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Gaming Retrospective: Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn
Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.
I used to have a terrible shame in my gaming history. I felt the great weight of its absence every time I professed my love of PC gaming and RPGs. Though we all have gaps amongst those culturally perceived classic games, this one was particularly haunting.
I’d never played Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Until now.
Note that this Retrospective covers the original game; if you’re interested in last year’s Enhanced Edition of BG2, check out our Chamber of Game video.
Widely considered to be the best RPG ever made, and certainly one of the best games of all time, BG2 was the crowning jewel of fledgling computer role playing game developer Bioware. Playing off the success of the original Baldur’s Gate, an incredible tactical foray into the classic Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons and Dragons, the sequel would become a critical and commercial success, and cemented a glorious age of PC RPGs around the turn of the century alongside Fallout, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights.
I’d played the original Baldur’s Gate but never finished it, as I was knee deep into the MMORPG Everquest at the time, while my single player RPG flavoring was much more into the mature post-apocalyptic Fallout world than Dungeons and Dragons (I also enjoyed the unique planar worlds of Planescape: Torment and the magic-meets-technology setting of Arcanum). Then, well, a lot of games come out and suddenly it’s 14 years later and I finally spend two months to sit down and play it.
The biggest change in my overall enjoyment from the original Baldur’s Gate was the fact that you start Baldur’s Gate II around level 8, which is huge in AD&D (level 20 is considered like, godly), and it’s meant to be a continuation of the same story and experience from the original. Instantly you have access to a ton of spells, fighters get multiple attacks and everyone can actually sustain several blows before dying. It also allows for a much bigger variety of monsters and enemies, traps, and interesting situations in general.
One of the biggest strengths to the Infinity Engine is the amount of control you have over your entire party, letting you choose between a large number of AI scripts for each person. Spellcasters can be set to offensive or defensive, warriors can charge ahead or protect the party, ranged characters can maintain a certain distance for maximum twang-ing, etc. It’s fun to see the genesis of the build-your-own script system I employed in Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware’s modern spiritual successor to the BG franchise) used a decade earlier.
Still, during particularly brutal fights – of which there were plenty – I was forced to turn off the AI and micro manage my party to frustrating degrees. Pathfinding issues were rage-inducing as way too many dungeons and areas sported narrow hallways and staircases where the party would bunch up into a classic funnel of death for monsters in the next room (yes, I eventually employed baiting tactics in those situations). Spellcasters could easily be interrupted and have the spell wasted and friendly fire meant most AOE spells were useless in most situations.
The worst offender of all was the absolutely brutal way you could lose complete control of your party through enemy spells and abilities like confusion, fear and domination. A single use of such an ability could disable half my party or worse, cause them to fight each other, rendering an average fight night impossible Dear game devs: losing control of half my party is not challenging, it’s frustrating.
Not to mention the terribly tedious death penalty, forcing you to trudge all the way back to a healer to pay a resurrection fine, then return to the scene to pick up all their dropped loot and manually re-equip every piece. Thankfully I used a Rod of Resurrection for the whole middle portion of the game until my cleric learned Raise Dead. If she ever died in battle, it was time to reload.
Not every fight was an awful slog, of course, and just as many were that perfect blend of tense strategy that I crave in tactical RPGs. It’s just a shame that the super impossible ones (seriously, screw iron golems) dragged everything down to a halt.
Combat is a major aspect of any RPG, and the display of tactical planning and bright spell effects can be a lot of fun. But BG2 is so much more than that; it boasts an insanely long story, crazy amount of side quests, and a major city area that’s as big as some entire games (cough Dragon Age II cough). I clocked in at just under 60 total hours and I definitely felt like I rushed it; entire areas outside the city were left unexplored, major quest lines were ignored, and many potential party members were missed or skipped.
I can definitely see where doing everything in BG2 could take close to 100 hours, but I gave myself a strict amount of time to finish it (two months) and knew approximately how much time I could invest. I would’ve liked to explore a few more side quests and areas but as it is I definitely felt like I got plenty out of my playthrough. If you’re curious I played as the bard class with the blade kit, and my final party consisted of Minsc, Valygar, Mazzy, Imoen and Aerie. Fan favorite Minsc is definitely the Wrex of the game, as he’s awesome both in and out of combat and everyone has to include him in their party.
The capital city of Amn, Athkatla, serves as the major quest hub and is made up of over half a dozen maps/screens of districts, each with their own buildings, quests and characters. You could easily play for dozens of hours before you ever leave the city, which reminded me quite a bit of the Citadel in the first Mass Effect in terms of a densely packed area.
Unfortunately the pacing is incredibly strange. After the lengthy and intriguing newbie dungeon you lose your childhood friend and companion from the first game, Imoen, to the evil mage Irenicus and the ruling mages of the land. Afterward you quickly meet up with a member of the Shadow Thieves who’s willing to help you, for a price. The main story quickly grinds to a halt as your task becomes “do a bunch of side quests to earn money.” It’s not a bad way to introduce the city as there’s a ton of stuff to do, but I felt aimless and overwhelmed rather than exhilarated, and it took over a dozen hours before I did enough quests in order to get back on track.
Side quests ranged from helping a noblewoman reclaim her invaded estate, destroying the beholder leader of a new creepy eye-less cult, and rescuing a troupe of extra-dimensional bards. Most of them took place in the city (or in the sewers, you can’t make a fantasy RPG city without a dangerous, labyrinthine sewer system), and while I could pick and choose which quests to do, there was no way of knowing how involved they would end up being (the estate one was a fun dungeon romp, the cult was a multi-step, multi-dungeon odyssey). Each class also has their own specially made side quest and each party member has a string of unique quests and events that you can choose to handle, and depending on their severity and choices will cause them to leave you, or even die.
After so much freedom the story pulls a 180 as you agree to travel to Spellhold, an asylum for dangerous characters. From there it’s almost nothing but the main storyline as you’re forced along a linear path from a gauntlet beneath Spellhold to a mer-folk (more like shark people) city at the bottom of the ocean to the infamous Underdark. The Underdark has some optional dungeons and quests (including a spiffy peak at the ruthlessness of Drow culture) but for the most part you’re continuing the main story of chasing after Irenicus, a villain that grows more interesting with every scene thanks to some wonderful voice acting and typically superb Bioware writing.
Emerging from the Underdark dozens of hours later you’re finally free to resume all the side quests from way back in the beginning of the game and explore more areas of Amn. The pacing is almost the exact opposite of most RPGs as you’re given nothing but side quests in the beginning, and locked into a very long main story segment throughout the middle. It’s not necessarily bad but definitely jarring.
Despite my frequent frustrations from challenging fights and tedious consequences, I’m very satisfied that I played through one of PC gaming’s classic RPGs. Most aspects of the game, including the UI and engine, hold up surprisingly well with easy-to-use mods, and aspects like the writing and length remain incredibly impressive over a decade later. I can definitely see where BG2 was an absolute game changer when it came to the scope of an RPG, but alas its era was quickly overshadowed by the emergence of 3D gaming and the explosion of the first person shooter and action genres. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is an epic reminder of a time before quest arrows and floating exclamation points, when RPGs were less concerned with targeting a mainstream audience and more about telling an intriguing story, meeting memorable characters and killing lots and lots of monsters.
Recommended Mods: Older but well-aging classic games are usually swimming with mods from the dedicated community, and the Baldur’s Gate series is no different. In fact, GoG even has a step-by-step process for running the older BG1 game within the new BG2 engine! All the mods can be found at Gibberlings3.net. I personally used the Fixpack for an all-in-one mega patch and the widescreen mod to properly scale it for bigger resolutions.