I’ve always been a bit of a full on geek, but one moment really sticks in my mind as the beginning of it all. Taking me from a passing interest in gaming to diving deep into reading, writing, fantasy as a genre and the way stories are told in general, Baldur’s Gate set the foundation for much of my future. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been giddy when I saw that Beamdog had picked it up and ported it to mobile of all places. Unfortunately, I had a habit of keeping overly out-of-date phones and couldn’t even play it until the full suite of classic Dungeons and Dragons games from my formative years made the trip: Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and their own original creation, taking place between Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Siege of Dragonspear.
The games are made for a tablet, recommending a 7-inch screen, though the games work well on my Samsung Galaxy S10+ regardless, and the would-be difficulties of navigating dialogue options are negated by numbered buttons ready for a thumb tap. The only real problem I had with this version of the game had nothing at all with the game itself; I can’t seem to pay that much attention to a mobile device for long enough to really get deep into the game. Conveniently for me, the game was also recently ported to Xbox One, and not only includes Baldur’s Gate 2, but also Beamdog’s own Siege of Dragonspear. Three for the price of… Five actually, but $9.99 USD is pretty steep as-is for a mobile game, even one like this, while $49.99 USD is pretty much expected where console markets come in.
Big upside to the console version, aside from screen size and my mobile-distraction being a separate device entirely, is the movement. Before the iconic opener, I howled with glee. I could move my party with my thumbstick! After marvelling at this for a few short seconds (the game was originally point-and-click), checking out the I-skipped-the-tutorial controls and finding them fairly familiar for console CRPGs like Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity, I entered the tavern outside of Candlekeep Hall and approached the innkeep to buy my starting gear.
“My hotel’s clean as an Elven arse!”
The jolly man exclaims aloud as you pick up what you need. I started as a Dragon Disciple Sorcerer, so I actually didn’t need anything, and couldn’t yet use most of it. There are some ranged options even for a nearly-no-proficiencies sorcerer, but I thought I’d hang onto my coins, despite my Burning Hands being limited to twice per day. My quarterstaff should do it, right? As it turned out, it would absolutely do the trick, after missing a dozen swings at the lowly thug that attacked me, I finally cracked him a couple good ones.
When I was attacked shortly after, I opted instead to use Burning Hands, instantly downing him and making me feel all the first-level-sorcerer might. I had to nap before I finished exploring though, returning to the Inn and passing eight hours in a room to regain my spent spell slot so I would be prepared for the road. While the tutorial is handy and goes a bit deeper into some of the mechanics, there are actually “Tutor” characters sprinkled around Candlekeep Hall to teach you how the game works, and explain the UI, as you explore this initial area. Granted, I’m playing this while familiar with games in general, but returning to this game for the first time in easily fifteen years, I’d say both the official tutorial and the less-direct Tutors tied into this starting zone were pretty effective at their jobs.
Soon thereafter, I met with my father/mentor character and we were off! Only for him to die in the very next scene, lending a much greater sense of danger to the two very-direct attacks from earlier, and a relief as I gained my first party member, Imoen, a rogue I met just before departing Candlekeep Hall. The only instructions we were given before Gorian and I were ambushed on the road were that we were meeting with allies at the Friendly Arm Inn, and Imoen and I set off at once. After some minor baddies, and a mysterious totally-not-a-wizard with an interest in my doings, we made it to the Friendly Arm, and on our way into this fortress of a tavern, we’re attacked again by someone looking for me specifically.
This time though, there’s a guard nearby who jumps to my aid. Dispatching the villain with haste, before I could call my dragon-blooded wrath down. Once inside, we met the friends of Gorian were looking for, and it began to feel like a real party. Sorcerer, Rogue, Fighter, Druid. Not a bad group to start an adventure with. In fact, we mopped the floor with some hobgoblins together! After the first couple of encounters as a party, I forgot how absolutely unforgiving 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons really was though, and my pyromanic urges ended up wiping my whole party, because Burning Hands has just enough of an Area of Effect to catch them all, and one of the three hobgoblins we were fighting. Whoops.
The game progresses in much a similar manner, with as much cheese as late nineties fantasy writers could muster, this is Dungeons and Dragons and BioWare (Editor’s Note (PY): BlackIsles at the time) after all, and some entertaining characters on the road. One in particular stood out toward the beginning. Lord Foreshadow is a very subtle easter egg that references both the coming sequel, Shadows of Amn, and Neverwinter Nights, another BioWare not-related-except-the-setting D&D game that itself signified major steps toward digital D&D play that we see so frequently now.
Everybody likes the classic Five Man Band, but Baldur’s Gate opts for a total of six characters in your party, should you choose. Your own player character, and a whole range of new friends of varying alignment, skill, and personality to choose from. From vocally disapproving of your actions to actively attacking you if you do something too far out of their line, the characters’ varied morality and motivation lend an excellent extra layer to the game, and an awareness of who you’re taking where is a good survival strategy.
I signed on with a dwarf looking to hire some mercenary work, and had to choose between him and my bard (since I’d just acquired the bard and had no attachment), and the bard simply stayed put in the Dwarf’s shop. Turned out the man was evil, as pointed out in a background-interaction between him and my Neutral-Good Fighter, Khalid. It also turned out, he was really good at eating hobgoblin axe, and in a fight with six of the beasts, fell almost as soon as combat started. Nobody else, including two very squishy casters, took any damage in the fight, so we sold the loot and picked up our Bard friend once more, with some fresh gear for him. Turns out some problems sort themselves out! Besides, he had a nice helmet.
The game isn’t a walking simulator by any means, but it involves quite a great deal of quiet exploration as you follow what amounts to vague directions most of the time as you explore moderately sized square zones. This is a game that blends the interactivity of gaming with the pacing and storytelling of a novel, or even a series of them. You go from little more than a child who’d grown up in an academic institution fiercely guarded against the outside to a god-who-walks-the-earth being of interplanar power, but it takes much longer than more readily accessible modern games. This is due to what is, in my opinion, both the brightest point and the most glaring flaw in the game.
Baldur’s Gate was originally created to literally be a digital single player game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. There are certain aspects of the game that just don’t translate without that interaction, but at the same time, there are stories that just couldn’t be told as well neither from a more direct game nor from a non-interactive medium. While this odd mashed up medium of storytelling does wonders for the world and story itself, it’s also a big part of why the game is hard to get into. THAC0, To Hit Armor Class 0, was possibly the worst part of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and its removal was no small part of how massive Third Edition D&D became in comparison. I’m not going to go into an explanation of this too far, but it was based around lowering your armor class and raising your THAC0, and was calculated in ways that were so not clear that player groups would just use different combat rules.
If you want a single player AD&D experience, it’s fantastic. If you want an entertaining and consistent gaming experience, it’s kinda horrifying. Beamdog got around this with a more modern list of difficulty settings, ranging from Storyteller mode where you’re essentially guaranteed success to Throne of Baal which is essentially for people who are both masochists and really into THAC0 and AD&D.