Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Hooray! After overcoming a horde of enemies, incredibly difficult bosses, and even more difficult programming bugs, I have successfully concluded my second run through the Baldur's Gate saga. Throne of Bhaal is sometimes considered as the weakest link in the tetralogy, but I think it's immensely satisfying as the capstone to the Bhaalspawn saga - if you look at the individual encounters and plot points, they're not quite as cool as those in SoA, but everything is elevated by the cumulative force of everything that has led up to this point, and the stakes are so high that you can almost feel the ripples your actions send out through the Realms.

Throne of Bhaal starts immediately after the conclusion of Shadows of Amn - the final video of SoA is instantly followed by the first video of ToB, and your party arrives in the Grove without any further interruption. It's a nice touch that makes everything feel congruent in a way that the transition from the original Baldur's Gate to Shadows of Amn lacked, but it does mean that you'll never see the SoA credits unless you specifically click the options to view them.

Before I got far into ToB, I wanted to tweak my mod setup - specifically, I wanted to give Ascension a run. Throne of Bhaal had an incredibly rushed production schedule - Bioware basically had six months from when they started thinking about the expansion until they had to ship it - and while they did a good job on it, some people think that they could have improved it if they'd spent more time on it. Fortunately, one of the people who thought that was David Gaider, Bioware's lead designer on the expansion and apparently a man with some programming chops. On his own time, he continued work on Throne of Bhaal after its release, strengthening some of the story elements in the endgame and building a more dramatically satisfying conclusion. Additionally, he tweaked a lot of the boss battles, making them more challenging for players who had highly powered characters. These components were released in a mod called Ascension.

Ascension has had an interesting evolution in the last decade or so since it was released. I think it originally came out prior to WeiDU, so the mod worked by making a binary patch that would directly edit the game's resources. This was fine as it was, but it also meant that it was impossible to combine Ascension with other game mods. Also, some people reported bugs or difficulties with the mod, and the structure of it made it hard for people to alter the mod on their own.

So, Westley Weimer, the author of WeiDU, with Gaider's blessing, ported Ascension to WeiDU, where it could coexist with other user-created mods. Since then, Ascension has been one of the most popular mods, and also one of the most frustrating. Unlike other mods, which for the most part add new elements to the game but don't alter the main storyline, Ascension effectively rewrote the game's climax. This meant that there were lots of opportunities for bugs, especially when other mods attempted to insert their own content into the climax. As a result, Ascension is simultaneously the mod that experienced players most want to install, and the mod that experienced players most frequently warn against installing.

Because of all the caution I'd seen during my research, I had left Ascension off my initial install list. After beating SoA, I decided that I really wanted to play with Ascension. In particular, the NPC mods that I'd installed (Chloe and Jason Compton's Nalia romance mod) don't have any Throne of Bhaal content, and I really wanted to bump up the variety from what I'd experienced in my last game. I'd avoided reading any Ascension spoilers, but the nuggets I'd heard made it sound like a more satisfying ending, and I decided it would be worth some risk to install and experience it.

Seeking to minimize the risk, I poked around the various BG2 message boards. The most recent posts I could find suggested that, instead of the stand-alone Ascension mod hosted at weidu.org, I would be better off installing BP-Ascension. As far as I can tell, BP-Ascension bundles Ascension into the Big Picture project, a sort of mega-mod that combines a variety of other mods for Baldur's Gate 2 into one big package. I hadn't been interested in BP when getting started, but apparently I could just install the BP-Ascension part by itself, and this is supposedly the most up-to-date version of Ascension (the last "official" WeiDU release was back in 2009).

I downloaded and installed BP-Ascension; there was a single warning, but everything seemed to be fine. I opted for the core Ascension component, but turned down all of the "tougher" components, which strengthen the battles you have with the Five and Demogorgon. I mainly play BG for the story, not for the tactics, and while I enjoy a good fight I didn't feel the masochistic need to thwart my progress.

FINALLY, after many hours researching and twiddling with my setup, I jumped back into the main game! As with SoA, I could remember a fair amount of the game, but the years have caused a lot of my memories to fade, so I was still occasionally surprised by developments.

Fair warning: I'm not going to flag any spoilers below, either for Throne of Bhaal or for Ascension, though Ascension doesn't come for a while longer.

The game starts with a fairly weak opener. You wander through a grove, talking to stone heads that give you not-very-cryptic prophecies about what's going to come. It's kind of portentous, and either reiterates stuff we already know (you are bringing violence and destruction in your wake, many people will be killed, etc.), or spoils things that are to come. I think the single biggest misstep ToB makes is by emphasizing, at the very beginning, that you will be betrayed; and then, almost immediately after, introducing a new character who seems to be trying to help you. You can see the plot twist coming from hours and hours away.

You learn that your opponents for this game will be a group called The Five. Next to you, they're the most powerful Bhaalspawn in the Realms, and any two of them combined have more of Bhaal's essence than you. They are systematically hunting down and killing all other Bhaalspawn, seeking to gain power for themselves. Some operate openly, while others are more subtle. Soon after you finish your chat with the stone heads, you meet the first of the five: Illasera, who acts a bit like a magical assassin. Along with a small group of friends, she ambushes you and tries to kill you. You fight back, and destroy her. The Five are now The Four, I guess, though everyone will keep saying "The Five" through the rest of the game.

As your reward for defeating Illasera, you are taken... to hell! Whaaa? You have a chat with a Solar, a celestial servant of Ao the Overfather, who provides even more exposition on what's going on. She explains that you are currently in a "pocket Plane", a small plane-within-a-plane that's located within the Abyss, Bhaal's former dominion. As the most powerful Bhaalspawn, you have collected a sort of right to Bhaal's old realm; but as a mortal, your mind can't comprehend the immensity of the Abyss, and so it has constructed the pocket plane as a sort of refuge. Your mind has a lot of power, and this continues the thread that was first laid out in the Hell Trials at the end of Shadows of Amn (your Pocket Plane bears a strong resemblance to Hell, especially, with the structure of the tunnels to the trials, which is probably why I had mentally moved the Hell Trials to ToB); everything in the Pocket Plane (except Cespenar, I guess) was created by your subconscious, so when you undertake the challenges in there, you're really facing yourself.

Before getting to the challenges, though, you meet Sarevok. Rather unsurprisingly, he was sent to hell after you killed him, and he's been waiting around since then for you to come. He offers you a bargain - if you'll give him a small portion of your soul, he'll swear fealty to you and help you on your quest. One of the aspects that I'd particularly enjoyed in my first game of ToB was Sarevok's storyline; he starts off as Chaotic Evil, and seems to be slightly diminished from his BG1 incarnation, but he's still one of the best natural fighters you can get (he has 18/00 STR, 18 CON and 17 DEX), plus he has a lot to say about the Five, your evolution, the consequences of violent choices, and so on. In that first game, I'd taken Sarevok and let Keldorn finally go home to his family; in this game, I ditched Chloe (and, sadly, gave up my all-girls party - I do wish that this game had the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity and I could have tricked Sarevok into putting it on. Um. On second thought, that's too disturbing for words) to take Sarevok.

Chloe... left, kind of. I had known way back before starting SoA that she didn't have any ToB content, and I wasn't sure what to expect from her once I reached the expansion. She turned out to be slightly buggy... if you talk with her while she's in your party, she complains about you not following up on that quest about the Yr'kai slave boy (even though I totally had done that), and leaves your party, vanishing. If you manually remove her after Sarevok joins, then she walks up to you, initiates dialog, says something like, "Oh, hello Imoen!", and then the conversation stops without a choice to re-join. She just hangs around in the pocket plane. If you cheat, you can re-add her to your party. I didn't, though... she'd been fine in SoA, but I was much happier having Sarevok along.

As a quick digression from Sarevok taking part of your soul: I find the whole thing about souls and Bhaal essence in this series interesting and a bit confusing. In SoA in particular, there's a lot of talk about souls being divisible and fungible. Irenicus, a kind of mad scientist, has devised a process of removing your soul and implanting it into himself. However, your Bhaal nature remains, and in fact grows stronger once your soul is removed. I think (but am not certain) that the "soul" is from the human/elfish/mortal part of you - what you received from your mother. Everyone has a soul. However, in addition to your soul, you also have the legacy from your father - the Bhaal essence. The Bhaal essence acts a bit like a soul as well, which is why you and Imoen can continue to live and function after you've been de-souled.

Every human has their own soul, and each soul is different. Each Bhaalspawn shares the same Bhaal essence, and all Bhaal essence is the same. You have the same evil taint in you that Sarevok had in him. A Bhaalspawn's personality, then, is determined by the combination of their soul and their essence. When the two are aligned, as with Sarevok or Sendai, the result is an evil person who is much more powerful than any normal mortal. When the two are opposed, as with Imoen or Balthazar, the soul seems to win out against the essence, and in a way becomes stronger because of the constant battle it has to wage against the essence.

I think that each Bhaalspawn starts with the same share of the essence. What happens from then depends on the soul and on circumstance. Someone who is meek will live a more or less normal life, until someone comes around and kills them. Someone who is ambitious will tap the power in their Bhaal essence and use it to become a powerful player on the Sword Coast. When one Bhaalspawn kills another, it seems like most of the defeated Bhaalspawn's essence flows back to the Abyss, but some of it adheres to the slayer, making them even more powerful and increasing their taint. So, over time, the field winnows, and it makes sense that the most powerful Bhaalspawn would also be the most evil.

So, going back to Sarevok - you are supposedly giving him a part of your soul, but I'm curious whether it's "your" soul, or if it's the Bhaal essence. Giving him Bhaal essence seems much more in keeping with what we know about the essence and how it works. We already know from SoA that a person can live with just Bhaal essence and no soul. That said, it seems like an incredibly bad idea to give Sarevok, of all people, a portion of the divine god of murder. On the other hand, giving him your own soul seems more compassionate on your part, and definitely safer for the Realms, but I don't know that the game's canon supports this reading; I can't think of another part of the game where someone talks about dividing a soul. Supposedly this is possible here in the Abyss, which does explain why that wouldn't have been an option for Irenicus, but still... it seems a bit weird. If you DO give him your real (in my case, Neutral Good) soul, then that adds a whole other resonant layer to Sarevok's eventual possible redemption.

That said - I was a bit bummed that, in this game, Sarevok never changed to be good. I think, but can't prove, that this was a bug... we did have a couple of early conversations, and I took what I think were the correct choices (I remembered from my last game that I didn't force him to swear an oath, and whenever I had the chance I told him that I didn't enjoy killing people), but he stopped talking around the time I killed Yaga-Shura, and remained Chaotic Evil through the end. But, the good thing about this is that it meant I got to experience an evil Sarevok through the end, including his very different epilogue, so it's not all bad.

Unlike the Hell Trials, which can be done in any order but must all be done in sequence, the pocket plane challenges are parceled out - after killing each of the Five, another challenge is opened - and I believe that you can wait as long as you like before doing each one, though it's probably in your interest to do them early since they give you extra special abilities. Each challenge starts with a conversation with your opponent, but each also ends in battle - as far as I can tell there isn't a way to avoid the fights. They're pretty good, though I didn't think they were quite as compelling as the Hell trials. The first one has you fighting against a long series of random enemies - it felt a little like the Watcher's Keep challenge with all the Orcs, but there was a bit more variety. The next two challenges have you facing different versions of yourself. (I apologize for jumping around the chronology a bit - you don't unlock the other challenges until later on, but I want to talk about them all here.) Okay, um, digression time... it seems like an inordinate proportion of works of fiction, and an even higher proportion of role-playing video games, are extremely interested in the old question of fate versus free will, of destiny versus choice. Baldur's Gate is no exception, but I like the way it treats this theme. It's something it considers interesting, but it isn't really central to the story; most of the time this idea is raised, it's in banters you have with other party NPCs as you both try to come to grips with the immensity of the changes you're facing and causing. The game never completely resolves this question, which I fully respect. It is heightened a bit as time goes on and the Solar reveals more about your history and questions you about your feelings. You learn more details about your origin, including finally discovering what happened before Gorion adopted you. Your mother, Alianna, was a priestess of Bhaal, and she, along with other Bhaal worshippers, were gathering in a Bhaal temple with many Bhaalspawn to raise them and collect the essence to ensure Bhaal's rebirth. Gorion, along with a group of other adventurers, attacked the temple to thwart their plan and scatter the Bhaal worshippers. Alianna was killed. Many of Bhaal's mates and offspring fled. Gorion was able to rescue you, but Sarevok, among others, were not so lucky, and continued along the path Bhaal had planned for them.

This leads to the questions - which fortunately just remain questions - of what this means for you. How much of your actions are truly your own, and how much contingent upon others' choices? I think of myself as being Good, but what would have happened if Gorion had grabbed Sarevok instead of Sebrina? Isn't it possible that Sebrina would have become the scourge of the Sword Coast and Sarevok the virtuous hero? Given this, it seems like humility is really important - you haven't gotten where you are through your choices alone, but from the actions of others.

With all that as background - the next two challenges have you facing versions of yourself. First, you meet a sort of parallel-universe version of you, where Gorion abandoned you and you got, well, evil. Next, you meet your innocence. This is another kind of parallel universe - what would have happened if Sarevok had never threatened you? What if Gorion never fled candlekeep, and you stayed there, apart from all the violence and death outside? It would be interesting if you could choose to embrace your innocence (though it would make for a much shorter game), but that really isn't a choice - you've already embarked on your journey, and while it's interesting to think "What if?", going back really isn't an option. So, you kill your innocence.

The fourth encounter is the most interesting. Well, the fight itself is a bit dull, but the dialog is pretty compelling. You meet Cyric, who hasn't been a major figure at all in the game, but who looms hugely in the story's background; Cyric followed the same path that you are currently on, born a mortal but ascending to godhood. Not only that, but he was the one who actually slew the god Bhaal, and so pretty directly set in motion all of the wheels that have been turning for the last several years. Cyric is now the god of... well, he has many portfolios, but one of them is Murder, and so he has a professional interest in what happens with Bhaal's resurrection and Bhaal's scattered essences. He probes you for a while, trying to determine whether you mean to resurrect Bhaal, or take Bhaal's place in the pantheon (which would implicitly require you assaulting Cyric). I honestly told him that I had no desire to become a new Lord of Murder; he seemed to believe me, but then still left behind a group of assassins to try to kill me. Hey... what else would you expect from a Chaotic Evil god?

Fifth and finally, you encounter the Ravager. You remember the Slayer, right? Bhaal's avatar, who you can turn into upon will? Well, the Ravager is like the mega-super-upgraded version of the Slayer. This was the only one of the challenges that was actually, well, challenging to me, mostly because the Ravager single-mindedly pursues your main character, and I only have so many Stoneskins. I think I died at least once in that fight.

Okay, enough of the challenges. Back to the main game:

You get the special ability "Pocket Plane", an AWESOME power that lets you teleport back to your pocket plane at will. In practice, I only used this when I finished major quests, but I think lower-level players would really appreciate the ability to retreat to a safe spot in order to rest, heal, and memorize spells. You can also take advantage of the plane's containers for storing all your stuff. As before, this really reminded me of an ancient game called Think Quick, which had a great feature that let you teleport to a hideout room, where you were safe from slime worms and could store and retrieve items.

You can also talk to the wall. Um... yeah. I think it's called the "Wall of Fate" or something like that, but it's pretty odd that you would talk to a wall. It gives you the ability to summon other people into Hell so they can join your party. That sounds like a weird thing to do to your friends, but whatever. In practice, this means that you can call forth almost any of your BG2 NPCs. I've never used this, and I'm not sure whether they'll have the same stats and equipment as when you last used them in SoA, or if you'll be getting special new ToB versions. A few oddities: you can't summon Yoshimo, although in this game I had kicked Yoshimo out of my party after we left Irenicus's dungeon and so I'd never witnessed his death. Also, I had three options for Anomen, which I think were something like "My lover Anomen the cleric", "My lover Sir Anomen", or "Anomen the fighter/cleric". That's part of what makes me think that ToB might be creating new versions of the NPCs not in your party - presumably, if it was keeping track from SoA, it would know exactly whether Anomen was your lover and whether he'd been knighted. (On the other hand, ToB does let you start a new game, so this might just be a way to have a new character and have the full flavor of the end-game without forcing you to re-play SoA.) (On the, um, third hand, it's totally possible that the whole multiple-Anomens thing is something that came from a mod.)

Oh, yeah, and there's Cespenar. Cespenar MIGHT be the most annoying character in the entire series. Yeah, Noober was kind of irritating, but you had to go out of your way to keep engaging him, and he eventually went away. And you can completely ignore Anomen with no negative consequences. Cespenar, though, is the ONLY other being in your pocket plane (at least when the Solar isn't visiting), and you NEED to talk with him in order to get the most powerful weapons in the game. The role he plays is the same as Cromwell in Amn, but they voice every one of his lines, and they do it with an incredibly aggravating, distorted, pitch-shifted voice actor. Oh, and he speaks in cute kiddy phrases, like "Oooo! Me looks for the shiny things!" It's as though Bioware had just seen the Phantom Menace, and said, "Hey, this Jar-Jar guy is HUGE! We need to put something like that in our game!"

The only reason I put up with him is, of course, because his stuff is top-quality. The Golem Manual is pretty awesome - I'd used the Clay one a fair amount in the SoA final chapters; Stone is good, but Adamantine is awesome. It's big enough that you can actually block out some areas with it. I got Mazzy a great short sword (Mask, I think), and Sarevok some powerful two-handed swords. At the very end of the game, I had Viconia give up her Crom Fayer for a fully-upgraded Flail of the Ages; with the strength difference, I'm not sure if FoA is really stronger, but in the final battle, it's a crucial weapon.

Hey, wasn't I supposed to be talking about the main story? Sorry about that. Back to Tethyr...

You show up in Saradush, where you meet up with Melissan ("Trust Me!"), who has helpfully gathered all the Bhaalspawn in one place where they can be conveniently destroyed... errrrr, I mean saved. The city is under siege, and you'll see a lot of activity from soldiers defending the walls against Yaga-Shura's invading army of fire giants. This is the first place in the game where you can buy and sell stuff, though if you're like me, there isn't much point in selling at this point in the game (I think I had well over half a million gold pieces, and the only things worth buying are Cespenar's upgrades and Potions of Superior Healing), but people starting new ToB games or running through SoA at breakneck speed may disagree. You have to be careful, though, because Saradush will later on be destroyed (spoiler!), and you won't be able to buy back, say, stuff you had sold to the innkeeper. This was one of many little differences between ToB and SoA. In SoA, there were a TON of merchants, and virtually all of them stuck around for the whole game; off the top of my head, the only ones I can think of who actually will normally leave over the course of a game are the Djinns outside Trademeet. In contrast, ToB has only a handful of merchants (at any given time, you might be able to access one or two), and they have a habit of dying on you.

My favorite part of Saradush is meeting with Volo; people who bought the boxed BG games will remember the great, thick spiral-bound game manuals that were stuffed with useful information and peppered with marginal notes from Volo and Elminster. Volo is chronicling the recent disturbances on the Sword Coast, and is thrilled at the chance of meeting the legends in the making. You can ask him about each person in your party, and hear his descriptions of them for the history he's writing. Really fun touch.

The rest of Saradush is pretty straightforward - there are a couple of mini-quests within the city, and for the main event, you need to sneak through the crypt into the fortress. Inside, General Gromnir, another Bhaalspawn, is nominally supposed to be Saradush's defender against the Five, but in practice is acting like a tyrant. Melissan keeps trying to persuade him to be nicer, which CURIOUSLY ENOUGH only hardens his resolve to ratchet up tensions with the cityfolk. Who could have possibly foreseen such an outcome?! He arrests Melissan, you arrive; you can chat with him, but no matter what, you need to fight him. He warns you not to trust Melissan (as if the game hadn't foreshadowed this enough already), then you battle.

In general, the ToB battles are harder than the SoA ones, and not just because I was badly overpowered by the end of SoA. I think that they might have upgraded the enemy AI, and in any case, the enemy spellcasters certainly know more high-level spells than anyone in SoA; even the anonymous mages who show up in boss battles are usually casting at the same level as lichs from SoA. That said... I was a sorcerer, I knew Improved Alacrity, Summon Planetar and Comet. You do the math. I generally didn't worry too much about buffing; if I knew a fight was coming up, I'd throw on Protection from Evil, Chant, and Bless, but never bothered with Haste or any of the Mage buffs. I had three arcane casters (Sebrina, Nalia, and Imoen) available to cast Ruby Ray and Breach when needed, which was fairly often; enemy mages are much better about keeping their defenses up, unlike in SoA where they usually trigger contingencies at the start of a fight but don't react when you take the defenses down. Other than this, I usually didn't bother casting offensive spells for any but the hardest battles, and so typically Imoen would attack with her Gesen bow, Nalia would fire the Darkfire Bow with +3 arrows, and Sebrina would wade into combat with her Staff of the Magi... and, of course, all the Stoneskins mana can buy. Viconia would usually melee, except for the harder boss fights, where she would hang back so she could dart in and Heal when needed. (I don't think I ever did a mid-battle Heal in SoA, but it was very useful in ToB; fortunately, Planetars each have 3 Heal spells, otherwise some of the battles like Sendai would have been tough with only Viconia as a cleric.) Mazzy and Sarevok were my meat-shields, although by now they were all getting HLAs and could do a ton of damage too. They were slower attackers than Chloe, who had dual-wielded and had a lot of attacks per round, but both could absorb a lot of damage. Mazzy waved her (upgraded) Short Sword of the Mask while crouching behind her +5 Shield of the Order. Sarevok switched between the Silver Sword (it very rarely did the instant-kill, but every once in a while you'll roll a natural 20 during that 25%),  Gram, and the Psion's Blade.

I think I had to run the fight against Gromnir twice... the first time, I focused all my energies on his throne, and did well, but wasn't prepared for the reinforcements, who came up the stairs and slaughtered Nalia and Imoen. Argh - I had forgotten to raise their stoneskins. I probably still could have won, but was embarrassed at how that went down, so I restored and properly defended them. This time around, when doing my Improved Alacrity thing, I spawned a few Planetars in my rear line, in addition to the ones I dropped by the throne. It went much more quickly this time. Hooray! I had, um, killed the guy who was defending Saradush. Dang.

Melissan showed up and expressed her regret at how things had turned out. (Me: "Hey, didn't Gromnir just throw you in prison? How did you get out?" Melissan: "Hey, look over there!") She sends you on your next quest, to find and exploit Yaga-Shura's weakness. The lead-in to this has a one-off encounter that I think is one of the most effective of the expansion: outside a ruined Bhaal temple, you encounter the specter of your adopted father Gorion. In some ways, this is just the umpteenth time that we've had a variation on this scene, going all the way back to the dopelgangers in the original Baldur's Gate, but there's something particularly cruel about the way that this iteration of Gorion chastises you for the swath of blood you've left in your wake. What makes it effective is that, of course, he's kind of right; even if you're "good," you've killed an awful lot of people directly, and indirectly been responsible for the slaughter of thousands more. As always, it turns out that this isn't really Gorion, and you have to fight him, but it's still a well-done set piece.

Have you ever read the Chronicles of Prydain? In one of them, I think Taran Wanderer, the protagonist meets an immortal wizard. It turns out that the reason the wizard is immortal is because it has put its life essence into a piece of bone, which he then hid in a tree. It's impossible to kill the wizard since the bone is outside of his body; but, conversely, if anyone can find and destroy the bone, they'll immediately kill the wizard. I think this is a pretty ancient folk-tale theme, which periodically gets integrated into newer works of fiction; in particular, it provides much of the plot for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. ToB has another variation on this: Yaga-Shura is immortal and unkillable. As you learn, this is because his mother, a witch, has removed his heart and placed it in his fortress. Yaga-Shura is off ravaging the lands, safe from harm. She's bitter at his neglect, and tasks you to go and retrieve it, along with her own heart. After she destroys her son's heart, she's overcome with horror at what she's done, and attacks you to save her son's life. After dispatching her, you return to Saradush, where you see that you're too late; Yaga-Shura has breached the walls, burned down the city, and slaughtered all the Bhaalspawn inside.

Yaga-Shura, now mortal, goes down without too much trouble, though he has a lot of people assisting his army. Afterwards, Melissan appears again, expressing her sadness at how this has gone down (yeah, it's really TOO BAD that another Bhaalspawn has died, returning its essence to the Abyss! Hmm, who could possibly benefit from this?) but urging you to continue your hunt for the Five. There's a little interlude where you meet the general of Tethyr, who has brought a whole host to kill you and your companions. There are some nice dialog options here; you can seek to persuade him that you aren't the incarnate evil he thinks you are. I LOVE that one of the options you have is basically to ask him to get one of his mages to cast a Detect Evil spell; he does this, and is intelligent enough to trust it. Walking past the general, I was pretty amazed at just how big his army is; if you DID get into a fight with him, it would probably be the most on-screen characters I've ever encountered in a battle.

Traveling onward, you arrive in Amkethran, a desert city. Balthazar, the head monk of an adjacent order, greets you, and says that Melissan isn't there, but asks you to head on to defeat the next two of the Five. This is the first (and only!) part in the expansion where the gameplay gets non-linear, and you have exactly two choices of how to proceed: you can chase after Sendai, a Drow magician who is raising another Drow army to invade the surface; or Abazigal, the only Bhaalspawn to be descended from a dragon. I decided to first pursue Sendai, for the completely unnecessary reason that it took only 8 hours to reach her map space instead of 12.

There are a couple of small quests you can carry out in Amkethran. One incredibly annoying one is another encounter with Saemon, who uses your arrival to turn the town's mercenaries against you to get himself off the hook. I think I was vaguely amused with Saemon in my initial game, but felt far less charitable towards him in this game, perhaps because my sorceress was less inclined to look kindly upon roguish characters than Cirion my bard. I was bummed that I wasn't able to do another "quest", which is sort of an easter egg - you find a dwarf who can craft something from the special pants that you can collect through all three BG games. Unfortunately, even though I'd gotten the Golden Pantaloons in the first game, I hadn't held on to them. (I assume that it's possible to do so, but I'm not completely sure how, since the game strips you of all your equipment between BG1 and BG2. I THINK that I was still carrying them at the end of BG1, but probably on another party member, who didn't make it through.) One of these days, though, I'll remember that it's an option, and will be extra-careful with my leg garments.

Before entering Sendai's lair, you need to discover it, searching various locations in a drow-infested forest. This map features the second-least-surprising betrayal of the game: a woodcutter who greets you when you arrive, and claims to not know anything about drow ("Are they dark, elvish-looking folks?"), and points you to various locations where you are ambushed; at the first site, you see numerous dead woodcutters. FINALLY, he reveals himself to you, and after killing him you can go inside. Sendai's lair has a couple of choices for you (you can go through a spider-infested tunnel, or one with a crazy number of slaved enemies, or do both like me), and a lich fight, which is always fun. Sendai does a total James Bond villain thing, sending her henchmen against you one by one; as each is defeated, you see a cut scene where she berates the remaining supporters and sends out another wave. All of her henchmen are cakewalks, but Sendai herself was probably the toughest battle of the expansion for me, not counting the new Ascension finale sequence. She has six statues of herself, which come to life one by one, each of which makes life very difficult for you (turning invisible, teleporting, etc.); meanwhile, an endless stream of Drow warriors are pouring in through the door. I think these were the only fighters I came across in the whole game who had the fighter HLAs: they would do Critical Strikes, or whatever, and swiftly chop Mazzy and Sarevok down to dangerously low health. The fight was tough enough that I went back to micromanaging my spellcasters: I scattered Sebrina, Nalia and Imoen through the chamber, so they couldn't all get hit by the same environmental effects, and carefully kept an eye on each of them so they could constantly cast spells while staying out of danger. Sebrina brought in a host of Planetars, which always helps, but in this case wasn't sufficient by itself; Sendai moves around so quickly that she's impossible to pin down, and at least a few Planetars needed to help control the Drow incursion, and another would help out with healing or True Sight. Imoen and Nalia mostly had their hands full just trying to keep Sendai's spell protections down, though they also brought in their own summons and occasionally helped with direct damage - Comet is awesome, and Horrid Wilting is still quite effective, especially against groups of enemies. Oddly enough, Viconia ended up being my main melee fighter against the Sendai statues. Finally, once all the statues are activated, the real Sendai arrives, and stuff gets even MORE crazy. She can teleport at will, bouncing around the room like mad, turning invisible and dealing out damage before my True Sight catches up to her. I had a few characters die, but fortunately Viconia stayed on her feet long enough to bring them back into the fight. (Typically, Viconia would cast the standard Raise Dead; then, FOUR planetars would instantly swarm over to the newly raised person and frantically Heal them. I greatly appreciate the loyalty and enthusiasm, but honestly, their AI led something to be desired.) Perhaps worst of all, Sendai is apparently also a Cleric, and she is able to Heal herself several times during the fight. Counting the statues, I think I killed her about a dozen times before she finally went down.

There is some compensation for the trouble, though. Besides all the loot you get from this area - I forget the details, but there are at least some good items for Cespenar, and I think this was when I finished fully upgrading Mazzy's sword - you also get some personal loot from Sendai herself: some of her own potions, which act like a Heal spell, FULLY restoring your health. This is hugely helpful - Sarevok and Mazzy both had above 150 hitpoints, and in the Ascension battle, there just isn't time to restore normally, even with Superior healing - you NEED a Heal. I think there are only two of these potions, but they're some of the best items in the whole game.

Abazigal's lair is a bit different. Instead of a steadily increasing difficulty, your very first battle is one of the hardest: you meet Draconic (ha!), Abazigal's son. Guess what: Draconis is also a dragon! What a twist! It's a good fight, though... I'd gotten somewhat jaded by the SoA dragon fights, which are really challenging at the beginning but end up being much easier than the lich fights. Draconis is a worthy match, though. It's always impressive when a single enemy can fully occupy a full six heroes.

Within the lair, there's... I guess a bit of puzzle stuff, but not really. You use a set of pools to move between different rooms. You need to collect certain items before you can use certain pools. There are monsters to fight. Kind of standard stuff.

EXCEPT... this lair also has hands-down my favorite scene in the entire Baldur's Gate saga. It may be my single best memory from my first game, and it didn't disappoint this time around. It starts off ordinarily enough: you swim into a cavern filled with murderous flying skulls, destroy dozens of them, then locate the evil, insane wizard, who has the wardstone that you need in order to break the geas on a dragon who is guarding Abazigal's throne room. You chat with him; while he's certainly insane, he doesn't feel any particular loyalty toward Abazigal nor any particular hostility towards you. He's willing to give up the stone, if you will rescue an eyestalk that is being held captive by some kobolds in a nearby cavern. Kobolds? "Or beholders. Something like that. I forget." This is just about the most standard sort of FedEx fetch-and-carry quest that you can get... but then, the wizard points out, you do have the option of subcontracting the quest. It seems that some Level One adventurers got here just before you, and were "excited" about questing and whatnot, before getting turned to stone by the mad wizard. Well... use a Stone to Flesh scroll to wake them up, then give them a dramatic pep speech. The FATE of the ENTIRE WORLD rests upon their shoulders!!! They must VENTURE FORTH and retrieve for you... a BEHOLDER'S stolen EYESTALK!!! They are bright-eyed and eager. It's a party of three: Nanoc (heh) the Barbarian, who (he never hesitates to tell you) is not bound by the shackles of civilization; a level-one mage (who, he proudly points out, can cast Magic Missile); and a thief (who is good at backstabbing, once, and then needs to hide). You urge them to do it for honor, for glory, and for a princely reward: one HUNDRED pieces of gold! Heads held high, they strut out on their quest. Then, "Several days later..." (haha!), they return, all excited: it's hands-down the most epic fight that any of them have been involved in. They're so cocky that they start whispering to themselves that they can take Sebrina. ("I'll backstab, and you cast Magic Missile!") They attack. You turn into the Slayer and tear them apart. "Nanoc the Barbarian reloads..." Bwahaha! This time, sufficiently chastened, they hand over the eyestalk, and collect their princely reward. "It was a pretty good quest. I found a scroll of Identify!"

The whole thing is hilarious, and also weirdly, strongly touching. You are now playing the same sort of role that characters like Elminster and Drizzt played way back in the original Baldur's Gate. And, the best part is, you can see an entire gradual path that connects these points from then until now. These aren't discrete points in a novel or a movie, where the foreward shows the hero as a young man and the climax shows the powerful hero at the height of his field. No; you've done this yourself. You've experienced every trek through Beregost; every sword that swung and missed at an xvart, until you started hitting xvarts, until you started hitting kobolds, until you started fighting skeletons, until you stopped being afraid of skeletons. There's no blackout, there's no shift in narrative. This is your story. Every single action taken is YOUR action, not the action of an author. The game... the game is giving you permission to feel proud about yourself, pride in your achievements. You're looking into a lens, and seeing a form of who you used to be; that emphasizes all that you became, and all that you are. I think that's why, to this day, I think that Baldur's Gate is the single most epic RPG that I've ever played. Other games, like the Ultima series, have plots that stretch longer or that cover more territory, but always scattered across discrete and restarting game experiences. One close analogy might be Sierra's Quest for Glory, which did have contiguous advancement, but severely thrashed in tone from game to game. Baldur's Gate has been a single, long, unbroken story; you couldn't even see it while you were inside, since you were climbing so gradually, but now, as you are just below the mountain's crest, you are turning, looking back, and seeing the path which you've climbed. Savor the view. You've earned it.


Where was I? Oh, yes, Abazigal. He's another nice fight, but nowhere near as difficult as Sendai (at least not in my version; from what I understand, the "tougher" version includes multiple dragons, which would be AMAZING), and not even much more difficult than Draconis. My army of Planetars helped beat him into submission.

During the course of chasing down Sendai and Abazigal, you chat with them a bit about the "betrayal". Your dialog options are basically "Oh, you mean Balthazar?" or "Oh, you mean Melissan?" I initially flagged Melissan as the traitor, because, come on now, honestly! It turns out, though, that they were actually referring to Balthazar: he's another of the Five, and presumably had directed you towards them so he could be the last one standing, and the most powerful.

Back in Amkethran, Balthazar's followers are now hostile towards you (though I'm not totally sure whether this is plot-related or because I had earlier ticked off a practicing mercenary captain and killed his company). You meet with Saemon again; Balthazar has shut down the black market with a vengeance, eliminating all of the smugglers and thieves except for Saemon. He offers to disguise you and sneak you into the monastery. Um, thanks, but for some bizarre reason I don't trust you, dude. I took the alternate way, past a lich I'd already killed and through a secret passageway direct into Balthazar's throne room. (Who knew that monks got to sit on thrones?)

Okay: I'm pretty sure that this is where the changes in Ascension start to kick in. The dialog with Balthazar is much longer than I'd remembered, and it allows you to dramatically change the shape of the climax. It turns out that Balthazar is actually what he initially seemed: a good guy fighting against the forces of evil. Yes, he's a Bhaalspawn, but like you (assuming you played a good path like me) he has fought against his Bhaal nature. Yes, he joined the Five, but only so he could thwart their plans. He reveals the shape of the plot to you. As each Bhaalspawn dies, its essence is returned to the Abyss. Once a single Bhaalspawn remains, it will channel the collected essence and bring about the rebirth of Bhaal. The Five had planned to carry this out, and would then be Bhaal's immortal commanders. Balthazar, playing a long scam, intends to outlive the other Five, and make sure that every other Bhaalspawn is dead; then, when only he remains, instead of raising Bhaal he will sacrifice himself, consecrating his soul as he does so so it remains beyond the reach of the Abyss. This will deny Bhaal's resurrection.

Pretty heady stuff, huh? Seems way more noble than you, stumbling around the Realms just trying to survive. By now, you and he seem to be the only Bhaalspawn left. He regrets killing you, since you have tried to be a genuinely good person, but the fate of the world is more important. You can eventually persuade him to join your cause, and together confront Melissan. Oh, yeah: he FINALLY revealed that she's the ultimate bad person here. (Gasp! Shock!) Melissan is the High Priestess of Bhaal, and has been orchestrating all the events leading to Bhaal's resurrection; she doesn't have any Bhaal essence herself, but she recruited the Five and has manipulated the chaos that has allowed them to slaughter the Bhaalspawn and hasten the resurrection. You point out that, if the two of you can stop Melissan, and both remain alive, then Bhaal will remain dead. He eventually agrees.

In my first game, he promptly killed himself. Hm, that was... odd. I reloaded, went through the conversation again, and this time he simply teleported out at the end, saying that he'd be ready and by my side when the time came to fight Melissan. I'm not sure if what I initially experienced was a totally random bug, or if I'd accidentally ordered him to commit seppuku through one of my dialog responses.

I teleported back to the Pocket Plane, where I had a final discussion with the Solar. It turns out (and I forget whether you learn this here or in the next scene) that Melissan hadn't only betrayed you, and the other Bhaalspawn, and the Five, but even Bhaal himself. She has orchestrated events such that she is the direct guardian of all the essence of the dead god. She intends to tap this essence, not to raise Bhaal, but to raise herself to divinity. With a god's full power, she can usurp a new role. Ao the Overfather and the other gods are upset about this, and have selected you to block her plans. After facing the fifth challenge, you will have outgrown the use of your pocket plane, and can escape it like a cocoon, finally confronting the immensity of the Abyss and stopping Melissan's plot.

As a side note - the solar was another kind of annoying element in the game. It delivers a lot of exposition, but it's weirdly mediated exposition. Frequently, the solar will say that it needs you to understand something, and then it will summon someone else (your mother, Gorion, a version of yourself) who actually talks to you, and then ask, "Do you understand now?" It seemed to be behaving a bit like a narrator, but occupied a lot of time and attention for what's essentially a pass-through role. It's not BAD, exactly, but seemed a bit needlessly contrived.

I was ready for the final battle. I stepped forward, went to the gates, stepped through... and back into Balthazar's throne room. Hmm, that's... odd... I teleported back to the pocket plane and walked around, wondering if maybe the Solar was waiting somewhere with further instructions. Nobody was there except for useless Cespenar. I went back to the gates. Back in Amkethlan. Argh.

I reluctantly hopped online and checked out FAQs. It seems like, when I left the plane, the gates should have asked me if I was ready for the final battle. Instead, I wasn't getting that dialog and immediately teleporting to where I'd left. I figured that one of my mods must be thwarting it, but which one? The obvious culprit was BP-Ascension. I uninstalled it, restarted the game, and tried again. Argh, still no dice. I was running about a dozen mods, most of which had only been active back in SoA, and wasn't relishing the thought of uninstalling all of them. Now that I was reading up on Ascension again, though, I was finding MORE posts that were talking about problems with BP-Ascension. Phooey. On a whim, I downloaded the 2009 standalone Ascension mod from Weimar's site. I installed it, restarted, and headed to the gates - hooray! This time it let me through!

Your pocket plane dissolves, and you are left with an unfettered view of the Abyss, centered at the Throne of Bhaal. They did a REALLY good job on design for this. I would have assumed that the Throne was something medieval and/or demonic - a grand chair anointed with skulls, dripping ichor into a river of blood, surrounded with flames, something like that. Instead, it's something that looks very Planar, almost sci-fi: a set of rings suspended in the black void of the Abyss. The Throne proper consists of two founts, facing one another, with a constantly-streaming flow of Bhaal essence between them. Presumably, were Bhaal present, he would be occupying this position, suspended in the center of the Abyss. As it stands, though Melissan is there. Since she doesn't intend to raise Bhaal, she doesn't require your remaining essence, and has already started the process of transforming herself into a goddess.

First, though, she's required by law and custom to give you the standard evil villainess speech. I think that this part may also be different from before. Besides filling you in on her plan, she also taunts you for how she's manipulated you and all the trouble she's caused. The creators have ret-conned Melissan into the plot of earlier games, and she now reveals that she had given Irenicus the idea of tormenting you and Imoen for your souls, and so she was fairly directly responsible for all the suffering of the previous game. To top this off, she summons Irenicus and Bodhi, who also take time to mock you. Here in the Abyss, with Bhaal's power, she's been able to rescue Irenicus from the torment that you had sent him to, and he'll willingly serve her, even in the afterlife. Bodhi is... a bit different; I'm still a little fuzzy on exactly how her vampiricism affects her afterlife. Bodhi also taunts you, but given the dialog options here, it seems likely that evil characters may be able to recruit Bodhi to their side by promising her a piece of your soul (or maybe someone else's soul, or some Bhaal essence? again, I'm a little unclear) in exchange for her service. I made the offer (hey, if I'll accept Sarevok's help, why not Bodhi's?), and she seemed to take it seriously before ultimately rejecting, saying that she didn't trust me to give her a soul.

Balthazar arrives (I'm not sure how; can high-level monks teleport between the planes?) to let Melissan know that yet another Bhaalspawn remains alive, and intends to oppose her. Melissan has become extremely powerful, and she forces Imoen to transform into the Slayer. This section is a little heartbreaking; you see Imoen's voice saying "Help me!" while her body becomes the thing of nightmares. Melissan dives back into the Throne; she's busy sucking up Bhaal essence, and trusts Irenicus and Bodhi to take care of you. They attack, along with a Fallen Deva and the berserk transformed Imoen.

Needless to say, this was a lot more difficult than the climactic battle with Irenicus at the end of Shadows of Amn. Irenicus himself seems faster and more deadly. Facing him alongside other opponents, though, just elevates the difficulty. Bodhi is as nasty as ever; she can drain five levels in a single hit, and moves very quickly; when you finally kill her, she transforms into mist that moves away even more quickly, and then comes back at full health. I studiously avoided fighting Imoen, figuring that I'd try to avoid killing her if at all possible, and if needed, she could wait until the end (as always, you should go after the spellcasters first, and level-draining opponents next). Also, I was at a bit of a tactical disadvantage: having just teleported in, and starting the fight right after a long dialog, I hadn't had a chance to do my normal summons or buffing. I fought long and hard, directing most of my force against the Deva first, but I couldn't take him down until after Bodhi had been killed and reborn several times and Nalia and Viconia had been killed.

I reloaded, and this time raised my buffs in the pocket plane prior to activating the Gate for the final battle. This time around, I very cautiously micromanaged Sebrina and Nalia's spells. Now, in the past, my favored move with Sebrina had been Improved Alacrity, followed by Timestop, followed by several Summon Planetars and Comets. Since Sebrina wears the Robes of Vecna and the Amulet of Power, she can get off a lot of spells within Improved Alacrity, but Timestop does take a little while to get going. In this battle, I discovered that for these particular casts, it actually made the most sense to forego the Time Stop; I think Summon Planetar has a normal casting time of 5, but my equipment reduces that to 1, so I can instantly cast it and move on to the next spell; if I had the interest, I could bring in twelve Planetars in a single two-round Improved Alacrity. Of course, I didn't go quite that far, but I did spam in six or so Planetars, then tossed down a Comet, raised True Sight, and dispelled protections from my opponents. Meanwhile, Nalia was retreating to a safe spot away from Imoen, and bringing down some Comets of her own. With a larger army, the fight got easier. Even though I still focused on the fallen deva, I could devote one or two planetars each to Irenicus and Bodhi; they have good immunities and lots of health, so I didn't need to babysit them too much.

It's kind of funny, but since the final battle goes on for so long, I learned a ton about the game's AI that I had never picked up earlier in the game. For example, Planetars had always been awesome in the past, but now I was learning that they could be obstinate and disobedient. For example, I would often notice that a bunch of Planetars were clustered around one enemy, while another wasn't occupied. I would select a few of them, and tell them to attack the new guy. They would start to float over... and then, before they'd gone five feet, they're turn around and float back to the guy I'd just left. It seems like the AI has a script that it REALLY wants to follow; you can direct it, but it doesn't even complete the action that you've directed (e.g., actually trying to hit the guy you wanted to hit), before rechecking and resetting its mission (attack the nearest guy). I could be wrong, but it felt like I had a bit more luck when I issued move commands rather than attack commands; once I got a Planetar into the right place, it would generally happily commence whacking the nearest baddie. Balthazar was also interesting. He's very powerful and you can give him fairly detailed commands, with access to some of his special abilities like Quivering Palm and Lay on Hands. However, for the most part I just let the AI run him around, and it seemed to do a good job; he's hard to hit, and even when my party was having trouble he was rarely in danger of dying. However, I also noticed that, while the AI is controlling him, he seems to have access to a lot of abilities that I can't access: "Lunar stance!" "Murdering Palm!" It may just have to do with my unfamiliarity with the class - I've never played a Monk, and there aren't any Monk NPCs in the game - but whatever, I had enough on my mind that I was glad to not need to micromanage him.

This time, the fight went much better. The Fallen Deva took a surprisingly long time to kill - I suspect that it may be upgraded from the version Viconia can summon - but eventually went down. Bodhi and Irenicus were usually occupied by a cluster of Planetars, and for the most part left us alone. Imoen and Balthazar spent most of their time chasing each other around the map, which was fine by me. After the Deva died, Bodhi followed suit. I hadn't been paying as close of attention to that fight, but it certainly feels like she didn't go through the death/resurrection cycle multiple times. Maybe the Planetars were able to hunt down and kill her in mist form, or maybe Balthazar knocked her unconscious at some point and they finished the job before she woke up.

Finally, Imoen transformed back. Hooray! There's a rare intra-battle banter where she talks about the ordeal, and wonderingly asks how you could have gone through something like that multiple times. She asks if you want her to rejoin your group. Um... yes, of course! It's not like I enjoy having an empty sixth party slot! She game back in, although she was suffering a persistent Miscast Magic that would remain through the remainder of the fight and longer afterwards.

Irenicus was a machine - he kept bringing up Mantles and Stoneskins as quickly as I could bring them down, and occasionally would Stop Time and bring down horrible firestorms upon us all - but with all our energies focused against him, he died. FINALLY.

I should mention that this was a really, really long fight. Not only did I have to restart it at least once, but even when I did beat it, it probably took me well over thirty minutes to do so. It wouldn't look that long in real-time, of course, but in order to succeed, you really need to carefully manage your arcane casters, making sure they're always doing something useful, and monitor the field as a whole to make sure that each enemy is appropriately engaged and nobody is killing Imoen. It was my longest fight so far, but wouldn't be the longest of the game.

At last, I was able to stop and breathe. I hurriedly and triumphantly saved my game - after such a long investment of time, the last thing I wanted was to go through that fight AGAIN. We started exploring the Throne. Balthazar noted that Melissan seemed to be drawing in the Essence from the three pools nearby, and speculated that we could get her attention and force her to come out and confront us if we disrupted her link to them. "I'm not sure if it'll work, but what else can we do? Wait here for her to become a god?"

At each pool, you touch the essence, and then a whole bunch of demons show up to fight you. It's a similar batch at each - a Marilith, and I think some Bators and Glabraazu (sp). After the battle with Irenicus, this is mercifully easier, not least because you can get your buffs and summons ready before the demons arrive. And, as an extra-good bonus, each time you beat a fight, the pool of essence will give a Greater Restoration to all of your party members, AND, even better, provide a Rest! That's right: you can re-memorize your spells after each fight. That's a relief, and also a great piece of game design. It would be totally unrealistic for you to be able to sleep while standing outside the Throne of Bhaal while Melissan transforms into a goddess - kind of destroys the entire sense of urgency. But, it would also be totally impossible to do an epic multi-part fight if you had cast all your spells before the last battles even began. This was a great way to improve the gameplay for this terrific, extended climax.

Each pool also gives your PC a unique batch of special powers. Unlike most Special Abilities, these automatically recharge after a very short time; I think that one of them makes you immune to Time Stop for 30 seconds, and refreshes every minute. Others are, sadly, fairly useless. One is supposed to let you take control of a demon, but it didn't work the one time I tried it on the Marilith, and, well, there weren't any other chances after that, since the game is over. You also get what SOUNDS like a really cool power, called Unleash, which lets you channel your Bhaal essence onto an opponent and directly damage them with that power instead of transforming yourself into Bhaal's avatar; it does a ton of damage, and will give you Miscast Magic and be unable to transform into the Slayer for a few minutes after casting. Unfortunately, there are only two enemies upon which I would want to cast this, and BOTH of them are immune to it. Phooey.

After the final pool has been cleansed, the game warns you that you have only moments before the final battle. I already had my mini-army of Planetars standing ready, so I brought in the Adamantine golem, had my mages refresh their Stoneskins, and cast a final Bless on us all. Melissan arrives; she's more perturbed than angry, like a store manager who's irritated that they need to deal with an unruly customer. She's a little surprised that Irenicus couldn't finish the job, but she knows who can, and so summons in the "Five" (really, four) to stand against you. Balthazar laughs at her - she has had to give up a lot of her Bhaal essence to restore the Five/Four, and so she's taking a risk, reducing herself to mortal levels. She acknowledges this, but says it doesn't matter; she'll continue collecting essence, and once you're dead she can add yours to the pool as well.

Melissan hops back into the Throne, leaving the Four to deal with you. And... wow. Oh my gosh. They are HARD. At least Abazigal isn't in dragon form, but he's still a nastily powerful mage. I think Ilasera is technically a fighter/mage, but she acts like a thief: she turns invisible, and prowls around the battlefield, sneaking behind your lines and striking at your vulnerable points. Sendai only has one form this time, but unfortunately it's her last and most powerful: the kind where she "twists an onyx ring", teleports around the map at will, brings down death, and can heal herself and others. The worst one of all, though, is Yaga-Shura, who seems to be back in the invulnerable-giant mode from before you destroyed his heart. And, yes, you need to fight ALL FOUR of them at the SAME TIME. Joy.

The first time I fought this, the battle stretched on for close to an hour, and I still died near the end. My usual MO is to focus on one particular enemy, so I can kill them as quickly as possible and gain a better numerical advantage; I try to keep the others minimally occupied if possible, or else just accept their blows until I can turn my attention to them. Anyways, this time I used True Sight to keep Ilasera in view, and focused almost everything I had against her. She went down without too much trouble. From then on, things got steadily worse. Abazigal was acting like a pure mage, and so logically was the next threat; while I was attacking him, though, my Planetars' meters expired, and they zipped back to the celestial realms. D'oh. I'd blown a lot of Comets in the early stages of the fight, and so could only summon up a few replacement Planetars. Abazigal was the master of contingencies, and I wasted a lot of precious swings from Mazzy and Sarevok while he was in invulnerable mode. By the time I'd taken him down, Sendai had managed to kill Imoen and Nalia. Yaga-Shura was fortunately trading blows with my Adamantine Golem and then my Planetars, but he was implacably advancing towards the main action.

I resurrected Nalia, only to have her die in a firestorm. Blech. A second resurrection took properly, though she wasn't able to get back into her armor/robes, due to being in the middle of a fight. Heh... how appropriate that I wouldn't realize that particularly germane rule until the climax of the whole game. Abazigal finally went down, around the same time that the last of my available Planetars expired. I went to check on Yaga-Shura, who I had totally ignored but who had spent the entire battle so far under constant assault from my most powerful summons. "Barely Wounded." What the heck?! I scrolled up through the list of messages about the fight, thinking that he must have received a Heal from Sendai. It didn't look like it - we'd been landing plenty of blows on him, but each time for just 1 hit of damage. Argh. Was this another bug?

I had a rare, brilliant flash of inspiration - Nalia had Maze memorized! This doesn't have a saving throw, and I was fairly sure that Yaga-Shura didn't have a high intelligence. If I wanted anything, I wanted a cleaner battlefield - I'd have to face him eventually, but I wanted it to be after I'd taken care of Sendai. I made sure that Yaga-Shura was focused on Sarevok, then had Nalia run in and Maze him. I honestly don't think I've ever cast that spell before, and I was relieved when it worked as advertised. Finally, I could turn my attention to Sendai.

With all of us after her, I could finally make some headway, but not nearly enough. She's impossible to pin down, and leaves a ton of damage in her wake. Plus, like Abazigal, she's anal about keeping up her protections. The good news was, she seemed to be going light on the self-Heal spells, and so I was finally getting her down in health... and then Melissan showed up. At this point, she's huge, dressed in black, and she likes to keep a Globe of Blades spinning around her. The one good piece of news is that she usually acts like a Fighter and not like a Mage, so whenever she locked on one of my characters (generally a hapless Mage), I would hastily bring up Stoneskin, then run like mad away from her. More often then not, she would give chase, and leave the rest of us free to continue desperately trying to kill Sendai.

At last, I managed to kill Sendai. Then Yaga-Shura returned. Oh, CRAP - I had completely forgotten about him. He's still Barely Wounded. I attack him frantically. 1 point of damage. 1 point of damage. This isn't working. I leave Mazzy to play with the giant and have everyone else gang up on Melissan. This is at least a bit more successful: I'm landing 6 or 7 points of damage with each blow. She creeps further down... further down... then, once she's Near Death, she teleports back to the Throne, restores her essence, brings back her Globe of Blades, and leaps back into the fight. I check her. Uninjured. CRAP! Mazzy dies. Sarevok dies. Melissan casts Time Stop, then hits my main character a dozen times and kills her. Game over. Arghaghagha!

So... the next day, when I calmed down, I restored my last save and tried it again. This time, I took a few extra precautions. First, I waited for all my previous Planetars to leave, and then summoned a fresh batch; since this resets their timers, it would mean that I would get to keep them for longer, and since I would get a Rest anyways, there was no downside. I raised plenty of extra buffs for this final fight, including some Improved Invisibility - unlike Bless and Chant, mage buffs like II are especially good because their duration increases with your level, which means that they would last longer into the fight as well. I also carefully positioned my summons. I knew where the Four would arrive - Sendai and Yaga-Shura to the left, Abazigal and Illasera to the right - and that my party would be forced to the bottom, so I divided my Planetar host in two and set each group between me and the Four. I also made sure my Golem was set up to block Yaga-Shura. I re-saved with all my buffs ready, touched the pool, and launched back into the final fight.

As usual, since I already knew what I was doing, it went much easier. This time, I had Nalia Maze Yaga-Shura right at the very beginning of the fight, long before he could occupy much time or damage. I sent most of the Planetars to kill Sendai, and Balthazar tagged along as well; she was still teleporting all over the map, but they chased her so resolutely that she didn't have much time to get up to mischief as she flitted around. Illasera actually lasted a bit longer this time - before I could cast True Sight she had already snuck up and hammered Imoen (thank goodness for Stoneskin!) - but with all my NPCs focused on her, she didn't stick around for too long. Since I'd been neglecting Abazigal, the Planetars hadn't been able to wound his Absolute Immunity, but once I turned my attention to him, he opened up, and VERY quickly died.

This time around, Melissan arrived early, so I had to deal with her, plus Sendai, plus the specter of an imminent Yaga-Shura. I tried to avoid her as best as I could, dispelling her Globe of Blades but otherwise ignoring her. Fortunately, Balthazar latched onto her once she arrived, and they kept each other busy enough that I could eventually kill Sendai.

Another thing that's funny: by this point in the game, all my fighters were into their level 30's. This meant, among other things, that they had taken a bunch of HLAs. Mazzy had a lot more XP than Sarevok, so I think she had access to something like 8 Critical Strikes, while Sarevok only had maybe four and a couple of Hardiness promotions. Anyways, I had never, ever, ever used any of those abilities. It just hadn't been worth my time before. Well, now it suddenly was, and they suddenly became very useful. When I DID manage to (briefly) corner Sendai, having a Critical Strike proved hugely effective, since it meant that the few blows I could land on her did serious damage. Even better: Smite (I think) could actually STUN her, one of the toughest enemies in the whole game, which meant a precious whole round or two where not just my fighters, but also the Planetars, could all get their licks in. After repeating a few times, Sendai died. All hail the wonderful fighter HLAs!

I half-heartedly started whacking Melissan, keeping an eye on her health. Periodically she would case Time Stop, and I never remembered to have my special ability active, but fortunately Balthazar is sometimes able to remain active during a Time Stop, so he could smack her and chase her and keep her from killing us all. Finally, Yaga-Shura returned, and we all switched over to him. Good grief, what a slog. I eventually figured out that he was (relatively) vulnerable to Ice, and immediately smacked myself in the head at my stupidity. That's seriously remedial Baldur's Gate 1 stuff - he's a FIRE GIANT, for crying out loud! Of COURSE he's (relatively) vulnerable to cold! Unfortunately, I had almost no way to take advantage of this - I didn't have any Cones of Cold memorized, nor any icy swords - but, amusingly enough, my weakest fighters were best equipped to exploit this weakness. I had held onto a few Arrows of Ice, which I don't think I'd ever used in SoA or ToB, and divided them among Imoen and Nalia. They stayed a safe distance back, and cautiously fired in. I also had Viconia switch from the Crom Fayer to the upgraded Flail of Ages. This proved to be a huge unintended blessing. Not only did I do a (relatively) decent amount of damage with the cold-damage component of the flail, but each of the heads did their own damage as well. Yeah, granted, the other damage was only a single point each, but still: given that mighty Sarevok and Mazzy were only doing 1 point of damage with each hit, it was pretty impressive for Viconia to lay down six or ten or so points of damage with a single strike.

And Sebrina? She was a little bored, and spent most of her time casting Lower Resistance on Melissan. On further reflection, I'm not sure if this actually did anything, but it felt like making progress.

Killing Yaga Shura was one of the longest experiences of my life. It took way longer than killing Safer Sephiroth. Way longer than getting a driver's license at the DMV. Way longer than attending a four-year university. At long last, he creeped down from Barely Injured to Injured. We kept swinging away at him. Every once in a while, Melissan would grow extra-annoying, and I'd need to resurrect someone or dispel her protections. All my Planetars got bored and left. Sebrina started Improved Alacrity and summoned another six, more out of desire for company than for any tactical advantage. Most of them threw themselves at Melissan, who enjoyed slowly killing them while we blunted our weapons against Yaga-Shura.

Injured... Badly Injured... Near Death... I was growing irrational now, worried that a power spike would trip my power supply or that Melissan would pull one of her patented "Time Stop and then let's kill Sebrina while she's helpless" moves. I belatedly brought up my Focus, then managed to forget about Time Stop again. Shoot... shoot... whack... thwack... finally, at long last, Viconia swung the Flail of Ages one time too many, and the giant went down. He's very tall, so presumably it took a while for him to fall, but he made for a very impressive corpse.

I focus on Melissan, and immediately start feeling some satisfaction. At the next blow, she gets startled, and blurts out, "What's this? I'm mortal again? No!" It seems that Balthazar was right - she had divested herself of so much essence raising the Five (that's FOUR!) that, when they were destroyed, she could no longer draw on their power, and so was a mortal again.

I had to be careful while fighting Melissan - by now I had used up pretty much all of my level 9 spells, and had to carefully conserve the reserve items I had - but she was much, much easier than Yaga-Shura, and maybe even easier than Sendai. Melissan's weakness appeared to be electrical attacks. I didn't want to risk Viconia in there with her Flail of Ages - with all of my Planetars finally gone, I didn't have anyone else available to Heal, and only a Rod of Resurrection to Raise - but my mages each had some Chain Lightning available. I haven't cast this in a while, since it doesn't do a lot of damage, and it seems... weird... to cast on just one opponent, but it was about the only spell I could find that would hurt her. Unlike with Yaga-Shura, regular enchanted weapons would damage her as well, and so Mazzy and Sarevok kept up their Critical Strike regimen. Balthazar was finally free of distractions, and could devote himself full-time to whupping her. I'm not sure if it was Balthazar or one of my fighters, but we were occasionally able to stun Melissan, which always made me a bit relieved. As it was, I always carefully kept Viconia and Sebrina well away from the fray, just in case things went awry.

At long last, Melissan fell! I cheered in my heart. The Solar appeared, announced "Enough!", and began to lay out the terms of resolution. The gods had spoken: Melissan was unworthy to wield the power she had sought. The other Bhaalspawn, though, had a choice to make: if they wished, they could surrender their Bhaal essence, thus giving up the taint (and the immortality that comes with it), and returning to a normal, mortal life. Balthazar is practically weepy with gratitude - this is all he ever wanted, and he's overjoyed at the Solar's gift. Imoen is emotional as well; she has only recently confronted her Bhaal nature, and only VERY recently seen the darkest manifestation of it, so she doesn't have any regrets at giving it up and returning to the person she always thought she was.

You, as the last and most powerful Bhaalspawn, have a choice to make. You can follow the steps of Imoen and Balthazar, surrendering your Bhaal essence and becoming an untainted mortal. The Solar will then attach all the Bhaal essence to Melissan. Melissan, who doesn't intrinsically have a connection to the Essence, has bound some of it to her soul, much like grafting a new limb onto a tree. Even if they wished to be merciful, the gods couldn't just remove it from her. Instead, she will be bound away in the Celestial Palace for all eternity; the Bhaal essence will go with her, removing its evil from all the Planes forever. You would be free to live out your life as you see fit, without being bound by destiny.

Alternatively? The Solar could kill Melissan. You would then be free to take her essence, and all that which has been collecting in the Abyss for years. You would become a god. What kind of god you would become is up to you - the nature of your divinity flows from evil, but you have shown yourself to be a force for good, and so over time you can find your right place within the pantheon. This gives you immense power, of course, and also incredible enemies: you would certainly come to the attention of Cyric, and other gods as well, and would likely struggle for millennia across multiple Planes.

The final battle finally over, the game now turns to what I love most about BG2: the interaction with NPCs. It starts out with my newest friend, Balthazar, who gives advice on the situation. He doesn't exactly say to surrender the godhood, but he does ask you to think about how much trouble your portion of the Bhaal essence has given you in your life, and whether you really believe you'll be able to stick to the good path when confronted with all of it. He then says that we have to be careful, because Melissan is in the Throne, and that you need to disrupt the three pools with the Bhaal essence. "I'm not sure if it'll work, but what else can we do? Wait here for her to become a god?" Um... what? Then Melissan teleported in - while also lying dead on the floor, and taunted me. Then started attacking. As the party fought back, I frantically tried talking to everyone. Balthazar didn't have anything to say, nor did Imoen or Viconia. I chatted with the Solar, who started the whole conversation over again, telling Melissan that she was being stripped of her power. (Whether she was talking to the one lying on the floor or chasing me around, I couldn't say.) She gave Balthazar and Imoen their chances again, they surrendered their essences for a second time, the Solar laid out my choice, Balthazar weighed in with his advice... and, once again, warned about the essence pools, and a THIRD Melissan teleported in and started attacking.

I was getting royally ticked off. After ALL of that - and, worse, without even the chance of an interim save point - my game







It seemed clear that Ascension was glitching. I knew enough to guess that it was due to some other, weird mod interaction that it was causing problems, but at this point, I was so not in the mood to mess around with stuff, mere moments from the end of the game. I half-heartedly opened the Ascension dialog files in gvim and quickly found the conversation that was getting messed up. Everything SEEMED fine - I could see the parts where it inserted Balthazar's speech, and where it was supposed to return to Imoen afterwards - and I could also see the earlier, totally unrelated speech that he was segueing into, but I couldn't make out how the latter would cause the former. Something lower-level seemed to be messed up, and this wasn't something I'd be able to fix by tweaking a line and recompiling the mod.

I thought long and hard, and decided that the only way to fix it would probably be to make a clean, fresh install of SoA and ToB, then install Ascension, and only the other mods that seemed necessary. While googling for other people who'd had my problem, I hadn't seen anyone else with the exact same symptoms, but plenty of others who had various other quirks with Ascension (usually well before this point), and the rule of thumb seemed to be that Ascension should be one of the earliest mods that you install - after the Fixpack, but before any other mods and before the Tweak Pack. That made some sense then - after all, I had installed Ascension absolutely last, and with the two versions I had tried, something might have gotten mis-adjusted.

I called it a night, and then spent a few hours the next day re-installing all four discs of the game, the fifth disc of Throne of Bhaal, then copying to a backup directory, then copying over my mods (not all of them, but I did try to bring over all the ones that had content I was indirectly profiting from - for example, the Colours of Infinity mods that had given my main character new special abilities - on the off chance that not having them installed would break my saved games), then re-installing all the mods. Mod installation is generally pretty fast, but the Tweak Pack feels like it takes an age... you need to answer many questions, which are usually very pithily phrased.

At long last, the game was re-installed and stable. I'd copied over my saved games, and held my breath as I re-loaded my last save, from before the final fight. It seemed to go well - I was missing a couple of crucial pieces of equipment (notably a Belt of Fire Giant Strength for Viconia and Nalia's robes), but nothing was obviously buggy. Keeping my fingers crossed, I cleansed the last pool and began the fight.

I immediately noticed some very slight differences. In my previous fights, Illasera hadn't been immediately visible during the pre-fight dialog. Now, I could see her standing near Abazigal, though she still turned invisible once the fight started. Now, there was NO WAY that I was going to suffer through that whole fight again, on top of re-installing the game, so this time I took full advantage of cheating without any guilt: with debug mode enabled, you can move your mouse cursor over an enemy, and then press Ctrl+Y to deal them massive damage. This immediately kills almost everyone; it doesn't instant-kill Yaga-Shura, but it does hurt him enough where you can realistically finish him off. I used my newly-claimed powers of divinity to slay my enemies, then waited for the Solar to arrive.

Heart pounding, I raced through the dialog. Melissan defeated... Balthazar and Imoen mortal... I have a choice... okay, Balthazar's giving his warning... and now... Imoen speaks! Hooray! I exhaled, filled with relief that the hours of fighting with my crazy mod-loving self hadn't been entirely in vain. The rest of the party each gave their own, touching advice on my situation. Imoen trusted me to take whatever path I wanted. The unredeemed Sarevok urged me to claim the mantle of blood that he had wanted so badly for himself. Mazzy urged caution, although she said that if anyone could handle this divinity, it would be me. (Reputation == 20.) Nalia spoke with confidence in my ability to improve the world. And Viconia... as my romantic interest, Viconia had been on a journey of her own through the expansion. Our relationship had rekindled early on, although it wasn't physical this time, and she was increasingly curious about the surfacers' views of morality. A while back, we'd had a long discussion about the carnage I had left behind; she had assumed that I would rejoice in it, was a bit baffled when I professed to dislike slaughter, and was left to ponder the gaps between our worldviews. As time went on, she got a little sadder and more pensive, but also more open and humble. Somewhere along the line, her alignment changed to True Neutral. Now, as her lover is on the cusp of divinity, she states that, were it her, she wouldn't hesitate to seize this ultimate power; she trusts you to make the right choice, and says that her only regret would be if you left before she shared her feelings with you... which she does, briefly but VERY touchingly. All three of the female Bioware NPC romances I've played through have the characters go on their own interior journeys - Jaheira grows estranged from the Harpers, has her world turned upside down, and resettles as an equal companion to you; Aerie finds her self-confidence and self-identity as a woman - but Viconia's journey seems by far the most wide-ranging and the most challenging for her personally. You have stripped away all her defenses, and left her utterly vulnerable in a land that uniformly hates her; she has no center, no rock, but for you and for Shar; and now she has even turned her back on Shar, and urging you to leave as well. Still, she remains utterly proud, never clingy, never demanding; she's confused at what the world has become, but determined to find a way through it.

Well. I actually wasn't totally sure whether I would accept godhood or not. In my previous game as Cirion the Bard, once I had realized that divinity was a possibility I had decided to accept it; Cirion was Good, but also a good-naturedly self-interested form of Good, and I saw him as becoming a kind of cheerfully larcenous deity. Sebrina, though... what WAS her angle? I ultimately decided that, powerful as she was, she wasn't really interested in power for its own sake, only for what it could obtain. And what would she want to obtain most of all? Viconia... especially with Nalia off the table, it didn't seem that anything else in any of the Planes would be more rewarding than continuing with Viconia.

There's a bit more chatter after you make your choice. Balthazar enthusiastically endorses your decision, Imoen expresses relief, and Sarevok is nonplussed. Viconia calls you a fool, and embraces you.

The game is at an end. A final video shows Melissan's final death as the Throne of Bhaal implodes while she tries to grab some final essence from it. Oh, and another video narrates what happened to you next: while a mortal, you are among the most powerful of all beings in the Realms, and your future journeys cement your legacy. Bards will tell tales of your epic achievements for generations to come. As a final touch, you can read the "epilogues" for each of the characters. I had been looking forward to this for a while, as they would almost all be new.

Well, ALMOST all - Imoen was a repeat. Imoen's epilogue seems like it's probably the same regardless of which choice you make, since it just vaguely references Sebrina being "gone". Imoen accomplishes remarkable things: after returning to Candlekeep briefly, she heads out again, adventuring for a while and becoming enormously famous, including fighting and killing a dragon. She later formed a thieves guild (hooray!) that stretched the entire length of the Sword Coast. Good job, little sister!

Mazzy forms a new adventuring group - the Knights of Fentan - and tales of their valor and good deeds spread throughout the realm. (This feels like a particularly apt coda for Mazzy. She was already leading a group before you met her back in SoA, and has much more confidence and leadership ability than most other NPCs. It feels good to have her on your team, but she's very believable going off on her own. I mean, I can picture Imoen eventually running a thieves guild, but not right away; with Mazzy, though I can picture her saying goodbye, then immediately riding off to slay a lich.) At the culmination of her career, she finally achieves what she always wanted: she is given an honorary knighting by the Order of the Radiant Heart, and becomes the first halfling - indeed, the first non-human - to become a paladin. A remarkable achievement for a remarkable adventurer.

(I presume that there are different versions of the epilogues, or at least some of them, based on whether you played as a good or an evil character. In particular, Mazzy's epilogue describes how she would speak admiringly of you; presumably she wouldn't do so if you had acted like a tool during the game.)

Sarevok - who, I should reiterate, is still evil, through no apparent fault of my own - returns to Baldur's Gate and seizes power in a bloody coup. Eventually, some other adventurers drive him from the duchal palace - I like to imagine that this was Mazzy - and he is forced to flee. He leaves chaos in his footsteps, but as time goes he is driven farther and farther away, until he eventually fades from sight.

Nalia returns home to find that her keep has been usurped by Isaea Roenall. (Cough. We totally killed him in the SoA romance mod.) She throws him out, and claims her father's title for herself. Way to go! Apparently, she's a wise and fair ruler, but has also dialed back on the Marxist redistribution of wealth angle. She gains a seat on the Council of Six and is widely respected throughout Amn. (I think I'm going to hold onto this saved game forever, just so I can see what happens if and when the Throne of Bhaal expansion for the romance mod is released.)

Balthazar returns to Amkethran, where he repairs the damage he did during the run-up to the war of the Five, and becomes a wise and beloved ruler. Amkethran grows from a dusty outpost into a major trading destination, eventually growing into one of the great cities of Tethyr under his benevolent guidance.

And Viconia. Well... sigh. Viconia and Sebrina get married. They have a son. (With a surrogate, I'll pretend. The epilogue isn't written to be gender-general.) Lolth is a jealous goddess, and after waiting for years for an opportunity to strike, she sends an assassin against Viconia. Sebrina slays the killer, but Viconia is fatally poisoned; all the magic of the Realms aren't able to save her. Viconia had finally proven her worth to the surfacers, and the entire city of Baldur's Gate weeps as Sebrina rages helplessly. Viconia dies. Sebrina is mad with grief, and pursues Lolth throughout the Planes. Their son grows up, and apparently has some amazing adventures of his own.

Man... isn't that a huge bummer of an ending? Jaheira's and Aerie's romances turned out WAY happier than that. This one feels very dark, very goth, very brooding. It's powerful and well-done, I'll grant, but still, it's a bit of a slap in the face after such a long trial.

So, there was just a slightly bitter aftertaste, but still, on the whole I would qualify my second journey through the Baldur's Gate saga as a grand success. These games would have wonderful replay value anyways, thanks to the huge roster of NPCs and the incredibly rich and broad class system, but the steadily improving wealth of user-created mod content just makes it all the more rewarding to return to. I'm going to set my CDs back on the shelves, and return to playing other games for now, but I look forward to the time - four, six, or ten years from now - when I pull them down again, blow off the dust, and write another version of the tale of the bhaalspawn. Perhaps I will name the next one... Nanoc.

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