108: Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 10.13.21 PM.pngThe question is, is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing? The expansion was apparently initially intended to be a full-on Baldur’s Gate 3, but a lack of time and money meant that everything was relegated to a 15-hour expansion pack to tie up the loose ends.

It shows. At times, Throne of Bhaal feels like the outline of a game rather than an actual game. There’s two tiny, tiny hub cities–Saradush and Amethkran–which are glossed over pretty quickly in-game–there are a couple of very short, cursory sidequests in them, and you can see both of them being an Athkatla in the “real” game. The villains–called The Five, a group of Bhaalspawn determined to do something murdery–are barely characterized–you meet most of them the moment you’re expected to fight them. The eleventh-hour revelations that the lady who’s helping you is really evil come out of nowhere–not because the game doesn’t try to pull it from somewhere, but because there’s nowhere to pull that revelation from.

In the place of everything that we like from Baldur’s Gate–exploration, freedom, a massive quest list–is a series of very high-level dungeons and battles. We are in Icewind Dale’s wheelhouse, and as the journey segments of Baldur’s Gate 2 demonstrated, Baldur’s Gate is not good at being Icewind Dale. The design focus was obviously spent on Watcher’s Keep, and I’m glad it got that attention, because the rest of the expansion is just kind of there.

Its biggest problem is that Dungeons and Dragons, as interpreted by the Infinity Engine, is not very good at low or high levels. In the first few hours of Baldur’s Gate 1, when you’re at level 1, you can vaguely survive a couple of hits, maybe cast a single spell if you’re a wizard, and that’s all you can do. If you’re a new player, you don’t know what your tactical options are–and even if you’re an advanced player, you know you don’t *have* many tactical options. This isn’t unsurmountable by any means: You know, of course, that you won’t stay at level 1 forever and that your options and skills will increase as the game goes on. That you can find new party members and weapons. Baldur’s Gate caps somewhere around level 7. And each level becomes very, very meaningful. I ended its sequel somewhere around level 20, and while that makes each individual level slightly less significant, taken as a whole, you leave the game much, much more powerful than you begin it–and given that you’re spending a good 60, 70 hours in it, leveling up is still an event.

Throne of Bhaal, however, saw my party grow to around level 33 over the course of 15 hours–sometimes after every major battle. And by this point, the returns have diminished greatly. A few HP and maybe a spell–at high levels, that’s meaningless. The damage your enemies are doing now soaks up several levels’ worth of HP as it is. The game tries to compensate by giving you what’s called high-level abilities–special attacks and spells–but you get so many of them that I ended up selecting one at random. When you’ve got 3-4 uses of a bunch of different skills, an extra one doesn’t matter, particularly considering that the game gives no restrictions against rests.

You may have a wealth of tactical options by level 30, but the game does its best to minimize the impact of many of them–most of your options become useless. Enemies have so many resistances and buffs that the majority of your damage spells won’t work. There comes a pattern of throwing up a set of buffs on your own party and launching a bunch of debuffs at the enemy and tossing your fighters on them and hoping for the best, and while there’s probably a much more efficient way than I figured out–a certain combination of debuffs might take down the enemy’s shields more effectively–I just didn’t have the heart to. Because at that point I wasn’t having any fun. The bosses, in particular, have so many hit points and do so much damage and have so many shields up that it’s no longer a challenge, it’s a chore. At the halfway point I switched Story Mode on–thank God for Story Mode–and just muddled my way through to the end.

I have genuinely no clue how one is supposed to beat the final boss honestly: It’s a multi-stage thing which doesn’t allow you to rest in between. Every stage of the boss summons a bunch of monsters and continues summoning them until you beat her, and in between each stage you’ve got to fight a mini-boss and a scattering of elemental monsters. A weird quirk of story mode is that the game handles your invulnerability by automatically healing a chunk of your damage when it gets too low, and during the final boss fight, I was overwhelmed by a bunch of summoned monsters that knocked down my health faster than the game could replenish it, meaning that during the final confrontation I died in story mode. Even the design of the level is tired at this point: You fight air elementals, ice monsters, fire monsters–but the game gives up and gives you the final phase of the boss before bothering to pit you against earth monsters, because this shit has gone on long enough.

In the end, you get to make a choice in a videogame: Do you remain mortal and go on more adventures, presumably getting to level 40 and 50 and beyond, or do you take the Throne of Bhaal and claim your destiny as a god? Whatever your choice, you see the same cutscene with different narration, a bunch of epilogues about your party members, and then the credits roll on the saga of Gorion’s Ward, the Bhaalspawn, on Baldur’s Gate.

So I ask you: Is Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhaal better than nothing?

As a game, it sucks. It’s too rushed, too difficult, too sketchy. It is a gigantic case of what might have been–a properly paced third game could have been amazing. One of the pleasures of Baldur’s Gate 2 is its attention to continuity–in having characters reappear, in referring to events from the previous game–and Baldur’s Gate 3 could have done that wonderfully. There’s an amount of fanservice that, as a fan, is a lot of fun, and the couple of references that Throne of Bhaal does throw out make me think that it wishes very badly that it could revel in its continuity. I wish there had been the opportunity for the team to try to create another Athkatla–to create two Athkatlas, really–I feel that RPGs as a genre are poorer for not having the opportunity for the team to build on that foundation. And the game takes the lazy way out with its combat–it’s difficult instead of challenging. It’s a slog.

But gaming has so many unfinished stories. There are so many sequels that never got made, so many conclusions we never saw. It is fairly amazing that we have any epilogue to Baldur’s Gate at all. Baldur’s Gate 2 ends on a cliffhanger–on a shadowy council vowing to kill your character–and the promise of some revelations about your true place in the world. If that shadowy council looks completely different when revealed and ends up not entirely filled in, if those revelations are rushed and half-assed, if the ending is worse instead of better, at least there is an ending. Imagine: If Throne of Bhaal didn’t exist, maybe Beamdog would take it upon themselves to write the epilogue. And if Siege of Dragonspear is any indication, that incarnation of Throne of Bhaal might have really sucked.

But it is a shame to see that degradation. Baldur’s Gate is scruffy and weird but full of promise and charm. Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of the finest RPGs ever made. Throne of Bhall is…better than nothing.

I think I’m going to put together some thoughts on the series as a whole and then be done with Baldur’s Gate for a very long time. It’s been a hell of a journey.

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107 – Xploquest, Dragon Warrior, and The Iconic

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 8.38.09 AMXploquest bills itself as “perfect for a break between two game sessions” and that’s exactly where I am right now: Regalia is very enjoyable and hitting the “tactical RPG” part of my brain, but it’s not really suited for marathon play–it’s the kind of game you chip away at for an hour or two and then put away for a few days until you feel like making a little more progress at it. Throne of Bhaal is…well, it’s crappy, and you’ll get my thoughts on that, don’t worry. I need a palate cleanser; Xploquest fit the bill.

I love RPGs–you all know that, it’s obvious going through my blog that RPGs are 90% of what I play. There’s a lot going into that love–I tend to like playing fantasy games, I like games that are a little more story focused, and I love all the numbers and shit. I fell hard for the genre back when I was about 7, when I ended up with a copy of Dragon Warrior; that it was the kind of game that the jockier kids in my class hated only sweetened the deal. Dragon Warrior was a slow game, a game with a lot of reading, a game with numbers, a game you had to think about–a game that you wouldn’t do well in if you were stupid. Now granted, I was still a little kid, I was only able to play the game with the help of the hint guide, but I was drawn to it, it was the exact game I wanted to play. It still is.

And, particularly as a kid, the trappings of RPGs were what sold me on them: I liked the idea of a large, sprawling world that the adventures took place in; Super Mario was still fun, was still a game I loved to play, but “here’s a level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level, and when you’re done with that here’s another level” seemed kind of shallow compared to “explore this land and figure out, or read in the hintbook, where you’re supposed to go next”. And I’ve always loved wizards, and magic, and dragons, and I loved a game that was basically reading a story about wizards, and magic, and dragons. As an adult, Dragon Warrior has relatively little text, but as a kid, that little text was all I needed in order to fill in the blanks. I remember Alefgard as this living, breathing world with people going about their days, with secrets hidden in nooks and crannies, as this large thing where I was this tiny hero. If there is one thing from childhood that I wish I were still able to tap into–that, as a writer, I try to tap into, and sometimes vaguely succeed–it is this ability to be overwhelmed by a story.

I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud in college and what’s stuck with me from that is his discussion of “the iconic” in comics. He describes a continuum with two dots and a line forming a smiley face — pure iconography — on one end and a photograph — pure realism — on the other.. The photograph represents one and only one person; the smiley face can represent just about every person. Drawings somewhere in the middle of that continuum have a weird power where they have enough details to narrow down the field a bit but they’re abstract enough to still have a wide range. This allows us, McCloud argues, to project ourselves into the comic more easily than you can with a more realistic drawing style–more people recognize themselves in Charlie Brown than Mark Trail.

But I know I don’t always project myself into a comic, even if the drawing style does lean heavily into the iconic. My enjoyment of Persepolis does not come from my identification with the Marjane Satrapi character–even as I might recognize character traits we have in common. Perhaps the iconic style helps mitigate what is a very specific, personal story–it cracks the door open a bit and makes it more accessible. But I find the iconic’s true power to be related to something else McCloud talks about. Comics are, after all, static images often broken up by panels. McCloud uses the example of a comic about someone committing an ax murder (!) — one panel of the killer holding the ax above his head, the next of a shot of the cityscape with a scream ringing out. The actual murder is not depicted–it takes place in our minds, suggested by the scene transition. We essentially animate the scenes in our heads.

And just so, drawings that take place on the more iconic end of the scale require a little more work on our end–we fill in more details in our minds. Persepolis is describing real events which happened in real places to real people–when I read it, I cannot help but use the pictures as a guide to imagine what it all “really” looked like. Comics become one of those mediums which exist in a weird sort of collaboration between the cartoonist and my imagination, and as a result, they end up becoming weirdly personal to their readers*. My impression of Persepolis or Cerebus or The Sandman will have a lot in common with yours, but they won’t be exactly the same–and, most poignantly, we won’t ever be able to access each other’s.

For me, Dragon Warrior hit that sweet spot on the iconic-realistic continuum–it was enough that it gave me the strokes of the world, but it was just sketchy enough that it encouraged me to fill in the blanks myself. Super Mario was a challenge, and a lot of fun, but Dragon Warrior? You know, when Betty Crocker introduced boxed cake mixes, they initially contained powdered eggs–it was a “just add water” thing–and the cakes still tasted as good as a boxed cake mix can taste, but people hated them until they came up with the idea to make you add your own egg in. The simple act of having people actually crack open an egg and stir it in gave a feeling of participation–just adding water wasn’t doing any work, but if you added an egg, you felt like you actually baked something. Dragon Warrior was the first game I ever played that made me feel like I baked. You could do far worse to determine a necessary facet of role-playing games. It’s right there in the name: You need to add yourself into the mix to give the game some ruach.

But Xploquest–the game I’m ostensibly writing about–is much, much further on the scale of the iconic, and I would suggest that it doesn’t invite us to add an egg, so to speak–it is a pure plotless RPG and it doesn’t need one. The game could be simple colored squares, or ASCII symbols, although the art is simple, boldly-colored, and, to my eyes, really pleasing. You’re in a generic fantasy kingdom–or maybe not even a kingdom, as there is no castle–with several towns, all alike, and some generic terrains. You can buy some generic potions or some generic spells, purchase and upgrade some generic weapons, and whap some generic monsters in order to get XP and gold. The dungeons are literally all 10 fights, all the same. There’s some caves with different layouts, but they’re not mazelike in anyway. It is as stripped down of an RPG as you can get: Try to make a set of numbers–representing monsters–go down while trying to keep a different set of numbers–representing you–up; every so often, the numbers representing you become higher and you know you’re progressing. An RPG stripped to its bare ludic bones.

And Xploquest was absolutely fascinating to me. I played for two straight hours one night, and three the next–at which point I was finished, and I don’t think I could have taken it for much longer–but it was exactly the kind of numbery exercise that I liked. See, Throne of Bhaal is wearing on me, and the whole Baldur’s Gate saga, my whole “let’s beat every Infinity Engine game again” thing, it’s a huge project and I am weary. And, as Ben Chandler pointed out in the comments (please comment, I love comments!), that weariness is part and parcel of playing epic games, and maybe even a nice bit of ludonarrative consonance–every hero is tempted to give up in the face of the enormity of the task, heroism is only meaningful if you push past it and win–but it still kind of sucks. I don’t know why I do it sometimes.

But Xploquest reminded me that sometimes I just like to see a bunch of numbers go up in order to see how much fun I’m having. I’ve said that the big joy of RPGs is going back to the early areas and wiping the floor with the monsters, and Xploquest not only gives you that, it scales encounters to your level, and even does this nice thing where it decides certain encounters are beneath you, and also lets you face them anyway if you’re feeling impish. It’s balanced excellently. It even avoids the temptation to be a roguelike–it avoids the urge to bullshit us by pretending to have “infinite replay value because everything is random”–and features one and only one overworld map. The map is the way it is out of pure challenge–easier areas are here, and the harder areas are here, and you explore everything in vaguely this order, and oh man, why don’t roguelikes understand that I’m probably not going to play their game 50 times, I’m just going to play it the once, so just figure out what the best map design is and just give me that?

Listen, Xploquest is a little free game I found on Steam, I believe it’s a port of a mobile game, it is not necessarily the kind of game that earns philosophical ramblings–but I’m still damn glad I played it, and I love RPGs, and I love talking about RPGs and all–and you know what? I said the game was iconic, meaning that I get to see a lot in it. This is, simply, what I saw when I was playing it. I baked.

* I’m flashing back to Existentialism and Literature by Jean-Paul Sartre which I read something like 10, 15 years ago and so don’t have the fluency to discuss that well, but there’s a bit where he’s talking about literature in these terms: A book is just black marks on a page without a reader to understand and interpret them, and so, this blog post you’re reading does not exist in itself unless someone is reading it–a tree does not make a sound if it falls in the forest without anyone to hear it. Contrast that to a movie–you put a movie or a TV show and you walk out of the room, it is still going to exist even if it does not have an observer. And now I’m also getting a flashback to a philosophy class I took where the professor began the very first class by asking “How do you read?”, and every single answer anyone gave–“I look at the words on the page and I understand what they mean”–lead to another question–“How do you understand them?”–and every answer to the followup lead to another followup, and half of the class dropped out the next day. I miss philosophy classes but man, am I glad I’m out of school.

106 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Watcher’s Keep

iuIncluded with your purchase of the Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal is a towering dungeon called Watcher’s Keep. Continuing with Baldur’s Gate 2’s theme of “Bioware becoming Bioware”, it’s a very modern DLC-style dungeon in that it’s unconnected to the main plot and you can get to it at any time–as soon as Baldur’s Gate 2 gives you map access, you can visit it.

You are, of course, not quite intended to–it’s a decidedly high-level dungeon, with tricksy and difficult enemies–but it’s also the kind of thing where each floor is harder than the last, and so you can and are encouraged to duck into it from time to time, clear out a floor, and revel in bonus treasure and XP. I cleared out the first two floors during Chapter 2–got a couple of awesome weapons and some quivers that gave me infinite arrows–did the third as part of Chapter 6, and finished the rest of the thing as part of Throne of Bhaal.

It’s not quite an old-school megadungeon–depending on your definition, Watcher’s Keep is missing some screwjobs, missing dead ends, missing floors connecting to other floors, missing size (it’s big but not Castle Greyhawk big)–but it’s close. It’s certainly the purest Baldur’s Gate 2 comes to good old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling is something I am fond of. I admire Icewind Dale’s purity–that it’s a huge bucket of monsters and caves and you’ve got to hack your way through–and Watcher’s Keep seems to be Bioware showing off a bit, one-upping it. Baldur’s Gate 1’s dungeons pretty much suck–the corridors are too tight, the puzzles fiddly–and the developer, perhaps worried that Black Isle showed in Icewind Dale that it understood the Infinity Engine a bit better than they did, stepped up their game for the sequel. I have no idea how much friendly competition led to Watcher’s Keep, but I like to think it set the stage for Icewind Dale 2 which, as I’ve said, i remember as a series of mostly wonderful gimmick dungeons. I love gimmick dungeons. We’ll eventually get to Icewind Dale 2.

Each of the floors of Watcher’s Keep has its own twist, its own style of play. The first has you finding items for a ritual. The second is a series of elemental wizard laboratories that you have to turn on each other to exploit weaknesses. There’s a maze that you have to interpret a poem to navigate. The best one focuses on a gigantic magical machine that summons monsters and the creature war this has inadvertently caused. Combat in all of these is tough but very fair, very balanced–assuming your party is, you know, appropriately leveled. There are a lot of enemies, but it’s an appropriate amount. One of my problems with Icewind Dale’s DLC dungeon Trials of the Luremaster, if you remember, was that it confused “challenge” for “throw a dozen enemies at you and hope you survive, good luck!”, and it was the worst part of the game. I don’t claim to be the finest gamer out there, but I’ve been playing RPGs for 30 years, and I’m very familiar with the Infinity Engine, and I’m not bad at playing games made in it. Luremaster was beyond my abilities, and even as I’ve noticed a lot of improvements in my own skills after playing through the Baldur’s Gate saga–one thing this replay of the Infinity Engine series has done has massively improve my ability to play Infinity Engine games–I still don’t know how one would deal with the swarms of spectral knights in the higher levels of the castle. At no point in Watcher’s Keep did I feel that I was above my pay grade.

Well, save for one of the final dungeon battles–there’s one swarm that’s maybe two combatants too many–and the final boss.

I’m generally a fellow who likes boss monsters, but I know plenty of people who hate them, and most of those people cut their teeth on Infinity Engine games. Bosses in Infinity Engine games are generally terrible–other than Irenicus, there aren’t many that I’ve actually liked. A boss can be a challenge, a test of your skills, a final exam, an opportunity for new attack patterns that don’t fit anywhere else. Games like Zelda are known for their bosses because they’re puzzles as much as they’re combats–you can’t beat a Zelda boss unless you’ve mastered the use of the tool that their dungeon has spent its time teaching you. Dark Souls’s bosses are notable for their size, for the opportunity for the design team to visually just go balls-out and create something elaborate, and for their extreme challenge.

Much less beloved are the boss monsters who just have, you know, super high HP and defense and attack. I remember, in fifth grade, a friend used to draw out videogames in his notebook–little platformer levels where he’d tear off a tiny scrap of paper and draw a character on it and you’d physically move the character through the level, stomping other scraps of paper with enemies on it. And whenever he wanted to give a real challenge, he’d create a boss–what he called a Big Monster, which now that I think of it is a much less capitalist way of referring to it so in true Socialist fashion I’m going to just steal the term–and write “99999 HP” over it and punch your character twice and say “oh you’re dead now”.

For the most part, that’s how Big Monsters in Infinity Engine RPGs feel to me. The Infinity Engine’s greatest trick–seen with Sarevok and Belifet–is to give their Big Monsters a few flunkies and string a bunch of (possibly impossible-to-disarm) traps around them and laugh as they slaughter your party. The Big Monster at the end of Watcher’s Keep–Demogorgon, making a cameo from his appearance in Stranger Things, although with a radically different design that makes me wonder if the makers of Watchers Keep even watched Stranger Things or, if they did, they just thought the name sounded cool and swiped it without worrying whether or not their monster shared any properties with the Duffer Brothers’–doesn’t have any traps in his room, but otherwise he fits the pattern. He hits hard, he soaks up a bunch of damage, he’s resistant to most magic–and given the choice between casting a bunch of my debuffing spells in the hopes that they’ll chip away at his defenses so I can chip away at his health while I buff the hell out of my own characters and hope no one debuffs me and keeping my characters healthy–given the choice between that and just clicking the little button that says “story mode” and just throwing my pikmin at it while I just sit back and watch–

Well, as Andrew Plotkin once said, “I am a player; therefore, I am lazy.”

Defeating Demogorgon gives you a couple of lines of the DLC’s storyline finishing and a bunch of XP–enough to gain a single level around the time I beat him–and nothing else. You don’t get any magic items or any equipment that I could figure–the Steam version doesn’t even give you a cheevo for your efforts. It’s a huge amount of challenge for little reward. I guess Demogorgon is intended to be an optional Super-Big Monster that only the most challenge-hungry players will face, and maybe that’s how he was received Back In The Day–certainly I didn’t get upset that I couldn’t defeat Kangaxx the Lich, figuring, okay, he’s for the really hardcore. Maybe I’m just playing it with a 2017 mindset, where I think that you should be able to beat the final boss if you were fine to beat the rest of the game. I have this weird, weird notion that an impossible challenge is less satisfying than a mild challenge if you have enough fanfare. The joy of RPGs is the joy of taking your level 1 character who got slaughtered by a pack of gibberlings, leveling her up to the cap, and wiping the floor with them. And certainly strategy has a major place in these games. But whatever strategy it took to beat Demogorgon, I couldn’t click onto it, and it was in no way a satisfying fight for me.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Throne of Bhaal at the moment, and all I’ll say about it so far is that the Demogorgon fight is a really good introduction to the design philosophies behind ToB. Watcher’s Keep was an excellent dungeon and I recommend it wholeheartedly; if you don’t feel like finishing the thing, though, I won’t blame you at all.

105 – I Have Beaten Baldur’s Gate 2!

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.42.05 PMThe latter chapters of Baldur’s Gate 2 felt like padding, but man, did the game stick the landing. Chapter 7 takes place in two parts–an elf city that Irenicus is laying waste to, and a hell dimension where you battle his soul once and for all or something. (Metaphysics in these games gets kind of fuzzy for me.)

In practice, there’s not much different between this chapter’s areas and the ones in 4 and 5–a small, linear place, heavy combat focus–but at this point, the tight focus and pace makes sense, feels right. This is endgame: We’re funneling to our goal, and anything left is a distraction. That kind of pace feels restrictive when in midgame chapters, but when we’re approaching the final boss, that acceleration is great.

I don’t normally like Infinity Engine final bosses–Sarevok and Behlifet are difficult beyond what their games warrant, and I seem to remember Icewind Dale 2’s final bosses being way above my party’s pay grade–but I loved the Irenicus fight, largely because I was able to finish it on my first try. Baldur’s Gate 2 does something interesting with its combat in that, for the most part, direct damage spells are irrelevant. Spells like fireball and magic missile and all of that are staples during Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale; in 2, many of the enemies have magic resistance, and in any case your spells only do so much damage.

Buffing and debuffing become the order of the day–enemies throw up different kinds of shields, and you’ve got to put in similar shields to counter their attacks, and you’ve got different kinds of debuffs and penetration spells, and in some cases, it’s sheer attrition–waiting their shields out and keeping your fighters healthy until their shield fizzles away and you can whap away some HP. Irenicus’s first form is a mage battle; his second, he goes into slayer form and has a few friends helping him, and by now I’ve gotten so used to the engine–I have, after all, am working on my second playthrough of the entire franchise–that while I wouldn’t call it easy, man, I’m pretty decent at playing Infinity Engine games.

I’ll probably have some thoughts on my journey as a whole when I’m done, but as for Baldur’s Gate 2, one thing that’s been on my mind throughout this game is a line I half remember from, of all things, the GoG.com installer which, as many of you may know, pops up little advertisements for other games they sell. Their ad for Baldur’s Gate 2 mentions that BG2 is an RPG that’s “considered one of the best ever”. I’ve played so, so many RPGs over the years that I’m pretty qualified to evaluate that statement, and–with some caveats–I’d say it’s fairly accurate. In terms of what it brings to the table as far as breadth and depth, it’s pretty unmatched; its characterization of the world is excellent; it feels like a major adventure, and completing it feels like an accomplishment.

I just wish the game had been a little more even. What makes Baldur’s Gate 2 great is the large nonlinear sections of chapters 2-3 (and the bits of cleanup you do in chapter 6)–not the linear journey of 4-5. It’s a fine line to tread, though–my issue with Skyrim, for example, is its aimlessness, is that there’s too much to do, and that you never really do focus in on your main quest unless you want to. Skyrim is the kind of game that’s too unwilling to make choices for you–this is Your Adventure and You Can Do Whatever You Want In It, even if that means being one of those assholes who writes a blog about ignoring all the quests and hanging out in town farming cabbages. Baldur’s Gate 2 decides, at some point, that the main quest needs to take over, that you’ve bummed around its world long enough, and that it’s time to get down to business. I respect that…but I can’t say I enjoyed it fully.

Like I have said–a shorter midgame would have perfected BG2. But of course I am coming at the game from a particular position–that of it being 2017 and I have so many games to play, because games are really cheap commodities; and I’m 35 and I work for a living so I am not spending a dozen hours every day playing. (I mean, admittedly, the lion’s share of my free time is spent gaming–it’s not like I just duck into these things for a half hour every few days.) Tightness and minimalism are things I value at this point in my life, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a large, sprawling game–I wouldn’t be into RPGs if I didn’t–and, honestly, it’s not as if Chapters 4 and 5 take up two dozen hours on their own. Still, less is more, says the fellow who’s written about 10 posts on this game alone. And I do like that BG2 doesn’t quite play it safe. The game comes from a place of both supreme confidence–after BG1, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, the Infinity Engine knows what it’s doing–and heavy experimentation–because RPGs were still a very niche genre at the time, and because in general this period of time, for PC games, was a period of high experimentation.

In a way, it’s making me very excited for Pillars of Eternity 2–you can see a lot of parallels between the Infinity Engine and the Pillars engine–the two franchises mirror each other in many ways. PoE is an obvious standin for Baldur’s Gate, being a sprawling woodsy adventure that sometimes collapses under its own ambitions but remains fascinating even for every time it falters; Tyranny and Icewind Dale are weird side adventures that a lot of people don’t quite like but remain trimmer, more linear, more focused; and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an obvious cousin of Planescape: Torment. 20 years later, PoE2 might be a reincarnation of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I look forward to seeing the improvements it makes on its predecessors.

Ah fuck, every time I mention Pillars of Eternity I remember that I plan on replaying it in time for the sequel to come out. That’s a hundred hours I’ve got to brace myself for.

104 – Baldur’s Gate 2: I Am Getting Tired

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 7.53.33 PMThe Underdark was not so bad this time around. Due to being at higher levels, having better equipment, and a greater familiarity with the engine, I got through Chapter 5 in roughly two days of play. The Beholders gave me little trouble, the Kuo-Toa dungeon was easy, and even the Mind Flayers fell pretty easily.

Honestly, the only problem here is how unnecessary it all was.

I had thought that the structure of Chapter 5 would make more sense in context–that perhaps it would seem more relevant to the larger picture–but your diversions in the Underdark is just that–a diversion. Irenicus has a connection to the Elves, and the Drow in the Underdark are of course at war with the Elves, and that war breaks out in the end–but what strikes me about Chapter 5 is how relatively unconnected to the rest of the game it all is. It’s at least a little more dense than the pirate village, or the Sahaugin City, but it’s a series of fetch quests. You spend your time with the Drow in the Underdark being bossed around from one sidequest to another; the sprawling freedom that is the hallmark of the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 2 is completely gone at this point.

In many ways, the Underdark is pretty important to the lore of the Forgotten Realms; it’s a pretty evocative concept. Underneath the earth, it goes, is a massive series of caverns, of Dark Elf cities, of fantastical and horrifying creatures. In practice, it’s, you know, a big cave with a bunch of enemies. The terror that could be here just doesn’t translate well to the Infinity Engine–there’s a distance in the isometric perspective, a tone in the writing that never really hits fear. The biggest reason for the Bhaalspawn to visit the Underdark is, if I may be cynical, because there’s no other place to fit it in in any of the other games in the franchise. It would honestly have made sense as an Icewind Dale 2 dungeon–it fits that style well, being a combat dungeon with some twists.

Chapter 6, meanwhile, moves as quickly as you like it to. There’s a couple of additional areas which are completely pointless–a couple of enemies, a treasure or two, and a small adventure involving the BG1 character Coran which apparently came at the insistence of an annoying fan on the boards or something–but it really is a “finishing up the loose ends” chapter. A fight with Bodhi the Vampire, and it’s off to Chapter 7 and the endgame, where I am right now. Depending on how long that segment is, I can probably beat the game in one session, maybe two. It’s good: I’m ready for it to end.

Look, Baldur’s Gate 2 is a masterpiece, it’s just too much masterpiece. Had I the opportunity to remake the game, you’d go directly from Athkatla to Spellhold, and after your adventures in Spellhold, you’d go right back to Athkatla for the endgame. The “journey” segments of the game take away from the focus of what you’re doing. It dilutes everything. They’re fun in and of themselves, sure–but what Baldur’s Gate 2 does best is density. The city of Athkatla has gone down in history as one of the great RPG cities; the Drow city of Ust Natha is an afterthought in comparison. There’s obviously the urge, in an RPG, to make a long, sprawling epic, but man, that’s what kills a lot of RPGs. Few people even finish these damn things as it is–they don’t need to be longer. They don’t need to be padded.

At least BG2 is trying to give the sense of a huge world; even if the Underdark doesn’t add anything to the story, even if the Sahaugin City is a side journey, the picaresque feel of the latter half of the game does make the world seem large and vibrant. I’m thinking about Pillars of Eternity which was a legitimately wonderful game, an excellent successor to the Infinity Engine–and one where half of the areas could have been cut, where a lot of the map areas had no encounters beyond a few combats but otherwise simply existed as a way to get between Point A and Point B.

But then again, people complained that Tyranny–a tight, lean game which featured no extraneous areas, no combats for their own sake, no areas simply meant as bridges between two other regions–was too short, so I guess you can’t win with these things.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be telling you how the final battle with Irenicus went. Wish me luck.

103 – Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs

The other week, playing Massive Chalice, I found myself frustrated by a lot–the absurd length of the battles, the lack of any connection with the characters, the disconnect between the grand strategy segments and the battle segments, two sections which seemed at war with each other. Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs comes from a lot of the same impulses that Massive Chalice does–a comedic take on a strategy RPG, one which is based around time management–but I’m impressed at how much better it is. And even without the comparison, Regalia is a really good game in its own right so far.

I love games based around winning a town and developing it; in Regalia, your character finds out he’s the long-lost ruler of a dilapidated kingdom and is charged with restoring it to its former glory. As you adventure along, more people join your kingdom and your party; taking a large influence from the Persona series, you can grow your relationship levels with them. You can explore dungeons, build and upgrade buildings in your town, and make some diplomatic choices involving other kingdoms.

There’s a series of cheevo-style “kingdom quests”–upgrade X number of buildings, explore various dungeons, get your party to certain milestone levels, etc–and every two months of game time you’re charged with completing a number of them–as well as certain specific quests related to the story goals at the moment. The game gets a fairly open-ended feel as a result–it doesn’t matter which kingdom quests you complete, so long as you complete the right number of them, although things are balanced in a way that you ought to dip into each category and you’ll probably need to complete most of them by the end. You’re given just enough time to complete your goals, with a light amount of dicking-around possible–and so it’s a nice balance between freedom and stress. There’s plenty of time to do what you want, but you do need to stay on track.

I like that everything is fairly tightly connected–even beyond the need to complete quests to avoid a game over (the game warns you against missing your deadlines), everything goes back to the battle system that’s the heart of the game. Your relationships with other characters unlock special moves or perks such as increased damage or initiative. Upgrading buildings lets you upgrade relationships further and gives you options for crafting or shopping. Getting your diplomatic levels with other countries gives you new characters. Rather than the battles being a distraction from the grand strategy, the battles are the meat of the game, with everything else serving it.

My biggest problem with Massive Chalice–and, for that matter, X-Com–was that the battles were just too much, too generic. X-Com had a bunch of setpiece battles which were interesting, but most of them–and all of Massive Chalice’s–were sprawling fields with a few too many enemies with “defeat all the enemies” as the only goal. You take your generic units and fight; I know a lot of people developed connections with their pikmin in X-Com, but I never did. Both games, you know, throw in some randomly-chosen names in some random classes, and so I have little more connection to them as I do with my pieces in a chess game.

Regalia, first off, has very small battlefields–they all fit completely on your screen, and all of the enemies are visible at all times. (None of that late-battle hunting around the map to find where the one last enemy is hiding.) Your goals are variable–while, yes, most of them are “defeat all enemies”, which isn’t a bad goal in itself, there’s also “defeat a certain enemy”, “survive for X turns”, and other goals. In addition, every battle has certain challenges–exhortations to use or avoid certain skills, to win the battle with a less-than-full party, to win the battle under a certain number of turns–which give you XP and gold bonuses. Massive Chalice felt like one single battle fought over and over and over and over again, and I got very bored with it. Regalia feels a lot fresher.

(I’m sorry–I really don’t mean to pick on Massive Chalice as much as I am! It’s just the most recent one of these types of games I’ve played, and it was just so bad, and I find the comparison instructive.)

As for the characters, they’re not random at all–they’re storyline characters, and a lot of work is done to make them all mechanically distinct. Your attacks have different areas of effect, do different damage types, have a lot of special effects. Your main, for example, isn’t a high damage dealer, but does a lot to buff other characters. One character is a pyromancer who does heavy damage to enemy groups. Another does decent damage and is able to leap around the battlefield. Another is a tank. The game also works by party level instead of on an individual character basis–you’re not punished for not using a character. I find myself more willing to experiment with party combinations this way, as opposed to games with large rosters of randomly-given characters with permadeath.

I like Regalia’s pile of varied things to do, that I am Making Choices In A Videogame about how to spend my limited time and the best way to complete my kingdom goals. I’m not annoyed by having to fight battles–the battles are, after all, what everything is working towards. I’m enjoying the game’s humor–it treads a line that’s difficult to do. The characters are loud and enthusiastic and they’re spouting off quotes from other RPGs and classic rock songs. That style of humor is either obnoxious in its earnestness or one which hits your interests exactly; I think Regalia is treading the line pretty well. It helps that there’s a solid game it’s hung on–it wears its influences on its sleeve and combines them into something original and fun, instead of hoping that they substitute for actual content. So far, it’s a very good game.

102 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Spellhold And Environs

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 9.05.27 AM.pngStructurally, Chapter 4 of Baldur’s Gate falters a little bit. It’s strange to say this after the epic that was Chapter 2–that pile of quests–but Chapter 4 feels very unfocused. If you remember, the chapter is nominally about going to Spellhold to rescue your pal Imoen and confront the evil wizard Irenicus.

But before you get to Spellhold there’s a little detour to the pirate town where Spellhold is. There’s a single sidequest, and some light branching–there’s two ways to enter Spellhold and you can pick your favorite, and you get a slightly different introduction to the asylum depending on which you choose. But the entire area feels like an afterthought. It’s a pirate town, yarr, without a lot to do–maybe it’s a final opportunity to pick up some items and prepare your party, if you missed the game’s exhortations to do so at the end of Chapter 3–but mostly, it’s time spent waiting for the real action to start.

And the Spellhold level itself is great–you meet some inmates, briefly, and you have your confrontation. You find Imoen. If Yoshimo is in your party, it’s revealed that he’s working for Irenicus and he’s killed off (to make room for Imoen, I assume), but he wasn’t in mine because why have Yoshimo as your thief when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Yoshimo was in my party the first time around, so I know about his betrayal and stuff, but it is a shame they didn’t figure out a way of getting him into Spellhold to have his scene–I’m curious what’ll happen when I go back to Athkatla to seek him out later.) Irenicus captures you and performs one of his experiments and awakens…something in you. The evil vampire Bodhi appears. Imoen becomes available to join your party again but why have Imoen as your thief/mage when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Sorry, Imoen lovers, I know there’s many more of you than there are of me, but I ain’t apologizing.) And then…there’s an unnecessary dungeon.

It’s not a bad dungeon by any means–it’s got some good puzzles, a couple of decent combats, but for the most part, it’s a dungeon under Spellhold that has a flimsy reason to be there. I suppose there are some Revelations there–it’s revealed that Bodhi is Irenicus’s sister, and you get your first taste of a power called Slayer Form–but it feels like a breather you don’t quite need. And after that dungeon is another quick dungeon–a test concocted by the former director of Spellhold, and so nominally connected to things–and then, only then, can you have your battle with Irenicus that you’ve been waiting the whole game for. He of course teleports away before you finish fighting him, but that’s okay.

And then you’ve got some more light branching–you can either go directly to Chapter 5, or you can take a detour to a Sahaugin city where you do another short couple of quests to determine their ruler. (This was a section I missed the first time around–I took the direct route that time.) It’s fine. It’s all fine–Chapter 4 is a fine chapter. But it’s not a tight chapter like Chapter 3 was. I suppose it’s got a clear goal and motivation–find and escape Spellhold, and if there are some detour adventures along the way, more XP and magic items for me, I guess. And I’m sounding a little more down on it than I am–I enjoyed all of it. I’ve certainly earned a little bit of a right to nitpick, and–Extended Edition content aside–Baldur’s Gate 2 doesn’t deserve more than nitpicking.

I’m going to run into this exact issue with Planescape Torment–in many ways it and BG2 are structured similarly: There’s a long time spent in a dense city in the first half; and a broader, shallower journey in the second half. The effect is of things moving very quickly–you establish a routine, a life, a presence in the city, you get to know it intimately, learn its ins and outs, befriend its people, assimilate into its ways–and then you move. You don’t have the luxury of time to get to know the places in the second half of the game–your quarry is on the move and you’ve got to follow them. It’s a much different mood, and it’s effective at giving that mood–but at the same time, Sigil and Athkatla are what people remember those games for. I don’t think anybody has much nostalgia for that Sahaugin city. I said that Baldur’s Gate 2 was, in some ways, a trial run for Dragon Age 2, and again, while I had my problems with DA2, setting the entirety of the game in Kirkwall makes the game about that city in a way Baldur’s Gate 2 isn’t quite about Athkatla or Planescape Torment isn’t quite about Sigil. I know I’m going to be going back to Athkatla soon, but there isn’t a lot left to do. Maybe I am feeling the beginnings of the end–while I’ve got a while to go, the majority of my journey through Baldur’s Gate 2 is behind me. Nitpicking is the most criticism I can give–it’s a hell of a game.

Off to Chapter 5 and the Underdark, the section that defeated me the first time through. I’ve got a few more levels under my belt, a lot more magic items, and a better handle on the spell system this time through. I won’t let those Mind Flayers get me down.