We’re not in Kansas anymore

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate II (PC, Mac)

Empty heartReleased in 2000, two years after its predecessor wowed the gaming community, Baldur’s Gate II faced the difficult task of being a direct sequel to a massive hit. And while some of the choices it makes are questionable (notably in terms of reducing exploration and a weaker villain), the end result is still largely successful, and the game has, nowadays, become more popular than Baldur’s Gate. The basics still apply: the setting is the same, the mechanics are the same, and the storyline picks up right where the first game ended, albeit on a significantly darker note. The game is still vast and involved, and contains extensive dialogue that may make modern-day players hesitate. However, the interface has been updated and the class system refined, with three new additions and kits for every other existing class. Combat has been made more strategic and more difficult. Moreover, the cast has been streamlined, even though some characters make a comeback from the first game. This is, however, a case of favouring quality over quantity, as the existing characters have a lot more interaction with each other and are more fleshed out. What’s more, this is the first BioWare game to introduce romances, which add more depth to interaction and have become one of the company’s trademarks. Although, I’d say that the most charismatic members of the cast are still returning characters from BG.

Other than that, the game has both a grander scope and a tighter focus: instead of roaming about countless outdoor areas with little to differentiate them and next to no motivation to do so besides curiosity–although this may be the very definition of adventure for some–, the action is now set in several large locations and seldom wanders outside of them. The plot also involves greater stakes, since the protagonist has been revealed as none other than an offspring of the defunct God of Murder, Bhaal, and must now deal with said heritage and those who would prey on it. An expansion titled Throne of Bhaal was released a year later, in 2001, in order to conclusively address the question of the protagonist’s divine ambitions or lack thereof.

Due to its greater overall popularity, the game has also spawned a LOT of mods–in other words, player-created content–thus allowing you to customise your gaming experience even more. Just as with the first game, some of the available stuff is either indispensable from a technical point of view (bug fixing, ease-of-use) or, when it’s additional content, extremely well written, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine playing without it. All this content is still actively supported by an enthusiastic and committed player community, which, for a 15-year old game, is damn impressive and a testimony to its quality. Of course, it’s not perfect and has its share of annoyances and aggravations, even after being modded, and, to a modern-day player, it may feel dated and somewhat clunky. But don’t let superficial concerns keep you from one the best WRPGs ever created, especially if you enjoyed the first one. This is BioWare in top form, and it shows.

"Hey, y'all, this is a great game!"

A remake called Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was released in 2013 by Beamdog studios, incorporating both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods, but also brings back the three new characters that were added by the Enhanced Edition of BG, as well as adding three more. The main problem is that not all the mods it hasn’t rendered obsolete are compatible with it. However, the modding community has been hard at work, and that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

A hard nut to crack

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast (PC, Mac)

Under a blood-red skyIf you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even more than a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, the perfunctory voice acting and the staggeringly complex combat system. There’s even an Enhanced Edition currently in the works. Baldur’s Gate was also responsible for propelling its developer, the Canadian studio BioWare, to fame, establishing it as one of the most successful WRPG creators for years to come. And while they’ve recently suffered a massive decline in quality, this game was made back in their glory days.I won’t lie: it takes some getting used to. It has quite a few flaws and kinks, some very annoying, some only mildly aggravating, and a modern-day player, used to shiny graphics, fully-voiced dialogue, speed and streamlined combat mechanics, might find it difficult to like. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings, there’s also a lot of great stuff, particularly if you consider the saga as a whole. Kind of like a nut: you have to crack the shell first to get to the good part, but that good part is what you remember afterwards. The game is vast, detailed, involved and Verbosenot afraid to take its time (sometimes excessively). It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some truly memorable individuals (something BioWare is renowned for and still does well) and a compelling storyline. It’s biased towards male players, as all games used to be back in the day, but that’s hardly a shocker and doesn’t really prevent it from being enjoyable.

The main difference between JRPGs and WRPGs is the latter’s emphasis on choice, which is abundantly present here. The protagonist is essentially a blank slate for you, All hail Tolkienthe player, to customise to your heart’s content, and, for someone used to JRPGs as I was, this kind of freedom is genuinely a breath of fresh air. Baldur’s Gate is as typical as WRPGs get, being based on a pre-existing high fantasy setting (i.e. a medieval environment, abundant borrowing from Tolkien–elves, dwarves, halflings, the whole nine yards–, and a pantheon of deities who actively influence the lives of their worshippers), the Forgotten Realms, which had previously been featured in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games and several books. While it creates some continuity issues with the latter, they are not necessary to understand the game’s premise, and you can perfectly well head into it without ever having heard of the Realms before. The one big hurdle to leap is understanding the combat system, but you don’t necessarily need to master all its intricacies to have a working grasp on things.

PC games have this advantage over their console counterparts that they are much more open to player involvement. By that, I mean modding: various and sundry additions, written and implemented by players themselves. This can range from bug fixing, to restoring cut content, tweaking the combat system, adding customised weapons and armour, or even creating entirely new quests and characters. As luck would have it, the Baldur’s Gate modding community is still very active, even after all this time, and the game is thus blessed with an extensive array of goodies to pick from to improve your experience. Some of them–specifically, the ones that fix bugs and rebalance the game–are pretty much indispensable. Others are so well-written that I couldn’t imagine playing the game without them. This isn’t to disparage the original developers’ efforts–which, after all, have resulted in a game that people still want to play after more than ten years–, but many dedicated modders have produced amazing things. In the end, this makes Baldur’s Gate an impressive collaborative venture: a game which is only further enriched by its audience. And that is an undeniable quality.

Detailed review available! Read more here.