Despite the fact that I’ve written other articles on Baldur’s Gate 2, I’ve never yet written a full review of the game itself nor the update with the Enhanced Edition. I think it’s about time I put my thoughts down on the overall experience with this game not just with the Enhanced Edition but even the older version that I had.
The first thing I want to say is that I have played this game far more times than I did with the original Baldur’s Gate. I think the story for Baldur’s Gate 2 was more compelling and Shadows of Amn managed to balance too much openness with providing a great deal of flexibility in the way one could quest. The end result is that I’ve always felt motivated to complete Shadows of Amn compared to the other parts of the Baldur’s Gate series.
While Throne of Bhaal added quite a bit of power, the actual story itself fell flat for me and the extremely linear progression wasn’t nearly as compelling compared to Shadows of Amn. The only new NPC was Sarevok but there was zero reason to ever invite him to your party beyond having a powerful character and for party banter.
More than that, Throne of Bhaal’s story and game play feel rushed with the last few boss fights growing more compressed as though the development team just ran out of time or a budget. The monk monastery quest is so shallow that I don’t even see why it was placed in the game while your fight with the end game boss in Melissan, while intense and difficult, has little beyond a few high level encounters. At least with the Demogorgon encounter, you still have the option of exploring the world since that story line allowed you to play from either Shadows of Amn or Throne of Bhaal.
The Enhanced Edition itself mostly made the game a little more modern with the graphic options and zoom capabilities. It also apparently resolved some bugs and provided a great quality of life feature in saving your game to the cloud if you purchased it through Gog.com.
However, the content itself still felt lacking. While four new NPCs were added along with their respective quests, the writing wasn’t at the same level. The voice acting seemed really lacking, especially when you encounter Hexxat the first time in the Copper Coronet or the little girl you meet during the wild mage encounter.
More importantly, those new NPC quests were either buggy themselves or just didn’t seem all that great. I might eventually give them a try on another run but in general the bugs are feature killers to me, especially when the game itself is pretty buggy at times and still suffers from seemingly random crashes.
The one really cool feature that I thought was great with the Enhanced Edition was adding several kits. The three that have my eye for a future run are the Blackguard, Dragon Disciple and Dwarven Defender. If I have one complaint about the pre-Enhanced Edition versions, it’s that the game lacked a reason to play evil parties. The three new kits make me want to modify the game to try out an evil party by using EEKeeper and converting Edwin to a Dragon Disciple and Korgan to a Dwarven Defender/Cleric (or Thief) multi-class, thus giving me some new reasons to try a different play through and an evil party.
But going back to the main review of the game as a whole, what I like about it is the fact that it’s very re-playable. While using something like EEKeeper sounds like cheating, the reality is that modding is what keeps a game alive once the content itself is no longer being sustained by the original developers. So for me, I enjoy tweaking the game to see how I can change the game towards my liking.
What I don’t enjoy about the game is the immense amount of micro management. Inventory management is a bit of a nightmare especially as you fill up on items or need to swap gear around. Things like jewels, potions, scrolls, ammunition, etc. are a huge headache. Also, keeping track of quest items at times can be awful. I feel like 80% of my time in the game is micro managing my inventory, which is pretty bad considering that the game really isn’t that huge relatively speaking.
Another big design flaw is individually managing party members. For starters, moving around the map is unnecessarily painful. The only remedy is to simply cheat and give everyone Boots of Speed. My theory on why ToB ended up having shorter content in scale is that they ended up figuring out that reducing the map size would improve the speed of the game play from all the complaints of how slow characters would move.
Also, coordinating attacks can be a big nightmare. Some battles are such clusterfucks because it’s impossible to see the enemy you want to focus upon. At the same time, pausing to ensure that your character isn’t dead, injured or still casting a spell ends up being a terrible experience.
This aspect becomes exponentially awful when it comes to traps. The amount of traps on the floor is ridiculous and you end up being forced to slow down to wait for your thieves to detect them. Sometimes your bumbling party will inadvertently walk over a trap even though you may have paused because the stupid party AI tries to reorganize people into a certain position.
Then there are areas that have both traps and deadly monsters. A good example of a shit encounter is the Devil Wraith in the level 3 of the Watchers Keep where you’re placed in the middle of a room filled with traps and a high level spell casting wraith. Often what happens is that your detect traps ability turns off so you don’t get a chance to disarm it before stepping over a trap and fumbling around. It’s really hard to accept bad UX design as a way to create artificial difficulty.
Of course, a lot of this happens because one might take a full party of six. Some of this can be avoided by just playing as a solo character. But that’s one of the positives with the game where you have the flexibility to choose the size of your party. I know there are speedrunners out there who go solo and skip content but that’s just one instance of play.
I really enjoy going through all the content (or rather as much as I can). Earlier, I would create my own custom parties because the NPCs in the game generally are awful by default. However, to really appreciate the game from front to back, it’s encouraged to take a full party of NPCs. Otherwise, you miss out on some great dialog and side quests.
But as a 2nd Edition AD&D style game, Baldur’s Gate 2 does suffer from an old school mentality where things like initial character creation utilizes whatever the dice drops. I honestly think this part of the game stinks just because of how huge of a disadvantage this puts you without modifying the game. This aspect of random rolls for your initial ability scores really is better left for hardcore players who think they want a challenge in doing these play throughs.
The same could be applied to the design of the NPCs in the game. The NPCs have pretty badly rolled ability scores that make a self-created party seem more appealing. Also, most just have some generic, boring class or combo that limp through the game without finding items to help boost their otherwise pathetic scores.
For instance, strength is a critical ability because it also determines how much you can carry. For weak characters like Aerie and Viconia, you end up finding ways to compensate through items like Gauntlets of Ogre Power. The same can be said regarding low constitution scores which influence your hit points. In the later game, this aspect matters a lot because high level spell casters can easily wipe out your low hit point characters through spells like Power Word Kill.
Now, where the game frustrates me to no end is the so-called random rolling system. Considering that high level characters should be less affected by certain abilities due to very low saving throws, I find that many enemies easily do tons of damage in breaking through high armor class, piercing my magic resistance or causing me to miss saving throws and send my characters in a random fear. I know this game fucking cheats.
The only real equalizer to me (beyond the sword in the game) is through some help with EEKeeper. Even when you set the game difficulty low, the game still manages to cheat. In some cases, the game had been patched over time to prevent you from using certain cheese tactics like Cloudkill spells.
But the game does do a lot to really not be AD&D like at all in terms of how it further tries to boost the difficulty up in its own manner. Some of the most offensive issues in the game are mages, where you have an unreasonably large pool of arch mages and liches. Now, in a typical AD&D game, you would NEVER see this many arch mages in a campaign EVER. But every fight with an enemy spell caster ends up having them with an unreasonable number of defenses, Time Stop and instant death spells with almost guaranteed fail saves on your part.
I read that one person’s grief with the game was that they put it squarely in the name of power gaming. And yes I suppose that is part of the issue. But on the other hand, if you look at what the game represents, it’s you becoming a near god-level entity through your Bhaalspawn heritage.
So the high level encounters are justified because it gives you a taste of really utilizing many end game type of mechanics. A comparable game in AD&D at this level was the Bloodstone series, especially the fourth installment. In that game, the player was given the option of playing a deity (they had a few NPCs in the back that were heroes like Perseus). Like Baldur’s Gate 2, The Throne of Bloodstone was pretty merciless in discouraging DMs from fudging bad dice rolls.
However, in a near parallel to Baldur’s Gate 2, there were critics of the Bloodstone series, especially The Throne of Bloodstone, who pointed out that the game design was inane due to the ridiculously high level tactics employed. But the counterargument to these naysayers is simply that these games were designed for high level game play and those who wanted to experience the true power gamer style.
Realistically, actual AD&D campaigns never lasted that long. Getting together a group of people consistently is always a challenge. Add to the fact that a DM has to prepare material and people need to take significant time out from their busy schedules ensured that starting from a mediocre level of 1 would probably mean that the group rarely would reach that much further.
So games like The Throne of Bloodstone I see as a one shot type of game where you’re encouraged to either use the pre-rolled characters or just roll a high level party and spend a few evenings trying to get through. Not everyone is going to play on a daily basis, grind up all that XP and see the real high level stuff in any realistic manner.
What is nice about Baldur’s Gate 2 is that it does satisfy that power gamer’s itch. If you look at all the encounters and content, you can safely say that you get some of the hardest monsters in the game as well as the most legendary magic items around.
But I still think that combat system really isn’t that great for what it could be. The real time aspect I think ruined what could have been a far better experience given the way AD&D works. The game is very combat oriented and I found magic mostly to be used as a buff or manner of removing the enemies’ buffs.
Part of that problem occurs because of how the AD&D 2nd Edition rules changed how magic resistance works and no longer would scale the damage of certain spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt. In the original edition, magic resistance would get lowered once characters exceeded a certain level. That would allow magic users to affect high level creatures like a demon.
The 2nd edition rules really gimped out the player to where you felt neutered all around. In Baldur’s Gate 2, you’re far too dependent upon using spell removers like Breach, Spellstrike, etc. to really be able to make use of damaging spells. Because of that, I found that the more effective route was to just use the Holy Avenger or Keldorn to dispel the buffs to allow my fighters to hack away at opponents.
Compare this situation to say the Pool of Darkness Gold Set from back in the day. In that game, magic completely dominated. A spell like Delayed Blast Fireball would hit really hard and pretty much was necessary for clearing tough opponents. But what made it so good in that game is that it continued to scale even when your mage hit the maximum number of spells that he could cast.
So I would say that the 2nd Edition rules for Baldur’s Gate 2 really sucked. While kits were interesting, they pretty much would gimp out a character (mostly fighters) by eliminating a lot of core abilities. Like a Kensai couldn’t use armor and be prone to energy drain unless he managed to dual class with a mage and surpass his kensai fighter level and employ an Amulet of Power.
On the other hand, the way Baldur’s Gate 2 worked out managed to really balance classes out. So you could take advantage of situations that the game made unique such as a cleric/ranger multi-class being able to use druid spells. There are no perfect classes in Baldur’s Gate 2 but you do have to understand the mechanics to really maximize the gear and abilities in the game. That’s the part that makes the game interesting for me.
Story-wise, I do think this is one of the better CRPGs out there. Irenicus is one hell of a villain and they did a good job subverting traditional good vs evil aspects. Like when you work with the Fire Knives or carry out their thieving tasks, it makes you question your alignment. Or giving NPCs a lot more flavor to their characters. I mean, Minsc is unlike any ranger you could ever meet.
The thing about Baldur’s Gate 2 is that there is a very dark atmosphere around the game. It really doesn’t matter what type of character you choose because you feel haunted by what you are, what’s chasing you and what you might become. This dark atmosphere is very oppressing and when you finish certain areas like the Underdark, the Red Dragon quest or Bodhi, you truly feel relieved because you know what’s expected.
What’s also great about the game despite this oppressive sentiment is that it has a sense of humor. The sense of humor never becomes too prevalent but the areas that it appears is quite remarkable. The banter between the NPCs for instance, Edwina, Noober/Neeber (Heya!), the gentle Spectator and a certain reference to an old character show that the game doesn’t always take itself too seriously.
But the game also has a lot of heart for a CRPG. Some of the NPC quests are heartfelt such as Keldorn prioritizing his duties over his wife, Jan’s abused sister and Jaheir’s constant reminder of her loss of her husband. The best part are some of the epilogue moments for the NPCs where there are admittedly a few tear jerker moments.
The only thing I really dislike is the conclusion with the Throne of Bhaal. I think the writing there is extremely weak, there’s too much forced dialog, the encounters are pretty one dimensional and the game is far too linear. Worse yet, it just “ends.” Some other CRPGs allow the characters to continue exploring but once you finish the game, there is no more content to explore. I don’t really count the Black Pits as content that I feel is worth exploring at this point (I might try) just because it’s flat content to me.
But the game overall is just a lot of fun to re-play now and then. For me at least, I feel the first half of Shadows of Amn is the most fun just as you go from being a pleb and start advancing through acquisition of gear and levels. The ability to try different party combos and modifying the base game through systems like EEKeeper motivate me in returning periodically every time I get that itch.
Probably, the only other complaint I have is that I still dislike occasionally relying on a hint book or the internet to perform certain tasks. It’s not a must have thing but it does slow the game down just going through maps and trying to remember where a trap is or what the answer to a puzzle might be.