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Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal PC Review

/ Sep 6th, 2001 No Comments

The question of whether it is better to burn out or fade away may have been on the minds of the Bioware/Black Isle developers as they set about creating what was to be the concluding chapter of the monumental Baldur’s Gate (BG) series of CRPGs. As evident with Throne of Bhaal (ToB) – a Baldur’s Gate II expansion pack so huge that it could easily have been a game in itself – the developers apparently answered the question by creating a supernova of quality gaming. The Baldur’s Gate series ends with a stirring, epic story containing moments that will likely live on in the memories of CRPG fans as one of the best overall gaming experiences ever.

ToB continues the saga of the child of Bhaal began in the original Baldur’s Gate. After having weathered the challenges posed in BG II, the character becomes involved in a serious Forgotten Realms-shaking war between the other children of Bhaal to determine who will take the place of the dead god. In pursuit of destiny, the character will journey through the land of Tethyr facing some of the most imposing challenges ever depicted in a Dungeons and Dragons CRPG.

More so than other genres, CRPGs live or die by the quality of the story. The BG series, particularly BG II, set a high mark for quality storytelling that would be difficult for any game to follow. Not surprisingly given Bioware’s track record, ToB’s story is as interesting, exciting, and at times funny as BG II. The epic feel of the game is achieved by setting extremely challenging dungeons/monsters to overcome and by making NPCs recognize and react to the character as the true power that they have become after the first two BGs. To its credit, the story never dips into D&D clichés. Instead, it captivates players by adding depth and innovation to the essentials of dungeon hacking, damsels in distress, and the notable scaly villains. There are numerous minor touches (such as a trippy throwback to ancient D&D computer games) that add extra bonuses to veteran CRPGers.

At the beginning of ToB, players may choose [almost] any of the party members from BG II. These characters, moreso than any other aspect of the game, are what give ToB its life. Like a good novel, it’s easy to care about the characters, and every fan of the BG series are certain to have their favorites (let’s face it, Jan rules). As in BG II, the characters are uniquely fleshed out – reacting to the events in the game in their own way. The strong voice acting never detracts from the characterizations. In addition, ToB offers a surprising new NPC available to join the party. At first, I had my doubts about him (why not make a new character from scratch?). But the same quality writing and detail that went into the others is with him, making him yet another memorable and worthy character. The different ways that the party members interact with each other is one of the most entertaining parts of the game, and lends a great deal of replay value as players can try out different party combinations.

Of course, ToB isn’t a novel – so what about game play? The game still uses the tried and true Infinity engine, and the graphics are effective without being true eye candy. The musical score is magnificent, with moments that could easily be included in the next Conan the Barbarian movie. It’s at the point now where all that need be said is: “It’s a Bioware/Black Isle game.” (Translated: highly polished production values that are better than 4 out of 5 actual movies).

To the D&D ruleset, ToB adds some nice tweaks – the most notable being unique high level skills and spells granted as characters progress past level 20. These skills/spells make characters extremely powerful (Greater Deathblow, anyone?), but given the context of the story, it doesn’t seem out of place (and it certainly doesn’t make the combat encounters much easier). Longsuffering druid, thief, or bard players will welcome these new skills as they put these classes on relatively equal footing with the standard warrior/mage/clerics. A new wild mage class is a nice addition that makes for an interesting chaotic experience.

Bioware also took the idea of the “scavenger hunt” for powerful items introduced in BG II and ran with it for ToB. Players will find a large number of weapon and device pieces that are upgradeable to artifact level power. A nice touch is that there is an item for virtually any class/weapon type in the game – even less popular ones like the halberd and spear (the upgraded spear in ToB is a wicked weapon!) The fights in ToB are appropriate for a story of a prospective god fighting for a place in the pantheon. Some of the most powerful, legendary creatures in the D&D universe, including several dragons, are arrayed against the character. As such, despite the power level the player can achieve, the fights are almost always difficult, although never to the point of being frustrating. One of the pleasures of the combats, apart from their definite purpose in the context of the story, is their diversity. Though every fight is not against a legendary uber-daemon, the protracted fights against hordes of lesser enemies were just as exciting. Protracted, in fact, is a good way to describe many of the fights in ToB; players will need to employ all the tactical skill they can muster (and have plenty of healing potions) to survive most of them. This, again, adds to the epic quality of ToB and is likely to evoke cheers of triumph from players who finally defeat the seemingly invincible hordes.

Some hardcore RPGers may balk at the level of power characters can achieve in ToB, arguing that it focuses the game on a “monty haul” type of play. Given the nature of story and the enemies it involves, there is never a moment when the player’s power seems totally absurd. This is, after all, a story of a prospective god fighting for a place in the pantheon, and players should expect some serious enemies standing in their way. I found the fights to be relatively balanced – never a pushover, never impossible. Some may find the powerful items more akin to Diablo type games than a serious D&D RPG, but when placed in the backdrop of ToB’s strong plot, they fit in quite well (that, and uber items are simply really cool!).

ToB’s minor shortcoming, if only for serious CRPGers, stems partially from the high expectations for a true role playing experience (e.g. choosing a good, evil, or neutral path of behavior and seeing the story change by them) successfully created in Black Isle’s earlier D&D classic, Planescape: Torment. Like BG II, ToB makes a valiant effort to include options for players who wish to be good, evil, or in between. Still, there are a couple instances where the game feels a little linear, and others where whatever dialogue option a player chooses, the response will be the same. With the precedent for serious single player role playing set by Planescape, and the great strides Bioware made to include these in BG II and ToB, there are high hopes that this CRPGer dream can be further included in games. For ToB, it falls just inches below the mark of perfection in this regard (and the devs deserve to be knighted for continually broadening the role playing opportunities in the BG series). With Neverwinter Nights soon coming, that dream may be realized soon enough (“anything is possible with that many monkeys”).

Any BG/D&D fan, CRPGer, fantasy fan, or even those who enjoy a good story should definitely pick up ToB, and experience the journey through the epic vision Bioware/Black Isle created for the Forgotten Realms. ToB triumphantly and memorably ends the saga to a story that will stand with the Ultimas, Wizardry’s, Bard’s Tales, Gold Box D&D games etc. as one of the great CRPG experiences of all time.

This product has received a very impressive score of 4.75 / 5. Typically these products are highly recommended because of their ability to satisfy our rigorous testing and expectations.

Editor's Choice Award

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi was a long time major contributor to Gaming Illustrated before disappearing of the face of the Earth. His service to GI will never be forgotten.
Roy Rossi

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