Monday, August 1, 2011

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn Review

This is going to be the first game of our classic corner and for classic games it is unfair to give them a score, because inevitably those scores will be compared to scores of newer games. We will simply label classic games by five varying degrees: Legendary, Great Times, Good Times, Bad Times, A Painful Memory.
Let's get onto the game itself. Of course, many of you should have heard of this game, but there is also the chance that many of you have played this game and in that regard I will try not to ruin your memories. You probably know that this is a great game, a game that still defines what it is to be a great rpg. It followed it's predecessor, Baldur's Gate 1, the game that introduced the legendary barbarian named Minsc who talked to his hamster, Boo, before running into battle. Baldurs Gate II was a top down RPG where you have a highly customizable party of characters. It is still one of the best RPG in regards of story, npc/player interaction, voice acting and world. The series takes place in the Forgotten Realms Universe, which is an offshoot of dungeons and dragons, one of the most beloved of all D&D settings. All of the Baldur's Gates were developed by a fantastic little studio called Bioware and publised by the legendary Black Isle Studios. 
You start out the game in a prison. You don't know why you are there nor do you don't know where you are. Before all of that, you customize your character and choose who you want them to be. All of which is super familiar to anyone who has played any RPG these days; back then such customization was rare. You are being experimented on by an elven mage named Jon Irencus. Three other characters: Minsc, Jaheria, and Imoen are all imprisoned with you, all three of which are from Baldurs Gate 1. You escape your cell with your "friends", but you are given the choice on whether or not to believe that they are your friends, although you do have to nevertheless escape with them. As you approach the exit you realize that you and your friends aren't the only problem the wizard has; thieves and assassins from an un-named guild invade his lair. You quickly find out that the wizard is no fool and that he is well prepared. You meanwhile, escape over the bodies of invaders and out into the light of the marketplace.

That was a quick little spoiler into the introductory area of the game, but even in that beginning area you can see Baldur's Gates true colors. There are so many gameplay and tactical options in the first area; you can be stealthy, brazen and foolhardy, careful and sure, but for each different option there are different situations. For instance, there is an area that is riddled with lightning traps, but is an optional path. You can overcome this by using your thief to somehow disarm the traps, though it's incredibly difficult if not impossible at that level, or you can throw some protective spells on your wizard and run him through the traps, which works decently well, or you can take a warrior and hope to god you have some healing capabilities. The game abounds with situations like that, situations that have a lot of options and a level of risk versus reward.

Throughout the game you can recruit other characters to your party, which works out based on your alignment and class. Certain characters will refuse to work with other characters, although typically not immediately. Events will make them argue with each other and then you must pick who to agree with, or you can tell them both to shut up- sound familiar? Well it might, Bioware still uses this same kind of party system to this day, and yes Bioware has quite a few developers who worked on their games back in the Black Isle days. There are also romantic possibilities in this game with regards to characters in your party, but they aren't as comprehensive as Dragon Age or Mass Effect. I actually like the romantic situations in Baldurs Gate 2 better than the newer rpgs. Why? Because they relied on voice acting/text to entirely convey feelings and situations. Modern rpgs show romantic situations in visual detail, but back then the words had so much more weight to them, because that's all there was.
There are also alignment problems; when you recruit someone (if you CAN recruit them) that is an evil aligned character and you are the pinnacle of good, well then you can only imagine there might be problems down the line. Dragon Age had a bit of this, but not so much. In Baldur's Gate 2, if a relationship ended because of alignment differences then it often ended in blood shed. On top of that, characters will form bonds with each other based on their alignment. So, a seemingly insignificant argument might turn into a split in your entire party that ends with half of your party dead. Beware if you try to mix your party up with good and evil characters. Often, you cannot even recruit evil characters if you are good; realistically why would they even want to join you in the first place? I also spoke of classes when it came to parties. This is simpler to explain. When you start the game you have to pick a class, so the entire game you are going to balance your party based on your class. You don't have to do a balanced party of different classes though, sometimes two of one class or similar classes can be very powerful.

The difficulty of Baldur's Gate 2 is up there, but it's based on how well you develop your character and party. It's one of the few games that makes impossible looking enemies actually feel impossible and this isn't simply achieved through giving them a large health pool. When you come across a Lich King in this game, prepare for death. The enemies are not random, everything is structured, except for the world map. There is a world map that you use to travel around and on that world map random encounters will occur. These are very similar to how it works in Dragon Age 1; you don't always run into enemies, sometimes it's a pleasant encounter (like running into Drizzt Do' Urden and company). It doesn't make it any easier that characters can be permanently killed, but thankfully this game has a save system that allows you to save anytime you aren't in combat. It can be a very difficult game at times, especially whenever you have to fight a dragon, but every challenge has a reward that makes every moment worth it.
The story for Baldur's Gate II is stated to be one of the best out there and I cannot disagree with that, but what made me love it was the quality of all the side stories. The game is absolutely brimmed with extra content. The main story is rather long, but when you add in the ridiculous amount of optional content, then the game can reach upwards of one hundred hours. People often played this game twice or more because you have so many options in gameplay, be it a small decision like alignment, or a big decision like choosing to let a character die. Even small decisions, alignment in particular, can affect the entire course of the game.

Someday I want to see a rpg live up to the pure quality of Baldurs Gate II. The game did have bugs, but they weren't anything significant as to detract from the overall experience. This game is rich with content and on top of all of the excellent work by Bioware, there is also an expansion and several fantastic mods made by the community. I feel like I could talk about why I love Baldurs Gate II forever, but I unfortunately have games to work on and other ideas to develop. So, if you feel you are a true fan of rpgs, if you really liked Dragon Age, then I strongly recommend picking this game up from Good Old Games ($10). There are reasons why people love the Baldur's Gate series and you don't even need to play Baldur's Gate I to understand the story or world of Baldurs Gate II, although I would recommend it.

I claim this game to be Legendary
It will live on in memories of old school PC Gamers for a long time.

Thanks for reading.
-Written by Sean Cargle


  1. I had two complaints about DA:O as successor of BG - 1) sidequest which were usually "hey this is my quest-bag, find/kill return item to my QUEST BAG and i will reward you!" - WTF was that! 2) tactical realtime with pause was nice - but in DA:O there was too much combat, too less conversation... but when i played DA2 i find DA:O quite nice successor of bg xD

  2. Yeah, I agree on both of those points. I loved that fighting in Baldurs Gate, either of them, generally had a more significant feeling to it. Especially when you spent three minutes slowly fighting through a crypt or castle. I personally very much dislike DA2, but DA:O I've played a couple times through and enjoy it quite enough. I don't think they will ever bring back the strong ideas and gameplay elements from Baldurs Gate though. Especially since Black Isle themselves was starting to lose that special touch when it came to games like Icewind Dale II, which was still good, but far more linear and combat orientated than the Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights.

  3. Baldur's Gate was developed by Bioware, Black Isle were the publisher

    1. Wow, thanks for that, seriously. I'd been under the impression for fourteen years that Black Isle was the developer, I had always thought that Bioware did not come until later, specifically Neverwinter Nights.

    2. bioware developed bg and bg2 Snowblind Studios developed da and then black isle developed da2 here's the wiki link if your interested all the games have individual pages's_Gate_(series)