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Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn

The Baldur’s Gate franchise is the most popular single-player RPG series out there for good reasons, even though it’s been a few years since its release. While more recent Black Isle games, notably Icewind Dale II, have vastly improved graphics and interface and others like Neverwinter Nights have changed the playing field entirely, BGII stands out for its tremendous scope and exceptional depth. BGII’s complexity, intertwining subplots and host of myriad characters are enough to constitute a novel, one which you get to shape and play out instead of merely reading. To me that’s the essence of RPG that few others have been able to capture. Reinforcing this feeling, at many points in the game you must make decisions that have far-reaching consequences. Furthermore, you can also complete many quests using the good or evil approach. You may decide how to proceed based on whether you want to be good or evil; there are non-player characters (NPCs) of both alignments ready to assist you.

BGII’s strongest asset is its quests. While some quests are short and easily completed, most are substantial, highly interesting, and many engender their own sub-quests. For instance, one quest requires you to infiltrate a thieves guild suspected of treason; to gain their trust, you must finish several tasks for them; after you gather evidence of their treason, you’re asked to go back and eliminate the guild leader; if you’re successful, you then have the option of becoming the new leader and manage your own guild. It’s possible to finish the game doing only the minimum handful of quests, but you’d be missing a big part of the game. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to complete all quests in one run, because the quests you get depend on the decisions you make. For instance, you can side either with the thieves’ guild or the rival vampires’ guild, each of which comes with its own storyline and quests. Most of the quests are initiated at the beginning of the game in Athkatla. Subsequently, quests become smaller and more linear.

Characters are tightly intertwined with quests. Since you start off with only one player, you should add additional characters to your party. Characters range from elven cleric/wizard to human ranger/stalker. Some are carry-overs from BG1. Some are found only if you accept certain quests, and some come with their own quests. You can interact with virtually any character in the game. Each character has his/her own history, alignment, and personality. From time to time, characters in your party will initiate dialogues with you and with one another, most with some amount of actual voice dialogue. Some interactions are quite funny; I’ve chuckled many times with Minsc and Jan in my party. One feature that I suspect to be very popular is romance with characters in your party. If you meet certain conditions, a male player can romance with one of three female NPCs and a female player can romance with one male NPC. Romance are simply additional dialogues that you go through during lulls between battles. They don’t add significantly to the plot, but they’re an extra dimension that adults may appreciate.

A new feature in BGII is the “stronghold”. The stronghold you get depends on your class. For instance, the fighter stronghold is a keep outside of Athkatla, while the thieves stronghold is a guild headquarter in the Docks district. Strongholds are gained after you complete a certain quest; they generate gold for your coffers and come with their own mini-quests at intervals. They’re not essential to the story, but they add immensely to the illusion of role-playing. Another great new feature is familiars, small pet-like creatures that follow you and obey your orders. There are many tricks you can do with familiars, but mostly they’re just cool to have.

If you haven’t played BG1, the premise is that you’re the illegitimate child of Bhaal, the God of Murder. After you defeated your nemesis at the end of BG1, your party was ambushed and taken prisoner. You wake up in a dark dungeon and find yourself tortured and apparently experimented upon by an unknown wizard. The game begins as the dungeon are invaded by hooded assailants and you are released. Now you must fight your way out of the dungeons and discover the identity of your captor and thwart his nefarious plan. You will explore the vast city Athkatla as well as travel to many exotic destinations such as an extra-planar prison, an underwater Sahuagin city, the Underdark, the elven city Suldanessellar, even the Nine Hells! There are innumerable dungeons and ruins along the way for your to explore. If any game is able to truly capture the dungeon exploring feel of D&D, this is it!

You’ll encounter a virtual encyclopedic list of monsters, including golems, vampires, liches, beholders, mind-flayers, werewolves, demons, and dragons. Some are immensely powerful and require much tactical planning on your part. Mastering spells and understanding their effects and limitations are a must. This is a hard task as there are 300 spells of all types in the game. Enemy spellcasters have powerful magical protections that make them virtually invincible. However, every protection spell has some form of counter. To successfully attack them, you must use the appropriate counter-spells to weaken their defense. Game play is fast and furious. Battles are not as large as those in IWD2 and are more oriented toward magical duelling, which is equally if not more fun.

The sprite graphics and animations are unspectacular by modern standards, but they are no longer noticeable once you become immersed in the game. Background graphics is gorgeous eye-candy, however, particularly the Sahuagin city, the Underdark, and Suldanessellar. The soundtrack and voice-over work are superb.

BGII has very high-replay value thanks to its breadth and richness. If you like RPG games, this one is a must-have.

Originally posted March 26, 2003 on Amazon.com