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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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.

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.

101 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Both Sides Now

iuDavid Gaider goes to a restaurant and orders a steak. “Would you like fries or a salad with that?” Gaider thinks for a moment and finally says, “Neither. Both sides are equally bad.”

—–

As a nice contrast to the 50 hours spent over a two-week period on Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of Baldur’s Gate 2 took roughly two hours. It’s a tying-up of loose ends and a farewell–for now–to Athkatla. Your contact in the Shadow Thieves–or your vampire friend if you made that choice–gives you a couple of tasks, makes a couple of light revelations, and then offers you a boat to the next part of the game.

It’s, of course, my choice to have the structure of the game be this uneven–you can certainly split up your sidequesting between chapters 2, 3, and 6 as you like; but given that the next couple of chapters are going to be a journey to far-off places that I’d like to be leveled up for, and given that Chapter 6 is largely a bit of “okay, you’re back in the city, let us know when you’re ready for the endgame”, it made sense for me to frontload everything this way.

The feeling is of events moving quickly. You’ve been spending all of this time getting to know the city and the world while your contacts have been searching for info on Imoen and Irenicus, and now they’ve figured out where they are and it’s time for you to move. It’s a little bit of pretense: You can afford to do all of that sidequesting and spend all of those months because there really isn’t anything else you can do but prepare. Now that you have your goal, it’s time to move. I’m not one to take timeframes and chronologies strictly in RPGs–I’m not going to complain that Imoen and Irenicus will wait as long as it takes for you to get around to finding them–but it does feel a little silly to stick around the city when everything you’ve worked for is a boat ride away.

The game could do a better job of making your choice seem like an actual choice, honestly. On the one side, you’ve got a bunch of thieves, yes, but they’re all friendly and helpful to you; on the other hand, you’ve got shady vampires which are somehow working with Irenicus. “The Shadow Thieves haven’t told you everything,” your vampire friend tells you, “and haven’t you noticed that they’re just stringing you along?” And it’s true, once you give them the money they do give you a few quests before finally sending you off. But they do send you off, and their explanations–that they needed to check your references, that they needed to find out some seriously-hidden information, that they needed to hire a trustworthy crew–all pass the sniff test. The Shadow Thieves have done nothing to lose my trust, either as a player or as a character.

The question of Evil in a game like this is a fiddly one. I know a lot of Dungeon Masters refuse to let their players play Evil characters, and even when they do, and in the Baldur’s Gate series, they generally lean that more towards “selfish, nasty, and lazy”. Part of it is, simply, that even a Good-aligned party has to kill a lot of things over the course of the game–you are, after all, a child of the God of Murder–and so killing is just kind of oddly relegated into a grey area where there are a lot of acceptable people to kill, and you’re simply kind of a dick for killing anyone not on the list. In a lot of cases, you’ve got a situation where someone has an item you need–you can either do the quest they ask you to do and get some more XP and treasure, or you can just slaughter them and take it. And who in their right mind would ever pass up XP? Only Dorn in the Enhanced Edition has a quest which forces you to go beyond the pale–I ducked out after accompanying him on a quest to murder everyone at a wedding, which honestly didn’t offend my moral sensibilities as much as it just seemed unnecessary–the rest are just, you know–unpleasant. Edwin is vain and arrogant and happy Dynahier is dead–but that’s about the worst of it. I’m keeping the dwarf Korgan in my party, and even though he’s listed as evil, he’s more accurately just simply an asshole–and a good enough fighter that it doesn’t matter.

And he doesn’t like the vampires!

—–

Bioware would revisit this kind of territory in Dragon Age 2–which also took place largely in a single city and a few environs–with its mages-or-templars focus. In the Dragon Age setting, mages are seen as ticking time bombs waiting to explode and so are heavily guarded by special knights. During the entire game, you’re thrust into situation after situation in which you have to choose between the two, and unlike Baldur’s 2, you’re given a lot more characterization of the two sides. The mages feel restricted and oppressed; the Templars are trying to protect innocent citizens from people who genuinely have destructive power. It’s a nuanced and difficult argument…which loses coherence in the endgame, when both the head templar and the head mage bust out their One Winged Angel forms and rampage. It’s of a piece with Bioshock Infinite which also had two sides whose names I don’t remember accurately but boil down to Racist Cops and People of Color; and if the choice seems obvious to you, don’t worry, Ken Levine has you covered because at one point the leader of the People of Color murders or threatens to murder a child or something. I’m sorry. I don’t remember it well. Bioshock Infinite was not a good game.

It’s easy to fall into this very South Park trap–that when you have any controversial issue, there are two sides, both extreme in their opinions and both wrong in their extremeness, and you, the rational player, the only one who’s able to look at both sides and recognize that the true way, the rational way, the right way, lies somewhere in the middle–a very milquetoast centrism which doesn’t believe in getting one’s hands dirty because any upset to the status quo is a bad thing, any change is a bad change. It’s a hilariously, pathetically dated theme–the kind of thinking which looked at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and said, welp, both sides are equally bad.

In that respect, Shadow Thieves vs. Vampires is, you know, kind of quaint–because the Shadow Thieves might not be the nicest people, but at least they’re not fucking vampires. And there aren’t really any explicit political resonances to the choice–although, to be fair, “a bunch of crooks who, once they get what they want, are willing to help you out a bit” vs. “a bunch of undead monstrous abominations who feed off the blood of the innocent, murdering them and desecrating their corpses” does kind of resemble Democrats vs Republicans. Mods–third party mods–exist which apparently let you make other choices–you can align with the Paladins (which, ugh, fuck Paladins) or with a fellow who gives you a “screw you guys, I’m going home” route (that railroads you back into the plot eventually because I think he’s working with Irenicus or something, I’m just going from skimming TVTropes), but I think I like my two options. Baldur’s Gate 2 comes from the days before we wrung our hands about whether or not we were able to Make A Choice In A Videogame. I mean, of course we’re just navigating pre-written dialogue trees. Of course we’re experiencing content that somebody thought up and wrote. Not everything needs to be, you know, an expression of ultimate freedom. I’m playing a story about a lady who’s the daughter of a murder god. I mean, come on.

Off to Spellhold!

100 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Shut Up And Take My Money

At some point in the middle of collecting my 20k gil for the faction known as the Shadow Thieves, a vampire attempted to give me the opportunity to Make A Choice In A Videogame–for only $15,000, she’d help me on my quest. This is, I believe, intended to be the evil option, but my character is Chaotic Good and so I went with the original offer–last night, before going to bed, I paid my money and entered Chapter 3.

I haven’t done every single sidequest, but–with the help of a handy quest list–I’ve done just about all of them. Oh, there’s plenty to do just stumbling around, and that’s how I handled it the first time I played, but some of the triggers are more obscure than others–going in a certain district with a certain party member in tow, talking to someone with a certain reputation score, things like that. This is not at all a criticism–it’s kind of the opposite. Baldur’s Gate 2 is trying to give the impression of a living, breathing world, and it does a lot to show you that you’re in a city where adventure is around every corner just waiting for you to find it. BG2 is a game where you are rarely bored, where you’re rarely searching for something to do.

And what you get to do is appropriately diverse–along the way, my companions and I investigated a cult, defended a castle, routed a coven of Shadow Druids, infiltrated a thieves’ den, found a home for an orphan, and discovered a shitload of magical items along the way–it’s the kind of quests where each is a little short story, and they do their best to make sure each is interesting, has some kind of twist, or at least some point. This is a team that knows its engine very well–it’s the fourth game in the series, and one coming after the high bar that is Planescape Torment, and it knows very well what the Infinity Engine is capable of.

There is a lot of content, but it doesn’t really feel extraneous. RPGs can feel very padded; for me a lot of it has to do with the dressing around the quests. My lack of passion for Elder Scrolls has to do with how little it engages me; everything boils down to “go to Place and do Thing.” We can’t deny that most RPG quests boil down to, either, “fetch me a Thing” or “kill a Thing”. And while the likes of Skyrim features detailed, intricate lore around everything, its presentation kind of overwhelms the reason you’re doing anything. I’m not questing because I have a connection to the world, to the questgiver, to the dungeon I’m going in–Skyrim is so large and sprawling, its NPCs so numerous, that everything appears to be assembled from a thing of prefab parts and I’m usually looking at Generic NPC #283 rather than a character in the world–what I end up focusing on is the dramatic drumroll accompanying the goal text on my screen, on the big arrow on my compass leading me to my goal. One of the big developments in Skyrim is what’s called the Radiant Quest system. Since Skyrim wants to be something you can play forever, there’s a series of quests which can be infinitely generated according to a framework. “Go to [place] and do [thing]”, an NPC will say, and [place] and [thing] are selected out of a hat from a list, and you can repeat that as many times as you like. It’s questing for questing’s sake.

But I neither want nor need to be playing a game forever–RPGs are long enough that I don’t need to extend them artificially. I’d rather a game that has a manageable, if extensive, set of things to do where all of them have character, have something surprising, where there’s a few well-designed locations than miles and miles of the same basic stuff. I’d rather have one dungeon that someone sat down and created than a hundred that were assembled out of pre-fab parts.

As to what I haven’t done in Baldur’s Gate 2:

Bonus bosses: There’s two I counted, a red dragon and a lich. I’m going to wait until Chapter 6, when you return to the city, to try these–I could use the extra levels. The lich, in partichular, is guarded by other lichs who I wasn’t able to touch when I faced them. I’ve got a bunch more spells that I can use against them at this point, and probably could make some progress, but why strain myself? He’s been buried for a couple hundred years at this point, he can wait a few more months.

Watcher’s Keep: An entire bonus dungeon released with the Throne of Bhaal expansion. I’ve done a couple of floors of it, and will probably duck into a third while doing Chapter 3–it hasn’t been too difficult so far, mostly puzzley, but since it’s technically an expansion pack dungeon I’m going to wait until then to hit the lower floors.

Fucking Mind Flayers: I’ve found an enclave of Mind Flayers in the sewers and I just can’t get past them. I don’t usually let my companions die when I’m playing IE games–even though resurrection options exist, when a character dies, their stuff falls to the ground in a pile, and I unknowingly lost a bunch of stuff in Planescape Torment this way (including the golden ball which, I’m told, gives you something nice if you bring it to the endgame). I don’t want to take any chances any more, and since I’m happy to abuse the Quicksave function, I immediately reload upon a character’s death. These Mind Flayers have an instant-death attack I don’t know how to counter yet and they keep using it. I know I’m going to have a very large Mind Flayer area somewhere around Chapter 5, and so I figure I’ll get to that point, hone my skills against them, and then go back and take care of their friends when I get back to the city.

Extended Edition content: Beamdog has unfairly gotten a lot of flak for their additional content because it’s apparently SJW-y or something–I don’t find it that way, personally, because I’m an adult–but I don’t really find their NPCs useful or pleasant. Dorn’s quest gave my reputation too much of a hit and forced me to miss out on some stuff with Jaheira. Hexxat’s questline refuses to trigger. Rasaad is decent but Minsc and Korgan are taking up my fighter spots in my party and I don’t want to get rid of either of them. And Neera–

Well, both as a person and as a game character, Neera is pretty obnoxious. She’s a Wild Mage, which means that her spells have a chance of getting a Wild Surge, meaning they could either become really powerful or they could zap all of your party’s gold away or whatever random effect gets rolled from the table. Her writing is–the term I’ve been using is “internetty”, which, it’s not that she’s talking in memes exactly, but she has that kind of blithe quirkiness that annoys me and makes me feel old. And her quest–well, I ducked into it and I already fucked it up. It centers around an enclave of Wild Mages that she’s helped start. Each of the members has their own little quest to do. One of them hands you a jar of cat food. “Find my cats!” he says. (Internet.) “There are 8 of them!” I ignored the quest and got to a Point of No Return section in it, and if the walkthrough I checked is right, I think he and all of the other members of the enclave are going to die as a result, because I didn’t feed all eight (eight! why are there eight! why did Beamdog think I wanted to feed eight fucking cats and not a manageable three or four!) or something, because the [thing] a character asked me to get was right near that Point of No Return and I figured I’d have the opportunity to swing back after doing the major quest goal, because the game insists there’s a nonviolent path through one encounter that I can’t navigate the dialogue tree and don’t feel like it–look, I think I can absolve myself from the Extended Edition content. It’s pretty much the same shit they expected me to do in Siege of Dragonspear, and I just don’t want to do that anymore. There was a rumor going around the other day, since denied, that Beamdog might be working on a Planescape Torment sequel, and man, for a couple of days my blood ran fucking cold.

I mean, maybe they weren’t really cats–maybe they were interesting magical creatures or something. We’ll never know.