Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Editions Review – PlayStation 4
+ Some of the best writing and world building in gaming
+ A huge amount of high-quality content
- A few technical issues
- Translation to consoles has left some fiddly mechanics
It would be foolish of me to attempt to write a review of a pair of 20-year old games with the intention of saying anything about them that hasn’t already been said multiple times. This rings doubly true when the games being discussed are Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, which are two of the pillars of the RPG genre, and have influenced so much of what we understand RPGs to be in the modern day. Truly, if you’ve played any RPG in the past ten to fifteen years, and certainly if you’ve played Bioware’s later series of Dragon Age, Mass Effect or even Knights of the Old Republic, then you’ve seen the fingerprints of the Baldur’s Gate games, even if you might not be aware of it. So, because of their heritage, it would be a waste of word to criticize them as games in isolation, and instead I will attempt to describe how they play on a console, and whether or not the systems and visuals hold up in 2019.
First of all, I have to say how much of a welcome surprise it was that I could play through this series on my couch, both in terms of the ease of using a controller to take charge of a game designed for mouse and keyboard, and also how well the visuals translated to a 55-inch 4k television. I have played numerous games from a similar period, some upscaled and some not, where the pixels are suddenly blown up far larger than the developers would likely have imagined possible in the mid-1990s, and the text is near-illegible, making the brief hit of nostalgia from a memorable menu screen drift away like a scent on the wind. Thankfully, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is surprisingly crisp, and unless you zoom in as far as you can, the textures look quite sharp. This is in part thanks to the static backdrops that you’ll be navigating, but it’s still impressive to consider how much the environments pop, and how much this plays into the sense of place and atmosphere as you wander the world of Faerun.
There is a slight downside to this, though, in that I often found it difficult to discern where I could and couldn’t direct my party to travel to, and that I regularly found my characters caught on small objects such as ropes and rocks, that I couldn’t suite see from the isometric viewpoint that the game operates from. However, this is a minor annoyance at most, and if you do get stuck, the ability to view an area map that highlights walkable areas is a useful inclusion, if a little fiddly to open multiple times in a short spell. Most options within the game can be accessed from a menu wheel, which is opened by holding one of the triggers, and from here you can access various maps, your journal, character sheets and your party’s inventory. It’s a fairly easy system to use, though I did find myself selecting an incorrect option more than once, but this can probably be chalked up to me not paying as much attention as I perhaps should have been.
There’s actually a lot more focus on paying attention than modern-day gamers may be used to, particularly as neither Baldur’s Gate game features quest markers or any real indication of the direction you’re supposed to be travelling in. You’ll have frequent updates to your journal, either in the form of quest breakdowns or observations of the world around you, and these are what you’ll be relying on in order to progress through individual quests and the storyline as a whole. Each area you venture into will be broken down into single static screens, and none of these are huge, which makes it difficult to get truly lost. You will have the occasional marker placed on your area map as well, if you find a location of particular interest, but the majority of each area will be blackened on the map when you first enter, and it’s up to you to explore and find where exactly things are. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game, as there was a constant sense of mystery, and the fact that you would occasionally stumble upon optional quests while exploring made venturing to every corner of the map feel worthwhile. Some of these quests would be as simple as fetching an item for a character, but just as often they would turn into a prolonged chain of events, with a twisting, turning narrative.
In terms of narrative, I found that while I enjoyed the first Baldur’s Gate, I quickly fell in love with Baldur’s Gate II, and I couldn’t get enough of my companions or the quests that we were going on. The first game has a fairly typical fantasy narrative, regarding a young adult with little knowledge of their mysterious heritage, and their gradual discovery of both their own power and the world around them. Baldur’s Gate II builds on this, with a more unpredictable main narrative and some genuinely engrossing side quests with memorable characters. I was frequently reminded of some of my favourite moments from the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series while playing Baldur’s Gate II, not so much because of what I was doing, but more because of how much I cared about what I was doing, and who I was doing it with. Like those two later games, the Baldur’s Gate series puts you in charge of building your party, and there are more characters that can join you than you’ll have room for, meaning that you’ll either have to pick favourites or chop and change as the narrative demands. The problem was that Bioware have done such a good job of writing these characters, and in writing the interactions between them when they’re in your party that you don’t want to break up the team. Similarly, you’ll be afraid of what you’re missing by not having particular members with you, which means that you can often be caught in moments of indecision about who you want with you at any particular time.
In realistic fashion, your party is made up of individuals, and so, each member has their own individual inventory, which might lead to frustrations for those more familiar with the universal inventory systems that are seen in more modern games. Bioware games, even the more recent ones, have never been particularly good at setting up an intuitive inventory management system, but I found that the system present in Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition was more fiddly than most. By default, if you have your party selected, the party leader will pick up all items, which causes their inventory to fill up, while everyone else’s remains empty. I lost track of the amount of time I spent diverting items that I wanted to keep hold of between my party members, and considering that each member only has sixteen slots in which to hold items, it doesn’t take long to fill to capacity, particularly if you’ve ventured into a lengthy dungeon. It’s not that the system is broken, per se, but it’s worth a word of warning to new players, as it’s one of the elements that reminds you that this is a game from some time ago.
Although these games were released approximately twenty years ago, I would find it incredibly easy to recommend these to players today, particularly if they’re focused on narrative. Both games contain strong writing and world-building, but Baldur’s Gate II takes this to a new level, and it’s easy to see why it is held up as a classic of the genre. Both games are also fine examples of why visuals aren’t everything, and even though they have clearly been cleaned up, the visuals are reminiscent of how they would have been around release. What makes up the difference, however, is the fact that the writing is strong enough and descriptive enough to allow you to fill in the blanks. Much like when you’re reading a good book, you almost don’t need the visual stimulation, as your imagination is presenting you with as much, if not more, than what is presented on the screen.
To be entirely honest, just in case it wasn’t clear already, I was blown away by both Baldur’s Gate games, and I’ve been kicking myself for the past few days that I hadn’t experienced them any earlier than two weeks ago. I was well aware of their standing in gaming, and I had dabbled with the beginning of Baldur’s Gate II a number of times, but I was a JRPG fan in my early gaming days, and I didn’t really experience western RPGs until The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. I’ve been wondering how my gaming path would have differed if I’d spent more time with the Baldur’s Gate series when I was younger, and in turn, how that may have affected my reading and movie watching habits too. Ignoring that potential alternate life, though, I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to make up for the mistakes of my younger self, and I’m excited to dive back into both Baldur’s Gate games and mess around with my party layout and finish up some of the side quests that I left at the wayside as I worked through the story.
In answering the question of whether or not Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition holds up in today’s gaming landscape, and whether the move to console is successful, the answer is yes to both, but with some caveats. In terms of the console translation, there’s obviously a loss of precision with the replacement of mouse and keyboard with a controller, but the fact that you can move your party with an analogue stick makes the experience a lot more inviting to the idea of playing on a couch and being able to kick back and explore. You obviously still have to be on your guard for combat sections, but making your way through the world is infinitely easier than needing to click each time you want to move. With regards to whether this game holds up today, the answer is yes, but who to recommend it to is a little bit tougher to answer. You’ll need a degree of patience, both in terms of the mechanics and in terms of the pacing of the game, but if you can lose yourself in the world, then both of these elements become minor inconveniences at most. I’ve had multiple occasions over the past couple of weeks where I feel like I’ve unintentionally lost hours to either game, as I’ve been trying to wrap up a particular quest line, or something interesting has caught my attention and led me down an hours-long rabbit hole.
Though it might initially seem like a strange comparison, I’ve found that playing Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition has brought up the same feelings when I read a new favourite book for the first time. I both don’t want the game to end and can’t want to get through my first play through so that I can begin my second in equal measure, and I feel stuck in limbo between rushing through the game so that I can see all that it has to offer and taking my time with every decision and exploring every inch of every map so that I can take it all in. If you’ve enjoyed any of Bioware’s more recent output (perhaps ignoring Anthem, though) then I would highly recommend playing through Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, though I would do so with a warning: if you fell in love with any of the characters from the Mass Effect or Dragon Age series, then there’s a strong chance you’ll develop a lifelong infatuation with any one of the characters from either of these two games, so come prepared.