Update #2: August 11, 2023
I've sunk another 20-some hours into Baldur's Gate 3 since we last chatted, and I'm nearing the end of the gloomy and spooky Act 2. It's getting harder to go into specifics without spoiling major elements of the plot, but the shift in tone and visual style has been welcome and refreshing. The shadow-shrouded lands I am now adventuring through have a completely different vibe and set of challenges from even Act 1's Underdark.
What has really stuck out to me the most at this point in the adventure is the care and thoughtfulness with which the encounter designers are torturing me. I mentioned in the last update that no two combat encounters felt the same, but it's more than that. It's like each one is carefully designed to make me want to scream and throw my monitor out the window in a way I've never seen before. And I mean that in the best possible way.
If this were a tabletop D&D game, I would have to conclude that the dungeon master is a right bastard. But I still gotta hand it to him for the creativity and craftsmanship with which his sadistic bullshit is shaped. One fight will involve teleporting imp creatures who garrote my party members before carting them off to separate locations, preventing spellcasting and forcing everyone to fend for themselves. The next might be against some terrifying insectoids who leave everyone literally petrified with fear, so I have to find a way to win without being able to move. At no point have I been able to fall back on a repetitive, grinding routine. And I love that.
It also continues to amaze me how almost nothing in this enormous game feels like filler. Every random house I wander into or side quest I pick up rewards me with a memorable, unique, handcrafted experience. In a recent encounter, I was able to skip an entire boss fight by having our barbarian win a drinking contest against a powerful being. It's not just the amount of stuff there is to do in Baldur's Gate 3 that is exceptional, it's the amount of stuff that is actually worth doing. That’s set it apart from the likes of Assassin's Creed Valhalla and, dare I say, even Tears of the Kingdom. This type of love and care really is what I want to see big-budget CRPGs focus on in the future, even if they have to sacrifice quantity to make it happen.
Ascending to level 8 and picking up the druid Halsin (yes, the guy from the famous bear sex trailer) as a permanent companion have given me even more combat options, though I'm not thrilled with how druids work overall. For all the, er, hype over Halsin's bear form, it seems like it kind of sucks in combat. When he transforms he has only 10 AC and about half as many hit points as in his humanoid form. Some of the higher-level transformations, like saber-toothed tiger and owlbear, may be a lot more useful, and I might just not have gotten the hang of him yet, since he joined my party when I had already gotten used to the other characters for about 70 hours. But I was looking forward to having my bear boyfriend be my new tank, and it seems like he's just not that good at it.
I'm at an odd point in the story, still, where I've definitely had more new questions arise than I've had answered. But looming just ahead is Moonrise Towers, where I've been promised by various characters that I might finally come to a better understanding of what's going on. And judging by the ominous drums in the distance, that’s coming not a moment too soon.
Update #1: August 8, 2023
I'm now about 55 hours into Baldur's Gate 3, with the first 50 of those having taken place almost entirely within the first act – which has been considerably expanded and cleaned up from what was available in Early Access. My party is now level 7, and much like in tabletop 5th Edition D&D, hitting level 5 was a huge moment at which the combat really started to feel satisfying. Getting extra attacks for my martial characters and big area-of-effect spells like Fireball for my casters has greatly expanded the destructive tactical combos I can string together, allowing me to best even some truly terrifying boss monsters with my wits and careful planning. The first few levels were a bit of a slog, but the payoff has been worth it.
I've gotten to know my companions better as well, and yet they remain full of surprises. I'm also dating most of them at this point, and I haven't been punished for my anime protagonist harem antics yet. Also full of surprises is Baldur's Gate 3's map of the Sword Coast, which is so packed with varied and memorable side quests that I've been searching every corner of every shack and meadow. Usually, I'm at least rewarded with some loot. In some cases, I'm treated to an entire storyline that I might have missed entirely otherwise.
Dealing with a mischievous hag or making a very unlikely ally out of the last creature you would expect to be sympathetic to my plight have been among the main highlights. But there hasn't been a single one that left me bored or underwhelmed, as though it was there simply to pad out the campaign. The creativity and care with which every little side adventure is constructed is delightful. And Larian has made excellent use of the vast D&D bestiary to ensure that no two combat encounters ever feel the same.
I'm also still encountering some bugs, but the first post-launch patch seemed to fix some of the more persistent ones, like the weird lighting glitches in dialogue scenes. Some have stuck around, though: My journal’s recounting of one side quest that I resolved by knocking a person unconscious claims that I both killed and spared them, leaving them in a state of narrative superposition that you'd need to read Schrödinger to make any sense of. I also had a save become corrupted to the point that I'd crash to the desktop every time I loaded it, which lost me about 45 minutes of progress. Luckily, this has only happened once so far.
As I march on into Act 2, I've really hit a stride with Baldur's Gate 3's mechanics, but I also feel a bit dejected and aimless as all of the promising leads I was following to get this tadpole out of my head have dried up. I can only hope that new possibilities await me in the city of Baldur's Gate itself. And maybe some nicer clothes, considering I'm sitting on a huge pile of gold and our only options for apparel in Act 1 were the druid commissary, GoblinMart, Mushroom Town, and a smuggler cave. When I finally stroll those glittering streets, I'll be back with another update.
First Impressions: August 3, 2023
Baldur’s Gate is estimated to clock in at around 100 hours on a first playthrough. Review copies were distributed this past Sunday morning; this first draft you’re reading was due the following Wednesday. I am, sadly, not a Time Wizard (yet), so I'm going to do my best to help you make a day one buying decision based on what I've played so far and update this article as I go along with new thoughts and insights until we can roll credits. At around 22 hours deep – still within the first act that was available to Early Access players – I can say that I more or less love Larian's latest high-fantasy behemoth.
One issue video games often run into when trying to adapt the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons on the tabletop is the freedom and imagination you get to express in overcoming problems using real-world logic. And while no game will probably ever match that level of freedom, Baldur's Gate 3 is a big step forward from the likes of Skyrim or Dragon Age. And that goes such a long way toward making the world feel more real and making me feel really smart for coming up with unconventional solutions.
If something looks flammable, you can probably light it on fire with a fire spell. If an enemy is standing in water and you zap the water, it does about what you would expect. You can get to a lot of secret areas by climbing and jumping. Just about anything that looks like you should be able to pick it up, including most furniture, can be picked up and even thrown if you have enough strength. This level of care extends to the people who inhabit the world, as well. Everyone has a name and is fully voice-acted – including, astoundingly, all the animals. Playing through as a ranger with the Speak to Animals spell, I have yet to find a single bird, ox, or wolf who didn't have something to say. I was even able to talk a ferocious owlbear out of eating me.
The writing is strong so far, as well. (My biggest criticism of Larian's Divinity: Original Sin games was that they didn't really succeed in making me care about the plot.) Baldur's Gate 3 starts with an appropriately epic intro featuring a squid-like spaceship being chased through magic portals by dragons, and the player characters becoming infected by mind parasites that will slowly turn them all into brain-eating cthulhu monsters called mind flayers if they can't find a cure. The voice acting across the board has been excellent, too. And while I don't exactly like all of my traveling companions, they’re all very interesting with lots of secrets and rich backgrounds I've only begun to unfurl.
And while Faerûn may be a more grounded and serious world than Divinity's Rivellon – and I definitely prefer it that way – there are still some quirky and off-the-wall side quests to vary the tone. At one point I accidentally walked in on a female ogre and a bugbear about a quarter of her size… um… spending some quality time together. It didn't end well for anyone, but I got a good laugh out of it after I did my best to will that image out of my mind forever.
I have run into several bugs, but nothing game-breaking. In one area, a goblin I spoke to failed to play her dialogue lines, the camera hung on a shot of one of my party member's faces for far too long, and then a different party member from the one who had initiated the conversation was forced into the negotiating role – something she was very poorly suited for. There are also some cases of clothing on models clipping into their bodies when they bend a certain way, lighting glitches in certain dialogue scenes, and other visual weirdness. It could all be filed under annoyances. We've also gotten two large bug fixing patches since the review build dropped, so I'll go back and check if these issues are still present once the final launch version of the code is available.
Combat has been improved from the Early Access version I first played in 2020, and it feels much more fluid and flowing now. That being said, it does suffer somewhat from trying to be such a faithful adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, a system that works better on the tabletop than it does in the digital realm. There are a lot of buttons to learn about and deal with even at first level, and every caster you add to the party makes this worse. Leveling up a spell-focused character is an exercise in decision fatigue. There are simply too many spells, many of which I feel like no one will ever use. And the amount of damage enemies do in comparison to your health pool at lower levels can make even small battles really stressful.
At the same time, death has been made somewhat meaningless – you meet a character fairly early on who can resurrect any party member for 200 gold, which honestly isn't that much. I would have much preferred a Baldur's Gate 3 balanced around a lower risk of death, but with higher consequences if you do kick the bucket.
Progression also feels a bit stingy. There are only 12 levels available out of the 20 in 5th Edition, meaning you will level up 11 times over 100-plus hours. Gaining a level does feel like a significant event, but the fact that my party is still only level 4 after over 20 hours of play feels kind of glacial. I have been rewarded with other power increases like magic items along the way, and those can make a big difference. But many times I've completed a big quest, seen how little it filled up my experience bar, and sighed in disappointment.
The art and music, though, I have almost no complaints about. Both bring the Forgotten Realms to life as a colorful but grounded high fantasy world with everything from humble halflings to terrifying red dragons rendered in a style that feels realistic without becoming uncanny or weird. It's exactly how I would want an infinity-style CRPG in 2023 to look. The character creator is wonderful, too. I spent at least an hour or so messing around with the different playable races and all of the visual options available to them.
On the whole, I really am loving Baldur's Gate 3 so far. It definitely has some blemishes, from minor bugs to a combat system that I don't exactly adore at lower levels. But I’ve been waiting 14 years for another alignment of the planets like Dragon Age: Origins, when an old-school CRPG got a big enough budget to look like a high quality animated movie – but the design hadn't been completely steered in the wrong direction in a misguided attempt to reach a different market like the later two Dragon Ages. This is the closest anyone has ever come to recapturing that magic.
Check back in the coming days for more of my thoughts as the story progresses, and stick around for the final review in the coming weeks.