A Gateway Drug To the Imagination
Everyone has a book, movie, or video game that has a special place in their hearts. The actual medium doesn’t matter but the story or characters tantalized you enough that you wanted to experience more. These were our gateway drugs and are things that both tantalize the imagination as well as enspell the spirit. In this case, I’m going to tell you about a game called Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate wasn’t my introduction to fantasy or even Dungeons and Dragons but it was something that, nevertheless, kept pulling me back into the world despite the fact it was more or less an “alpha” version of what Bioware would eventually achieve with their far more polished Dragon Age setting. I’m going to discuss the plot of each game in-depth so if you care about spoilers for a twenty-year-old game, I recommend you go buy the Enhanced Edition for PC or console then come back in about a hundred hours.
Baldur’s Gate (1998)
The premise was you were a convenient orphan who was raised in the library-castle of Candlekeep. You could be a man, woman, elf, human, or whatever that was any number of professions. Freedom was maximized even if your story would probably indicate you would have been learning either how to fight or how to shoot fireballs in the version of Faerun’s Library of Congress.
Unfortunately, for Gary (as I named my protagonist), he has the problem of being a Chosen One. Not Chosen for anything good like the Dragonborn of Skyrim or Nezzarine. No, he is the child of Bhaal the God of Murder. Bhaal has been dead, a rare status for a god, for decades but his evil essence was passed down to all of his mortal descendants.
This is part of a complicated plot to resurrect himself as the surviving Bhaalspawn will kill each other off like immortals in Highlander. The survivors will grow stronger from each person they kill as well as each Bhaalspawn, justifying D&D experience, and eventually the last will become the new God of Murder.
The Highlander influences are actually pretty thick as your opponent is Saverok, your half-brother who is basically the Kurgan. They should have gotten Clancy Brown to do the voice instead of Kevin Michael Richardson (no shade on Trigon and Goro, though). Saverok is smarter than the Kurgan, though, as he’s doing a complicated plot to start a war where he’s supplying both sides with weapons as well as corrupting the iron ore so he has a monopoly on steel. It’s not your typical fantasy villain stuff and while you thwart him, I have to say he’s actually one of the smarter bad guys in gaming.
Part of what I like about is that it’s only from level 1-10 that you play. Most games go much-much higher. Yet you’re fighting Kobolds, Gnolls, skeletons, and giant centipedes rather than liches as well as other horrors. You can build a party from a couple of dozen NPCs, many of whom don’t get along at all, and while they don’t have much to say–some leave a big impression. For example, I will always love Imoen and refuse to accept she’s my half-sister when my character was fully in love with her.
No Kentucky jokes. Only we can do that.
Siege of Dragonspear (2016)
I think it says just about everything you need to know about how Baldur’s Gate touched so many lives that they eventually released an expansion for the first game ten years later. Specifically, eight years after the sequel was done. It’s common enough to do a prequel to games but how often do you have an interquel? That requires a level of fan dedication and love that the developers believe exists to know all the characters as well as their complicated weird plots.
The Siege of Dragonspear is designed to bridge the gap between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadow of Amn where the protagonist goes from being on top of the world to a hated outcast despite saving the world (or at least Sword Coast) from Saverok. You do, indeed, start off as living in the Ducal Palace of Baldur’s Gate, beloved by all (though my in-game reputation was absolute crap due to killing a few hundred guards), and spending time with his beloved sister Imoen.
Unfortunately, the reward for a job well done is to do it all over again and Gary is called upon to slay the Joan of Arc-like figure leading a crusade across the Sword Coast. No one is entirely sure WHY the woman is leading a crusade, but her followers are looting and pillaging in the name of all the gods. Which, given this is the Forgotten Realms, is ridiculous. The gods hate each other. So you have to get the band back together in order to lead an army to slay her and disperse her rebellious forces.
With ten years of game technology advances, the game looks visually spectacular while remaining an isometric top-down RPG. The dialogue also gets to take advantage of the fact that we know where all the characters will end up. The game is heavy on foreshadowing and contains one of the last performances by the amazing David Warner (AKA Batman: The Animated series’ Ra’s Al Ghul and Jon Irenicus). The protagonist’s dialogue options also get a lot “sillier” options, which implies the events of the first game have driven them to become a snarky bastard.
A sense of doom hangs over the expansion and the funny thing is that it makes the story much-much better, which shouldn’t be possible for two such classic games. The fusion isn’t always one hundred percent perfect but it’s close enough. In the end, no matter what you do, someone good is going to get hurt as well as the line between good and evil being blurred.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
The sequel to Baldur’s Gate is one of those stories that manages to improve on the original with a stronger plot, stronger characterization, darker tone, and motherfricking David Warner. The protagonist has found himself kidnapped by a mad wizard, tortured, experimented on, and stripped of their soul.
David Warner’s Jon Irencius is really what makes this module. An exiled elvish archwizard, he is possessed of a complex and interesting backstory that would give a George R.R. Martin protagonist pause. The protagonist isn’t left behind, though, as his relationships with his various associates are allowed to grow considerably. Baldur’s Gate II is where the option to have romances with his or her companions arrived. While some of them were undercooked, especially for female protagonists, others like Viconia have become iconic characters.
If there’s any flaws in the game, it is the fact that the story of the protagonist being the scion of Bhaal takes a backseat to its new villain. This is corrected heavily in the Throne of Bhaal expansion but, briefly, it feels like it is the Irenicus show instead of dealing with the fact you’re the child of an evil god. Which is a rare sentence. The deaths of the beginning of long-time party members Khalid and Dynaheir also added a sense of gravitas that players who didn’t let their party members meet the final death might have missed. Plus, you get to explore the Underdark and that’s always a plus.
It has little to do with Bhaal’s resurrection but is one of the best of Bioware’s stories even today.
Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Baal (2001)
Every journey must come to an end and the Throne of Bhaal is where it reaches its climax. Civilization is under assault by the last of the Bhaalspawn aside from you. The remainder of them have decided to team up in order to make sure there can be only one, sort of like the bad Tributes in The Hunger Games.
The Throne of Bhaal brings back the plot of your (un)holy heritage full force and the possibility of resisting becoming a monster or embracing that energy to become a god. It is a genuinely epic quest and one that suffers a bit for the fact that the bosses are somewhat one note compared to Saverok and Irenicus.
The Throne of Bhaal pulls out all the stops and you can effectively slay a god in its final levels or actually do slay a god (or the Lord of the Abyss) with the Demogorgon as a bonus boss. It also has a set of ending slides that manage to incorporate a wide variety of default states depending on your decisions as well as companions.
In the end, it is a suitable climax for what was a truly epic adventure until this point. The Baldur’s Gate franchise would continue after Throne of Bhaal as well with some books (that were absolutely awful–no offense to the author), comic books (which I adore), as well as an upcoming sequel with Baldur’s Gate III. The Enhanced Editions would also come out, making all of the games into a single epic adventure with improved graphics as well as game assets.
You can even play it on console.