice labyrinth had difficult mage encounters, Werewolf Island has wolfweres and, you guessed it, werewolves.  In D&D, these creatures are very notorious for having a very high hit rate, and for being very resistant to magic.  Though they don’t have much HP, these creatures are easily capable of tearing any one of your party members a new one.  To make matters worse, there aren’t any vendors or inns on the island, so you kind of have to go through everything in one shot.

Luckily, this segment of the expansion is also rather short (though not as short as the ice island).  The last segment is a real doozy.  There’s a tower near the south east corner of the region called “Durlag’s Tower”, which is named after Durlag Trollkiller.  You are tasked with recovering a dwarf’s dagger from the tower.  The area has a ton of treasure, but also a lot of monsters and traps.  When you get to the tower, you may find the tower rather simple.  However, here’s where the fun begins.  The tower is child’s play compared to the basement levels, where you’ll find the toughest creatures and traps in the game, as well as puzzles!  That’s right, Bioware realized Baldur’s Gate may have been too much of a hack and slash, so they decided to spice things up by adding some puzzle solving elements to the tower.

I suppose in the Forgotten Realms, perilous towers also happen to be museums.

Aside from the somewhat absurd difficulty of the basement levels, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the tower.  It’s highly challenging, not very tedious at all, has some pretty cool puzzles, the areas inside all look really interesting, and the tower has some great writing.  I will emphasize the last part.  The general plot in this area easily rivals some of the game’s best, and is even better, in some parts.  While climbing up (and eventually down) the tower, you’ll find out what happened to Durlag Trollkiller, and why his tower became the way it is now.  However, you’re never really told what happened explicitly, and have to pierce together bits and pieces from the puzzles and general layout of the tower.  And I feel that’s superb, since figuring out what happened yourself is a lot more powerful than learning everything from a single dialogue sequence.

Let me correct myself, I have some complaints about the tower.  One room near the end is a giant chess board.  Your characters serve as important pieces, and are actually expected to move around the chess board as they’re allowed to (otherwise you get zapped).  Your enemies on the other side, however, are not expected to follow the rules.  This made the encounter more tough than it should have been.  In the end, I winded up breaking the rules a little, but hey, all’s fair in D&D.

Oh, I’m sorry, is this supposed to be an illegal move?

The tower is otherwise fantastic, though it is long.  After you complete the tower, you’re treated to one last event in Ulgoth’s Beard, where some stuff involving an evil god occurs, and you are (once again) tasked to put it down.  This part is so terribly out of place and a massive disappointment compared to the tower before.  Though the evil god part is related to Durlag’s Tower, it’s only marginally related to the tower.  Really, the only thing you’ll get out of this last sequence is the hardest boss in the game (the final boss pales in comparison to him).

All in all, while most of the expansion has its ups and downs (though the final area is probably one massive down), Durlag’s Tower is a really bright gem.  In fact, I think the tower was probably the most fun area in all of Baldur’s Gate, and is really worth seeing, even if it is pretty tough.  You also get some pretty decent other areas, too, so I don’t have too much to complain about, on the whole.  If you liked Baldur’s Gate, I can honestly say that Tales of the Sword Coast is very much worth it (though really, is it possible to get Baldur’s Gate nowadays without the expansion?).

Rating: ★★★★☆

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A mad scientist who's so cool!

Laevatein

A mad scientist who's so cool!

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