I know the last few years have been rough for a variety of reasons, but one of the few indicators that we’re not quite living in the darkest timeline was last year’s announcement that Baldur’s Gate would be resurrected by none other than Larian Studios. Their recent work on Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel – two of my favorite games – has made them, to my mind, the most qualified team to inherit the long-dormant series. I was recently invited to Manhattan for a first look at Baldur’s Gate III, and based on what I saw, the pairing seems to be every bit as perfect as I’d hoped.

Since Baldur’s Gate III is still deep in development, the build I saw was understandably unstable – even lacking a working save feature – and I assume this influenced Larian’s decision to keep the preview hands-off. Instead, the group in attendance watched one of the developers play through a few hours of the campaign, providing a tour of its systems.

The production values have been considerably upgraded from Larian’s previous games, evidenced by both the cinematic camera angles during in-game conversations and the impressive pre-rendered cutscenes that promise to set the larger stage. The opening sequence makes good on the teaser trailer’s promise of a mind flayer invasion, as a nautiloid – an enormous squid-like barge – swoops over the city of Baldur’s Gate, abducting its inhabitants. Inside the ship, the illithids prepare their prisoners for assimilation by placing tadpoles into their eye sockets.

The nautiloid comes under attack by what appear to be several githyanki riding dragons who give chase through a couple of portals and ultimately destroy the ship. A few surviving captives (our protagonist among them) wake up among the burning wreckage. Although free, the tadpoles are still in their brains, and thus their ceremorphosis – the weeklong transformation into mind flayers themselves – is already underway.

Although a full character creator is available, Baldur’s Gate III will also feature optional origin stories that offer differing content for each prebuilt protagonist. In the demo I saw, the presenter played as Astarion, a vampire spawn who saw the bodies strewn about the wreckage and casually remarked that it was a “waste of good blood.” He was suddenly able to walk around in broad daylight without bursting into flames, which he attributed to the tadpole in his skull. As it happens, the illithid transformation will grant our hero a number of powerful abilities, and one of the running questions throughout the campaign will be whether to reject or embrace the process.

After Astarion teamed up with a fellow survivor – a cleric named Shadowheart – the two fought through a group of intellect devourers, which gave us a look at the combat.

The last proper Baldur’s Gate title released two decades ago, and the Infinity Engine hasn’t exactly aged gracefully in that time. One of the big questions hanging over this revival was whether Larian would stay completely faithful to the series’ roots – as Obsidian did with their own spiritual follow-up, Pillars of Eternity – or whether they’d update it with some of the modern sensibilities of Original Sin. I’m glad to report that they’ve opted for the latter, and it’s most evident in the fact that Baldur’s Gate III will offer turn-based combat, which the team has demonstrated to be a far better fit than the messy “real-time with pause” solution offered by the CRPGs of old.

The first battle looked immediately reminiscent of Original Sin – characters could perform multiple movements and actions within a turn, high ground provided a tactical advantage, and familiar environmental effects made a return, first evidenced when the presenter lit his bow in a nearby fire and used it to ignite a pool of combustible alien fluid. Although the preview didn’t provide an in-depth exploration of the numbers dictating the results, Larian has already confirmed that Baldur’s Gate III will be running on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition ruleset. Visible d20 rolls occurred during dialogue skill checks.

An interesting twist is that the turn-based engine can also be toggled outside of combat for easier navigation through stealth scenarios or puzzles. In a later area, retrieving a key item from a tomb triggered a Saw-like trap in which the chamber flooded with flammable grease and flaming arrows shot repeatedly across the room. Rather than attempt to manually maneuver past the paths of the arrows, the presenter switched to the turn-based mode, thus allowing him to count the specific number of steps his character could take between arrow shots.

Something that came across over the course of the demo was how open Baldur’s Gate III would be to experimentation, maintaining the Original Sin tradition of providing numerous solutions to any given problem. During one battle when the presenter needed to attack an enemy but couldn’t get his character within melee range, he removed his boots and threw them at the target, dealing damage but leaving him with less armor. In a similar situation, one party member needed healing, but the only nearby hero couldn’t get close enough to deliver a potion by hand. Instead, he threw the potion at her and the health recovery canceled out the damage from taking a flask to the face.

BGIII’s usage of 3D space was also noteworthy. That feels like a weird thing to say in 2020, but this is a subgenre that’s traditionally been confined to pre-rendered environments. Here, high ground can make characters both less visible and more difficult to attack, and in the demo, Astarion had a telepathic “mage hand” that could be used to manipulate physics-based objects, often stacking them on top of each other to create platforms to higher levels. During the climactic encounter of the preview, Astarion climbed up to the rafters above the arena while most of the party fought head-on, staying unseen until an opportunity arose to perform a lunging attack.

While Larian appears to be making all of the right decisions with Baldur’s Gate III, I do have one big, nagging concern.

I mentioned that the build we were shown was extremely buggy, which is totally understandable given how early in development Baldur’s Gate III still is. However, it reminds me of the lone criticism I had with Original Sin II, which was otherwise quite possibly the best RPG I’ve ever played – it was janky as hell. While much of it was negligible, there was a recurring issue where numerous side quests couldn’t even be completed. Review codes famously went out only a day ahead of launch, reportedly because the team was still tightening the screws right up until the end, and even then, the final product felt extremely unpolished.

Obviously, I don’t think the unstable nature of the demo we were shown is in any way representative of what the finished game will look like, but since Baldur’s Gate III is clearly shaping up to be Larian’s biggest and most ambitious project to date, I’m wondering whether the team can handle the technical portion of it, given their track record. My only hope is that they take as much time as they need, because the ingredients are absolutely here for this to be the greatest CRPG of all time.

We’ll get a better look at Baldur’s Gate III when it comes to early access later this year. Based on what I saw at the event, it’s currently my most anticipated upcoming release.

Disclosure: Travel and lodging for the event were provided by Baldur’s Gate III PR.

Mike Suskie
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