I replayed Baldur’s Gate earlier this year and foolishly thought I could get away with just that, and not immediately transferring my character to the sequel. Fast-forward a few months and yep, here I am, chugging through Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Except I’m realising more and more that…
Despite all the quality-of-life improvements made to the Infinity Engine, despite the more detailed NPCs and the fun extra-planar jaunts, I really do prefer the original game. Even worse, I’m beginning to think that I don’t like Baldur’s Gate II at all.
(There will be spoilers.)
Shadows of… Damn
It starts with the narrative. I’ve had a long-standing, niggling doubt about the narrative of Baldur’s Gate II, in that every way I slice it, it always comes out as a massive side quest.
Villain Jon Irenicus is not a Bhaalspawn; he has no relationship with Bhaal; his aims do not involve Bhaal in any way. He is merely a nearby opportunist who sees some powerful divine blood and decides to make off with it. The same story could be applied to the child of any god, in any city. By the time it’s over, nothing much has changed for the player character or the world either; you get your soul back, Irenicus dies and that’s that.
Contrast this with the story of Baldur’s Gate. Although it is mostly a conspiracy thriller as you attempt to unravel the plots of the Iron Throne, it eventually transpires that Sarevok is subverting those plots, not for profit but to start a war, and so use that glorious sacrifice to ascend to his divine right. This plot device only works if his parent is a god of Murder who would appreciate that sort of grand slaughter — and your conflict with him is completely natural, as somebody resisting your heritage, wanting that throne for yourself, or simply needing to survive because There Can Be Only One.
I think it’s a similar situation to Morrowind versus Skyrim. While the return of the Nerevarine is intricately linked with the Great Houses and the Ashlanders and all the politics and culture of Vvardenfell and so could only work there, you could lift-and-shift the returning dragons into any province and lose nothing of substance from Skyrim. (This could have been fixed by tying the dragon plot more tightly into the civil war plot, and the fact they didn’t boggles my mind to this day.)
On a more granular level, the writing pisses me off quite frequently too. There’s a particular trope that comes up a few times that I find incredibly grating — when a villain goes “actually you did exactly what I wanted, ha ha!”
It comes up when you arrive in the Windspear Hills and kill Ajantis and his pals, because they’re disguised as monsters with no way to dispel the illusion. It comes up when you arrive at Spellhold, and discover that Saemon Havarian had secretly drugged you (off-screen!), and then when Irenicus is like “well actually I wanted you to come to Spellhold anyway”. Then there’s no way to refuse Havarian’s “gift” of the stolen Silver Sword blade, so the Githyanki pile onto you. Then in the Drow city, Jarlaxle “tricks” you into raiding a lich’s house that you… probably planned on raiding anyway. What?
All these moments do is give the writers a way to sneer at the stupid player who did exactly as they planned all along by… following the only trails presented. Plot twist! You’re a fool. (Also, why did it even to be Ajantis disguised as the monsters? “So, you enjoyed the first game did you? Ha! The past is dead! Burn it!”)
If we were playing real D&D on the tabletop, I think we would be bandying around the word “railroading” by now. While I accept that it’s necessary to constrain players to the content that actually exists (especially in a video game where freeform improvisation is impossible), doing so by undermining their completely reasonable actions is not the way to go about it — and even if you could get away with that once for a stunning twist, doing so repeatedly is just mean.
I also realise that I don’t actually like many of the characters. BG2 is often praised for its NPC interactions, much expanded since the original game (where a handful of interchangeable voice lines occasionally played between random pairs of characters). This expansion is a double-edged sword though, because it gives characters plenty of space in which to be obnoxious.
Keldorn is somehow surprised that the fact he never visits his wife or kids has made them kinda hate him. Nalia is excruciatingly, painfully naive, and Aerie only marginally less so. Jan Jansen might be a solid comic relief character, but that just makes his very personal and emotionally charged loyalty quest feel completely out of place. At least if you persevere with Jaheira she does eventually warm up and has some great lines later on. (But don’t get me started on how Imoen is retconned into being another Bhaalspawn.)
And everyone is a fucking dual- or multi-class combo, most of whom also come with one or more “only I can wear this” special items. I see why they’ve done this — they’re making sure we don’t take people, strip them of their kit and then abandon them like we might have done a few times in the first game (Kagain’s helmet is just too cool though!); but it replaces that with this weird dynamic where you eventually have a lot of junk that’s maybe been superseded but also maybe not, because it’s often more powerful than something similar that any character could use. It’s annoying.
The open-ended goal of “obtain 20,000 gold” for Chapter 2 is an interesting one, because it embraces the open-ended structure of the game world; go anywhere, do anything it takes to raise the funds. Except while Baldur’s Gate was replete with towns and cities and wilderness areas to explore and so acquire such funds naturally, the sequel is mostly limited to a small set of more grandiose tentpole side quests — which are thus, confusingly, both apart from and a part of the main quest.
These big earner quests are also very time-consuming, which given the context, seems irresponsible. Imoen has been spirited away, is probably being tortured — you should be in a rush. Is it really wise to take on the huge troll horde that’s invaded an isolated keep? Dive into the metal sphere that’s phased into the city and is vapourising anyone that touches it? Hmmmmmm.
Your investigation into the Iron Crisis of Baldur’s Gate naturally gives you space to branch out and take your time, because its machinations have been ongoing for months before you start the game and don’t even involve you until you deliberately involve yourself. Meanwhile, Shadows of Amn feels weirdly strung-out because its overarching goal says you should be rushing but its moment-to-moment quests say you should be meandering.
So yeah, a litany of things that don’t sit well combines to an experience that I’m ultimately not happy with — and I haven’t even mentioned how 2nd Edition combat goes utterly bonkers beyond about level 12! Baldur’s Gate is by no means a perfect game, but it just seems to fit together much better than its sequel.
Hell, I may rave about how overly-difficult Icewind Dale is, but I think I even prefer it as a more grounded story that unfolds in a reasonable way while still giving you a journey through many exciting loctions; and if I want the fun of extra-planar shenangians and “light reading” there is always Planescape: Torment.
But Baldur’s Gate II? It misses the mark for me, and the more I think about it, the further from the mark I realise it lands.