SIDE A: A Bunch of Everything
What we have today is a real grabbag before we get into the Nashkel Mines, our first dungeon. Sidequests, party shuffling, leveling up, etc. Since the areas I cover in this entry are so scattershot, I'm going to break up the blog into different sections. I like the idea of having a more flowing narrative but honestly, this play session was really about a lot of miscellaneous.
I'm slowly approaching my final party for the game, though I still have some decisions to make. I drop Garrick off at the bar and take Kagain, despite his alignment. The game tells me he's Lawful Evil but he's much closer to Lawful Cranky, being interested in money and not wanting to talk. When you recruit him, he hires you to find a missing noble song among some lost caravans. Hilariously, because the quest is broken, as soon as you start looking he says, "I'm tired of looking fer the damn caravan. We'll never find it among all the other dead caravans we've been coming across. Let's just forget about it and keep to whatever you wanna do." So agreeable! And that's really it for interactions with Kagain. He'll leave if we get too reputable but none of the good aligned party members seem to mind him. (Adjantis will make a snarky remark about him not getting a chance to repent if he dies).
The reason I want him is because he's a powerhouse at 20 Constitution. As I play this go round of Baldur's Gate, I'm realizing the balancing factor for being evil is that, despite the fact that you get less money and pay higher prices, you get more powerful party members. Later in Nashkel, I pass up Edwin, the best mage in the game, and later on I won't be taking Viconia, the best cleric. It sort of stings to pass these guys up, especially since their party interactions are interesting, but my good aligned party members will have a problem with those two and I don't want any infighting.
That said, I ditch Khalid and Jaheria for Kivan and Branwen at this point. Jaheria is sort of a shitty cleric and Kivan is an absolute beast. If they weren't a bonded pair, I might have kept one of them, but as it is, so be it. The quest where you get Branwen is pretty interesting. She was betrayed by her group and turned to stone. Later, she was bought by a traveling carnival and a carnie attempts to sell you a scroll that will free her. "See the Warrior Maiden frozen in time!" etc. Pretty neat! Reminds me of this song. Branwen is an outcast from the northern isles who was reviled by her own people because she became a priest. Apparently, in Seawolf, only men are allowed to don the mace. This highlights a strong gender egalitarian streak in Baldur's Gate that I'll probably talk about for a B-Side at some point in the future. These games contain literal binders full of strong women.
Kivan has an interesting quest but I haven't done it yet. All he wants is to hunt some bandits and if I don't snap to it, he'll take off. I'm hoping he'll stick with me through the mines first.
Good Quests in The Big Empty
Something I'm realizing I love about Baldur's Gate is how big it feels. So many of these areas I'm exploring are totally optional, totally huge and mostly devoid of stuff to fight. Sure, a rando xvart might pop up from time to time but you can easily travel from one end of a map to the other enjoying the wildlife and ambient sounds. This seems like it'd be a drawback but it gives the world a sense of scale that isn't really matched in other RPGs, even your Oblivions and Skyrims. Part of this is how deadly encounters are when you run into it and how likely you are to be interrupted resting up. You really get this sense of what it means to travel with this level of technology, a sense of relief when you come to a safe harbor where you can buy arrows and rest. Think about how much time is spent traveling in the Lord of the Rings books. This game does a fabulous job emulating that feeling, something that is difficult to do even in the tabletop incarnation of DnD.
There is some stuff out there, however, and I want to highlight two. You come across an area called The High Hedge, home of Thalantyr, a powerful mage. His house looks like the thing that keeps metal out of Iron Man's heart and he has good stuff to sell, despite his Draconian security system of wandering flesh golems who attack on sight. Seriously, can you imagine the noises flesh golems must back walking around? Who could sleep with that incessant squishing? Anywho, he's just a store but if we go south, we run into Melicamp.
Melicamp is a talking chicken, formerly Thalantyr's apprentice, and he desperately wants to be restored to his human form. This is the first time Baldur's Gate is funny and I don't mean that I inherently think a talking chicken is funny. If I were to run into one, I'd probably run screaming. The humor comes from your character's reaction which is done up in exaggerated olde english (the speaking style, not the malt beverage). "Forsooth! Methinks you're no ordinary talking chicken!" Your character's entire reaction to this is event is pretty good, allowing you to characterize your silent protagonist as a smartass or as a zealot fearing dark magic afoot, or just as a nice dude. The reason I bring it up is that it comes up a bit later too. Anyway, if you bring Melicamp to Thalantyr (along with a skull) he can restore him. Or rather, have a 50% of doing so and a 50% chance of blowing him the fuck up with his "antichickenator" spell.
It's just interesting. In Baldur's Gate, more often than not, the things you're doing are full of small detail, you're getting interesting backstories from characters you meet. This is one of the things Bioware lost with Dragonage, I think, that I'm going to talk about in the B-Side.
We also run into Bassilus here, a mad cleric. I just stumbled upon him but you can go to a church where they'll tell you about him. Further, there are rumors about him in Beregost as well. Bassilus is a tragic figure who has gone mad from survivor's guilt, having failed to escape the Zhentarim (a cabal of evil priests and wizards) with his family intact. The way he's processing, which I think is the 4th stage of grief, is to animate a bunch of dead and pretend they're his family. He refuses to believe that he left them to die so he summoned up some corpses to play the part. What's interesting about this quest is that it presents degrees of difficulty. Unlike Marl the drunk, you can't talk your way out of this but by being clever, you can make the fight easier. You do this by pretending to be the mad cleric's father. You have to pay attention to what he was saying before you interrupted him to get a key detail right and carry on the charade. If you break his confidence before denouncing him, you can break his concentration and he'll fight you solo rather than with his "family." Pretty neat!
There are some neat quests in civilization as well. At the aforementioned carnival there is a wizard who summons an Ogre just to make him explode. If you have him do it three times, the ogre goes mad and attacks everyone, forcing you to put him down.
There are colorful NPCs in the wilderness too, including an old drunk who tries to mug you by claiming to be a lich and Pendelbendwarburton, a hermit who presents you with your first opportunity to break the 4th wall. You can react to his cryptic nonsense by saying, and I quote:
"OK, I've just about had my FILL of riddle-asking, quest-assigning, insult-throwing, pun-hurling, hostage-taking, iron-mongering, smart-arsed fools, freaks, and felons that continually test my will, mettle, strength, intelligence, and most of all, patience! If you've got a straight answer ANYWHERE in that bent little head of yours, I want to hear it pretty damn quick or I'm going to take a large blunt object roughly the size of Elminster AND his hat, and stuff it lengthwise into a crevice of your being so seldom seen that even the denizens of the nine hells themselves wouldn't touch it with a twenty-foot rusty halberd! Have I MADE myself perfectly CLEAR?!"
We're also running into more evidence of the iron shortage and how it's affecting the country side. Captain Brage, the subject of a quest we'll be doing a bit later, was driven mad by a cursed sword he only picked up because of the iron shortage. Things are dire, the people in Nashkel need a hero. And next entry, I'm going to hit up the mines and see what the fuck is going on.
Oh, and my party leveled up! Double hit points! Two more magic missiles! This is going to make a huge difference.
SIDE B: Successors Without Spirit
These last few months I found myself cram jamming both Dragon Age games after three attempts to get through the first one. I don't know what came over me or what changed. Perhaps it was just an insatiable lust for Darke Fantasie. So, after years, I was finally able to scratch these games off my quest log.
Prior to this, I had always had a pretty sour opinion of them (remember, I tried to play the first one three times before giving up). I think this is largely due to just how excited I was when the first one came out. I've always loved the Baldur's Gate games and the idea of a proper spiritual successor gave me a game boner as big as the Realms. I got Dragon Age on Christmas from my wife at the time and I was so excited to try it. But something was off...
It's hard to explain fully but the spark was missing. Interesting, funny companions were there, an immersive world, sure, but a lot of the personality was just gone. In the A-Side of this entry I've touched on a lot of what makes Baldur's Gate special. You're always doing interesting things, meeting interesting people. Your tasks are varied and bring you to the far corners of the land. Dragon Age ramped up the seriousness so quickly that there was little room for personality. The stakes are so high, the Blight is omnipresent, the villains are right there in the fore, all eye shadow and sniveling. It's just oppressive.
Instead of several smaller stories, the game is largely broken up into five or six big chunks, each with its attendant mammoth dungeon. And those dungeons are a serious problem. Each one is way too long. Each time prior to this that I quit was during the Dwarven leg of the adventure and that never ending slog. The forest dungeon is little better. Each of the branches you go down feature one huge, never ending string of battles. There's few people to talk to and when you do, they're dour. There are few situations you can talk your way out of. It's just so damn fighty.
When you do talk to people, there is less room for interesting weirdos and I blame voice acting. The trend towards full voice acting in games is a bad one, I'm on the record as saying, and these two games illustrate why. First off, it incentivizes less dialogue in your game. Dragon Age has tons of text, but almost all of it is in the form of stuffy codexes. The characters don't say a lot, other than your companions, because it'd be expensive to do so. That's why the random folk in villages so rarely have anything interesting to say. That's why so much of your sidequestery is delivering letters to nameless Blackstone Irregulars. There isn't enough space, focus wise or disc space, to give these people interesting things to be. Having text dialogue circumvents this problem and I'll be coming back to this again and again in this blog, I bet, especially when I get to Torment.
Further, the power curve is fixed which makes progression smoother but feel worse. When I level up in Baldur's Gate, I feel much more powerful. When I level up in Dragon Age, I feel incrementally better. This carries over to the equipment as well. I spent most of my time in inventory comparing slightly different weapons. Oh, this one does 7.22 nature damage and this one does 7.36 cold damage? Oh boy! It's fucking bullshit in the service of balance. I get it, that's what gamers want, but you lose a lot when you do this.
I think these rough edges come from being adapted from a table top work and that Baldur's Gate is more interesting because of it. It's easy to start thinking like an old man and say, "Gamers don't want interesting rough edges, they want polish." Because it's easy, I'm going to do it. Gamers don't want interesting rough edges. They prize polish over everything and it's a fucking tragedy.
Now, this may surprise you to hear, but in the end, I sort of liked Dragon Age as its own thing. It handled the war at the end very well, the Landsmeet was cool, the companions are cool, etc. Shit, I think Dragon Age: Awakening answers a lot of my issues with the first game just by scaling things down. Awakening has an interesting, smaller plot, smaller dungeons, more varied tasks. It's the best in the series.
I also played, and enjoyed, Dragon Age 2, despite its reputation. Both games have similar problems with pace and interest but fail in different ways. Where Dragon Age was comprised of five huge dungeons, DA2 is comprised of a hundred micro dungeons. You're doing more things but they're rarely that much more interesting and you're doing them quicker. In the end, I think the amount of non additive dungeon content is the same between the two games and I preferred playing DA2 but the story takes a huge shit at the end.
Dragon Age's story problem was it was too epic right from the beginning. DA2 sidesteps this by focusing on a city and a family, necessitating a smaller scale. This is almost always a good thing. In Baldur's Gate, we're dealing with a huge problem but it's not looming just yet. Right now we have clues, the iron shortage, the assassination attempts (up to a 650 bounty!) and our origins. But the world ending threat isn't on our radar yet. DA2's story problem is in its ending and its milquetoast centrism. I don't want to spoil it but when both sides of an argument are insane and stupid, that's no choice at all and invalidates many of my previous opinions leaning one way or another. You did so much work presenting these two sides of an argument and trying to get me to care. Don't throw it all away, Dragon Age 2.
I'll probably do more B-sides like this when I notice something that Baldur's Gate does so much better than its modern counterparts. So, look forward to cranky old Gary Curmudgeonfield riding again.