This is a far more substantial expansion than Tales of the Sword Coast was for Baldur’s Gate, as it actually adds to the storyline of the game, rather than simply throwing in a bunch of sidequests. After defeating Irenicus, your Bhaalspawn’s travails are not over. A group of five powerful Bhaalspawn decides to take the matter of Bhaal’s return into their own hands and starts slaughtering all the other Bhaalspawn they can get their hands on in order to eliminate competition. In the midst of all this, your Bhaalspawn tries to come to terms with their nature and decide whether s/he wants to pursue potential divinity or not. Whether s/he’s interested in inheriting the Throne of Bhaal or not, however, s/he must stop the Five first.
The expansion takes place in Tethyr, the country to the south of Amn, where the ongoing war seems to have centred, as all surviving Bhaalspawn have been herded into the city of Saradush, besieged by the forces of one of the Five, although the strongholds of his ‘colleagues’ are also located nearby. Moreover, the ending of Shadows of Amn saw your Bhaalspawn inadvertently creating a Pocket Plane in Hell in order to protect her/himself within Bhaal’s Domain. Plainly speaking, this is a sort of small planar HQ inhabited by an imp called Cespenar, who can craft powerful equipment for her/him. This is also where a Solar–basically an angel–will find the Bhaalspawn and explain that s/he must learn to understand and master her/his godly essence for the trials to come. There are five rooms located around the Pocket Plane, each one housing a test (much like the ending of SoA, can be perceived as a rehash), which will gradually unlock as you progress through the story. Solving each test will grant EXP and abilities or stat upgrades.
On top of this, the expansion adds a large optional dungeon called Watcher’s Keep, which is essentially BGII’s answer to Durlag’s Tower. The idea is the same: puzzles, lots of monsters, lots of great loot and a tough final boss (a demon kept imprisoned by a secretive order of knights) to cap it all. It’s not quite as long (or maybe it just seems that way), but it’s still a bit of a slog.
ToB also adds a rather surprising recruitable character:
Sarevok: Yes, you can actually recruit the main villain from BG, something that BioWare has gone on to offer in some subsequent games as well. I won’t spoil the circumstances in which this happens, but suffice it to say that your Bhaalspawn can give Sarevok a second chance at life. What he makes of it depends entirely on how s/he treats him. Sarevok appears as a bald Chaotic Evil human Fighter with glowing yellow eyes, but he may end up becoming Chaotic Good, depending on his interactions with your protagonist. Yes, that’s quite a drastic change, compared to Viconia or Anomen, and I’m not sure I like the way it’s handled, but there you have it. Sarevok’s stats are amazing. He has the highest Strength of all recruitable NPCs, excellent Constitution, both good Dexterity and Intelligence, and even decent Charisma. If he were available earlier, he could’ve made an excellent Fighter/Mage or Fighter/Thief, but he doesn’t even need that to kick butt. He has a trait called Deathbringer Assault, which means that he has a 3% chance of dealing 200 (!) additional points of damage whenever he strikes a blow. Training him in halberds will ensure that he can use the awesome weapon that is the Ravager, as no greatsword (his original weapon of choice) will ever be able to surpass Carsomyr, and only Keldorn or a Paladin Bhaalspawn can use that. Personality-wise, Sarevok starts out bitter, but still power-hungry and determined to try his best not to squander his second chance. You also learn some troubling details about his past, and why he was so intent on killing Gorion.
In the class department, ToB adds a Mage specialisation:
Wild Mage: This is more of a joke than anything else. Wild Mages gain an extra spell per tier without being barred from any other school and even three unique spells. The downside? Spell damage and duration is randomised, and every casting has a 5% chance of triggering a Wild Surge. This can cause a variety of effects, from the harmlessly silly (e.g. a cow drops on the target…Monty Python would be proud), to the beneficial (e.g. the spell’s effectiveness is doubled), to the mildly annoying (e.g. the caster changes gender), to the really bad (e.g. the party loses all its money). If you’re feeling lucky, go right ahead. If you prefer spells to work as intended, give this a wide berth.
More importantly, as ToB also raises the level cap to eight million EXP (which equates to level 40 for most classes), it also introduces High-Level Abilities, or HLAs. These are just what it says on the package: very powerful skills that each class can start learning once they hit three million EXP (which equates to level 20 for most classes). For the purpose of HLAs, classes are grouped by ‘category’, with all classes of the same category gaining the same HLAs. Multiclassed characters are clearly advantaged by this, as they will be able to learn the HLAs of both of their classes (not sure if triple classes can level high enough to have three sets of HLAs), which gives them an edge over dual-classed and single-classed characters.
The Warrior category includes Fighters, Rangers, Barbarians, Paladins and Monks. The only thing you really need here is Whirlwind Attack and its upgrade, Greater Whirlwind Attack, which allows the character to deliver 10 (!) attacks in one round with no penalties. In addition to Warrior HLAs, Paladins get Summon Deva, like Clerics, allowing them to summon a powerful angelic creature for a minimum of four rounds plus an extra round per character level. Rangers, on the other hand, get Tracking instead, which…indicates whether there are hostile creatures in the general vicinity. Wahey…not.
The Rogue category includes Thieves and Bards. Assassination makes every attack count as a backstab for one round and is very useful for meleeing characters. Use Any Item can also come in handy, as it will allow the character to use equipment that is normally restricted to other classes. In addition to Rogue HLAs, Bards get Magic Flute, which sucks, and Enhanced Bard Song, which grants them a 10 point AC bonus and 10% magic resistance. It also grants allies a four-point bonus to hit, damage and AC, immunity to Fear, Stun, Confusion and normal weapons, as well as 5% magic resistance. In other words, it’s awesome. Less so if your character is a Skald, as they start out with something very similar, but still.
The Priest category includes Clerics and Druids. Globe of Blades is an upgraded version of Blade Barrier and a good protective spell, effectively setting up a meatgrinder around the character. Just…make sure to keep the rest of your team well clear of it. Energy Blades is a good damage option. Clerics get Summon Deva/Fallen Deva, depending on their alignment (Neutral Clerics can pick either one), while Druids get Elemental Transformation, which isn’t very good, and Elemental Summoning, which definitely is, allowing them to summon the Elemental Princes of earth, fire or air (why no love for water?).
The Wizard category includes Mages and Sorcerers. They can learn an extra 6th, 7th and 8th level spell, as well as several 9th level spells. Good ones are Comet, Improved Alacrity (cancels the casting time for the Mage’s next spell) and Summon Planetar/Dark Planetar, which is very similar to a Cleric’s Deva/Fallen Deva. The problem is that there are other very useful level 9 spells to pick from, so the Planetar might not be a priority.
Finally, ToB has its own soundtrack, penned by Inon Zur, whom you may know from his work on Prince of Persia or Dragon Age. Not sure why Michael Hoenig didn’t make a return, but there you go.
Music: The style is very close to that of Michael Hoenig, but also more elaborate in places, with a stronger focus on melody, rather than ambience. It also brings back a Middle-Eastern flavour, even though the expansion is set in Tethyr, rather than Amn. The overall mood is very dark, which is fitting, considering the storyline. The “Main Theme”, in particular, sounds so very final, giving it all a very ‘this is it’ feeling, even with the surprisingly aerial passage that occurs about 2/3rds into the track. Echoes of it also appear in other tracks, creating a cohesive whole.
The combat themes feature highlights such as “Sendai Battle”, with its whirling strings, or the brassy, driving “Final Battle”. There are also several memorable location themes, such as “Bhaal’s Pocket Plane”, which creates a sense of uncertainty and lurking menace to it. “Sendai’s Enclave” also does a great job of the ‘menace’ part, although it’s far more overt in this case. “Saradush” sounds like it’s leading up to an execution (which it essentially is). “Amkethran” is the most Middle-Eastern-sounding piece of the lot, which fits the town’s architecture very well. And finally, “End of the Saga” brings the series to a conclusion full of solemnity and poise.
There are some less successful tracks in the lot, mind you, such as “Yaga-Shura’s Lair”, which sounds almost too threatening for the situation, or the somewhat formless “Watcher’s Keep”.
In my eyes, ToB has just one glaring flaw: its decision to explore the protagonist’s past…and making it the same, regardless of their race. I understand that the game is biased towards a human male Bhaalspawn, but what of the people who picked a dwarf, an elf, a gnome or even a half-elf, for that matter (that covers over 50% of racial choices)? All of those are longer-lived than a human; heck, even halflings are, even if it’s to a lesser extent. So the story of how Gorion found them simply doesn’t make sense, nor does the fact that Imoen considers them as a sibling. This bothers me a lot. Of course, it was already an issue back in BG, but it was easier to ignore. Why give the player a choice of race if this was going to be thrown in at the end? There are ways to imagine how a Bhaalspawn of one of the longer-lived races could have been raised in ignorance of their heritage, but none of it fits with them living all of their life under Gorion’s tutelage, and certainly not with Sarevok’s revelations (although it could work if he mistook Imoen for the protagonist…). You really have to headcanon a LOT for it to make even a semblance of sense. What’s more, some of the details of that past are retconned from Shadows of Amn, thus making it feel even more jarring.
All of this has garnered ToB criticism from a fair portion of the fanbase, as well as the rather importunate interventions by the Solar. That being said, these issues aside, I still think it’s a worthwhile addition to the game, which addresses the one important unresolved issue in the form of the protagonist’s godhood. None of its flaws managed to really dampen my enjoyment, and I still think this is a better offering than many others out there.