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.

Advertisements

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.