Baldur's Gate 3 Review
It took a while to warm to Baldur’s Gate 3. I couldn’t understand why, since on paper (and pen) it’s everything I want in an RPG. A party of interesting characters, a slew of spells and abilities. A map chock full of interesting things to do, see and discover. Given that Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn is one of my all-time favourite games, I had high hopes for Larian’s take on Faerûn. The opening cutscene is tremendous, and the way you’re eased into the first environment — an Illithid airship — and introduced to the basics of the gameplay is marvellous. Sure, the real-time pause combat from the first game has been replaced by a fully turn-based system using the official Dungeons & Dragons 5e rules, but it feels like a change for the better.
So why was I struggling to fully enjoy it?
A lot of it is overwhelm. BG3 throws so much at you that even I — someone who has played D&D on and off for a few years — initially failed to grasp or even utilise the freedom the game provides. It’s one thing to sit with a group of people and use the theatre of your mind to overcome obstacles around a table while controlling a single character. It’s something very different to apply that logic to a game world which lays out all of the functions, features, actions and abilities right in front of you and tells you to have at it with a party of four.
After a dozen hours or so, I discovered the answer: stop playing it like a videogame. BG3 is more like a sandpit, encouraging you to try weird things, stumble upon solutions through audacity or accident, and roll with the outcomes. This freedom comes at the expense of a strong story pulling you through, but the individual quests and companion arcs you’ll encounter along the way more than make up for it.
The gist of the campaign is that you — and the companions you meet on the road — have all been infected with Mind Flayer tadpoles. Ordinarily, these should turn you into Mind Flayers in mere days, but in this case something is preventing the transformation from happening. Your task is to try and work out what is happening, and why. That’s pretty much the crux of the first act of three, which sees you start in a Mind Flayer prison ship, crash land on a beach, and then make your way inexorably to the titular city of Baldur’s Gate, via a host of different side quests. You’ll have the option of saving or dooming a tiefling village, forging a path through the Underdark, choosing to side with any number of different factions — including old favourites The Flaming Fist and the Zhentarim — and more.
Larian has faithfully translated the 5e rulebook to the screen, which means you should pay careful attention to all of the skills your party of characters has and use them prudently. If you’re playing as a thief, you probably want your custom-made character to try lockpicking a chest rather than your barbarian buddy. Similarly, a conversation with a wizard is going to go better if you handle it with one of your own magical party members than an arcana-illiterate chump. Each conversation will usually have options which call upon different skills such as Perception, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, and so on. These options then need to pass a dice roll baseline for which you may add bonuses depending on the character attempting them. Your fighter is more likely to get a bonus when trying to intimidate someone, for instance, whereas a thief might be better at distracting someone with Sleight of Hand. Background and race can also play a part in these checks, as can different buffs you may receive from equipment, potions or spells. Indeed, there are so many different ways to approach any given encounter that the previously mentioned overwhelm might cause an anxiety attack. It might be tempting to save scum your way through the game to try and find the “optimum” outcome for each challenge, but your nervous system will thank you for just accepting the roll of the dice and letting go. In a lot of cases, what might be considered a “failure” can actually open doors that you don’t expect. The game actively encourages you to experiment and rewards you for doing so...most of the time.
Needless to say though, you’re going to get involved in combat at some point. Here, Larian has swapped in a similar engine it used for its Divinity games but moulded it around the D&D template. Each character rolls for Initiative (turn order) and then makes their move in sequence. You can see who is up next — or if two or more of your party rolled the same Initiative, you can flit between the order for them and move in whichever turn you like — as well as the turn of each enemy. This will allow you to focus on potentially taking out enemies who are due to attack sooner. The environments are full of potential for even more experimentation; barrels of oil or booze to set fire to or blow up, flora to prod and release area-wide effects, mountains and chasms to push foes down with a bonus action, and more. Your spells can be combined in fun ways too: casting Grease might make enemies fall over on their turn if they enter the area, but if you then set fire to it when they’re prone you’ll create a huge fiery carpet. Water can similarly be electrified or frozen, and even things like bridges or structures can be taken down — along with anyone standing on them.
It might seem initially that the easiest thing to do is just hit the melee or ranged attack button for your non-spell wielders, while spamming area or damage spells at the bad guys from afar courtesy of your magic users. After a while though, when your team has levelled up enough to gain some more interesting abilities, more options open up. Your Eldritch Blast can get modified not just to cause damage but also knock people back when it hits them — useful for a monster perched precariously on a ledge. A thief’s Uncanny Dodge at level 5 allows them to take half damage on an attack, which means they can get more involved in melee. As your party improves, more options become available. Combat will certainly be an adjustment for those expecting something similar to the first two Baldur’s Gate games but I actually preferred Larian’s take on it. Failure, and losing characters, doesn’t mean the end. A character called Withers lurks in your camp and can resurrect anyone who gets the wrong end of a mace to the face as well as letting you recustomise your character if you decide against your initial build.
But how does it look and sound? On the audio front at least, it’s wonderful. Voice acting is superb across the board, with every single NPC you come across having its own voice and personality — and that includes the animals. You’re likely to have stumbled across plenty of video snippets of Speak With Animals across YouTube, featuring squirrels, oxen and the like. But it really is a joy to converse with creatures, especially when they are as varied and interesting as they are here. The orchestral soundtrack is as bombastic as you would hope for an RPG and the incidental sound effects, crackling fires, bustling city hubbub, and sizzling spell effects are all great.
The graphical department is a bit of a mixed bag, however. Having played on both PC and PS5, I can honestly say the PS5 experience felt more stable. My GTX 2600 Super should have been able to handle the game fine, yet I constantly struggled with pop-in, black maps which took a minute to load, and woeful loading times overall. Even on PS5, area loading was not super fast, and moving around the map often resulted in some weird cutting effects and transparent environmental glitches which wouldn’t have been out of place on a game ten years older. For the most part though, when it’s stable — which is the majority of the time on console — BG3 looks pretty good. Larian hasn’t solved the uncanny valley, but that argument can be levelled at studios far bigger than it. The different regions you explore are markedly so: from the blue-black hues of the Underdark through to the rainbow gleam of the Sunlit Wetlands and the rusty colours of the Zhentarim lair, each area feels unique.
In what might be the first time I’ve experienced this with an RPG, I can honestly say that gameplay also feels more streamlined on console. The PC interface gives you a bit more flexibility when exploring your surroundings, but it’s at the cost of a cluttered HUD filled with inventory items and spells. The PS5 version takes some adjustment to move from PC to a series of radial actions, but controlling the party is done directly rather than pointing and clicking, and it just works better.
When it comes to the inventory system though, neither format wins. The inventory is a writhing mass of stuff which you need to be constantly on top of. There’s no “sellable” section for you to dump your loot into, which in this day and age is frankly ridiculous. Splitting items out is a real pain, and you’ll spend more time swapping items back and forth between characters than actually using them. There are also some odd oversights that caused frustration: for instance, barbarians can use heavy armour, but at the cost of using Rage properly — something that isn’t highlighted on the armour text if you’re looking to purchase it with a barbarian character.
The party, however, is a lot of fun to interact with. Astarion is played with the right level of camp, Lae’zel is bonkers, and Shadowheart drips earnestness. And those are just three of the ten you can play — each with their own backstory and quest to complete. Of course, their personalities and alignments may clash and result in one or the other (or both) leaving you if you don’t manage the situation properly. But there is enough content here for you to have two or three full playthroughs with completely different parties, experiencing different outcomes and aligning with different factions. There is a “good” and “bad” ending, though the latter, as always, feels underserviced in comparison. Each quest can be solved in several ways with some creative thinking, and even today Reddit is filled with players who stumbled upon a fun way to tackle problems outside of normal gaming tropes — such is the joy of D&D.
The downside to having so many potential options for completing quests is that you will almost certainly break at least one of them on your playthrough. If you approach a task in the “wrong” way — i.e. one the developers haven’t accounted for — or uncover information before you’re meant to, there’s every chance you’ll have a quest stuck in an incompletable state for the rest of the act. An Act One quest to investigate a beach bugged out for no explicable reason; I rescued a Tiefling child and was then told to go and speak to a Tiefling woman I’d met earlier for a reward. However, meeting her ahead of time resulted in an event not triggering, so whatever experience or recompense I was due never materialised and all I could do was carry on with other quests. Luckily, thanks to some successful prior rolls, it didn’t have as much of an impact on me as on some players.
Unfortunately, the deeper you get into the game, the more linear it feels. The freedom that Act One lays before you becomes more and more constrained in Acts Two and Three. Conversely, the number of bugs increases dramatically. Additionally, conversations start to go wayward, triggers are missed and options are closed off, all for reasons that appear inexplicable. The freedom that was promised at the start — the multiple routes into an area, or ways of handling an encounter — dissipate in favour of scripted scenes and forced outcomes. Battles take precedence and they are still very enjoyable, but the role-playing is no longer the focus. It’s clear that the first half of the game is where most of the polish was applied, but even now, months after its release and numerous patches and builds (and as of recently, new character epilogues), I’m struggling to see how the near universal perfect scores can be justified. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a great game, but certainly not a perfect one. Even so, kudos should be given to Larian for taking on such a hallowed franchise and giving it the respect it deserves. The ambition is clear and while the developer doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing or the promise of the first twenty to thirty hours, it’s a damn fine try.
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