Review: Baldur’s Gate III
Mild spoiler warning (I don't get into plot, but some things need to be discussed to review a game like this).
It is the long-ago days of 2001, I’m fifteen and an add-on pack arrives in the mail for Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (this is before the time of Steam). I was dizzy with excitement, played through the whole thing in under a week and leaned back, blissfully unaware I would not enjoy another game so much for two decades. To this day BGII is the game I have played more than any other. I consider it a masterpiece.
To be clear, I am not saying that the add-on Throne of Bhaal was the last great achievement in video games, nor that I would never enjoy another game during all of that time. I am emphatically not setting up some kind of objective marker for the development of this medium where everything after my middle adolescence is on a downward trajectory. A lot of my love of the game is nostalgia. But for me, the world of D&D established by BG, which then pinnacled with its sequel, would not be bested until quite recently.
I adore The Binding of Isaac, Lifeless Planet, Vermintide 2, Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons, The Stanley Parable, Spec Ops: The Line, Dark Souls, Bastion, The Wolf Among Us, Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Hades… I enjoyed (with criticisms) Life is Strange, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, etc… But it was really not until the last few months, and two games I encountered in this period, I felt the same excitement again. That is, for Disco Elysium (which I will review in a future blog) and the early-access of Baldur’s Gate III.
When I first saw BGIII being advertised, I tempered my excitement. Isometric role-playing games are my favourite genre in the medium, but tend to let me down (perhaps because I hold them to high standards). In the intervening period after ToB, Neverwinter Nights (massively), Dragon Age (somewhat), and Pillars of Eternity (again, by a narrow degree) disappointed. The latter two are good, but I felt their world building never came close to that of BGII. Where this classic created a world that was deeply immersive, coherent, and never sacrificed either to playability, DA felt shallow and PoE like an inferior version.
Suffice to say, then, I came to BGIII (an unfinished game at that!), with little charity. I did not expect to like it, I hoped to get as much from it as I did the first DA or (at the furthest reaches of my expectations) PoE. I have no experience with other games from Larian Studios (that is, the Divinity games), but had heard that while loved, they are not best known for the kind of narrative focussed experience I love about BioWare’s BG series. My defences were up.
About twenty hours into the game (with one short play through I abandoned). I first hit the outer edges of BGIII's early access. I had another ten hours of gaming before I exhausted it and the game itself told me, in a goofy clip featuring the development team, ‘that’s all folks.’ Given the range of possible characters you can play, I could easily get more enjoyment from it, but I do not want to make myself over familiar with the earlier portions of the story.
At this point, I am tempted to say they achieved the seemingly impossible. This is a worthy successor in the way NN was not close to being, and DA or PoE (while sometimes great) did not quite manage. Better than BGII? That is still hard to judge, but what is significant is that this, at long last, is an RPG that gets what made BGII great: immersion in a fantasy world where game play, companions, story and mechanics work towards the goal of losing yourself in a big, whimsical plot that enjoys its own existence.
That it is unfinished is apparent. Dialogues cut out without reason; the fights are not always balanced; there is at least one you cannot take on with the level cap applied in early access (not, thankfully, vital); the awkward top down/angled camera perspective takes longer to master than it should (and remains frustrating); and it seems to have a problem rendering tails, floppy hats, etc. These issues need ironing, but based on what Larian have managed, I will give them the benefit of the doubt.
More substantively, I have some criticisms of the story. None of which lessen my praise, but it is right to note faults too. It can get a bit grim at points, particularly with child endangerment, which feels tonally jarring. BGII went dark places without making its world feel utterly horrendous, but there are points when BGIII does not seem to know what kind of moral universe it wants to occupy. Cartoon violence and heroic theatrics blend awkwardly with murdering kids and a strange obsession with racism.
At its worst is the issue of tieflings as a proxy for the socially oppressed in real life. This is part of a broader fantasy trope. And, being fair, it’s done better here than DA manages attempting the same thing with elves, but it’s still awkwardly handled. Medieval fantasy racism, where the subjects of the racism are half-devils and in fact a different species, is confused messaging to say the least. It is, in this instance, also more of a D&D general problem. It is also clearly earnest and well meant, but in the way of liberals excising historical context and accidentally falling back on dodgy assumptions, it does not land.
Illithids are weird to have as the major looming threat in the game (a choice that fed my initial scepticism). They are a more eldritch, occult antagonist than you would expect, and this lessens the ability to use such Lovecraftian antagonists (Beholders are another example) more subtly and effectively (as BGII does). It is justified, however, because as with BGII premise of having you be the spawn of an evil god, the intimate nature of the threat here (you are infected by a mindflayer larvae) supplies the player with a reason to adventure. And a better one than ‘I felt like being a sociopath.’ Moreover, the mindflayer stuff is kept creepy and obscure, backgrounded by deeper intrigues.
Then there is Shadowheart, the weakest of a broadly great set of companion characters. Companions were one of BGII’s strengths. From the comic relief of the noble ranger Minsc (and his miniature giant space hamster Boo) to the understated, tomboy sibling Imoen, from the amoral inventor gnome Jan Jansen to the over compensating halfling fighter Mazzy, there are so many memorable and engaging adventurers and their development and dialogue (both with each other and the player) is often a highlight.
Equally true, here. The morally compromised but kindly Wyll is a wonderful Faustus (and I love the notion of someone seduced by a succubus not with promises of sex, but heroics!); Lae’Zell is an unlikeable reactionary, made pathetically sympathetic by happenstance and (I anticipate already) the erosion of her self-delusions; Gale is a pompously loveable wizard but hides a vein of selfishness that lends him complexity; Astarion is fantastic, a villainous rogue with no ethics and a childish self-regard that makes him, if never sympathetic, guiltily entertaining. Moreover, what we have seen of a future companion, the tiefling Karlach, is intriguing: this hunted, downtrodden survivalist has potential.
Such is the nature of these characters and how they fit into the broader story, I found myself entirely pleased with my gang of misfits; in particular, I love the way this game encourages you through their personalities and whims to mishap your way through it all, without ever punishing you for it. Having recently finished watching the sci-fi show Farscape, I got a similar vibe from the way circumstance operates to unite a diverse collection of eccentrics and criminals, who are ‘good’ only when set against something far more terrible than any of them.
And then there’s the trickster cleric Shadowheart, an awful character. She’s an elf who hates githyanki, likes tricking people (although that never informs her personality), is randomly cruel or sometimes not. I am clueless what they were going for with her; she drags down the game. She is, being kind, oddly similar to BGII’s Jaheira (there’s a whole essay to be written on this series ongoing problem with reliably conceiving good women characters).
It is a problem because more than some other characters, she feels central to the story. Unlikeable characters are not a problem, but as with Lae’Zell and Astarion they work best if they are simultaneously enjoyable. Shadowheart’s personality rarely goes beyond a rude bigot whose moral compass makes no sense. A trickster cleric has potential, the voice work is fine, and I hope Larian overhaul her.
Going forward, new character options are a must. There is a lot of potential for a greater range of choices. Sorcerers (please!), bards, paladins and monks would all be good. I would like to see additional subclasses (even multi-classes, but I’m doubtful). But also half-orks, dragonborn (please also goblins, mayhaps kobolds?). In terms of companions, besides Shadowheart, I eagerly await encountering Helia (this game needs a halfing or dwarf) and seeing more of Karlach.
The upcoming conceit of getting to play as one of the companions is brilliant. It adds a bit of what made DA good, the way it integrated your character with the world so seamlessly. I am going to have particular fun role playing as Astarion, and I hope they do not mess up this planned feature.
The fights are probably never going to be perfectly balanced and that’s okay. The game cares more about world building and immersion than being a streamlined dungeon crawler, and this is so much a part of its strengths. BGII was set up so that it was always playable, but it laid out city maps to be realistic rather than player-convenient, allowed you to encounter enemies whose strength was mismatched with yours, offered difficult paths forward.
These elements made the game sometimes frustrating, but helped create the world (a sort of Spanish D&D realm, which felt as real as an outlandish fantasy could and had the scope of a whimsical revenge opera). As long as the gaming is not broken, I'm happy with BGIII replicating these novelties, especially when set against the genericism and gamified world of NN.
BGIII is undeniably expensive for what you are currently getting, but if you really want it and are not going to wait for the official release, plus the years it will take for a reduced price-tag, I would say go for it. This is more than a demo (to repeat, I got near 30 hours out of it and could play more).
Some last, less important details. I will never get tired of casting Hideous Laughter on my enemies. Yes, laugh as Astarion delivers the killing blow in a sneaky backstab! BGIII is a game where you are 100% the good guys, no question! Also, my favourite character so far in BGIII is this (pictured) eccentric potion seller (and seeming Baba Yaga trope) who is definitely running an elaborate scam, but is so entertainingly over the top it’s honestly far better to be scammed than to just walk away.
Overall, BGIII is a delightful game. It is far from complete and has much to sell itself already. 2020 was a mixed year for the medium (with the release of profound duds such as Cyberpunk 2077), so it helped offset that a lot. Show me another recent game where you encounter a loquacious ogre or a fey creature that baas like a sheep because it thinks you are being tricked by a now dispelled illusion. The smallest touches show that BGIII was made with sincere passion, and a responsibility to the series legacy.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.