You knew I had to do it to you.
Eventually, a BioWare game would wind up on our Year of the RPG list. I did try to keep the number down, though. After all, this isn’t Year of BioWare. But I digress.
Developed by BioWare and published by Interplay Entertainment in 1998, Baldur’s Gate can be considered a game that BioWare cut its developer teeth on. Upon its release, it garnered critical acclaim to the point that BioWare developed an expansion pack (Tales of the Sword Coast) for it, and followed it up with a second game, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn.
Popular wisdom on the internet seems to say that the second game is superior, and indeed the list I used to select the games for Year of the RPG also reflected this. But, being the stubborn BioWare fangirl that I am, I decided to play the first in the series so I wouldn’t miss anything story-wise. After all, let’s be real: I’ll be playing Shadows of Amn eventually. But first things first: does Baldur’s Gate live up to my high expectations of a BioWare game, or is it simply the stepping-off point for later and greater games?
Well, like so much else, it depends.
Considering that Baldur’s Gate is very much based on the second edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not surprising that the game is what I would consider a “standardized” version of “typical” D&D affair. Right down to “rolling” for your opening stats, choosing an alignment (which gets passively referenced in-game), and having a wide range of races and classes to choose from (more than other computer RPGs I’ve played recently), Baldur’s Gate sets itself up to be an adventure that has an intended plot, but lets the player add content insofar as exploring different areas, stumbling across new and unique side-quests, and overall building their character how they see fit.
The story itself is straightforward: you are a young charge of a mysterious man named Gorian, and you grew up in the safe walls of Candlekeep. One day, Gorion tells you you must leave immediately and so, after outfitting yourself as you see fit, he takes you out of Candlekeep.
Becuase this is a BioWare game, Gorion is immediately killed in the next scene, leaving the main character (named Daesala in my case) to fend for herself and figure out where to go next, with only vague hints to find a few friends at the local Friendly
Amn Arm Inn. Your childhood friend Imoen joins you, and you’re off to make some new friends and a new life for yourself.
From there, the story sort of got a little confusing. It set itself up that there was some big horrible thing happening that Daesala had to flee from, and then she spent most of the game being a mercenary, clearing out bandit camps and de-poisoning iron mines. I had faith that this would all make sense in the grander scheme, but for a majority of the game it felt like Daesala was simply trying to find a direction in her life now that her foster-father Gorion was gone.
Then, of course, the final chapters come and the plot immediately accelerates and becomes filled with intrigue, backstabbing, and murder, and all the pieces of the puzzle that weren’t there before suddenly begin to fall into place, driving Daesala and her friends forward to the final battle, the one Gorion had tried to save Daesala from, but she had been destined to fight all along.
I am not a PC gamer, to begin with. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing will come of the description of gameplay I am about to relate. [Kudos to anyone who can name that book reference…]
I have very few experiences to base this off of, as by the time Baldur’s Gate was released most of my gaming had moved on to consoles. I played the occasional Oregon Trail or various “Sim” or “Tycoon” games, but must of my gaming time was spent on one of the Nintendo systems nestled snug under the television. From there on out, even more time was devoted to console gaming with their variously-shaped controllers.
Now that that’s been established…
Baldur’s Gate was surprisingly easy to pick up. Controls were intuitive, and the game allows the player to pause instantly in order to orchestrate a battle plan. I fiddled with the difficulty a bit to see how that affected combat, but other than the fact that “story mode” keeps characters from dying during combat (but they will die due to friendly fire, apparently?) and the companions seem to hit a little harder, the same tactics can and should be applied no matter the difficulty setting in order to have a good command of the field and, in my opinion, an easier and more satisfying experience.
The countryside was surprisingly alive, with random encounters not so random that they seemed forced, but not so familiar that they became tedious. A few encounters were little Easter eggs for other games or were pop culture references to other media popular at the time, but my personal favorite was meeting “Noober,” an NPC who was intent on annoying the heck out of the party.
After clicking on him to see his dialogue, he started following Daesala and friends around, asking “What about now?” after Daesala said he wasn’t bothering her. Of course, interrupting dialogue halts the party, but instead of leaving the area I decided to stick around and see what happened. After a number of rounds of “What about now?” Noober decided that we were decent people and he gave us a few hundred experience points, I guess for our unwavering resolve to not throw rocks at his head.
Likewise, how Daesala acted was remembered and commented on by NPCs, both in her party and outside of it. A few times she was called “conflicted” by interrupting NPCs as I had apparently not played Lawful Good as well as I thought I would, but eventually got on track, and sure enough the outside assessment of her changed.
It’s the little encounters like that which make Baldur’s Gate feel so special. While the gameplay itself was fairly standard in terms of battle tactics and branching dialogue, the way all of those elements were integrated into the whole began to hint at the prowess BioWare would show for storytelling in later games.
I had a few issue with the way the game presented the actual traveling area, but there was nothing mechanically wrong. The way the area was completely black until the characters walked near it felt claustrophobic at times, but from an adventuring standpoint it makes sense as the adventures would be discover what came next with every step that they took.
The Final Showdown
Overall, Baldur’s Gate was a game I looked forward to playing immensely, even with its few confusing twists and land-revealing mechanic. The characters were, of course, interesting individuals, with their own personalities and reactions to the situations, and the few comments that they made while traveling were always fun to listen to.
As I mentioned, I eventually played the game on “story mode,” since one of my characters that I liked kept dying and I got tired of running to a nearby temple to raise him from the dead (it was Rasaad, and I really liked him but ultimately left him behind at Nashkel), but even with that, it was never too easy to take down a foe, and the game still had the characters losing health and reacting to friendly fire (at least, as far as I could tell). The final boss was pretty challenging, and even though my character was safe from dying in combat, it didn’t feel like an easy win at all.
My main issue with the game is that it was easy to miss quests if you weren’t specifically looking for them, and I was very confused by Daesala’s relationship with the main boss because I had never found Gorion’s room during one particular quest. Apparently, he writes the character a letter explaining things. I was eventually able to piece together the relationship, but the information in the letter would have made the reason a little more emotionally heavy and would have certainly made some of the dialogue make more sense.
Having played both the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series first, it was greatly enjoyable to play through this game and see the roots of the elements future games would have, from the battle system, to the first quest being to kill rats in an old building, and even finally understanding why Shepard’s space hamster “smiles at your knowingly.” Of course, it was also easy to see the many similarities between Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age: Origins, especially when I realized that the few issues I had with Baldur’s Gate were fixed for Origins.
Even if you’re a veteran to fantasy role-playing games, Baldur’s Gate provides an enjoyable, if familiar, experience, and for the sake of story, I would recommend playing it before jumping into the second installment. With memorable characters, fun encounters, and a vastly interesting endgame, it’s easy to see the shoulders the BioWare began to build its empire on.
Have you played Baldur’s Gate? What did you think about it? Is it the quintessential computer Dungeons & Dragons experience, or is that title held by another game? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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