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.
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 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.
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.
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.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb