50 Favorite Video Games: #1 Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC)
Developed by: BioWare
Published by: Black Isle Entertainment/Interplay Entertainment
Never ever EVER have I been so engrossed by a video game the way I was and still am by Baldur’s Gate II. Once upon a time, before there were things like Steam, computer games used to come in these huge boxes that would have like four or five discs in them. You had to sit there and watch it install because you would have to change the discs in and out during installation. To make matters worse, if you wanted it straight up installed on your computer so you wouldn’t have to swap discs in and out, you’d have to surrender a whole gigabyte of space. I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but my top of the line PC had like 50 gigs total, so it was quite a lot at the time. Still, it was well worth it this time around, as a friend gave it to me (only to try and take it back when I told him how fucking awesome it was). As I fight back fervent desire to simply shout my favorite parts at the top of my lungs let me tell you about what made this such a unique experience for me. If you’ve never heard of it, Baldur’s Gate II is based around the 2nd edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons. As the main character you’re tasked with picking a starting class from a plethora of options each loaded with subgenres with different flavors. There is never a game I have played so much of the opening section for, as I was constantly trying out each class to pick exactly which one I wanted mine to be. While I could simply brute my way through the game as a standard fighter, I could always liven this up as a Kensai, whose forsaking of armor beefed him up extremely in the proximity of swords or as a Wizard Slayer who eschews magical equipment in favor for immunity from magic damage, something that becomes inherently useful in the later stages of the game. No matter what your choice the game allows for what I would call a great deal of flavoring, able to build your character into something nominally unique as to how you want to play it. It can be a lot of fun to simply mess around with the restrictions and see just how far you can get in some of the more seemingly suicidal classes and then watch as you slowly become a nigh omnipotent god. All the classes are fairly balanced to what you want to play, but what is carried along with this is something that doesn’t become apparent until you’ve actually played the game a bit. Since this is a D and/or D game, you will form a party with up to six other people to aid you in your quest and the game is a little cheap in this regard. While there are a good number of characters, the different classes and therefore, skills they possess, is limited. It is always useful to have a fighter/mage/rogue/cleric set-up, but depending on which space of these you occupy, you might find yourself lacking in this department, with only one pure thief and mage in the game and the rest cross classed to make them less powerful and overall useful. It especially got my goat that the only thief you can level up SPOILERS betrays you and then dies, leaving me without a reliable trap sniffer and lock picker. You can make your way around a bit without them, but who knows what you’re actually missing. To get back on point, the opening sequence is so phenomenally done, setting up the plot of the game and the direness of the situation without ever making demands upon your play style immediately. It becomes a fun little game to try every single type of weapon or spell and just see what you like the best before you commit to it. If you say… decide to play a Bard and realize singing isn’t your bag, you know rather quickly as the opening bevy of enemies is a pretty well rounded assortment of the types you’ll be fighting throughout the game and you’ll need to be able to work your play style to get through them.
But then you will actually have to play the actual game and this is the part where I get to talk about both the gameplay and the story. A short hand for the story might as well just be, “It’s a Bioware RPG, so you know the writing is great,” but I guess that’s not enough. Following the events of the first game (don’t worry, you don’t need to have played it) it is revealed that the main character is one of the many children of the Murder God Bhaal and possesses some of its power, resulting in his capture by the wizard Jon Irenicus. Making an escape, the main character is joined by his half-sister and childhood friend Imoen, another Bhaal spawn and two former party members, Minsc and Jaheira. Once out of the dungeon you enter the vast world of Amn and begin to unravel exactly who Jon Irenicus is and to rescue Imoen from his grasp. As a good RPG should, the missions that follow manage a balnce of set piece moments within the story and a deeper exploration of characters. The characters themselves are a great mishmash of personalities and loyalties, ranging from Mazzy, a Halfling who wishes to be a Paladin, to Minsc, a ranger out for revenge for the death of his charge with the aid of his miniature giant space hamster Boo, but my personal favorite are Edwin of Thay. Edwin is your typical power arrogant bastard, having risen through the ranks of the Red Wizards so quickly that his only drive is to show off just how much stronger he can becomes, resulting in numerous conflicts with other party members. However, a mission later in the game sets up a rather dynamic character arc, as a magical artifact he seeks ends up transforming him into a woman, one of the groups he has looked down upon. The game really lingers upon this, making Edwin spend many in game days in this form, with answers on how to change back meted out slowly. Eventually a member of his order manages to help him out, only for Edwin to murder him in cold blood for seeing him so weakened. Yet, Edwin holds back from attacking the party, as their witnessing of his vulnerability seems to humble him a bit. He returns to being a bastard, but can’t quite muster up the same pomposity to match it, as the shelter of the party allowed him to remain safe when he felt the most out of place. Many missions take on this same sort of vibe, with nearly any recruitable character having a memorable arc they’re involved, such as the paladin Keldorn wrestling with his wife’s infidelity in the face of his vows to his order and Jaheira confronting her husband’s death and what that could mean for possible romantic entanglement with the main character. Baldur’s Gate II often makes you engage in lofty choices, ones that are as simple as ignoring the problem and confronting it and then shakes the foundations of the game by giving you depth with the characters. This is no more apparent than the interactions with Jon Irenicus, who I can only describe as Lex Luthor mixed with Darkseid. He is assuredly powerful, but he can’t seem to shake the inadequacy of himself enough to finish off the main character, the blood of Bhaal proving an intriguing catalyst. When SPOILER ALERT it is later revealed that he too is a Bhaal Spawn, we see the issue of how Irenicus wishes to see the potential such blood could bring, as the more human aspects of the player present a divergent route from the all-consuming drive towards the Murder God Throne he aspires to. Irenicus lives to torture the party because they can potentially stop them, but remains so curious as to how they could achieve this, constantly driving them into dangerous situations so that he can see if his plans will truly work. A good story is often made by a good villain and Irenicus is a foil that only encourages depth within character development to mirror his unfeeling nature.
Of course, you’re playing a game, not reading a damn book… so gameplay. The bulk of gameplay could be described as exploring an area and then engaging in combat, with a few puzzles thrown in here and there. My love of micromanaging in a game is legendary (which in retrospect, makes it odd that I didn’t put any RTSs on this list) and boy howdy does Baldur’s Gate II let you do that. I’ve already talked about the party aspect and how this can effect gameplay, but really, it is a large part of strategy. In a fight, especially against a tough opponent, you need to be able to think clearly about what each party member can do and how this will benefit you. While going in swords swining is sometimes an option, other times might see you forced into the perilous position against enemies that are made magically invulnerable, specifically the goddamn liches. Liches barriers are powerful and if you leave them too long, they’ll stop time and reign a flurry of instant death spells upon you. I recall a very specific fight with a lich that you could summon from a crypt and the two different approaches I tried to this. The most direct route was to use a spell called Breach to take down his barriers temporarily and wail on his frail form until he was dead. But the first time I did this, I was too low level for the spell. And instead, I hatched a much more clever plan of having the thief lay a bunch of traps on his summon spot, so as soon as he appeared, the traps would spring and kill him. Baldur’s Gate II makes combat a game of patience and finding moments to use a character correctly. Cernd, a druid, has the power to become a werewolf, but only for a limited time, making you pick your moment if you’re in an especially hostile area, while Haer’Dalis’ sword dances are most useful when you’re becoming overwhelmed. The game allows you to pause and think about your moves and have them laid out in succession but there’s a certain something I know is the hallmark of great combat: button clicking. I mentioned it in my talk about Diablo II, but Baldur’s Gate II is the same way, we’re you constantly smashing the attack button even though it won’t do anything until the previous attack’s turn ends, resulting in your adrenaline pumping at times because you’re not sure if you’re going to survive thanks to your input. Sticky fights like those with the dragons make this apparent and difficult to deal with, but wholly more satisfying when your strategy comes together and has you win the day.
SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT! NO MORE TIME! I love the pre-renderd backgrounds and the leveling progression to. There, that’s out of the way. Anyway, Baldur’s Gate II is one of the few games I would not only play multiple times in a row but also have simultaneous files going on so I could have parties made of all the different characters with the main character having different classes and making different choices. It has its share of problems, such as how being evil has no benefit, but it is a game that suchs you in, making each quest and character distinct enough that you invest in them and worry about what combat might end up doing to that situation. It was a game I could explore endlessly and am growing the urge to explore again.
The Moment: So so many. Fighting dragons is neat and using the saver file carry over from the original game through its expansion, into Baldur’s Gate II and it’s expansion was super great, but let me pick a smaller moment. The thief you recruit, Yoshimitsu ends up betraying you, having sided with Irenicus partially against his will. The player ends up fighting him and taking his life, resulting in you coming possession of his heart. What happens next is one of those great choices, as you can easily discard it, but depending on how you understood his betrayal, you have the option to lay him to rest. Traveling to a specific temple 9I forget which), you speak with a priest and he will allow Yoshimistu to be released from his betrayal and travel to the afterlife. It’s a great moment, as it really makes you think about why he did what he did, what Irenicus had on him and how deep the near destruction of your being is driving you towards. Do you become more like the vengeful Murder God that sired you or do you continue on to righteousness?
Games It Remind You Of: Tons. There ‘s the first game and Baldur’s Gate II also has an expansion, The Throne of Bhaal, which isn’t as in depth or good, but still enat to play through. The original Baldur’s Gate just got an HD remake and is available on Steam for around 20 bucks. Please please PLEASE consider buying it so that I might get an HD remake of this game too. There were also the Icewind Dale games, which has a similar vibe but let you make the whole party yourself. They were a little weaker because you missed out on the cool character development, but still fun if you liked the engine. Then there was Planescape Torment, which was different take on it all in the more colorful setting of the Planes, with the Nameless One attempting to discover the secrets of his own immortality. It might be equally as good as Baldur’s Gate II in many ways and is super well written, but I’ve just always preferred Baldur’s Gate II to it. Finally, the Dragon Age games, which basically use a less provoking interface in combat to achieve a better sense of what characters are doing within in a similar universe. I like the Dragon Age games, but I can hardly make myself play them, as my focus eventually wanders off. Still, they are pretty much are what Baldur’s Gate II would be if you made them today.