Sunday, October 22, 2023

Baldur's Gate 3: Existence Precedes Essence

Before I forget, a major PSA: when searching for Baldur's Gate 3 information, I highly recommend going to .  This is the community wiki for BG3, and in my opinion is highly superior to the commercial wikis and aggregator sites that crowd the first several pages of Google results. There's maybe a smidge less info on this one than the fextralife one, but also zero ads, no auto-generated repetitive crap ("This is an item. Items are a key mechanic of Baldur's Gate 3. Your character can collect many items in the course of their journey. Items are useful to have. Items may be used in combat or while exploring or traded for coins. The specific item you are looking at has a page on this wiki but absolutely no useful information whatsoever."), a clean UI and a nicely browseable structure. While the plot stuff was a bit thin at launch, it's been filling out nicely, and it's always been a great resource for reading about game mechanics, classes, skills, abilities, and other factual information.


Baldur's Gate 3 has less-drastic transitions than the earlier BG or Divinity games did. In the original Baldur's Gate and its sequel, when you reached a certain point you would see a new slide for "Chapter 4" or whatever, and a narrator would intone the latest exposition while you looked at some nice imagery. Divinity: Original Sin 1 and 2 were divided into major Acts, with massive loading screens separating them. For BG3, there's a ton of online discussion about "Act 1", "Act 2" and "Act 3", but those terms don't appear anywhere within the game itself. Instead, there are sort of transitional mini-zones that occupy the space between the major portions of the game, and even after advancing forward you still have some time to retrace your steps to tie up loose ends or even kick off quests you may have missed.



All that to say, I think I'm done with Act 2, and I think I'm in Act 3 now, but might be like in Act 2.5 or something. I'm sure all will become clearer later on.



Some random mechanical thoughts before starting to chat about characters and plot:



I would be pretty tempted to roll a Monk for a future play-through. There's a lot of cool equipment that seems to be tailored for monks, particularly unarmed combat, and none of the companions can really use it. (Though I suppose Karlach might be a good candidate to respec or dual as a monk.)



Similarly, I wish I was playing a proper thief/rogue in this game. My PC Bard handles locks and traps just fine, and I don't really want Astarion in my party, but there is a lot of really cool gear that interacts with stealth in an interesting way. Similarly, there are some really cool mechanics that trigger directly off of shadows and light, which I haven't seen much of before. 



I've been thinking of light a lot, in large part due to some Act 2 stuff. In my limited tabletop D&D experience, light is pretty important: a DM will often try to keep track of who's carrying a torch, what characters can naturally see in the dark, etc. In CRPGs, these visual mechanics are usually implemented but very unimportant: you can just switch to a character with night-vision and you, as the player, can see everything fine, even if the humans in your party are theoretically blind. Anyways, BG3 is one of the only games I've played that gets back at this classic D&D focus on light and dark, in a way that works pretty well mechanically and is compelling thematically.



I'm playing as a Bard, which plays very differently in BG3 than in BG1/BG2. In the earlier games they tended to be more passive, hanging in the very far back and singing songs to buff the rest of the (6-person party); occasionally you would use a wand to shoot fireballs or something. In BG3, I have a chunk of pretty good arcane magic: I've been leaning towards loading up on Rituals that help with gameplay outside of combat, but as I reach higher levels I'm getting more spells that are good in-combat as well. I'm also a pretty decent archer, although at 1 attack per round I'm way less effective than dedicated fighters; but, much like the D:OS games, special arrows can be extremely tactically useful, like knocking someone back over a ledge, blowing up an explosive barrel, dispelling an effect, healing someone, teleporting somewhere, etc. Also, in BG1/2 bards could only Pick Pockets, but in BG3 you can pick locks, stealth and disarm traps, making you a full-on thief replacement.



I almost never use Bardic Inspiration, the most bard-like ability of the class, which buffs a companion. Instead, I almost exclusively use Cutting Words, a College of Lore-specific Reaction. This uses a BI charge, and allows you to apply a D6 or D8 malus to any enemy's roll. So, if they would have hit someone, you can use CW to make them miss instead; if they would have saved against a spell, you can use CW to make them take the effect. This is a crazy good ability, more than making up for the slight squishy feeling of my actual combat actions.


I'm enjoying the game a lot more since I stopped trying to pick up every piece of trash to vendor later. There's some decent stuff to buy, but as of the end of Act 2 no real money sinks and I have way more gold than I know what to do with.



There's definitely not a pacifist route through the game, but I've been pleasantly surprised by just how many boss-type encounters you can complete just through dialogue. It's pretty cool!



For the most part, it's best to handle dead companions by paying Withers to raise them. Revivify scrolls are more expensive; you can almost always go back to camp between combat encounters, and if you revive someone mid-combat, they raise with 1 HP and will almost certainly die again. Late in the game your clerics can learn Resurrect, but that slot is usually better spent on offense, buffing or a utility spell. But anyways, it is worth carrying a couple of scrolls, because sometimes you'll be stuck in an area without fast-travel or Camp access, and Revivify will keep you from needing to carry the deceased's hundred pounds of gear back to safety.


One of my few complaints about the game so far has had to do with the companions, or more specifically, that they seem to skew evil: other than Gale, most folks you can recruit seem to fall squarely into the "Evil" camp. After playing much further into the game, I have a much better idea of what Larian is going for here, and am really enjoying it.



First off, there are characters like Karlach who just weren't a big presence in Early Access. She's great. One of those characters who looks evil: a literal devil! With piercings!!! But she's big-hearted, loyal, brave, has a good sense of humor, just a delight to be around.



More impressively, though, the "evil" companions are "evil" when you meet them, but don't necessarily stay that way! At least for two of the companions who I've been traveling with, there's a great, long, slow-burn effect where, based on your actions and choices and conversation, they may actually start to question some of their beliefs and rethink their self-conception. Which, honestly, is way more compelling than "This person is evil all the time, now and always!" or "This person is good all the time, now and always!"



Which, now that I'm writing that out, is not totally unprecedented. There are some games with shifts in the other direction, like Alistair potentially "hardening" in Dragon Age: Origins, or Leliana turning into the murderpope in Dragon Age: Inquisition. And one of the best arcs in Baldur's Gate 2 is Viconia undergoing a similar evil-to-much-less-evil transition through the course of a romance. So I'm not totally sure why I was so convinced that we were "stuck" with these "evil" characters in BG3. Anyways, it's been a real delight to discover that these people get their own meaningful arcs, and aren't just there to help define and guide the player character.



I'm not sure if everybody follows this description - it would be funny if, say, Astarion remains a cheekily selfish bastard no matter what - but as long as at least some do, I think that's a sign of A Good Game.



While on the topic, I'm also deeply loving how BG3 has completely removed the traditional two-axis alignment system from the game UI. I don't play D&D 5E, but from what I understand alignments are now considered optional, and I personally find it very liberating to describe characters rather than sort them.


Writing a bit about my own journey thus far:



My "Tav" is a Drow Bard named Triel. I thought I came up with the name, but apparently it's also the name of a city in Forgotten Realms, whoops. It was funny and mildly disorienting the first time it popped up in a book. I'm curious if I'd read that name before and buried it in my mind or if it's just a coincidence.



Triel has reluctantly embraced at least some of her tadpole powers, picking up some handy passives but avoiding over psionic abilities. She has been resolutely on the side of good, defending the Tiefling refugees against the druids and then defending the grove against the goblins (by slaughtering all the goblins). For the most part she tries to use diplomacy to advance her goals; when that fails, she'll switch to subterfuge; what that fails, murder.


It's been a pretty completionist playthrough so far. I've probably missed some companion-exclusive things since I tend to travel with the same core group, but for the most part I've done everything to pop up in my journal. The major exception was quietly failing a bunch of kidnapping-related quests in Act 2 due to doing some stuff in the wrong order.


My party has shifted a bit. Early on I was the probably-canon group of Shadowheart, Lae'zel and Gale. I really liked Karlach, but at that time was kinda romancing both Shadowheart and Lae'zel, so I reluctantly swapped out Gale. The big hurt there was losing access to a bunch of AOE damage spells, which are game-changing on fights with large numbers of small enemies. Still, this isn't a crazy-hard game, and I've had decently-optimized builds, so the overall loadout has still been working fine.



I was kind of trying to romance three ladies all at once, but "locked in" with Lae'zel and have been rolling forward with it. It's a cool romance; she is very different from Morrigan, but the arc of this romance reminds me a little of that one, starting off as a purely physical connection but gradually growing closer together emotionally. That said, Lae'zel is literally alien, and I like how she retains a bit of strangeness throughout, instead of just transforming into a pliant waifu.  


In Act 2, I saved the Last Light Inn, reloading after Isobel got snatched during the fight. I raced to get the faerie protection from darkness, then went back east and cleared out all of the wilderness outside the town.



Once in town, I followed a mostly pacifist route through the Thorm children, using my bard's superior Persuasion and Deception to defeat them. I could have squeezed out some more XP by initiating fights against their followers, but, eh.



My big mistake in Act 2 was clearing the Gauntlet of Shar prior to visiting Moonrise Tower. The game does helpfully display a warning popup window when you're about to progress things, but I had thought that it only referred to the actual Gauntlet of Shar area, not the entire Shadow-Cursed Lands, and thought the only thing I was giving up was a chance to fight Balthazar in the crypt. After completing the very challenging Balthazar fight and completing some very risky die-rolls to persuade Shadowheart to renounce Shar, I noticed that half of my quests involving Moonrise Tower had failed, but was not willing to redo all that gameplay.



As a side-note: I alluded to this above, but I love the arc Shadowheart has so far in this game, it's so darn well-written and earned. I honestly felt a little choked-up and emotional during this section, which also leads into the beautiful and heartwarming reunion of Nightsong and Isobel, which in turn adds another big layer of pathos to Ketheric Thorm's story.



In Moonrise Tower, I was able to briefly trick a guard outside, but was forced into combat as soon as I entered the basement. I gradually cleared the tower from the bottom to the top, fighting alongside Jaheira with her Harpers and the Flaming Fist. That's another fight I reloaded a couple of times, mostly because it triggered when I was in a very awkward position and was playing out in real-time to the detriment of my allies while I was running around the exterior looking for a way in. The fight itself was crazy fun, though, with tons of bodies on the battlefield, great use of elevation and terrain: a bunch of archers were stationed on the rafters, so Lae'zel used her Athletic Jump to boing up there, then her Battlemaster Pushing Attack to knock them down and make them go "splat".



Fighting alongside Jaheira was so much fun. That character gets some grief from the BG community and isn't as universally beloved as others like Minsc and Imoen, but I think she's great, and it felt so fun to fight by her side again. It's a new voice actress performing her, but it's a convincing likeness, and I think the writers did a great job at her character: it's recognizably her, with her fiery spirit and stubbornness and slightly haughty sheen, but at the same time tempered through two centuries of additional living, more experiences giving her a bit more patience and flexibility.


For the assault on Moonrise, I brought along Wyll and Halsin, because they had mentioned specific reasons for wanting to be there. Wyll was a pretty good choice; you never see his dad the Duke, which was a bummer, but he does get a good long scene with the devil that advances his story. Halsin was honestly kind of a bust though, it sounded like he had some major unfinished business with Ketheric, but they don't have any meaningful dialogue together. There's some minor chatter between Halsin and Jaheira, but basically just "Oh, I've heard of you!" "Oh, that's cool, glad to finally meet you." After finishing this section, I realized that I should have brought Gale: I hadn't realized that we would actually come face-to-face with the Absolute in this section. Oh, well!



Like I said before, I just started Act 3. Between starting this post and now, I did the bit inside the Astral Prism with the big reveal about who the Dream Visitor is. It's a pretty cool plot; I'd been wondering if the Dream Visitor was an Illithid, but hadn't predicted the specific background and connections between the Gith and Ilithid and all that. I initially tried to turn down the mega-tadpole with a... I think Insight? Or maybe Wisdom throw; but failed that, even with burning all 4 Inspiration points, so I reloaded and just squashed it. That said: I really, really love the mechanical impacts of this choice. From what I can see and the little I've read online, there's absolutely no mechanical reason not to take the tadpole: it unlocks a bunch of really cool new abilities, and doesn't force you into any particular endings. But there's still the choice to turn it down, following a harder path because you think it's the right thing to do. I absolutely adore these sorts of asymmetrical choice in video games, where it's an actual sacrifice to do the "right" thing, and not just two different labels for equivalent outcomes.


Also, I really dig Shadowheart's new hair!


Steam says that I'm about 100 hours into the game, but it's hard to know for sure. I think that includes my Early Access playthrough three (!) years ago, and also a lot of time that I've left the game up and running while I'm away doing something else. In any case, I assume that I'm about 2/3 of the way through. Feeling really stoked to finally get to Baldur's Gate and see how things wrap up!


No comments:

Post a Comment