The game’s difficulty level mostly depends on how well you understand its combat and class mechanics, so if you’re unfamiliar with D&D rules and have never played a pen-and-paper RPG before, you may find it a tad daunting, even more so than Baldur’s Gate, as the opponents tend to be stronger. Still, it is possible to bungle through without mastering the system’s intricacies. Just be prepared for some challenging encounters. This concerns the final boss of Shadows of Amn, Irenicus, whom you have to face twice, but also the final boss of Throne of Bhaal. That being said, in terms of charisma, I felt that both were somewhat lacking. Irenicus is identified as the main villain from the very first scene of the game and thus receives ample background development. And yet, I don’t find him quite as engaging as Sarevok, despite the fact that he’s extremely good at scheming on the go, forgoes some traditional villainous clichés and makes it all very personal for the protagonist. I can’t really say much about the ToB final boss without venturing into spoiler-territory, except that there’s a lot less character development there. But you may not necessarily see it coming. That’s probably the most positive thing I can say in this case.
The game has a non-linear structure, but less so than BG. You’re free to take on whichever sidequests you like prior to rescuing Imoen, but the storyline will be on rails for quite a while after that. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it gives the story more focus and makes more sense: your character builds up her/his forces and resources then proceeds to tackle the serious business. However, it also means that you should recruit and secure (i.e. complete their personal quests) all the characters you plan to use before going after Imoen, because they’ll lag far too much in terms of levels if you come back for them afterwards.
One new element in this game is the ability for your Bhaalspawn to acquire Strongholds. These serve as headquarters of sorts for specific classes, providing them with additional sidequests of varying quantity and difficulty, and, in some cases, a regular supply of either money or items. This can be quite useful, although some of the quests are rather involved, which may become annoying. The new classes–Barbarian, Sorcerer and Monk–don’t have specific Strongholds, but share them with pre-existing classes. In a bid for fairness, multiclassed characters don’t gain two or three Strongholds, but have to choose one among the ones they’re eligible for.
Fighters, Fighter multiclasses, Barbarians and Monks have access to the De’Arnise Keep, Nalia’s family’s castle, which features quite a few sidequests and brings in a regular income. That being said, completing the questline with the best possible results requires quite a hefty investment, which will take a while to recoup.
Thieves and Thief multiclasses have access to Mae’Var’s Guildhall in the Athkatla Docks. This also brings in income, but requires reporting back on a regular basis to pay a due to your protagonist’s superior, lest you lose the guild, which is rather annoying. What’s more, there are few sidequests available, and, depending on the difficulty of the jobs your protagonist assigns to her/his agents, they may get captured by the authorities, requiring a bailout payment.
Clerics and Cleric multiclasses (although Cleric/Rangers may run into a bug) have access to one of the temples in the Temple District of Athkatla, depending on their alignment: Talos if Evil, Helm if Neutral and Lathander if Good, regardless of whether the corresponding kit was chosen. The sidequests are more or less identical for all three temples, and the final reward is a nice piece of equipment, but there’s no income to be gained.
Mages, Mage multiclasses and Sorcerers have access to the Planar Sphere in the Athkatla Slums. This gives the protagonist the opportunity to train three apprentices, which results in some magical items, but may actually be lethal to said apprentices, if you’re not careful. If you are, though, once the training is over, one of the apprentices can provide a steady supply of potions, which is certainly handy.
Rangers and Cleric/Rangers have access to the Ranger’s cabin in Umar Hills, as the previous Ranger has encountered a slight case of death. No income to be gained and not a lot of quests, but you do obtain a summonable Moondog, which may be helpful if you need an extra body on the battlefield. The location of the Stronghold is rather annoying, however, as it requires a trek out into the wilderness.
Druids and Fighter/Druids have access to the Druid Grove near Trademeet. This is probably the worst Stronghold of the lot: it’s the furthest away from Athkatla, it has very few sidequests and no income to be gained. Just a staff, which isn’t even all that great. That and the actual Grove is a squelchy, troll-infested swamp.
Bards have access to the Five Flagons Inn and Playhouse. The questline involves putting on a cursed play. It requires a lot of attention and money, but the playhouse can bring in income. Or you can sell it. All things considered, it’s probably the most entertaining Stronghold of the lot.
Finally, Paladins have access to the Order of the Radiant Heart. There are couple of available quests, and the final one requires slaying a dragon. However, you can do that particular quest without being a Paladin and still get Carsomyr as a reward. This makes the Order the least specific and profitable Stronghold of the lot. And yet, it’s still better than the Druid Grove.
All travelling is done on foot, which can become tedious. However, there has been a lot of streamlining in this game. The world map is subdivided into interlinked areas, but there are far fewer than in BG, and you no longer need to uncover them to be able to access them. You may, however, still run into random encounters while travelling between areas, which comes into play in several sidequests in Athkatla. There’s a day-and-night cycle that determines the enemies/NPCs that appear in a given area, which is also used in some quests. Outdoor areas are initially obscured with what is commonly referred to as the ‘fog of war’ (i.e. the screen is black, and the area gradually becomes visible as you explore). I’m not exactly sure what purpose this serves, as, even without the ‘fog of war’, NPCs and enemies that are beyond the party’s field of vision don’t appear onscreen. Outdoor areas also tend to be very large, and distances between them are measured in in-game hours. This means that, after a while, your characters will become tired. This is signalled by a red symbol on their portrait and a voiced complaint along the lines of “how long must you crack your whip on my back?” (Viconia). Fatigue is cumulative and gradually lowers the characters’ Saving Throws, so resting promptly–via a menu option–is in your best interests. Resting also recovers health, reverses negative status effects and recharges spells. If your party’s in town, it entails going inside a building or an inn first, as guards don’t allow resting in the street. If your party’s in the wilderness or inside a dungeon, there’s a chance that resting will be interrupted by an enemy attack, which can be dangerous if your characters are a bit banged up. Realistic, but hardly practical.
On a different topic, quite a few items require identification before you can see what they are or use them. This is based on Lore, which is a Bard’s domain. Mages and Thieves can also do it, although they’ll be less likely to succeed. Failing that, you could also bring the item in question to a store to have it identified for a fee. Or use an Identify scroll. Yes, all of those options are rather annoying.
There are a couple more item-related issues worth noting. First of all, you can’t equip multiple items that have ‘of Protection’ in their name on the same character. I have no idea why. Secondly, inventory space is limited. Each character has three quick item slots (i.e. items which can be used from the combat menu during a fight: this is where potions, wands, scrolls and enchanted items go) and 18 inventory slots. Granted, with a full party of six, that’s quite a lot of room, and you do have various bags of holding, ammo belts, scroll cases and gem pouches to make even more room. It’s an improvement over BG, but it’s not unlimited storage either. What’s more, each character has a weight limit, determined by their Strength. If you overshoot that weight allowance, they’ll be encumbered, and will either move slower or be unable to move at all. In other words, don’t hoard; typically, generic armour and weapons that drop off weak enemies aren’t worth your while. Jewellery and gems are worth picking up, but unless they’re explicitly needed for a quest, pawn them off ASAP. Sell weapons and armour in bulk, if possible, because the more times you offer an item to the same merchant, the less they’ll pay for it. Also, be advised that no shop will take stolen goods–not even the Thieves’ Guild (!)–, so make sure you have a use for the stuff you steal before you do.
There are two important elements of interaction with NPCs: Charisma and reputation. Charisma determines how favourably other people respond to a character, so it’s important to pick a character (not necessarily your Bhaalspawn) with high Charisma as party leader (i.e. in the first party slot). A high Charisma also reduces the likelihood of morale failure and inter-companion conflicts from breaking out, as well as granting a discount in shops. Conversely, low Charisma may cause some quest givers and even some companions to refuse to have anything to do with your party.
Reputation has similar effects. It’s measured on a scale of 1 to 20, and can be gained by resolving conflicts in a helpful and chivalrous manner, or lost by getting caught stealing or murdering innocents, for example. Your Bhaalspawn can also donate money to a temple to raise reputation, but only up to 18. Evil characters will leave the party if reputation rises above 18, and Good ones will bail if it falls below 2. If it falls as far as 1, Neutral characters will leave as well. However, reputation that low is inadvisable even for Evil parties, as, starting from a score of 5, there will be a likelihood of attack by a group of mercenaries every time the party enters a new area. Moreover, any reputation below 10 will cause a gradual price increase in shops, and if it drops to 1, merchants will simply refuse to sell their wares. Conversely, starting from a reputation of 15, shop prices will gradually go down, reaching a 50% discount at 20. In effect, this means that Good parties will have an easier time. Evil parties will have to maintain a precarious balance: a low enough reputation to keep companions from leaving, but high enough to avoid attack and not be too taxing on the wallet. Although I’m not sure I agree on that last restriction: surely an Evil character could simply coerce a shopkeeper into giving them a discount?
A stray mention in passing: be careful when one of your characters dies. It’s instant Game Over if it’s the protagonist, and if one of the others succumbs to a critical hit (i.e. explodes into meaty chunks), you won’t be able to resurrect her/him. Ever. Similarly, if you encounter slimes, check the complexion of your team’s paperdolls after the fight. If anybody’s turned green, just reload. They will die in a few minutes, and you won’t be able to bring them back.
Another health-related issue is the Find Familiar spell. First of all, don’t bother teaching it to any of your companions (unless you’re doing it for extra EXP): only single- or multi-classed Mage, Sorcerer or Bard protagonists are actually able to use it. The effect is to summon a sapient magical creature to aid your character in combat. The actual creature is determined by your protagonist’s alignment: Good characters get a tiny dragon, Neutral ones get a mammal (ferret, rabbit or cat, depending on whether the character is Lawful, Chaotic or True Neutral) and Evil ones get an imp. Each Familiar has its own abilities, but they become less and less useful as the game progresses. The real issue is that, if a Familiar dies, the protagonist permanently loses one point of Constitution. And considering that there are plenty of AoE-happy Mages in this game, it’s only a matter of time before that happens. So the best use for a Familiar is actually to summon it and tell it to travel around in your character’s pack. That will add its HP to your character’s and keep it safe from harm, even though you’ll have to sacrifice an inventory slot for it. Outside of combat, your character can talk to her/his Familiar and even ask it for advice. It doesn’t amount to much, but it’s a fun little detail.