Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition (PC) Review
Posted by Liana Kerzner on 01.25.2014
The classic PC RPG Baldur's Gate II gets a remastered edition! But how does it stack up? 411's Liana Kerzner checks in with her full review!
Title: Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition
Rated: T for Teen
As a huge fan of the original Baldur's Gate series, I was really excited to embark on the Enhanced Edition of Baldur's Gate 2 as my first review for 411 Mania. However, the experience turned out to be a “best of times, worst of times” situation, with lots of enjoyable original content but also an inexcusable number of bugs that turn an already challenging game into an exercise in frustration.
Admittedly, the nostalgia trip was nice. It was cool to be reminded of the seeds of plots and characters that would recombine into major parts of Baldur's Gate's spiritual sequel franchise, Dragon Age. But it's a huge amount of time to commit to a digital historical curiosity. That being said, I can see some rabid fans of Dragon Age using the Baldur's Gate Games as a way to kill time – a lot of time – until Dragon Age Inquisition comes out. That being said, the original game is available on GoG.com, so the purpose of this review is going to be to help you decide whether it's worth the extra $15 to buy the Enhanced Edition.
Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition is split into three games: Shadows of Amn, the original game from 2000, the Throne of Bhaal expansion from 2001, and The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay, a brand new arena combat adventure. All three games use pausable real-time combat with top-down isometric graphics, using six individually controlled characters which can also be played by up to six different humans in multiplayer mode.
All three games are set in the Forgotten Realms, an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition campaign setting which is something like Middle Earth with a warped sense of humor and a lot more women. The Forgotten Realms setting has gender equality hard-wired into its creation tools, which means you're not forced to play a role playing game as a beefy male protagonist with kooky hair. I've always felt that you invest much more in a character you create yourself, and RPGs with a predetermined protagonist never feel like full RPGs to me, even when they're fantastic games.
For the record, yes, I'm aware I suck at naming characters.
In Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, you return to the role of the Bhaalspawn: one of many children of the dead God of Murder, Bhaal. The Bhaalspawn has been captured by a wizard named Irenicus, who has experimented on – meaning tortured – the protagonist and the protagonist's half-Bhaalspawn sister, Imoen. A battle with the Shadow Thieves breaks out and rages all the way to the surface, where Imoen and Irenicus are arrested for unsanctioned use of magic and teleported away to Spellhold. This begins the journey to find Irenicus, save Imoen, stop the wizard's dastardly plot, and achieve your destiny as the child of a god. Gameplay is a combination of that plot and various side quests based on the player's moral alignment, type of character, and on-the-fly choices. Other quests rely on having specific characters in your party. The early chapters balance a more open world experience with periodic reminders that Irenicus is a creepy, power-hungry dude, but the game becomes more focused on the main plot as you get closer to the final showdown.
The Throne of Bhaal expansion is an add-on that finishes up the story of Bhaal's prophesy. The remaining Bhaalspawn have gone to war over the right to assume their dead father's throne. It also provides some super tough monsters for players to slay using insanely fun high-level character abilities. It's a much more linear experience, but the battles are so tough that there are still plenty of surprises. Throne of Bhaal also adds Watcher's Keep, an incredibly difficult multi-level standalone dungeon at which you can chip away gradually as you build your skills. It's a completely optional dungeon, and not for those with low frustration thresholds: it features some of the toughest fights in any Baldur's Gate game.
The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay is a continuation of the Black Pits in the first Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, and only as a passing connection to the events of Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. Once again you play as a character captured and enslaved, forced to fight in the arena while planning a rebellion. You start the game with empty inventories, and must think strategically when you buy and allocate gear with the limited funds you receive from your arena victories.
In all three games, exploration and interaction are important, both for leveling up your characters and learning more about your enemies. Talk to everyone, because the answers may surprise you. Pay attention to your environments and use the Tab key highlight feature often: you never know what you'll find tucked away in a chest or bookshelf.
But you also never know when you'll encounter a significant glitch in the software. The Enhanced Edition is so plagued by bugs that I nearly invoked Wolpaw's Law during Chapter 9 of the Throne of Bhaal expansion and quit playing. Nuisance glitches can be amusing, but many of the bugs are game-breaking mistakes that make some of the new content inaccessible and some of the original content unusable.
It's a damned shame, because the original game is still glorious. The tragic tale of Jon Irenicus in Shadows of Amn and the bombastic war between the children of a dead god in Throne of Bhaal hold up well despite their age. Isometric RPGs have this quaint protected quality about them, since they're an art form from the days before video games had to sell five million copies to be considered successful.
The Black Pits II doesn't quite measure up, but it gives it a good try. It's a good example of a game that doesn't quite meet the unique ludonarrative challenges of game design, despite being perfectly competent from a story perspective. The map design, for instance, requires a lot of time-consuming navigation through long hallways to get to the various places of interest, and the navigation required to solve some of the puzzles between arena battles becomes a chore. The snaking hallways and rooms with multiple entrances also wreaked havoc on the pathfinding.
I also couldn't tell if the game was glitching on me (again) or if the puzzle solutions really didn't progress with any sort of logic. The sound mix is slightly off. The voice work isn't up to the usual Bioware standards... because it's not Bioware. Overall the Black Pits II is a reasonably enjoyable hot mess that feels more like someone's Neverwinter Nights module than a professionally produced game. It's not that the Black Pits II is bad. It just pales in comparison to the original stuff.
Granted, the original is a huge, poignant story with great villains, lots of customization, endearing party companions, and some of the most quotable lines in video game history. In some ways, the pop culture references are more accessible now than they were back then, because the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is so much better known.
The voice acting is still amazing, and the sound quality is one of the true enhancements in the enhanced version. When I originally played Baldur's Gate 2, the background sounds in the cities were just muddles of ambient noise. Now I can clearly hear merchants hawking their wares through the din. The improved audio quality also allows nuances of brilliant lead vocal performances to come shining through more than ever. Jon Irenicus is still one of the deepest villains in video games, and David Warner's thoughtful performance presents a character who has grown weary of his own hate and thirst for revenge. The balance Warner walks in providing depth to a character who can no longer feel full emotions is still an under-appreciated acting masterpiece.
And of course, Jim Cummings as the adorably-doltish, hamster-loving ranger Minsc is still a delight. But there are a lot of great performances on display here, including Rob Paulsen's work on Anomen. The character's personality changes in very real ways depending on your choices in his main quest, and he is, in many ways, a prototype for Alistair in Dragon Age if you play your cards right. But if you let him get bitter and vengeful, he's an obnoxious prick prone to temper tantrums before evolving beyond that phase in the Throne of Bhaal expansion. That level of branching character development in a thirteen year-old game is pretty amazing.
In terms of graphics, yes, many of the backgrounds are remastered, but there's no way an isometric perspective game from the year 2000 can compete with modern 3D graphics. Don't expect huge leaps from the original here. It's mostly clean up duty which is especially impressive when you hit the Underdark. The brief cut scenes are still, at best, medium-quality graphics, but without completely redoing them, I'm not sure what more could have been done.
There are some interface improvements that make the pace of the game move a little faster, but it's still highly tactical and large doses of patience are still needed to succeed. This isn't a game for players who want constant action, or don't like dying a lot in tough fights. There are also some storage items that make it easier for you to carry large numbers of potions and projectiles, but for the most part, Shadows of Amn plays very much like the original.
Once you get to the Throne of Bhaal expansion – 300 hours later -- the Enhanced Edition relaxes the difficulty some by adding new powerful items and raising the level cap. This is a welcome change, since the game still offers plenty of challenge while becoming a bit more accessible. The additional crafted weapons are especially good, and the accompanying Cespenar dialogue is hilarious.
Cespenar is good servant! Oh yes! More on him later.
But the biggest additions to the original games are the new adventures, focusing on four new party members. Dorn Il-Khan, Neera the Wild Mage, and Rasaad yn Bashir return from Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, and Hexxat is a brand new character for the enhanced sequel.
Unfortunately I only got to spend any real time with two: Rasaad and Hexxat. Neera glitched on me, rendering the character unplayable until Throne of Bhaal. Dorn, meanwhile, must be an extremely evil character, because trying to add him upset my good-aligned party too much for him to be useful.
Out of Rashaad and Hexxat, I enjoyed Rashaad's story more. Since I hadn't played the first Enhanced Edition, it took a bit of time for me to adjust to Mass Effect alumnus Mark Meer doing a Middle Eastern accent for his turn as Rasaad. I would have preferred to see the role go to someone like Cas Anvar, strictly because there are too few heroic roles for brown people in video games, but Baldur's Gate has numerous other very white people doing foreign accents, so because of that tradition, I won't come down on this casting choice. It does show that Meer has more range than he was allowed to show as Commander Shepard, and they probably picked up more than a few sales based on his involvement. I eventually warmed to Rasaad, which says that Meer did his job.
The biggest thing going for Rasaad is that he's a monk, a class that was seen by many as a glaring omission to the party character roster in the original game. Rasaad quickly took a liking to my Chaotic Good elf rogue, but it was hard to keep him in my party long enough to fully explore the romance dialogues: there isn't a lot of gear available to monks, so it's tricky keeping him on his feet in some of the tougher fights. Also, if you plan on tackling Rasaad's quest, make sure you have plenty of spells or items that make your characters immune to level drain. You'll be fighting a lot of shadow creatures.
I found having Hexxat in my party a lot less fun, partially because in the early going of her storyline, the character is bossy and keeps demanding her quest take priority. That was especially annoying in the middle of a dungeon, when the character decided to throw a hissy fit and ditch me. She also forces an item into your inventory that permanently takes up a slot. Her quest itself didn't really differentiate enough from other dungeon crawling missions to face various undead monsters, since the Shadows of Amn portion of the game is full of them.
And there's already plenty of game as is. I started playing this game two and a half months ago, and except for a six day blackout due to the ice storm that hit eastern Canada, I've been playing this gods forsaken game almost every night. Bioware games have always provided huge amount of game content, even before you add the admittedly significant add-ons. So how much do the new adventures add? That will depend on your play style, how much you like changing up your party, and how lucky you are at avoiding bugs.
Yes, we're back at the bugs. Because the bugs take an otherwise good effort and make it fall apart at the seams. It's great that they put in new quests and new items, but too many of them are horribly broken. Neera being rendered unplayable was disappointing, but it wasn't a central part of the game, so I didn't mind too much. However, items also randomly decided to disappear on me if I accidentally double clicked them while trying to pick them up. That, as you can imagine, was extremely irritating
The game also enjoyed glitching and not allowing me to save even after I went to another map, which caused me to lose significant progress in two separate instances. Other times, enemies spawned forever or becoming accidentally unkillable meant a few restarted battles. Since there are some intentionally invincible enemies, and other areas where monsters were supposed to just keep coming, it became very hard to figure out which things weren't dying because they weren't supposed to die, and which things were just glitching. It was frustrating, especially since I don't like looking up plot spoilers online. In a few places I had to, just to check if what I was facing was a bug.
The height of frustration came through a new crafted item, the Shadow Dragon Armor. Once you craft this item, Cespenar won't talk to you anymore, disabling your ability to craft anything further. This bug should have been fixed by now, because Cespenar's item crafting is one of the greatest joys of the Throne of Bhaal expansion. Your butler in your personal pocket plane, Cespenar, is equal parts loveable and snarky, and the fact that a bug completely broke him felt a bit like someone had just killed the world's most adorable kitten. Bioware put careful attention into making sure that things like that didn't happen in the original games. That was why they created Biff the Understudy. Yes, I'm sure the budget on this endeavor was limited, but come on.
When you see that screen? Say no!
Even the Black Pits game was marred by possible bugs. Characters disappeared without warning, quests didn't advance properly, and there was this weird glitch that caused my character to take damage as if a trap was sprung when he removed a disguise uniform, no matter where on the map he was when he did that.
I could have gone into debug mode and started mucking with code to fix some of the problems, but that's not what most people who play video games are going to do. It's inexcusable that a special edition would introduce “improvements” that break a previously-existing part of the game that used to work just fine. Furthermore, since the game has been out for a while and this is a known bug, they should have fixed it by now. I'm sick of games shipping broken. I'm even sicker of developers posting workarounds on forums instead of fixing their frikkin' game! Debug mode workarounds will not help those playing the games on tablets!
So if you do take the plunge and buy the Enhanced Edition, learn from my mistakes:
If you have any savvy with code at all, enable the debug mode using the instructions found here before you begin the game. It will allow you to replace items that decide to randomly disappear as you try to pick them up.
Create named save files often instead of relying on the quick save feature. If something goes wrong, you'll have backup saves so you don't lose too much progress.
When you encounter Neera, take her into your party immediately. Don't say you'll meet her later. The game may glitch when you try and you won't be able to do her quest.
In Throne of Bhaal, don't let Cespenar craft the Shadow Dragon armor. It will permanently break him, and it's not the greatest item.
Ignore all the dialogue that should be clues in The Black Pits II. The most direct solution is almost always the correct one.
Go for the eyes, Boo! Do not frolic in suspicious bushes if you wish to avoid hamster butt itching.
Great writing, characters, and plots
Original game has aged very well
New Adventures content is enjoyable when it works
Lots of bugs, and fixes are slow in coming
The Black Pits II doesn't hold its own against the original stuff
Cut scenes look extremely dated
It's a real shame that the quality control on Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition is so poor, because otherwise there is a lot to recommend it, even if just for Dragon Age fans curious about the spiritual predecessor to that franchise, or those who want a walk down PC RPG memory lane. Creatively, the team on the Enhanced Edition made a lot of good decisions, adding things that give the game just enough of a tune up to keep it in line with Bioware's current philosophies on diversity and high quality storytelling. But paying a premium for a product this buggy just isn't quite something I can recommend. Buy this version only if you enjoyed the New Adventures in Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition and want to see more of those characters.
Some will find it “classic”, others will find it dated. Small tweaks here and there are legitimate improvements. Welcomed reduction in difficulty in Throne of Bhaal. The Black Pits II adds little new in terms of combat, and makes a mess of map design a
Yes, it's remastered. No, it doesn't make that big a difference. The widescreen is nice, the clean up is noticeable, but it won't make much of a difference to returning fans. For new fans, it's going to look unimpressive unless you're familiar with ret
A definite highlight, from ambient sounds to voice acting to music. The new content struggles to keep up, but that's because the original stuff is so good, not because the new stuff is bad.
One play through is so long I'm not sure many people will take a second spin, but there are plenty of different choices to make, with radically different outcomes and hilarious surprises. Obviously this game has endured the test of time.
The writing is excellent, but the bugs suck out a lot of the fun. The original content is great. The Enhancements are more trouble than they're worth in many cases.