Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000, PC)

By bati / July 2, 2017

17 years later Baldur's Gate II is still one of the best CRPGs ever made.
   Where to start? I've played and finished BG2 a few times since it was released in 2000, but always felt some resentment towards the AD&D ruleset it comes packaged with. It's pretty complicated at first glance and has the added bonus of featuring an absolutely insane lineup of abilities and spells, most of which made their way into the game where their main function is to overwhelm the new players with information overload and at the same time provide a staggering array of tactical options to experienced players. Now, while I didn't develop a real appreciation for this wonderfully complex system until recently, I've always loved the other parts of the game, and as I was going through my last campaign it really hit me how unleashed the game really is.

   Where modern CRPGs often feel overdesigned, with carefully designed progression and difficulty, BG2 feels like you've been thrown in the deep end of the pool. After a short prologue you start out in the biggest city in the game, with access to many quests and many areas, and, most importantly, varying degrees of difficulty. There are hints sprinkled around as you enter hard areas, but for the most part it's up to the player to decide if they can tackle an area or not. Party composition and gear play a huge role in this and some smart preparation and use of consumables can easily turn the tide of seemingly impossible battles. There are so many instances of hard counters in this game, situations that can be easily resolved with the use a of spell that you forgot you even memorized, but the pendulum swings both ways and just as you easily dispatch your enemies with a flick of a command so can the enemy dispatch you if you don't take the appropriate countermeasures. The real beauty of this system lies in the non-linear nature of the first half of the game. Chapter 2 is probably the best story act of any CRPG I've ever played — mostly because it's a giant collection of interesting side quests.
   Which brings me to my next point: side quests. There's very little filler here. Most are pretty lengthy and involved, having you trek across different locations, solve (not-so-simple) puzzles, collect interesting items and fight foes (and what a diverse lineup it is!) of varying power. There are many twists and surprises along the way and what may start out as a kobold or slaver hunt could easily turn into a battle against a lich. The stories and NPCs involved, while part of a typical fantasy setting, are competently written and leave a lasting impression, with even minor characters worth remembering. My favorite thing about the side quests in BG2 however is the motivation for doing them; it starts out with a nice tie-in to the main quest where you're tasked with collecting resources so you can buy the help of a shadowy group, and continues when you realize your party could really use those few pricey items you spotted in Adventurer's Mart (*cough* Robe of Vecna *cough*), or you find yourself tangled in a situation that caught you off guard because you stuck your nose where you weren't supposed to. Your party members each come with their own quest and because they are a decent bunch you'll probably want to help them out.
   The main quest is surprisingly intimate, which is fascinating when one considers the gigantic scope of the game, and features an enigmatic villain with real motivations for his actions. Again, considering how typical this fantasy setting is, the writing is anything but.
   This extends to companions who come in all shapes and sizes, with different levels of combat usefulness, alignments, class kits, interesting backstories, quests and relationships that might cause clashes within the party further down the line, if not kept in check. In truth, these things might make putting a party together a little painful for new players because there are quite a few things (like story triggers) that can really blindside if you're not prepared for them, but at the same time it offers a lot of options for interesting party compositions and interactions within them as different personalities find themselves facing various situations together. Each companion also feels like a real person, with realistic motivations (again, fascinating considering the setting) and morals, and they will not hesitate to show you their disapproval if it comes to it.

   And now to my favorite part: the loot! This is one of those things that unfortunately keeps letting me down in newer CRPGs — even games like Pillars of Eternity, made by seasoned genre developers, fumbled in this area, not to mention Witcher 3 and its painful attempt at trying to scale loot, or how they managed to make 99% of loot obsolete with the introduction of Witcher sets — but I digress. Games like Dragon Age with its marginal incremental upgrades on gear are not much better, and neither are the Elder Scrolls games — what good is a daedric artifact if it's mechanically identical to any other enchanted item and does some pitiful extra elemental damage on each attack? No, BG2 will have none of that. This is the CRPG if you're looking for interesting loot and actual artifacts. First of all, their acquisition is often tied to memorable quests or encounters — chances are that if you want a particularly powerful weapon you'll probably have to kill a dragon for it, or at the very least a very powerful mage or a lich. There are some notable exceptions of course (*cough* Robe of Vecna *cough*) but for the most part this game does an excellent job of matching the quality of the loot with the difficulty of the task. Second, due to the nature of the round-based RTwP system, some mechanics of these items make them far stronger than they sound on paper. Celestial Fury is one such example. Or how about that Mace of Disruption +2? Sounds like your typical weapon that's decent at fighting undead, right? Well, yes, but also WRONG! How about killing one of the strongest liches in the game with a single swing of this bad boy — provided the dice like you, of course? Or wearing an amulet that makes you immune to most spells? Or a sword that dispels magic effects on the enemy with each swing? And it doesn't end there. At some point you will WANT stronger weapons because there will be enemies that will be completely immune to weapons that are not at least +4, or don't have the correct damage type. All these things make collecting artifacts a joy, and putting them to use an even greater one (seriously, you have not lived until you've seen your fighter solo a horde of vampires while laughing at their pitiful attempts at energy drain).
   And it goes on and on. I could write a few more paragraphs about the wonderful soundtrack by Inon Zur, or the beautifully drawn location backgrounds and sprites (which, along with spell effects, still hold up today), the sheer scope of the saga and the sense of adventure it conveys. It's a really incredible journey that has you start from nothing and ascend to godhood in the end. No other CRPG I've played has managed to match this.

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is runner-up to Insomnia's 2000 Game of the Year. Join The Cult today and play Baldur's Gate II the way it should be played!