“Baldur’s Gate 1 Review: Part 2”

baldur's gate 1 pc game review - 79 score The age is showing, sometimes annoyingly so, but it's still a classic.

…continued from part 1

Phew – finished. Before I get into a lot of complaining, let me say that if I didn’t want to work on this site and not play another 50-hour game I would reload a save just before the final battle, finish a bunch more side quests and explore some more areas. Then I would finish the game and immediately play the expansion followed by Baldur’s Gate 2. So as you’re reading my bitching, keep in the back of your mind that I enjoyed it enough to want to do a bunch more.

As I re-read the first part of this review I realize that many of the earlier complaints lessened while new ones magnified to truly hair pulling levels. My party had grown powerful enough that random and minor encounters were pleasantly breezy. My fighters one-shotted most foes and my mages had enough big spells to wipe out whole crowds with a gesture. Level 5 is roughly the tipping point. Mages gain fireball and lightning, clerics have lots of healing, fighters gain attacks and are well equipped. That was always a nice thing about AD&D based games; levels are slow but your characters get very powerful. It’s satisfying to mow down monsters that gave you such a hard time the last time you encountered them. You gain a palpable sense of character growth.

Special encounters and bosses were exactly the opposite. Trying to rush through them usually resulted in a catastrophe and a reload. Playing them “properly” was fun and satisfying but holy shit there’s a lot of them. Maybe if I spent more time finishing every sidequest I’d be higher level and could breeze through more of them. It would have helped but the AD&D rule-set is extremely unbalanced and RNG heavy. It’s not a complaint, I think later editions lost some flavor as they addressed these issues. But it does mean that a low level entangle spell could seriously ruin even a high level party if too many fail their saving throws.

baldur's gate 1 review - everyone waiting for entangle to end
Everyone’s entangled and silently waiting for the spell to end. The only awkwardness worse than elevator awkwardness.

Again I suspect that playing the game for review purposes made it less fun. If I wasn’t, I would have partially taken more time in those larger fights and eeked out more enjoyment from the game. I only say partially because the game’s oldness makes it very tedious to do so. The party has so many potions and scrolls clogging up their inventory and the game forces you to hover your mouse over each tiny icon to find out the name. Then right click if you want to see the actual effects.

Buffing your party for a fight is a chore. I only bothered digging the “protection from petrification” scroll from the bottom of the scroll-case after reloading the Basilisk fight 3-times. Once I protected my main fighter the frustrating battle became easy. He just walked up by himself as they ineffectively spammed their power and killed them. Once dead the rest of the party could follow and move on with their lives.

How’s the Story?

Quite good. I remembered almost nothing from my original playthrough but I did remember the main story twist. Even without the big surprise I enjoyed the story and wanted to get to the end to see exactly how it worked out. The mid-level story that you uncover as you unravel the larger plot is less inspiring. It sort of reminds me of the first Star Wars prequel that launched the eagerly awaited series with an administrative dispute. It’s basically a plot to short iron-futures.

It’s also quite mundane as far as AD&D adventures go. Not the main twist, but you’re rarely interacting with elements of the main twist. Most of the time you’re dealing with elements of a merchant guild and other city dwellers. It’s not bad and humanoids sporting similar levels and skills as your characters make for interesting opponents. I’m not sure if I miss the rest of the AD&D monster’s manuals or not; the dragons and elves and beholders. It’s a human story about human stuff and I imagine at the time of release it would have been a refreshing break.

Game Design

baldur's gate 1 review - cave full of dead wyverns
This is a cool background but I feel bad for all dead animals, even dragons with scorpion tails.

The story is good, the engine is great, either you like AD&D and it’s quirks or you don’t (I do). Characters, loot, backgrounds, great stuff all around. But fuck I don’t remember the actual adventure design to be so terrible for long stretches. “Is it fun?” is a mantra all designers should have pounding through their head as they design. Tiny twisty corridors filled with traps and low level monsters scattered and armed with projectiles is faux-challenging and not at all fun. Faux because you can easily beat the “clever” design. Not at all fun because it requires a ton of clicks with little payoff. It fails the ROI test. Sure everyone can dig out their wands of magic missile or switch to bows and slings but it’s below me at this point for 7XP.

I’m reminded of an ancient DM story from tabletop Dragon magazine days. It’s called Tucker’s Kobolds and it describes the exact scenario playing out in BG1. A high-level party is plagued by kobolds who use guerilla tactics and small amounts of magic to be far more dangerous than they should (kobolds might be the weakest creature in AD&D). What was probably a lot of fun in real life did not translate well to the constraints of a computer game. Just sheer clicky tedium.

You end up cheating to get through all these difficulty spikes. You sneak in a thief and bombard groups of foe from afar with mages, relying on the terrible AI to not react and just keep soaking spells until dead. You backstab characters you know (because you reloaded) will turn on you before they have a chance to speak. You use the transition between screens to “outsmart” guards.

There’s an entire ending chunk, where you’re chased by everyone. I’m guessing it should be a tense running battle, or a long sneak through the sewers. Instead you can avoid all of it by flitting through fast travel until you end up exactly where you need to be without traversing the whole city.

baldur's gate 1 review - dude with too many potions
Meet potion guy. He’s kind of weak so he carries the potions while the elf chick carries the heavy stuff.

If you’re the sort who can slow down and savor, and you’re not in a rush and have the discipline to not cheat, the whole thing will work better than it did for me on this playthrough. Or, I suspect, if you’re a powergamer who min-maxes and collects every treasure your party will be powerful enough to plough through areas that aggravated me. I guess that’s the difficulty of balancing a game of this size for such a huge variety of players.

I also wish I played an evil party. Maybe. It’s hard for me to maintain true evilness. I tend to drift towards roguish asshole instead. But it would have lessened the feeling of de ja vu considerably. The game has 28 companions with quests and conversation and reactions to your actions. I mostly played with 6, some of which I know I played with on my original playthrough. It would be interesting to see how the story (and motivations) play out when everyone is evil. Playing a harmonious group robbed me of some of the fun inter-party conflicts which are a nice touch of this series.

Final Score – 79

I considered doing this in 3 parts because I have so many notes and observations. It’s a really big game. But it’s more of the same; me struggling to figure out if I ruined my own fun or if the game is just a bit too old, clicky and uneven to enjoy to its fullest. I struggled with the score as well. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece in many respects. It holds up surprisingly well. Finally I had to be fair and adhere to my own review policy and give BG1EE a 79. Eighty would mean that I think everyone would enjoy it regardless of their genre preferences. Someone brand new to RPG’s, not familiar with the Infinity engine and not used to AD&D would be swamped. They could figure out and derive enjoyment with a lot of effort (and googling) but that’s not a reasonable expectation, even for an old classic. So 79, a high score for a great niche game with a great deal both flawed and sublime.

baldur's gate 1 review - notes
I take notes like a grade 3 kid.

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