Baldur’s Gate II – Some Thoughts

Intro

So I never got into some of the praised classics from the late Nineties and Two-thousands until fairly recently. I finished, for example, Deus Ex back in 2011 and Final Fantasy VII in 2016. I only finished Baldur’s Gate in 2017, and now, in 2018, I’ve managed to complete Baldur’s Gate 2.

The logo for Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

All of these games have held up quite well despite the passage of time in my opinion, despite some of their janky mechanics from a modern standpoint. It can easily be seen why they are considered classics. But today I wanted to focus my post on Baldur’s Gate 2 because I felt rather strongly about it. The feelings were both positive and negative. I will begin with the positive and go on through to the obnoxious things.

The Basics and The Positive

  • The Setting

The setting itself is rather interesting after having played the first game. You’re still in the Forgotten Realms, a campaign setting in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. This much should be obvious considering that this is a sequel. In the first game you kept hearing about the big, bad nation of Amn and about how they were threatening with war the city-state of Baldur’s Gate. Now you get to see it and its surroundings in more detail.

The city of Athkatla, the capitol of Amn, is where most of the game is spent, for better or for worse. It’s a large city with cool architecture, but otherwise it’s not all that different from the city of Baldur’s Gate… with one exception: the Cowled Wizards. I will go onto why they’re the worst thing a bit later, though after a bit of research I now find that they might not be as bad as I thought they were. Moving on. The city itself offers a several districts to explore and you’ll spend quite a few hours there. The surrounding countryside of Amn is also explorable, but there are only a handful of areas that you get to go to after you’ve been made aware of them by some of the NPCs. Further areas are explored later on as the plot progresses. One of these areas is the Underdark, because a high-level adventure would not be complete without delving into that delightful hellhole.

  • The Not-So-Serious-But-Still-Pretty-Serious Tone

The tone of the game might not be for everyone. While it has a serious, dark main storyline, you will encounter some silly and even fourth-wall-breaking characters throughout the game. The dialogue options that are given to your characters also can range from sensible and immersive to nonsense insanity. Being able to ignore and never use the ridiculous dialogue options, I found myself enjoying the tone. It didn’t take itself too seriously and allowed for some relief between the dark main story plot points. One of the mainstays and fan favourite characters is Minsc and his “space hamster” Boo. You can get rid of him very easily and try to keep immersing yourself in the world. But then again, the occasional comments he gives can be pretty easily ignored in my opinion. Most of the time the tone remains serious in the end.

  • The Story

As this is a direct sequel, some spoilers will ensue. The story continues from where the first game left it. You find yourself imprisoned and tortured by a wizard by the name of Jon Irenicus for some nefarious purpose. He keeps appearing to you and reminding you, the main character, of your demonic heritage and urging you to give into it. Your character is what is called a Bhaalspawn, the offspring of the now dead (evil) god of murder. This heritage is the main reason why the main character’s life is so eventful. The protagonist and his remaining allies Minsc, Jaheira, and Imoen escape the imprisonment of Irenicus and find themselves in Athkatla. Irenicus chases after them and as unauthorised magic use is illegal in Athkatla, the Cowled Wizards come in to apprehend him. Imoen attacks Irenicus with a spell out of anger, so she is taken away by the wizards as well. Now the party has to find where Imoen was taken and attempt to save her.

The story took a clear turn for the darker from the first game and I welcome this change.

  • The Improvements Over The First Game

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the pathfinding had gotten better over the last game. Better does not mean perfect however, as the game still has issues with pathfinding in some places, such as cramped indoor spaces and stairs. But it’s a lot more tolerable. The game also looks better and I personally think that its art style holds up fairly well even today. The Enhanced Edition version of the game might look even prettier, but I wouldn’t know as I played the original. Perhaps my favourite improvement of the lot is the fact that the game now pauses when you are in the inventory screen. Thank you to whomever did that.

  • Sense of Urgency

I think there was a lot more of a sense of urgency in Baldur’s Gate 2. There are a lot of events unfolding as you explore the world and some quests are thrown at your lap at your most inopportune moment. For example, I was rushing on to a place outside of the city to try to save a keep from a troll menace due to how urgent it had been made to sound. What had me going there without delay was the fact that I knew that in the first game there were timed events that could determine if your allies just flat out left you because you were wasting time and not getting to what you promised to do for them. Anyway, on the way to the keep, I encountered a man who had been poisoned. He urged me to return me to a friend of his back in Athkatla, so I did, my character being a character of a good alignment. It would not have made sense character wise to just leave a man to die, right? So the keep was ignored for the time being. I took him back and kept getting more urgent-sounding quests on my way there, which lead me to prioritise some of them and try to do them as soon as possible, as failing some of them meant the potential death of a party member. So the early game was very hectic, but I found it thoroughly refreshing. Most modern RPGs are too scared to give you time limits to back the urgency of the description given to a quest.

The Annoying

And on to the things that frustrated me throughout the hundred hours I spent with this game.

As previously mentioned, unlicensed magic use is illegal in Athkatla. This made for several frustrating encounters (all of them) on the street levels of the city. The first one is that every spell that you cast outdoors prompts a hostile visit from the wizard cops. They will attempt to kill you for even the most innocuous of spells. As an addendum to that, the Cowled Wizards never appear to lift a finger against your magic-casting enemies outside of pre-scripted events. This is what made the whole affair the most annoying: it’s just there to make your life harder.

But because I was a law-abiding citizen, I always ended up reloading a save until I got through an encounter without casting a single spell because I was a good girl (the protagonist was a woman in my case). So I never found out during gameplay that each time the Cowled Wizard agents are killed, they send in stronger wizards until you kill their strongest. That is when they leave you alone. Alternatively you could have gone to the government district and purchased a spell-casting permit. The latter solution only makes sense, but I have no idea why I didn’t even consider trying it.

So while this frustrated me to no end, I suffered it mainly due to being blinded by how annoyed I got by their constant interference.

  • Vampires

While most of the enemies in the game were even at their most annoying tolerable, vampires really pissed me before I had proper counter-measures for them. As you know, vampires stereotypically drain something from the living, be it blood or something else. In D&D, they drain your life force, which in the game is represented by them draining your levels. Each level drained makes you weaker, disables the abilities for the levels you have lost, and ultimately kills you when the level drain causes you to reach level 0. Without restoration spells and constant resting, these guys will end you. Later on the vampires are a nuisance at best, but early they just outright kill you fairly easily as each of their hits drains a level. Some vampires even drain several levels, so you’ve got to keep a constant eye out for characters who are losing levels. Protection from negative energy saves you from the drain, but your access to it is fairly limited in the early game. So yeah, vampires were a pain in the neck (heh).

  • Protagonist Death

What really frustrated me in some combat situations was the if your protagonist dies, you instantly lose the game. This is despite the fact that you can resurrect the dead in this world and the deaths of other characters can be undone with a resurrection spell as long as they weren’t somehow disintegrated or otherwise made unresurrectable. So no matter how well the fight is going, you have to, at all times, keep your protagonist from dying or all of your effort has been wasted in a fight.

  • Save-or-Suck and the Underdark

To anyone who has played RPGs for some time, the concept of save-or-suck should be familiar. To those not in the know, save-or-suck refers to spells, skills, and effects that have a saving roll (fortitude, will, reflex, etc.) that you have to pass or things happen to you. It can be something as simple as becoming stunned for a few rounds of combat or becoming disintegrated into a pile of unresurrectable dust. Save-or-suck is very much the latter in the end game, likely causing your character to die either directly or indirectly. Save-or-suck makes for some exciting moments in the tabletop version of the game, but it was rather frustrating in Baldur’s Gate end game.

So you eventually get to the Underdark. Lovely place, really. In here you find the most obnoxious of save-or-suck enemies that I personally know of: Illithids. Also known as Mindflayers, these tentacle-faced freaks have psychic powers and they use those to stun your characters. After becoming stunned, they make a few attacks and their targets are just dead as they use their tentacles to suck out your brains. So you MUST have something that makes a character immune to mind-affecting abilities or they’re dead.

Another frustrating denizen of the Underdark is the Beholder. These multi-eyed flying potatoes are some of the most annoying things in the game. As long as they face their main eye at any casters, their spells will automatically fail and each of the eye stalks that they have cast obnoxious spells at random at a fast pace. One of the spells is disintegrate, which means that a fight with a beholder is a matter of how fast you can kill it. You can become immune to disintegrate by becoming immune to death spells and effects and you can reflect most of the eye stalk attacks because they are projectiles. So they can be dealt with rather easily in the end, assuming your party and item composition are in order. That doesn’t make them any less frustrating.

Save-or-suck is an inherent problem with the game system that Baldur’s Gate is adapted into, so I am not blaming it for any of this. I even like save-or-suck to an extent as it works both ways… unless your opponents just have innate immunities or annoyingly high magic resistance. Never the less, it’s just something that comes with the territory.

  • The Cheesing

Many fights in the late game, particularly against dragons and spell-casters, require you to cheese the everliving crap out of the mechanics. What I mean by this that if you want to make life tolerable, you have to use the mechanics of the AI against itself. Every enemy caster in the game has a limited number of spells they can cast, just as you do. Some of them are extremely strong and it’s a bad idea to let them cast it at you. So you summon of bunch of creatures with your own casters to suck up the spells. This lead me to personally have almost every possible summon spell prepared on my casters. In some cases I found that it simply wasn’t possible to win some fights without first draining the enemy spells or just having excessive numbers used against them. This often made fights trivially easy. The cases where they weren’t made trivially easy were quite enjoyable in how challenging they were, I think however.

Conclusion

Ultimately, despite all the annoyances that I have listed here, I greatly enjoyed the experience and felt even a bit sad that the story of my protagonist came to an end. I rarely grow this invested in a character that you have to personally make, someone that doesn’t have a pre-written character of their own, but I am not that surprised by this affection. I did spend 200 hours playing with the same character throughout the two games after all. The game experience was smooth even from the perspective of a modern gamer and I think the experience might be even better with the Enhanced Edition, but I can’t say for sure. If you’re into party-based RPGS, the world of Forgotten Realms and want a game that is not serious all the time, I can heartily recommend Baldur’s Gate 2.

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