SIDE A: City Mouse
In looking at walkthroughs and refreshing my memory, I'm guessing I have 4-5 more entries left in the main game and 2-3 in the expansion. This is taking me longer than I thought but I can't say I mind. Given that most of my gaming is on a much tighter schedule, I like being able to relax my way though one of my favorites.
This is one of 2 entries covering the city itself. I want to say a word about how cool arriving in Baldur's Gate was for me when I first played this. This is a long, huge game and by this point I had already explored so much. And then I get to the city and it's huge, nine distinct segments, complete with dungeons and a sewer system. Though we often praise brevity on the show, there is something to be said for a game that keeps giving long after you're satisfied and in ways that remain interesting.
The sense of overwhelming size is apparent right off the bat when you first transition between areas. The map itself changes to highlight your new circumstances and narratively, things shift as well. You're immediately approached by Scar from the Flaming Fist. (His christian name is Scorch). The Flaming Fist, up until this point, haven't exactly been allies. The wrong words can cause them to attack and they stop you from sleeping in the streets like some sort of anthropomorphic anti homeless ordinance. They're portrayed as overzealous hillbilly cops, even down to the voice acting. But that's just the rank and file because Scar is a pretty cool dude. He, and his boss, are going to be your primary questgivers in the city and we'll get to those in a minute but I want to talk about some other features and sidequests first.
The Stakes They Are a Rampin'
Early on, you're visited by Marek, a different kind of assassin. He warns you off, gives you the opportunity to flee, and because you're a badass wizard, you decline. Seems pretty chill. But later you run into Lothander and things get complicated. Lothander was forced to help Marek poison you via a Geas and there is a complicated chain of quests to figure this out.
This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, this is the first assassin we've run into that isn't just throwing his meat at you until you stop breathing. He's cunning. If it weren't for the guilty conscious of Lothander, you'd be fucked and not even know it. In order to cure Lothander of his Geas, you have to go to the Temple of Umberlee the "Bitch Queen." We've run into her before. She's the goddess of storms and for some reason there's just this temple in the middle of the city. The clerics within are hostile (even going so far as to murder a trespassing child) but for some reason the city shrugs its shoulders. Cultural relativity, I guess, but I like the idea of there being arguments in the city council about where to place the temple. Not in my backyard, right? Those ladies know how to raise the dead.
Eventually you track down the assassin and the quest ends the way they all do but the message is clear: The Iron Throne knows you're here. In fact, you got their number too. They have a headquarters in the south end of the city that you can more or less raid any time you're feeling ready. It eventually becomes a mission to do so from Duke Eltan (leader of the Flaming Fist), but if you're anything like me, you're nowhere near ready yet. So instead, we do some sidequests.
I'm going to touch on a few more sidequests next episode because a lot of this session was just exploring the city and gathering them. One notable fantasy cliché that's in full effect here is the series of Thieves' Guild quests, something I've always enjoyed. They're pretty good here too with a wide variety of escalating missions.
There are a few different companions but, again, I don't know who they're for unless you're meant to iron-man it with your party and let them stay dead. Specifically, I'm a big fan of Tiax, a thief-cleric (?) that is bent on taking over the world. He's genuinely pretty funny and though I have no place for him in any sense, I regret leaving him behind.
Oh, and one other fun little joke: there's a character named Maple Willow Aspen who cuts you off, telling you she's heard all the jokes before about her family tree, about her being a sap, etc. You can respond with sympathy but sometimes, even if someone has heard it all before, you still want to say it. Sure, it's old for her but it's new for me. So I make a crack and she explodes, literally. Pretty great.
The Plot It is a Thickenin'
If you happen to swing by the Harbormaster, he gives you the skinny on the Iron Throne and the iron shortage and the plot, at least the surface one, starts to take shape. The Iron Throne are peddling weapons, squeezing out the competition and, as we'll soon find out, trying to start a cold war. This is a pretty sophisticated plot, I think, and reminded me a little of something like Chinatown. Manipulating the systems of the world for gain. But the plot is more complex than that and it starts with Bodysnatching (tm).
Our first mission for Scar is to check out a merchant consortium called The Seven Suns. The Seven Suns, as it turns out, is overrun with Doppelgangers. They've been neglecting their accounts, making bad business decisions and all around acting like Starman. You can discover their deception by subterfuge but you can also bait them into attacking in one of my favorite dialog exchanges in the game. You essentially tempt them into wanting to replace you by mentioning how you don't know your friends very well and they won't miss you.
It's not subtle. They literally ask if anyone would miss you. This seems silly but in practice it's actually effective and creepy because there are few things scarier than an alien presence trying, but failing, to pass as human. Maybe it's just me but that cuts to the center of my sense of other. After you wipe the floor with them, you report to Scar... or you would if we would appear. I keep running into a glitch where he's not there (a certifiable Baldur's Bummer) but I'm planning to soldier on with the quests anyway, even if I don't get my rewards. Next episode we'll be clearing out everything other than the Iron Throne.
SIDE B: Legacies Done Right
As with my look at Dragon Age, from time to time I want to look at games I feel evoke the legacy of these classics. When I get around to Fallout, you can be damn sure I'm going to talk about Wasteland 2 (and, if I can, the original Wasteland). For now, I want to talk about Divinity: Original Sin. Partly because it's directly relevant and partly because I want this game to have some network representation. I know we did it on Check it Out, Comrade but this game is special enough to warrant a closer look.
D:OS (that acronym is probably no accident) is not only the best follow up to Baldur's Gate that I've played, it's one of the best games I've played this year, which is not an uncommon opinion. What's interesting to me, however, are the ways this is a successor to BG and the ways it is not. D:OS is not so much a singular answer to BG nostalgia as a mishmash of different tried and true CRPG mechanics nearly perfectly meshed. Here's the family tree as I see it-
From Baldur's Gate: Flavor and humor. As an Infinity Engineer, I've been taken aback by how funny Baldur's Gate is and how light it can be, despite its heavy subject matter. D:OS takes this and runs with it, including more jokes, more goofball quest premises and sillier dialog. There is a sense of gravitas to D:OS but its slight. This doesn't mean that it sacrifices drama completely. There are set piece encounters and boss fights underscored with music to feel appropriately epic but the overall tone takes after BG1 specifically.
From Fallout: Action point economy (with a twist). D:OS has a similar action economy to Fallout in that the amount of things you can do per turn and when you do them are determined by stats. D:OS has a pretty elegant way of dealing with holding your action, however. In Fallout games, unspent action points typically convert to defense but in D:OS they carry over to the next turn. This means that it's tactically critical to wait for enemies to come to you and it can be worthwhile to hold an action in order to unleash fury the following turn. It also supports game balance in that more powerful skills cost more points meaning that some heavy attacks require a specific build to allow for them or take fewer actions.
Also from Fallout: A barter system, which leads to...
From Diablo: Loot. This is probably the feature I'm least excited about though D:OS does it well for a game where it's not the primary mechanic. At some point I'll probably write a B-side about loot mechanics in general and how I think they're pretty distasteful but for now, this one suffices. It has all the problems of loot including marginal upgrades, minmaxing and inventory bloat. Luckily, the fact that almost everyone you run into will barter with you means that you're rarely saddled with trash. The barter system also means that you can skip the cumbersome selling junk phase if you'd like and trade your junk directly for the good stuff.
From Temple of Elemental Evil/Arcanum: The combat layout. The combat is a mix of Fallout and ToEE in that there is less of a focus on cover (Fallout) and more of a focus on spacing, area effects and line of sight (ToEE). It's not as crunchy as, say, Fallout Tactics but it's more crunchy than Baldur's Gate. This is probably my favorite part of the game. Combat is a joy, similar to how it is in table top games. It reminds me of Iron Kingdoms, honestly, which is a great thing.
In fact, D:OS does a really good job in general of emulating a tabletop experience. There's single player player conflict via dialog (a feat I've never seen before) and a really nice rhythm between stabby sections and talky ones. In fact, criticisms are pretty sparse. The biggest two are the sharp pacing curve and the lack of direction.
The pacing curve could be seen as a positive actually because the game drops you into a murder mystery right away. For me, this served as a barrier to entry because the combat in this game sings so loud and that's what hooked me. The murder mystery itself is interesting and ties into the larger plot but it's a real hurry up and wait situation.
The direction thing is harder to define. No one wants to be railroaded but the game doesn't always do a good job of directing you to the next waypoint. Several solutions are slightly too obscure, I feel, which lead to a little frustration. I've actually put the game down for a couple days because I missed an item while escaping an exploding mine. It's sort of silly that I'm going to venture back in to get a piece of paper but that's where I'm at. Since that paper is necessary, it should have been earmarked as so.
All in all though, this game gets my highest recommendation and is one of my favorites this year. And this year as been AMAZING for games. And that's it for a couple of weeks! I'm going to be prepping for Portland Retro Gaming Expo and the blog is taking a brief hiatus. I'll be back in a fortnight or so.
Love ya lots.