Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Baldur's Gate 3

A game with heart, soul and um... well definitely some other body parts too. It may be horny but there's plenty of good story underneath all the outrageous flirting.

Unless you've been living under a rock (in the metaphorical online sense), you've probably heard of Baldur's Gate 3 by now. It has been everywhere online. Inescapable. Especially if you're trying to avoid spoilers for it. It's won a plethora of awards, induced obsession in a mighty contingent of fans and got its studio banned on TikTok for a rather surprising romance scene with a shapeshifting druid. No, really.

Like many other internet goblins, I am absolutely feral for it, and so I'm going to use this review to tell you why that is. I could talk about gameplay (mostly fun, occasional blips), interface (don't talk to me about radials or inventory management), art (beautiful, consistent, thoughtful) or worldbuilding (necessarily shackled to D&D 5e IP, for good and for ill), but by the time I got to the end of working through every part of all that worth talking about, both you and I would have lost the will to live, and you'd be no closer to knowing if it's a game you might want to play, because you'd have been bored out of the ability to have opinions anymore. But I'll spare you that fate (I'm very kind), and instead focus down onto the core part of what makes this game sing for me, and why I think that might have worked for so many other people, especially people who are SFF readers generally, even if only casual gamers.

But before we get to that, a brief overview of what it is, for those who may not be in the know.

Effectively a D&D 5e simulator, the game has you either play through some predefined origin characters' story, or create your own character, and follow them as they wake up trapped on a mind-flayer ship (brain-eating floaty squid people), being infected with a parasite, and have to fight their way free and figure out what has happened to them and the others they find on the ship or in the crashsite who suffered the same fate, all while the threat of being turned into a mindflayer themselves hangs over the group. This of course leads to exploring various locations, meeting a bunch of people who give you information on what's going on, or just about themselves, offer you quests to follow or just decide to fight you. 

It fills that lovely niche of RPG that sits in between your full railroaded story, with a single pre-existing character you follow through a very set series of events, and the total open world chaos of something like Skyrim. Yes, there's a storyline to follow, and some points along the way are non-negotiable, but how you get there and how you handle those plot waypoints come with a fair degree of freedom of choice. You can be good, or evil, or somewhere in between, and there are paths available to you to get the job done in all ways (if the dice are kind).

This is... an almost distressingly underfilled niche, in my opinion. There are plenty of the more open-world style, freedom of play ones, that clearly appeal to many, but do not offer the same level of over-achieving school kid gold star and merit badge endorphins for doing the plot well that a more story-focussed game provides... but without feeling like you're just turning the pages of a slightly interactive novel. There needs to be some element of choice, some way to put your personal stamp on how events unfold, and variance in the endings that might come out of your choices, on both the macro and the personal scale. It's something that Bioware, for instance, has always done well, but isn't as common amongst the big hitter games as I would like it to be, so I'm very glad that Larian is here and doing us all a massive, Game Awards-winning favour. 

So, what is it that makes this one sing then? Why does it have its grubby little fingers hooked right into my brain holes?

It's the characters. Of course it's the characters.

Getting this bit out of the way first lest anyone think I'm burying the lede - yes, you can romance them, yes some of them are quite hot, yes there are spicy scenes... it's exactly that kind of RPG. And that's great! Romance is a really useful tool for character building, in my opinion, and one that is used to excellent effect here. But it's only subservient to the greater whole of the character building, progression and depth that the story offers you. Because the whole game is one big character thesis, when you look at it on the macro scale - how do people cope when someone or something in whom they put their faith, who had great power over them, chooses to misuse that faith of that power? It is, at its core, a story about a group of different people who have all lost some part of themselves to a cruel world, and are fighting to get it back, to avenge themselves and their lost self against the unfairness of it all, or simply make sure it never happens to another person in the same situation.

But because we have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds, with different skillsets and personalities, the way those different stories resolve can go in very different directions... and that's before the player comes in and starts tinkering with things.

You as the player character can have a huge amount of influence on these people who surround you, if you make the decisions that lead them to trust you, to value your opinion and your advice. And so you sit and the crux of all these stories, shifting them here and there to try to find the best possible outcome for everyone involved. What's "best"? Well, you have to decide that. And some of those decisions are deliciously difficult, weighted with consequences on both sides and unknown futures. The game has been very well created to be full of truly meaningful choices, where you only have partial information and have to go on hope and good faith, or be determined you'll make a game state where your good intentions bear fruit.

And, pleasingly, the game lets you deliver that, for the most part. If you promise your companion you will find a way to save them, the game will let you do that. There just may be a cost to it you hadn't forseen - for them, for you, or for those around you.

Which is all very well and good - who doesn't like playing god like that - but does the game do the work to make you care? To make you want to invest that time to give them all the resolutions they desperately need? You know I'm going to say "yes", but a thousand times yes. The characters are instantly... if not always likeable, relatable or sympathetic, then graspable. There's an imminent quality to all of them, something that leaps out of the screen and grabs you. Of course, this means some of them are annoying - what I love in a character does not appeal to the next man - but there are enough of them, and all well enough done, that there's someone for every taste there to be glommed onto. And, travelling through, the process of learning more about the characters you don't like reveals enough about them, their backgrounds, their reasons for being who and how they are, that it becomes increasingly difficult not to sympathise with them, just a little.

Some of this is down to the frankly gorgeous voice acting. BG3 cleared up at the Game Awards, but one of its most deserved wins was Neil Newbon, voice actor for the companion Astarion, getting Best Performance. The character has been the darling of the budding online fandom since early access, and it's hard not to see why, even if it's not a character type you tend to enjoy (a category I count myself very much in). But he's instantly characterful on screen, from the moment you meet him, a sassy, snarky, slightly power hungry and definitely amoral pointy bastard... easy to love or to hate... and then you start to get his backstory develop, little morsels and tidbits slowly doled out whether in conversation or passive dialogue or moments of revelation as you uncover information throughout the game, and you are steadily devastated by what you begin to see under the surface. There are some moments of powerful rawness in his dialogue as the game progresses, and so however annoying he is, at times (often deliberately), the damned actor makes him impossible to actually dislike over the long term. It's incredibly rude.

Much the same can be said for the majority of the companions, with hilarious, heart-warming, and horrifying performances also available from a host of villains, NPCs and minor characters you meet throughout the game. Because there are so! many! good! ones! There's Dammon, a tiefling weaponsmith currently having to make do without a forge but who really wants to help your friend with her infernal engine problem (he's a sweetie and I love him). There's Devella, a rather harried investigator in the city who would really like to just be allowed to solve the damn crimes. There's that mysterious ox who- wait... did he just say "moo"? There's a juvenile crime gang who would be very happy to have your investment. There's a cat who wonders if you have time to hear about our lord and saviour Sharess. At every point in the game there are characters given a genuine and thoughtful presence and strong voice work, and they make the game feel truly and utterly peopled in a meaningful way.

Because it is, fundamentally, a game about people. It is not one single narrative, but a woven set of them, flowing in and out of each other and the vast many surrounding ones, that the player controls and shapes to make, hopefully, the finished tapestry they want at the end. If you care about people, about characters, then this may well be a game for you.

And I think this is exactly why it has had such instant and thorough appeal, especially in the SFF space more broadly - that appeal to character rather than the focus on gameplay makes it instantly accessible even outside of a gaming-specific sphere. And with D&D many years into a popular resurgence, and in a space full of D&D adjacent media, it's a very easy setting to be willing to get sucked into for the sake of those character stories. Add to that the turn-based combat that, while not easy (and indeed at some points incredibly tricky and tactical), takes out some of the anxiety-inducing learning curve horror out of picking up the game when it might not be something you'd normally take to, and I think it's clear why this has been such a wide-reaching hit.

And don't get me wrong, if you're more of a gamer there's plenty here to love too. One of the highlights of the gameplay for me were a few specific scenarios with their own amended rules - save people from a burning building before it collapses, for instance, or defend a portal against all comers long enough for your ally to go in and return - that mixed up the rules you're used to and give you something new to chew on. There are some well-constructed puzzles, some truly challenging boss fights and some fun ways to solve problems in interesting ways (the number of videos online of people blowing everything up with barrels of smokepowder is a testament to the ingenuity and patience of players, if not always their good sense).

The broader storyline, too, is pretty compelling, and manages a very very well-paced progression through its three acts, with nary a lagging section of grinding to be found, and a very satisfying ending, at least since patch 5 gave us the epilogue we really deserved.

This is not an inventory, this is a MESS
There are problems with it, I am forced to admit. It isn't a perfect game. Inventory management, especially on console, is a chore and worse, and by the time you get to the higher levels, scrolling through all of your available actions, spells and things you might want to throw at someone in combat takes a heck of a time. There are also some issues in terms of whose stories get told, and how much - if we could all stop making games where the black character gets less screen time than the others that would be grand please and thank - as well as issues with the 5e IP behind it all - goblins and drow, need I say more? I am not saying it will be a perfect experience for every player, with no moments of unwarranted frustration or irritation, because that would be a lie. And, if you play a paladin, be prepared to save scum like you've never save scummed before because you will break your oath and you will have absolutely no bloody clue how you managed it half the time.

So if all you want is sheer technical perfection, then it may not be for you, but this game has heart, soul and er... some other body parts too. But if you're prepared to buy into those character arcs, and if you want to spend time with a raggedy bunch of misfits who will absolutely steal your heart along with your wallet? Then those niggles may well be worth the cost. They certainly were for me, no matter how many bad words were uttered throughout the course of trying to figure out where that one scroll I absolutely knew I had was, or having to reload several hours of play time back because of that bloody oath and not having quicksaved like it was going out of fashion. Because I did love the characters. I loved them all, by the end. And when I finished, I immediately fired up the character creator again, because I wanted nothing more than to go back, and find all the myriad little bits of game I inevitably missed in this rich, chaotic web of glorious nonsense I had found myself in.

It's a hard one to put numbers on, but since it's how we roll here, I shall do my best to oblige. I can see the problems that do exist in it, and I recognise them, making it an 8/10 with the head... but a 10/10 with the heart, enamoured as she is of sad fuck-wizards, warlocks with daddy issues, cinnamon-roll barbarians, angry lizard-women and bitchy amnesiac goth-girls. So it gets a 9/10 in the compromise, and a definite endorsement to give it a go if you've been wondering what all the fuss is about.