Baldur's Gate 3 Review
Such is the nature of Baldur’s Gate 3 that a part of me wanted to begin writing about it within moments of my time with the game. Larian Studios’ epic CRPG has been in Early Access for years, but I’ve avoided all urges to check it out until now. I wanted my first taste of this long-awaited sequel to pertain to the full package. So much self-restraint, and yet even before Baldur’s Gate 3’s opening sequence had ended, I had mental notes aplenty. This is a game that comes out swinging.
Just after a truly creepy CG cutscene leaves its mark on you, Baldur’s Gate 3 sets you to the difficult yet highly rewarding task of creating your avatar, who shall serve as protagonist within the seemingly limitless confines of Larian’s adventure. Being only somewhat familiar with the myriad mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, I elected to start with one of the premade origins - characters who will otherwise join your party as main companions. I chose Astarion, the suave, gray-haired vampire with a silky, sassy voice.
Baldur’s Gate 3 thrusts you straight into the action with what amounts to a three-pronged battle between the soldiers of a hellish realm, your nefarious mindflayer captors, and your own perilous escape efforts. The mindflayers’ ship - your former prison - will soon crash. Basic controls, the simplest of battle tactics, and a handful of dialogue options all kick in rather seamlessly despite the state of emergency.
No sooner does the ship meet her inevitable fate than Baldur’s Gate 3 pulls back the curtain and says ‘you’re on your own now.’ Your character reacts to awakening near the ruins of that damnable vessel (in Astarion’s vampiric case, he’s amazed the sun isn’t burning him to a crisp), and just like that, you’re in the first big chunk of the game’s gargantuan map. You’ll soon bump into most of those aforementioned companions, but choice is so integral to the gameplay experience that you can even tell them to shove off if you want. (You really shouldn’t.)
Down the road a bit, and some mercenaries won’t hesitate to attack you. Or you can talk them down. Or you can sneak past them. It’s a tiny tidbit in the grand scheme of Baldur’s Gate 3, but it’s clearly deliberate. Again, I heard that little whisper. ‘You’re on your own now.’ You’re given a main quest from the start, mind you; getting mindflayer tadpoles out of your brain is one hell of an initial narrative hook. But how will you go about that? Whose guidance will you seek? Who will you trust? Who will you slay?
Every step down the roads, or off the beaten paths, invites danger. Baldur’s Gate 3 taps into an adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5e ruleset, which doesn’t just mean fights play out with all the rad spells and nifty strategies of a tabletop campaign encounter. It also means stuff like survival checks will trigger as you explore. Fail them, and you may never notice something shiny that could have led to a few extra gold, or a whole hour’s worth of side-questing. Or maybe your party members will take damage from sharp shrubbery. Or maybe, eerily, you’ll never figure out what just happened. Like I said, it’s a dangerous world.
It won’t be long before the simple fears of stepping forward start to settle into assumed risks, and the game’s general flow comes into sharper focus. Scattered across the vast world are a fine assortment of bustling settlements, dank and dreary dungeons, static combat instances that can be initiated in your favor with some savvy planning and a little bit of luck, and plot-forwarding events that will either continue narrative threads or introduce brand-new ones. There’s also, of course, the titular enormous city of Baldur’s Gate itself. Put plainly, every time you boot up Baldur’s Gate 3, something unexpected is bound to happen.
But I’ve waxed poetic for long enough. Let’s talk specifics. The story’s a hit. After years with many of my peers knowing the basic beats of the first act like the backs of their hands courtesy of Early Access, I knew there was some widespread trepidation over whether the rest of Baldur’s Gate 3 would deliver in this regard. It’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to refrain from writing early impressions. I wanted to judge every part in completion.
Without spoilers, I’ll just say the story hasn’t let me down. The intrigue does not diminish in the second act, but rather, intensifies. The plot beats grow darker, and some of the denizens you’ll deal with will make even the meanest first-act fiends seem like benevolent souls by comparison. From there, the game mostly settles into a steady rhythm of big realm-shaking moments, but you’ll never feel divorced from the open-book potential tucked around most corners. Some bits land better than others, certainly, and one specific thread lasted longer than I might have liked, but nothing’s left me feeling like Larian dropped the ball.
It’s tempting to label the gameplay ‘deep’ and leave it at that. But then, what sort of review is that? Mark my words, though. Baldur’s Gate 3 is deep. Not just with regard to the plethora of mathematical calculations playing out behind the scenes with the dozens of spells, cantrips, specialized physical attacks, terrain modifiers, line-of-sight factors, and more. Not merely in how speech checks involving perception, deception, intimidation, and lore familiarity can all be influenced by environmental aspects like a party member’s helpful skills, or your character’s recently-struck inspiration.
The depth is pervasive. Every battleground is a veritable isometric encyclopedia of possible victories snatched from the jaws of defeat. Different enemies behave in wildly separate ways. A knightly sort may rush forward whilst casting stat-enhancing spells upon themselves. A phase spider will teleport between spots each turn, preferably above you, spraying poison from afar. A gnoll will birth itself from the dying spasms of an ill-fated hyena. (Oh yeah, by the way, Baldur’s Gate 3 can be an absolute horror show.) These are all encounterable within the first hour or so of the game - far more wicked, and varied, nemeses do await you.
The depth is also mesmerizing. If you’ve read this far, you’ll likely have a sturdy handle on how delightfully complicated conflict can be, not just in swordplay and sorcery, but through just-as-heart-pounding verbal spars. But there’s still more to it all. Forget the fights for a moment. Baldur’s Gate 3 showcases an increasingly keen ability as it goes on to challenge players with mind-bending little traversal puzzles, and yet there are almost always multiple avenues through which to get past, and in many cases, even the subsequent story scenes will shift in recognition of your approach. This is a game that feels as reactive to you as you are to it; it’s a well-scripted dance, a back-and-forth, that makes its world spring to life in a way that only the most finely-tuned role-playing games can.
All this ambition does come at a price. There’s an undeniable clunkiness here that’s hard to shake. Battles with a score of foes can overstay their welcome; the game’s base speed is just a little too slow all-around. Compounding matters, I’ve found at least one instance per battle in which one of my enemies takes forever to act. It’s almost like the DM went out for a snack run.
The user interface is elegant in design, yet cumbersome in execution, and the controls, at least on gamepad, can be rather… jumpy. I wish there was a confirmation button press for ending turns, since it’s pretty easy - at least in my experience - to tap something a bit too abruptly and waste a turn. In Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s a very bad thing to waste turns, as even one inappropriately stoic ally can quickly become a dartboard for encroaching monsters.
The presentation, while admirably gorgeous and suitably immersive, sports more than a few quirks, like occasional cutscenes marred by a seemingly drunk camera. Beware the potential pitfall of formulating a plan ‘ahead of schedule’, so to speak - more than once, I entered turn-based mode, snuck up on someone I thought would be a threat, struck them, and then watched a scene in which I was given the opportunity to persuade them into doing my bidding. The characters would amicably depart, the scene would come to a close, and I’d be back to that life-or-death struggle initiated before words were ever spoken. Awkward.
Still, I’ll take ‘overly ambitious’ over ‘safe and rote’ any day, and looking at the incredible sales success that Larian is presently experiencing, I dare say many of my fellow gamers feel similarly. Baldur’s Gate 3 carries forward the sort of gargantuan scope that only comes around in role-playing games a couple of times a generation, the scope that seems impossible to imagine a company successfully crafting in this age of ever-ballooning budgets and ever-increasing consumer demands.
It’s almost ridiculous, then, what’s been achieved here. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t without its technical wrinkles, but it’s a full-fledged, fully fleshed-out, absolutely massive title with lofty production values across the board. That Larian Studios has intentionally willed something like this into the world at a time when AAA projects in this vein are so scarce only helps it shine, and serves as a fine reminder that the genre doesn’t need to transform, no matter what some publishers may believe - it just needs to adapt, to evolve, and to boldly present a compelling and cohesive vision all its own. And be thought-provoking. And have witty banter. And look really pretty. And let us get told off by territorial squirrels.
No pressure on your next project, Larian.