Oh, man… How many of us older games that came from the pre and early internet years remember games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights? Releasing so close to each other that I often even mix the two up in my mind, it was a great time to be a combination PC and tabletop gamer. I have a lot of fond memories of those games.
I was excited to see Baldur’s Gate 3 in my Steam feed and hear that it was releasing into Early Access, so when the opportunity came to pick it up, there was little conflict in my mind about doing so. I did have a few concerns about RPGs and Early Access in general, but I’ll get more into that shortly.
Today, I’m hoping to walk you all through some of those concerns and give some of my initial impressions of the game. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the story, but that’s a subjective measure in any case and though I’ll talk about it in general, the specifics aren’t really related to this article. As always, I’ll also talk a little about whether this is a game you should consider picking up now, waiting, or maybe giving a complete pass.
Of RPGs and Early Access
Right off the bat, I think the idea of RPGs releasing into Early Access is ridiculous and I’m upset that it’s even on the table. To my mind, the only reason a developer would release an RPG to Early Access is because they’re short on capital and need the extra funding to complete development. In which case, I wouldn’t be able to recommend anyone buy the game, because it would obviously be incomplete.
The problem is that an RPG is its story and once you know that story, the game generally holds significantly less value after that. Yes, you can certainly play it multiple times and enjoy the branching story options and trying for various endings. That’s certainly something I’ve done often enough, including with this particular franchise. The difference is in plumbing the depths of the game to extract additional value, though. The lions share of value in an RPG is that initial exploration of the world and the characters with which it is inhabited.
Each character is interesting and while learning more about them and their backstory typically takes multiple play-throughs, that initial experience of meeting the new NPCs and grasping to understand their underlying character is critical to the RPG experience. More, once you’ve explored potential companions and NPCs of note and have uncovered some of their hidden motives, that genie will never fit back in the bottle.
Part of the appeal of an RPG’s story is the experience of not knowing. Early Access kind of breaks that.
Thus, the idea of an Early Access for an RPG is just a ludicrous concept to my thinking. It’s effectively selling a chocolate cake sans decoration. You can buy it and it might be tasty, but serving you the swirls of artistically applied icing at a later date really isn’t doing much to enhance your initial experience of eating the baked item in question.
I think that means we really have to treat Baldur’s Gate as a finished product, then. Granted, waiting a while and purchasing it later will make for a better experience over all, but if we’re going to talk about whether to buy that cake in the window, we have to talk about the cake as it is now, because that’s how you’re going to be eating it.
Calling the game Early Access feels to me like a publisher hedging their bets more than a legitimate use of the Early Access program. This game is out and it needs to be judged as is. If there are bugs, and there are a few, then that’s just part of the experience related to this RPG and they don’t really get a pass just because they’ve arbitrarily checked the get out of jail free card.
Now that we’ve cleared the minor issue of Early Access, let’s talk about the game. There’s a lot here that I really like about Baldur’s Gate 3. I feel that it’s a far more adult-oriented game than many of the RPGs I’ve seen recently. It’s not that there aren’t other games made for adults, but usually the adult label involves either questionable character design and aesthetic choices or unnecessary vulgarity.
While I’ve not seen any indications of either overly forward in my time playing Baldur’s Gate 3, I’d still urge parents to play it first before letting younger gamers set down to the title. While many games target the “adult crowd” through more obvious methods, this is a game that I think will appeal to the more cognitively advanced and life-experienced gamers because the material is deeply complex. I’d say this is a game that those of us with more experiences in life are going to get a great deal more out of because the complex situations and questions the story forces us to face are not simplistic choices of good or evil.
Not exactly kid-friendly, some of the choices in Baldur’s Gate 3 are as dark as the situations you run into.
Often, these are just choices between multiple bads, or a forced choice with too little information to know what right or wrong even looks like in a given situation. Much like life, we do what we can with what we have, and it’s only much later when faced with he consequences of our decision do we have the information to know whether or not we chose poorly, or even against our nature. That conflict between results and the outcomes we’d more naturally desire create a complex weft of greys in the game.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is not the joyous celebration of high fantasy that we often see in RPGs, but a dark and gritty exploration of humanity and the hard choices we are often faced with, questions of self-preservation verses the demands of morality. For instance, the player has a very early choice between whether to preserve life or to pass judgement on another living creature, and that presents the deeply troubling question of whether the taint of evil stops with intent or is extended to the minions which mindlessly action said intent.
The world of Baldur’s Gate 3 is bloody and the art style is as complex and dark as the themes in the game. Also, much like the preceding games, the story has moral depth and leaves plenty of room for players to choose a myriad of paths between righteousness and twisted self-service. Those choices and the moral questions they generate are part of why I’d recommend that parents play the game themselves before turning it over to kids.
As far as how the game plays, I’ve really liked Baldur’s Gate 3. Newer D&D rules lend themselves well to video games, I think. In part, that’s one of the reasons I’m not really a fan of them, but that’s a different article. In digital form, I think the system works well and was applied nicely to BG3.
Combat is turn-based, which I know some players don’t care for as much. It can get a little tedious in longer combat scenarios, and especially when there are a lot of combatants on either side. It takes time for each to take their actions per turn, and that does give the game a feel of slowing down, but to me it feels more D&D and I like that.
It’s not just the choices you make that matter, but also the choices you have available through abilities, skills, and randomized chance.
In fact, I think you might say that the time involved sort of discourages combat and that might not be a bad thing, at least in my book. For those who want a very combat-oriented playthrough of the game, it’s going to be terrible, but I feel like it forces me to think more about how I engage in a conversation. If I make a mistake, I could end up having to slog my way through a long fight and I don’t want to do that. That means I treat conversations a bit more seriously than I might otherwise, and I kind of feel like that helps focus me more on the dialogue and thus the story.
Not everyone is going to have the same opinion, and that’s totally expected. I can easily see how the slower nature of turn-based combat is going to be really frustrating for some people, but then there’s also a bit of nostalgia in it for me, as well. I remember in the early days of D&D and AD&D when turns just took forever and that was part of the game. Digging your way through all the tables and modifiers and trying to keep track of who was doing what was all part of those early experiences. I really loved it and I miss it, and frankly that’s why it was a game for my fellow nerds and myself. If the game doesn’t bend a knee to the swarm of modern geek-chic, I’m kind of okay with that.
Dialogue choices seem to branch copiously, which creates a very dynamic and immersive experience. I suspect it’ll add a huge amount of replay value to the game over time, especially as you try playing through as characters with different personalities and motivations. Even more, there appears to be a huge amount of choices locked behind a myriad of random rolls. Wisdom checks, rolls against arcana or perception, all of them randomly adding choices to the dialogue that you might have one time through and not another.
I really felt like that added a sense of life to the game, because life is random, often unfair, and rarely gives you the choices that you’d rather have. In that sense, Baldur’s Gate 3 offers the player various choices that while influenced by ability and skill, are yet not guaranteed. That may be a feature that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I feel it leaves me a lot of space to come back to the game and play it again later. Even playing similar characters, I can expect a unique experience each time.
Turn-based combat is fine when there are only a few actors, but once you get into more complicated fights, it can be a little frustrating.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a game that gets a whole lot right, despite hacking me off with the unjustified claim to “Early Access.” That’s not to say they’re not missing a bit, though. I didn’t really feel the score was complete and there were some periods where I just thought the score was too simplistic and uninspired to really excite me. Yet there were other times such as a ballad from a Tiefling named Alfira where I found elements of interest that felt unique to Baldur’s Gate and really wish we could hear more.
There are obviously some bugs in the game and undoubtedly some amount of content that the developers are working on and don’t have in the game yet, but I did appreciate what was there. I haven’t gotten super far in the story yet, but I’ve found everything interesting and feel the character development has more depth than most available alternatives.
Would I recommend buying it or not? Probably not. I’m not saying that because I don’t think the game is worth it right now, because I actually do. I’ll be playing it for a bit longer myself, but I think for an RPG to release under Early Access is just not something that should be supported. RPGs are an experience and your first time through the game should be the penultimate experience that the developers want you to have with all the questions and mystery that comes with not knowing what’s next.
To release that experience unfinished just feels slightly immoral. This isn’t an MMO where the interaction with other players is the experience, or another game like a sim or an RTS where playing the same content over and over has little impact. This is an RPG, which is supposed to be a storytelling adventure for the senses and the mind. Buying a book only to have the author add a few pages here and there while you’re reading it is not something that would ever make sense, nor does it make sense in this case.
Wait for the game to be “released” and then pick it up. It’s great now, so I don’t have any trouble recommending that future version of the game. Let’s just try to encourage the publishers to finish their RPGs before tossing them out to the crowd like your first time through the game doesn’t matter. Especially when it’s a game that seems as close as Baldur’s Gate 3 is to completion, and that just lacks a modicum of polish.