After 20 years, one of the premier RPG franchises, Baldur’s Gate, is back and oh boy has the wait been excruciating. The D&D Forgotten Realms settings returns once again in Baldur’s Gate 3, this time helmed by Larian Studios of the Divinity Original Sin fame rather than the original creators, Bioware.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is available now, as part of Steam’s Early Access program (which we will talk more about later) and contains about 20 or so hours of gameplay which includes the game’s first Act, in a finished but definitely buggy state.
As expected from Larian, Baldur’s Gate 3 follows the Belgian studio’s take on the franchise rather than sticking to the gameplay aspects of the original games. If you have played Divinity Original Sin or Original Sin 2, you should be well familiar with their brand of turn-based cRPGs. Baldur’s Gate 3 adopts the same system instead of the real-time gameplay of the original.
However, make no mistake, for better or worse this is definitely not Divinity Original Sin. Sure it still follows the turn-based combat formula from D:OS games but it has been changed quite a bit to follow the D&D 5e (5th edition) rules in a somewhat rigid manner that might make certain aspects of the gameplay not fun for everyone.
In standard Larian Studios fashion, Baldur’s Gate 3 starts off with you making your character. The character creator is quite well detailed and offers an enormous amount of choices when it comes to selecting races, backgrounds and classes for your character. More subraces and classes will be added over time by the time the game has its complete launch. So there is quite a lot of replayability at hand here and creative freedom with the RPG experience.
The prologue chapter of Baldur’s Gate 3 starts off with you trapped on an enemy vessel, another setting familiar if you have played Divinity Original Sin 2. This time you are in the clutches of Mind Flayers and infected by a parasite that unless taken out quickly will turn you into one of them. Before your transformation is completed, the Mindflayer Nautiloid vessel is attacked and you must escape it before it goes down.
The combat encounters are similar to Divinity Original Sin games, however, because of its adoption of D&D 5e rules, Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t offer as much freedom and creativity in combat as compared to older Larian games.
Gone is the action points system which lets you perform multiple different actions in a single turn-based on their AP cost. The new combat relies on 3 new “moves”; movement, attack and bonus. Each of these moves can be used once per turn, and the limit further increased by certain skills.
For example, your character can move 9m in a single turn to go up to the enemy which consumes the “movement” part of your turn. Before ending your turn, however, you can attack the enemy once if they are in range and follow that up with a bonus action such as shoving them back or reverse the order and dip your weapon in nearby fire and then attack the enemy for fire damage.
This is the part of the D&D 5e experience that many players going into the game might not be too happy with or expected at all. The heavy reliance on dice rolls in combat makes it slower and a lot more brutal than the previous games. I can’t recall a single combat encounter after the prologue where I didn’t come out bloody and had to rely on some sort of healing.
Speaking of the end of combat, there is another big caveat with combat in Baldur’s Gate 3 that revolves around Spell usage. While you can perform basic attacks in every combat encounter, using spells relies on Spell Slots which need to be replenished between fights. While some slots can be refilled with a short rest, for which you just find a bedroll or seat in the wilderness and press the Rest button next to the minimap, some characters like Shadowheart require Long Rest.
This means that simply resting anywhere won’t help you and you actually have to return to camp and spend the day there before those characters can use their spells again. This throws a pretty big wrench in the combat encounters and might make them a bit dull compared to Divinity Original Sin games.
This sort of tactical combat certainly has its advantages as well especially for those who prefer a more methodical approach as compared to the chaotic nature of combat in older Larian games. The battlefield is no longer filled with pools of blood, water, electricity, fire and other various harmful or potentially harmful sources. The environmental interactions are still there, but a lot more grounded and make full use of the new Bonus points system. Why cover your sword in blood when you can just shove an enemy from a cliff and rejoice as they fall to their death?
Combat as well as out of combat interactions also involve a lot of dice rolls given the Dungeons & Dragons roots to create some interesting storytelling. However, if you have been frustrated by RNG in games like XCOM 2, you will likely want to pull your hair out after going through consecutive failed dice rolls in Baldur’s Gate 3. Maybe it’s just my luck but in my 16 hours of playtime, I have been annihilated numerous times by unsuccessful rolls resulting in the death of the entire party forcing me to approach each combat encounter with a somewhat more rigid and cheesy approach.
It’s not all bad though as the new Initiative mechanic allows for simultaneous team moves, allowing multiple characters to perform their moves within the same time frame leading to interesting combos and is certainly better than each character doing their moves one by one while the rest just stare at the screen.
I managed to sneak into a goblin cave, push the overlooking archer to his death and then halt the remaining enemies’ approach with two well-placed barrels of oil combined with lit torches so that the encounter ended without any of my characters taking any damage all thanks to the Initiative system in place. And to make sure I don’t feel too happy with myself and don’t forget that this is after all a D&D game where the fate of everything rests on a dice roll, the loot chest I opened immediately after killing those enemies blew my entire party up and forced me to restart.
My biggest caveat however has to be with the side characters in the game. Instead of being interesting and make me want to interact with them, every conversation with the party members in Baldur’s Gate 3 has made me hate them even more. It feels as if every resident of the land is an arrogant bastard who looks down on every other character and race. One exception to this, to a certain extent, is Astarion the Vampire in my party. He may be arrogant but is certainly more fun to talk to than others.
The problem with liking these characters doesn’t stem from bad voice acting or their design, in fact, the voice acting in Baldur’s Gate 3 is actually amazing and every character is a delight to listen to. It’s just that they all seem to be written in a way that they hate everyone and everything in the world with no compassion for others.
Since we are on the topic of voice acting, the cutscenes and cinematics in Baldur’s Gate 3 are a sight to behold. Given its early access state, the cutscenes do have animation issues and facial animations rarely work but the character designs and visuals truly shine in those. Thankfully these issues rarely occur during combat so if you die to a goblin party it’s probably because you messed up somewhere.
Larian Studios has a history of not delivering the most polished product at launch but they certainly keep working at it and the end result is worth it once all the bugs and issues have been ironed out. This can be evidenced by the fact that as of this writing, there have been multiple hotfixes for issues with the game within a week of Early Access launch. It is certainly a commendable effort especially given the track record of most Early Access games which take ages if at all, to be in any decently playable state.
Speaking of Early Access, another big issue that might be a deal-breaker for many people is the price tag of Baldur’s Gate 3. Typically, early access games launch with a lower price tag to give people an incentive to buy the game and shape its direction and help the developers iron out issues. However, Baldur’s Gate 3 Early Access launches with the full AAA price tag of $60. Essentially early buyers are paying to be beta testers for the game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since many games have similar “Founder’s Access” programs but there seems to be no incentive for players in this case, besides just getting an early look at what could possibly be another great RPG from Larian Studios a couple of years down the line.
So, should you dive headfirst into Baldur’s Gate 3 if you are itching for a new RPG? Well, that depends on how patient you are with the development process as the complete game could take at least a year to launch. Despite its strengths, freedom of gameplay choices and solid storytelling, Baldur’s Gate 3 can be difficult to recommend in its current state and price tag to anyone other than die-hard D&D fans who are familiar with the 5th edition ruleset and know what they are getting into. It may be the highly awaited next installment of the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but it is certainly not the Baldur’s Gate many people might remember and the pill to look past that nostalgia can be an expensive and difficult one to swallow.