20 Years of Baldur's Gate II

I'm warning you now, this is 10,000 words.

Baldur's Gate II is an overstuffed, unbalanced mess of a game.  The second chapter is the shortest or the longest, depending on how long you decide to mess around in Athkatla and the surrounding areas.  Certain classes were close to overpowered, owed in large part to the inclusion of kits and upcoming 3.0 rules that saw the developers shoehorn in classes like Monks.  You can cheese liches with a Protection from Undead Spell, you could rest practically anywhere (thereby removing the most salient restrictions of the Vancian system), you could trap enemies behind doors or door frames (fuck that iron golem on the second floor of De'Arnise keep, and fuck those umber hulks in the basement. In fact, fuck that whole place).

There are some truly trash companions, like Haer'Dalis (ugh) and Valygar (lol).  You could go through the whole game using 10% of the priest and mage spell books and never miss a thing. You're basically forced to have a thief in your party and of the game's four thieves, two of them are highly annoying broads. If you want to know how nice it can be without Imoen's glass-cannon fragility or Nalia's underwhelming uselessness, roll your own thief and live the fucking good life.

But Jesus, what a game! It is, in my opinion, the best, most complete, most faithful adaptation of 2nd Edition rules ever stuffed into a computer.  Even before the bugs were fixed by stalwart modders, the combat system remains a heroic attempt to capture the complexity of AD&D, a complexity you could not avoid mastering if you wanted to win.  I can only imagine trying to get into that game in the year 2000 if you had no idea what THAC0 was, or why a lower armor class was better than a higher one.

The settings were both varied and grand: the clamor of Waukeen's Promenade during the day, the low grumbling voices of the Copper Coronet's patrons, the muffled echoes of the docks at night.  Walk into the Temple District and get the big, brassy explosion of high-falutin' orchestral arrangements that practically dare you to venture forth: Do you think, oh exxtreme gamer, that you're ready for these sewers? You are not. Take your Potion of Extra Healing and your +1 warhammer and go the fuck back. And then you get out of the city, into the wild landscapes beyond, stumble upon ancient caves filled with dragons, derelict old temples haunted by murdered priestesses, a haunted wood, a town besieged by insane and corrupted druids. And this is all in the second chapter, if you’re so inclined to wander!  These mad lads! What the hell were they thinking?

The story weren't half bad, neither. A clever double-cross gets your villain placed exactly where he wants to be: an insane asylum for magically-deranged lunatics.  A faithful companion turns on you, and after a torturous romp through the Underdark (now we're in the Underdark? Escaping from Illithids, embroiled in a Gith feud, hiding out amongst the Drow. Once again, how much shit are they going to cram in here?) you culminate your journey in a raid on a vampire's lair, and finally a heist in the besieged city of Suldanessellar.  Cap your adventures off with a fight against David Warner in hell. What more does a greasy faced-nerd need?  Well he needs an expansion pack that adds a few more dragons.

Revel in the anxiety of having too much fucking equipment to choose from, and do it without the help of a wiki. Pick a class based on one cool weapon you really want to use, get 60% through the game and forget what it was. Read Dan Simpson’s insane walkthrough while you’re on the toilet. Build the perfect party, covering as many tactical bases as possible, while recognizing that 1) you'll undoubtedly hate some of your most useful companions and 2) they might end up killing each other.  Roll a fighter, then start over and roll a Cavalier, then wonder if Archers are any good and make a mental note to roll one of those next week.  Forget, and nine years later when you reinstall because someone talked about it on the Codex, say “Fuck it!” and roll another Cavalier.

Back In My Day . . .

BG2 was made in a simpler, more innocent time.  The hordes of pedantic internet shitheads had not yet taken over the discourse, discourse that now solely consists of criticizing the ethnic/gender make-up of development teams and yelling at them when they don't let your PC be a bisexual polyamorous flirt who fucks lizard people, because apparently romances are the most important part of every RPG made by Canadians or their descendants.  It has only gotten worse since the year 2000, with so many video game communities now overrun with crazy, antidepressant addled idiots who are obsessed with race and and gender and identity, finding every possible way to force the most boring parts of their personalities into everything they do. Embracing this crowd -- both as customers and as employees -- probably explains at least somewhat Bioware’s disappointing fall into irrelevance and shitty game-making (AndromedaAnthem, and whatever else they’re cooking up). They have elevated, outwardly and inwardly, the desire to be liked by damaged internet freakshows above the desire to be technically competent, let alone risky artists. But more on this later.

Anyway, it is obvious nobody was thinking about upsetting players with a problematic take back in the late 90s. Just look at some of the quests: An ancient research project gone awry, with hilarious sex changes and a whole subplot involving a prickly mage getting teased into outright violence. Child murder. Actually evil companions who will remain evil the whole playthrough.  This last one is especially remarkable if you consider that such a choice nowadays is practically non-existent in mainstream RPGs, perhaps only surviving in Larian’s or Obsidian’s attempts.  If you want to do pure evil in 2020, you have to make a whole game out of it and gird your fucking loins for battle by endless explanation that you’re Exploring Something, or Making a Point. Because otherwise, the hounds will come.

The fingerprints of the late 1990s are all over this thing, including that trenchant disregard for authority figures as Gen Xer’s morphed into responsible human beings, and the less-than-direct story.  Let’s remember this time period as the one that gave us both the Sopranos and the X Files, two sides of the same coin: complicated stories where bad guys can take center stage, while still allowing for the pulpy, sometimes campy exploration of traditional themes like crime, individualism, government power, and our place in the universe.  Character portraits are indicative of an era before Instagram filtering, and characters are adorned with scars, tattoos, jewelry and -- perhaps most telling -- goofy colored hair.   The whole thing is shot through with what Vanity Fair pegged as one of the key characteristics of the Gen X horde: irony and a keen sense of dread. There is light to be found in this universe, but terrible darkness too.

All of this has managed to come together in a way that’s hit a nerve, because we’re still talking about this game 20 years later.  Is it the art?  The story?  The dice rolls? Other games have these things, but not the staying power.

It is my belief that BGII is just one of those games.  It all came together: a ruleset that was just waiting for someone to put it into a computer and take seriously.  A game that came out during the shift from 2D to 3D, which allowed it to showcase truly sumptuous hand-drawn backgrounds and characters.  A game with impeccable sound and music design.  Excellent -- sometimes truly great -- writing in a setting that had 20 years of development, lore, and story already poured into it. A game that came the closest to recreating the nostalgia of huddling around a table with your friends, carried away to another world by the fantastic art of the Player’s Manual and excited to see what would happen next.

One more thing.  Everything I’m writing below is built on the original release of BGII, up to Throne of Bhaal, and including the BG2 Fix Pack Core Fixes but none of the optional stuff, and without SCS.  I think that’s a fair place from which to both criticize and praise the game.  If anyone comes at me with this “Well yeah but if you use XXX mod your criticism makes no sense!” I will crush your nuts with a quarterstaff..

Digression #1: NPCs

Keldorn -- In modern times he'd be a graying ex-navy seal who moonlights as a crime-fighter and fucks super models. That voice and those scars would get him a top tier YouTube channel. Inquisitors remain the most OP'd paladin kit in the game, with a ridiculous amount of dispels that hit like a fucking truck.  Also, Carsomyr.  His dex sucks but whatever, in BGII this has nothing to do with melee THAC0 and if it bothers you so much, give him the gloves that raise it to 18.  Seriously, the only reason not to take this guy is if you already have a paladin in your party.  Well that, and maybe you’re scared he’s going to bang your mom. Because he could do it.

Yoshimo -- Good when you get him.  Conveniently replaced by Imoen, who will take some getting used to. He sounds like Cheech (or Chong? I always mix them up, but I don't really watch movies about degenerate pot heads).  Anyway he can’t hit a fucking thing with his katana, keep him in the back with a steady supply of flame arrows and he can bat clean-up on trolls.

The other great thing about him are his traps, which are a terrific benefit of his kit and widely agreed to be one of the most highly-cheesable mechanics in the entire game. You’ll never get the murder machine HLA that is Spike Trap (spoiler: because he dies) but if you roll your own Bounty Hunter, you will quickly realize how ridiculous traps are in BGII. So, you’ve been warned.

Jaheira -- Man, what an absolute bitch.

Viconia -- A solid ten in high school, hot as fuck and knows it. She brought a 23 year old to prom.  She is not impressed by you, and is immune to the negging that you learned about from that sub reddit.

Anyway, Viconia: Great cleric, arguably the best divine spellcaster in the game. Only thing is, she is evil. So if that's not your flavor party, good luck.  Also, like all hot women she will become enraged if you spurn her sexual advances, so watch out for that.  She really is only useful as a support character, with abysmal stats in Strength and Constitution, the two most important vitals for anyone looking at melee combat. There are builds out there to turn her into a tank, but the exercise is a stupid pain in the ass and pointless, unless you’re doing it for a laugh.

You can romance her but man, she’s got some baggage. Be prepared for an absolutely bewildering attitude shift as this chick takes all her fucking problems out on you.  Whoever wrote her character did the smart thing here, and did not play towards the obvious trope of her falling in love with Charname’s penis and thereby becoming lawful good.  If you handle the situation correctly, you can get her to switch alignment to true neutral which -- all jokes aside -- is very sweet and feels like a perfect cap to the storyline.  It’s worth doing once.

Edwin -- Awesome spell book, and easily the best NPC mage in the game.  The downsides? Lawful evil, will grate on your nerves, and will eventually get into a fight with Minsc.  The Red Wizards of Thay have always been insufferable pricks, but this guy takes it to the next level.  As mentioned, there’s a great side-quest that involves him losing his balls (literally) and getting made fun of for it. Some will find this, uh, problematic.  The voice acting is pretty good.  But I will also say that while Edwin is recognized as quite powerful, by the time you reach the higher levels of the game, the other casters at your disposal (Aerie, Imoen, Nalia) are good enough for you to not miss him; in other words, when it comes to magic in BGII there is a high floor but a low ceiling. His high Intelligence score is great and all, but at the very least you can match his beefy spellbook by having your resident mage chug a genius potion before scribing.

Mazzy -- A role-player’s NPC, interesting, and not overpowered.  She’s not great at anything, and not terrible.  The halfling’s version of a Paladin, she comes with a decent variety of abilities like Lay On Hands, but that’s really no reason to take her. She’s a good fighter, but the big limitation for Mazzy is that her starting proficiencies (short bow and short sword) are underwhelming.  Short bows kind of suck, and the best short sword in the base game, Cutthroat, isn’t available until after your fight with Bodhi.  Minsc makes a better archer, and Keldorn a better pally.  Still, she’s short and cute and gives off that goth vibe.  Probably listens to old Metallica and could match you shot for shot with Old Overholt, then fuck your brains out in the back of a pick-up truck.  She’s alright.

Valygar -- I've had yawns more interesting than this fuckin guy.

Haer’Dalis -- One of the few beings who actually needs pronouns in his bio.  Intriguing . . . until he opens his mouth to spout poetry, and then you will beg him to shut the fuck up. The Blade kit is alright but I’ve always felt that Swash is a better dual wield option, especially since most of the thieves in the game after Yoshimo are a pain in the ass to deal with. Anyway, his Bard song doesn’t get better with levels, which kind of defeats one of the major advantages of a fucking Bard.

Honestly, I’ve tried to be fair to this guy over the years, but he doesn’t make it easy. Being a Tiefling gives him some good high resistances, and he comes proficient with two unique short swords that are okay.  The problem is, he’ll never be as good as any other two weapon fighter (Swashbuckler or otherwise), his Bard song is weak, and you’ve probably got thief skills covered. What’s the upside? He just doesn’t seem worth it, and while I’m happy to be convinced otherwise, I don’t see it.  Leave him as a zombie statue in Mekrath’s basement, at least then you won’t have to hear him talk.

Korgan -- Dwarfy Devito.  You don’t see many evil Dorfs around in Forgotten Realms lore, at least not that I can remember (excluding, of course, the duergar). But as a Berserker, he’s pretty good. He’ll chase Aerie off but in ToB there is a way to keep them both in the party, if you care (go look it up, I can’t remember).  His voice acting is terrific.  His Enrage ability is pretty good for fighting liches, as it prevents him from being imprisoned.  Finally, BG2 has a good variety of axes, hurled and non-hurled, that really make use of his Grandmastery.  Properly equipped, he will be an absolute beast on damage, and could easily eclipse Charname for the percentage of party damage inflicted.

His individual quest is also really good, involving his last group of backstabbing/stabbed miscreants.  The Lower Tombs are a really cool little dungeon in the city that have some real character, and the rest of the quest showcases Korgan’s personality -- he’s likeable in a way, even though he is probably the most heartless murderer you can put in your party beyond even Viconia, or Edwin.  Role-play him for serious grimdark vidya.

Jaheira -- Okay seriously, what a huge bitch!

Minsc -- He’s a great NPC to have.  Give him two-handers and the get the fuck out of the way.  Or give him a bow. Or, dump some proficiencies in longsword, axe, mace, etc, and let him dual-wield.  Daystar plus Mace of Disruption makes him an undead murdering machine.

But here’s the thing.  Minsc is funny, and weird. A giant miniature space hamster?  Get outta town! Wacky! Zany! But because he is such an iconic character, he has become cheapened by the constant references, kind of like people who say “Luke I am your father!” and expect you to understand them as a Nerd Who Really Likes Star Wars.  In reality, this person is just saying some dumb thing that everyone has already heard. They are not special in any capacity, and they have no friends in real life, and their mom hates them. If you’re ever talking to someone about Baldur’s Gate and the first thing they mention is Minsc, you can bet that he is the only thing they know about the game. What you do with a person after such a revelation is up to you, but I’d suggest punching them.

Anomen -- Everyone’s favorite patrician jerk.  Give him Crom Faeyr and a good shield and he will be nigh unkillable.  His cleric spells are a nice bonus and his turn undead is also pretty good once he gets up there in levels.  He has one of the best character quests in the game, imo.  He is sublimely arrogant and you might find this grating on your nerves, but tough it out until after his quest. He becomes “Sir Anomen” if you don’t fuck it up. He gets a huge wisdom boost to 16, but besides more spell slots I’m not sure how much that helps.  Most importantly, he will finally chill the fuck out and start apologizing for his shit behavior.

Also, if you roll a female he’s the only romance option you have.  On the one hand, I feel bad for the ladies because you’re basically forced to fuck the cover of a grocery store romance novel.  On the other hand, the game was published in 2000 and those pasty Canadian nerds sure did know their audience.  There’s only one romanceable dude in the game for a reason.  Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition introduces the now-familiar and ever-present panoply of fuckable characters so nobody feels left out, which is yet another reason not to buy it. Err,  I mean, hooray for progress! The Resistance lives on!

Nalia -- Holy shit, Nalia is just the perfect 2020 NPC.  Who knew that 20 years later, I’d be sitting here writing about an entitled rich kid slumming it with the poor folk, always butthurt that the common rabble are not more grateful to her. If only they would do as she says, their lives would be so much better! She has an 18 in virtue signaling, and the only thing missing is a by-line in the Guardian and maybe a podcast. If they had elections in Faerun she’d be screeching about the poors voting against their own interests. Insufferable.

Her 18 dex is wasted on the fact that she’s dualed out of thieving. Otherwise, she’s okay.  She will not cut the mustard as a thief, but as a mage she is pretty good, not terribly hampered by being perennially four levels “behind” in mage.  She’s basically a replacement for Imoen, so if you want thieving skills (which the game practically forces you to take), it’s her, Jan, or Yoshimo.  Yoshimo is almost always better than her.  I haven’t ever run a party all the way through where she felt like a “must have.”

Aerie -- Okay let’s get this out of the way: I love Aerie and I want to protect her from all the evil in the world.  Aerie turns Charname into the worst kind of simp, the whitest-white knight, the weaboo-ist weaboo.  If anyone threatens my precious avariel maiden I will forget all pretenses of Lawful Goodness and murder them in front of their kids and then drink their fucking blood. Is she annoying, always whining about her wings?  Sure.  But what the fuck, cut the girl some slack.  If I cut your arms off, I bet you’d never shut up about it, either.

Alright so, as a mage/cleric she is really quite good.  Don't let the 16 Int and Wis scores scare you off -- most of the benefits of high intelligence for mages can be duplicated by chugging a Potion of Genius before scribing. Just treat her as a spell battery and deliverer of pure magic damage: load her up with Magic Missile, Fireball, Cloud Kill, etc.  And if you’re getting ready to fight a really tough one, switch her over to Breach, Pierce Magic, Greater Malison, and so on.  Her priest spells are less impressive than, say, Jaheira’s (Druids do get some nice ones) but as a back-up healer and turner of undead, she does just fine.  Play your cards right and you can knock her up. The baby will be born in an incredible amount of time, but whatever.  How do I shot load?

Cernd -- Ehh.  I never know what to make of this guy.  Shapeshifters in BG2 can be really good, but if you’re going to rely on an SS it should be Charname and you should really micromanage the shit out of him, at least in the beginning of the game.  The Greater Werewolf’s max to hit is +2 in the unmodded version of the game, which is cheesy and underpowered, which is why there are several SS rebalancing mods out there and you should use one of them.

As a druid, he gets full access to the list of great druid spells like Insect Swarm and Nature’s Beauty (an insane insta-blind with no save).   Anyway, he suffers from the same weaknesses listed above -- his shapeshifted form is a pretty good melee choice but eventually, he is outclassed by everyone because his claws never progress beyond +3 (and that’s with a mod like Weimer’s).  Personality wise, he is more interesting as a wolf.  He should probably just stay in that form, maybe his kid will actually like him.  It’d be pretty cool to have a werewolf dad.

Jan Janson -- A thief-illusionist gnome and besides Yoshimo, the only thief in the game whose thief abilities can actually improve with levels.  How you feel about Jan will depend entirely upon how you feel about the LOLRANDOM type of humor that his character is crafted around.  A lot of people find him hard to take, but he’s not that bad. One thing that does baffle me as I was playing through BGII, and as I look back on it now: why, for a game that in many circumstances requires you to have a thief, are the thief options so uninspiring?  And why are they all mutli-classed/dual-class/kits, all of which take hits to their thief skills? Anyway, not a huge deal but the game suffers for lack of a solid, traditional thief option, in my opinion.

Anyway, Jan is like Minsc in that he is basically now a meme and his appeal is based around his jokes. How the jokes land is all about what you find funny.  The turnip thing is okay but wears out its welcome. To be fair to the developers, he is of chaotic neutral alignment, historically one of the most annoying goddamn alignments in 2nd edition DnD, the bane of most DMs and a huge pain in the ass to most normal parties.  So, spot on there.

As a character, he is really defined by his special equipment and, more than any other NPC, he is the hardest to kit out . . . because every piece of gear you find will have you wondering if you should swap it out for his (admittedly pretty good) starting equipment -- especially his gloves and headgear which give substantial bonuses to his thieving skills.  His stun bolts are also quite good and proc often, making them especially useful in early game.

Jaheira -- Okay, alright, fine.  Jaheira.

Like too many other NPCs in the game, she’s dual or multi classed.  Fortunately, she gets all of the great skills of a druid.  Unfortunately, she has this useless, vestigial fighter organ attached to her ass that slows her down until you hit ToB and get some decent HLAs. Until then, you’ll forever wonder why she chose to be a fighter. Except for letting her wear heavier armors, in my opinion it does absolutely nothing for her (others disagree and say this is a strong point, I’ll address that in a second).

Also, her personality.  Now, I think the writers did a great job with her, as a character.  The problem is, her character is really, really, a lot to handle.  She is bossy, in the worst sense of the word. Think of the most annoying Lean In GIRLBOSS 35 year old woman you know, the one who makes PPTs for a living -- she’s that, with a quarterstaff. Anyway: moody, flippant, demanding, a maudlin pain in the ass.  She snaps at you one minute, wants to wax nostalgic the next, and reaches Mean Girls level of teenage bitchiness if you show any interest in Aerie.  Now I get it, she lost her husband and she’s grieving, okay fine.  But if you’re trying to romance me, stop nagging.  I’ve never wanted to fuck my mom and I’m not going to start with you. Don’t get me wrong, all of this stuff is great from an immersive, story telling PoV.  It is so good, in fact, she pisses me off in real life.

Despite all of my whining about her annoying character, I almost always take her just for her insect spells -- these things will absolutely fucking wreck most regular casters, trivializing a lot of encounters with heavy spell casting elements. Her Call Lighting is fucking brutal.  Also, she is the first character in the game that will have access to a raise dead spell (Harper’s Call) and if you want to shell out the $$ for a +4 staff early in the game, she can use the Staff of Rynn.  But in the beginning of the game, don’t think of putting her on the front lines, as she doesn’t play well with actually dangerous creatures.  Utilize her support skills and her great crowd control stuff (Cloak of Fear is excellent), and you can keep her the whole game.

If you’re determined to make her a melee fighter, you can give her heavy armor of any variety and combined with her druid spells, she can have one of the lowest AC’s in the game.  Some people like dual-wielding her with Belm and one of the few non-shit clubs in the game, but this feels like a waste with her 15 strength.  You can utilize the various strength-boosting equipment, but you lose two of them if you decide to make Crom Faeyr and anyway, strength-boosters like belts and gloves should be going to your guys who can really make the most of them: Anomen, Keldorn, Minsc, Korgan, and Charname (if melee).

Imoen -- Charname’s sister and yet another thief that has become a mage, for some reason -- are they going to fucking school for this?  Her thieving skills are good enough to get you through the various places where you are best served to have a thief (escaping after Yohismo eats it, for example) but beyond that nothing spectacular.  As a mage, she does just fine.  When you get her back in Chapter 4, you can ply her with the many, many spell scrolls you should have been saving up to this point to quickly turn her into a serious spellcaster.

Beyond her utility as an NPC, she plays a much more important role as driver of the story, or at least one of the drivers.  Throughout chapters 1-3, you are often given the opportunity to explain your mission to people and the explanation often boils down to two statements: I’m looking for my sister, or I’m looking for Jon Irenicus.  There’s an obvious reason for this, in that certain alignments wouldn’t be caught dead hunting after their own kid sister. But anyway, she provides the central grounding for Charname and, since Charname is generated by the player, she is also a consistent through-line for the story that will remain the same, and thereby help anchor the tale. Like Mazzy, she’s got rockin’ 90s GenX hair.

Digression Over

Unless you’re regularly posting on a place like the Codex, it can be difficult to remember how impactful the Infinity Engine games were on RPGs, but also on computer games in general.  A lot of people give BioWare a solid rasher of shit nowadays for some fairly deserved reasons (Let’s laugh at Andromeda again. Haha!) but back in the day, they were all in on CRPGs.

The years slightly before and after 2000 were a chaotic mess for video games.  They were slowly entering public consciousness as a serious and legitimate art form, but not without some friction. 3D graphics were the shiny new thing, but still very much clunky and frankly not that good.  But looking back, 2000 was a great year for variety, even within genres -- consider that Baldur’s Gate II, Diablo II, and Deus Ex were all published within a three month time-span.  That was pretty good for back then, and would be amazing nowadays.  And further, many of these games were greater than the sum of their parts, being better than they had any right to be; one only needs to examine the messy shooting, terrible voice-acting, and aged 3D graphics of Deus Ex to see this principle in motion because despite all of the above that game is, as the kids say, a fuckin’ banger.

Like many other games of its era, BGII is a large undertaking.  I’ve been playing the game for 20 years and just the other day, I found the lady in the Adventurer’s Mart who sells black market spells.  Like, how the fuck have I missed that? There are still kits I have not played (Blades, generic fighters) and some that I will never play (Avenger, lol). I don’t think I’ve ever used a halberd or a club.

The game is so big, in fact, that might be one of the principal criticisms leveled at it -- too big, or at least, too unbalanced in its pacing (as I’ve already mentioned the overstuffed Chapter 2).  But even in this, I feel compelled to give Bioware a break because other parts are quite simply superb.  Going from the sunny, craggy Spellhold Island to the depths of the Underdark was simply a fantastic journey, complete with a proto-Drizzit Solaufein who is genuinely conflicted over the Drow’s viciousness. Then, emerging back into the sunlight and smack into the middle of an Elven army, where you can finally start to learn about this evil lunatic who has stolen your soul. It’s all seamless. It’s not until escaping the Underdark that you realize where you’ve been.

The Story

At its base, BGII is a story about two people -- not Charname and Imoen, but Charname and Irenicus; and to be honest, I’ve always felt like Irenicus’ story was more interesting than my own.

On the one hand, Charname’s journey is about having a soul -- who you are, overcoming your birth, being larger than the circumstances that have formed you.  Of course, a modern story with these particulars would devolve into some useless screed about privilege and oppression, and we could imagine that thrown into the mix would be the option to change your soul’s gender.  We’re spared that but really, it is a classic hero’s tale, complete with a descent into darkness (quite literal) and a final, thrilling showdown with the man who has dragged you through hell.  That’s all fine.

Irenicus’ journey is by far more interesting.  Even in the very beginning (which, I should point out, you can skip if you don’t like) ol’ Jonaleth is being painted as a complicated, though still inscrutable and evil, figure.  We learn of his lost love and the room he keeps perfectly preserved, while across the hall he holds dryads in captivity for some, uhhh, other purpose.

Beyond this, the crucial thing to understand about the Irenicus/Charname relationship is that you are really not central to it, in the sense that Irenicus gets from you what he wants by the middle of the game.  After that, you’re out on your ass faster than a streamer getting caught DMing a fifteen year old.  Credit where it is due, the writers here have managed to convey Irenicus’ seething contempt for you in the gameplay itself.

It is not until later that we learn Irenicus -- the ‘Shattered One” -- is actually an exiled elven mage who had his soul stripped out for the crime of trying to steal the power from the Tree of Life.  Classic bad guy stuff, sure, but David Warner’s excellent voice acting gives him some of the best characterization yet found in video games, and no I’m not exaggerating. He’s phenomenal, and his performance is up there as one of the greatest in the entire medium.

But there’s also something in his later lines of dialog that -- whether intentional not -- hints at a future that could have been.  Queen Ellisime exhorts him by suggesting he could have used his “stolen years” to earn his way back into the community, and it is quite something that this most important question isn't raised until the end. Why is Irenicus doing it this way? Why didn’t he earn his way back?  Did he not even think of it? Of course, one could make the argument that we are learning about this now, precisely because he is learning about it now, which really cements the idea (in my head, at least) that BGII is really about him. He’s too angry to get the message, and at the end we’re not sure whose fault that really is, if the punishment was actually too harsh. But he’s too far gone for it to matter.

Anyway, it’s all academic because eventually he is dragged into a pit of lava in one of the hells, and that’s it. See ya later, dickhead.

But the game is clearly more than just the central conflict with Irenicus, and some of the side quests and stories rival the main one for sheer interest. There are other villains in the game, to be clear: the Cowled Wizards present a useful foil for the player, though you can also work for them.  Mostly, they seem to be a literary device aimed at keeping you from using your spells in town unless you pay 5,000 bucks, severely limiting your spellcasting abilities early in the game. But I won’t complain about such heavy-handedness from the developers because it was a damn good idea.

BGII also makes great use of the Illithids as a force to reckon with.  You will find them in two places: hidden behind a wall in the sewers while planning a takeover of Athkatla, and in the Underdark.  The Underdark version is actually a city, more extensive and part of the main quest. But the sewer Illithids are in possession of the Hammer of Thunderbolts, one of the parts of the Crom Faeyr and a great weapon to give Anomen so he can pound skulls.  10/10, would recommend.

The early game also features two dragons, both pretty vicious fights but both designed to be bypassed in Chapter Two if you do not have the party to tackle them.  The encounter with Firkraag is especially well-done, in that it feels like a genuine tabletop jam.  You come face to face with a clearly evil dragon, but you are not forced to fight him as it’s really up to you.  Do you feel okay slinking back to the city with this scheming plotter left behind to taunt you?  Can you put your ego aside and admit you’re not ready to fight him yet?  Or will you (like I did) get super fucking mad and charge in there a hundred times until you figure out how to kill him without cheating? By the way, if you want to feel ashamed for your cowardice, make sure Keldorn is with you when you choose to fight another day; his disappointment will feel worse than your dad’s when you failed to catch that game-losing fly ball in little league.

And finally there’s Bodhi, a vampire elf who, if you’re dumb enough to work for, will betray you anyway. You’ll end up stabbing her in the heart under Athkatla if you can survive all the level drains. Like all goth chicks, her room is over-decorated and probably smells terrible.

Notable Side Quests: Ranked

  1. Rescue Garren's child from Firkraag. A torturous quest that starts with a double-cross by the Baron himself, and ends with a confrontation with a dragon.  Rewards include red dragon scales, Carsomyr, and the satisfaction of having murdered this prick.

  2. Investigate and Destroy the Cult of the Eyeless. I will always enjoy killing religious maniacs.  These Eyeless nutcases are in the thrall of a Beholder, so you get to fight what is probably the classic DnD monster.  Along the way, help a village of reanimated caretakers find peace in the afterlife, stumble across a lich, assemble a wand that could destroy reality, and get a condescending lecture from a Helmite priest who deserves an asskicking for his impudence.

  3. Anomen Returns Home After his Sister's Death. This quest is really good because it makes you understand you why Anomen is such a fucking jerk.  It’s a short quest, but it has monumental consequences for his class progression and, if you’re in a romance with him, how that will turn out.  It is a great bit of choice/consequence by the writers.

  4. Solve the "skinner" murders in the Bridge District. Has the feel of a classic tabletop quest, and unless you go online to cheat and find the answer, it is just mysterious enough to be interesting while not being obtuse and/or ridiculous.  The possible outcomes include some gruesome armor that you’ll probably never end up wearing.

  5. Investigate the Deaths in the Umar Hills. A great quest that ends nowhere close to where it begins.  You’ll finish by digging up the temple of a dead god who will be important later, on more than one occasion.  This is a nice bit of world-building by the writers.  The reward is the Nights Gift and, if you’re feeling ballsy, some black dragon scales.

Expansions and Enhancements

So I guess I have to talk about Throne of Bhaal, the expansion to BGII.  It’s not a chore, because the expansion is actually great. You get a new class (the Wild Mage) and a new NPC (Sarevok), though the latter is kind of boring and is yet another two-handed sword guy in a game that already has at least two.

The real meat of this expansion comes with the story, and Melissan is a great villain but not, one must admit, as great as Jon Irenicus. I have a soft spot in my heart for any stories about people murdering gods and/or ascending to their thrones, whether that’s Dagoth Ur or Kelemvor, so I’m with her on trying to replace Bhaal as the new Lord of Murder.  But she’s got to get through you first, and the final fight in the Planar throne room is no joke.

The other thing that ToB does well is give your high-level adventurers a real chance to shine.  As an ending to the Bhaalspawn Saga it is immensely satisfying; just remember where you were, all those years ago, dying in the woods outside Candlekeep.  There are few games that I have played before or since that do such a good job of making you feel like you’re actually progressing, becoming more powerful. It is one of the game’s most enduring characteristics.

Some other random notes include:

  • A pretty cool Monk who understands it is his job to ascend to Bhaal’s throne, then kill himself.

  • The Watcher’s Keep, an extensive dungeon with a great story running throughout, complete with a legitimately difficult fight at the end and, unless you’re using SCS, probably the hardest fight in the game (hint: you will get tentacle-fucked by the Demogorgon).

  • Cespenar

  • A bunch of dragons to fight.

  • Carsomyr upgraded to +6, holy shit I have an erection!

Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition, Or a Shameless Cash Grab by Hacks

Everything I have to say about BGII is based on the original version, with ToB included and with some proper, bug-fixing additions that came along through mods.   You'll have noticed I barely mentioned the Enhanced Edition.  Well, I have some shit to say and none of it is good, so hang on to your nuts.

I’m not opposed to remasters or rereleases, in principle.  I’d happily spend $30 or $40 to get a remastered version of an old game, just so I can run it on a modern PC and not have to spend time fucking with unauthorized resolution mods and things of that sort.  It’s a pure convenience thing, and it’s worth some cash.

A much harder sell is to get me interested in the additional story content, made by a clearly different team of writers and designers, nearly 20 years after the fact.  And this is the biggest problem I have with Trent Oster’s “additions” to BGII’s content, brought to life by Beamdog.

They had an opportunity to interest me; and I’m not really upset that they thought themselves fit to start adding content or characters to BGII -- it’s mostly in the execution.  Two well-publicized missteps were enough to put me off the Enhanced Edition: infantile references to GamerGate, and a character who’s introduction to the player is HI I AM TRANS. Once I heard about these two things, it was all I needed to know.

Without relitigating GamerGate, such idiotic references (and the smarmy know-it-all-ism which was the impetus behind them) just convey their contempt to the player.  And make no mistake here: were it not for the fanatical devotion to CRPGs espoused by places like the Codex, it’s very likely that there would have been no Enhanced Edition, no CRPG “renaissance” fueled by Kickstarter.  Trent Oster can make fun of “GamerGators” all he wants, but he should at least be smart to understand they are a significant portion of his player-base, and are responsible in some capacity for keeping this genre alive.  Pissing in their face with puerile in-jokes was a stupid move, and although he realized this and removed the offending content, it was too late.

The more interesting case is the trans thing, because it is a perfect example of the painfully earnest way in which this new generation of game developers seeks to put identity into everything.  There’s nothing wrong with a trans character, regardless of how you feel about the issue.  The problem, once again, is in the execution. The character of Mizhena is delivered in such a ham-fisted way that you cannot help but feel as if you’re being preached at.  SEE THIS TRANS CHARACTER?  SEE THIS TRANS CHARACTER JUST BURN YOUR HANG-UPS, BIGOT? YEAH!!

Um, okay?  This is clearly a very important issue for you. Maybe take a breather. Eventually, I hope, these people will realize -- even through the morass of their depression, anxiety, and assorted other mental health issues -- that their gender and sexual orientations are the least interesting things about them.  Non-binary, trans, and other “non-traditional” genders/identities/orientations make up a tiny portion of the population but are overrepresented in games culture (something I could write a whole post about) so this idea that they are not given a fair shake is simply nonsense. The support they receive via the major cultural institutions is overwhelming and impossible to deny, and as it stands now, the “Trans/Poly/Queer/ Game Developer/Journalist” is practically an archetype, like they’re made in a factory.  I really don’t have a problem with transgressive sexual identities in a game.  From Software plays around with this idea all the time, and there are plenty of RPGs that handle sex and sexuality in mature ways (say, the Witcher). But for fuck’s sake, this kind of clumsiness is offensive. Stop leading with your chin, you idiots.

Anyway, there are also technical issues with the Enhanced Editions, with some truly stupefying omissions. For example, none of the new characters introduced by Beamdog can be captured by Bodhi in the vampire/lover subquest; each one has a conveniently lazy excuse.  Was this just poor programming?  Did they forget? Did they run out of money to pay the voice actors?  Great job guys.

Perhaps at some future date I’ll get to the Enhanced Edition and find it is full of interesting additions and cool new NPCs. Maybe I’ll just be dying to play a lesbian vampire simply because she’s the only non-multiclassed thief in the whole fucking game.  Or maybe I will continue to wonder why she can remain in the party with Minsc, whose racial enemy is FUCKING VAMPIRES, or why they dropped in such an overpowered character who is totally not some kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy exercise pushed on the player by irritating social just retards.  I dunno, the future is exciting and wide-open, so anything could happen.

Another Diversion on Classes

I’m listing the kits, but I’m not Lilura so don’t expect war and peace here.  I don’t have all fucking day.

Paladin -- AKA Carsomyr Delivery Platform

  1. Cavalier -- Spared from the worst requirements of strict DnD Paladinning with regards to poverty, these are the classic paladins of yore.  They’re barred from using missile weapons but who cares?  +3 on hitting dragons and demonic creatures, remove fear, immune to fear, immune to poison?  These chads can fuck all night long, and you’re telling me the only downside is no crossbows?  Sign me up.  One of the best kits in the game, edges out the Inquisitor for the best pally kit and is possibly the best kit for warriors, overall. Perhaps tied with Kensai.

  2. Inquisitor -- They lose a lot: no priest spells, no Lay on Hands, no undead turning.  They would be horrible except for one thing: an absolutely brutal Dispel Magic ability that -- and here I’m taking this from the game’s description -- “is used at a speed factor of 1 and acts at twice his actual level.” Unfucking real, if you ask me, and with an Inquisitor in the group you will never worry about the bulk of negative magic effects on your party members.  I mean really, the ability is close to cheating.  Keldorn can feel like a must-have NPC for this very reason

  3. Undead Hunter -- Ehh. You lose Lay on Hands (not that big of a deal by itself) and gain +3s to hit undead. And the immunity to level drain is nice, but nothing spectacular.  It barely feels like a kit at all, and should have had one or two extra perks thrown in (like increased turn-undead power, or something).

Fighter -- Go Smash Some Faces

  1. Wizard Slayers -- A cool idea in theory, but in practice they don’t feel all that much different from a regular warrior, similarly outfitted.  They get increased magic resistance which is nice, but achievable by other means. And the cumulative spell failure on hit seems like a waste since it is so easy to interrupt spell-casting in this game.  The inability to use magic items kinda sucks (no belts, no gloves, etc).  Hard pass.

  2. Kensai -- The best fighter kit. They can’t use armor, gauntlets, or missile weapons but you absolutely will not give a shit, because they are murder machines with melee weapons.  There’s a reason why Kensai/Mage dual class is one of the most popular builds to take the game solo, and it’s because they are ass-pulpers.  Squishy at the start of the game but by chapter 3ish, you’re dodging attacks like Anita Sarkeesian dodges tough questions about the money she raised.

  3. Berserker -- Pretty cool class, and when in a rage you’re immune to charm, hold, fear, maze, imprisonment, you name it.  Excellent for fighting liches, and it can be fun to balance his edge-of-death sensibilities with a desire to keep yourself alive.  But you will forget at least one time that his hit-point buff is temporary, your HP will drop to below zero, and you will die after combat has ended.

Bards (ugh fuck)

  1. Blade -- Bards are kind of lame in BG2, mostly because so much of what makes Bards great in tabletop is not applicable in this game.  90% of BGII is combat, with precious little role-playing outside of that.  I already mentioned that Haer'Dalis sucks, and he is not improved by the Blade kit.  Offensive Spin is a good talent, but you pay dearly to get it -- specifically by having a non-improving Bard song.  So then you ask: why am I playing a Bard?  Good fucking question.  If you want to dual wield and be less annoying, roll a Swash. If my daughter brought a Blade home for Thanksgiving, I’d disown her.

  2. Jester -- Swaps out the Bard’s morale boosting abilities with a confusion spell on enemies.  This works okay, but gets frequently resisted at higher levels, and lots of enemies are immune to this anyway.  I have no strong opinion on this kit beyond my normal disdain for bards.

  3. Skald -- If you absolutely must play a Bard, use this kit. They will be competent fighters by mid-game.  Their songs are better, and have better status-effect improvements.  The only thing you lose is a worthless pick-pocketing ability that the other thief in your party should already have.  If my daughter brought a Skald home for Thanksgiving dinner, I would only be a little bit racist.

Thieves -- or, How to keep Nalia out of your party

  1. Assassin -- These guys can pack a fucking wallop if you set them up correctly, but stealth in BGII can be a bit hinky (this becomes irrelevant with the HLA Assassination, which is almost pure cheese). The poison bonus is great. Reduced skill point distribution can hurt but if you play like I do, the only thief skills worth a damn are detect traps and open locks.  You can squeak by on both.

  2. Swashbucklers -- The best thief kit, in my opinion. BGII is a very sword-heavy game, so take advantage of this. Dual-wielding longswords with some help from Two-Weapon Fighting, and no loss in thief abilities?  Plus, bonuses to AC and Hit? How could you not take this kit? The only thing you miss out on is backstabs but that’s not the point of this guy. You’ll be dashing around the battlefield like a less gay Rocketeer in no time, just do it.

  3. Bounty Hunter -- Yoshimo will give you a glimpse of what this character is like, but for me (and I know this is unpopular), it is the most underwhelming thief kit.  Improved traps can be very powerful, but I never had the patience for trap-laying in this game and there always seemed to be a better alternative.  Plus, you take a steep loss in distributable points for your thieving abilities, which is one of the main points of a thief, with none of real combat boosts offered by the Assassin kit. Not worth it.

Ranger -- For LARPing Aragorn

  1. Archer-- If you want to use a bow in this game, you should be rolling this kit.  The to-hit bonuses are solid, and your inability to wear metal armor or get serious with melee weapons is no big deal, because you shouldn’t be fighting up close anyway.  Choose this kit for that old-school Ranger feeling, and don’t listen to anyone who says staying in the back and loosing arrows is for pussies.

  2. Beastmaster-- This kit gets a lot of flack but actually, it’s pretty cool for a change in pace.  Just being able to summon a familiar is pure LARPery, and the additional summons are a nice gift.  But the biggest problem here is that you cannot use any metal weapons, which means you’re stuck using cave-man implements like q-staffs and clubs, as if you’re some barely sentient gorilla.  And I don’t even understand this restriction -- what the fuck does being able to summon a bear have to do with metal weapons? Are bears allergic to iron?  Fucking magnets, how do they work?

  3. Stalker-- One of those kits that makes you wonder what the fucking point could possibly be. If you want bonuses to backstab and stealth, why not roll a thief?  The theoretical answer here is that Stalkers, being Ranger kits, get the THAC0 table from warriors so their backstabs might land more often.  Okay. But is that worth what you lose? They’re still limited to the backstab-eligible weapons.  They gain three fairly useless spells.  Also, Valygar is a Stalker, so if you needed another reason to hate that snooze-fest, here you go.

Druids -- BUT MUH BALANCE

  1. Avenger -- A cross between a mage and a druid, this guy cannot figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.  The penalties to strength and constitution at character creation really do hurt. But you do get some extra shapes to shift into, and some special mage spells.  I’ve never actually played this kit, because I could not get past the feeling of being spread too thin.  Someone let me know if it is worth it.

  2. Shapeshifter -- Be a super rad werewolf, but only roll this class if you use a shapeshifting mod because the totally lame bonus on your claws will have you struggling to hit a barn door from the inside on really tough fights.  SS requires some modicum of micromanagement and will be easier to play if you’ve gone through BGII before, simply because you’ll know when it is safe to transform in specific combat scenarios.  Your main goal should be to soften up the enemy with normal Druid spells, then shapeshift and run into the fight like a poorly trained pit-bull owned by an inner-city drug dealer.

  3. Totemic Druid -- Uhh, okay?  Can summon a Spirit Snake, I guess? That’s pretty cool. Uhh, nothing else really? Alright. Okay. So, that’s a wrap?

Clerics -- Holy Shit

I won’t go into each religion’s version of a Cleric, but suffice it to say they’re all basically the same, with added flavor after alignment-specific quests.  Like thieves, there are no party-eligible NPCs who are pure Clerics, probably because they can be horribly boring.  Fighter/Clerics are extremely powerful if played correctly, giving you the ability to max out weapon proficiencies while getting really high level Cleric abilities; if done correctly, you can easily be Crom Faeyr wielding maniac who can also heal.

Mages -- You Fucking Nerds

Do I really need to explain mages? Okay, here goes:

  1. Don’t get hit

  2. Cast spells

Monks -- Foreign Domestic Abuse

The first thing to say about Monks is that they don’t belong in the game.  Monks were not included in the canon for 2nd Edition, but I’m guessing that when BGII was being made, the developers knew it was coming in 3rd Edition (dropped in the year 2000) and so included the class.  They do feel like an odd addition in some cases, overpowered and not keeping with the normal lore of Faerun at the time.  But they are a fucking blast to play because like Kensai, they are absolute murder machines, fast hitting nutjobs unencumbered by armor and negative status penalties as you level up.  While they can use melee weapons, a true Role Player and Prestigious Grognard Codexian would roll bare-handed, as the lore dictates . . . but this causes a problem, capping out their hit rating at +3 and making them fairly useless against creatures like demi-liches, where you need their punching power the most.  The fix for this is a single item, the Gauntlets of Crushing.  To get them, you need to side with a crazy shark king at the bottom of the ocean.  No, I didn’t make that up.

Barbarian -- Gets Mad and Doesn't Afraid of Anything

Damage sponges.  What they lack in high armor, they make up for in a very large hit point pool and a very impressive set of resistance modifiers that increase with level.  They have access to a version of the Berserker's “Rage” ability but I think (though I’m not sure?) it isn’t as good.  But all of this anger and flailing around makes them clumsy as hell, and their lack of weapon specialization will always dog them.  Kind of annoying, but roll one if you want to try a different kind of fighter.

Sorcerers -- Whatever

Overpowered, and there’s no other way to say it. As I mentioned way back in the beginning of this way-too-long retrospective, it’s entirely possible to play through this game with minimal use of your spellbook; there is a large number of spells that you just don’t need. Even with all of their downsides -- no armor, no scribing scrolls, tiny hit point pool -- they’re an Elon Musk spell battery designed to burn down the neighborhood and maybe also piss off the Chinese.  Go for it.

Things Not to Like

I’ve just spent 7,500 words giving this game a handjob under the table, but it wouldn’t be a proper write up if I didn’t take it to task for some things. It is not all perfect.

Class variety

The first thing is something I have mentioned, but I will bring it up again: too many goddamn multi/dualed classes, especially for thieves.  I will complain about this to my dying day, but I had to wait until the Enhanced Edition to get a thief that doesn’t have penalties to thief skills, or wasn’t also a mage?  What the hell is going on here?

Spellcasters get the same treatment -- there is precisely one caster in the game who is not dualed/multi’d into something else (Edwin), and one cleric (Viconia). Otherwise you’re looking at divided performance for everyone else It isn’t as bad here, because as I mentioned Aerie, Nalia, Jaheria, Anomen, etc., are all more than capable spell-slingers in their respective roles. But it’s kind of annoying, especially since Edwin and Viconia are both evil.

Real Time With Pause

This retrospective has not touched on the mechanics so much, probably because it is the most discussed thing here on the Codex, and with regards to this game in particular.  You can find endless screeds (mine included) on the good/bad of RtwP as a mechanic, but what you can’t really deny is its impact on the genre of CRPGs.

BGII didn’t invent this mechanic but it stands as the epitome of it. It works.  It lends a frantic, chaotic pace to combat that is absent in table top, or even turn-based, games.  In some sense, it is actually an un-intuitive way to play a game, and to get an idea of what I mean just go look up a YouTube video of someone doing a really hard fight (like Demogorgon) and you will quickly be annoyed and irritated by the constant starting/stopping.  It gives me a fucking headache, frankly.

But when you’re playing it yourself, it doesn't feel this way at all. When you really get into it, you’ll feel like a half-drunk conductor directing an orchestra of lunatics who all manage to make it to the end of the concert without throwing up into their tubas. You don’t have to like RtwP to recognize it is a decent solution to handling a rounds-based decision-making structure.

The limitations with BGII’s RtwP are revealed in subtle ways, but they are present.  The one that sticks out to me the most -- and one that would not be properly fixed until Dragon Age and maybe Pillars -- is the lack of an engagement mechanic that does not allow you to properly control the battlefield.  In DA:O, this is achieved through taunts and threat (stolen shamelessly from games like WoW, but necessary nonetheless) and in Pillars, we get an engagement mechanic that penalizes break-offs.  None of this exists in BGII, which again can trivialize a lot of fights.  It is almost always a no-brainer, for example, to kill the mage first.  And since you can make a bee-line to any mage in any combat, without worrying about his/her companions, enemy positioning is largely irrelevant and you’ve got free license to go murder the spellbook-reliant nerd.

Resting

Resting is just plain old broken in BGII.  I mentioned this in the introduction, but the ability to rest practically anywhere, at practically any time, makes much of the game far easier than it should be.  Instead of judiciously using spells and managing your HP over entire dungeons, you can throw your sleeping bag down any old fucking place and take a snooze; if you get interrupted by enemies, kill them and try again or just save-scum a reload.  Long term strategy for conquering action-oriented set pieces is replaced for short-term tactics that only have to get you past the next fight.  There are mods that fix this, of course.  But these shouldn’t have been necessary.

The only reason this ends up not breaking the game entirely is because you can defeat large numbers of enemies with your fairly-hefty melee characters, and you need not dip into your spellbook very often.  To go back to yet another thing I mentioned, spells in BGII are cool and all, but you can actually squeak past by using very few of them, if you’re so inclined.

So really, all you can do is enforce your own brand of discipline on the party and not abuse the rest mechanic.  It’s not the end of the world, and in 2nd Edition tabletop you could already rest anywhere you wanted so you can’t get 100% mad at Bioware.  The difference was the DM could tell you “No” in all sorts of creative ways, and crucially there is no save-scumming.  This was something that needed accounting for in the port to PC, but whatever.  I won’t make a federal case out of it.

Romances

This is less a problem with BGII, and more of a problem with what came after.  The romances in this game were exceedingly popular, but one gets the sense that Bioware took the wrong lesson from that popularity.  It led them down some dark and ridiculous paths, the culmination being a panoply of sexual orientations being hurled at the player as if cringe-worthy cut-scenes filled with digital fucking were the natural endpoint of human story-telling prowess.

The romances in BGII were subtle and interesting because you could miss them if you weren’t paying attention; they were natural extensions of the story done in a way that made them unobtrusive, neat little Easter eggs that helped to build character and tension.  They were fine, well done even.

By the time we get to the first Dragon Age, however, Bioware developers are clearly approaching romances as if they’ve been written via checklist: “Okay, we need two gays, two bisexuals and a furry otherwise Tumblr gamers are going to be super upset!” So, that’s what they did: like filling out a deli order, they created an overly elaborate set of romance options to ensure that absolutely nobody would be left out of the dating pool, that no gamer could possibly find fault with any of the romance choices. As we’ve learned, this is an impossible task -- someone will always be offended because you have not catered to their whims, and by Mass Effect: Andromeda they had sacrificed technical proficiency for sexual inclusiveness.  The game was a buggy, shit-laden mess with horrible animation, the ugliest character models ever produced, and boring-as-fuck gameplay.  But at least it wasn’t homophobic!

The trend was continued with Beamdog’s efforts, and of course this was one of their talking points during the development of the additional content. You mean I can finally have a choose-your-own-adventure romance with a gay Blackguard?  Okay. That’s cool, I guess. Can you fix the broken Shapeshifter kit? No.  Okay.  I’ll use a mod. Thanks.

What Bioware should have learned is that that many of the people in the let-me-fuck-whoever-I-want! crowd are total basket cases.  I know some of these people in real life -- the so-called polyamorous free-spirits, the asexual, the gender warriors. Most of them are suffering from several undiagnosed (or happily embraced) mental illnesses, chasing elusive versions of well-being down blackholes from which there is no escape.  They are a vanishingly small portion of the population and making a product for them is your prerogative, of course . . . but these people are not stable.  They are always thirty seconds away from turning on you for an imagined slight.  It's like dating someone with Bipolar Disorder.  At night they will profess undying love and shower you with the warmth and confidence of all mankind, then in the morning hit you over the head with fucking frying pan.  You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Retrospective

So a retrospective is a look back, I guess.  And without overstating it, BGII had a reverberating impact on computer games.  Even though it came after BG1 and Icewind Dale technically came out a few months before, BGII is regarded by many as the title that put Infinity Engine games “on the map,” and is largely the inspiration of many computer RPGs to come later -- from Pillars of Eternity, to Pathfinder (yeesh) to upcoming titles like Solasta.

But it, too, is cobbled together from ethereal connections to games past: the rules-heavy gameplay of the Goldbox games, the huge fucking manual from Phantasie (seriously, if you’re lucky enough to have a copy of the IBM version take the manual with you to the john and your legs will fall asleep), the graphical charm of Sierra’s older games, and I’m sure UItima is in there somewhere.  For such well-written dialog, you have to go back to Dynamix’s Betrayal at Krondor, itself written [edit: overseen, not written] by an award-winning novelist harping on his own creation.

The game also remains a source of great contention. Many grognards take issue with the RtwP, and absent some mods it can be pitifully easy.  I’ve already ragged on the romances, so enough said there. There’s criticisms, to be sure.

But overall it is a grand adventure, The Lord of the Rings of fantasy RPGs: gigantic in scope, talkative, overly ornate, proud, stuffed with things to see and do, populated with interesting characters that will stick with you for a long time.  Unapologetically a heroic game in the old Greek sense, where great men were not good or evil but big, bigger than life.  It’s the Great Man theory of history in a video game, where you could be Charlemange, Attila, or Conan the Barbarian.

Hopefully this made you think.  If you haven’t played it in a while, reinstall.  If you’ve never played it, give it a whirl.  It really is a piece of video game history; you should have more than just a passing familiarity with it.

And if you’re a woman, sorry you have to fuck Anomen.