An orphan. A mysterious – possibly very, very, very significant – heritage. A murder. A CONSPIRACY?! A long trip throu- GNOLLS! – through a mine, masquerading as an important plot device, but probably just a cheap way to tack anot- MORE GNOLLS! – another three hours onto the game time advertised on the box. GIANT MINIATURE SPACE HAMSTERS! A mercenary company with distinctive cloaks or hats or something. DRAGONS! A dark wizard on the payroll of the… forces of darkness (I guess), and something about a dead god trying desperately to organise a comeback tour.
Fantasy games are where clichés go to die (and, with 25,000 gold pieces and a somewhat shabby, back alley cleric, resurrect and go on). As such, it would be easy to think of Baldur’s Gate as a graveyard of tedious designated hero tropes, otherwise predictable revelations, and shameless plagiarisms from the appendices of Lord of the Rings and whatever David Eddings had recently published, because it’s true.
It’s kinda hard to review Baldur’s Gate in 2011. Originally released about a hundred years ago, when people were still playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition and wearing bits of woven peat and twigs, the game was met with universal critical acclaim and sold about two million copies, which was a quite lot before stuff like Call of Duty shifted a zillion units per hour. Now it’s just an ugly RPG with loads of text.
Fortunately enough, however, I’m a total slut for old isometric games and reading. I also remember playing Baldur’s Gate way back whenever it was, so I’m powered by the indubitable authority of slow-brewed, extra-matured nostalgia.
Okay, honestly, it does feel a bit cumbersome now. The characters move far too slowly, and you have to push with the mouse to scroll (no cursor key support, apparently). Once you’ve got six characters in your party, this becomes a logistical nightmare of Lovecraftian proportions, with everybody slogging through a bog of invisible toffee – just in time for kobolds to turn up and pick off the straggling mage who decided to take a different way around a big rock, seemingly by way of the nearest neighbouring continent.
The combat’s pretty good, though. You can pause the game at any time to manage your characters and issue engagement orders. It’s not quite the same as rolling heaps of irregularly-sided dice, but the sense of intervention and control is about the same (false, but ostensibly convincing).
The game sprawls. Not just the extravagantly complicated plot (as well as more side quests than you could lob a Beholder at), but the game world itself is enormous, featuring some fifty discrete locations across Faerûn’s Sword Coast, and an 80% chance of randomly encountering gnolls in every single one of them. Travel the world, meet new people, and kill them with Magic Missiles! Living the dream, one lucky crit at a time.
Even today, the Baldur’s Gate series remains the fantasy RPG standard to which all others are invariably compared, and while it may seem restrictive and ponderous to our 21st century sensibilities, there’s a lot of naive charm in there and it’s perhaps all the more endearing – and enduring – for it. It’s definitely worth giving it another spin if you remember it fondly, and it’s also probably worth checking out if you missed it the first time around and don’t gag instantly at the sight of pre-millennial 2D graphics.