The name Baldur’s Gate hits PC gamers of a certain age right in the nostalgia. It evokes memories of questing and dungeon delving, and of epic battles against the hordes of darkness.
Starting from nothing, players could create a party capable of wielding the most powerful weapons in the Forgotten Realms and call upon thaumaturgical forces beyond comprehension to smite their enemies and save the very realms themselves. The companions met along the way were meme-worthy in a time before memes, whose actions and dialogue are still fondly remembered all these years later. While action titles from the same universe were later released for the Xbox and PlayStation 2, these were mere shadows of roleplaying goodness available to PC players.
Fortunately, the stout yeomen at Beamdog have done what many thought was impossible — they’ve ported the highly-prized Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 to modern consoles in new “Enhanced” editions. These lovingly-restored classics and all of their expansions represent hundreds of hours of roleplaying, which is an amazing value no matter how you slice it.
The question remains, though — Do these enhanced versions of classic favorites work well on a console? Do these titles actually hold up 21 years after their initial release, especially in the current era of roleplaying richness?
These enhanced versions offer menus and interfaces that are surprisingly clean, and while I wanted to start from the beginning as there was a LOT of storyline I haven’t seen in 21 years, I appreciate the fact that it’s possible to jump right into Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, or any of the expansions directly.
Along the same lines, it’s possible to export a created character at any point, so as a joke I sent a level 1 Paladin directly into Baldur’s Gate II just to see what would happen. I thought it would export the name and original ability scores, but everything got exported as it was, meaning I had a monstrously underpowered paladin starting out in the sequel. I quickly deleted the save knowing there was no way a 10 hit-point wonder would survive, but the option is there.
Controlling characters takes a bit of getting used to with a Playstation controller, and I’ll admit I’ve forgotten which triggers and shoulder buttons call up which sub-menu more times than I’d like to share. Every button on the PS4 controller has a purpose, which frankly needs to be the case considering the complexity of the game under the hood. People with better short-term memory than I won’t have any difficulty navigating the interface and smoothly slaying kobolds before they know it.
Overall though, I liked directly moving my characters from place to place using the left thumbstick, and this revision does a great job maintaining my party’s marching order in real time as I wander around.
One issue with the real-time maneuvering, though, is that it can be quite easy to get stuck in doorways and around furniture or other background objects like small staircases. I could never remember how to switch back to the traditional point-and-click navigation system, which would have made a few moments slightly easier when I had to traverse tricky terrain.
Combat is (thankfully) much more forgiving as it will automatically pause to allow direct commands to each party member. Unfortunately, if the target is defeated, new orders must be given immediately, otherwise, characters will simply stand in one spot and allow foes to wail away on them without defending themselves.
Spellcasting and using special abilities is a bit more complicated, as they require opening a sub-menu to access them, then selecting what the character should cast or do, and then choosing the location for the spell or ability to target. In the heat of battle when foes are engaged in melee, it can be tricky to highlight the exact character that a healing spell needs to be used on, or who that Magic Missile needs to hit. Area-of-Effect spells don’t provide markings on effective range or spell diameter, so it can be quite easy to trap party members in an Entangle spell meant for the gnarly group of gnolls pestering them.
Baldur’s Gate was released at a time when THAC0 was still all the rage, and when “linear fighters/quadratic wizards” were the norm. This means it’s fairly difficult to ascertain when an attack may succeed, and can lead to long stretches of melee fighters ineffectively swinging at one another.
Spellcasters are extremely limited at low levels, preventing them from doing much but staying out of the way and whittling down an enemy’s health with a few well-placed spells or being used in an emergency to heal the front-line fighters. At later levels, mages and clerics will become nigh-unstoppable, but one must be very patient waiting for that time to arrive.
Some of the rules surrounding encumbrance, and inventory management, and spell memorization are also outdated. Specific characters in the party pick up loot individually, and if they’re overburdened, they can no longer move. While it might be ‘realistic’, it’s pretty annoying to have to juggle who carries what, especially when I’m just lugging it around so I can sell it back in town.
Identify spells only work when the caster is actually carrying the item to be identified, leading to yet more inventory juggling when I just want to know if the fighter’s new halberd is worth hanging onto. Opening multiple sub-menus, one for wizards and one for clerics, is similarly tedious.
Graphically, Baldur’s Gate is a mixed bag. Backgrounds look lovely, and character models are decent, but when zoomed in (especially on a 60-inch TV) they become a pixelated mess. Cutscenes are zoomed out to the maximum amount, meaning it can be difficult to make out what’s going on when sitting on the other side of the living room. The atmosphere is still fabulous, the varied terrain types and interiors are well done, and the character portraits are still great, though.
For better or worse, plating Baldur’s Gate immediately whisks players back to the memories of sitting around a table at a buddy’s house playing D&D. At the best of times, that means exciting questlines, unexpected plot twists, and high adventure. At the worst of times, dialogue is peppered with numerous Monty Python references and out-of-character moments like a fighter who says “chi-chi-chi-chia” every time I give him orders.
Baldur’s Gate II does a much better job with banter, giving companions interesting things to say to one another and providing great moments of character-building. It’s not that companions in the first game aren’t interesting, but their repetitive and inane utterances get annoying fairly quickly. Just be patient and get through it, and things will get better in II, I promise.
Baldur’s Gate regulates difficulty well. One can switch effortlessly to lower levels of challenge, which is nice when a particular fight seems too tough, or if players want to enjoy the lore more casually. I’ve found the default difficulty to offer a fair challenge, but I’ve needed to adjust on the fly a few times, especially when I wanted to advance a sidequest.
Modern gamers may have trouble understanding why these titles were so popular back in the day, especially since they’re missing so many quality-of-life features that modern titles sport. However, any RPG fan owes it to themselves to at least try what Baldur’s Gate has to offer. The rich lore, memorable companions, and simply ridiculous amount to do, see, and experience makes it a must-play, especially for console gamers who never having had the chance to play it on PC.