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Baldur's Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast

This alone is basically a game in itself

Rating: A-

Playing Time: Estimated at about 200-250 hours, not including character generation, since the timer only measures in-game "days"

Ah, yes, this quaint little game that Black Isle outsourced to some upstart Canadian developer called Bioware. While it's often overshadowed by its sequel (and for good reason), Baldur's Gate is a pretty notable game in its own right. Aside from laying the groundwork for the rest of the Infinity Engine games (and a slew of others) and being a general leap forward for Dungeons and Dragons-based games as a whole, it breathed new life into the subgenre of Western RPGs (itself only recently revived at the time, thanks in large part to Diablo and Fallout) by managing to present a fairly complete and solid story despite letting players create the protagonist with minimal restrictions on who or what they were.

Plus, forgetting its place in history for a moment, it's just a fucking fun game. I didn't play it for the first time until 2012, and I still thought it was great, so my mind's not clouded by nostalgia on this.

So, when you start up a new game, you're dumped straight into character generation. I'm not kidding when I say that I've probably spent dozens of hours in there. There's just something about coming up with new character concepts and rolling up stats for them that amuses me to no end. As of this writing, I've got files saved for 22 characters, which might not sound like much at first, but those are just the ones that I've kept, some of which required one or two hours of rerolling stats to meet some demanding target values. Just this one aspect of Baldur's Gate has given me more entertainment than some complete games, which is part of why I'm a little bittersweet on Icewind Dale 2 (or more recent games like Pillars of Eternity) switching to working with a flat stat point total instead of having those virtual dice. It's a good change from the standpoint of maintaining the player's sanity, but it's just not as fun.

Once you manage to actually get into the game proper, you're greeted by a narrative spiel saying that you live in some library town named Candlekeep and your daddy, Gorion, wants a word with you. However, it's apparent pretty quickly that there's something more going on, since your typical chores of killing rats or delivering books get spiced up with a couple of assassins trying to cut you down. Granted, they're not exactly competent assassins, since they can't even take out a level 1 AD&D character (a feat that even a house cat can accomplish more often than not, by the strictest following of the official rules), but hey, you've got to start somewhere. Gorion says that you've got to get your ass on the road with him, and oh, just in case shit gets fucked, go find his buddies Khalid and Jaheira at the Friendly Arms Inn.

Obviously, shit does indeed get fucked immediately, with some spiky armored dude tanking a bunch of spells before cutting down Gorion (your character is able to escape by running about 30 feet away through some sparse woods, which makes more sense than it sounds like because characters in Baldur's Gate only have about 20 feet of vision and cover ground with all the alacrity of a paraplegic tortoise).

Yes, I watched Death Note shortly before creating that character

Alright, so up to that point, the story is somewhere between bland and lame. However, things do pick up shortly afterwards when two things happen.

First, in the immediate term, you start running into more assassins who're linked to a larger conspiracy, which would drive the plot in a pretty natural way if it wasn't for the standard RPG approach of encouraging the player to wander around and do as many optional things as they can before advancing the main story. I'm not going to claim that it's anything incredible, but it's decent enough to actually give some motivation to want to see more.

Second, your character starts having dreams of blood and violence and the like, after which they wake up with some new spell-like powers unlocked. This is a bit of a spoiler, but seeing as Baldur's Gate 2 has no qualms about spoiling this bit right in the opening parts of that game, I'll just go ahead and say that your character's real father was Bhaal, the god of murder, who was slain shortly before the start of the game, and those dreams are the result of the god's lingering essence trying to use your character as part of a plan to resurrect himself. This ties back into the main plot because the leader of the conspiracy is another child of Bhaal, and you were being targeted specifically because he figured that killing you would let him take your piece of the essence. Again, it's nothing spectacular or remarkable, but as easy as it would be for this side of the plot to come off feeling flat and boring, it's played out well enough for Sarevok (the primary antagonist) to be developed as an actual character by the time the whole Bhaalspawn link comes into focus.

However, that all only tells about part of the experience of playing Baldur's Gate. The story's better than serviceable, especially since it needed to be written in a way that could work regardless of what kind of character you're playing as (which it manages to do by giving you personal reasons to want to pursue the antagonists instead of making it about a good vs. evil situation), but as I said before, it's nothing incredible. What really pushes Baldur's Gate into being a great game is the gameplay.

Now, yes, there are a lot of dumb things that you can do to exploit engine quirks or just outright break the game. And yes, there are a lot more limitations on what you can do compared to playing actual tabletop Dungeons and Dragons with a live DM. And yes, a lot of the "evil" choices for how to complete sidequests are stupid and objectively worse than the "good" choices. This isn't a perfect game. However, it does do a great job of pretending to be a real time combat system when it's really turn-based. Behind the scenes, everything is running on (hidden) individual round timers, but what you can see is all animated more or less simultaneously, which disguises that rather elegantly. At the same time, though, you can pause whenever you want to think things through and make sure that you're inputting the commands that you want to without all the problems of doing so in a real time environment. Put all together, it's a very comfortable system to just pick up and play, yet it's still robust enough to provide a good tactical experience.

Capable of soloing the final boss?  You'd better believe it

One nice thing about having a game based on Dungeons and Dragons is that there are lots of niche spells or abilities that can feel pretty damn rewarding to figure out how to use well. There are some things that become too overpoweringly good towards the end of the game (explosive arrows and summoning, to name two), but until that comes into play, there are plenty of cases where an encounter was giving me trouble until I tried to use something that I'd been ignoring for most of the game and breezed through it. This was especially true on my second playthrough, when I decided to use an enchanter (generally considered one of the weakest classes in the game) and play through the game without picking up any other party members. I can't honestly recommend doing that, since I ended up hitting the experience cap pretty quickly and spent much of the back half of the game just running through areas with invisibility up, but the mere fact that it was a reasonable way of plaything through the game is commendable in and of itself.

So, aside from some lack of polish and dated mechanics, what was wrong with this game? Well, for one thing, the last few chapters feel pretty rushed, though that might just be a consequence of running out of optional content by that point and having nothing to do but to rip through the remainder of the main plot. This is made all the worse by certain special late game enemies (mainly plot-relevant humans) having immunities to many of those niche abilities that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, turning fights with them into somewhat boring slugfests. Sarevok himself is by far the worst offender in this regard, since he's immune to all magic aside from three spells which are able to tickle him for no other reason than because Bioware couldn't find a better way of prevented him from being disabled by a lucky dice roll. It also leans too heavily on name-dropping characters from the source material at times, though that's a general issue with licensed games as a whole. The biggest complaint I have is the decision to forcibly unpause the game if you open the inventory screen. I can see some of the logic behind that choice, but that doesn't stop me from disliking it, and I'd dare say that the developers realized it was a mistake, too, since none of the subsequent Infinity Engine games (nor any of their derivatives that I've played) kept that mechanic.

I've said a lot about Baldur's Gate, but I haven't said anything specific about the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion. That's because it was basically DLC that was ahead of its time, which is to say that it's entirely superfluous fluff that just gives you an excuse to play a bit more and get overpowered without really changing anything in the overall scheme of things. While it does raise the experience cap and tweak a few mechanics (most notably nerfing improved invisibility and large area of effect spells), it can easily be ignored without any real impact on the experience of playing the game.

In summary, while it's certainly got flaws, Baldur's Gate is still a great enough game to be worth playing even nearly two decades after its original release. Highly recommended, though I should say that with a caveat. I played the original version, and I didn't use any mods to run it with the Baldur's Gate 2 engine. That might be a trickier thing to do these days since offers only the Enhanced Edition now, which does use the Baldur's Gate 2 engine (among other tweaks). I'd expect that the good aspects of the game still carry over strongly in that, but I can't guarantee it, so take this review with a little grain of salt on account of that.

Rating: A-

Playing Time: Estimated at about 200-250 hours, not including character generation, since the timer only measures in-game "days"

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