Goodnight, sweet prince. I'm putting this game to bed.
SIDE A: Tumble
After taking care of the problems of Ulgoth's beard, and arguably a bit overleveled, it's time to head back to the city and see what's up. If you recall, I had recently been imprisoned for the murder of the Iron Throne leaders (which I actually did, not that it would matter). I escaped having learned a little bit more of Sarevok's plan. All signs point to the city now.
A lot has changed in the city by the sea, unfortunately. For one, Scar has been murdered. A helpful Fist Friend lets us know that he died on a routine patrol, though this seems fishy. Now, Angelo is in charge and is being a total asshole. What happened to Duke Eltan? Attacked! And in bad shape, his doctor sitting on his hands. Everything is garbage now! All because of fucking dopplegangers. This means I'm wanted and if I run into the Flaming Fist, I get arrested. Luckily, I never did, which felt like a bit of luck or a scripting error because every time I've played this previously I ended up behind bars. But don't worry, I would have gotten out.
So, what else is new? Well, there's Tamoko. She has a troubling accent straight out of Deus Ex Hong Kong, and really, she feels like a thematic band-aid. She's Serevok's lover and she's here to help you stop him as long as you promise not to kill him (pfft.) She believes that Sarevok is good on the inside and has only been tainted by his blood.
It's an interesting tack for the plot to take and it's nice for Sarevok's compatriots to realize that he's being such a total shitheel but it feels too little, too late. There are no deeds that tell us Sarevok is redeemable, only Tamoko's words a mere hour before the credits. One of the themes the Baldur's Gate series deals with is nature versus nurture. You are supposed to think that your character could very easily have turned out as bad as Sarevok but, instead, made different choices. Or, I suppose, you could also be a black hat fucker and also complete the Twelve Labors of Jerkules. But choice is what's being emphasized in either case. You both started in the same place and Sarevok chose this path while you chose another. I feel like that came across without Tamoko showing up to tell me he's actually a decent guy. It rings false to me. She shows up later to learn the theme of the game but we'll talk about that then.
Oh, and Sarevok is about to be crowned Duke of the city. You see, the populace is scared. Eltan has fallen ill, Amn rattles its saber, the iron shortage means that they're likely to lose the fight and then comes Sarevok. Seemingly representing military security, he offers the Iron Throne's iron stores up for free and urges a first strike. The Iron Throne, this branch under Sarevok's control, is furious. Give away iron? War without profit? Ridiculous! When you storm the Iron Throne compound, you find an every man for himself situation and Sarevok has the reputation of a fart in a hot shower.
We learn from these people and later from Sarevok's diary, his master plan, which is actually pretty clever. I want to take a moment and appreciate exactly how complex the plot of Baldur's Gate is. An upstart starting a cold war for profit is a decent antagonist. But with Sarevok double crossing the Iron Throne, turning the cold war into a hot one in order to make a whole lot of murder, we get an epic antagonist. And I HATE the word epic, so it should tell you something that I used it. Sarevok has been playing the very long con, ever since he realized that he carried divine blood. He put up with the abuse from his adopted father, the Iron Throne's leader Reiltar. He planned and sowed seeds and waited. He's a comic book villain, sure, but he didn't start that way. We come into the story when he's tipped his hand and perilously close to the conclusion of his gambit. His only failing was not being able to assassinate the player character. When you realize this, the feeling of empowerment is real. Again, that stupid E-word comes into play. It's all good stuff.
So, there's some chores to do before you can force the final confrontation. Tamoko urges you to kill Cythandria, an evil lady who has been egging Sarevok on. This is superfluous and a little sexist, honestly, but once you defeat her (standard mage battle) you get Sarevok's diary which details his backstory and plans. You also need to save Eltan from his doppleganger doctor (doctorganger?) and kill the two assassins who are planning to murder the remaining Dukes and leave Sarevok in complete control. None of these are particularly interesting fights and though it makes sense that you must gather evidence and an invitation to the coronation, it saps a little urgency out of the proceedings.
When you get to the coronation, Sarevok is in the middle of his Hitler speech, will notice you and a bunch of nobles will turn into, you guessed it, dopplegangers. You then get to finally present your evidence to someone who will listen. You have the diary, the assassination orders, etc. Sarevok teleports away but a guy named Belt (first name Fancy) knows that he went to the Thieves Guild. And the chase is on!
Sounds exciting, right? Well, let's talk about The Thieve's Maze. I've complained about mazes in this game before and wouldn't you know it, there's a garbage maze right at the end. The Thieves Maze, used to test new recruits, isn't even a maze so much as a series of long hallways filled with traps and skeletons. It kills the pacing and it saps resources you'll surely need for the final encounter. A total bummer.
After you get through, you end up in the under city, in The Hidden City (not to be confused with the Undercellar which is a big prostitution playground). It seems that there's a city under Baldur's Gate that's full of skeletons and crumbling buildings. Even though this seems to fly in the face of the city's origins as a former modest fishing village, I'll buy it because it makes a really cool final battleground. You run into Tamoko here and she's changed her tune. Sarevok considers her a traitor for helping you and she wants to kill you to prove her loyalty. She entreats you to fight. If you do, you get a pretty sweet mechanical reward in the form of the best armor in the game. But if you don't, you fulfill the theme of the game, so I would suggest not unsheathing your sword. If you keep refusing to fight her, she realizes that it's not divine blood that makes a monster, it's personal choice (THEME). This is probably the climax of this idea in the story.
Then you get to Sarevok and his buddies, holed up in an old church. He has a bit of a villain speech but honestly, if you actually want to beat him, you'll never hear it. This is a final exam for how big combat works in Baldur's Gate. Like the fights leading up to it, it is about preparation rather than reflex. You simply cannot go toe to toe with Sarevok and his cronies because they will murder the fuck out of you. He has an archer with fireball arrows. He has a super strong mage and he kills in one or two hits. You are forced to fight smarter rather than harder.
So, how did I do it? Through out the game, I've been stocking up on a few things for a rainy day. Monster summoning wands and scrolls and protection scrolls. I could protect my characters from magic and I could summon an army. This won't work in Enhanced Edition or Tutu, by the way, because you can only have five summons with you. But in vanilla Baldur's Gate, there is literally no limit. Given that I had as much time as I wanted before going into the church...
So the final battle, rather than being a one on one dual was Sarevok and his buddies versus me and about 60 or 70 of my closest friends. Even though Sarevok could gib a gnoll like a motherfucker, it took him time to do so. Time when he was being pelted with magic misses and magic arrows. I didn't even take a hit.
After Sarevok falls, the ending cut scene shows his soul shooting into hell where his statue crumbles. The camera pulls away showing a huge gallery of statues, some complete, others in ruins. The implication is clear: Sarevok is dead but there are dozens and dozens of Bhaalspawn and the threat is not over.
SIDE B: In Conclusion and Moving Forward
Baldur's Gate sort of blows my mind. Even though it's not perfect by any means, and hopefully I did a good job pointing out where it falls down, it's really ambitious in scope. It feels like a very strong realization of an escalation of stakes. The antagonist, like every good Batman villain, reflects the hero. The side characters are memorable even if they're mere sketches. And the story suggests a dozen other tales that could be told with the premise. Rich is the word I'd use to describe it.
Which makes sense given that it's based on one of the most fully developed fantasy worlds in history. BG can be considered in a few separate contexts.
As a Dungeons and Dragons product, Baldur's Gate succeeds even if it doesn't emulate a table top session perfectly. The story telling is more grandiose than most pen and paper games I've played, and it's focused on one character. The quest structure has more in common with Fallout than D and D. But the feel evokes DnD/Fantasy Tropes perfectly. The long stretches of wilderness complete with wandering gnolls realizes random encounter tables. The cameos are a treat, giving the player the chance to interact with characters they've only read about. Some of the individual dungeons, specifically Durlag's Tower, can take their place next to other famous prestige dungeons like The Temple of Elemental Evil.
The combat doesn't feel much like DnD despite using the same libretto. Yes, there's THAC0 and the wonderful, familiar spell list, but as I mentioned earlier, combat is fast and brutal and more about preparation than choices in battle. But given that DnD combat was always meant to be an abstraction, this is forgivable in my mind. So, we have a grand fantasy that evokes elements of DnD without emulating it completely. That's OK for an adaptation.
Considered as a game, Baldur's Gate is also a success. Brutal but with surprising depth, it's a sterling example of just how satisfying the party based CRPG can be. Shoring up your party's weaknesses by carefully composing your party is immensely satisfying. The array of spells available to your casters is enormous, even if the applications aren't quite as varied.
The combat loop, which I've picked apart in this series, is really sort of unlike any other. The emphasis on preparation, stacking up minute advantages, and, in some cases, downright abuse feels unique to me. It's cerebral but because of the dice rolls, it's also iterative and the feedback can feel arbitrary. Mechanically, Baldur's Gate appeals to the part of me that wants to customize, that wants to keep trying things until I find something that works, that wants to squeak past gates that I'm not meant to open yet.
It also does a wonderful job rewarding exploration. Exploration leads to side quests which in turn often incorporate some other form of exploration. These quests grant experience which grant more power. This is pretty typical of WRPGs but it's worth pointing out when a game does it this well.
Baldur's Gate is a success aesthetically as well. Visually, the individual characters are no great shakes and the resolution is painful but the backgrounds still look good and the music, man, the music. The music is timeless, evocative and appropriate. And used extremely sparingly.
Imagine if this game had been made with polygons. I'll wait while you go throw up. That's why this game looks good and Neverwinter Nights looks like trash. And the resolution issue has been answered time and time again.
In conclusion, I love Baldur's Gate and I'm extremely excited to eventually play the sequel, which I know evolves and expands on all the good things the original does. I'm not planning to bring Avellona into the game anymore. As much as I love that power curve, I want to play through with NPC mages to see how it changes the feel. Look forward to that starting in a year or so.
Next up on the blog is Arcanum. In a week or two, I'll have an introductory post and then we'll hit the ground running. Without D and D to fall back on, I'm going to have to really search my brain for B-sides. I hope you'll join me then and I thank you for joining me now.
This blog is the very definition of a vanity project. Not a lot of people read it. But it's an avenue to reflect on longer games in a way that doesn't put the WOFF deadline on them. So, I think I'll keep going for a while.