Gather Your Party: A Baldur’s Gate Series Retrospective
It was one of the biggest announcements from the spectacle that is E3 and its preceding weeks: seemingly out of nowhere, Baldur’s Gate III was announced by Belgian RPG game developer, Larian Studios. The internet literally exploded at this news – after all, Wizards of the Coast hadn’t chosen some AAA powerhouse to develop the next Dungeons & Dragons CRPG; they had selected an independent and highly respected studio that gamers could trust to carry on the legacy of one of the most beloved RPGs of all time.
Even in an era where expectations are often crushed and “hype” is a dirty word, it’s hard not to get excited about Baldur’s Gate III, especially given Larian’s previous work with the Divinity series.
So, without further ado, it’s time to look back at the history of Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate (BioWare, 1998) and Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast (BioWare, 1999)
In the 1990s, D&D games were regarded as some of the best that the RPG genre had to offer, but in the years leading up to the release of Baldur’s Gate, they had undergone a disappointing downturn.
Descent to Undermountain was a buggy mess, while Dark Sun Online was a valiant but failed attempt at a D&D MMO. So, when Baldur’s Gate was released by then-unknown developer BioWare, it effectively rescued D&D games. The top-down perspective and Real-Time with Pause (RTwP) gameplay channeled the RTS craze that swept the late 90s games industry, while the depth of story and freedom to explore the Sword Coast captured the essence of the Forgotten Realms setting in AD&D 2nd Edition perfectly.
Baldur’s Gate was also the first game in Bioware’s Infinity Engine, an engine that would eventually lead to Planescape: Torment and the Icewind Dale series. Inter-party dialogue was minimal, but provided plenty of characterization for the game’s cast of NPCs. With the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion released the following year, players could take their party through a whole new set of challenges, but in 2000, the CRPG benchmark was raised to a level seldom attained since…
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (BioWare, 2000) and Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (BioWare, 2001)
Baldur’s Gate II was the first game I experienced in the series, and it was also the game that truly reinforced RPGs as my favorite genre.
Shadows of Amn took every aspect of Baldur’s Gate and improved it immeasurably. The plot was deep, engaging and full of twists, the combat was challenging and rewarding, and the NPCs were brought to life through extensive dialogue and exceptional voice acting. Who could forget the lovable ranger-hamster duo of Minsc and Boo, the egotistical wizard, Edwin Odesseiron, or the noble paladin, Keldorn Firecam? While there were fewer NPCs in Baldur’s Gate II, every single one of them felt lovingly crafted.
Much like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt would remind us many years later, side quests could also be the highlights, and Baldur’s Gate II’s side quests were exceptional – especially the NPC quests. Jan Jansen’s quest was easily my favourite, with its masterful balance of comedy, drama, and mystery, and a rare glimpse at the real Jan that hides behind an irreverent and somewhat mad outward personality. Shadows of Amn was followed by the Throne of Bhaal expansion, featuring even more challenging encounters and a remarkable end to the Bhaalspawn saga.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (Snowblind Studios, 2001) and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (Black Isle Studios, 2004)
Released for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, the Dark Alliance series was a pair of spin-off games that have little in common with the core Bhaalspawn Saga. They have far more in common with hack-and-slash ARPGs like Diablo than they do with traditional RPGs, and as a result were often ignored by the more diehard, niche CRPG crowd.
However, it would be unfair to ignore these games – while they might not compare to the dizzying success of Baldur’s Gate II, they are still exceptionally entertaining games in their own right, especially in coop mode. Sitting on the couch with your mates, tearing through dungeons and fighting off waves of enemies was good, honest fun, and the Dark Alliance series is certainly one of the better ARPGs to grace the console.
Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound (Black Isle Studios, unreleased)
Until this year, The Black Hound was as close as gamers have ever come to seeing Baldur’s Gate III. With BioWare moving on to other projects, the Baldur’s Gate mantle was handed to Josh Sawyer and Black Isle Studios.
However, like so many other studios during the crash that followed the DotCom Bubble, Black Isle (and parent company Interplay) were grappling with extensive financial troubles; for Interplay, these troubles were exacerbated by legal battles over the D&D license and the Dark Alliance engine, and eventually resulted in the cancellation of The Black Hound.
Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition (Overhaul Games, 2012) and Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition (Overhaul Games, 2013)
In the early 2010s, the retro revival was in full swing, and gamers were gobbling up anything that gave that nostalgia-hit. So, when BioWare co-founder Trent Oster’s company Beamdog announced remasters of the Bhaalspawn Saga, interest was high.
There was some criticism of the initial releases, but the Enhanced Editions are now the best way for a newcomer to experience the original Baldur’s Gate games. These remasters also revived the BG community, and the Baldur’s Gate modding scene is more active today than it ever was. In many ways, the Beamdog Enhanced Editions were also a key factor in the CRPG renaissance – the Infinity Engine RPGs are a primary influence in modern RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tyranny and even today the genre continues to flourish. But with the re-emergence of the Baldur’s Gate series, so came the re-emergence of the Baldur’s Gate III rumors.
Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (Beamdog, 2016)
The first new title in the Baldur’s Gate series in 15 years, Siege of Dragonspear, was an “inter-quel,” taking place between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II. It attempted to explain what happened to the Bhaalspawn between defeating Sarevok and landing in Irenicus’ dungeon.
Siege of Dragonspear was released shortly after the height of the Gamergate controversy, and while I won’t get into the politics of that time here, I will say that there was a vocal section of the gaming community who were disappointed with how Beamdog had communicated their stance in the game. No one was ever going to claim that Siege of Dragonspear was a masterpiece, but for me it was an entertaining romp that captured much of what I liked about the original games. I had avoided playing it for a couple of years – with so many heated opinions, it was hard to find an objective review on whether it was worth the money – however in the end, I’m glad I did. I barely noticed the political aspects and while the plot was not nearly on par with the main games, it was definitely worth the relatively small cost.
Baldur’s Gate III (Larian Studios, TBA)
I can’t express enough how important the choice of Larian Studios is for the broader games industry.
Franchising through games is big business, and over the years we have seen AAA studios snap up endless licenses, only to drive these licenses into the ground (case in point: EA and Star Wars). Wizards of the Coast’s choice of an independent developer is a significant vote of confidence for the AA industry – they clearly recognize that this is where the best games get made. Larian Studios has a lot of expectations to live up to, and as IGN recently reported, they faced some stiff competition – there are a lot of RPG dev veterans at Obsidian Entertainment and inXile Entertainment, many of whom worked on the original games. In any case, I hope that this is a sign of things to come, and we see more licenses given to AA developers. I wish Larian the best of luck with Baldur’s Gate III, and if I have one piece of advice for them it is this: release it when it’s ready.