05/03/2019

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

You must gather your party before venturing forth.




I have been looking for an isometric RPG that suits me just fine for a little while now. I've not been actively looking, but I've been aware that they've been coming since the likes of Planescape: Torment, and it seems that the next on the 1001 list has been described as 'probably still the pinnacle of the Western RPG'.

Based on that, here's hoping that Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is the kind of game I'm looking for - a deep story, lots of gameplay options, engaging to both the new and old players...

It's time to roll up another a character.




Fun Times


According to the big book of backstory in the opening cutscene, we are one of the children of the Lord of Murder, who I think was some kind of deity and we are his potential fleshy vessel, should he ever come back and need a body. We'll hope he doesn't. Hey, maybe we could become the spiritual successor to the Lord of Murder ourselves. The Duke of Manslaughter, maybe.

The ideas for a character are already hurtling through my head, making me delusional about my abilities. I must reign them in. I mustn't be too obvious. The Duke of Manslaughter is just a bumbling idiot, yeas. He means no harm, but harm comes to all who encounter him - in time.

Clearly, then, I am a crazy looking halfling thief, surviving on the streets because there isn't really a career path for becoming The Duke of Manslaughter. It'll just sort of happen. At some point. I hope.




Ready to begin our quest, we find ourselves in clich├ęd RPG starting point number 2, a prison. Sort of a testing lab-cum-prison kinda deal, but a prison nonetheless. We're held captive. It's prisony enough for me.




Our captor is confident in our abilities to cope being magically set on fire but is soon distracted by some commotion, leaving the room empty for an escape, which comes in the form of our friend Imoen.




I don't know much about Imoen, mostly because I haven't played Baldur's Gate, where our party comes from, but we can glean snippets of information from some lengthy dialogue options. Lengthy not in the Planescape sense of 'when will these guys stop talking?', but in the 'we're actually going to have plenty of options, most of which are written quite conversationally, rather than interrogatory.'

Anyway, we happen to be in agreement that backstory can wait and that escape must be the first thought on our minds. After freeing the rest of the party at least.




Errr, yes... that's exactly what I did, Minsc. Enraged you enough so that you went berzerk and opened the bars by yourself. I'm fairly sure I picked dialogue options that wouldn't annoy you, but this is for the sake of the plot, I suppose. So be it, welcome to the party, Minsc and Boo.

Don't forget to talk about Boo.

Boo is Minscs pet hamster, who he holds in the highest of regards. The image of a huge fighter and a small rodent conjures up imagery of Lennie from Of Mice and Men, only Minsc isn't mentally disabled, making it all the more ridiculous that he talks to a hamster.

It's supposed to be funny, of course, and in parts it is. In this part, it isn't. It's a grown man talking about kicking the butts of his captors. I thought I was playing the delusional one.




Last up is Jaheira, and I'm going hunting for a key for this cell of hers. Movement around the place is as simple as you'd expect, just point and click and whatever characters you have selected will do their best to get there. You can put them in formations and rotate their final placement, it's that in depth, but we're bumbling idiots right now, so anywhere in the vague area of interest is fine by me.




A large golem stands guard in a nearby room, and he does such a good job of looking threatening that the very idea of attacking him puts me right off doing so. He even goes as far as to say that he won't even bother getting us himself, instead leaving that job to the other defence systems, I suppose you might call them. Gulp.

If he's not going to do a thing about it, then I'm not going to pass up that table full of weaponry. Characters can wield both ranged and melee weapons of all sizes and shapes, some locked off to certain classes or races, some therefore obviously better in one pair of hands than in another, and finding this out will involve either a little trial and error or a little knowledge of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Despite having an AD&D starter box on the other side of this room, I don't know enough about this particular flavour of D&D. I'll have to go by the colour coding - red: this character can't use it for whatever reason. Excellent.




Also finding a jail cell key amongst the weaponry, we can unite with these strangers from the last game and start escaping this prison properly.




The first enemy I encountered turned invisible and I panicked and ran as it chipped away at our health. I'm playing on Novice difficulty, where monsters hit half as hard if I recall, which is probably the only reason I won't have anyone die in this first run (spoilers). I want to see what Baldur's Gate II has to offer at my own pace.

Legging it into anywhere else, descriptive text fills the screen at just the wrong moment, so I cross through into this body-filled hallway and turn to add another one to the pile.




Combat is, at its simplest, also a case of pointing and clicking, but what's hammered into players (or should be) is that Baldur's Gate II has a pause button that allows you to freeze time, select each character one by one, choose what you want to do with them - move somewhere specific, attack a certain target, cast a spell - then unpause the action and watch your plans play out in real time.

I suppose this is to sort of reflecting the turn-based nature of the tabletop RPG, yet not have it be a turn-based game. I like the idea of it, especially when different characters will have different class abilities and spell selections to really fine tune events.

But this is me we're talking about. Planning is... wishful thinking.

Soon, I get interrupted by someone who knows Imoen and wants to talk to Frank Cavil. I regret naming my character Frank Cavil because everyone who mentions it mentions it in full. It really messes with the appearance of the dialogue, some of which is fully voiced. It's a little jarring to have them stop mid-paragraph, but understandable when there are this many words spoken in the game.




What was the point in that?




Fighting through some goblins, we uncover more about this place. It's not a prison, is it? It really is some kind of laboratory, and it's got some little side-quests in the making. Power cells, you say? I'll make a note of that. Maybe my journal will, automatically. I never checked it. I could have written notes on the map screen too. I never did that, either. I'm a bad adventurer, I really am.




Frustrations


See? Trap Sprung. I've got two thieves in the party, both with the ability to detect traps, but to use this ability they've got to have it turned on, they've got to do nothing else but walk (everything else, like engaging in combat and maybe even conversation turns it off), and then they've got to wait a few seconds before even detecting anything, presumably based on how hard a trap it is to find.

If it's not something on the floor, it's something on the chest or draws or whatever you're trying to rummage through. I hope getting electrocuted was worth it.




Eh, someone could make use of it. Never pass up a +1 when you've only got a +0, I suppose.




After three-quarters of my party falling unconscious to some colourful rays, I see the rumblings of another side-quest. This golem can help us open a door somewhere if we can help him move in general. Noted, Golem. I'll be back when I'm back.




More goblins gave me an opportunity to test out my spells. Entangle does what it says on the tin, and I was hoping to catch a goblin in place, making it easier for the party to hit. After lining up my actions and unpausing the game, Entangle was a little more entangling than I imagined...




To my knowledge - and I suspect I'm wrong - there's no real way of knowing what a spell will do. I mean the names give them away, sure, but the scale of their effect? Casting time? Range? I know weapons have stats buried in their descriptions, but do spells? I briefly skirted over the magic pages - classes can memorize spells into a spellbook and so on - but didn't see anything immediate, which again means that players ought to know about the tabletop system somewhat, before really finding their feet here.

Again, I suspect that with time, effort, and reading, players can find out exactly what Entangle would have done in this situation, but I was on the easiest difficulty, hacking and slashing at anything with a red circle underneath their feet. Planning never got into the room I was in, let alone thrown out of its window.


 

Pausing and unpausing the action every few seconds might make for tactical superiority, but it reminds me of those game sessions where it would take three hours to complete two rounds of combat. Well, I don't think it was ever literally that bad when I played on the tabletop, but you get the idea - video games have the ability to crunch all the numbers in the background, allowing players to enjoy the outcomes as soon as they decide to do something.

Here, in my daring escape from prison, I'm in a library dishing out health potions to the party through the inventory screen, managing my encumbrance so that I don't have any movement penalties. It's been close to an hour of playtime, and I've already had to rest twice, if I recall, in an attempt to heal some wounds. This escape has taken at least 16 hours of in-game time. How's that for feeling slow and laborious?




Further Fun Times


Yet for all its faults, I was still playing Baldur's Gate II. I was still charging into battle, I was still hoovering up all the useless but hopefully sellable crap lying around, I was still walking face first into spike traps. I was still trying to escape, though, and that felt far away.




I found this guy, or former guy, not sure which, in a tube somewhere. He used to work for the Master, our captor, and was promised eternal youth but instead subjected to an everlasting hell. Rielev just wants to die.

Rielev. I've heard that name before...




Thanks for the movement crystal thingy!




Thanks for opening the door to somewhere, Golem!




Oh dear God what is this and why are half of my party incapable of pathfinding their way in here to deal with it!?




I should be keeping track of who has what weapons, how many arrows they have left, what their positioning is on the battlefield, but no. Gang up on it and hit it with anything and everything is currently serving me well. I know it won't last but I just want to get out of this place.




Eventually, after disarming some traps and chatting to some Dryads about acorns, I find a portal key, and then a portal, and I finally get to leave this cursed place.




Not today, Yoshimo. It's taken me two to get this far, and you want me going through some kind of fiendish Crystal Maze to get out of the next level? Yeah, it can wait, thanks.




Final Word


It had taken me an hour and a half to get to that portal, and I still hadn't figured out everything about the first area - that magically locked door will irk me until I open it, I know that much. But then, I probably also know that whatever behind it will be stuffed into my inventory and forgotten about, so it's not a problem, really.

Baldur's Gate II is indeed a deep and complex RPG. The writing doesn't strike me as awe-inspiring, but the number of responses to it probably does. I'm sure a great many ultimately lead to the same place so that the plot marches on, but it's all about the journey, right? Being able to take your own journey through an RPG is what makes that RPG special.

In the time it has taken me to get to this next level, the game could have been speedrun three times, but that's just a fun fact for you to digest. This game can feel slooooow, and yet everything about it is pretty snappy. You don't have to open silly shaped windows like in the Ultima series to move things about your party, you just drop something on someone's face and there you go. If you pick up a shield, for example, your inventory screen will tell you whether you can equip it by highlighting where it goes. No highlight? Don't even bother moving it, it won't equip. Give it away.

Shortcut keys to the journal, the map, your spellbook and so on are just a single button press. Character abilities are graphically displayed when they are selected, and agonisingly slow tooltips will reveal which shortcut they can be called up with too.

For someone who gets really stuck into reading item descriptions and maximising their party abilities, or for someone who likes to plan ahead and tackle dungeons as they would a turn-based title, then Baldur's Gate II might attract, and might attract a lot.

What it does, it does well. I can see why they call it the pinnacle of the genre. It looks pretty darn good, though not ideal in terms of text size, for example, and could do with a zoom option if there isn't one. The voice work and grunting and spell sound effects and whatnot polish off the finished article to cement its status as a must play title... but...

If you just like hacking and slashing your way through an RPG, like I seem to want to do, then I'm not sure how far through Baldur's Gate II you can get. I'm sure it could be approached without ever needing to pause the action or to barely pause the action, but because picking anything up and managing your inventory to make sure you're hacking and slashing to your absolute best takes so long, and combat isn't always guaranteed to be around the corner, your mileage may vary.

Personally, I think Baldur's Gate II is well worth playing. It feels jam-packed, is perhaps the best way to describe it, though I've not exactly gotten far into the jam to know that for sure.

Will I continue playing? Probably, yes. Will I end up watching it instead of playing through to the end? Probably also a yes. In another time, this could well have been what I was brought up on. Instead of tabletop RPGs as video games, I played tabletop RPGs and video games. The merging of the two isn't quite doing it for me... yet... but Baldur's Gate II is a damn fine place to find out what you do and don't like about the genre.


Fun Facts


Each department had guidelines to stick to in order to create Baldur's Gate II in the way that the developers wanted to make it. The writing guidelines included things like making sure players had at least three responses at any point, and cutting out swearing and accents, and trimming down what was said so that characters spoke only a sentence or two at a time.

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, developed by BioWare, first released in 2000.
Version played: Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition, PC, 2013.