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Saturday, April 15, 2023

Baldur's Gate III (Review #300!)

Can you believe I've been doing this for six and a half years now?  Neither can I.  Ah well.  For my 300th Full Review it's time to look at a revival of a classic CRPG franchise.

A beloved PC RPG classic, Baldur's Gate fell off the map for a long time as Interplay went bust, only recently coming back to prominence with some Enhanced Editions and, later on, being revived under a different company's banner; not unlike the similarly-beloved Fallout series.  But does Baldur's Gate III prove to be a worthwhile return for the franchise despite the major change, or is this just one comeback that never should have happened?

The early 2000's was definitely a tumultuous time for western RPGs; Interplay's closure meant that Fallout - regarded as a savior for the genre by many - would go dormant for nearly a decade, controversially being revived by Bethesda in 2008.  Baldur's Gate, while developed by BioWare, ran on the Infinity Engine owned by Interplay, so it too fell victim to their financial troubles.  Bioware and the newly-formed Obsidian would continue to develop original games with new engines and publishers, and a decade later the offshoot studio Beamdog (and their division Overhaul Games) would develop Enhanced Editions of several of the Infinity Engine games, reviving interest in seeing the series return.  Despite Beamdog teasing a third entry for the series, though, it would eventually come to be developed by Larian Studios - a company hot off the success of their Divinity: Original Sin games and using the engine from them.  That meant the series' gameplay changed up, going from pausable real-time combat to a turn-based style, and like Fallout 3 before it, it would discard all the work done on a canceled early version of the game (Baldur's Gate III: The Black Hound) in favor of telling an original story.

Of course, Dungeons and Dragons itself has also undergone some heavy changes since the '90s, so the gameplay itself is also changed up a lot from the earlier Baldur's Gates, being based around Fifth Edition rules rather than Second Edition.  Later revisions of the ruleset are in numerous ways geared much more toward roleplaying and storytelling than simple monster smashing (and indeed, I've criticized other D&D games based on Third Edition and later rules for focusing so heavily on combat to the exclusion of everything else since so many other mechanics go completely to waste).  Baldur's Gate III does it right, though - you're afforded a surprising number of options to deal with almost every situation, and while it of course makes sense to stay in line with your character's pre-built stats and skillsets, you're by no means bound to them.  You can bluff, intimidate, use stealth, arcane knowledge or just brute-force your way past almost any obstacle, favorable stats or otherwise.  Indeed, you can avoid nearly all combat with successful skill rolls, or at the very least find creative ways to turn things to your favor ahead of time.  Staying in line with a given character's principles as you complete puzzles also earns you "Inspiration Points", which allow you to redo failed rolls - always a nice thing to have when you get the notorious Natural 1 on what should be an easy roll (or just want another crack at a particularly challenging obstacle).

As mentioned, the game utilizes the same engine as the Divinity: Original Sin games, so combat here bears a strong resemblance to the Divinity games - gridless turn-based action with a heavy focus on field control and elemental effects.  Spells can lay down effects like acid, poison or fire that will damage enemies passing through them, while ice or grease can make anyone who passes through them slip and fall and water can be used to conduct electricity, damaging all enemies inside it.  Grease and oil can likewise be lit on fire to damage all enemies standing in it (and ignite them for further damage in subsequent turns).  One also gets a height advantage shooting down at enemies from above and a penalty for attacking enemies above them, and oftentimes you can lure enemies into a narrow corridor or around a corner to shield yourself from ranged attacks.  Barring that, you can also create clouds of steam or smoke to obscure their view, though this can also work against you as well.  At other times you can also weaponize the environment in creative ways, like knocking over braziers full of burning coals or even collapsing bridges to cause enemies to tumble to their doom, though you lose our on any treasure they may have been carrying.  In short, it's the first tabletop RPG inspired engine that actually lends itself well to that style of improvisation and creative thinking; indeed, it's very hard to survive without employing creative tactics whenever possible, as you're always at the whim of the dice to land hits with your weapons and most spells, so every advantage you can give yourself is a good one.

Character creation is something I always tend to dread in western RPGs, mostly because it's very easy to hose yourself unless you're intimately familiar with both the rules of the game itself and what the game is going to throw at you in advance, which results in a lot of tedious rerolling and frustrating game sessions where you're setting yourself up to fail and not even knowing it.  You may not think it given my choice of genre to review on this site, but I detest tedious overdone stat crunching and inane micromanagement in games.  It's certainly not necessary for a good RPG experience, especially since the genre (ostensibly) began as a means of storytelling rather than a dopey math lesson. Original Sin 2 largely averted inane stat-crunching by being a well-balanced game, but also by allowing you to respec your character at almost any time by finding the nearest magic mirror if your current build was just not working out.  Baldur's Gate III does a good job avoiding it as well, offering a solid explanation of all the skills and stats each race, background and character class provides, as well as giving you a pretty well optimized starting stat loadout by default (and when you level up); of course, you're also free to customize at your leisure if you're a die-hard min-maxer. Fifth Edition also largely does away with the issue of "Dump Stats" present in earlier D&D versions, mostly tying characters' abilities to stats and proficiencies they're expected to have.  So Bards, Paladins, Warlocks and Sorcerers cast from their Charisma rather than superfluously relying on Intelligence, for example, and having knowledge of a particular field gets bonuses based on a character's background and learned skills (and the subsequent roll bonuses they grant) rather than a bare stat roll.  All of this stuff in various ways lets you focus on enjoying the game and the story rather than obsessing about the number crunching under the hood, which earns it a lot of points in my book.

Something else the game gets down (after so, so many failed attempts in previous western RPGs) is that the roleplaying element actually feels natural and well-done.  Rather than having a predetermined chaotic/lawful/good/evil scale that you're rigidly glued to the entire game, your choices throughout actually have palpable consequences and can make you new friends or enemies depending on how you handle them.  Even your party members will react accordingly, and may become offended or even leave entirely if you do too many things they dislike; though you may be able to mitigate this to a degree with successful skill rolls, peoples' patience will inevitably run out, so every choice on your long journey feels weighty and requires careful consideration.  All good stuff, though as ever, the attempt to fit character romance into a largely open-ended RPG experience feels very shoehorned and cringey.  Considering Fallout and Star Control were already actively mocking this sort of thing in the '90s and yet devs like BioWare and CDPR roared ahead with it anyway with no trace of irony, I don't think it's a problem that will be resolved anytime soon.

But even with a few minor missteps and the baked-in frustration factor of having everything being built on random all-or-nothing rolls, Baldur's Gate III is a stellar experience.  The engine lends itself well to not just intense and strategic combat with a lot of subtle nuance, but to actual role-playing - creating a character, thinking how they would think and seeing the consequences of your actions unfold in a surprisingly organic way.  The strong narrative, surprisingly good voiceover and never once having to rely on a dopey plot codex to get you caught up on what's occurring also speak well to its quality.  The game is still in early access as of this writing so it's still somewhat buggy, has occasional performance issues and is missing features that are clearly intended to be there, but once it hits Version 1.0 I'll eagerly be playing it for a good, long while.  Hell, it already ranks among the finest western RPGs I've ever played.

Developer: Larian Studios
Publisher: Larian Studios
Released: 2020 (PC early access), 2023 (Full release)
Platforms: PC, macOS, Playstation 5, XBox Series
Recommended Version: Only available on Steam Early Access as of this writing.