A hard nut to crack
If you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even over a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, perfunctory voice acting and staggeringly complex combat system. 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 developers for years to come. And while they’ve been struggling with quality lately, 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 detailed, involved and not afraid to take its time. It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some 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, the 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 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 customized 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.
A remake of the game entitled Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition was released in 2012 by Beamdog studios, incorporating the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion as an integral part of the game. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods to obtain, as well an updated U.I. to resemble BGII. What’s more, it adds three new characters (which, considering the already massive team, may be a bit much) and new areas. The main problem, when it first came out, was that the existing mods it hadn’t rendered obsolete were incompatible with it, but now, three years down the line, that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, however. There are a handful of mods that are still incompatible.