I have a confession to make: I never played the first two Baldur’s Gate games. I’ve never even (technically) played D&D; I’m more of a Pathfinder guy, myself. I do, however, have hundreds of hours worth of treasured memories playing Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel in local co-op. Baldur’s Gate 3 captures a lot of what made D: OS 1&2 great and improves on a few aspects but also introduces a number of inconveniences that come with the adherence to its pen-and-paper grandpa.
STORY – INVASION OF THE BRAIN SNATCHERS
The game opens on a Nautiloid, an airborne, tentacled ship similar in appearance to its namesake. You and your future party members are among the many abducted by Mind Flayers. Your squidlike kidnappers planted a tadpole in your head – a parasite that, within a few days, will devour your body and soul to transform you into a Mind Flayer. I wasn’t familiar with this particular breed of monster before the game was revealed; luckily, Baldur’s Gate 3’s first chapter demonstrates everything you need to know about these elder god-inspired creatures.
The ship crashes when an army of Cambions – winged demons – attack. The dragon-riding Githyanki also get involved – who are a species called Gith, but not to be confused with Githzerai – and everything gets a little overwhelming. Going into this game mostly unaware of the finer details of the world and lore of D&D is rather daunting, but Larian doesn’t leave its existing Divinity fans in the dark for long. They trust the player knows what elves, dwarves and goblins are, but as soon as a character mentions a race or god that isn’t a common fantasy trope, there will always be an “I’ve never met a Githyanki before” option for you to choose to gain some new information.
Occasionally, if your character is knowledgeable in a certain field – such as history, religion or nature – the narrator will inform you of any tidbits your avatar has learned before the start of the adventure. The fact that the writers didn’t resort to a separate lore screen or links to a wiki is especially refreshing nowadays. You’ll learn organically throughout the first few hours, and I felt that I knew everything I needed to know as the story unfolded.
Gather your party
Obviously, I have no idea where the plot will go past what is seen in Early Access, but I love the focus on a personal quest. You need a way to remove the parasite before it turns you, and the same goes for everyone in your party. This puts your unlikely allies under a lot of stress, and they will often disapprove of you accepting quests they feel are a waste of time. Despite them being the protagonists of this particular story, none of them are what I would call heroes. I strongly recommend creating your own character*, so you can enjoy the excellent writing and voice acting of all of your new friends. It would be a waste to turn the likes of Asterion and Lae’zel into blank-slate player-inserts.
*In Early Access, you can only play as an OC, but the advice extends to the full game.
In the Original Sin games, every party member came with their own plotline, and since there were more characters than you could take with you, you would invariably have to choose which part of the game you won’t be able to experience. This was immensely frustrating for completionists, so I’m glad that this time around, you will always be able to get everyone on board. While you can only bring a team of four on each adventure, the remaining characters will wait at your camp and you can swap them out any time – they even gain the same amount of experience as your active party. This means you’ll get to play through all side quests in one playthrough.
An unfortunate side effect of this feature shows when a party member tells you how badly they want to bone you – and they all want to bone you – even though you haven’t actually interacted with them. They’ll talk about everything you’ve been through together, despite not really having been through anything – they’ve just been hanging out at the camp. It’s silly but not a deal-breaker.
The entire first act is about trying to remove the tadpole parasite, and there are many drastically different ways the events can play out. Choice, both in dialogue and gameplay, is alive and well here. Depending on your party’s input, you might make a decision you would have never considered otherwise, so who you surround yourself with is very likely to nudge you in one direction or the other.
GAMEPLAY – DUNGEONS, DICE, MONSTERS
Who would you like to be today?
At its core, Baldur’s Gate 3 is a turn-based CRPG using the insanely influential Dungeons & Dragons as its base. Character creation is functionally identical, choose a race and class, and assign your attribute points. Since most video game RPGs are based on D&D in some way anyways, just imagine the usual stats, and you’ll get the idea.
D&D’s class system is a lot more restrictive than Original Sin’s, and I honestly don’t like it nearly as much. Gone is the ability to start the game as a pyromancer rogue or a necromancer knight; you pick a class and, if available, sub-class and stick with it. At level 3, you unlock a feat that’ll finally allow you to add a personal twist, like allowing a wizard to wear armor without penalty or giving fighter access to some basic magic. Regardless, I find this needlessly limiting, and I prefer the complete freedom D: OS 1&2 offered. Regrettably, the level cap in Early Access is 4, despite having enough content to theoretically reach level 6 or 7, so I can’t tell you if and how character builds will vary over time.
Roll for Initiative… if you know what that means
Explaining the gameplay mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons in detail literally takes several dozen pages, so I’ll keep things simple. Anyone who has played a tabletop RPG should be able to figure out the rules of Baldur’s Gate 3 through the limited tooltips available. However, if you don’t know what a spell slot, saving throw or skill check is, the current tutorial will not be enough to get you started, and you’ll need to go through a lot of trial and error to learn everything.
Most challenges – be they combat, conversation or exploration – are overcome by stats and dice rolls. If you want to intimidate a goblin into surrender, roll a d20 – that’s a 20-sided die. The higher your charisma and the more frightened the gobbo, the lower the number you need to roll. Unlike The Outer Worlds or Larian’s own Divinity: Original Sin 2, having a high enough stat doesn’t guarantee success. If you roll a 1, you always fail, no matter what you’re doing; that’s a 5% chance that anything you do will randomly not succeed – not accounting for rolls made with advantage or disadvantage, but let’s not get carried away.
This mechanic makes sense in the physical pen-and-paper game – there is a constant level of tension as your plan might be upended at any moment. Rolling a 1 can result in dramatic twists, and hilarious blunders as the Dungeon Master describes the sheer extent of your failure. You’re surrounded by friends and family, laughing and having a great time. Everything that happens is permanent, so going with the flow and seeing where the dice rolls take you is part of the fun.
It works on paper
However, Baldur’s Gate 3, despite Larian’s best efforts, is a video game. If you fail a dialogue check or break your last lock pick, it is sub-optimal to not load a previous save. And I’m pretty sure most people who enjoy RPGs hate playing sub-optimally. Even if you, like me, don’t want to save scum, there will come a breaking point where an unlucky roll will keep you from accessing the treasure at the end of a dungeon.
I do believe this won’t be as much of an issue when playing with up to three friends. You don’t want to be the guy constantly demanding quick-loads, after all. Larian might want to consider adding an optional Iron Man mode that constantly saves and only allows for a single save file. With maybe a backup or two, in case something breaks horribly.
The desire to stick to BG3’s tabletop roots becomes especially frustrating in combat. Like everything, the damage you deal is determined through dice rolls. On a successful hit, a battle axe rolls a twelve-sided die, meaning it will deal between 1 and 12 damage. Makes sense, right? Well, normal video games will give weapons a range of 8 to 12, for instance. At an average of 10, you’ll inflict between 80% and 120% damage. You’ll never know exactly how hard you’ll hit, but you can strategically manage your damage output. Now, in Dungeons & Dragons, the aforementioned axe will average at 6.5 damage with every attack – a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 12. This is a range of roughly 15% to 184%. While players still have to move and act tactically, it is ultimately up to chance whether you win a fight. Again, this is fine in a pen-and-paper game, but the level of luck required to beat each encounter is poison for the strategic gameplay fans of Original Sin will be looking for.
Despite these issues, I still had tons of fun with the game. The fact that unconscious characters can be revived without spending consumables – even in the middle of combat – makes the randomness infinitely less punishing. Provided a party member isn’t knocked out and then promptly trampled to death by a minotaur that somehow managed to sneak up on you.
Talk it out
Your character is more than just a collection of combat stats. While Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma hardly affect the fighting prowess of many classes, putting a couple of points into them will increase your chances of discovering traps, treasure and hidden dialogue options. On my first character, my decently intelligent, highly charismatic Tiefling warlock was able to lie his way past many guards and notice small details that led to more favorable outcomes. My Drow ranger, on the other hand, had high Strength, Dexterity and Constitution. An absolute beast in combat, but dumb as a pile of bricks. She blundered her way through every conversation and was completely unaware of her environments.
I only had time to get two hours into the second character before writing this preview, but pretty much every single event played out dramatically differently. This constant presence of missable choices will ensure no two playthroughs will be the same while also rewarding more balanced characters with a greater variety of approaches.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – IT’S GOING TO BE GREAT…
Borislav Slavov. Borislav Slavov. Borislav Slavov.
Okay, that name should be stuck in your head now. Do not forget it. Borislav Slavov is easily one of the greatest composers of our time, and everyone who played Divinity: Original Sin 2 already knows this. Unless you have some sort of irrational hatred towards orchestral music, you will fall in love with Baldur’s Gate 3’s soundtrack, guaranteed. Just listen to it; words don’t do it justice.
The voice cast is excellent, especially for the main characters. The actors bring tons of personality to your allies, and there are plenty of memorable NPCs with distinct identities for you to meet. The performances are further enhanced by the more cinematic presentation. Unlike in the Original Sin games, characters are shown up close and are – get this – actually animated during dialogue! That’s nothing new in the realm of video games, but it’s a huge boost in production value compared to Larian’s previous titles.
Environments are absolutely gorgeous. Nature is vibrantly verdant, villages are endearingly rustic and the Underdark is oppressively foreboding. It can be a little difficult to tell the difference between decor and possible loot, so make sure to liberally use the highlight key – which is Left Alt by default.
THE JANK – …BUT IT’S JUST NOT READY YET
But this is where the praise ends for now. Baldur’s Gate 3 is very much in Early Access, and it shows. At least half of the lip-syncing isn’t in yet, with characters occasionally speaking with their mouths closed. Like geese. Did you know geese can honk without opening their beaks? The physics are all over the place, which is especially – and unfortunately – obvious with the Mind Flayers’ tentacles. It’s like they have Fallout 76 for a face, and it robs dramatic moments of all tension. Beards will freak out, chains will writhe like snakes, and in one scene, a corpse slid across the ocean as everyone else contorted nightmarishly to watch it go.
Nine out of ten times loading into the game has everyone T-posing on untextured geometry. Things go back to normal after a while, but it really takes you out of the experience.
These issues will obviously be ironed out by the time the game is released. Larian does good work; that’s why they were entrusted with this IP in the first place. But Baldur’s Gate 3 is incredibly rough right now, and it crashed and soft locked on me a lot. If you are the kind of person interested in helping the devs out by providing feedback and crash reports, BG3 already offers a genuinely great – albeit extremely unpolished – 20 hour RPG experience. Everyone else should wishlist the game on Steam or GOG and get it when it’s finished. Given the developers’ history and from what I have seen so far, I have no doubt Baldur’s Gate 3 will become the new gold standard all other western RPGs will have to match.
Baldur’s Gate 3‘s Early Access was previewed on PC. The game was provided by Sandbox Strategies.