Back in October 2020, Larian Studios released Baldur’s Gate III in early access. The Belgian independent studio, founded in 1996 by Swen Vincke, has earned a reputation for being the “little RPG developer that could” thanks to their long-running Divinity series (most recently with the acclaimed Divinity: Original Sin II). Larian’s games have been praised for their depth of choice, detailed world-building and quirky humour, and they’re a studio somewhat reminiscent of Obsidian Entertainment in the Neverwinter Nights II era.
Wizards of the Coast is the complete opposite. The massive publisher originally acquired Dungeons & Dragons from TSR Inc. in 1997, and today they are the publisher of not only all things D&D but Magic: The Gathering, the Pokemon Trading Card Game and owner of Avalon Hill, a renowned name in board games. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has been a massive success for Wizards, and tabletop role-playing has never been a bigger industry. When Wizards announced that they would be licensing a new swathe of D&D-related videogames, there was some concern in the gaming community; Many expected that Wizards would turn to a studio like EA or Ubisoft for these games.
So, it came as quite a surprise when Wizards picked out a somewhat “indie” studio to handle the lucrative D&D licence. As expected, this sent the internet bonkers — the massive D&D licence in the hands of an experienced and respected RPG developer could only mean good things. Or could it?
I’ve had plenty of time with Baldur’s Gate III since its launch into early access last year. Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II are two of my all-time favourite games, and BG2 in particular is easily one of the best games ever made (certainly a contender for best ever RPG). Like many Baldur’s Gate fans that have been drip-fed “spiritual successors” over the past decade or so (some very good ones as well), my expectations were pretty high.
I’m also a fan of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. I dabbled briefly in 3rd Edition during my high school days, but over the past few years I’ve really dived into 5th Edition, and I love the simplicity and the balance of today’s game. There really is something for everyone in modern D&D. With Baldur’s Gate III being the first official D&D game in many years, D&D fans were pretty excited too.
Therein lies the first major problem with Baldur’s Gate III. Baldur’s Gate fans want Baldur’s Gate. D&D fans want a faithful adaptation of D&D. Divinity fans want more Divinity. From the outset, it appears as if Larian is trying to please everyone, and the result is a design ethos that is messy, unfocused and inconsistent.
When Larian announced that Baldur’s Gate III would have turn-based combat, rather than the classic “real-time with pause” (RTWP) combat of the Infinity Engine games that it is based on, there was unsurprisingly a bit of backlash. Personally, I didn’t mind the change. Turn-based combat is sort of my jam these days (especially with kids). But it does immediately fly in the face of what Baldur’s Gate was all about. Larian has consistently stated they have no plans to add the option for RTWP to the game.
Ordinarily, I’d say that’s fine. Perhaps, as the licensor, Wizards, is insisting on a faithful adaptation of D&D rules. I don’t know. However, I’ve seen two examples of recent RPGs accommodating players of both persuasions in recent years. First was Obsidian with Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. By their own admission, Deadfire didn’t sell particularly well, yet the developer still added an entire turn-based mode to their RTWP game in the last couple of patches. That’s no small feat, and would have taken significant time and development cost to implement. Likewise, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, from Russian developer Owlcat Games, is another RTWP RPG that added a turn-based mode to their game for free. Owlcat is even smaller than Obsidian; Kingmaker is their first game. Yet they absolutely nailed the execution of both modes.
Perhaps modders will add RTWP at some point to appease classic BG fans, but we don’t know. All I know is, if Obsidian and Owlcat can do it — surely Larian, with all the financial backing of Wizards of the Coast, can achieve it too.
Okay, so we’ve got a turn-based game. At least its a faithful adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons? Think again.
I’ll admit — at first, I quite enjoyed the gameplay and adaptation of D&D rules. In dialogue, when the player uses a social skill like Intimidation or Persuasion, a 20-sided die appears on the screen and you literally roll, as you would in a tabletop game. It’s a cool little detail, even if it is a bit of a gimmick. But the longer I played, the more frustrated I became with all the alterations to one of D&D’s fundamentals — combat.
In D&D combat, there are three things you can do on a turn: move, take an action, and sometimes take a bonus action. Actions are usually significant things — attacking someone, opening a door, standing up if you’ve fallen over, moving into stealth or disengaging from an enemy so they don’t get a free attack on you while you retreat. On the other hand, bonus actions are usually more restrictive, reserved for things like a quick off-hand weapon attack or certain special abilities that become available for your class as you level up.
In Baldur’s Gate III, everything becomes a bonus action — disengaging, entering stealth, throwing things (essentially a second attack)… the list goes on. This means that more “stuff happens” per turn in Baldur’s Gate III combat, but it also severely unbalances a game that has already been quite delicately balanced over the past 43 years of development.
That’s not the only major change — spells are significantly different in many cases. One perfect example is cantrips. In D&D, cantrips are spells that are a fallback for wizards. They can be cast at any time with very few restrictions, but the tradeoff is that they often have less utility or damage.
One of the reasons I didn’t particularly enjoy the Original Sin games is that I think Larian overdid it with their environment effects in combat. In Original Sin, one of the main weapons at your disposal is the environment around you. Water can be frozen with spells to create slippery ice and trip your opponents. Oil can be ignited to burn your enemies. Poison gas is explosive. Water can be charged using lightning spells.
Larian has imported the environmental effects of Original Sin wholesale, and have combined it with D&D magic. So what was once a last-resort spell like Firebolt becomes a veritable nuclear weapon, as it can potentially set the entire game screen on fire. It doesn’t help that Larian seems to have an obsession with putting explosive barrels of gunpowder or oil or whatever in every single location. It’s lazy design, and it’s design that completely breaks immersion because why the hell is everything explosive? With Baldur’s Gate III, Larian is starting to look like a bit of a one-trick pony, rather than a genre innovator.
Larian have created a messy hybrid of Original Sin and D&D, and the result is combat that is a chore to play through, and is full of cheesy exploits — players have discovered that one of the best tactics you can use is to simply have your characters carry around explosive barrels and throw them at the enemy (as a bonus action) after casting a firebolt spell that for some reason ignites stone in a five foot radius.
But it’s still Early Access, right?
Yes, it is. There are plenty of bugs and it is very obvious that Larian has a long way to go. They stated that the early access period will take about 12 months. There’s nothing wrong with that, and while I hate when large studios use the early access model, I think it’s a great way for smaller developers to get feedback and bug-testing at scale while funding development at the same time. Nobody was expecting a bug-free game from Baldur’s Gate III early access, and the community has been very generous to Larian, and very actively involved in providing feedback. It’s beautiful to watch, and a great example of what early access can look like when everyone plays their part.
However, as I previously mentioned in my review of Cyberpunk 2077, bugs can be fixed, but poor design is evidence of deeper problems. At this stage, I’m seriously concerned that Larian is simply aiming to create Baldur’s Gate: Original Sin. My issues with the game aren’t the bugs — it’s the entire design direction and underpinning game design concepts; something far less likely to significantly change.
The Good Bits
Issues aside, Baldur’s Gate III will definitely appeal to some — particularly Original Sin fans. The game looks beautiful, even at this early stage. Game assets are exquisitely modelled, animations look great thanks to extensive motion capture work, and the lighting has a really broad range — darkness is deep and black, light is startlingly bright.
I found the NPC followers on offer a bit homogenous at first — they’re mostly all selfish assholes, or at the very best self-involved. However, I understand Larian’s decision here. Most players will play a “good guy” party, so Larian is forcing players to use the “evil” party members so they get some extensive feedback and bug-testing before introducing the “good” characters later in the early access period.
The voice acting is excellent — from the narrator to NPCs to followers, you can immediately tell that these voice actors are professionals. The followers might come across as a bit “edgelord-y” at first — a half-vampire elf named Astarion who dresses like a steampunk cosplayer, a perpetually angry githyanki warrior, and a moody priestess who worships Shar, the “Mistress of Night” (ooo, so edgy). However, after spending some time with these characters, their personalities do start to shine through the tired tropes that underpin their characters. I started to quite enjoy Astarion’s camp comments and relentless flirtation, and his character is reminiscent of Tim Curry’s portrayal of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975).
The story has potential; early access only gives players access to the first chapter, but there is plenty of mystery and a lot of nods to long-time fans of both Dungeons & Dragons and Baldur’s Gate. From what I’ve seen, things are on the right track from a writing perspective. In classic Larian style, the game shines in its freedom of choice, and their are a multitude of solutions to every problem in the game. Larian’s writers certainly deserve credit not only for the quality of their writing, but for the fact that they have anticipated just about every possible approach that the players are likely to take, and have accommodated for it.
One minor gripe I have is that the NPC followers and the player character all seem to have backgrounds that are significantly more developed than you would expect for a level 1 character in D&D. It’s a rather familiar joke in D&D circles that new players frequently come up with elaborate backstories of glory and power for their level 1 characters, who then get killed in their first combat encounter by a bad-tempered goat. Perhaps this will be explained in as Larian reveals more of the plot, but it isn’t a big problem, and I’m really nitpicking here.
Should you play it?
Chances are, if you’re the sort of player that this game will appeal to, you’ve already played it. Original Sin fans will enjoy it, and fans of other RPGs may well enjoy the game too, even if it is quite unbalanced in its current state. If you’re really set on seeing every stage of how this game evolves throughout early access and you’re keen to provide Larian some feedback, then you can probably get your money’s worth while also giving back to the developer.
For most, however, I’d recommend giving Baldur’s Gate III some more development time. It’s clear that Larian isn’t quite sure what direction they’re going in, so I’d wait a few more months and a few additional patches to see which direction they go.
Long-time Baldur’s Gate fans are likely to be disappointed — there is very little of the classic RPG in this game. At the moment, I’d say that Baldur’s Gate III has more in common with Neverwinter Nights II or Dragon Age than the Infinity Engine classics. I question the logic in appending the “III” at the end of the title, and I’d wager the game would have had just as much attention if they’d simply dropped the Baldur’s Gate association entirely; this is Dungeons & Dragons after all.