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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.

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  1. Steven Edward Wood on July 30, 2019 at 11:06 am said

    Love these games a lot. So glad a third is being made. And the classics are coming to Switch

  2. “Release it when it’s ready” lol, true true! Yep, cannot agree more.
    Well, not sure I am bold enough to hope that this time I can put honest positive expectations into BG 3, but at least I will try to stay positive to some extend. I believe it is about time to turn the tide and get good games from AAA publishers, good, playable, enjoyable, complete, no microtransactions…

  3. BrigandBoy on July 30, 2019 at 5:20 pm said

    I’m glad that Larian is on this. Beamdog did an oopsie, and it made their product suffer. Hopefully Larian won’t make the same mistake, because Baldur’s Gate should be fun, not controversial.

  4. Deadbeat Saint on August 1, 2019 at 3:41 am said

    While its great that the wretchedly abominable cancerous beamdog won’t be involved with the new title.. I have some serious doubts about Larian Studios being able to maintain the serious tone from the original two titles.

    While the Divinity games are decent RPGs, they can’t be taken seriously since they border nearly on the Bard’s Tale level of goofiness and campiness. That’s fine if you’re a casual, and just don’t care about the storylines, lore, or world.

    However, while there’s always been a hint of humor in the Forgotten Realms, you can take it seriously, and I fear that Baldur’s Gate III is just going to be a filled with facepalm-inducing puerile humor of the lowest common denominator, with a cringefest of low-tier callbacks and references.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I almost certainly am not. If anything, this will be a sad, demented, lesser shadow of Shadows of Amn. How can you possibly follow up a storyline like that? How can you possibly match or much less surpass a Jon Irenicus?

    They should have just let sleeping dogs lie (like the Black Hound). CDPR did the right thing when they decided not to do any more titles in the Witcher series after III. That’s integrity, and self-awareness at work. Something apparently other studios just can’t seem to grasp.

    • Ryan Spinney on August 10, 2019 at 8:58 am said

      Take a look at the Trailer, they should dispel any fears the whole game will be goofy. It is really dark. They have already said the tone and look of the game will look different from cartoonish Divine Divinity games. The game system is also a lot different, its modified 5th edition 5e.

      Also I would call Larian Studios an indepedant Studio that turned into an independant AAA studio/publisher thanks to Kickstarter and the Divine Divinity games. They made millions in profits from those game which is why the development team on this game is absolutely huge.

  5. I agree with Deadbeat above (or below?). While I’ve only played very little of DOS1, which doesn’t give me trust into a great story to come. If DOS is campy and silly, if they’ve done so because they intentionally went for it as a let’s have fun with a silly RPG then BGIII may be in good hands. It’s a matter of whether the mentioned campiness is intentional and self aware or if they were going for a good serious-ish story and couldn’t balance humour properly. I have the feeling, from the little played, it’s the first. However, I think old legends like BG, once it had not been followed close to the last installment, are better to be left to rest. I would’ve far preferred for a new IP with a different title, different characters (though last I saw it’s not known if it’ll follow the Bhaalspawn or will be a completely independent story, then why make it be BGIII?), different locale in the Forgotten Realms and the express declaration of intent to make it a series to be considered a follow up to BG.

    • Ryan Spinney on August 10, 2019 at 9:02 am said

      Ignore the name Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s a new story in the city of Baldur’s Gate, over 100 years later.

      And why do people assume that the game will have the same tone and look when Larian Studios has repeated said it won’t and the Trailer (which is from the actual game) shows a very dark game.

  6. Not sure how I feel about Baldur’s Gate III yet. Larian did a great job with DoS 1 and 2 but I hope they don’t go for the more comedic tone. I want something darker. The one thing I am hoping for is either Baldur’s Gate III to be full on turn-based, or at the very least an option for both.

    Pillars of Eternity 1 & 2 are the only crpg’s I played until the end, otherwise RtwP just isn’t really my thing. Currently I’m playing Pathfinder with the turn based mod and it’s so much better. (I’ll admit I feel like I miss out by not finishing BG 1 and 2 though). Was even thinking of picking up The Temple of Elemental Evil on GoG since it’s turn based, and actually (late) backing a game (Realms Beyond) which again is a turned based crpg.

    • I hope its not as comedic as DOS1 and 2, that was probably my biggest criticism. I take heart in the fact that they actually toned down the comedy in DOS2, and some of the quests that are more serious in tone are brilliant.

      As for your second point… I also just installed the turn-based Pathfinder mod, and its absolutely brilliant. I also really like turn-based mode for Deadfire, it completely changes the game’s mechanics and player builds.

      I strongly recommend TOEE as well, it is one of the most faithful D&D 3e RPGs ever released – don’t expect any hand-holding though, its pretty tough.

  7. it is so good to see the RPG renascence that is booming. pillars, divinity. i wish the rest of them would come to consoles as well. i count days for when BG saga hits me PS4. and Larian on the helm making BG3 it is good time to be a RPG gamer. and the rest of the classics ice wind, Torment.

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