Only a fool would say that Baldur’s Gate 3 is anything less than a triumph. Made by an independent developer, largely under the shadow of Covid, the fact that it exists at all is somewhat of an anomaly in today’s gaming landscape. The game contains no battle passes, no in-app purchases, and no subscription. You buy the game, you play the game. That’s it.

For me, that meant somewhere in the ballpark of 185 excellent hours roleplaying entertainment. To be accurate, about 35 of those were spent on my initial character, with whom I made some irreversible and ill-informed choices. As the end of Act 1 approached, I knew the full experience would be long and that those early choices would not be ones I could live with for the entirety of the game. I needed a fresh start. So I began again, immediately discovering hours of quests, dungeons, and secrets in Act 1 that I hadn’t seen at all on my first try. This second character and I lived out the remainder of the adventure.

And what an adventure it was.


By this point, I’ll assume that most readers will have watched the pre-rendered trailer that opens the game. If not, go ahead and do so now.

I’ll wait.

You’ve been “tadpoled.” That’s the premise. For a bit more background, you and your party have been implanted with Illithid larvae and must get the squirmy little bastards out of your skulls posthaste, before you become part of the squid-faced hive-intelligence known colloquially as mind flayers. Of course, this task is easier said than done, and almost immediately you discover that your gray-matter stowaway grants you some fairly powerful advantages alongside its dangers.

After that, the real story begins. That is, you interact with anyone who will talk to you and not kill you on sight (a surprisingly low percentage of folks in my play through) and gather quests, learn about the world and its conflicts, and gain insights into the larger forces at work and how they relate to your parasite. It is through these interactions that Baldur’s Gate finds its superpower: every single line from every character (and there must be hundreds) is voiced. And all of your efforts to gain information from them is governed by the familiar (to DnD players) roll of the twenty-sided die.

If you can adhere to the rules (and resist reloading a save because a conversation didn’t go your way) the reward is exceedingly compelling. People live or die, help or refuse, and so much more based on your conversations and accompanying rolls. The process deftly channels the tabletop experience in ways that make the characters feel more real and your decisions more impactful, even (or especially) when they fail.

The magic of this storytelling method grows as you proceed through the plot and inevitably re-encounter NPCs you’ve gotten to know earlier, or if/when terrible things happen to them. The efforts you make to persuade or deceive the people of the game’s world adds texture that simple scripted cutscenes often do not. At one point I remember telling a friend that I could happily play an entire game built around Baldur’s Gate’s conversation system. When it’s at its best, it’s that good.

Stop, Drop, and Roll

While rolling dice for conversations and affecting the story through dialogue works brilliantly, again especially if you can commit to letting the dice decide, in combat, the purist commitment to the rules of DnD doesn’t do Baldur’s Gate any favors. Time and again, all the way to the final moments of the game, I found the combat frustrating largely because of the tension between limited spell (or ability) resources and total failures or misses.

In addition, and possibly more interestingly, the game seems desperate for players to use environmental hazards to their advantage, but these are difficult to access due to one of the game’s many idiosyncrasies, the camera. Using mouse and keyboard (I played on PC) is frustratingly difficult to target anything above the plane upon which your currently selected character stands. Numerous times, it was only after combat had ended that I found a chandelier or brazier that might have been useful in one of the incredibly common fights in which your party is not simply outnumbered, but vastly outnumbered.

Alongside these difficulties, Baldur’s Gate’s tendency to force players into using the environment meant that the only possible solution given the xp advancement I had access to at that point in the game was to precisely position my characters so that they could simultaneously blanket an area in grease or other flammable substance and light it.

I found this, as well as the limited ability resources, to be extremely unsatisfying. After some consideration, my conclusion is that DnD and videogames in general are power fantasies at heart, stories of heroes daringly defeating powers that stand in their way using supernatural or preternatural abilities, be they writ large or small, physical, magical, or intellectual, and bombing a roomful of cultists with liquid lard and gunpowder feels untrue to the character classes present in my party, or (other than the rogue) those available in the game at all.

Too often, my characters’ “superpowers” were inaccessible in combat. A monk should be able to find a way to punch and deflect a path through the game. A wizard or sorcerer should be able to rely on their innate magic (without resorting to hoarding scrolls, which feels like a cheap exploit). A barbarian should be able to maintain a rage, dropping it only in rare situations where losing it presents an interesting tension. And so on.

All that being said, Baldur’s Gate does about as good a job as it could have in trying to make a videogame feel as much like its tabletop sibling as possible. You also get everything that goes with it, and none of the fun of laughing along with a tableful of friends about your critical that resulted in the devastating impact of 3 damage!

I’d really like to play a Larian game without their prized “surface coating” technology. Electrified pools of water, clouds of steam, puddles of poison, cursed patches of fiery embers, the list goes on and on. Baldur’s Gate tones this down massively from Divinity: Original Sin 2, Larian’s previous game, and thank the gods for that, but I’d happily toggle that feature off completely.

The Friends we ____ Along the Way

By now you likely already know that you can pursue romantic attachments in this game. Are you a guy who wants to romance the burly bear druid? Go for it. Are you an elven woman who’s got a thing for the charming wizard and the if-barbed-wire-were-a-personality Githyanki? Let fly your deepest desires, and clothing. The options are… extensive.

Though it wouldn’t necessarily be my choice of words, I’ve seen Baldur’s Gate described as “horny” and that is indeed about as accurate as can be. The game’s various characters, major and minor, will make it very clear that they are open to and sometimes even outright thirsting for romance. Some can come on pretty strong, and will do so at unexpected moments, or without you consciously attempting to pursue them at all.

It was an experience that I don’t know if I’ve seen in any other game. Sure, many games allow the player to pursue a romantic relationship (often with sex being a sort of “achievement unlocked” end point) but none that I can recall have the player thwarting advances on so many fronts, entirely uninitiated from the player’s side. And yes, there are plenty of games that have an enemy attempt to seduce the player, who must then resist the temptation or who does so automatically through linear cutscenes. But it does not hit the same as having a character in whom you have no interest, and have had relatively little contact with at all, straightforwardly proposition you for… intimate affection.

Perhaps there is some real world lesson to be learned, a tiny innocuous taste of what women experience in the real world every day. An article for another time, I suppose.

Regardless, the romantic entanglements of Baldur’s Gate (me a monk, a drow woman, her a Shadowheart) are compelling beyond the usual gamified version of this sort of connection, and though sex is an element of these relationships, should the player choose to indulge, the relationships continue beyond those moments, altering the dialogue of the player’s chosen partner and the options available for conversation.

As a person who unabashedly loves love, I’d have spent even more time shipping the rest of the campsite, given the option. Maybe an idea for an eventual expansion or sequel?

A Deck of Many Things

Baldur’s Gate has heart and drips with careful attention to detail. Whether it’s in the faithful adherence to DnD 5e, the character stories and personalities, the romances, the rich environments, stacks upon stacks of in-game books, letters, pamphlets, and more, anyone with any sense of artistry will recognize the work Larian has done (and through numerous meaningful patches and updates, continues to do).

However, the technical foundations upon which all of these systems are built seem to have been stretched to their limits, and frequently the cracks can’t help but show through.

  • Mouse clicks are often unregistered, or if registered don’t select the object that has been clicked. This happens with character portraits, inventory items, spells, and environmental controls.
  • The camera is both too free and too constrained. I liked to place the camera close to my selected character for a more immersive perspective, but various triggers reset that perspective, such as dialogues, combat, or moving between environments. Some degree of vertical pitch control would alleviate many issues, even if full camera control would break the illusion.
  • As far as I can tell, you cannot pause the game, an understandable design choice if you’re making “opinionated software” like Elden Ring for instance, but less so in a single-player CRPG. My goto was to wait for a dialogue and leave the game at the response selection. Of course, the lack of pause makes more sense in the multi-player mode.
  • Full body motion capture and animation is, to be kind, low-fidelity. Characters look and move like action figures or dolls to a degree that some scenes, especially romantic ones become outright uncomfortable. Even seemingly simple situations like a character lifting and examining an object have awkwardly bent elbows and robotic movements.
  • Audio mixing is all over the place: birds shrieking out of nowhere as if they are perched on your character’s shoulder, chittering squirrels that pierce to the bone, ambient NPC conversations that loudly reoccur what seems like every five seconds, a child hitting a practice dummy (repeatedly) with the force of a car crash as you walk down the crowded street some fifteen feet away. And all this despite numerous sliders to control some, but of course not all, of these sounds.

Please, do not read the above list as damning criticism or harsh critique. I am not a game developer, but it is clear that enormous amounts of time, effort, and talent went into the many layers of this game. But, most of the discussion around it simply omits or downplays these oddities, all of which are present in nearly every hour, or even every few minutes of gameplay. Anything with heart also has soul, and souls are imperfect, but those imperfections only make our love for them more complex and powerful.

A Glass of Icewater in Avernus

Look. The truth is that the games industry, and its modern monetization is predatory, corruptive, and unsustainable. So, it goes a long way for a game like Baldur’s Gate 3 to simply not participate in that culture. How far does it go? Was it enough to seal the win for numerous game of the year awards? Probably. But games companies need to see this, need to know that a (primarily) single-player game that includes all of the necessary storyline, character arcs, weapons and armors sets, and everything else not only can sell, but can sell big and win big in both the minds of awards organizations as well as the players themselves. And, it can do it for a single price, paid up front.

Despite its many quirks, bugs, and other weirdnesses, Baldur’s Gate 3 accomplishes this legendary feat. Even with -1 modifiers to things like UI reliability, full-body motion capture, audio engineering (Why is that damned squirrel so loud?)—and pandemic disadvantage—Larian manages to roll a nat 20 anyway. And just like those unbelievable moments at your tabletop, it happened when the party (players as well as developers) needed it most.