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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Baldur's Gate 3's first four hours is the most disappointing gaming experience I've ever had


Opinion by Matt S. 

Why, oh why, did I click that "play" button? I knew going in that there was a risk that Baldur's Gate 3 would somehow mess with my nostalgia and deep reverence for the series. Baldur's Gate 1 is possibly my most played and replayed game ever, and I've bought the thing no fewer than five times over the years. Right now I can play that original on my PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and iPad... and I actually find myself doing so, and sometimes juggling two different plays of the game at the same time. So the personal stakes were high when I decided to invest my time and energy into Baldur's Gate 3, I did so because, in the end, I also figured that it was a fairly safe bet. I assumed that Larian - a studio of truly prodigious talent when it comes to retro-style RPGs - would get it. They would know why Baldur's Gate was such an incredible game, and they would focus their energies on capturing that magic again.


Now, I want to be careful and make the disclaimer that I'm only four hours into Baldur's Gate 3, and that I am more than open to this game improving and meeting my expectations further in. These are just my first impressions, but with that context out of the way, my first impressions are that Larian has delivered almost exactly the opposite of what I wanted and was hoping to see. To me, this doesn't feel like Baldur's Gate, and it lacks just about everything that has made Baldur's Gate such a sentimental favourite of mine.

To explain why, I'm going to need to talk about Baldur's Gate (original) a little. Baldur's Gate was a pretty dark game overall. I know it looks primitive to look at now, but the way it excited the imagination back then was in providing a grim Tolkienesque fantasy world with some truly sinister, clandestine, forces arrayed against you. To further darken the themes it explored, it also had a morality system that meant that at any time, you could buddy up with the forces of evil and wreak some havoc of your own. Back then, that was quite uncommon for grand fantasy adventures in video games, and Baldur's Gate really broke some ground as a mature storytelling experience as a result.


As dark as it was though, critically, the writers working on Baldur's Gate also knew how to have fun with it. Every time I boot the game up for a replay I smile as I wander around the quaint little castle of Candlekeep, helping cure a cow of its malady and retrieving a sword for the member of the town guard who exists in a perpetual hangover. Sure, elsewhere in town there are assassins that come at my hero, but those moments are a contrast to the peaceful veneer, the idle lifestyles and the banter of most of the townsfolk. Baldur's Gate was anything but endless pits of grimdark to struggle through. 

As the Baldur's Gate quest kicks off in full, however you play and whatever direction you go (it's really quite open), you will start meeting a broad range of joyfully eclectic characters. There's an elven wizard who taints everything he says with nihilism so miserable that it comes across as self-aware and very funny. There is, of course, Minsc and his miniature giant space hamster, Boo. There's the charmingly nervous and insecure frontline fighter, Khalid. It wasn't just the party of heroes that added character and flavour to the world, either. There were NPCs like Noober, a hilariously annoying dude that follows you around a town quipping "heya" and asking you ad nauseam why no one in town likes him. These are all beloved, memorable characters. Just last month I treated myself to a shirt depicting a hamster, an eyeball, and text under it saying "go for the eyes" - if you've played Baldur's Gate (and remember, this is a game that is over 20 years old), you recognise that quote without needing any further context or explanation, guaranteed. That's enduring personality and verve. Even as you're making enemies explode into chunks of gory meat and you're being haunted by increasingly vivid dreams, recited to you in horrific detail when your character rests, there is also a full and complete indulgence of the absurdity of pen-and-paper RPGing reflected throughout Baldur's Gate.

Baldur's Gate 3, by contrast, is incessant misery of the highest order. My journey started out with me being a prisoner on an illithid spacecraft (Lovecraftian tentacled monsters of abject evil) and to escape, I partnered up with a githyanki, the illithid's mortal enemy in an endless war across all the planes of existence (but actually every bit as evil by themselves). The goal was to take over and crash the ship, which was also being attacked by red dragons (evil creatures) and has somehow been teleported to the Abyss - the realm of demons (very evil). It's intense and claustrophobic stuff, and certainly feels like a suitably blockbuster starting point to a sequel 20 years in the waiting. Unfortunately, it's what happens after that that makes the strong introduction start to make the game look and feel like it doesn't have another speed to settle into.


Eventually, I succeeded in my first task and found myself thrown back into the land of Faerûn as the space ship crashed just a few clicks away from the iconic Baldur's Gate. Unfortunately, my hero now has an illithid parasite inside her that I need to get rid off, and soon, or she will turn into one of the species. And so, motivated by the urgency of this quest, I started to explore and look for someone that might help me. That's when I run into my first "proper" party member. She's a cleric, but not the benevolent healer that I might have hoped for; she talks at my character with a dripping, aggressive contempt and refuses to answer any questions about herself. In other words, she's likely evil. I partnered up with her anyway for lack of a better solution to the predicament of being in a hostile environment alone, and after a little more exploration we came across the remnants of the illithid space ship. There I encountered three innocent fishermen attempting to rescue one of the monsters, which has them under mind control. The creature directs the fishermen to attack me, and so - yep! - I found myself killing innocents that, even at the lowly first level as my character was was, offered no danger whatsoever.

After that nasty bit of work, I met my next party member. He is a rogue-looking dude, and he certainly looked dashing, being all silver-haired and clad in nobleman-like leather, but he immediately undermines that initially positive impression when he tries to kill me. When he doesn't succeed, he joins my team instead, and I quickly discover that he's so cynical, biting, cruel and sarcastic with his interactions with my character that he may as well be wearing a Pepe the frog badge.

It's only after all of that that I finally meet a character and party member who isn't instantly uncomfortable to deal with. He's a wizard fellow, and while he seems benign enough, I'm actually half convinced that as I learn his backstory I'll discover that he lead a genocide or something similarly grand. That's not for anything he's said or done so far, but simply because Baldur's Gate 3 is so relentlessly misanthropic that if that were to actually be his character background, it would be only par for the course. Finally, I run into that githyanki again. She's been captured, and of course she abuses me verbally until I release her, and then demands I let her join my team. 


The original Baldur's Gate also set you up with two evil characters in the party at first, so perhaps that vibe was what Larian was aiming for here, but in Baldur's Gate their evil natures were very quickly offset by being able to partner up with a couple of good characters, and even then, those two were more caricatures of evil than anything truly nasty. The really nasty potential party members only came much later on, and only after you were already comfortable with the blend of serious tones and levity. Baldur's Gate 3's entire party roster, so far, are just vile people, without even the slightest hint of moustache-twirling for relief. After I explored a decrepit old crypt for some loot with this group, I then went and ran into a small human and druid settlement, protected by a tiefling (human, but a little bit of demon blood in his ancestry). They were being attacked by a war party of goblins, and for the first time in about three hours of play I felt like I was doing something heroic in helping those people out. Then I get into their little settlement to discover that the druids are planning on throwing everyone out (which the tiefling - the one noble character so far - tells me will be the end of them all thanks to the monsters about), and if I wanted to save the people I was going to have to have a chat with a hostile cabal of druids and their leader. Cool more miserable people and a very real possibility that I'm not going to be able to help. I needed to give myself a break at that point.

Look. I like dark narratives and games. I was all on board with The Witcher, and Dragon Age, Mass Effect and over on the Japanese side of gaming, I adore Saya no Uta - the most troublesomely dark and vicious visual novel you'll ever play. I enjoy reading Marquis de Sade, actively search out for films like Requiem for a Dream and Irreversible, and horror is a favourite genre of mine across all media. However, whoever it was at Larian Studios that interpreted Baldur's Gate as so completely pure and unfettered in its grimdark aesthetic should be strapped to a chair, A Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to replay these games until they learn to appreciate the nuance in there. Because there is nuance in Baldur's Gate. Yes, it's high fantasy and Tolkienesque, but that means it mixes the grim and dark with the whimsical and humorous.

A lot has been written elsewhere about Baldur's Gate 3 having copious bugs (and that's totally fine in my book, as this is an Early Access game). So far I've been fortunate to avoid those. It's a gorgeous game, with an awe-inspiring level of detail in character clothing and the broader environments. In addition, the game plays really, really well. Larian Studios knows their stuff as far as classic RPG gameplay is concerned. The Divinity series more than demonstrated that, and Baldur's Gate 3 is clearly rooted in that experience. It's turn-based, tactical, rich and challenging. As a gameplay experience, I don't have anything negative to say about Baldur's Gate 3 at this point in time... and indeed if the game were simply named something else I'd probably find myself more partial to it as a whole. Illithids have featured heavily in many of my Dungeons & Dragons games. They're an enemy I really, really like. But ultimately the game is called "Baldur's Gate 3" and therefore I don't think it's unreasonable to therefore expect Baldur's Gate from it.


I'm going to continue playing on, of course. As I wrote at the top, I remain fully open to this sour first impression being just that, and I hope that over the next couple of hours there's a softening of this unrelenting, exhausting intensity so that the narrative and characters can start to play a little and get a bit of joy for the RPG into the experience. I really don't want anyone reading this to think that this article here is an analysis of the whole game, nor a review, a "review-in-progress" or anything similar. It's not. I have no firm thoughts on the overall quality of the game at this point in time. This piece is just a response to the first four hours of play that I, as a truly hardcore Baldur's Gate fan, has experienced.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I've been devastated by Baldur's Gate 3 so far. This is the sequel that I've been hoping against hope for, and been doing so for quite literally 20 years. Right now, I would have much rathered the Pathfinder: Kingmaker developers had somehow secured the rights. Larian Studios is undeniably the better, more experienced, and larger developer, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker, as relatively modest as it is, is a game that got it in a way that, on first impressions, Larian has somehow completely missed. 

I'll be back with more complete thoughts on the game after a week or so's more play.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb



Baldur's Gate 3's first four hours is the most disappointing gaming experience I've ever had
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