Title: Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition: Siege of Dragonspear
Release Date: March 31, 2016
Time Played: 30 hours
Concept and Execution
When Beamdog successfully negotiated a contract to remake the classic RPGs Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn back in 2012, they were undertaking something very big, and very dangerous. Published in 1998, the original Baldur’s Gate is the very definition of a much loved classic game, and of course gamers are always open and accepting of remakes of classic games. Kidding aside, the remake of Baldur’s Gate were met with cautious optimism from most of the community and was received with very positive reviews and they repeated the feat several months later with Baldur’s Gate II Enhanced Edition. With the previous games polished up and made to play nice with modern machines, Beamdog set its sights on adding its own chapter to the Baldur’s Gate legacy.
Billed as an expansion pack to Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition: Siege of Dragonspear (hereafter referred to as SoD) aims to bridge the gap between how the protagonist goes from the Hero of Baldur’s Gate at the end of the first game to locked in a dungeon in a different country in the second. This was an interesting idea with a lot of potential, but it also severely limited the creative team which were required to craft the adventure in such a way that nothing that happened in it affected anything that happens in Shadows of Amn. This is where SoD runs into its first real roadblock. Because the game is both a sequel and a prequel to games decades old, it is a safe assumption that most players have played both Baldur’s Gate and Shadows of Amn and therefore know that, whatever happens in SoD, whatever they do, whatever cool loot they collect, whatever choices they make, at the end of the day they are going to end up in the same dungeon when they import into Shadows of Amn. This takes away most, if not all, of the weight given to decisions you make when you constantly have the thought “this isn’t going to matter” hanging in your head.
By itself, “this isn’t going to effect the next game” isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. After all, when it really comes down to it even games like Dragon Age Inquisition, which boasts a game world affected by choices made in both previous Dragon Age games doesn’t really have its main story effected by any of those choices. Choices made in previous games add easter eggs and flavor texts, but don’t usually change much in terms of the main narrative. An interesting and engaging game with good writing can easily pull a player into its narrative, even if they know in the end everything is going to work out just fine. Unfortunately, Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is not an interesting and engaging game with good writing.
It would be remiss to attempt to review SoD without addressing the controversy that cropped up just hours after its initial launch. One of the largest aspects of which first appears early in the game when the PC meets an NPC named Mizhena, who is a priestess in the army they are traveling with. Through a dialogue tree beginning with asking Mizhena about her “unique name” the player learns the she was born a boy and later realized she was a woman and so she made a new name. I hesitate to make my next statement because it makes me feel like I’m agreeing with the people who hate Mizhena because she is a transgender character, the kind of people who use terms like ‘SJW’ and ‘feminist agenda’ like Joe McCarthy used ‘communist’, but Mizhena is a bad character. Her dialogue tree is clunky, only giving the PC options to respond in a positive manner to her, which makes her stand out in a game where evil character’s are given the option to murder children for the fun of it. In forcing a positive reaction to Mizhena, the writing separates her from other NPCs as someone who needs to be protected and sheltered. That’s the last of Mizhena the player will see unless you need to purchase healing services from her, until later in the game where she devolves from a token transgender character to a bad stereotype of…I don’t even know, but I’ve never heard, read, or seen someone yell at someone else to go suckle from their mother’s teat twice in the same conversation so I have to assume it’s a poor attempt to by funny or maybe a reference I’m just not getting. Either way, it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing an actual person would ever say. The other thing that was a large focus of the backlash was a remark by one NPC taking a jab the 2014 GamerGate controversy, however the remark was removed by Beamdog before I ever heard it because they agreed with consumers stating that it didn’t fit with the NPC’s character.
The thing I understand the least about all the focus on Mizhena is that there are so many other examples of bad writing to choose from that it seems problematic to focus on just one. The player, who has the option to be an evil terrible person at every twist and turn in the previous games, is only given supportive remarks toward refugees in the game most of the time. There is an encounter with a pair of adolescent Drow that left me convinced the writer never actually read anything about the canon of Drow society within the game world. Not in a ‘every Drow must act the same’ kind of way because that is just dumb, but in a ‘no Drow with this kind of attitude would survive past childhood’ kind of way. There is an encounter with a pair of young, let’s call them ‘lovers’, that seems to be an attempt to be poking fun at the traditional young star-crossed lovers cliché, but it does so in a way that is so unaware of itself that it comes off as being intended to be taken seriously. The entire plot line of the game is so cliché and predictable that I made a joking prediction after seeing the main antagonist and her followers for the first time, and ended up being almost completely right. I say almost because after I finally finished the painfully generic ‘final fight’ I was presented with a series of events that, had I actually been invested in the story instead of just wanting for it to reach if inevitable conclusion, might have been emotional and meaningful. Instead, the entire sequence seems to serve little purpose other than pull the rug out from under the main character, force them down a path without any say over what they actually do, and then make extra super sure to drive in the point that literally everything that I just did over the last 25+ hours was completely meaningless.
One place where SoD does shine is in some of the new companion NPCs introduced with the expansion. Of the four new NPCs, I brought two with me for pretty much the entire game, and I have to say that they were both quite wonderful. So much so that I wonder if the same people wrote them as did the rest of the game. Unfortunately, not everything with the companions come off so well. When one of the new companions named Voghiln introduced himself in a passable, but not good, German-ish accent I was worried and sure enough, after having him in my part for about five minutes I got tired of the heavy drinking Viking caricature that made up his entire character and traded him in for someone else. There are also times that interactions between the player and their companions don’t make any sense, with characters reacting extremely strongly or strangely to seemingly innocent statements without any explanation or extenuating circumstances. This is so prevalent in areas that during my playthrough I somehow managed to miss the romance option with the character I was shooting for while accidently romancing another.
As a DLC SoD definitely delivers for its $19.99 price tag. I put over 30 hours of play into this game and I know for a fact that, despite my best efforts to poke my nose into every nook and cranny I could find, there are things that I missed. Plus, the usual plethora of companions expected in a Baldur’s Gate game means that there are probably hundreds of interactions and interjections that I missed by not having a particular companion or combination of companions in my part at a particular time. Despite the bad parts of the game, SoD does still feel like a Baldur’s Gate game, if not a particularly good one, and that’s saying a lot since there have been other extremely similar games that tried to capture that feeling in the past and failed miserably.
As of the writing of this review Beamdog have stated that they are planning on rewriting several of the more problematic aspects mentioned above, including Mizhena.
Concept and Execution: 8/25
The mechanics of SoD will be incredibly familiar to anybody who had played any Baldur’s Gate game before. Based off the AD&D tabletop rulese,t SoD gives you a party of six characters with different abilities granted by their class to help you advance through the game. Highlighting characters and clicking allows everything from directing movement, who each character attacks in combat, to interacting with object in the world. SoD did add several nice additions to the UI as well like highlight character portraits when an inventory object that could benefited them is selected. Health bars were also added to both friendly and hostile NPCs, which can be good or bad. Some people will love the convenience that it offers, and for those who hate it for breaking immersion, they are disableable in the options, so in the end everybody should be happy. Weather effects and sprite outlines were also added which can thankfully be disabled, mostly because as a veteran Baldur’s Gate player the outlines sprites looked wrong to me, but that is a personal aesthetic preference.
All character options are housed on a bar at the bottom of the screen which change the cursor when clicked to cause a predefined action. Clicking the magic icon followed by the spell the player wishes to cast will turn to cursor into a crescent moon and stars that, when used to click a target will cast the spell at that creature or location. The thievery mask actives the thievery cursor which can be used for picking locks or pockets. Every class has unique abilities that are detailed in their description that are activated from the control bar, and any ability not on the main bar is accessed by hitting the button on the far right which will open up a menu of every ability the character possess that isn’t on the main bar.
SoD maintains some of the more irritating quirks of the controls from previous games like characters getting stuck on one another of being unable to pick a path to take to a location through moving NPCs (A particular irritating quirk in the beginning of the game for reasons that become quite obvious), but on the whole the controls work as intended. Veteran Baldur’s Gate players will feel right at home and new converts should be able to pick it up within a few seconds.
Siege of Dragonspear is a bit of a roller coaster. From an aesthetic point of view the game is the same as the Baldur’s Gate and Shadows of Amn. That is to say that the backgrounds are pretty and well-drawn with a kind of painted look, and the camera is kept far enough away from them that you never get too close a look at the textures. The paper dolls of the NPCs have been spruced up a bit even beyond the optional smoothing and some new terrain has been added for the new areas which is nice.
The voice acting in the expansion is incredibly hit or miss. Some characters have truly great voices; there is a military commander for example that has a deep commanding voice that has you ready to give a salute and a ‘yes sir’ after every conversation. On the flip side, there is one character that literally sounds like the director told the actor to do their best stereotypical teenage girl voice and then went with the first take. Fortunately, most of the more horrific voice work is for NPCs that are only around occasionally, with the notable exception for me being Voghiln who i mentioned earlier.
Quite possibly the worst way in which SoD fails is in the atmosphere of the main narrative. The previous instalments of the series had wide fleshed out worlds that encouraged the player to explore them for the pure thrill of discovery. The first Baldur’s Gate literally drops the player in the wilderness and says ‘go explore stuff’ until the player inevitably stumbles onto the main plotline which, having discovered it for yourself, then becomes your quest, not because you are told to go solve it, but because you want to. Shadows of Amn sees the player escaping torture by an enemy who then essentially kidnaps a party member and now the player has to go adventure until they’ve saved up enough money to bribe their way onto their enemies trail. In contrast to both of these, SoD sees the player sent on a mission, by nobles who are often dismissive bordering on just plain rude, to stop a vaguely defined enemy who may not even actually be a ‘bad’ guy. On this journey, instead of the open exportable work, the player is forced into two or three areas which will become inaccessible when you advance to the next chapter of the story, so don’t you dare miss anything because you’re not coming back. This comes together to create an experience where instead of exploring the world in order to solve a mystery with hints at being connected to you, the main character is railroaded down a set path waiting for the other shoe, which can be clearly seen hovering just off in the distance, to drop so you can get on with this already. With an enemy that has no real connection to the protagonist except the one that other’s force onto you posing a threat that isn’t really a threat to you at all, the game makes the entire campaign feel less like an epic adventure to save your small portion of the world and more like your parents telling you to stop for bread and eggs on the way home from school. Even the dragon fight that is forced into the game despite there being no reason, build up, or pay off to it, is aggravating and pathetic when compared to any of the other dragon fights in the series.
Most of the entertainment value that I found in SoD came from the companion NPCs. There were many times when a comment or interjection from them had me laughing out loud, and I love any game that manages to do that as regularly as SoD did. Unfortunately, the humor wasn’t enough to make up for the writing and atmosphere for me. Those factors combined with the theme of the combat which seemed to be ‘more monsters = more challenge’ made for a thoroughly unenjoyable play through. The very first encounter in the game sees your party outnumbered seven to six against enemies that are harder to hit and who hit harder than enemies on the normal difficulty ever did in previous games. This quickly lead to me adding as many mage characters as I could get (including my player character) into my party and outfitting my single melee fighter with as much fire protection gear as possible. From then on out it was charge the fighter in to round up the enemies and rain down fireballs from the mages until they were all dead, heal the fighter and move on to the next group. If I ran out of fireballs for the day then it was time to rest. I made a party of melee focused characters just for testing, and I found that I regularly lost two or three party members against the first combat in the game, even when employing actual strategy like taking out the mage first and not letting the archers just fire freely at my party. All this was on the “core rules” difficulty setting; I can’t imagine what it would be like on the higher difficulties.
After being confronted with a fight that was literally impossible because of the class I chose near the end of the game I had simply turned on the ‘story mode’ which is essentially god mode so that I could get through to the end of the game already. I can’t quite say that I regret the time that I put into the game, but I can say that the next time I get the urge to play through the series for the umpteenth time, I’m pretty sure I will be skipping the Inbetweenqual Siege of Dragonspear.
Entertainment Value: 11/25