I know it's been a while since I last updated. But that's boring, let's go.
SIDE A: Two Islands With Overly Descriptive Names
Imagine a Dungeons and Dragons session. If you've played, you have a good idea but if you haven't, you more than likely picture rescuing a princess from a wizard or delving to the bottom of the Kavern of Kobolds to exume the last priest king of Tetuawni or something. What you aren't thinking of is fetching boots. You aren't thinking about hunting down three gnolls because they stole a favorite dagger.
Baldur's Gate is great and in many ways does an admirable job emulating D and D. But one serious way in which it fails is the quest structure, which very rarely feels like a tabletop session. I believe Tales of the Sword Coast was created, at least partially, to address this. DLCs and Expansions sometimes simply fill the desire for more game but often they function as apologies. You see this with Bioshock Infinite, you see it with Dishonored, you see it with Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall. And, here we are, seeing it ten years before it was fashionable, with Baldur's Gate. It's mostly successful too, though it falls down quite a bit. Over the next two entries, I'll be examining the Baldur's Gate expansion.
Mechanically, this is a win. TotSC adds some minor usability fixes and, most notably, raises the XP cap. Baldur's Gate gets TOUGH at the end, even with maxed out characters, so this is welcome. Further, there are a host of other little aesthetic changes such as more ambient sounds. The changes are mild, however, making way for the content to take center stage.
The expansion runs out of the hamlet of Ulgoth's Beard, a tiny coastal town east of Baldur's Gate and home to a surprising amount of intrigue despite its population of about ten. The new quest content is split into four chunks and I'll be covering two of them this entry, two next.
Sadly, the expansion begins on a bit of a down note. Given that you're likely to be following video game roomba protocols, you're going to talk to everyone in town and one of the first people you run into is the haugty sorcerer Shandalar (of the New Hampsire Shandalars). He wants you to retrieve his cloak, a weirdly running theme in the expansion. If you agree, you're whisked off to The Ice Dungeon and you cannot return until it's done.
This could very easily fuck your save if you came underleveled or without adequate supplies, so PC gaming save discipline is in full effect. The Ice Dungeon is more or less an utter failure but it does a good job of preparing you for fighting mages, which truly takes center stage in the sequel. The Ice Dungeon is a frigid island that is a bit of a spacial anomaly in that it traps wizards. It seems like if a wizard is using teleportation magic, they have a chance of just getting slamjammed onto Ice Island for eternity.
So, thematically it's sound. It's a dimensional prison full of wizards who have gone mad from boredom. You show up with a way out (provided you can get the cloak) and they turn on you. Sign me the fuck up. But the dungeon itself absolutely blows. It's a maze of narrow corridors and traps with evenly spaced mage fights. The mages are all fine, somewhat interesting fights with flavorful dialogue, but navigation is an absolute snooze.
I think I'm done with mazes as a gameplay element. In a game with fog of war, they only serve to create frustrating dead ends. And Baldur's Gate doesn't even do what the best Final Fantasys do, which is stick a phoenix down in dead ends to make you feel like you haven't completely wasted your time. Mazes function to bore more than anything, and they always feel like padding to me. There's a reason they're on the back of children's menus.
Let's talk about navigation in Baldur's Gate, a Baldur's Bummer that I neglected to mention in that entry but, to be fair, it's more egregious in the expansion than in the main game. I don't know if it's due to technical constraints or dogged adherence to the ten by ten corridor trope, but narrow hallways abound and it drives me batty. Your little guys just aren't smart enough for this. If one gets in the way of the other, they'll try to find another way around, which is great in the wilderness but in a maze, it means they backtrack until they get bored and pull out their phones. I can't tell you how many times I selected everyone and clicked on the exit only to find Adjantis (fucking Adjantis) numbly humping the wall ten feet but several bends away from the stairs. What a knob!
But it's not his fault, it's definitely the map designers, and it is rarely worse than on Ice Island. So, after you struggle through this bland dungeon and fight your motly crew of insane mages, you get the cloak and teleport back.
Of Mailmen and ManMails
The second quest I'm covering today is more interesting story wise while being just as frustrating mechanically (don't worry, the next entry covers some badass shit).
There's a guy with a suspicious eastern European accent hanging out in a house named Mendas. He tells the tale of a Baldur's Gate Merchant League ship that spotted a shipwreck that is believed to be that of the legendary hero Balduran. Rather than do anything with this knowledge, they sat on it, so Mendas is hiring adventurers to go retrieve Big B's Logbook (AKA Big B's Log B).
First, you have to get sea charts which requires some rare subterfuge and deception, tricking your way inot the merchant league's counting house in Baldur's Gate. At this point in the story, Flaming Fist officers are after me in Baldur's Gate, so I traveled through the sewers to make my way in and fasttalk my way into some charts.
Charts in hand it's off to...well, it's off to...
Werewolve's Island. Cough.
What do you think they have there? Candy apples? Of course, your ship wrecks as well. Literally all of the crew except your party drowns and you wash up unscathed, having swam to shore in full plate. On the beach you run into a little girl named Solianna with an unusually strong sense of smell. She's part of a group of inhabitents who have descended from people who shipwrecked here long ago. She warns that there are "beasties" about.
A quick trip to the village reveals the set up. Kaishas, the elder, oversees the small walled settlement and they are building a ship. However, the build site was infested with Werewolves! They keep the lycanthropes out with sturdy walls and live in constant terror. She asks you to kill the head werewolf, who has conveniently taken up residence in the wreck of Balduran's ship. So far, so good. You accept some side quests (including one to retrieve a cloak) and head north to start fucking up werewolves.
I dislike werewolves. Thematically, I get it. They're usually used to show the struggle between civilized man and his bestial nature, which is all well and good. But they're BORING mechanically. A werewolf is exactly as scary and strong as a regular wolf. They're bigger, sure, but a wolf could take me in a fight already. They're just wolf+. I've never cared for them. I have a full back tattoo that reads "Fuck Lycanz."
Anyway, you head north and you're instantly beset by werewolves pretending to be human to lure you into traps. This happens twice! you think you'd get wise to it. This leads to my favorite piece of Baldur's Gate dialogue so far, however, where someone entreats you to help avenge a fellow named Jondal and you can respond, "If Jondal is dead it is because he was weak and probably should never have been born." Tell me how you really feel Avellona!
You also run into a mage named Dradeel who is made of clay and after you meet him, Dradeel you will play. Not really, he's just the sole surviving member of Balduran's original crew. This guy owns. He tells the story of how Balduran's crew went wolf crazy and and tore everyone apart and he barely managed to escape, leaving his spellbook behind. And, get this, he's not actually a werewolf! Because of weirdo D and D magic rules, a mage without his spellbook is more or less useless, and this one has been surviving holed up in his shack, granted faint protection from his god. Not only does he give you the supremely useful Wolvesbane amulet, but when you return his spell book later, he leaves and you can dig through his stuff, revealing my favorite in game text, his cookbook. In it, he details experimenting with recipes given his extremely limited diet of poisonous roots and sightless fish. There's a recipe for cup'o'noodles in there. It's legit, guys.
Anyway, you're heading towards Balduran's Shipwreck which functions as the main dungeon in this branch of the expansion. And it sucks for an entirely different reason than Ice Island. The dungeon is just 4 small rooms filled with wolves and werewolves that immediately set upon you. They're cramped, which undercut the two strengths of Baldur's Gate's combat system: you don't have time to prepare and you can't do any area control. It's just a toe to toe slugfest that is going to kill the fuck out of your mages before you get a chance to react. I just ended up leaving my mages behind and sending in my front line trio, so I had to do this dungeon at half power. I'm not sure if that was the intended effect but if so, it's not a very good one.
So you get to the head werewolf and kill him and...wait a minute. Did I say werewolf? They've been wolfweres all along! Wolfweres, essentially reverse werewolves, strike me as super stupid. And they come into play later in a big bad way. So you have access to Balduran's logbook, the spell book, his sword (which is great, specifically against lycanthropes, of course) and "Balduran's Butterknife."
His log book is actually pretty interesting, functioning a bit as a Resident Evil style apocalyptic log, but without the silliness of having him writing literally up until the moment of death. Reading between the lines, after an adventure, someone on his crew was infected with lycanthropy and spread it clandestinely through his crew, gaining strength. At this point, the game is leaning a little too hard on the doppleganger/who can you trust angle, but I like the idea of literally THE legendary hero of this world falling to deception and dying alone in a far off land.
When you head back to the village, we get the first of the big twists. It turns out, the villagers are werewolves who are fighting against wolfweres. That old chestnut! There is a nice bit of moral ambiguity in that the village elder simply wants you to enjoy the gift she has for you. She's not outright hostile. She also implies that you have already been infected, but as far as I can tell, this never pays off.
Due to some wereinfighting, she runs off and the whole village turns against you, forcing you to hack your way through a town fulla werenasty, which is admittedly pretty cool. Ordinarily, the one nice guy who in town would lead you to escape but I made the mistake of flirting him into running off forever (at this point, I'm just trying things to see if I can), so I just wander around until Dradeel I do play. Dradeel shows up and shows you a secret passage to an underground werewolf maze.
Mazes again, bleh, and when you get out, you find the ship with Kaishas on it. She says she can't let you go because at this point, you'd send people there to exterminate the village (true) and then turns into a "Loup Garou" to fight you. At this point, I've dealt with all three subtypes of my least favorite monster.
So you kill her and get to the FINAL twist of this branch of the expansion. It turns out Mendas was actually a refugee from Werewolve's Island who sent you to retreive Balduran's artifacts as a ruse to retreive Kaishas, his mate. No matter how hard you try to explain that you had no choice, he snaps and attempts to kill you.
What a weird mix of cool and uncool. The monsters are lame but like any Shadowrun enthusiast worth his salt, I love being doublecrossed. The idea of cultural relativity comes heavily into play in that to Mendas, the legendary artifacts are worth nothing and function entirely as bait. And there is TONS of great foreshadowing. The little girl with the sense of smell, the fact that Mendas and Kaishas share the same accent, etc. Very cool.
But there's a lot of garbage there too. Mechanically, werewolves aren't that fun to fight and there are no good arenas to fight them in. More damning, I think, is the fact that this story does nothing with the primary strength of lycanthropy tales. The wolfweres (I feel stupid even typing that word), are just savage beasts, capable of deception but not humanity, and the werewolves, while some regret attacking you, ultimately turn into consummate mustache twirlers. There is no tension between humanity and the beast within.
Sort of a let down, all in all. But after a very brief B-side, next time, I'll be tackling Baldur's Gate's take on a prestige dungeon which is significantly more successful.
SIDE B: There Goes Baller Balduran
So, I want to briefly spotlight the character of Balduran. Mostly for completeness sake, and partially because this entry has been so long already that a few paragraphs on the driving force behind our wolfy adventures seems appropriate.
So, Balduran is interesting because he's an example of a successful adventurer in the game fiction who isn't beholden to game conventions. He'd make a fairly shitty protagonist. Yes, he's primarily a seafaring explorer, which would make cool Monster of the Week style adventures, but he's not driven by saving the world. He's driven like table top PCs: by wealth.
That wealth is why there's a city called Baldur's Gate now. After Balduran returned from his journey, he invested in his home town, which formerly was a lil village. In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, entire economies spring up around the deeds of heroes if they're appropriately mercantile. Sort of a neat little detail.
He got this wealth through good old fashioned exploration, discovering a place called Anchorome. After investing this wealth, he set off again, which is where he met his end. There's conflicting information, actually. According to the game (which seems to be canon), he was killed by Werewolf infestation in his crew. Others say that he was certainly killed by the Poscadars, which are a type of tall elf.
Anchorome has remained a mostly unknown honey pot, though Duke Entar (we'll talk about him in two entries) sent a group of Flaming Fist on an expedition which ended in absolute tragedy because they ran into an entire nation of Sahuagin. I'm pretty into Sahuagin and you can look forward to a creature spotlight assuming I live long enough to cover Baldur's Gate 2. According to this version of events, they discovered a fort which was Balduran's final resting place which was overrun with savage elves and "large, whale-like beasts." This rules and is way cooler than werewolves or wolfweres.
Regardless of how he died, in the end, let's pour one out for Balduran and who met his sad fate in pursuit of one last big score. Umbassa.