At the core of fantasy is the promise that adventure is always around the corner, that imagination is the most powerful force, that anything is possible. The game Baldur’s Gate 3 promises something too: to put the power of fantasy at one’s fingertips. The developers at Larian Studios have promised something long thought impossible and delivered.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a video game adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game system that’s dominated fantasy gaming for nearly 50 years. Designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and first published in 1974 as an offshoot of tactical wargames, D&D has become an iconic franchise that’s broken into the mainstream with “actual play” shows like Critical Role and big-budget films like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Baldur’s Gate 3 draws upon decades of gaming pedigree while adapting to modern tastes – a tall ask even for a large, well-funded studio like Larian.
The first big highlight of the game is its character creator. I take special joy in customizing the appearances of my characters in games, and Baldur’s Gate 3 fantasy fashion studio is fully stocked. With an array of facial sculpts, body types, voices, piercings, tattoos, scars and hairstyles to choose from, players can visualize their character in crystal-clear detail. The character creation process is meticulously devised with choice in mind, allowing players to select from 11 races, 12 classes and 12 backgrounds that form the mechanical base for their adventurer, developing them alongside the many cosmetic options.
With such an enormous field of possibilities suddenly becoming available not even five minutes into the game, players who aren’t familiar with Dungeons & Dragons or role-playing might find themselves overwhelmed. I’m an RPG aficionado and even I found myself reeling at the prospect of selecting spells for my elf wizard character Cagliostro, let alone what hairstyle he would have. For my second character, the dwarf bard Chirada, I spent nearly 90 minutes agonizing over what shade of red her hair would be and what kind of tattoo she would have. Baldur’s Gate 3’s character creator is perhaps the best way to visualize a D&D character short of commissioning an artist to do a custom piece.
The relative tranquility of character creation quickly gives way to sheer chaos as gameplay begins. Players start the game as a captive of mind flayers, a race of hyper-intelligent cephalopod-like beings with a taste for brains. Stranger Things fans might recognize them in spirit, if not in appearance. A mind flayer tadpole – a toothsome, wriggling parasite – crawls into the player character’s cranium, threatening to turn them into a mind flayer at any moment. The flying ship on which they are held prisoner crashes into the wilderness of Faerûn, the D&D setting where the game takes place, and players are left to pick up the pieces and venture off into the unknown. It’s a gruesome, sinister opening that marks the beginning of a desperate fight for survival on borrowed time.
Luckily, players won’t be alone on their journey. Players soon meet others who’ve been infected with tadpoles, deciding to band together, perhaps not yet out of friendship, but mutual convenience. These companion characters are the true stars of Baldur’s Gate 3, bringing with them powerful personalities, humor and their own stories that players can interact with and influence. Standout characters that players will meet early on include Astarion, a charismatic elf with a sanguine secret; Shadowheart, a cleric devoted to a dark goddess; and Gale, a human wizard with a voracious appetite for magical artifacts.
Players can have up to three companion characters in their traveling retinue at a time, with each being individually controllable in the game world and in combat. Each companion is fully voiced with talented voice actors bringing them to life, both through crisply written and performed dialog and buttery-smooth motion-capture movements. Once again, the attention to detail proves to be in the game’s favor as characters pop from the screen with their unique mannerisms and expressions. I quickly found myself getting attached to these characters, working tirelessly for their approval and eventual affection as my character and theirs grew through mutual hardship.
Hardship, indeed. Baldur’s Gate 3 definitely doesn’t pull many punches regarding difficulty. When characters aren’t exploring or talking, they are probably fighting. Baldur’s Gate 3 uses the same turn-based combat system as Dungeons & Dragons, putting combatants into an initiative order and having them act in sequence. Generally, characters get one action, like attacking, one bonus action, such as drinking a potion and one opportunity to move.
The game sorts these actions into a cramped user interface at the bottom of the screen, separating them into small icons that can be selected to perform the appropriate action. Early on, this isn’t so complicated, but as characters get more powerful and gain more options, clarity is lost as the interface gets increasingly crowded. Until then, though, Baldur’s Gate 3 is perfectly comfortable with kicking players’ butts. Generally, the odds are stacked against players frequently outnumbered in absurdly lopsided encounters. One fight toward the middle of the game had my four-person party up against a force that outnumbered them five to one. Combat doesn’t take place on static battlefields, either, allowing both sides to use the environment to their advantage by shoving characters off cliffs, setting fire to flammable puddles or simply taking advantage of high ground to rain death from above. This high level of environmental reactivity opens up a world of possibility rarely seen in gaming. Matt Mercer, a prominent voice actor and star of D&D actual play show Critical Role, went viral when a clip of him scaling a castle wall by stacking over 40 crates on top of one another and climbing them appeared on X, formerly Twitter.
The game lets players get away with so much, to both their advantage and detriment. One harrowing example of the game’s refusal to put on the guardrails during my own campaign is when I sold a vital quest item to a vendor long before I learned of its importance. Later on, I tracked them down and re-purchased the item, at a hefty markup, of course. Baldur’s Gate 3 fosters creativity and irresponsibility in equal measure.
To sum up: choice-based gameplay + loveable characters + cinematic storytelling equals a great RPG. Simple arithmetic, yet Baldur’s Gate 3 is greater than the sum of its parts. What Baldur’s Gate 3 delivers is the sense of adventure that many RPGs try to replicate but few successfully do. Not only does the game masterfully paint the broad strokes of a fantasy epic, but it also delivers finer, human stories that form the core of its emotional storytelling. Yes, the primary quest to save the world from encroaching evil was a consistently compelling plot, but I regularly found myself captivated by the stories of my companions who, over the course of nearly a hundred hours, I’d come to know and love better than nearly any other set of fictional characters I’ve ever known. Baldur’s Gate 3 breathes dragon fire when it wishes to, but the game’s best moments are those when the warmth of its characters radiate through the screen, through my fingers on the keyboard and into my very soul.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Larian Studios