Review by MarkDarkness
The dawn of an era
It is strange to think that it has been so long since Baldur's Gate was first published in 1998. It was, after all, the one game that almost single-handedly rekindled interest in the Computer Role-playing game genre. While it was the memorable Fallout that in the previous year fronted the wave of contemporary RPGs that many of us know and love, it was Baldur's Gate that achieved almost universal critical praise and an impressive total sales number of over 2 million units.
But what makes this game special? What makes it so timeless that to this day it has a sizable community of dedicated fans and modders? I am certain every player will have a pointedly different answer to give. As such, the best I can do is present my own take on the reasons why this game survived the test of time and is still really enjoyable.
When Baldur's Gate was released I was twelve years old. Back then my access to video game RPGs was limited mostly to the Super Nintendo library, which housed some great titles, all of which unfortunately shared a marked similarity: they were heavily linear, and most of the time you were forced to be going from point A to point B. Baldur's Gate offered me the first chance I ever had of actually playing the game my way, and it was an overwhelming feeling. Looking in retrospect, I now know there had been games in that style for many years, but honestly, none of the early Elder Scrolls titles and such come even close to the scope of Baldur's Gate.
The game's systems were mostly built upon the second edition of the then popular table RPG AD&D, so it comes as a given that the character creation proccess would offer archetypical classes such as the warrior and the mage, but what stood out here was that all classes were viable and fun to use, which set it apart from the usual "one true way" that permeates games even to this day. After generating attributes and tweaking the hero's appearance, you are good to start your journey.
It all begins in the confines of Candlekeep, a secluded mage settlement in which the protagonist spent the whole of his or hers life. Now, what the sensible player will immediately notice is how aesthetically relevant this game is. It does not boast real 3D graphics of any sort. Instead, it relies entirely on hand-drawn 2D isometric backgrounds overlayed with pre-rendered 3D characters. While not the apogee of graphics in a video game, the art direction is incredibly moody, consistent, and above all: inspiring. Baldur's Gate's several areas all feel interesting and there is a lot of attention to detail and scenery.
This is where the catch comes in, though: suddenly, the hero is pulled from the shell of warmth and protection offered by the walled settlement, as his mentor and guardian Gorion orders his immediate leave. In your escape, you are joined by the charming thief Imoen, the first of the several recruitable NPCs that compose the game's cast. After a brief encounter with Baldur's Gate main antagonist, you are left free to wander the entire region of the Sword Coast.
Unlike level-scaled games, areas in Baldur's Gate have specific enemy levels assigned to them, which means that taking your adventure to a higher level area could yield great rewards, but also present great danger. With a wide array of magical items that come coupled with rich backstories, every new discovery becomes meaningful, instead of simply adding more loot to the pile.
There is an underlying plot that is actually quite interesting, and by fulfilling certain tasks, you progress through the game's seven chapters to the story's epic conlusion. However, the real appeal lies in the diverse cast of support characters and side quests, all written with great care, with little stories of their own that sometimes actually overlap with your main quest, even if to only add some flavor to it.
Speaking of NPCs, the hero's party can be composed of up to six simultaneous characters... but beware! Different characters have different personalities and motives. A party composed of both good and evil characters is almost doomed to failure, as an all-out fight between both alignments is bound to erupt at some point. I still remember vividly the first time this happened to me. Unfamiliar with the depth of Baldur's Gate, I assumed having NPCs of extremely different alignments in my party would at most cause them to complain sometimes... as they in fact do. But at a tavern, Xzar's temper got out of control, and after a short banter he started attacking the druid Jaheira with magic missiles! I was both shocked and excited as they battled each other, even more so when her husband joined the brawl.
The soundtrack is driven by a powerful combination of metals, strings, orchestral percussion, and choirs. There is no way around just how lush and involving it all sounds. While still retaining that medieval feeling, the score goes in all sorts of interesting directions, showing a rare richness and enriching the gameplay with memorable melodies.
With an adventure that spawns several dozen hours, it is not unusual to start feeling a sense of familiarity with the setting and the characters by the game's end. At some point, Baldur's Gate clicks and you get to feel quite a rush once you realize that you finally have a party of interesting characters armed to the teeth with combat relics full of lore that you conquered across your continental journey.
Flaws? They do exist, particularly in terms of the incredibly lousy pathfinding algorithm that generates all sorts of trouble. As game that pioneered a genre, you can't really expect it to get everything right, but the issues here are few and far between, and as far as I'm concerned, they were all address in the best game of all time: Baldur's Gate II. However, without the first installment of the series, the second one would never have existed, and even so, the game stands proudly on its own.
A true masterpiece of video gaming.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Baldur's Gate (US, 11/30/98)
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