Baldur’s Gate III is the latest “cRPG” from Larian, a game studio most known for the Divinity franchise. For those who don’t know, “cRPG” is a video game subgenre used to refer to more direct pen and paper RPG adaptations – featuring the basic ruleset of a pen and paper RPG (albeit usually altered considerably), a mostly isometric perspective (Baldur’s Gate 3 is thankfully 3D and has a very adjustable camera), and either turn-based or real-time with pause combat. Baldur’s Gate 3 chooses the former (turn-based), and combines it with a more mainstream cinematic presentation. It is a large scale game (albeit not open world) that can take a very thorough player 80-100 hours to finish (going by actual recorded time on save files), but someone in more of a hurry can feasibly finish it in 50-60 hours. It also features both single player and co-op, but no PvP and no Dungeon Master capability.
This game’s full release followed a several year long early access period, which I skipped entirely. Also, despite the 3 in the name, it is not actually the third Baldur’s Gate game, but rather it is calling itself the third main game as there are numerous spinoffs. Now might be a good time to pivot and take a quick look at the history of the franchise and the cRPG genre.
Overview of Baldur’s Gate and Classic cRPGs
The first Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998 and pioneered party-based, real-time with pause cRPG combat, though wasn’t as much of a pioneer as many suggest since Fallout came out a year before it, also delivering isometric 2.5D graphics (a temporary stop gap until 3D graphics were ready) but featuring infinitely more role-playing, more writing, and far greater quest design.
In any case, both games were huge leaps above the very simple RPGs that predated it. But people tend to view these classic cRPGs through rose-tinted glasses: the first Baldur’s Gate has almost null in the way of role-playing and even companion character development (and companion dialogue in general). It’s not the sort of BioWare game people think of. Compared to what we’re used to today, Baldur’s Gate was a rather short (under 25 hours – a figure people love to inflate for all classic cRPGs but actual recorded save file time and video uploads of entire playthroughs disprove those), small scale game with a very basic plot, and it only really offered combat gameplay and somewhat interesting art design. It’s a very shallow game compared to other classic cRPGs and even modern RPGs.
Due to those rose-tinted glasses, most people end up describing Baldur’s Gate as if it is Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, its sequel from the year 2000. Similar to how many people seem to confuse WWII with WWI. Baldur’s Gate II is where the ambition seriously picked up: it wasn’t the barebones game that its predecessor was; it had substantial side quest content, exploration, some actual companion dialogue and character development. Most people who have played BioWare games throughout the years cite Baldur’s Gate II as their greatest game, which I strongly disagree with but I wouldn’t disagree with claims of it being BioWare’s greatest campaign. The design ethos of BioWare games that most people know and love was first seen in its complete form with Baldur’s Gate II.
There was even a fairly recent Baldur’s Gate spinoff, but I don’t consider any of the spinoffs worth mentioning. Both Baldur’s Gate games, including the expansion for the second game, focus on conflicts created by Bhaal, the god of murder. This franchise is set in Faerun – a Europe-inspired continent in the Forgotten Realms universe, which is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting that has been published since 1987. The most content-rich D&D campaign setting there is. Specifically, all three games are set on the Sword Coast which is on the westmost region of the continent.
Bhaal had foreseen his demise, so during the Time of Troubles in 1358 DR – when Ao the overgod turned all but one god into mortals and when Bhall was killed – he created mortal offspring to carry his legacy. This offspring is now known as the Bhaalspawn, or as I like to call them, Bhaalsacks. Gods gain their power from faith, from belief, so it is imperative that his offspring keep faith in Bhaal alive in order for him to maintain his existence. The two main Baldur’s Gate games revolve around the evil machinations of some of these Bhaalspawns.
While the Baldur’s Gate games were generally successful, the cRPG subgenre wasn’t to be successful for much longer. BioWare only made three more cRPGs after this: their biggest and most ambitious one in Neverwinter Nights which ended up with nearly 10 official campaigns by the time BioWare’s support ended, and even more official campaigns now thanks to Beamdog (plus hundreds of published modded campaigns, including many direct pen and paper adaptations). BioWare then released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic which is still fresh in peoples’ minds today, and finally Dragon Age: Origins. The later Dragon Age games retain some cRPG elements, but many others were replaced by action gameplay elements.
The first two games were made by BioWare, but Baldur’s Gate 3 was made by Larian. Thank goodness for that, since EA’s acquisition of BioWare in the late 2000s sealed their fate and they now exclusively make subpar games unfortunately, but we don’t need to get into that.
Besides the Baldur’s Gates and Fallouts, other classic cRPGs from that time period include the other games by Black Isle Studios, namely Planescape: Torment (a 20-25 hour masterpiece in storytelling and role-playing but gameplay that was shunned for being very weak compared to Baldur’s Gate) and the Icewind Dale series (purely gameplay focused, again virtually no role-playing in the first one and not much in the second either). Then there was Troika, who debuted with Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura which is like Fallout 1 and 2 but set in a high fantasy world inspired by 1800s England, where tech and magic collide. Arcanum is also the only classic cRPG that is lengthy even by modern RPG standards, usually taking 70-80 hours to finish. Troika also produced The Temple of Elemental Evil and then Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines which became a cult classic. Obsidian Entertainment burst through the gates at full speed in 2004, already in the 3D era, with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, followed by Neverwinter Nights 2 but after this, the cRPG genre took a nose dive in quality for well over a decade.
As mentioned earlier, Larian is known for developing and self-publishing (and partially crowdfunding) the Divinity games, which are fantasy RPGs. Now is a good time to transition over to cRPGs in the modern era, and how Baldur’s Gate 3 is influencing the industry.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s Influence Today
The cRPG subgenre gradually died off in the 2000s and was reborn in 2014-2015 by the combined efforts of Larian with Divinity: Original Sin, and by Obsidian Entertainment, a cRPG legend, with a low budget game called Pillars of Eternity. Surprisingly, Pillars of Eternity was the more influential one at the time, even though the quality of the classic games objectively was not there with Pillars of Eternity.
While not all the classic RPGs had positively stand-out role-playing potential – some had almost none such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale – but many of them did offer immense amounts of role-playing; namely Fallout, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and both Neverwinter Nights games. These games had not only significantly branching plots (which even the very weak Fallout 4 offers to some degree), but they provided immense freedom in defining your character’s personality through dialogue including not holding you back from embracing absolute evil, they had open ended quests with many ways to complete them and different outcomes, weren’t afraid of altering world state based on role-playing decisions, and most had substantial character build depth and diversity from a gameplay perspective. Magic wasn’t just mindless elemental blasting for example like in Dragon Age or Tyranny, but rather they provided multiple schools of magic (8 in D&D games) with abilities you rarely see in newer RPGs like teleportation (both localized and long distance), necromancy, powerful shapeshifting and summoning potential, illusion, mind-affecting, and that’s just scratching the surface.
Pillars of Eternity and even Divinity: Original Sin offered none of that. Pillars of Eternity forces you to play as someone who always springs into action at the slightest provocation (a hero), and doesn’t allow you to go down an evil path whatsoever, which this YouTube playlist demonstrates. It is also filled with vast empty spaces showing severe lack of content density, it has a nonsensical ruleset, poor character build diversity, all of which is explained in our RPG tier list.
Divinity: Original Sin was the far more respectable game, not banking on nostalgic obsolete 2.5D graphics over actual quality. But it had even less role-playing – almost none which is quite reminiscent of the first Baldur’s Gate. Dialogue and quests usually only play out one way. But there are serious positive qualities to the game’s gameplay: while magic is very dumbed down compared to past D&D games, it finally introduces a level of physics compared to elite 2000s PC games like Dark Messiah: of Might and Magic. Elemental effects combine with each other (which you also get in the recent Zelda games) and you can manipulate the environment far more to your benefit. Larian also embraced fully turn-based gameplay, rather than the formerly predominant real-time with pause gameplay, which makes it easier to have AI that isn’t completely worthless (something that plagues all real-time with pause cRPGs), making for more tactical gameplay and a much more playable multiplayer experience.
Low quality cRPGs, dipping even beneath Pillars of Eternity quality, would continue to plague the genre for years throughout the 2010s, while Larian leveled up significantly with Divinity: Original Sin 2. This was still a low budget game but sold as much as a high budget, successful game, which definitely helped create and fund Baldur’s Gate 3. But there was still a lack of role-playing in some, but not all key areas, namely in defining your character’s personality through dialogue. This was enough to put me off of the game, along with Larian’s signature asymmetrical imbalance with both of the Original Sin games: you will find enemies whose stats just don’t at all align with their level, and they can use certain abilities far more than you can with no proper explanation. There’s even a moment in the first game in which a companion can turn on you, and as soon as she does she gains a huge amount of hit points (health) and better equipment for no reason. Larian didn’t know how to design gameplay balance properly, which should instead use a more symmetrical design (enemies of your equal should statistically be your equal) and instead feature more capable enemy AI, since deficient enemy AI is usually the main motivation behind such asymmetrical balance in games like this.
Now we get to Baldur’s Gate 3. The impact it has had on the industry is truly fascinating. Who would’ve expected some self-published AA game (its unconfirmed budget being a hot topic right now) would become one of the most simultaneously played games ever on Steam? This is a very good sign because it shows that a game not banking on predatory microtransactions and online-only gameplay can be a huge success.
What’s even more surprising is that huge amounts of people have come out and said that Baldur’s Gate 3 sets a new standard that they will hold other game studios to. Of course, the very next big game release (Starfield) will make them forget they ever made such claims, but it’s a nice gesture. Some game studios reacted very negatively to this, which in itself is understandable, but some individual developers tried to launch a crusade against Baldur’s Gate 3, inventing their own figures for its budget and trying to come up with any excuse to hide from the fact that, spoiler alert, indeed Baldur’s Gate 3 largely embarrasses the AAA gaming industry, which did a fine job of embarrassing itself but this increased awareness is fantastic news.
No microtransactions, no required online connection, available on a DRM-free platform (GOG), it’s not blatantly riddled with half-baked content, it wasn’t designed to be the highest grossing game – there’s no predatory addiction model to it whatsoever, and it’s not full of half-assed content like clearly templated quests or excessively reused areas. It was designed to be a thorough cRPG, taking the best of the Divinity Original Sin games and mating it with Larian’s seemingly newfound love for pen and paper D&D to make for a well-rounded, proper video game RPG. The timing is spot on too, as the successful D&D movie is fresh in people’s mind, and there’s an ongoing resurgence of D&D which is also evident in successful YouTube channels. Larian didn’t design Baldur’s Gate 3 to gross as much as possible, so its success is a massive surprise and it is something the industry desperately needed.
One can only hope Larian continues to create D&D games, but at this point Divinity: Original Sin 3 unfortunately seems more likely. Good luck getting the same kind of sales with that.
Larian has promised mod tools for Baldur’s Gate 3, but there’s no release date. Don’t expect them this year. AMD FSR 2.2 was also supposed to release with the September 6 PlayStation release, but FSR 2 still isn’t available for some reason. Larian isn’t reliable when it comes to release dates.
Some hacky mods are available for Baldur’s Gate 3. I wouldn’t call any essential, but these three are worth checking out:
- Native Mod Loader
- Native Camera Tweaks – unlocks a wider range of camera movement. Tactically somewhat useful, more useful for seeing more of the environment but as expected this reveals unfinished areas of the environment, since this is meant to be an isometric-only game (albeit a less restricted isometric game than most)
- WASD Movement – if you want to use the above mod, chances are you also want to use this. Intelligently made mod that automatically disabled WASD movement in combat engagements where it’s utterly undesirable.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is among the stronger cRPGs when it comes to its gameplay, but it has some glaring weaknesses too, as do they all. At first glance, it contains most of what one would want from a D&D 5e based cRPG – it’s turn-based (but does lack an optional real-time with pause mode which means it can’t handle large scale battles), has the basic combat maneuvers like Shove and Throw, it has jumping and the best use of vertical level design I’ve seen in a cRPG by far, there are many physics interactions. As a result, act 1’s gameplay gives off strong first impressions but the weaknesses will reveal themselves the more you play.
When starting Baldur’s Gate 3, one of the first things you’ll encounter is the difficulty selection. This is also perhaps the first disappointment you’ll encounter, as the difficulty options are completely vague leaving you clueless as to what they really do. You just get these three vague presets, and nothing else.
Compare that to a game designed properly in this regard, like Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous which shows you every change made by every difficulty mode and lets you thoroughly customize the difficulty to your liking, if you so choose.
As for what these difficulty modes do, I am not entirely sure since the game doesn’t tell you much and I didn’t want to do any reverse engineering to try and find out. I can say that the Balanced difficulty mode is the most “fair” and closest to pen and paper rules, while Tactician mode seems to have more of the classic asymmetrical Larian balance in which enemies can have nonsensically inflated stats, which still happens occasionally on Balanced mode. Larian can’t help themselves. I’m not against improving balance compared to pen and paper (5th edition (5e), the ruleset used in this game, is in particular need of it), but such inflated enemy stats aren’t an improvement. Thankfully this is quite rare on Balanced mode, especially before act 3.
Before going deeper into the review, I want to first provide a list of all the bugs and oversights I encountered. All of these are still present unless otherwise specified, as of patch 3 (late September 2023).
- Patches #1 and #3 (Sept 22) were full of regressions that introduced enough bugs for the game to be considered unplayable
- V-Sync still doesn’t work. The setting does absolutely nothing for me as of patch 3.
- Numerous out of context dialogue options, e.g. you can ask about something that didn’t happen. I encountered this in acts 1 and 3. Some are likely fixed by now but all are not.
- Super buggy cutscenes in act 3 (and at least one in act 1 – when Wyll enters your camp at night to attack Karlach), including some randomly activating during combat possibly
- AI will often glitch and remain idle, taking no actions, in combat for way too long
- AI will often not at all move when engaging them in combat, striking them, and then returning to hiding. If all PCs in the encounter are hidden, then the enemy AI may not move at all, allowing them to be exploited and completely helpless. I exploited this to have my rogue effortlessly, single handedly win some of what should’ve been the hardest encounters in the game.
- Influential story moments with Jaheira were quite broken early on – e.g. you can lose influence when you should instead gain, I’m unsure if they’re truly fixed
- Similar bug as the above with Shadowheart: she disapproved of me completing the murder tribunal in act 3, yet at the same time was inspired by it? Also her dialogue indicated disapproval. Make up your mind, Larian.
- Aylin being reduced to 0 hp during the Ketheric rooftop boss fight led to severe bugs, unsure if they are truly resolved
- Buggy “Reactions” (a type of turn-based combat action). For some reason the player can control an enemy’s polearm-specific reaction that occurs when someone enters range: if the player has the feat that grants this reaction, then they also control it for any enemy that has it and uses it against them. What this means is, my first character could run into the range of a polearm-wielding enemy that has this reaction, and the game would give me the prompt for whether or not the enemy should use it – as if it were my reaction when it’s really the enemy’s.
- Withers showing up in your game even if never initially meeting him (unsure if this is still present)
- Mother Superior’s “death” is very buggy – in my game when killed, her corpse became an ally and started talking (complaining of friendly fire)
- Buggy player character (PC) portraits can permanently become just fully black for your entire playthrough
- “Defeat the Duergar” invaders quest can partially break if you use retreating actions, causing the Duergar AI to remain invisible and never attack until you acquire See Invisibility
- The permanent See Invisibility effect unlocked by allowing Volo to remove a character’s eye isn’t truly permanent; in some bugged scenarios it will temporarily vanish
- Morgue poison cloud room in act 2 has broken AI pathfinding for party AI you’re not controlling. They have to jump around everywhere.
- Shillelagh only working on clubs is an oversight
- My Monk character’s attack score gets bugged when loading a save, seemingly ignoring Weapon Finesse bonus until I equip and unequip a weapon
- Some scenarios can result in player character models (partially) disappearing (unsure if this is still present)
- It is possible to detect a trap yet due to a bug it’ll remain unable to be interacted with. Or a trap can be detected and then permanently lose its detected status.
- You can sometimes lose control over the character you’re currently controlling by using Jump (unsure if this is still present)
- Specific damage vulnerabilities are labeled as “resistance” in the UI (oversight)
- AI vision cones (just the actual visual effect, not the AI vision) can break and remain static (might be fixed now)
- Can see random NPCs spawn right in front of you in Wyrm’s Crossing and Baldur’s Gate (oversight)
- Some UI filter bugs, e.g. if you have a filter enabled and split an item belonging to that filter, it most likely won’t show up unless the filter is removed and reapplied
As you can see from this list, it’s just far too buggy of a game. Especially one with years worth of early access, which it had. It says a lot about how pathetic the state of the gaming industry is for this to be one of the less buggy 2023 games, but here we are.
With bugs out of the way, let’s move onto another one of the first elements you’ll encounter in Baldur’s Gate 3: the character creator. Although you can instead choose to play a predefined character, all of whom will otherwise show up as companions (save for The Dark Urge). Overall its capabilities are comparable to that of AAA games with regards to facial customization depth. It is not detailed to the point where ability scores like Strength affect appearance. It is nice to see a race like Dragonborn have a similar amount of customization as humans. You can customize the head/face and get a few selections in body type, not much detail there except like Cyberpunk 2077 you can select your genitalia for whatever reason. But you do not get to customize your portrait at all.
One surprise is the lack of alignment selection. D&D has an alignment system that’s best represented on two point scales: each scale being 0-100. For one of them, 0 represents evil and 100 represents good. For the other, 0 represents chaotic and 100 represents lawful. 50 represents neutral for each of them. The lack of alignment does have gameplay penalties: no more tactical uses of Detect Alignment or the Protection from Alignment family of spells which are therefore not present, let alone spells like Antipathy or Empathy.
Deity selection is only for Clerics. You do get to choose a voice which only affects banter; for all story dialogues, the protagonist is unvoiced, as it should be for an RPG. The voices are all completely human, so if you go with Dragonborn or Githyanki, know that you’ll have a completely human voice. With regards to the lore, Githyanki in particular sounds a bit distinct from that of humanoids, which you can hear with Lae’Zel – the Githyanki player character (PC) and possible companion. Her speech pattern is the biggest difference, and you can never have that with your Githyanki character should you make one. Still, an effort was made – Githyanki does have a few unique voiced dialogue moments, saying a few words from their language. Not a big deal in any case.
Baldur’s Gate 3 also has you choose your character’s background archetype – every PC has one. This has a functional use in the game: if you make a story decision that is in alignment with any PC’s background, that PC becomes inspired. Every time they are inspired, you get a point. For each point you have, you can reroll a failed non-combat ability check. So the player will benefit from role-playing their character authentically.
Also, you get to design both your character and your “guardian” which is a character in the story. For some reason, you cannot design hireling characters which is most unfortunate from a gameplay perspective. For example, the rogue hireling available to me was a human – not what I wanted as I wanted one with Darkvision. It would have been a good idea to allow you to customize hirelings, though you are in full control of their class after level 1.
One annoying thing about character creation and leveling up is that you have zero visibility into character progression. If you don’t know 5e rules by heart, you’ll have to do your own research to see how your selected race and class progresses.
It is weird that Drow isn’t listed as an Elf subrace, and not all racial traits are present such as light sensitivity for Underdark races like Drow. Another bizarre D&D rule omission is that you do not get to roll your ability scores – Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Intelligence (INT), Wisdom (WIS), Charisma (CHA). Baldur’s Gate 3 takes the strange approach we’ve seen in other video games in which every player character starts with the same exact amount of ability score points, and a very generous amount I might add. You can allocate them however you like, except you can’t reduce any below 8, which means no low intelligence “dumb dialogue” playthrough in Baldur’s Gate 3.
House rules like this should generally be optional. Let me press a button to roll my ability scores. Also, if the difficulty modes were to be well designed, then they should determine the type of ability score roll used: Explorer (easy) mode should use the “power rolling” method in which the game rolls 5d6 (that is, five six-sided die) six times, keeping only the highest 3 results with each one, and then you get to assign the rest without the absurdly high lower limit of 8 per ability score. This results in a ridiculously powerful and exceptional character every time, essentially. Balanced mode could instead roll 24d6, drop the lowest 6, and let you assign the rest. This generally results in a character that is particularly good at one thing, or two if you’re lucky, and usually bad at at least one thing.
Speaking of dice rolls, every “cRPG” uses them or RNG but Baldur’s Gate 3 is the only one I’ve seen put them in the foreground for some bizarre reason. Which is a waste of time, especially since it can’t be skipped. I understand the need to present the choice of using the aforementioned “Inspiration” points, but this could’ve been made less intrusive. But at least Larian uses this intrusive UX design to remind new D&D players that they might be able to apply some bonus to a dice roll, e.g. if someone in the party (who isn’t dead) has a Guidance spell prepared, you can press a button in this menu to cast it on yourself. But if anything, foreground dice rolls should be optional.
While on the subject of dice rolls, we should take this opportunity to see what other house rules exist in Baldur’s Gate 3. Another big one is the presence of critical failure and critical success for skill checks. Normally in D&D, if you roll a 1 to attack, you always miss the attack. If you roll a 20, you always land it, barring some special exceptions I won’t go into. This rule does not apply to skill checks in official D&D rules, but in Baldur’s Gate 3 it does and you can’t opt out of this house rule, or any of them. You can enable “Karmic Dice” to make the entropy of dice rolls more forgiving though.
The way a skill check works is simple: if you want to perform some task that requires the use of a skill, you have to make a dice roll. The value you need to roll or surpass is called the Difficulty Class (DC). For example, if you want to make a peculiar jump, it might have a DC of 15. You have to roll a d20 (20 sided die), add your Athletics skill value, and add your relavent ability score modifier (STR for Athletics). The sum of those three numbers has to be 15 or more to succeed at this skill check, in this example. It doesn’t inherently matter if you rolled a 1 in official D&D; if the total is 15 or more, you still pass.
Not in Baldur’s Gate 3. Larian tried to spice things up with critical failure and critical success: rolling a 1 instantly fails any skill check, rolling a 20 instantly passes. Hence why in my screenshot above, I passed a DC 21 skill check with a 20. I’m fine with this house rule, if it were optional.
Fun fact: the example I just gave above with jumping also doesn’t apply to Baldur’s Gate 3, since there’s no skill check for jumping in Baldur’s Gate 3, in order to make the game more forgiving. This also isn’t tied to difficulty mode.
There are other unfortunate house rules here and there. Another big one is with revivification magic: Baldur’s Gate 3 only has one such spell which is Revivify. This can resurrect a character who died within the last minute, assuming they are intact. Unfortunately in Baldur’s Gate 3, this only works on PCs – not at all NPCs. This limitation unfortunately exists in many other cRPGs, probably because there would be scenarios in which using it on an NPC should add perhaps one extra piece of dialogue. I say this limitation is a significant flaw and it is certainly a huge shortcoming, and Larian also should’ve added Raise Dead and Reincarnation spells… among many others, but I’ll get into the awfully weak spell selection of the game later in the review.
Other house rules exist to randomly and unfortunately change things, such as the Dimension Door spell not having anywhere near the range (400+ ft) that it has in the official rules, which makes it not very useful next to Misty Step which is a lower level spell. Engine limitation perhaps. Or the Sunbeam spell being changed to conical rather than line shaped. Or Feather Fall spell not slowing you down and instead just removing fall damage (another engine limitation?), which reminds me of how the Blade Barrier and Evard’s Black Tentacles spell visual effects are static rather than animated like they should be. Larian also forgot that Ethereal creatures are susceptible to Force magic/effects.
Another particularly troublesome house rule is that anyone can cast any spell scroll, even if they are not a caster. A divine spellcaster can cast an arcane spell scroll freely, with no penalty, if the arcane spell in question is of a spell level the divine caster can cast.
Some of these house rules, like the last few described, just make gameplay balance worse. I saw one comment about Baldur’s Gate 3 that claimed its biggest weakness is not only the use of the D&D 5e ruleset, but also its failure to adhere to it. I don’t find the house rules to be anywhere near the greatest flaw though – those are minor compared to the flaws I’ll discuss later in the gameplay review.
Race selection in Baldur’s Gate 3 is very typical for a D&D RPG: you have human, only the common elven subraces plus Drow (which for some reason isn’t categorized as an Elven subrace), the common Dwarf subraces plus Duergar, Tiefling, and the more unusual choice is Githyanki which is very fitting for this game’s story. Dragonborn is also present. The game includes some but not all racial traits, such as sunlight sensitivity not being present for the Underdark races. Another house rule that should have been made optional.
Baldur’s Gate 3 only has the utmost basic D&D classes, like many other video games before it. This, combined with very simplified 5e ruleset, means character build depth and diversity is only a tiny sliver next to the likes of the Pathfinder video games or Neverwinter Nights series. You have only these basic classes, Warlock is no longer a unique class in 5e but instead shares the Wizard/Sorcerer spellbook, no prestige classes, no ability to focus on a specific spell school or weapon type and gain any benefit from it, the feat (ability) selection is measured in the dozens rather than the hundreds.
This severely, negatively affects the replayability of the game. While many of the deficiencies here aren’t Larian’s fault but rather 5e ruleset’s fault, Larian could’ve always added more classes which is generally a very quick thing to do (I’ve created classes for Neverwinter Nights). This wouldn’t make up for the lack of feats (5e itself has very few) but it would help. Psionics in particular are a glaring omission, considering the presence of Illithids and Githyanki.
As it stands, a single class has minimal variety (only that which is offered by the subclass, for the classes that have one) and there are not many to choose from. The game’s story offers far more replayability than its gameplay.
This area has been Larian’s strength since the Divinity: Original Sin games. Larian provides some of the best turn-based tactics gameplay of any cRPG, benefitting greatly from their use of physics. The game world is full of physics objects that you can move normally or magically, creating makeshift barriers or using improvised weapons or stacking objects to climb things to the point of severe exploitation.
This also extends to elemental effects: you can freeze water, melt ice, electrify water, dry water, start a fire to a very limited extent (no architectural destruction however), put out a fire. No acid physics though. You can also put out or ignite light sources, and dip your weapon in substances. I have yet to play another cRPG that has all this. All of this is the signature of the Divinity: Original Sin games, and thankfully it all returns in Baldur’s Gate 3. I feared it wouldn’t return because a notable amount of players complained about enemy AI using these tactics against them (maybe try easy mode?). But I’ll get more into AI later.
Fundamentally, Baldur’s Gate 3 generally works like a D&D 5e video game should, barring the above mentioned house rules. It is a party-based game, though that’s technically optional most of the time. The difficulty on “Balanced” and above modes are such that you always want a full party. A full party is only 4 members in this game, a reduction compared to the previous Baldur’s Gate games. This is a shortcoming; it’d be best if the party limit was raised, and to some extent the amount of enemies can dynamically adjust to your party size albeit not completely – it should adjust to party sizes of 4 or more only.
And yes, Baldur’s Gate 3 is only turn-based. Unlike Arcanum and the two Pathfinder cRPGs by Owlcat, this game does not let you freely choose between turn-based and real-time with pause modes. The first two Baldur’s Gate games use real-time with pause. Every cRPG should provide both options to satisfy everyone, which doesn’t require a high effort. But turn-based is certainly the better option if a game is only to have one, for the following reasons:
- It’s far more suitable for multiplayer (which is only co-op in this game), since you can’t effectively have pausing in multiplayer (not that it’s impossible – the Neverwinter Nights games allow it to be enabled, it’s just completely undesirable)
- It makes it more difficult to exploit AI deficiencies, achieving more fair, challenging gameplay less forgiving of mistakes
- It gives you the choice of using reactions or not. This can be done in a real-time game too, but it’d disrupt the flow a lot there
One key area to judge RPGs is how skills are used in the world. Baldur’s Gate 3 has a fair amount of skills by video game RPG standards, and as for their use in gameplay, I’m happy to report they’re used more/better than in most cRPGs. I won’t go into the story role-playing in this part of the review, but from my experience the most underutilized skills are Investigation, which does have conceptual overlap with Perception, as well as Medicine and Survival. Neverwinter Nights 2 lets you use the Survival skill in tracking mode to actually track creatures – very useful, this game needs it. Medicine doesn’t have much use especially since there are no healing kits in the game. Sleight of Hand is of course used a lot, as it controls disarming traps (but not setting traps which is totally missing), picking locks, and pickpocketing.
From a gameplay perspective, the most impressive skill use in the game was Athletics for me. This is one of very few cRPGs that lets you jump, and Athletics is also important for moving objects in the world. Being able to jump is one thing, but the level design has to incorporate it – and thankfully, Baldur’s Gate 3 does brilliantly, but I’ll touch on level design later in the review.
Survival is often used to find buried treasure, which requires a shovel to dig. You will also find pickaxes in the game: Skyrim players may instinctively wish to pick it up to mine resources, but it only has 2 or 3 scripted uses in this regard, all in act 1. It is useful for breaking down weak walls (scripted) and doors though. Yes, Baldur’s Gate 3 lets you destroy most doors, also chests and other containers! Though there’s no penalty for destroying containers – this alone cannot destroy what’s within, which makes lockpicking less desirable which isn’t ideal for game balance. But being able to break down doors is such a good feature for a nonlinear game, so that a locked, wooden door doesn’t halt progress.
There are no mounts or mounted gameplay of any kind in Baldur’s Gate 3.
Baldur’s Gate 3 does not have the most rigid turn-based tactics mechanics. On your character’s turn, you get a move action, a standard action, and a bonus action (the equivalent of the swift action in older versions and Pathfinder), but you don’t have to use the entirety of your move action all at once. You can move slightly, spend a standard action, move some more, etc. You can also get reactions (immediate action equivalent), which happen outside of your turn and you can choose not to use them (except for attacks of opportunity).
One baffling fundamental gameplay mechanic is the way sneak attack is handled. Sneak attack is a completely separate action – a rogue has to choose whether to use a regular attack or a sneak attack. In all my years of playing D&D games as well as the two Pathfinder cRPGs, never before have I seen this. In every other game I have played, this needless, impractical disinction isn’t there; those games instead automatically determine whether or not the attack is a sneak attack or not, using the same kind of conditional logic baked into Baldur’s Gate 3’s separate sneak attack button.
Why is this poor UI/UX design? Because a player can forget to select sneak attack when eligible for one. But there’s a more grave issue here too: for ranged weapons, Baldur’s Gate 3 has special ammo types, like fire arrows. acid arrows, arrows of slaying, and more (no distinction between bolts and arrows here by the way). Regular ammo is unlimited. The huge problem is, you cannot sneak attack with special ammo types! This is a massive artificial limitation born of bad game logic and UI/UX design.
Something else is broken about sneak attack: it doesn’t take into account enemies not facing you. Sneak attacks are supposed to be activated (for anyone that has the ability of course) for any flanking move, such as attacking someone not looking at you. I’ve never seen another game mess this up before.
I will say one good bit of UI design is the expandable and customizable hotbar. Inventory filters are present, but buggy as mentioned above. Sadly the game does not remember your HUD settings when loading a save or new area. Alchemy is also present, and all you have to do is collect ingredients, open the inventory and go to the alchemy tab, and then just create your potions or poisons/coatings. Alchemy isn’t a skill in 5e, nor is any sort of apparatus or equipment needed. Unfortunate oversimplifications, but not Larian’s fault.
Resting is another significant gameplay mechanic, as expected for a D&D game. Most abilities including spells can only be used a limited number of times per day, before needing to be replenished by either a short rest or long rest. Short resting happens immediately, long resting requires setting up camp and consuming food items. The camping mechanics have none of the depth of the Pathfinder games, but here is where things get a bit weird.
Unless in combat or in a point of no return, you can always select “Return to camp” in the UI, and you’ll be teleported back to camp. So you always have a camp, a safe haven, an entirely different game level. You can also send items to camp, since the camp has an unlimited inventory capacity. No magic bags or bags of holding in this game, inventory space is just a complete nonissue. This is a missed opportunity for character progression. Another weird thing here is that there’s a retreat from combat option, but you can only retreat to your camp. I dislike this too: most of the time I’d rather just retreat from a battle without loading a new level, regroup after losing the enemy (this would work really well with the aforementioned, missing tracking mechanic that uses the Survival skill), and then consider a different approach. Ultimately, the two Pathfinder games handle long resting far better than Baldur’s Gate 3.
The big question is: can resting be abused, like in some cRPGs? Usually yes: the game is very permissive in freely allowing you to go back to your camp. There are only a few special exceptions, namely points of no return. This, combined with food supplies basically being unlimited, makes rest abuse easily possible in this game. There’s never any section like the final stretch of Neverwinter Nights 2 where you’re put through a challenging gauntlet with no ability to rest. Despite this, there are even rare items that bestow the benefit of resting.
Your camp location adapts to where you are, though least of all in act 3. But I must say, this does not look like a comfortable place to camp unless you’re a Fire Genasi, an Azer, red dragonkind, or a Fire or Magma Mephit or elemental.
The biggest shortcomings with Baldur’s Gate 3’s gameplay are the spell selection, the lack of true flight, and the lack of rope and grappling hooks. Starting with flight, the game does have the Fly spell and some flying creatures, along with the Gaseous Form spell. But there’s no true flight, no Y-axis movement. Flight is mechanically the same as a localized teleportation spell like Misty Step or Dimension Door (and again due to the severely gimped range of the latter, there’s little distinction between those two), just with animation instead of teleportation. Because it’s not true flight, you can’t stop, attack, or perform actions in mid-air. There are plenty of traps positioned high out of reach for a normal creature, yet a rogue with the Fly spell cannot fly up and disarm them, because you can’t take any action in the air. Not only this, but flight spells are so unreliable that you cannot reliably fly over magical wall spells – trying to do so will often result in you getting maimed. The game has height advantage/disadvantage for ranged attacks, but flying creatures cannot fire a weapon airborne. The level design is fit for flying (hence why it has knockoff flight as well as jumping), the mechanics just aren’t there. This is a massive gameplay shortcoming. Solasta: Crown of the Magister exceeds Baldur’s Gate 3 here.
As for rope and grappling hooks, again the level design is already set up for it. You can jump, pseudo-fly, teleport, and triple jump distance with some abilities or a potion, using all of this to move vertically if you wish. Rope and grappling hooks are two of the top items for any D&D adventurer, so it’s amazing that so few cRPGs have them. Rope would allow for safe descents, grappling hooks would allow for climbing if there’s something it can hook on. Hopefully mods can one day add these, but there’s no hope for proper flight via modding. If the game ever gets mod tools at all.
Baldur’s Gate 3 has more universal combat maneuvers than most other cRPGs: you can shove opponents, throw them or throw things at them, or use dash to double movement speed. Throwing opponents is absolutely hilarious but causes a gigantic performance stutter. There are numerous combat maneuvers I miss though, such as grappling, tripping, disarming, bull rushing, overrunning.
Character progression refers to gameplay mechanics such as leveling up (how often and what you gain from this), the acquisition of more powerful and special equipment, the gameplay arc of your character. I was deeply concerned about this element of Baldur’s Gate 3 because it’s easily a 80-100 hour game yet only has a level cap of 12. For reference, the original campaign of Neverwinter Nights (which is quite boring, I might add) is around a 40 hour game with a level range of 1-20. Neverwinter Nights 2’s original campaign is in the 50-60 hour range, and that’s also a level 1-20 campaign. Those have some of the best character progression I’ve ever experienced. Baldur’s Gate 2 is around half the length of the third game, but its level range is around 7-8 to 20. Pathfinder: Kingmaker took me over 100 hours to complete, it has a level range of 1-20 and when it comes to character progression I was bored out of my mind. I’d spend many hours stagnant. You can see why I was worried for Baldur’s Gate 3, based on all of this.
Thankfully the level 12 cap isn’t quite as damaging to pace and character progression as I thought it’d be, but it still is damaging. Rather than spreading the levels out throughout the entire campaign like Pathfinder: Kingmaker does, in Baldur’s Gate 3 I max out my level early in act 3 (the game can be broken down into three acts). Prior to that, there were a few areas where I feel I should’ve gained enough experience to level up – namely the completion of the Githyanki creche quest line including finding the hidden Lathander temple. But you’ll definitely feel most stagnant after reaching level 12 in act 3, and having to complete many hours without leveling up.
Gameplay pace and character progression are further harmed by the lack of character build diversity, touched upon earlier. Only utmost basic classes, D&D 5e’s rule simplicity including very few feats (5e went the wrong way in making feats more rare, while Pathfinder went the right way in giving every class a feat every other level) which means not nearly as much ability to define a unique character build, and another damning thing in this regard is the game’s pitiful spell selection. Due to the game’s level 12 cap, the highest level spells you can obtain (same for any NPC as none are above level 12, save for one NPC who can somehow cast Power Word, Kill) are 6th level spells. Despite this, Divination spells (one of its 8 spell schools) only go up to 2nd level, and Abjuration only up to 4th level! This renders those spell schools objectively inferior, creating undeniably poor gameplay balance in this regard. Many of your favorite spells from Baldur’s Gate II are not in this game. Baldur’s Gate II has 298 spells, while this game has 226, but to be honest games should have more than both, even if not all at launch. Play Neverwinter Nights with PRC mod to witness a proper spell selection in a fantasy RPG.
This brings me onto another massive missed gameplay opportunity, one that likewise every other fantasy cRPG I’ve played misses out on: Divination magic. As an optional difficulty parameter, Divination magic (and Clairsentience psionics – psionics being entirely absent from this game besides innate Githyanki and Illithid psionics) should replace your typical GPS-tracking map and quest tracking. On this optional, theoretical difficulty setting, the player’s map should just be a map. If any quest target is known, it should be marked on said map, but the map shouldn’t be a GPS. So if you need more assistance in navigating, you want Divination magic or Clairsentience psionics, to use abilities such as the Clairvoyance/Clairaudience spell, Locate Object spell, the Scrying family of spells, the Arcane Eye spell (which NPCs can cast but players can’t? Why?), Find the Path spell, Prying Eyes spell, Contact Other Plane spell, Telepathic Bond, Magic Mouths, Legend Lore spell, and more. Those without such abilities in their party would have to resort to old fashioned methods of actually conducting investigations, something that works brilliantly well in the first two Fallouts and Arcanum because they generally lack objective markers.
It would also be nice if the free teleportation provided by the game was a difficulty option, if the game were to also have long range teleportation spells… which it doesn’t.
Similarly, I would like an optional difficulty mode in which inventory capacity isn’t effectively unlimited (via the safe haven camp). Magic bags are another key staple in D&D that are missing here. Need more inventory capacity? Buy a magic bag. If you have more money to spend, maybe you can afford a greater magic bag, or the legendary bag of holding (which is even mentioned in the game). Arcane casters can also use a spell like Tenser’s Floating Disk to effectively increase their inventory capacity. Speaking of inventory, amusingly enough you can carry containers like barrels or even chests in your inventory, though chests or any full barrel are very heavy. So if you have a high STR character that can reach a chest but can’t open it (many are indestructible), have them pick it up and bring it back to your rogue to lockpick.
Divination isn’t the only type of magic that’s basically missing: long range teleportation is also missing, revivification magic is highly gimped and mostly missing as mentioned earlier, and so many of any D&D player’s favorite spells will be missing, including spells that were in Baldur’s Gate II. You see, in D&D, magic isn’t just used to blast things with elemental energy like you’re used to in video games. It’s not even just used for violence. As my Divination examples highlight above, it’s a universal tool. But in Baldur’s Gate 3 it’s pretty much only useful for violence once again. This limits utility, character build diversity, limits the gameplay and also makes the game less tactically challenging.
Those things aside, equipment diversity (weapons, clothing, armor, enchanted jewelry) generally have a sufficient presence, and the game has some very interesting enchanted weapons. However, when it comes to enchanted armors the game is quite weak compared to other RPGs, especially since there’s no crafting besides alchemy and two scripted events in act 1. There just aren’t that many enchanted armors in the game. You can dye equipment and remove the dye, but that’s not much consolation. Crafting with detailed aesthetic customization would be a great feature for this game. Not only is crafting missing, but also traps aren’t available as items, so rogues cannot collect and place traps as a tactic. Another glaring omission.
Another combat-related problem with Baldur’s Gate 3 is with line of sight (especially for ranged sneak attacks which are surprisingly more susceptible than regular ranged attacks – why is there a difference?), as the images above demonstrate. Characters with ranged weapons just cannot aim over things. One contributor to this is the lack of cover mechanics: in D&D 5e there’s a basic cover system in which you can have partial cover or full cover, similar to the modern XCOM games. There’s no such explicit system here.
This is one of several areas in which Baldur’s Gate 3 surpasses every other cRPG I’ve played. Level design historically has not been a strong point for the cRPG genre, largely because it has been limited to 2D level design for so long. I’m not only talking about the 2.5D cRPGs either, but even the 3D ones like the aforementioned Neverwinter Nights series, KOTOR series, Pathfinder games, in which varying heights/elevation are hardly present in their level design. At the same time, the vast majority of cRPGs do not have any form of climbing or jumping.
Elevation is your best friend in this game. Not only does it bestow “advantage” on ranged attack rolls (likewise being at a significant elevation disadvantage gives you “disadvantage” on ranged attack rolls unless you take a feat to ignore this), it is also very useful for stealth. Unlike most stealth games, enemies do look up, so it’s not perfectly safe up there.
Another way to use height to your advantage in combat is to shove or throw enemies from a high place; when there’s an endless cliff, this is an instant kill. No, you can’t use this with impunity: it requires succeeding at an Athletics skill check, and Ethereal creatures are immune to it (there are no Incorporeal creatures in 5e).
Elevation isn’t only used for combat though, it is also used to add many layers to the level design in general, which is used heavily for exploration purposes. My first playthrough took me about 86 hours, but a lot of that was due to deliberate exploration that actually yielded results. There’s substantial side content and hidden treasure to this game. Have your high STR character carry a shovel at all times!
This 80-100 hour figure I keep mentioning is about twice that of Baldur’s Gate II, the Neverwinter Nights series original campaigns, the KOTOR games, and Dragon Age: Origins, but in terms of main story it’s not actually any longer. The game starts on a beach just like the Divinity: Original Sin games, you can move on to a mountain (triggering act 2) or the Underdark (and you can circle back to both), before progressing to the Shadow-Cursed Lands in act 2 which has one inn, one town, a fortress called Moonrise Towers, and some wilderness in between. Then you move on to act 3, briefly stopping in the Astral Plane before moving on to a town, another fortress, and finally Baldur’s Gate’s lower city. Sadly the upper city is barely a level in this game, only used for the final battles.
Disregard all that optional exploration, side content, experimentation, and you can certainly beat this game in 50-60 hours too. But unlike so many open world games with “exploration”, it’s actually worth your time in Baldur’s Gate 3. The level design in this regard shines the most in acts 1-2.
By the way, I’d like to point out that Moonrise Towers serves as one of the best stealth missions I’ve played in a game, and this is coming from a huge fan of Thief Gold, Thief II: The Metal Age, and I’ve also played The Dark Mod, the Dishonored series, the Deus Ex series, and the Metal Gear Solid series. The player agency offered at Moonrise Towers in level design and gameplay choices make it that good of a stealth mission.
Wyrm’s Rock Fortress on the other hand isn’t that good of a stealth mission from a gameplay perspective, due to the excessive limitations on what surfaces you can jump/climb to or teleport to really showing here, along with 5e’s limitations on magic and metamagic, and the game’s poor spell selection (e.g. no Passwall or Spider Walk spells among countless others). Much of Wyrm’s Rock Fortress is limited to only a single path if you want to use stealth, and this is due to poor gameplay limitations, not clever level design.
There is a Disguise Self ability/spell, but that’s mostly for cosmetic purposes. You can’t use it to escape bounties, you can’t use it to then try and play the game like you’re Agent 47. Its only uses are to acquire unique racial dialogue options and to use Speak with the Dead on someone you killed (fooling them into perceiving you as someone else). If I’ve missed any other uses of Disguise Self, do let us know in the comments.
Why on earth is that perfectly good, concrete platform an invalid target? This sort of thing is common in this game unfortunately.
In most cRPGs, the only hope they have for good level design is a clever, complex, and dangerous dungeon and/or maze. Surprisingly, Baldur’s Gate 3 attempts no such thing. There are no deep, complex dungeons. The biggest dungeon is Shar’s Temple in act 2, which is large but extremely straightforward and open, not complex at all. I would’ve liked some complex dungeons in addition, even if optional.
The level design also benefits immensely from the aforementioned use of physics. Doors and many (but not all) obstacles can be broken down – there isn’t much I hate more in game design than nonfunctional, fake doors, or a wooden door halting my progress. Functional level design is overall great in Baldur’s Gate 3. Artistically, the levels are generally about as diverse as you can hope for a game that ultimately only takes place around Baldur’s Gate – when you’re not in the Astral Plane or Avernus (all brief visits), you’re no more than some days march from Baldur’s Gate.
For enemy variety, there’s not too much to say other than Baldur’s Gate 3 is slightly inadequate for such a large scale RPG. In act 1 you can fight some Intellect Devourers, typical Goblin parties (Goblins, Worgs, some Bugbears, at least one Hobgoblin mini-boss), a few Ogres, possibly an Owlbear, some humans, some Gnolls, one group of constructs, one group of mephits, one elemental, and if you want to engage in random slaughter you can assault a Druid grove containing not only the Druids but also a group of Tiefling refugees.
Act 2 features Shadows, some other basic undead, normal humanoids, one group of fiends, one group of Kuo-Toa surprisingly, one other interesting group of underutilized monsters (I forget the name), potentially Githyanki, and perhaps a few other types. Act 3 has more regular humanoids, a unique group of constructs, more mephits, a cameo appearance for cranium rats that never actually behaves like Cranium Rats, Mind Flayers, one dragon (red – the only types we ever see in the game sadly), potentially a half-devil Cambion and an Incubus, potentially three Beholderkin (not true Beholders), some Wraiths, little else.
On the other hand, if you were to list the enemy variety of Baldur’s Gate II, you’d be here for much longer. Let alone Neverwinter Nights. But the enemy roster isn’t horribly deficient, just a tad.
D&D veterans may have noticed something peculiar in my previous paragraph: a half-devil Cambion and an Incubus mentioned together? A devil and a demon? I think Larian forgot that an Incubus is a Tanar’ri – a demon, the opposite-evil and eternal enemy of the Baatezu (devils).
Which brings me to a bigger problem in Baldur’s Gate 3: it portrays devils as just red, horned, winged humans. The typical image. Indeed that’s how many Cambions (half-fiends) look, but devils play a role in the game’s story and they made all of them Cambions. Including Raphael, the silver-tongued devil with a whopping 666 hp and a mansion in Avernus. Not even the most powerful type of devil (Pit Fiend) has 666 hp but if you’re going to do that, make him a Pit Fiend on the path to becoming an Archdevil, not a wimpy half-devil which should be weaker than most true devils save for the fodder. I suspect Larian just wanted all key characters, except for the one Mind Flayer, to be human which shows a lack of ambition, and this ends up being a bit repetitive in addition to being a lore contradiction in this case.
Considering Mizora grants Wyll his Warlock powers, Mizora too probably shouldn’t be a Cambion, but rather an Erinyes which is a true devil, or some other kind of true devil.
As for boss fights, most of them in Baldur’s Gate 3 are thankfully just particularly difficult enemy encounters without unique boss fight mechanics. The only exception is Grym at the Grymforge, which works more like a regular boss battle in that it requires a unique approach, but it’s a decent one.
So the enemy diversity is a bit inadequate, Raphael certainly should have been a Pit Fiend rather than a Cambion given his power and influence, and Mizora should’ve been an Erinyes. A level 12 party would struggle immensely against a Pit Fiend, but the game shouldn’t have had a level cap of just 12 considering its length and scale, and you’d just have to reduce the amount of Cambions on Raphael’s side (again why is everything a Cambion? Lazy, lack of diversity). Also, mage enemies are just unusually rare in the game which is another deficiency in this area.
Overall Baldur’s Gate 3 surpasses all other cRPGs I’ve played in this regard, save for one massive AI failure: stealth AI. Quite often enemy AI won’t move at all when you sneak attack them, and then put every active combatant of yours back in hide mode successfully. This happened inconsistently so I couldn’t establish any patterns while playing, since sometimes it didn’t happen. More often than not though, this AI exploit worked.
The screenshot above was one of many battles in which I exploited it. The battle shown there was set up to be an enemy ambush (in which case it becomes the hardest battle in act 2 and probably the second hardest battle in the entire game), but my party detected it and flanked them as shown in the screenshot. Then I just exploited this enormous AI flaw so that my rogue single handedly sneak attacked every single enemy to death, without any of them ever moving. The main enemy there is essentially a boss yet the exploit still worked.
But when not exploiting the broken stealth AI, Baldur’s Gate 3 overall has the best enemy combat AI I’ve encountered in a cRPG, but it is far from perfect and still worse than that of the modern XCOM games. The positives for the enemy AI are that those with ranged weapons actually seek to keep their distance, use the high ground to gain an advantage, and they will use hit and run techniques. Far more elusive than enemies with ranged weapons in any other cRPG I’ve played.
Another thing many players learned the hard way is that enemies will use the Shove ability intelligently, often at the worst possible time for you. If you’re near a fall, expect an enemy to try and push you off. Great stuff, but sadly enemies will not throw you, or use improvised weapons.
Enemies in Baldur’s Gate 3 will also run right into trap-spells like Glyph of Warding 100% of the time. They aren’t good at avoiding the Wall spells either (thankfully for them there’s no Prismatic Wall). AI also has no regard for opportunity attacks, so when threatened they may unwisely move and trigger one. So while the enemy combat AI is the best I’ve seen in this subgenre (barring stealth AI), clearly there’s still a long way to go before the AI can be considered competent.
There are also issues with party AI, specifically with path finding. This is a game in which mouse clicks are the way to move, attack, and interact with everything, but party AI path finding is fairly unreliable. For example, in combat you might look to use a melee attack against an enemy who is out of range. No problem, the path finding should (and usually does) result in you being able to just click to attack, and your character will run up and attack. But not always! Sometimes the game will think you don’t have the movement range in your turn to reach and attack an enemy, when in fact you do. Don’t trust the path finding.
Path finding when using point and click movement also does not avoid hazardous surfaces, like fires. You’ll run right into them if you don’t stop yourself, even if there are infinite ways around said hazard.
The last thing I’ll mention about AI isn’t actually an AI issue, but it is related to the use of party AI. There are a few situations in which you can end up with an NPC temporarily in your party. This NPC ends up bound to one character in your party, and you can’t separate them. This is quite game-breaking when it comes to tactics, as it can render many tactics you might have unusable. This is particularly bizarre from a programming perspective because summons are another type of temporary party addition bonded to one character, and those CAN be separated. Explain yourselves, Larian.
EconomyThere isn’t nearly as much treasure here as it appears, and this is not because of illusion magic
Really the only thing to mention about the economy of Baldur’s Gate 3 is that it’s never an issue, except maybe for one specific quest. The game drowns you in gold and resources. Believe it or not, enchanted weapons aren’t even worth much to sell – this is not a game about looting. The only valuable loot is enchanted armor, generally speaking. There are interesting items to find (but not as much as there should be with clothing, armor, other items as mentioned earlier), but selling them won’t yield much save for enchanted armor.
Like almost every other cRPG, there’s only a single currency which is just gold. Even though D&D has copper, silver, electrum, and gold pieces, as well as ingots for each which are in the game but are just junk (again not even worth selling). Don’t get me wrong: gold is worthwhile, but selling almost everything just yields so little. Definitely scavenge for gold, for buried and otherwise hidden treasure.
You only really have to spend money on health potions (trivial expense), magic scrolls, hirelings if you want them, and one optional but significant quest in act 3 requires a huge amount of money (negotiable). Even Revivify scrolls aren’t worth directly buying if you’re not a save scummer, because the most cost-effective way to acquire them is to recruit a hireling which is a trivial cost.
This was another area I was gravely concerned about for this game, based on Larian’s previous two titles which contain some of the most egregious asymmetric balancing I’ve ever seen in a game. Especially the first Divinity: Original Sin game, in which I had a companion betray me and join the enemy, and as soon as she did her stats skyrocketed and she even obtained much better equipment out of nowhere.
Thankfully, Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t have nearly as many issues with gameplay balance as their past two games, when playing it on Balanced difficulty mode which is my point of reference for this review. If you want it to be more unbalanced with artificially inflated enemy stats and such, play on Tactician mode. For example, I was relieved at the restraint Larian showed in one of the earliest dungeons: some skeletons can be found in a room, and if you loot them before they rise as undead, then when risen they will be unarmed. I hate it when this sort of logic is thrown out the window, as it so often is in video games.
However, nonsensical asymmetric balance still exists. Perhaps the most blatant example is enemy AI (at least some types like Zealots and Adepts of the Absolute) having a unique healing ability that allows them to heal infinitely out of combat. This combined with the aforementioned broken stealth AI can destroy gameplay flows. For example, if you want to have a hidden rogue sneak attack an enemy to lure them into a trap, the enemy simply might not move after being sneak attacked, but you can’t always stick around to exploit this and sneak attack some more. So they’ll just take that one sneak attack, wait for combat to end, and then heal infinitely. The description of this unique AI healing ability mentions a usage cap with some ridiculously high number (either 10 or 15), but I tested this and it wasn’t obeyed.
Some classic Larian usage of inflated stats for enemy AI can be found mostly in act 3. Aside from the aforementioned Raphael, a half-devil and half-mortal having as many hit points (health) as an archdevil, Gortash (another key character) has 275 hp despite being a level 12 human Wizard or Sorcerer. Larian, if you want to make Gortash even harder to assassinate in his fortress, do it the right way instead of the lazy way. You can instead give him some really good magical equipment, or even put an antimagic field near him generated by some artifact or something. And his level should probably be higher than 12 as well.
Some random level 1 humanoid NPCs in act 3 also have the hit points of a level 12 character for some reason, even inconsequential ones. Also, Larian made some ethereal creatures (poltergeists – which shouldn’t even be ethereal but this is 5e’s fault for abandoning the incorporeal subtype) have innate Force damage resistance which isn’t possible since Force damage is supposed to be THE weakness of ethereal creatures.
One typical game balance issue in Baldur’s Gate 3 is that some scripted battles that initiate after a cutscene automatically reposition your party to predefined spots, for no good reason. Thankfully this is rare, so why does this happen at all? Leave my party where I have them, don’t move them for me. Let me set up for the battle. Afraid that’ll give me too much of an advantage? Then make it a harder battle in a more natural way; with higher level enemies, more enemies, or some redesigned level design attributes in favor of the enemies, and fix the AI.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is like the Divinity: Original Sin games in that it has “leveled” areas. For example, you absolutely do not want to proceed to the Shadow-Cursed Lands (act 2) below level 5. You can ignore this advice and go on to beat the game, but the difficulty will be immense and unfair. The game warns you. I prefer this design and it’s inevitable in an authentic D&D game: every creature has its own Challenge Rating, its own power level so to speak, granted it’s not present in this game. It makes no sense to delevel a true dragon so that a level 2 party can fight it. You have to pick fights you can win in these games, make tactical decisions.
The difficulty progression and leveling isn’t such that it encourages experience point (XP) farming, thankfully. On the “balanced” difficulty mode, if you progress through the story at a natural rate, exploring but not trying to farm XP by killing every creature you can find, then most battles have a very fair difficulty I find. More often than not, your puny 4-person party is slightly outnumbered (I really wish the game had at least a party size of 6 and more enemies on average to compensate). Rarely are you the more powerful force on paper, but rarely is your disadvantage enormous. It’s similar to the suggested encounter levels for most tabletop campaigns, roughly.
But there is a surprising lack of enemy spellcasters, which makes the game easier than it could’ve been. Overall its difficulty on balanced mode is higher than that of the vast majority of other cRPGs, but nothing unfamiliar to those who play turn-based tactics games.
The two hardest encounters in the game are boss fights, which are just really hard fights. Both are optional as well… so many of the battles are. These are both battles against fiends which I mentioned earlier. The hardest one, against Raphael, can end up being one of the hardest battles in any game, if your party composition isn’t right. You need a powerful arcane caster or at least a powerful divine caster, since they can cast arcane spell scrolls due to the game’s oversimplified gameplay rules. You will also really want Invisibility spell potions or scrolls for everyone (or better yet Greater Invisibility), because this is one of those battles that repositions your entire party at the start of it, leaving you all surrounded and outnumbered by well over 2:1 (as well as being outmuscled). Once everyone is invisible, you can have them flee, set up elsewhere, combat will end since the enemies can’t find you, and then you can proceed to exploit the broken stealth AI with a rogue.
The final battle is not very hard at all, despite the presence of a red dragon. By then, you’ll know how to deal with it all if you got that far. Most players will end up battling a necromancer in act 2, and that is often considered in the top 3 hardest fights in the game as well, but again party composition and tactics play a big role. For me it was easy because I had two well rested Fighters, each with immense jumping ability so we were able to vanquish that necromancer very early in the battle.
Surprisingly there are a few ability checks that, no matter how much you are buffed, can only be passed by rolling a 20 (house rules for the lose). This is inherently poor design, but to Larian it’s okay (it really isn’t) because those checks are completely irrelevant – it makes no difference if you pass or fail. Also bad design. What a waste of time, but this is only one moment in this big game so while not a big problem, it had to be called out.
There are many other issues relating to gameplay balance, such as very poor class balance, the overwhelming dominance of mindless AoE (area of effect) spell spam as a combat tactic, but these are the result of D&D 5e rule oversimplifications so Larian can’t be blamed for them. Larian is to blame for the previously mentioned terrible spell balance between spell schools, e.g. Divination only going up to 2nd level and Abjuration up to 4th level. But while Larian isn’t to blame for 5e’s mistakes, I will list the biggest ones so that the issues are clearly understood, but this isn’t meant to criticize Baldur’s Gate 3.
- No prestige classes = one of the key reasons character build diversity is very poor compared to the 3e/3.5e based games and Pathfinders. For those who play those games, most of your favorite character build archetypes are likely impossible in 5e based games like Baldur’s Gate 3.
- No more skill points, so skill progression is locked to your tagged skills which leads to far less choice in character building, making for a rather binary skill system
- Minimal amount of feats further severely restricts character build diversity. No more ability to focus on specific weapon or spell types vs being a universalist for example, metamagic (increasing the potency of spells in many ways) is now heavily gimped and limited to sorcerers, no more archery feats like manyshot, minimal teamwork feats, no feats to improve combat maneuvers or shields, etc.
- Warlock now just reuses the Wizard/Sorcerer spell list and is no longer a unique class
- Class balance is even worse since only the high base attack bonus classes get more than one attack per round, with fighter getting the most
- No more craft skills
- At lower levels, Clerics and Druids are the best at trap sensing rather than rogues, even though that’s supposed to be a rogue specialty and only rogues can effectively disarm them
- Channel Divinity number of uses per short rest is far more limited than ever before, further ruining class balance and gameplay diversity
- Special melee attacks like Pommel Strike, Cleave, Rush Attack, and others only being usable once per short rest doesn’t make sense, other than this being a necessary measure from preventing class balance being even more in favor of warrior builds
- Healing spells don’t damage undead like they used to, which eliminates this tactic as well as the need to decide whether to use healing spells offensively or for healing
- No more level drain
- Almost all effects that used to be permanent (as in having no duration) are now temporary
- Being reduced to 0 hp while polymorphed just returns you to your normal form in 5e with full hp, which is nonsensical from a balance perspective as well as illogical
- Reduced amount of buffing/debuffing mechanics, since in 5e you’re just supposed to charge into battles and win without having to plan much. Death Ward spell has become useless as a result.
- Many spells have fewer effects and simpler usage, like Daylight spell not imposing any penalties on light-sensitive creatures, or even Sunbeam and Sunburst not killing vampires or affecting them in any distinct way (WTF?).
Sadly Larian had no choice but to use 5e for Baldur’s Gate 3. Many changes (but far from all) in 5e make sense for tabletop play, as it’s designed to simplify the gameplay and thus make the game far more manageable for the Dungeon Master (DM), thus improving the flow of the game. For a video game, 5e is mostly just unfortunate as the above list shows. It results in a game with far less character build depth and diversity due to the removed prestige classes and most feats being removed, and it makes for a far less tactical game in which AoE spell spam is the answer to everything.
Baldur’s Gate 3 has multiplayer, but it is very limited. It is only co-op campaign, with no other modes and no more Dungeon Master client. Compare that to the Neverwinter Nights games which allow not only for co-op campaigns, but also PvP arenas, and most famously persistent world servers. There isn’t even any character exporting in Baldur’s Gate 3. A Dungeon Master client is useful for changing an online game on the fly, such as adjusting encounters to better suit the skill levels of the player or to spice things up. Arma 3’s Zeus mode is the same thing.
But perhaps the biggest deficiency in Baldur’s Gate 3’s co-op is that dialogue only affects one player. No other player can witness or have any input on a conversation in-game. This is a massive downgrade from the Divinity: Original Sin games (and others like Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir) which involved all nearby players in dialogue.
So in its current state, Baldur’s Gate 3 multiplayer sadly adds very little to the game. It’s a small fraction of what it should be.
Before moving on to the writing analysis, here’s a list of gameplay elements I’ve never seen done in a cRPG before, that need to be done and should’ve been done at least since the 2010s.
- Real proper flying creatures and flight spells – unless Solasta actually has this (I will play it soon)
- Ability for any creature to walk on walls/ceilings
- Move Earth spell and similar spells that alter terrain on a large scale
- Create Demiplane spells, which should open a limited in-game level editor for you
- Vampire gameplay
- Lycanthrope/werecreature gameplay
- Plane Shifting
- Interplanetary transport
- Astral Projection
- Playable aerial mounts (even regular grounded mounts are far too rare in cRPGs – I’ve only seen it in Neverwinter Nights)
- Wish/Miracle outside of Baldur’s Gate II (and it can be done far better nowadays with machine learning)
- Contingencies outside of Baldur’s Gate II (and it can be done far better)
- Spell sequencers outside of Baldur’s Gate II and enchanted outfits in Neverwinter Nights
- Psionics outside of PRC mod for Neverwinter Nights
- Alternate D&D magic systems outside of PRC mod for Neverwinter Nights
- Proper Illusion magic gameplay that actually obeys spell descriptions – would revolutionize stealth gameplay and role-playing
- Rope and grappling hooks
- Significant envronmental destruction
- Imprisonment, Forcecage, and similar spells
- The majority of the planes
- Lich gameplay outside of PRC mod for Neverwinter Nights
- Passwall, Phase Door and similar spells
- Grappling outside of PRC mod for Neverwinter Nights
- Material spell components outside of PRC mod for Neverwinter Nights
- Proper Divination as described earlier
- Physics-based weather spells
The first two Baldur’s Gate games have grand, very important plots within the context of the Forgotten Realms universe, directly following up on The Time of Troubles and one god’s plan (Bhaal, the god of murder) to create a lasting legacy through mortal offspring known as Bhaalspawn.
It is always interesting to see a sequel like Baldur’s Gate 3 be set over 100 years after the last game. Not only that, but it has some returning characters, most prominently Jaheira and Minsc.
Interestingly enough, Baldur’s Gate 3 does not open with any sort of cinematic retelling/summary of the first two games. It starts off as its own story, with a cinematic pre-rendered intro involving a Nautiloid – that is, an Illithid (Mind Flayer) air ship abducting people from the Sword Coast city of Baldur’s Gate (an extremely rare occurrence for such a vessel to strike so openly), and then being pursued by red-dragon riding Githyanki through Avernus. The game begins onboard this vessel, as the player character was one of the abducted victims.
You can play Baldur’s Gate 3 without having played the first two. The events of the first two games are explained throughout, but you’ll have a much better understanding of how important they are, as well as the backstory of the returning characters and organizations, if you play the first two.
I also highly recommend reading Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations which is a 3.5 edition book about several Aberration species, including the Illithid, also known as the Mind Flayers. This is the definitive book on the Illithid, though you can learn more about them in several Planescape and Spelljammer books as well. Lords of Madness goes over their biology, history, culture, and more in extreme detail.
After playing Baldur’s Gate 3, I come away with the impression that Larian did not read this book. Their portrayal of a Mind Flayer colony at the end of act 2, in which it is depicted as just a gore fest (shown below), certainly suggests Larian did not read this book.
At the start of the game, the player and every companion character in the game barring Jaheira and Minsc are on the Nautiloid, and all were infected by Illithid tadpoles. This is how the Illithid reproduce – via a process known as Ceremorphosis. Typically, after the insertion of the tadpole (usually into the eye socket), the subject begins to transform into an Illithid within minutes. So at first, Baldur’s Gate 3 seems to contradict the lore here, as the player and at least one other companion character fight their way off of the Nautiloid after it has been severely damaged by Red Dragons. But this is no contradiction, it is deliberate; something is different about these Illithid tadpoles.
So act 1 begins after the ship crash lands on a beach (like the Divinity: Original Sin games which all start on beaches too), with all player characters surviving due to some sort of powerful, unknown interference that saved their lives. Somehow, none of the PCs have transformed into Illithid, so act 1 is spent investigating this phenomenon while the first companion character (and potentially playable origin character), a Githyanki named Lae’Zel, implores you to seek out a Githyanki outpost (creche) as they have the means to extract the tadpole.
As you play through act 1, you’ll learn more about this mystery, seemingly revolving around a new goddess (supposedly) calling itself the Absolute. You meet humans, goblinoids, and even gnolls all worshipping it fanatically. Ringleaders of these fanatics also have Illithid tadpoles, which you can detect as they allow you to telepathically communicate with each other – another unique thing about these unusual tadpoles. These other tadpoled people are under the Absolute’s influence, but you are not. In fact, you can influence them using this telepathic connection.
Also in act 1, you’ll find the survivors of an entire town of Tieflings, after the town slipped into Avernus (the first layer of the Nine Hells). I haven’t read any 4th or 5th edition Forgotten Realms campaign settings books (though I am aware of the most major events like the Second Sundering and Spellplague), so to me this game just seems to have way too many Tieflings as they were always a rare mixed race (mostly humanoid with some fiendish heritage). Also, all of the Tieflings in the game seem to be descended from devils; none from demons or daemons, so there’s a false notion of lineage perpetuated here.
These Tieflings are taking refuge in a Druid grove, but the Druids are in the process of performing a ritual to kick everyone out of their grove since the Tiefling refugees attracted Goblinoid attacks on the grove. So like most D&D games, you will likely start out beating up Goblins. Or not, because the vast majority of encounters against sentient beings in Baldur’s Gate 3 can be completed stealthily or non-violently by passing one of many possible dialogue checks. But I’ll elaborate more on the role-playing potential later on.
It becomes clear very quickly that Baldur’s Gate 3 has a completely different literary tone than the Divinity: Original Sin games. This is positively surprising, as those were too light-hearted and cartoonish for me (especially the first). The second game was a bit more serious than the first, but also had some bizarre writing weaknesses like the first few hours of the game throwing lots of lore at you with absolutely no proper exposition whatsoever. Thankfully there are no such problems in Baldur’s Gate 3. Its writing is far more complete, and the tone is darker, though not as dark as what I consider the Torment trilogy (Planescape: Torment, KOTOR 2, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer).
This shift in tone for Larian is very evident in the character development, which is not only infinitely richer than in their past games but nearly every companion is noticeably morally grey. Not as black and white as your typical BioWare characters, they are more complex like actual people. Lae’Zel is a faithfully written Githyanki character much to my surprise; Githyanki are lifelong enemies of the Illithids, being a former slave race to the Illithids until the legendary hero Gith led a successful revolt, shattering the massive Illithid empire that spanned the planes (mostly the Astral Plane but it even threatened the Nine Hells). Gith then led her people in a mission to not only drive the Illithid to extinction, but also conquer other “lesser” species – making them quite like the Illithid in that the Gith people were becoming conquering slavers. Monsters created monsters, and some of the Gith, led by another legendary hero Zerthimon, saw the hypocrisy here and rose against it. When Gith asked Zerthimon, “Surely we stand under one sky on this?” Zerthimon famously replied, “There cannot be two skies” and so came the splitting of the Gith race into two: the conquering, warmongering Githyanki (the only one present in Baldur’s Gate 3) who mostly inhabit the Astral Plane, and the more peaceful Githzerai who now mostly live in Limbo after being defeated by the Githyanki.
Lae’Zel has the typical Githyanki mission to hunt a Mind Flayer and then gain entry into a Githyanki empire in the Astral Plane, with the lifelong goal of becoming a Red Dragon rider. But first, she must rid herself of the tadpole. Along the way, her faith will come into question as she learns that the son of Gith, named Orpheus, is alive contrary to the religious teachings of the Githyanki under their current leader Vlaakith. She will also have to choose whether to work with a Mind Flayer at some point in the story.
Lae’Zel has an interesting character arc, during which she can become delusional, fanatical and unstable. She provides the highest amount of race-specific dialogue of any companion I believe, if the player is either a Githyanki or to a lesser extent, Dragonborn. As a companion character, I do find her to be the best written overall, though she is tied with Shadowheart as the companion with the most significant arc that can be influenced by the player.
Yes, Shadowheart. That literally sounds like a name of someone’s first ever D&D character created for a tabletop game in the 70s. I laughed as soon as she gave that name/handle. She is a half-elf companion and possible origin character. Like Lae’Zel, her arc leads her to big questions of faith – for her between her current goddess, Shar (goddess of dark, loss, forgetfulness) and Selune (goddess of the moon and non-evil lycanthropes). The first two gods created by Ao, the overgod. She is a Cleric of Shar at the start of the game, and she can rise through the ranks or instead become a Cleric of Selune.
Through these two companions in particular, we have a level of role-playing that I have only really seen in KOTOR 2, where you can push most companion characters to the dark side or light side, and where this seriously changes the content of the game. The writing quality of Baldur’s Gate 3 is nowhere near as high as KOTOR 2’s, but it is generally decent here. Companion dialogue doesn’t have the depth, cleverness, or memorable lines of KOTOR 2, less depth than most BioWare games even as in you cannot usually discuss the events of the plot in as much detail with the companions in Baldur’s Gate 3. But the game isn’t severely lacking here either.
Another companion character is Gale, who is easy to miss and never recruit. In fact, on my first playthrough I didn’t recruit him, and so he was just absent from my entire game. Companions are generally optional in this game. Gale is your typical D&D well-meaning Wizard – eloquently spoken, clever, knowledgeable, witty, and ambitious. Larian may have read some of the Elminster novels before writing is character, as there are some strong parallels; some of those personality attributes are shared between the two, one of his random quotes when taking control of him in-game is, “Elminster’s not around, so might as well…”, and like Elminster (and I believe like no one else in Forgotten Realms history), he was so cherished by Mystra, the goddess of magic, that he became her lover – lover to one of the most powerful deities, albeit this is a different, twice reborn version of Mystra, most recently reborn just 5 years before the events of Baldur’s Gate 3. Personally I’m not a fan of this similarity occurring again, as it seems very unlikely and diminishes the special relationship between Mystra and Elminster, but it’s not too big of a problem.
Gale tried to prove his love to Mystra by letting his ambitions get the better of him, resulting in him becoming a slave to ancient, horrible Netherese magic known as a Netherese destruction orb. This orb consumes energy from the Weave (the source of arcane magic) and is a ticking time bomb. Because of this, you must actually feed him magical items to consume and permanently destroy – potentially a deal breaker for some players, which is fine. If you don’t like him, get rid of him. This orb contains a fragment of the Weave of Karsus, which wants to supplant Mystra’s Weave and become the new source of magic. Ancient Netherese magic plays a big role in Baldur’s Gate 3’s plot, but we’ll get back to that later. You can influence Gale’s ambitions, and he can even become the hero of the story, sacrificing himself by using this orb to destroy the main antagonist at the end.
Another companion character is Astarion, a high elf vampire spawn who is mysteriously protected from sunlight by these unusual Illithid tadpoles. Depending on your actions, he may or may not openly share his secret with you. If he doesn’t, he will try to drink your blood while you sleep, and you can respond to this by killing him. Should he not be killed, he takes on the role of the clearly evil companion character (assuming you’re not playing as him of course). His story concludes in an optional quest in act 3 set in a mansion that gives off some Dracula vibes. He’s not as complex of a character as the above.
Likewise, the rest of the companion cast is overshadowed in character development by Lae’Zel, Shadowheart, and Gale. This includes Wyll, a human Warlock known as the Blade of Frontiers – the good-hearted but terribly unwise would-be hero who made an unwise pact with Mizora, a Cambion (who probably should’ve been an Erinyes or some other true devil) to become a Warlock. He signed a contract with a (half) devil, and this can of course end with his soul being forfeit, and Wyll spending the rest of eternity as a Lemure in Avernus (since Baldur’s Gate 3 sort of portrays the Nine Hells as just a single hell – the first layer, Avernus). Initially, his goal is to find and destroy a supposed devil called Karlach. Mizora convinced him that she is some terribly evil and powerful devil, when in reality she is a Tiefling that was made a slave to Zariel, Archdevil of Avernus, and fought on the front lines of the Blood War.
Karlach is another companion: a Tiefling Barbarian, good natured but with a fiery temper and a love for fighting. It’s easy to get Wyll to see the truth and have them both become allied party members. Karlach was a bodyguard for Gortash, a noble from Baldur’s Gate and one of the antagonists of the game. Gortash sold her to Zariel, and Zariel used Karlach as a test bed for an infernal engine which was installed inside her chest, replacing her heart, and making her one of the stronger forces on the front lines of the Blood War apparently.
There’s a pattern here: Gale was not only a Chosen of Mystra but basically on the path to becoming Elminster v2 (her most favored Chosen and the GOAT wizard in this universe), Lae’Zel gets to meet Vlaakith herself or Orpheus depending on your choices, and possibly go on to become a very important Githyanki. Shadowheart can meet either Shar or Selune and become one of their Chosen. Karlach was favored by Zariel. Most companions can effectively become chosen by deities or demigods. I haven’t witnessed such an important adventuring party since the Time of Troubles or since the Knights of Myth Drannor. Considering the three antagonists for most of the game are the Chosen of three dead gods, this makes sense, but then that level 12 cap REALLY doesn’t make sense. Overall the PCs are too important for my taste from a literary perspective.
The above companions are the initial ones, and those are the ones available as playable origin characters, along with “The Dark Urge.” That’s right, instead of creating your own character from scratch, you can instead opt to play one of those as your character. A cool addition.
Some companions can be recruited later like Halsin (a wood elf Druid), Jaheira and Minsc (returning characters; a half-elf Druid and a human Ranger respectively), and Minthara (a Drow paladin). None of these have as much character development as the ones above, but they are still developed characters, just not with the same depth. Most players will recruit all of those except for Minthara, as she is an evil servant of the Absolute.
Something else that stands out about these characters is that some of them are too… horny. With Halsin, Lae’Zel, and perhaps others, sexual advancements are aggressive and unnatural. All of them can be romanced, but said romance has no plot significance. It’s there as a fan service since that’s one of the key selling points for cRPGs. Larian said some of this was a bug that they patched, but it’s still there. I don’t see any changes in this regard from any patches.
In addition to the characters is the dream guardian, the other character you can fully customize at the start of the game. They appear to you in dreams throughout act 1, cryptically warning you of some kind of ongoing, very important battle, and informing you that they are protecting you from the tadpole. They are the reason you aren’t a blind servant of the Absolute. Yet they also highly encourage you to consume other tadpoles – those you find from Absolutists – to take advantage of the power they offer. They tell you they won’t transform you into an Illthid fully, but you can gain power from them. Which turns out to be true. But what is this creature? What war is it fighting? This is the other mystery. Will you trust this dream guardian? It’s up to you.
Act 1 involves the unraveling of the Absolute mystery, which remains a mystery going into act 2. There’s the Goblin vs Tieflings conflict, Tieflings vs Druids conflict, some long spanning quests relating to the Flaming Fists, a hidden Zhentarim outpost (Bane and Cyric worshipping organized crime guild featured in the previous games), one possible Githyanki encounter, and the Underdark which introduces Absolute-allied Duergar who are in a conflict with Myconids (sentient mushrooms). There’s nothing in the way of apparent overarching themes, just the plot and its characters.
Act 2 has you pursuing the Absolute to their headquarters at the Moonrise Towers; a former Selunite outpost in some rural lands once owned by the Thorm family. The entire area has fallen under some sort of Shadow curse, one that has even defeated the Shar worshippers who have a hidden temple in the area.
Halsin’s goal is to rid these lands of their shadow curse. There’s an inn taken over by Harpers – a multi-racial organization devoted to battling evil wherever it appears. Jaheira is the leader of this outpost, so she first appears here. One Cleric of Selune protects this inn from the shadow curse.
The backstory of these lands and the Thorm family can only fully be uncovered by exploring, which can lead to boss fight encounters with undead Thorm family members. The local figurehead of the Absolute clan is Ketheric Thorm, an undead Paladin of Myrkul – the dead god of death, a portfolio now owned by Kelemvor. Ketheric’s story is simple and familiar: tragedy struck his family when his daughter died, and Myrkul brought her back not as an undead, but back to the living world. For that, Ketheric now devotes everything to Myrkul, and as a result has allied with the Absolute. Ketheric is Myrkul’s chosen, Gortash is Bane’s chosen (dead god of tyranny), and Orin is Bhaal’s chosen and a Bhaalspawn (dead god of murder). Together, these three make up the three antagonists for most of the game.
Once again the Tieflings from act 1, if any survive it (up to you), are stranded in act 2. Some are at the aforementioned Last Light Inn, others are prisoners at Moonrise. The main goal of act 2 is to reach Moonrise, learn more of the Absolute, and defeat whatever lies at Moonrise which turns out to be Ketheric and the Absolute itself. The Absolute of course leaves, so you only fight Ketheric there. You can first make direct contact with the Absolute at Moonrise – an encounter that can easily be missed.
Also present in act 2 is the Githyanki creche that Lae’Zel talks about early in the game. Githyanki took over an abandoned temple of Lathander outside the shadow cursed area. This series of quests is altered significantly by the presence of either Lae’Zel or another Githyanki player. This quest elaborates more on the mysterious artifact that Shadowheart possessed at the start of the game, which inexplicably transfers itself to you. It’s a Githyanki artifact, as Lae’Zel is quick to point out in act 1 (the two of them can even turn to violence over it). Vlaakith herself will appear to the party, offering an excellent reward for entering the artifact – an Astral prism – and slaying the being that lies within. This being is said to be deceiving and thus shouldn’t be listened to.
Vlaakith is the current leader of the Githyanki, who supposedly defeated Orpheus, son of Gith, who was apparently trying to sell the Githyanki back into slavery against the Illithids. This doesn’t read like a credible story to anyone not under Vlaakith’s spell, and indeed it turns out to be false – if you enter the artifact, no matter what happens within, Vlaakith will make the entire player party public enemy #1 for the Githyanki. This was interesting for my first playthrough as a black Dragonborn character (chaotic evil in spirit). I figured that regardless of whether or not the Absolute is really a god, I want some god or demigod’s favor going up against it. So I allied with Lae’Zel and wanted to ally with the Githyanki to take on whatever lies at Moonrise.
After entering the astral prism artifact, I learned that the creature that lies within is in fact the dream guardian, who pleaded for his/her (your choice in character creation) life. I killed him without hesitation as I never trusted him, only for him to rise again. The transition between acts 2 and 3 reveal more: the dream guardian isn’t the only entity within the astral prism, Orpheus is also trapped within. The dream guardian is using Orpheus’ innate power to shield your party from the influence of the Absolute, which turns out to be an Elder Brain (apex Illithid life form – a giant brain, the most powerful mortal psionic creature type in existence, and you also encounter one in Baldur’s Gate II) being controlled by the chosen of the Dead Three (Ketheric, Gortash, Orin). They control it via an ancient Netherese artifact, the Crown of Karsus and the stones that control it.
Vlaakith wants you to eliminate Orpheus once and for all, so that her little lie about him being a dead traitor never escapes, but regardless of what happens in the artifact, you’re a loose end that must be eliminated. This makes for an interesting dilemma for Lae’Zel, as mentioned earlier. So the plot of Baldur’s Gate 3 is less about the Bhaalspawn this time around, and heavily incorporates Githyanki lore and Netherese lore.
Gale shares with you the story of Karsus’ Folly – Karsus was the greatest wizard who ever lived, and Netheril was the most powerful human empire to ever exist. In order to defeat the Phaerimm threat (powerful, cruel arcane aberrations, virtually extinct by the time of this game) and protect his empire, Karsus spent many years creating a spell called Karsus’ Avatar – the most powerful spell ever created, a 12th level spell. This spell usurped the divine power of Mystra, goddess of magic, and bestowed it upon Karsus. However, the source of magic – the Weave – is intrinsically tied to Mystra, so when this happened the Weave itself was threatened. Karsus was overloaded by the divine power and perished, the Weave temporarily failed which caused the magical floating cities of Netheril to fall, ending the Netherese empire in a single stroke. Mystra (then Mystryl) sacrificed herself to save the Weave. She was reborn, magic stabilized and she then prevented the creation of any spells more powerful than level 10.
The Netherese had many powerful magic artifacts, and the Crown was yet another. Through the crown, Ketheric and Gortash and Orin are controlling an Elder Brain, and through that they control everyone infected by one of its tadpoles who are now manipulated into believing it is a goddess called the Absolute. The crown bestows some unspecified great magical power, but it is controlled by three stones, which Ketheric, Gortash, and Orin all possess. You must gain possession of these stones.
Exploration will also reveal a lot about Gortash’s motives. He’s the chosen of Bane so he is the one who kickstarted this plot and, after making some deals with devils, was able to obtain the crown from a vault of Mephistopheles, (former) Archdevil of Cania. Sufficient exploration will reveal that his plot was built upon one by an ancient Alhoon, an Illithid lich.
Amusingly, Gortash has plain text diaries all over that incriminate him completely. There’s also at least one duplicate in a bank vault and his quarters (oversight). You’d think he’d use magic to at least lock them. There’s no opportunity in the plot to use this evidence him.
So the player’s goal is to eliminate Ketheric, Gortash, and Orin, obtaining their Netherstones with the help of the dream guardian, and then destroy the Absolute. Obviously there’s an opportunity here to try and control the Elder Brain and become a conqueror yourself. As for the dream guardian, he/she turns out to be an Illthid, one not able to be influenced by an Elder Brain. Therefore he should have been a Ulitharid yet he isn’t, which is more evidence that Larian didn’t read Lords of Madness.
If the player pursues Wyll’s personal quest, it can lead to the revelation that the dream guardian, known as The Emperor when he worked behind the scenes in Baldur’s Gate, is Balduran himself – founder of Baldur’s Gate. So this really is a significant plot involving multiple deities and several legendary characters.
The final few hours of the game reveals another twist: the plot was the Elder Brain’s all along. It trusted that as soon as one of the Netherstones changed hands, it’d gain enough independence to take over and complete its plan of using Karsus’ Crown (which Gortash obtained which is why it needed them) to gain some amount of power that’s never fully elaborated on, to try and conquer much of the planes like the Illithids had in the past, creating empires across both planets and universes.
End of Spoilers
Baldur’s Gate 3 has big plot with a lot going on, mysteries and twists, and it is coherent, but there’s a lack of overarching themes to tie it all together. Planescape: Torment’s plot for example is held together by the question, “What can change the nature of a man?” as well as themes of regret. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer’s plot all comes back to the question of love and good deeds vs faith, and which one being more important for admission into a positive afterlife. All the elements of Morrowind’s plot ties back to central themes surrounding faith, and whether the Tribunal were right to make themselves gods or whether they were nothing more than ambitious traitors. A detailed breakdown of those stories and more can be read here. But in Baldur’s Gate 3, there isn’t much meaning behind all that happens other than what’s on the surface. This is the sort of thing that separates all time writing greats like those other games.
The best dialogue quality comes from Raphael by far. Aside from excessively horny characters, there are some other blatant writing issues in Baldur’s Gate 3. First of all, despite starting the game as a Mind Flayer captive on a Nautiloid, why do you start with a weapon? There’s also a funny scene in act 1 in which Wyll is training Tiefling children with swords, using sharp swords.
One of the more egregious writing errors though is the side quest about the Tiefling girl and captive Arabella, and her judgement and punishment at the hands of Kagha, temporary Archdruid. If you don’t interfere or if you encourage punishment, then Arabella tries to run away from her captors, which results in her being bitten by a venomous snake and dying within seconds. That exaggerated time span between the bite and the almost instantaneous death isn’t the main issue though, the main issue is that all the other Druids panicked and just watched her die and were then devastated after she died. They’re DRUIDS, a bunch of them in an entire grove. The freaking Druid healer is nearby. You’re telling me not one of them can cast Protection from Poison, a 2nd level spell in 5e? An amateur Druid can cast that.
To make this even funnier, if the above scene plays out, then Kagha can end up being poisoned by Arabella’s parents, which kills her. So some grieving Tiefling parents killed an ARCHDRUID with poison. Surely she knows the Protection from Poison spell? Accepting that she was careless enough to not cast Detect Poison first. At least this is 5e, not 3e/3.5e or Pathfinder in which Druids naturally become immune to poisons at 9th level.
Death is also treated as final throughout the plot, a problem with most D&D and Pathfinder video games. If you’re unaware, read up on the revivification spells of D&D 5e: Reincarnate, Revivify, Raise Dead, Resurrection, True Resurrection. There’s even a famous bit of Forgotten Realms lore involving a spell duel that was won when one caster cast the Resurrection spell on the boots of the other caster. Those boots were made of dragonscale leather, so the Resurrection spell brought that dragon back to life, causing it to appear and fly upwards, and the sorry lad fell do his death. This ability needs to be in video games, by the way.
Something else I don’t understand is how the Grymforge creates Adamantine items (the strongest metal in D&D) using Mithral ingots (a completely different type of metal). That’s like using iron ingots to create copper weapons and armor. A transmutation spell I’ve forgotten about, perhaps?
There’s a noticeable improvement in dialogue quality starting in act 2. I’ve mentioned Raphael, the silver tongued (half) devil character that should’ve been a Pit Fiend rather than a Cambion in order for his power and status to make any sense. Aside from that, he actually is a fairly well written silver tongued devil who does make tempting offers. He’s the best written antagonist in the game by far, even though he’s not the primary one.
Also, I don’t think Larian fully thought through the character of Balthazar either. He’s a necromancer in act 2, and he’s undead and intelligent. So he should be a Lich, or I guess a vampire possibly, but he’s neither. What is he?
One curious thing in act 2 is that Moonrise Towers, the headquarters of the Absolutists, has an entire town in front of it that they left empty, rather than garrisoning it with part of their army. That doesn’t make any sense.
Baldur’s Gate 3 also seriously delevels Jaheira and Minsc. At the end of Baldur’s Gate 2, they’re going to be somewhere between levels 18-21, but here Jaheira is level 8 and Minsc is level 11 or 12. Don’t do this, Larian. Fix it. Fix the level 12 cap in an update, add levels 13-20.
It’s also bizarre that some characters claim that the Elder Brain is the most powerful creature in existence. In 5e, it has a Challenge Rating (CR) of 14. Whereas a Pit Fiend has a CR of 20, a Balor has a CR of 19, Elder Brain isn’t close to #1.
Baldur’s Gate 3 does have a narrator (as well as some abrupt cutscene triggers that can screw you over), who gives away too much I feel at least at one point in the story, with regards to Wyll when entering the final room of act 2.
I am surprised the ending didn’t generate more controversy than it has. It’s a binary ending ultimately (well, in addition to the optional earlier ending), with no post-ending content, so you don’t get to learn how your actions affect the future of Faerun whatsoever. You beat the BBEG and the game just ends.
Role-playing potential is perhaps Baldur’s Gate 3’s greatest strength. This is a massive surprise considering how the vast majority of modern cRPGs have shied away from role-playing, as illustrated early in this review. Of all RPGs I’ve ever played, Baldur’s Gate 3 has the most branching, interactive plot, the most frequent usage of skills in dialogues (though not for every skill), it’s #2 for skill usage in gameplay (#1 is Neverwinter Nights with PRC mod, so Baldur’s Gate 3 is #1 if we exclude mods from what I’ve played), and it is only rivaled by KOTOR 2 when it comes to your ability to influence companion characters.
So in some of the biggest areas, it is the strongest ever RPG that I’ve played. It is not strong in character build diversity, it doesn’t have the highest amount of usage of every skill in dialogue (e.g. Perform skill is underutilized), it doesn’t ever rewrite every encounter for any character build while Fallout, Fallout 2, and Arcanum do so for low intelligence builds and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines does so for two races (Nosferatu and Malkavian).
Things that regularly affect dialogue in Baldur’s Gate 3:
- Detect Thoughts
Things that occasionally affect dialogue, but not as often as the above:
- Perform (underutilized)
- Illithid abilities against other tadpoled beings (of which there are many) – not being rested affects this
- Speak with Dead
- Speak with Animals
That’s right fellow Arcanum players, Speak with Dead is usable in Baldur’s Gate 3! To a very similar extent as that game. Dead, important characters can be spoken to with this spell (plenty of scrolls exist for it as well as an amulet that bestows the ability). They won’t usually speak to you if you killed them, but Disguise Self can circumvent this. Too bad revivification magic only works on PCs though – I would have not only liked to revive some NPCs who died for legitimate purposes, but also revive someone, kill them, rinse repeat for the sake of torture.
This game does have the most thorough usage of Speak with Animals that I’ve ever seen. I regularly use this in Neverwinter Nights campaigns but there’s generally more to it in Baldur’s Gate 3.
As for how these things affect dialogue mechanically, skill-based dialogue options always show up. It’s up to you and chance to pass the skill check. Baldur’s Gate 3 does have a bounty system – you can be arrested and try to bribe or fight your way out, or go to prison. But it doesn’t have a strong, overarching reputation system like Fallout 2 does.
This game does avoid locking you out of quests based on race, but dialogue will usually change at least when needed. Also, the inability to have less than 8 for any ability score means no low intelligence dialogue. No unique high intelligence dialogue either.
Speaking of quests, I only found one timed quest throughout the entire game which took me by surprise for its inconsistency. This is the side quest to rescue Counsilor Ferrick in act 3. I almost failed because the game lulled me into a false sense of security thinking no quests are timed. I highly prefer realistically timed quests like in Pathologic 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. NLC 7, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance, but they’re not for everyone and this would be hard to tie to difficulty options as the game has to be designed for it from the ground up. But that one timed quest was a surprise.
Speaking of quests, the game doesn’t have cyclical, templated, shallow garbage quests like so many other RPGs. All are meaningful and distinct, rather than just amounting to “Go to this marked location, explore it, avoid its traps, kill everything, grab some item, and leave through the shortcut” like some other immensely popular RPGs.
Given all of the above, unlike modern BioWare games, Pillars of Eternity, and other modern RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 3 lets you embrace evil. It can serve as an atrocity simulator if you like. My first character was a chaotic evil (in spirit) black Dragonborn Fighter (Eldritch Knight – a cheap imitation of how I’d play a chromatic half-dragon in 3e/3.5e/Pathfinder/my homebrew), with the personality of a Black Dragon. He did not embrace the power of the Illithid tadpole, as he viewed the potential transformation into a Mind Flayer as a downgrade – a mindset Baldur’s Gate 3 seemingly did not expect. So with this character, my goal was to destroy everything related to the Absolute (as well as anyone that annoyed me) but if I saw an opportunity to seize the power that the Absolute has, I would take it.
As a result, for my first playthrough I ended up playing through the entirety of Baldur’s Gate 3 very differently than most other players (achievement statistics back this up). The Goblins in act 1? I killed them all. I rounded up any stragglers, which included using hit and run tactics and ambushes against the Goblins at the windmill. Only a skeleton crew remained in the Blighted Village, which wasn’t hostile because I was attacking isolated groups (no witnesses). Then came the main Goblin camp, which I infiltrated. It’s a huge camp, and it is possible to infiltrate it rather than talk your way in (most people do the latter, including my 2nd character). Once again I started taking out isolated groups before carrying out an assault on the rest. I found an alternate way inside the camp and used heights and ambushes to my advantage to kill all within, including the 3 Absolute figureheads here. My actions inadvertently ended up freeing their prisoners: Volo (legendary Forgotten Realms character) and Halsin namely. After having cleared out the entire camp, I went back and rounded up all surviving Goblinoids and Ogres in act 1. It was epic, it made for excellent turn-based tactical gameplay as I was desperately outnumbered everywhere, and I had an absolute blast playing this way. A lot more fun than talking!
For racial dialogue options, Dragonborn has very few: generally only with other Dragonborn characters you can actually talk to (of which there are very few), and with Githyanki characters. Githyanki has the most racial dialogue options, Tiefling has many in certain parts of the game, Half-Orc has more than you’d expect.
It is very interesting that you can side with the Absolute for a while, when the obvious choice is to side against them. Like I mentioned earlier, never before have I played a campaign with so much freedom in choice, and with strong reactions to it. You can attack children, but only Goblin children can be killed. All other children simply run away when reduced to 0 hp.
Although Baldur’s Gate 3 lets you act out as many atrocities as you want, when it comes to dialogue there isn’t much in the way of truly evil, disturbing dialogue options, that is compared to the likes of the Neverwinter Nights games, Planescape: Torment, and some others. For example, when I was conversing with one of the game’s antagonists – Ketheric Thorm – he mentioned that he devotes everything to his (dead) god Myrkul after he brought his beloved daughter back to life. With my cruel character, I wanted to say to him that after I kill him, I’d torture and kill his daughter – I wanted to break the spirit of a big bad antagonist, but the game would never let me be so cruel in dialogue. Thankfully you can act with as much cruelty as you like.
Some players will also take issue that when you first meet Astarion, you can’t kill him in the cutscene even though he attacks you. That is a small lack of role-playing freedom there, but it’s not one that repeats itself thankfully.
During act 2, you can gain some allies for its conclusion at Moonrise Towers. Some of them will join you at Moonrise, but others (namely Sharrans) will not which is a strange lack of role-playing influence. It also seems lazy that the shadow curse in act 2 isn’t actually lifted when you… lift the curse. It instead lifts in a cutscene after leaving act 2 which is a point of no return.
Companion characters might verbally disagree with things that you do, but rarely to the point of violence or leaving your group. Larian really wanted to avoid this. For some reason, Lae’Zel doesn’t even care if you take the quest to steal a Githyanki egg (which will result in a Githyanki hatching from it). There are some other situations noticeably lacking detail like this, such as Lae’Zel pointing out that the Mother Superior character is using Astral Projection, yet even if she’s wielding the Githyanki silver sword in the game she doesn’t mention that she has the means to defeat this. Aelis also has a distinct lack of dialogue options, always accusing you of being an Absolutist even if you’ve already killed Gortash. Some conversations also do not compensate for you having done things out of order, especially in act 3. You can also become a Mind Flayer, and it doesn’t add up that so many people are just okay with it at the end, given the circumstances especially.
One nice freedom to have though is the ability to just not recruit most companions, most of whom will then never be in your game. Most characters can die at many different points in the game, or by your hand if you like.
So the role-playing capability of Baldur’s Gate 3 is immense; the best in some ways, not the best in others, and some more minor areas have a distinct lack of detail as mentioned just above. But overall, in terms of role-playing quantity, it is among the very best, in a league I only put Fallout 2 in.
Architecturally, Baldur’s Gate 3 is interesting. I’ve already mentioned that the portrayal of Illithid architecture and colonies just being full of flesh and gore everywhere is dead wrong – it should instead have a mysterious arcane somewhat high tech look. I use the word arcane even though they are generally against magic, but that’s the word that comes to mind. Read Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations to learn more.
Thankfully, this isn’t one of those games that has a bunch of dungeons and reuses the same architectural design for most or all of them. On the contrary, there are few dungeons and each has a distinct appearance. One of the biggest is Shar’s temple, pictured above, with its elegance and dark colors. The Dracula inspired mansion in Baldur’s Gate has the Gothic horror look you’d expect.
Baldur’s Gate itself looks nice, but unfortunately you can only freely explore the Lower City. Lots of stone and concrete, big walls protecting the city. One artistic theme throughout Baldur’s Gate 3 is that it’s a bit higher tech than you might expect, e.g. a town in act 2 has a distillery, the Steel Watcher foundry in act 3, the submarine. Despite this, there are no gunpowder weapons. I for one would enjoy late medieval or early Renaissance era gunpowder weapons, as we’re already into the Renaissance era otherwise (and sometimes beyond) when it comes to tech.
There are some other details I appreciate about Baldur’s Gate 3’s art design, like the murder quest in act 3 in which target houses are actually marked, and the game’s VFX do a better job than most in illustrating various effects and statuses. Though the Blade Barrier and Evard’s Black Tentacles spells need to be animated as mentioned earlier.
One of the things I was most excited to see about Baldur’s Gate 3 was its creature art design. For the most part, I favor the monster art in D&D 5e so seeing that in at least a moderately high budget game piqued my interest. For the most part I’ve been satisfied by what I saw, with the biggest exception being Dryads who look like humans/half-elves in costumes. I actually thought the one Dryad in the game was a costumed human or half-elf, because it was in a circus.
This agrees with the pattern seen with both Mizora and Raphael being half-devils, half-humanoids rather than true devils like both need to be for lore consistency – Larian wants everyone and everything to be an attractive human in essence, just about. But most monsters look very good otherwise (though the Spectators appear too large – they should have around a 4 ft diameter body), and I do appreciate making Shadows (which look cooler than ever) make the same sounds as the ghost from The Grudge as this amused me. In general there just aren’t enough monster types in the game though, as mentioned earlier.
But this pattern in which Larian wants everyone to look like an attractive human becomes even more evident in character art design. Female Dwarves look far too human, when according to all official lore and art they look more like what you’d expect from Tolkien’s Dwarves (though not entirely) – less human proportions and features, also not enough beards on female Dwarves. Additionally, Baldur’s Gate 3 does what many movies and shows are doing now by making lots of black (using human racial terms now) Gold Dwarves, when according to all official lore Gold Dwarves have tanned, brown skin on average – geographically they aren’t in a location that would produce what we call black skin color like the game shows. So it’s not like they turned white people into black people to create more diversity, but instead they turned brown people into black people, which is incorrect according to the lore and according to geography and now the game more severely underrepresents those with “brown” skin color. So if this was an attempt at “inclusion”, it ended up making the game less inclusive. People don’t complain about that though.
Gnomes are even more inauthentically portrayed than Dwarves in general appearance; Larian again made them have totally human proportions when it comes to facial features, which is totally wrong and it makes them virtually indistinguishable from Halflings.
Also, Larian calls this clearly human character below a high elf. Likely an oversight.
One common character design deficiency that Baldur’s Gate 3 and most other games suffer from is repetitive face models. At least PCs and key NPCs have unique faces, but other than them, it is fair game to see repetitive faces, though not as much as other games. Still, the technology exists to eliminate this problem… and every other technical problem this game suffers, as I’ll reveal later in this review.
Moving on to costume/outfit design, when I first saw this set of padded armor in the screenshot below (guy on the right), I was excited to see real historical influence – this looks like a classic medieval Gambeson save for the buckle fastening which is entirely a modern addition to the otherwise historical looking piece.
Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of the surprisingly historically authentic outfit design. The art design here is far from the worst, but it otherwise looks fairly typical for high fantasy games with minimal historical influence. This is particularly problematic for armor design, as the further you move away from historically authentic, you also move further away from having functional, logical armor design.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s Chain Shirt armor for example isn’t what it should be – it shows a full hauberk or haubergeon (the model that should be used for the game’s Chain Mail armor) rather than the short sleeve mail shirt. Splint armor also has no actual influence from what’s commonly referred to as Splint armor today, which is a spinoff of Brigandine but only used for limb armor. Most Scale armors in the game also have too much leather, rather than metal on them. And yes, the dreaded Studded Leather returns. If there’s a place to prioritize house rules, it’s in the armor categories.
This character below stood out to me as having the worst design in the game by far. It looks like a bad cosplay. Some of the other deity-specific apparel is better though, like the Shar and Umberlee items.
Problems arise with Baldur’s Gate 3’s artistic weapon designs too. Apparently Larian thinks a Rapier is a backsword like this. I’ve never seen anyone get that so wrong before; I can see someone mistaking a Rapier for a Smallsword, but this? Wow. Polearms also have disproportionally sized blades/heads. At least weapon animations have a little bit of authenticity to them, which surprised me. Also, the art design of books was generic enough for me to point out as being rather inadequate.
Soundtrack and Voice Acting
I’m no musician, but I do really enjoy many of the classic cRPG soundtracks by Jeremy Soule, Mark Morgan, Inon Zur. I also like the soundtrack of Baldur’s Gate II. Personally, I generally find Baldur’s Gate 3’s soundtrack to be forgettable – this goes for ambient, cutscene, and combat music. I only recognized classic Baldur’s Gate music in one of the tracks – at the Last Light Inn, not that this is in any way required. The only exception I have for this is the Raphael boss music track, in which the voice actor actually sings his own boss fight music. A ballsy move by Larian, and it paid off. The composer also has the full soundtrack for the game on YouTube, so feel free to check it out.
Voice acting is generally quite good. The companions deliver in their emotional moments, and I think Raphael steals the show here again whenever he is present. There’s a lot of voice acting diversity in the city of Baldur’s Gate, which is nice to hear. Flaming Fist guards don’t just use the same few voices like guards in Skyrim, for example.
As far as Baldur’s Gate 3’s art design goes, it fares strongest in architecture and nature, and generally has good voice acting. Monster design is pretty good with one glaring exception and a few minor ones, along with a relatively low amount of monsters for a game like this which is a gameplay issue. Character design has one underlying key issue – pretty much everything is meant to look like a very attractive human, even races that shouldn’t look very human in features like Dwarves and especially Gnomes. Costume and weapon design are far too fantasy for my taste, as more historically authentic designs would be more fitting in this otherwise not very exaggerated looking world, not to mention historical designs are more functional, and for the exquisite ones far more elaborate and majestic.
This is where every 2023 game fails. 2023 is the worst year ever by far when it comes to the technical side of gaming, as if everyone forgot how to create graphics renderers, among other issues. Larian is no exception, though they are not 2023’s biggest offender.
Baldur’s Gate 3 offers two renderer options: DX11 and Vulkan. No DX12, weirdly enough. The DX11 renderer is as stuttery as you’d expect from a botched DX12 renderer, while the Vulkan renderer is somehow even worse – clearly Larian failed to take advantage of many new features low level APIs like Vulkan provide to improve rendering efficiency and performance, like the async pipeline, GPU upload heaps, tiled rendering, VK_EXT_shader_object, hardware ray tracing (hardware ray traced ReSTIR direct illumination is the fastest dynamic direct illumination system there is), variable rate shading as an option, texture-space shading, sampler feedback, mesh shader, RTXIO, etc. Nor do they even fully take advantage of DX11 features such as how Epic Games leverages compute shaders to achieve clustered virtual geometry rendering with Nanite, though a more modern geometry rendering pipeline that uses mesh shader for the auto-LOD functionality would probably be preferable.
In terms of technical graphics fidelity, reviewers and gamers everywhere are severely overrating and misrepresenting Baldur’s Gate 3’s fidelity level simply because they are not used to seeing this level of fidelity in an isometric game. And what is “this level of fidelity?” Early 2010s era at the latest. Like I said, it doesn’t visibly take advantage of any DX12 era features even – no doubt some are used, but obviously not to great effect. If you were to take either Metro: Last Light or Crysis 3, both 2013 games, and give them a similar camera angle as Baldur’s Gate 3, you’d see just how much worse Baldur’s Gate 3’s technical graphics are than those, if you can’t already see.
No global illumination, none of the better ambient occlusion technologies even, low polygon models and terrain even compared to those two 2013 games, still uses manual LODs with plenty of pop-in, plus shadow pop-in. In a few areas, visuals are even clearly broken, as evident by the black voids in some of the windows in the screenshot below. This is completely unmodded.
Don’t get me wrong, the game doesn’t look abnormally bad; above I merely described the reality of its technical visuals, and as you can see it’s a lot different than how people just describe it as incredible looking. Art design is more important than technical graphics quality, and the art design is certainly stronger than the technical side here. Technically, it’s at least visually consistent – which means consistently early 2010s.
There are two modern pieces of graphics technology in Baldur’s Gate 3: HDR, which is configurable but doesn’t make an enormous difference in dynamic range, and DLSS… except it only comes with DLSS 188.8.131.52. Thankfully the latest DLSS DLL can be downloaded and swapped in to upgrade it, improving visuals and performance usually (DLSS Swapper can do this for you), but Larian – this is embarrassing. So is FSR 2.2 not being included on launch, but even more so, FSR 2.2 not being released on the announced release date is even more embarrassing.
Character models are the strongest aspect of the technical graphics. They’re very detailed, and unlike so many modern games, the facial animation quality is actually better than that of Half-Life 2 and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines! Both 2004 games by the way. They’re still not on the level of even Uncharted 2 from 2009 though, and neither is the animation quality in general. That’s not where the money went, it instead probably went into the vast amount of content in the game, which is the right choice.
Physics are way more important than technical graphics quality most of the time, and Baldur’s Gate 3 delivers there. Nothing incredible, but the amount of physics objects and how they can be used elevates the gameplay as described earlier in the review. Still, the physics aren’t what they need to be for a fantasy RPG, as they don’t allow for spells like Passwall, Move Earth, Whirlwind, Earthquake, Tsunami, proper weather spells, etc. Ray traced lighting would also significantly improve the visual effects of all Light and Darkness descriptor spells, as well as Invisibility.
Baldur’s Gate 3 does something very rare here as far as games go: it actually uses a center channel speaker! The technological state of gaming is always depressing as a whole, but one of the most baffling things about video games is that while surround sound support is very common, center channel speaker support isn’t. Surround sound design 101 bestows the insight that the center channel is vital for dialogue audio clarity. Every movie and show uses it, but so many video games don’t. Baldur’s Gate 3 does.
The use of the center channel speaker is by far the most important feature with regards to Baldur’s Gate 3’s surround sound support. This is because it’s mostly an isometric game (albeit with a very adjustable camera) so the game will almost exclusively use the front channels and center.
I have no complaints for sound quality. I found no bizarre mastering, good diversity in sound effects, like the Divinity: Original Sin games Baldur’s Gate 3 is a leader in cRPG sound quality.
Now let’s see how the game performs.
Digital Foundry covered the game’s performance issues and behavior in this video. Here are my benchmarks, taken from 30 minutes of play in Lower City which is the most demanding part of the game. This benchmark included combat. Note that stutters can get far worse the longer you play.
First, here are the PC specs that were used for this review. This PC was just built in June 2023 with a fresh OS install, and they were using the latest NVIDIA display drivers. The benchmarks were done on September 26, 2023, using maximum graphics settings, 3840 x 2160 resolution, and DLAA – no DLSS. By the way, the game’s TAA is actually slightly MORE demanding than DLAA, and DLAA looks far better – it’s basically the definitive form of AA right now for any game, along with “FSR2AA” in games with FSR 2, and “XeSSAA” if that can be enabled in games with Intel XeSS.
- Windows 11
- ASRock X670e Taichi
- AMD Ryzen 7 7800X3D (PBO Max) – core temperatures peaked at 75c during the benchmarks but that was in loading screens. During gameplay, the highest core temperature was 67c.
- G.SKILL 64GB (2 x 32GB) DDR5 6000 CL30 dual channel, dual rank (EXPO)
- MSI GeForce RTX 4090 GAMING TRIO (peak temperature was 62c)
- Crucial T700 NVMe Gen 5 4TB
I don’t have good frame time benchmarks, but as the minimums and 1% lows indicate, the stutter is bad. If I play for hours, it can be as bad as what Digital Foundry showed. Even in just 30 minutes though, the stutter starting at the end of act 2 in Moonrise, is noticeable. You don’t have to be Blur Busters to notice, it’s bad.
The overall performance is also bad. You might think to yourself, 115 FPS average isn’t bad (130-143 FPS in act 1 with no stuttering, by the way). But remember: the fidelity level is far beneath that of Metro: Last Light and Crysis 3, which perform far better. DOOM Eternal has a proper Vulkan renderer, significantly higher polygon count average per scene (id Software has said 80 million is common, which is twice that or more of most DX12/Vulkan games let alone a game with old tech like this), hugely superior technical graphics quality in every way and averages over 300 FPS on this system, or around 220 FPS with ray traced reflections, all of this also with DLAA. DOOM Eternal is the benchmark for a basic Vulkan game, only using one of the DX12 Ultimate tier features optionally (and barely). So that puts things into perspective.
As for the stutter, the main cause is indeed AI like Digital Foundry explained. The game probably only uses a single AI thread, and likely does other things on that same thread, hence the poor CPU thread scaling that Digital Foundry showed. Something that better optimized games (from a multithreading perspective) do not exhibit such as DOOM 2016, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, DOOM Eternal, and even Cyberpunk 2077. Multithreading is something that eludes most but not all game engine developers.
Like many games, Baldur’s Gate 3 seems to really appreciate V-Cache. This is AMD’s big X3D L3 cache, something Intel has actually dabbled with in the past. Games generally love it so much that as far as they’re concerned, it might as well be V-Cash. It’s a big upgrade.
So Baldur’s Gate 3 is a stuttery mess from the end of act 2 to the end of the game. Just about every game in 2023 is a stuttery mess too. Shout out to Mundfish for releasing Atomic Heart this year which actually isn’t a stuttery mess. Larian did add shader pre-caching in an update, but it doesn’t really help since the source of all the stuttering seems to primarily be AI likely all being handled on one core or thread. DLSS is no consolation for a badly written renderer and backend, game developers.
After thoroughly experimenting with the game’s graphics settings, here are my tips for getting optimal performance:
- NVIDIA users must forcefully enable resizable BAR in NVIDIA Profile Inspector
- Optional but recommended for NVIDIA users – update the game with the latest DLSS version. DLSS Swapper makes this easy. For DLAA, this will improve frame rate. For DLSS, this will improve both visuals and frame rate.
- Forcefully enable V-Sync for just this game in the NVIDIA/AMD Radeon driver control panel or NVIDIA Profile Inspector (in-game V-Sync is broken STILL AS OF PATCH 3)
- Set the in-game frame rate limiter to your refresh rate value minus one or two (e.g. 118-119 FPS at 120 Hz)
- Always use the DX11 renderer
|Native Linux Support||No|
|DRM Free Version Available||GOG Only|
|High Resolution Support||Yes|
|High Refresh Rate Support||Yes|
|Borderless Windowed Support||Yes|
|Frame Times / Stutter||Horrible (in act 3)|
|Mesh Shader Virtual Geometry Pipeline||No|
|Advanced Distance-Based Level Streaming System with No Loading Screens||No|
|Loading Times||Varies from Long to Horrendously Long (I’ve had close to 1 minute on an NVMe gen5 SSD)|
|Variable Rate Shading||No|
|Sampler Feedback Tiled Texture Streaming||No|
|Sampler Feedback Texture-Space Shading||No|
|Multicore CPU Support||Poor|
|Anti-Aliasing and Upscaling||DLSS 184.108.40.206 (update with DLSS Swapper)
|DLSS/FSR/XeSS Used for Dynamic Resolution?||No, presets only|
|Sound||Up to 7 channels + center channel support|
|“Analog” Keyboard Support||No|
|Compressed Game Files||None|
|Approximate Game Install Size||123 GB|
We’re finally at the end of the review. If you’ve read other Baldur’s Gate 3 reviews, this one must stand out as completely different in tone. Most just praise the game endlessly and say it raises standards, and it does raise some standards – namely in how much the plot branches and reacts to the player’s actions, and in cRPG level design (but not level design as a whole). But the game is far from the awe-inspiring perfection that others make it out to be. Sure, this review does its fair share of nitpicking, but what’s causing this tab to consume far more RAM on your system than the nitpicking are the many massive flaws and shortcomings that Baldur’s Gate 3 has. It doesn’t require a magnifying glass to see them, but I do understand seeing the positives first, especially if you’ve never before played Fallout 2, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Neverwinter Nights with the Player Resource Consortium mod most of all, and/or Solasta: Crown of the Magister.
Not that those simply beat Baldur’s Gate 3, but between those they have many of the same strengths that wowed people in Baldur’s Gate 3. But go ahead and be wowed, I was too. It’s just important to see both the positives and negatives; the game has copious amounts of both, and no more negatives than most other games especially in this genre. No cRPG is anywhere near perfection.
Is Baldur’s Gate 3 flat out the greatest cRPG ever made, like so many are claiming? No. Is it one of the all time greats? Yes. It’s also 100x the game of the first Baldur’s Gate, and overall the much stronger one than Baldur’s Gate II though that second game mostly obliterates this one in magic gameplay due to its far more diverse and complete spell selection.
Inevitably, some will say that of course Baldur’s Gate 3 surpasses its predecessors from 1998 and 2000 – no, do not take that for granted, as that was one of the strongest eras for cRPGs. Still, of all the RPGs I’ve ever played, Baldur’s Gate 3 is indeed one of the most thorough when it comes to role-playing potential: from my experience it is unmatched in how interactive and branching the plot is, in the amount of skills that are used in dialogue (though some specific skills don’t get as much use as in some other RPGs), and it’s only rivaled by Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords in how much you can influence the actions of the companion characters.
Its level design easily surpasses that of every other cRPG I’ve played, granted this is usually a weakness of cRPGs but here it is a strength, not only due to how much actual valuable exploration there is (not just loot but also meaningful side content, not just templated quests like another very popular mainstream RPG that just released), but also in its use of verticality. This is a very fun turn-based tactics game especially early on, and on that note its enemy AI also surpasses that of every other cRPG I’ve played overall, though with some huge caveats.
Any game that surpasses most or all others in its genre/subgenre in one respect is a special game, let alone one that surpasses them all in multiple. This isn’t the best cRPG in every way, but for RPG fans in general it is a must-play. But you don’t have to play it now, feel free to wait for more patches as the game desperately needs them. It also really needs modding tools.
- Level design is heads and tails above every other cRPG I’ve played – both for exploration and actual meaningful side content, as well as its use of verticality and the effect this has on combat encounters
- Actually has Jump and uses it, unlike almost all other cRPGs which are basically flat
- Basic combat maneuvers like Shove and Throw, along with improvised weapons add another dimension too
- Lots of physics objects plus elemental combination effects (e.g. electrifying or freezing or melting water, etc) elevate gameplay
- Handles player characters (PCs) being reduced to 0 hp correctly
- Has difficult terrain mechanics unlike most
- Features rest and long rest
- Almost no limits on party separation/distance is a MASSIVE win. You can send one party member on some solo task and leave the rest behind, for example. Even through loading screens, but only within the same region.
- Wizards can learn from scrolls like in the classics
- Can freely enable non-lethal attacks
- Adjustable camera, though not quite as adjustable as it should be
- Has co-op
- Adequate character customization, even for clearly not human races like Dragonborn
- Customizable hotbar
- Sorts spell castings by spell level in the UI
- Can drag stuff out of inventory into other containers or into the world and vice versa
- Can ignite and put out light sources in the environment
- Can break most doors and containers in the world – no stupid wooden door is blocking you from your objective
- Can pickpocket and reverse pickpocket
- Excellent nonlinearity overall
- AI with ranged weapons are actually elusive and seek high ground
- AI will actually shove you to your death whenever they can
- The most I’ve ever seen with regards to having an interactive and branching plot
- The most I’ve ever seen overall with regards to number of skills and abilities that impact dialogue
- Can talk to animals with a certain ability, and this is deeper than in any other game I’ve played
- Can speak with the dead like in Arcanum
- Effectively no restrictions on how you can act
- Minimal restrictions on recruiting or not recruiting companions
- Companions can die at practically any time. Many main characters can also die quite freely.
- Can influence companions more than in almost all other cRPGs (KOTOR 2 fans finally be satisfied once again here)
- Its grand plot comes together better than expected
- Raphael’s writing as an antagonist is above average, and he succeeds as a silver-tongued devil character
- Companions are all morally grey like actual humans, none are caricatures
- Art Design
- Generally nice architectural and nature design
- Most of the creature design is authentic and detailed
- Actually uses the center channel speaker!
- Overall very good sound quality
- HDR support with configuration
- All the bugs mentioned earlier in the review. It’s too buggy of a game even as of patch 3 (late September 2023).
- UI Design
- Minimal UI customization – can’t enable/disable or move HUD elements
- Totally ambiguous difficulty modes is an epic failure
- Doesn’t remember most UI settings, so every time you load them you have to set them again
- No party order configuration, though that’s less of an issue for a turn-based game
- Nested launchers, but at least no account is required
- No true third person, which is good for exploring
- Sneak attack being a separate hotbar action is nonsensical
- Level up menu pulling you out of the game completely isn’t ideal
- Can’t see how your character progresses in advance
- Dice rolls in the foreground = WTF?
- No inventory filters in trade menus
- UI doesn’t remember your settings
- Auto-pause upon trap detection would be a helpful feature, so that party AI doesn’t just run into discovered traps due to AI path finding issues
- Microstutters make it easy to accidentally use a potion in your inventory or hotbar
- Mandatory house rules like critical success/failure for skill checks, various spells not working the way they’re supposed to, and missing racial attributes (like sunlight sensitivity for Underdark races)
- Pathetic spell selection, horribly unbalanced too: i.e., Divination spells go up to only 2nd level, Abjuration up to 4th, yet others up to 6th
- No proper flight, no swimming, also nothing can walk on walls/ceilings
- Party limit of just 4 is a reduction from the first two game sand likely only the result of technical limitations (moderate amounts of AI causing horrible stuttering)
- Sneak attack is broken for not taking into account flanking, so coming up from behind someone is no longer enough to sneak attack
- Can’t use ranged sneak attack with enchanted projectiles for no good reason
- No proper Divination magic, instead you always have a GPS map
- A few spells are available to AI but not players, like Arcane Eye
- No mounted gameplay of any kind (e.g. horses, pegasi, manticores)
- The camp/safe haven system makes inventory capacity a nonissue, so no upgrade path for inventory
- Rest abuse is possible
- Only being able to retreat from a battle to your safe haven camp is needlessly limiting
- Economy/financial troubles are a nonissue
- No crafting (crafting does not necessitate grinding)
- All magical projectiles like acid arrows are AoE
- No rope or grappling hooks
- No cover mechanics
- Line of sight issues
- Lots of issues and limitations with regards to what surfaces and places you can jump or teleport to
- Enemy diversity leaves a bit to be desired
- Shadow curse is surprisingly forgiving and doesn’t buff shadows
- Revivification magic is supremely gimped and only one such spell is present
- Feather Fall doesn’t actually slow descent
- No penalty for breaking locked containers (i.e. damaging the stuff within)
- No granular difficulty options, no optional rules (like “power rolling” ability scores) as difficulty options
- Some cutscenes teleport your party to predefined positions for a battle, which is nonsense
- Can’t set traps since traps aren’t usable items
- Some instances of nonsensical asymmetrical balance, like enemies being able to heal infinitely outside of combat, or some enemies whose stats make no sense
- D&D 5e ruleset is particularly limiting for video games on character build depth and diversity, and combat tactics – mindless AoE spell spam is generally the answer to all battles once you level up to this point
- Some underutilized skills like Survival (no tracking)
- Only the utmost basic D&D class selection, no psionics (playable Githyanki with no psionics is a crime)
- No mod tools
- Extremely exploitable AI for stealth tactics: if you attack an enemy and then move all in-combat party members back into hiding before their turn, there’s a high chance the enemy won’t move. This can be exploited every turn to just kill AI without them ever moving. I beat some of the game’s hardest battles this way.
- Unreliable path finding – you can easily run into traps because of it, or if you don’t manually move your character precisely in combat and instead want to just tell them to attack, they might fail to find the shortest path and thus might not be able to attack that round
- Enemy AI always run right into traps
- The game will sometimes force a temporary party member on you, and you have no direct control over them and can’t even separate them
- Enemy AI often takes way too long (up to a minute) to end their turn, just standing there doing nothing
- No system like A-Life or Radiant AI in which NPCs have their own schedules, preferences, behaviors, and are always tracked – moving around and doing things even when you’re not around (obviously the engine isn’t up to the task which is another issue)
- Can’t set any ability scores below 8
- No low intelligence dialogue
- In dialogue, you can’t be as cruel or malicious as you can in some other cRPGs, but you can act out all your cruelties at least
- Can’t swap characters in dialogue, not even in co-op. Dialogue is only for one person in co-op which is a downgrade over Larian’s previous games and just generally a disaster
- A lot happens, but there’s no real meaning behind it all, no overarching themes to tie the plot together
- Druids act like they can’t cure poison, when a character potentially gets poisoned. An Archdruid can even be killed by poison by a random commoner…
- Death is generally treated as final like in reality, which is unlike D&D with its revivification magic
- Raphael should absolutely be a Pit Fiend, considering his power and status. Mizora should probably be an Erinyes.
- Seems like Larian forgot that an Incubus is a Tanar’ri demon, not a Baatezu devil (opposites and eternal enemies)
- Larian didn’t seem to have the courage to make a major character (like Raphael) not appear human
- Some characters are unrealistically horny and unnaturally forward with their advances
- “Shadowheart” sounds like the name of someone’s first D&D character from the 70s
- Art Design
- Dryad looks like a human in a costume
- Gnomes and Dwarves appear far too human, which also makes Gnomes virtually indistinguishable from Halflings. Larian seemed obsessed with making everyone an attractive human.
- Forced attempts at inclusion by making Gold Dwarves black is inauthentic to the lore, geographically inaccurate, and actually reduces inclusion via underrepresentation of ‘brown” people
- There’s a high elf character that 100% looks human, even the ears
- Costume design is a real mixed bag
- Lots of issues with weapon designs: e.g. the Rapier is portrayed as a backsword, polearm proportions are bizarre and wonky
- Broken DX11 renderer
- Even more broken Vulkan renderer
- Late act 2 and act 3 are stutterfests no matter what
- Generally very poor performance for the visual quality (early 2010s visual quality)
- Very dated rendering technology – doesn’t take advantages of anything from Vulkan, let alone the DX12 Ultimate tier features
- Manual LODs with very visible pop-in
- Lots of shadow pop-in
- Excessively CPU limited, very poor thread scaling
- Has DLSS but it’s an ancient version
- FSR 2 wasn’t delivered as promised (should’ve been there at launch)
- Very long loading times, even up to a minute on a brand new NVMe gen5 SSD that’s only at 50% capacity