This is the first game we’re reviewing for our “Does it Hold Up” series. I wanted to start with something less beloved. In my experience, revisiting old favorites is often deflating. Old cynical eyes can’t help but mock your former (apparently tasteless) self. Modern conveniences, largely unnoticed when absorbed over time, are jarringly missing when transported to a less friendly decade. I didn’t want to stifle my desire for further exploration of the past by hating something I loved so much. I also wasn’t sure a 50-hour game was the right first move given the amount of work necessary elsewhere on the site. But then I said ‘fuck it – I want to play Baldur’s Gate again’.
With relief, pleasure and as much objectivity as I can muster I declare that Baldur’s Gate does hold up. I am roughly a 1/3rd into my playthrough and will talk at length about my experience, but what is obvious is that I am enjoying my return. With one exception there has been very little slogging to make progress. I’m not forcing myself to do anything specific for this review, I’m just playing the game the way its meant to be played, fully engaged and looking forward to the next chapters.
How has it Aged?
It should be noted that I am playing the Enhanced Edition, released in 2013 with additional content and considerable quality of life improvements. If you treat it like a sprawling, lovingly crafted indie game with a vast array of attractive but muddled pixel graphics you will not be disappointing. The game is rendered in the familiar 2D, isometric view of the Bioware Infinity Engine (which was developed simultaneously). Because this was a AAA title and not an indie game it’s full of passable to good voice acting and man-hour consuming touches like equipment being rendered on your character, endless lore, hundreds of gorgeous backgrounds, varied monsters and everything else one expected from a top-shelf, sprawling late 90’s RPG.
How much you’ll miss modern conventions depends on how much you actually miss modern conventions (an entirely different topic). There’s no instant fast travel (you must walk to the edge of a map to access the world map and it matters which side of the map you leave from), no party inventory or auto loot, no respeccing, no healing after combat. NPC’s with quests don’t have a starburst floating above their head, your quests don’t plop down a handy map icon and glowing arrow to direct you. Quests aren’t broken down into bite sized objectives. Areas of the world are not gated off until you can handle them. Enemy level does not scale with yours and is entirely location dependent.
I could keep listing these “missing” modern conveniences for another few paragraphs but it’s not important. What is important is that their exclusion, overall, increased my engagement and helped maintain my suspension of disbelief (the most crucial aspect of an RPG). So much so that while I was undoubtedly frustrated at times (of course fast travel is handy and desired when you just want to get back to town to sell your loot and get going on the next quest) the only modern feature I would add back in would be some sort of autoloot.
When you combine the need to walk over to each corpse and individually pick up each time with the fact that your characters can’t carry very much and get in each other’s way constantly it gets very annoying very fast. I’m only a 1/3rd into the game, I very much need money but I find myself not even bothering to pick up small stacks of coins if they are too numerous and unlikely to yield much. I don’t feel like clicking on 20 piles of loot left by a few dozen kobolds. This very annoying feature is somewhat alleviated by the attention to detail present in the Infinity engine. You can see what was dropped and cherry pick the piles with greater treasure.
The only other aspect that has aged poorly is the sprite animations. Everything is a bit choppy. The AD&D ruleset always looked silly, characters with a single attack per round spent a lot of time standing perfectly still in the heat of battle while awaiting their turn. It looks sillier here; characters move and attack with fast, abrupt animations giving the illusion that they are quick little creatures that simply choose to stand still in combat. Minor gripe, it’s an indie game 🙂
I said above that the animations are the only other component to age very poorly. That’s not entirely true, I just haven’t finished deciding how much this next complaint impacts the enjoyment of the game; the progression pacing feels very harsh compared to modern games. It is not harsh compared to what was expected of the AD&D rules at the time (and the game’s attempt to replicate that tabletop experience). I played for more than 10 hours before someone went up a desperately needed level. Characters need around 2000XP to go from 1st to 2nd level. Monsters like kobolds yield 10 XP, which is then divided by your 6 party members. A “big” monster might give 250XP. I was fighting and questing but not advancing. My main character had 10 HP and my mage had 4 HP and I was getting killed too much.
When I finally did gain a level, I remembered that 1st edition AD&D didn’t really give you much to do with your first level up. Proficiencies, kits and any other decisions tended to come in later levels. I appreciated the extra HPs but wanted more fanfare after slogging at through level 1 for so long.
What’s it Like to Play?
I might sound too sanguine above about the things that are actually quite annoying about old games. After about 10 hours of play I gave serious thought to starting over. I remembered very little of the story and so rolled up the type of character I tend to enjoy playing – an unusually charismatic half orc fighter/thief. The problem is that Imoen, your first starting companions is also a thief. You’re quickly given more companions to choose from but I wanted to keep Imoen for role-playing reasons. For a while my adventuring party consisted of myself (fighter/thief), another fighter/thief, a fighter, Imoen (a thief), a druid/fighter and a necromancer. I could have added a cleric much earlier than I did but her rescue was not even presented as a full quest, just a weird fishy interaction I ignored my first time.
I progressed in a natural but sub-optimum way and found myself in the first dungeon with first level characters, almost no healing and way too much thieving (and annoyingly, they were all terrible thieves so even in the one section they would have been useful none of them could find the traps and I had to carefully walk and heal a step at a time to get through). This was the most frustrating part of the first 15 hours. Lowly kobolds with bows kept 1-shotting my characters and they stayed down after combat which meant either a long (no fast travel) trip back to a temple for a Raise Dead or a reload to a previous save. Getting through the mines was not a pleasant gaming experience.
But I have to be honest and admit that this negative experience was partially my fault. Nothing was forcing me to plough through the mines. The world was wide open. I know I skipped some quests in earlier sections. Even a single level would have made my characters far more durable. And I was playing like a modern idiot. I saw lowly random encounters (not bosses, not even hand placed) and I wanted to just quickly click through them without pausing or using items, the way you tend to in modern games. But even a Kobold arrow does 1-6 damage and my squishy mage had 4 HPs wrapped in useless silk robes.
It took me much longer than I care to admit to regain my old RPG chops. Once I started scouting ahead with a hidden thief, keeping my mage back until the fighters engaged, maintaining a front wall so enemies couldn’t pore through to the soft casters in the back and saving often (so often!) progress became both efficient and enjoyable.
Then my characters gained a level and the game settled into a challenging but satisfying rhythm and I was immersed deeper because of the game’s old ways of doing things. For example, with no auto-healing after combat, every encounter takes on some significance because even a few inefficient hits can snowball into a much more difficult fight later on, when your characters run out of healing spells and are low on HPs. Camping and resting is the only solution however unless you’re in an inn, you might get ambushed before regaining your spells. And even if you replenish safely, time passes and time matters. Companions can leave if you take too long to address their urgent quests. It all leads to fun moment-by-moment decisions, balancing progress with health with the passage of time and competing priorities.
It’s a big game and I can write indefinitely, but a note I wrote down for the review, fairly early as I was playing was “I’m into it now!”. I’m fully engaged in my virtual self’s struggle (it goes without saying that the writing is as good as you remember – not perfect, but plenty of memorable characters, twists, humour and heartache). I’m looking forward to finishing and reliving the story, especially because I barely remember it from my original playthrough 18 years ago. I’m in a constant state of deja-vu, remembering everything vividly the moment I see it but not before. And as I said, the stories are great; both big and small. I’m enjoying the text and choosing the proper reply with very little urge to just click through to the salient points.