Nearly two decades ago, my CRPG character walked into a tavern. The barkeep told me of the tavern’s former owner and asked me to pour some wine on his gravestone. I went to the graveyard and downed the wine myself, only for a ghost to accost me.
Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader was no Baldur’s Gate 2 but BioWare and Black Isle Studios’ (now Obsidian) approach to choice and consequence shone through. With Larian Studios at the helm now, I’m happy to report that they shoulder this legacy with respect as they shake away its cobwebs in Baldur’s Gate 3.
Now cross the river of time to 2023. Hyenas cackle as they corner my D&D party in a cave. Two bystanders throw flaming potions towards the creatures like it’s a game of dodgeball. As my helpless Half-Elf bard looks on, a Gnoll Warlord growls before lodging two arrows into one of my allies.
Somewhere between despair and a save reload, I gauge the enemies’ Wisdom stat and cast a Hypnotic Pattern, charming every creature in front of me. One dead NPC and a few bruises aside, we made it. After spending considerable time in Baldur’s Gate 3 Early Access and 30 hours on the final release, I’m somewhere in the game’s massive second act. And yet, I feel like my D&D adventure has barely begun.
Perfecting the rock and roll formula
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a narrative triumph six years in the making. Larian Studios brings its own brand of turn-based mayhem to an RPG experience that rivals the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Cinematic storytelling, a tapestry of interwoven storylines, and tabletop-esque freedom to weave or snip said threads make this game a haven for RPG fans addicted to homebrew conflict. The sheer depth on offer competes with the D&D Forgotten Realms setting’s deepest chasms.
Hells, even reviewing the game has me at a crossroads. Should I start with the companions whose layers of backstories and clothing I have yet to peel away? Or do I go back to the D&D sheet-esque character creation before exploring Faerun’s detailed world? Its meaty turn-based combat and dice roll-based interactions with the world are also worthy of praise.
Before venturing forth, let’s start off with how Larian Studios brings our heroes together. Its character creator ditches the cheek width dials and elaborate customization for a smaller palette that decorates one of the game’s 11 races and 46 subclasses. All that effort for the game to start with a sharp-fanged tadpole entering your eye in a disturbing first-person view.
Baldur’s Gate 3 kicks off with a plot that instantly connects many of the world’s characters. Straight out of D&D lore, a mind flayer obeying the Grand Design infects you with a tadpole that will eventually turn you into a squid-like monstrosity with psionic powers. Even after your escape, the tadpoles form invisible plot threads between you, your companions, and Faerun’s inhabitants. Being infected also grants you unique powers that you can choose to give in to.
Be a sponge that absorbs all sorts of stories
The game’s opening act serves as an extended tutorial. But don’t let your guard down as seemingly unimportant characters can end up dictating the direction of your playthrough later in the game. Your actions or inaction both have ramifications, not just in the here and now.
The first act alone lets you in on turf wars and underground societies that decide the fates of entire colonies and settlements. Politics and moral dilemmas hold you hostage at every turn in Baldur’s Gate 3. Its second act tosses away all pretense of a fairy tale and dives straight into the kind of morbid themes that you’d expect from homebrew D&D campaigns. Take it from an inexperienced D&D Dungeon Master (DM). Creating stories is hard work, especially ones that grow alongside their players.
Despite Baldur’s Gate 3 being such a dialogue-heavy game, there’s a lot of worldbuilding that happens in ancient tomes, torn notes, and environmental cues. Being able to speak to animals or interrogate corpses can change a quest’s context entirely. So does conjuring a cat illusion to confuse ghosts or smooth-talking your way into godhood.
While I might sound like the game is filled with broad strokes of significant impact, Baldur’s Gate 3 excels at supporting these main plot arcs with personal stories. The game’s companions are up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever known, complete with not-so-hidden agendas and wavering moral compasses. These priorities clash with each other in remarkable ways, letting you determine how these conflicts play out. Learning that the mind flayer tadpole lets your vampire friend feel the warmth of sunlight made me wonder if this journey was even necessary.
Forgotten realms, unforgettable moments
Romances are among the game’s strong suits. Despite the brain worms and interplanar conflicts, this is a game about broken people in a broken world. Relationships with characters don’t always head into debauchery, with some companions discovering themselves as you work through their issues with care and nuance. It’s a big win considering you can team up with a walking time bomb, a Tiefling with an engine for a heart, and a literal devil.
And while the eagerness of some companions can come off as desperate, milder moments had me smirking and playing along. Watching them overcome their harrowing pasts and prejudices felt like a personal achievement.
Vulnerable moments between characters that I would have brushed off as inconsistent as a child now feel real with the weight of adulthood. Excellent voice acting from even supposed throwaway characters gives their performances gravity and purpose. Despite that, there were times when the game’s romances felt like they gave in to fanservice and prioritized player agency over the companions’ motives. It’s a minor gripe that didn’t impact the rest of the game for me.
Performing actions that align with their backgrounds net you inspiration, a resource that lets you reroll dice rolls at, well, critical moments. You know, in case your expert Rogue rolls a natural one (on a d20 die) while disarming a fire trap. To be clear, I evaded that trap by replacing a trapped magical artifact with some rags, Indiana Jones-style.
While my bard was able to convince bloodthirsty worshippers to slay their god, I still found myself in combat situations. If you’re wondering, yes, a bard can play music as the brawls go on. While dice rolls are played out in dramatic fashion when you engage in conversations or interact with the world, they’re just as important in a fight. Every combat encounter feels deliberate instead of a developer throwing 12 red imps into a magma pit and calling it a day. No two battles can be won with the same strategy.
While I don’t want to ramble about saving throws and armour class, remember that armour only determines the chances of you being hit. This adds a sense of tension to every move, more than most turn-based games. That also means no fight or conversation feels like filler material.
Back with the hyenas, the Hypnotic Pattern spell has a higher chance of working on beings with less Wisdom. It’s a great feeling when thought-out experiments pay off. And even when they fail, there’s usually a way out of it without reverting to the last save. Unless you drink the Sleep potion instead of throwing it on an enemy Drow ranger, I suppose.
Learn to spell again
Baldur’s Gate 3 features an incredible amount of hand-crafted environments built with choices in mind. This plays into combat incredibly well, with players being able to alter the terrain itself to gain an advantage. While I am a grease and fire bolt enthusiast, my brother prefers the good ol’ water and lightning combo.
And while pits of magma are great for shoving enemies into, a Duergar dwarf almost had the last laugh as he pushed my cheeky vampire companion off a cliff. Battles in Baldur’s Gate 3 can spark grim humour like that. Right before my companion’s body disintegrated, my Wizard used a Dimension Door scroll to dive in, rescue the body, and return unscathed. Tempted by the loot of another burnt victim, I used my staff’s Thorn Whip to nab his gear like a JoJo character.
Instead of mana, casting spells is limited by D&D’s archaic spell slot system that asks you to rest if you want to restore spell slots. Run out of spell slots and your mage will be reduced to a glorified fly swatter outside of free cantrip spells. While the game’s level cap of 12 might sound tame, each level brings with it some exciting perk or spell for your characters.
While I’m not one for min-maxing damage builds, every level-up offered an opportunity to dress up my characters in the most lethal builds known to Faerun. I quickly found myself scouring my spellcasters’ magic portfolio to find the most appropriate spells for any situation. And the genre-standard fear of levelling up the wrong way is solved by an NPC at your camp who respecs characters for a small fee.
Plot it yourself
Quests retain much of Dungeons & Dragons’ whimsical and deranged charm. But that goes hand-in-hand with outdated ideas like goblins having an “evil scent.” It’s an issue that I’d take up with Wizards of the Coast, owners of the D&D license, not Larian Studios. Fortunately, your race doesn’t heavily play a role outside of traits and the occasional bit of blunt racism.
Your interactions with random NPCs can lead to a variety of outcomes. Their believable flaws and the stakes they held in their little worlds lent the world a sense of humanity. I was telling my brother about a cheery bard before he gave me a deadpan look. His character lost control and killed them for no reason. My brother had picked the Dark Urge origin character and had given away some of his playthrough’s control to bloodlust. Talking about our unique stories reminded me of legendary Gen 3 Pokémon discourse before the prevalence of the internet.
Boring loot hunts aside, scouting the area for clues has the potential to alter the context of an entire quest chain. Often, you’ll understand a bad choice’s consequences hours later. Unlike most RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t always wait for you. Taking a rest after seeing a man stuck in a gas chamber is going to have unpleasant results.
When tiny actions like these have consequences, the plot-moving ones are even more spooky. Be ready to question what you believe in. Or adopt the “it’s not real” mindset and throw caution to the wind. Sometimes, you’ll need to rest to progress quests like that of the curious visitor in your dreams. Some of these quests have obscure paths to success, demanding patience, luck, or a guide. This makes their endings all the more satisfying.
Between an RPG best hits remaster and a renaissance
The game has been remarkably stable on my GTX 1660 Ti outside of some frame dips. Besides the rare glitch that sends me back to the last save, there’s little to fault in Baldur’s Gate 3 from a performance perspective. Streamlining the flexibility and dice-based odds of a tabletop experience without it being hostile to newcomers is a triumph in itself.
With a massive map full of side quests and secrets to explore, Larian Studios is a generous DM as long as it doesn’t involve combat. While fights can feel difficult even on the Balanced difficulty, thinking from different angles to gain an advantage is usually enough to solve them.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is not limitless but it accounts for nearly any crockery you throw at it, even more than Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin 2. Its threads of continuity hold my attention in a way few games have this year. I immerse myself in a familiar BioWare-esque dream once more, one where I can charm hyenas, toss potions, and push hags off cliffs.
Reviewed on PC. Game provided by the publisher.