Okay, yes, this is a pretty late review of Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition ($9.99). The game initially released on iPad about a year ago, and we didn’t do a write-up of it for various reasons. There are plenty of reviews of the original Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows Of Amn out there, and given the existence of the first game’s Enhanced Edition, we sort of assumed there wasn’t much demand for one of our own. With the game’s recent update that moves it to being a universal app, we’ve had a lot of requests from readers for a review of the game. Well, I guess we had that one wrong, but nobody’s perfect, right? With that explanation out of the way, let’s break down this port of one of the all-time greats of the genre.
The original Baldur’s Gate ($9.99) was part of a small handful of RPGs released in the late 1990s in what is retrospectively considered a renaissance period for CRPGs. The game simultaneously bolstered both the PC format and Western RPGs against extremely heavy competition from consoles and the JRPGs that seemed overwhelmingly popular at the time. Incredibly, the developers behind the game were relative rookies, though perhaps that was just what a genre that had been largely populated, and nearly devastated, by complacent kings of the early computer gaming era. Bioware had followed it up with a solid, if not terribly exciting, expansion several months later, but there was no way of knowing if they had simply caught lightning in a bottle or were going to on to greater things. Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows Of Amn drove home a point that most gamers of today know very well: Bioware was going to be a major player in the RPG genre for the foreseeable future.
Grab any pack of RPG fans and you’ll likely be able to get a good argument going about Bioware’s merits, successes, failures, if and where they peaked, and so on. There are many who feel the developer hit their high point with the Mass Effect series, some who cherish Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic ($9.99), and others who think the developer turned their back on the fans that brought them to the dance almost immediately after Throne Of Bhaal, the expansion to Baldur’s Gate 2, was released in 2001. The disagreements are plentiful when it comes to Bioware, but the one thing most will agree on is that Baldur’s Gate 2 was an outstanding sequel and one of the best games the developer has ever created. Their stated goal was to make a game better than the original Baldur’s Gate in every way. By most accounts, they succeeded.
The game basically picks up where the first one left off, but in a fairly clever way for those who missed the original story. You play the hero from the first game, who you can once again design to your specifications or select from a few default builds. The original story was essentially wrapped up, with the hero discovering they were one of the descendents of the slain god Bhaal, the Lord of Murder, and thwarting the plot of the wicked Bhaalspawn Sarevok, who sought to claim the dead god’s title for his own. Having rid the Western Heartlands of this menace, the hero and his companions set off on a new journey, only to have the lot of them get smacked over the head with socks full of quarters. Or something. The point is, you and your friends have been captured, tossed in a dungeon, and are being experimented on by an evil wizard. Some of them have not survived the torture, while other have made it through with scars left inside and out. For your part, you seem to have a bit of a spotty memory from the whole mess, and naturally, you’ve been relieved of all of your awesome gear. This plot device gives the game an excuse for you to not know who your companions are, should you be new to the series.
Initially, it’s all about escaping your current situation, and this is the worst part of the game by far. It’s sort of meant as a tutorial, but it’s a bit too long, not very exciting, and actually makes very little effort to teach you anything. Luckily, once you suffer through it, there’s a great big world rich with possibilities waiting for you. Your goal is to find out what that evil wizard was up to, and the pursuit of that will take you on a lot of adventures. The original Baldur’s Gate 2 is easily a 100+ hour game. The Enhanced Edition not only includes the 30+ hour expansion, but also adds new characters that you can buy a la carte, each with their own new locations and quests. Unlike the original game’s Enhanced Edition, the new content here is actually pretty good, though the passing decade of time and change of writers means the text doesn’t always seamlessly flow from the original writing. There’s also an improved version of the arena battle mode from the first Enhanced Edition, if for some reason you ever wanted to just fight a bunch of Infinity Engine battles without much story, but really hate the idea of playing Icewind Dale ($9.99).
To their credit, Overhaul Games did a much better job this time around than they did with the original game. The new content feels more properly fleshed out, and there are fewer bugs on the whole. Which is not to say Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is bug-free. Even after its first patch, which took over a year to release, the game still has a lot of little issues. Post-patch, there is at least nothing game-breaking that I could find. The truth is that this is such a huge game with so many dangly bits that it was probably a real nightmare to recode and add content to without the whole thing collapsing on itself. That’s not an excuse, more a means of understanding. On the positive side of things, the graphics look fantastic in their new higher resolution, and the user interface is smartly-designed for touch controls. It plays very well on the iPad, though some of the original problems still exist. Your characters will sometimes interpret your instructions in the most intriguing ways, pathfinding the longest possible way to that monster on the other side of the room. It doesn’t help that this game makes extensive use of tight quarters in its dungeons, making setting up your battle formation a comedy of errors at the best of times.
The problems only get worse if you’re playing on anything but the largest iPhone. Sadly, this game has the same hilarious bug the original game does, where you can minimize important parts of the UI right off the screen, with the tab to bring them back virtually unreachable without pulling off some arcane wizardry in your device settings. It also suffers from the possibly unsolvable problem of cramming an awful lot of buttons and information onto a very small screen. You can zoom in and out, which helps a lot, and you can also increase the size of the text, though that sometimes breaks things. These things mitigate the problems to an extent, but you’re still having to poke around in very detailed locations where a wrong step can have disastrous results. You can zoom in, but that sacrifices your wider view, and that can be fatal. So, while you can play this game on your iPhone, unless you’re sporting a beefy 6 or 6 Plus, you probably shouldn’t. The iPad is the clear way to go here.
If you’re coming to this game for the first time and you’re wondering what all the fuss is, let me fill you in. Baldur’s Gate 2 is more or less the ultimate CRPG. It sits perfectly on the razor’s edge between the older, complex, gameplay-driven RPGs of the 1980s and early 1990s and the modern, streamlined, story-driven RPGs of today. It has an awesome story with plenty of choices for how you interact with other characters. Sure, most of the time it’s the usual choice between petting a puppy or burning it, but with all of the different characters in play, there’s a lot of things to see by role-playing your character in various ways. The Bioware-standard plot twist in the sequel is perhaps not as strong as the one found in the original game, but it’s also less predictable, so that’s something. There are tons of locations to visit, and they all bustle with life in a way the original game wished it could have. Side quests abound, many of which tell mini-stories that are incredibly interesting in their own right. You don’t have to do any of them, but you’ll want to. You can also develop relationships with your party members, something we take for granted these days, but was quite novel at the time.
Now, say you’re rolling your eyes at all this story business. You’re in it for the gameplay, to heck with all of these dialogue trees. Well, I’m happy to tell you that you’re going to have a great time in Baldur’s Gate 2 as well. This game uses Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition as its ruleset, and it doesn’t do it halfway. If you like to get under the hood in RPGs, you’re going to find tons of complexity here. There are not only several job classes to play as, each class sub-divides into kits, allowing you even finer control over what type of character you play as. There’s a frankly ridiculous amount of equipment to find, tons of magic spells to copy into your spellbook and memorize overnight, and a huge selection of party members to form your group from. You’ll have to keep your alignment in mind when you’re recruiting, however. Yes, you like that, don’t you? Best of all, none of this extra planning is for naught. Baldur’s Gate 2 is a much more challenging game than the first, so while you might be able to hack your way through the main plot without digging too deeply, you’re going to have get your hands a bit dirty if you want to see and do all there is in this game.
There are lots of different ways to approach situations, allowing for greater tactical diversity and a better feeling of ownership over whichever path you choose to success. This also gives the game a lot of replay value. How you handle the game as a thief is pretty different to how you do things as a paladin, for example. Oh, and the loot. The loot is glorious, friends. There are so many things you can pick up and carry with you if you’re not overburdened. Plenty of pieces of enchanted gear to discover and wrest from the hands of the unfortunate prior owner. Lots of little bits of lore hidden in books and such that are well-written and sometimes provide meaningful, if not always useful, insight into the Forgotten Realms world. You can ignore all of it, if you want, but if you’re into that kind of thing, you’re well-served here, make no bones about it. Then there’s the sheer quantity of it all. This game is unbelievably huge. There are tons of quests, dozens of locations, and more than sixty different types of monsters to battle. All of it is hand-designed, with not one meter of randomly-generated terrain to fill space. It’s probably the best realization of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule set that we will ever see in video games. It simply doesn’t make business sense to make games on this scale anymore.
The production values are excellent, too. The hand-designed nature of the environments means the game is free to include a lot of complex and beautiful visual touches. The animations are excellent, particularly for the monsters. The Beholder, as much a mascot of Forgotten Realms as anything, is a gorgeous little sprite. Make sure you get a good look at it while it’s mauling you to death. The voice-acting is extensive and quite good, though it’s a bit weird how Jim Cummings voices pretty much half of the cast in Throne Of Bhaal. The music is also excellent, knowing when to come and go for maximum impact. This game had a pretty big budget for its time, and it shows. There aren’t many rivals to this game in that regard as far as iOS RPGs go.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is a very good port of an incredibly good game. It has its share of issues, and its developer is known for letting a long time go between updates, but there’s nothing here that should stop you from playing it if you have a device with a decent-sized screen. If you’re rocking a 4-inch screen or smaller, you may want to hit the brakes on picking this up. I mean, with patience and in the presence of no other options, you might still be able to have a good time here, but it’s obvious that it was never meant to be played through such a small window and it suffers considerably as a result. Otherwise, if you like RPGs at all, this is probably one of the essential entries in the genre on any platform, full-stop.