In terms of sheer quality, Baldur’s Gate 2 is miles ahead of its predecessor, the annoying and generally sloppy Baldur’s Gate. Everything seems to be improved, and while there are still troublesome bugs in some versions (most notably, unpatched disc versions and the awful Enhanced Edition), it’s an experience that needs to be experienced to be believed.
Okay, that last part was a bit much
Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of only a few games that I’ve played through several times over the years, but I’m not affected so much by nostalgia because I stumbled on the series relatively late (’09, as memory serves). All I had in terms of a computer back then was a laptop with a low-quality integrated graphics card and a desktop computer that was even weaker than that. However, I saw my inability to run more modern games as an opportunity to catch up on older PC games—I had played on nothing but consoles until that point—and started finding older games that looked interesting and wouldn’t cause my computer to commit seppuku. This wound up being surprisingly rewarding, as I discovered Planescape, Max Payne 2, Arcanum, Baldur’s Gate 2, and many other amazing games during this period.
Before playing through Baldur’s Gate 2 again for this review, I hadn’t played through it in over a year. Some things were less wonderful than I had remembered, while my memories actually failed to do justice to the greatness of other things. All in all, it’s a great game, but that “needs to be experienced to be believed” line at the top is probably a bit misleading; this game isn’t for everyone, but for those it is for, there’s a massive amount of well-written and immensely rewarding content awaiting them.
But how good is BG2?
When I first played through Baldur’s Gate 2, I had a “thing” with this incredibly cute South American girl, and this served to teach me two lessons. The first lesson is to never, ever get involved with anyone from South America unless you’re also from South America. The second lesson I learned was that Baldur’s Gate 2 is such a good game that you can lose huge chunks of time to it, causing you to ignore (both accidentally and purposefully) even the most beautiful of latinas. There are very few forces on the planet that have ever distracted me from a beautiful woman, so try to understand the gravity of what I’m saying here.
Speaking of relationships: violence
It’s a good segway because latin women have tempers like you wouldn’t believe. Anyway, I figured that I’d start with the combat because it’s not only the thing that’s changed the least from the first game, but also the element that’s most likely to scare new people off. The combat can be a bit complex for those who don’t understand the concept of THAC0 and Dungeons and Dragons rules (and it should be mentioned that I don’t understand any of that, though I’ve picked up that putting armor on and watching the number go down is a good thing). Sure, I could look up a detailed breakdown of how the combat works and immerse myself in all of that D&D stuff, but that’s a serious commitment for how few games require it. Needless to say, the original Baldur’s Gate’s combat is a serious chore for those who don’t have a firm grasp on how everything works, but Baldur’s Gate 2 is much better in that regard. Not only do your characters feel more powerful and capable in the sequel, but you’re able to talk your way out of fights on several occasions, bypassing a lot of potential tedium and hassle in the process.
Good pacing that feels non-linear
The first Baldur’s Gate consisted mostly of wandering aimlessly through fields and forests until you finally made it to the city and had a million uninteresting things to do. The sequel greatly (and I can’t emphasize this enough) improves on the pacing of the original, dropping you into the city of Athkatla within 30 minutes of starting the game. From there, you’re free to wander around as you wish, accepting random hero work or engaging in wanton killing until you’ve amassed enough money to progress. While the game forcing you to save up a certain amount of money to move on sounds bad, the quests that you’ll likely take to accrue that money are interesting enough to make it feel less like an arbitrary obstacle than an opportunity to explore a world packed with fun stuff.
Since many of the storylines you can get tangled up in are completely separate from each other, the game winds up feeling non-linear despite progressing down a relatively linear path later on, and there are enough things to do to keep you busy for a ridiculous amount of time. In fact, this game has so much content that it actually took about twice as long as most games take to play through for a review.
Of course, I did mention that you’re dropped into Athkatla within 30 minutes of starting the game, and I have a good reason for specifically bringing that up: those first 30 minutes aren’t very enjoyable at all. Like Planescape: Torment and many other great games, Baldur’s Gate 2 puts its worst foot forward and kicks the game off with a long, trap-filled intro dungeon that teaches you little but frustration and sadness. While I’m almost positive that I’ve seen a mod that removes the intro dungeon, I don’t take user mods into consideration because I have to assume that you’re a purist like me (or maybe just lazy, also like me) who refuses to play the game outside of the way the developers intended.
Just walk away, bro
There’s also a section of the game that many will find tedious, and that’s the Underdark, home of the Drow (who are basically evil elves), Beholders (who can turn you into stone, effectively one-shotting you if you’re not adequately prepared), and Mind Flayers (who are the devil, will mess you up, and are probably best avoided altogether). However, the Underdark isn’t anywhere near as annoying as the intro dungeon for one simple reason: it can be completely ignored. Seriously. Instead of helping a dragon and sneaking into the Drow city and doing a ton of work, you can just walk right, up, and left through an easily-overlooked passage. From there, only a few rooms of enemies stand between you and the exit, and they’re a cakewalk compared to what you’d be dealing with otherwise.
Still, it’s worth mentioning that the Drow city can actually be quite a bit of fun once you’ve already played through the game. There are all kinds of amusing possibilities in terms of trickery and cruelty that the city and its quests offer, and playing through it can help flesh out your knowledge of the world. The only reason I’d recommend skipping it is that it’s a noticeable lull in the pacing of the game; everything gets rolling and the story picks up to a frantic pace by the time you’re thrown into the Underdark, so sticking around to help out feels like a serious speed bump in that momentum. Worse yet, that speed bump has less to do with the main story arc than it probably should by that point in the game.
Some of your party members suck
The likability of characters often comes down to personal taste, but this game was designed by Bioware and even early on it was possible to see shades of what they’d become later on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aerie, the whiny winged elf who had her wings sawed off and is now emotional (and confused, and weak) about everything because she can’t fly anymore. Now, some people like Aerie as a character, but some people kill and eat their neighbors. Point is, sometimes people are objectively wrong about subjective things, and “some people” don’t exactly have a great track record.
If you’re thinking, “Hey, no problem—there are other characters, so I’ll just romance one of them, instead,” then I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the non-Aerie characters are fleshed out and far more interesting than in most games (though markedly less interesting than Planescape’s characters). The bad news is that their romantic arcs all seem incredibly juvenile compared to how I remembered them, effectively coming down to “I have all these issues, but curl up next to me and I’ll be all better and rely solely on you for comfort and strength, oh my beautiful, infallible, perfect hero-who-completes me!” Some of the romances are more subtle than others in this regard, but they all effectively boil down to that same nugget of borderline-codependency. In fact, visiting the game again, I actually found a just-friends playthrough of the game far more satisfying than a playthrough involving any of the romances.
There’s also the problem of party members leaving you because you’re evil and they’re good, or vice-versa. The problem isn’t so much in them leaving because of clashing moralities as it is with them leaving at completely bizarre moments; the picture above is some dialogue from Imoen, the playable character’s childhood friend and sister figure, right before she left the party in the middle of a fight. This wasn’t just any fight, though—this was the final fight, and one in which she had an intensely personal stake. So personal, in fact, that it makes absolutely zero sense for her to leave during that particular fight. Obviously it’s a game and stuff like that is bound to happen, but there had to have been some way to avoid stuff like that.
It’s prettier than ever
The first (non-EE) Baldur’s Gate runs at a low resolution and uses an insanely ugly UI, bordering the entire screen with a “stone” aesthetic that’s only fitting in how it symbolically represents the archaic and outdated design that plagues the entire game. Baldur’s Gate 2 raises the resolution, throws in tons of well-crafted areas that are interesting to explore, and replaces the ugly grey border with a much sexier brown. Everything pertaining to the graphics seems updated in some way, and though I suppose it’s possible that the sprites are much the same as in the last game, there’s enough variance in terms of areas and quests that none of it ever feels fatiguing like it so often did in the first game.
The music is even better
The music in the first game was decent enough, but Baldur’s Gate 2 blows it away with its soundtrack. In fact, I’d even put the music in this game ahead of several of Planescape’s themes (Fall-From-Grace’s theme being the obvious exception). Even the game’s launcher has a memorable theme that I was able to easily recall after not playing the game for a year, and that’s not even mentioning memorable character themes such as this:
In fact, the only excuse for going through any of the romances that I could possibly understand would be to hear more of the character themes that play as they occur. I love them all so much, and the sound effects are equally great; if I ever get into an argument about how much well-designed sound effects can add to a game, I’ll be pointing to Baldur’s Gate 2 as my very first example. It’s incredible how much atmosphere those little sounds that you can’t help but take for granted in most games end up contributing, and as crazy as it sounds, they managed to stick with me just as much as the music did.
Here’s what you should do: