Of the merits of talking to a wall

The culprit: Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation, PlayStation Network, PC)

Flamin' swordIt’s difficult to follow up on the heels of a massive hit, even if you’re not producing a direct sequel. Disregarding Final Fantasy Tactics, which was set in a very different environment and wasn’t part of the numbered series, Final Fantasy VIII had the difficult task of being the de facto successor to FFVII. Therefore, it was bound to draw three things: close scrutiny, inevitable comparison and (unreasonably?) high expectations. And when the latter were not met–or, rather, when the developers tried to do something different–polarisation ensued. It’s difficult to find a middle ground in terms of opinions concerning FFVIII: fans of the series tend to either love it or hate it.

Most of the criticism focuses on the two main protagonists and the overemphasis on their relationship, the lack of development of the main villain(s) and the combat system. I will readily concede the two latter points: combat can get tedious, and both Edea and Ultimecia were criminally underused. But I don’t fully agree with the former point. Yes, the central relationship takes on a life of its own to the detriment of other stuff towards the end of the game, and that’s unfortunate, but I can’t agree with all the vitriol that both Squall and Rinoa receive, especially by comparison with their counterparts from FFVII. Case in point: Squall manages to grow and mature over the course of one game, whereas Cloud is still wallowing in misery two years after the end of his (c.f. Advent Children); Rinoa feels like a real human being, flaws, pettiness and all, while Aeris/Aerith gradually becomes some kind of motherly archetype who can do no wrong.

FFVIII isn’t perfect; so much more could’ve been done with it given more time or perhaps fewer plot points. Other character relationships could’ve been fleshed out more, motivations explained, chocobos might not have been rendered useless And yet it still ranks among my top five games in the FF series. The main reason is characterisation: the game has a very believable teenage protagonist in Squall, whose deep-seated fears I used to relate to, back in my teenage days, and whose evolution over the course of the game is heart-warming. What’s more, he’s backed up by an almost shockingly likeable cast (coming as it does after FFVII, where I had severe issues with most of the cast), among whom Laguna shines bright as one of the most endearing goofs with a heart of gold I’ve ever encountered in a game.

Dance with meThe second reason is world building. The game does a great job at integrating its more esoteric elements (notably Guardian Forces, who are given an unprecedented amount of attention) within a more realistic world, including such seemingly mundane details as educational systems or salaries. The third reason would be the ending, which invariably makes me tear up every time I see it. There’s also the quality of the cinematics, which have dramatically improved since FFVII, especially as far as facial expressions–and thus, emotional depth–are concerned. The now-famous ballroom scene and the ending both illustrate this perfectly, but the opening scene is also a stunner.

Bottom line: if you’ve never played this game before, but are aware of its negative reputation, don’t let it deter you. You might actually surprise yourself and enjoy it, much as I did.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces–to be continued in Myst V–is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

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.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Against all odds

The culprit: Final Fantasy Tactics (PS, PSP)

As its name indicates, Final Fantasy Tactics marked a foray into a new direction for the FF series: the SRPG. Released a year after the enormous hit that was FFVII, it took a radically new approach to combat and produced what was probably the darkest story in the series at that point (perhaps even still to this day). Nevertheless–and possibly precisely for these reasons–it was a critical success upon release, and has become a cult classic since, with several subsequent games revisiting the world of Ivalice that serves as its setting.

So it beginsBoth of FFT’s defining characteristics–its storyline and its combat–are remarkably well executed, and, coming from someone who is usually indifferent to combat in an RPG, this is saying a lot. I have never simply enjoyed getting into a random encounter in a game before and rarely since. Sure, there are quite a lot of factors to take into account, and it may seem frustrating at first, while you’re learning the ropes, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun. Alongside this, you have a deliciously complicated political storyline, replete with betrayals, machinations, power struggles, tragedy, war and just plain ol’ murder, with a bucketful of unholy intervention to boot. The cast also features Agrias, one of the strongest, toughest female characters in the series and the most kickass incarnation of Cid, bar none. The in-game graphics are nothing to write home about, but the game does have its own specific, charming visual style due to the fact that the concept art was drawn by Akihiko Yoshida, rather than Yoshitaka Amano.

FFT didn’t make it to European shores when it was first released, meaning that an emulator or an NTSC console were the only means to experience the game on our side of the Atlantic for quite a long time. That is, until the game was remade in 2007, with the secondary title of The War of the Lions. The main attraction of this remake is the retranslation work. The original localisation was rather shoddy in places (and I’m being generous…some of the battle cries made no sense whatsoever), and the new version remedied that and then some, giving the game a properly medieval feel. The remake’s other merit is the introduction of beautiful cel-shaded cinematics, which respect the game’s original art. And if only for these reasons, I would recommend it over the original, even if it also boasts some gameplay rebalancing and a lot of additional content.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

What can change the nature of a man?

The culprit: Planescape: Torment (PC)

IfIn pain you speak to a veteran PC gamer, chances are that they’ll eventually mention Planescape: Torment with stars in their eyes. There’s a good reason for that. Coming out hot on the heels of Baldur’s Gate, this offering by Black Isle Studios (BG’s publisher) didn’t make much of a splash commercially at first, but went on to gain cult classic status. Console gamers of the younger generation will probably never have heard of it, and that’s a shame, because if there’s one game that puts the “RP” back into RPG, this is it, and you may hear it hailed as, quite simply, the best RPG ever. This is, of course, an exaggeration, as such claims usually are, and it all boils down to a matter of personal taste in the end, but the fact remains that what this game does well, it does extremely well, and I’ve never played anything quite like it, either before or since.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. Far from it, actually, especially by modern standards. The graphics are dated, and the interface is rather clunky; if you’ve played BG before, it’s the same isometric view, movement scheme and dialogue system. There are also quite a few bugs and quite a lot of content that either got cut or wasn’t fleshed out entirely, making the game feel somewhat unpolished in places. Moreover, if you’re a fan of combat, I shall warn you to keep your distance straight away. Not only is it really not the focus of the game (i.e. there’s very little of it), but saying that it’s not streamlined would be an understatement. It’s based on the same AD&D rules as BG, but the implementation is rather slapdash. There are mods available, as with any PC game, which focus on squishing bugs, restoring cut content and making the interface more pleasing to the eye, but nothing that really improves the combat.

Motley crewStill, don’t let this detract you from PST’s real strengths, which are characterization, plot and, most importantly, dialogue. The latter is detailed, varied, abundant and steeped in witticisms. It’s also strongly dependent on the protagonist’s attributes. The characters are probably the craziest bunch of misfits you’ve ever encountered; they certainly were to me. As for the plot, it revolves around such notions as responsibility, redemption, justice and human nature; the seminal quote from the game is, in fact, “what can change the nature of a man?” To sum things up, this is for people who enjoy immersive, engrossing, thought-provoking storytelling, and if you fit that bill, this game may just become the latest entry on your ‘all-time greats’ list.

As a final point of interest, a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, named Torment: Tides of Numenera, is currently being developed, after having broken all funding records on Kickstarter.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Something like a phenomenon

The culprit: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, PlayStation Network, PC)

Reviewing Final Fantasy VII is somewhat daunting, because of the enormous hype that surrounds this monolith of videogaming culture. The first Final Fantasy game to hit the PS, introducing cinematics and 3D, it’s unquestionably the most popular episode in the series and has achieved cult status, since it was many people’s first FF. If you want an indication of the scope of the phenomenon, try browsing an RPG-related forum, and you’re likely to encounter several screenname variations on either Cloud or Sephiroth. The other measure of the game’s popularity is the number of spinoffs it has generated: an OVA (Last Order), an animated film sequel (Advent Children), two prequels (Crisis Core and Before Crisis) and a spinoff sequel featuring what was originally an optional character (Dirge of Cerberus). I’m not even sure that the naming of these spinoffs was accidental (AC, BC, CC and DC? Come on…).

Claim to fameI won’t deny that the game has its merits: the characters are memorable (whether in a good or bad way), the villain has style and flair, the story is compelling and has little in common with preceding games in the series. Where FFVI only dabbled in steampunk, this one dabbles, dips and takes a belly-flop into it, transporting the series into a completely futuristic setting, with the heroes facing a radically different set of problems than in the previous opuses. There are still super-deformed sprites–which, incidentally, look like Legos, with their blocky hands and lack of noses–, but the characters also get the luxury of normally-sized incarnations during cinematic sequences and battles, thus taking expressiveness to a new level. Summoning sequences are also one of the big graphical highlights. Granted, by modern-day standards, the quality is very dated, but you can imagine just how awesome it must have seemed back when the game first came out.

That being said, I’m one of those people that have always felt that FFVII was absurdly overrated. Yes, it’s a very good game; yes, I would gladly replay it anytime, but it’s been blown out of all proportion. Some fans would have you believe that it’s the ultimate masterpiece of videogaming: well…it isn’t. I don’t even number it among my top five games in the series. And even objectively speaking, there have since been better, more innovative and interesting games in general, whether in terms of storyline, characterisation or atmosphere (I won’t say graphics, because that’s not a fair criterion). First of all, the ending is seriously underwhelming. This may be one of the driving reasons behind the spinoffs (besides the desire to milk fans for cash capitalise on the game’s popularity), but you may be left wondering “was that really it?” Secondly, a sizeable chunk of the cast consists of characters I strongly dislike, which makes it a little difficult for me to empathise with them. Thirdly, the driving idea behind the storyline may be a good one, but the execution is somewhat…lacking in places, and the tone of the game is sometimes almost jarringly goofy. Mind you, I’m judging this by juxtaposition with the hype FFVII has generated: had we simply been talking about a ‘normal’ game, I wouldn’t be that bothered by it. And last, but not least, the translation is not up to scratch in some places. There are mistakes, inconsistencies, and let me insist how lucky you are if you’ve only played this in English. My first copy of the game was in French, and boy, was that ten times worse.

FFVII has never been remade, much to the dismay of fanboys and fangirls the world over. However, if you own a PS or a PC, the original game is freely accessible–although PS copies are probably rather expensive now–, and there are plenty of good reasons why you should give it a go if you haven’t already, even if it’s just to see what all the fuss is about. Just don’t expect a life-altering experience, that’s all I’m saying.

 Detailed review available! Read more here.

The soul collector

The culprit: Valkyrie Profile (PlayStation, PlayStation Portable)

To this day, Valkyrie Profile remains one of the most original RPGs in existence, created by tri-Ace, a developing company formed by three game industry veterans. With its mix of real-time and turn-based combat, platforming-based exploration, its gloomy, harsh atmosphere and complex combat system, it stands in stark contrast with other famous JRPG series, such as Final Fantasy or Tales. This is precisely why fans of the series love it, but it also means that it’s likely to alienate more casual players. As a result the series remains relatively obscure, which I find to be a shame. Sure, the games are not perfect (although that criticism is more applicable to VP2), but they take a creative and refreshing approach to the well-worn JRPG format, and the first opus in the series is the best example of that.

First, as you may deduce from the title, the game is heavily influenced by Norse mythology. The “Profile” part refers not only to the fact that the game–and its logo–presents the portrait, or profile, of a Valkyrie (at least, this is true for the first two games), but also to the 2D exploration perspective, in which all characters appear in profile. The Norse mythology part may not sound all that groundbreaking: many games have been there before. However, Valkyrie Profile is the only series I know which sticks so closely to the actual myths, all the while mixing them with some distinctly Asian It's a form of recyclingelements, with the decidedly unusual result of Valkyries cohabiting with Samurai and such. The game’s world is supported by the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which sustains three realms: Asgard, the realm of the gods (the Aesir and the Vanir, who are in perpetual conflict); Midgard, the war-torn, poverty-ridden world of humans; and Niflheim, the underworld, realm of demons and undead. Odin rules Asgard from his palace of Valhalla alongside Freya and a host of other deities, and commands three Valkyries (although, if you want to be entirely accurate, they’re actually more like the Norns), who are sisters. Hrist is the eldest and most obedient, Silmeria is the youngest and most rebellious, while Lenneth is the middle one and the most powerful, and also the heroine of this game. Her goal is to collect worthy souls, train them as Einherjar and send them to Valhalla, where they will fight for the Aesir. This is an urgent mission, as, by the time the game starts, Ragnarok, the final confrontation between the Aesir and the Vanir, has broken out.

This is where the complexity kicks in. Each Einherjar has their own (sometimes heart-wrenching) story and their own abilities. Who you obtain and when is determined by your difficulty setting and a randomisation factor. Once trained, these Einherjar can be sent up to Valhalla, as long as they meet requirements outlined by Freya. What’s more, there are three different endings, even though only one of them is considered canon. The problem–and this is probably the single biggest issue with the game–is that there is next to no indication as to how to obtain that particular ending. I have no idea how you’re supposed to figure it out without a guide, and even once you know how, there’s very little room for error. This also applies to exploration, which is circumscribed by a time mechanic, requiring you to plan out your course of action. And of course, there’s the combat system, which takes a little while to wrap your head around.

The second strongest criticism I have is the voice acting, which, frankly, is sometimes appalling. The translation is also a bit shoddy in patches, and the typically Asian, elliptical storytelling style, doesn’t help. Still, even accounting for all these kinks, Valkyrie Profile is a genuinely engrossing, unique game and a welcome change of pace from the tried-and-true ‘youngsters with improbable haircuts save the world’ JRPG scenario. If you’re an RPG aficionado, I’d encourage you to give it a spin, if only for the novelty of the experience.

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.