By Kimari Rennis
If you are a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons and have a few campaigns under your belt, whether you’ve watched a few episodes of Critical Role in the background, or you collect dice to show off to your companions, I applaud you. Baldur’s Gate III is the game for you! If you’re like me, someone who has never played Dungeons & Dragons in their life, which is surprising coming from a game design major and self-proclaimed nerd, you’re going to have a very rough time.
Baldur’s Gate III is by no means a bad game, in fact, from my own experience playing, it might be the best to come out this year. But that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have faults that are off-putting to new players like myself.
Baldur’s Gate III is a third-person, party-based role-playing game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. Tactics and strategy elements seamlessly bleed into the game as you navigate the world through mouse clicks and keyboard controls to maneuver the camera. Combat is turn-based and has mechanics as rich as the story itself.
You start Baldur’s Gate III as an abducted entity trapped in dark, alien-like pods restricting all movement. As the cutscene continues a tall, robed well, thing, floats into view. Its deep-purple and grayish skin reveals a tentacled face reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. It reaches into a vat of pastel yellow fluid in the center of a cryptic fleshy room and gently picks out what could only be described as a tiny slug. It looms toward your pod menacingly, opens it, and inches the slug closer to your face. Soon the slug forms a ring of razor-sharp teeth like that of a leech and four thin tendrils extend from its body, prying your eyelid open as it crawls inside your head.
A “Mind Flayer” is what that being was called—a monstrous humanoid creature with psionic powers. Because of the worm it planted in your head, you are also on your way to becoming a Mind Flayer if you don’t find a way to remove it. Chaos ensues, the flying vessel that imprisoned you crashes, and now it is a race against time to remove the creature that is in your head before you transform into whatever menacing being captured you in the first place.
When it comes to character creation in an RPG, Baldur’s Gate III has the most in-depth, impressive, and inclusive character customization options I have ever seen. Right off the bat, I found several hairstyles that I’ve actually used in the real world and they looked realistic. Genuine love, care, and effort were put into making it so that if I wanted to play as myself in the game, I could. To whomever spearheaded this early portion with such great care and research into black character customization at Larian Studios, thank you.
Aside from being able to create myself, I was blown away by the sheer number of options available in creating a character. There are 11 races to choose from, ranging from the short and stocky build of a Dwarf to the menacing rigid scales of a Dragonborn which provides sub-race options allowing you to choose what kind of dragon you want to be. Every race has different features, movement speeds, and proficiencies whether it be survival, magic, or wielding weapons. There are 12 different classes to choose from, and within them, several subclasses. Baldur’s Gate III gets into the real minute details of your character which is overwhelming, yet addicting and fascinating.
Before I even started the game I knew I would spend at least two hours creating a character. To save myself from falling into that trap I took a Dungeons & Dragons Quiz that decided what kind of character I should make.
The result I got was a “True Neutral Human Bard.” Since I got the human race, I opted to make real-life myself. At first, I absolutely hated the idea of being a bard because, in my opinion, it sounded too dumb to be something I’d do. I could never imagine myself running around and casting spells on my party with an instrument I had no business playing, but low and behold, I had a blast with it, being a bard is awesome because I talk and joke my way out of any situation! It’s so awesome that when I play Dungeons & Dragons in real life for the first time, I’m going to be a bard! While you can’t specifically outline your personality in Balder’s Gate III, my “True Neutral” alignment would be something I kept in mind while playing. Regardless of who I talked to or what I experienced in the world, my responses and actions would be that of someone completely neutral to the situation–if it isn’t any of my business, I don’t care. My goal is to get this slug out of my head, not save the world.
This game has a mind-blowing amount of depth when it comes to the characters you meet, the world that you explore, and every combat scenario you encounter. I’m fascinated by how fleshed out each character is, especially the playable ones you can add to your party. Everyone has a background story that shapes who they are, obviously, each character has an Illuthid slug in their head that they want to remove above all else. But away from that, they have dreams, desires, and feelings. Depending on what you do, characters in your party will either approve or disapprove of your actions, which impacts how the character views you. Their feelings toward you also dictate how much they trust you and are willing to listen to you on this bizarre adventure.
If you’re the bold type, you can even start flirting with your companions and wind up in quite the relationship. Sometimes characters can approach you about their feelings for you on their own if their approval is high enough. All of it is so flattering to hear, but it also hurts me in the heart to reject these fictional characters. This feeling is either a testament to how well the characters are made for me to feel for them or just how immersed–and emotional–I am as a player.
The world is rich, not only in its details but in its interactability. Besides trees and most of the walls that make up space, almost anything can be picked up, examined, or destroyed. I remember exploring an underground temple and running out of lock-picking kits. Out of curiosity, I decided to attack the last door, and low and behold, after a few swings I destroyed it only to be greeted by a glaive-wielding demon and three hell-hogs. In a sense, I was lucky I was able to break the door because each environmental object has properties dictating what it’s immune or weak to. Obviously, you can’t poison a door. But imagine if that wooden door between that demon and me were metal, I’d need to get creative because my rapier wouldn’t be the key.
In the spirit of surprise demon fights, the combat of Balder’s Gate III is the most dynamic I’ve ever witnessed. There are hundreds of ways a fight can end and hundreds of ways you can lose as well. At the beginning of an encounter, all combatants roll for initiative, meaning an automatic dice roll determines the order each person will fight. In its most basic form, combat consists of moving a set distance, one action, and one bonus action. For actions, you can shove people, attack depending on what weapons you have, dip your weapon in a surface to gain its effects–if you’re next to something on fire you can light your weapon on fire. You can hide, jump, or dash to increase the distance you cover when moving. Bonus actions vary on the class you play and what abilities you have unlocked but the combat possibilities run deep in this game. My favorite thing to do is take my strongest character and push enemies into chasms or pits of lava for an instant kill. It’s satisfying – but I also run the risk of being pushed in myself.
From what I’ve experienced so far, the AI is pretty intelligent and able to quickly adapt to whatever I’m doing. Enemies can displace my party, whittle them down from afar, and funnel me into stressful situations. I either have to outsmart them or endure which makes every combat encounter different no matter how many times you replay the fight from losing. Each placement of my character matters in battle, and if I don’t have the advantage, my enemies will capitalize on it.
But one thing I will say is that the game is wildly inaccessible to those unfamiliar with how Dungeons & Dragons work and all of its nuances. There is clearly lore that runs deep for this game, whether it be from the previous games or from the Dungeons & Dragons universe in general. There is a lot I don’t know. I’m missing the context that allows me to understand the world and the severity of the situation that I’m in. In this world, there are moral rights and wrongs, religions, cults, clans, demons, and deities that I don’t understand. While this does make me an unbiased player, I can’t help but feel left in the dark by what I don’t know. Thankfully, I am able to understand the story as much as I need to continue playing, but imagine the impact if I knew more about this universe.
Another thing I’ll say is that this game is infuriatingly difficult and whenever I turn the game on I feel a wave of dread and the happiness drain from my body because I know I’m going to be in for a bad time. My time was filled with nothing but improbable odds from dice rolls and hundreds of missed attacks that would have changed the course of my battle. In fact, I started streaming the game to my friends just so they can just how much suffering this game gives me when I see the words “CRITICAL MISS” after every crucial attack my party throws. Swiftly after my enemy demoralizes me and wipes the blood-soaked floor with my party until I get a “game over” and have to restart the encounter over and over again.
Within my first few hours of playing the game, I was getting absolutely thrashed by a goblin camp on the outskirts of the starting settlement. There were several goblins on the rooftops of abandoned buildings, chucking bottles of flammable grease like Molotov cocktails, and drilling into my party with arrows and blasts of magic. Since they were so high up, most of my attacks either couldn’t reach them, or missed due to the height advantage they had. That goblin camp made my blood boil as a new player and each time I died and had to sit through that long loading screen to try again, I got angrier and angrier. So I changed my approach. I decided to sneak around the back of the camp and take some of the goblins out stealthily. After five or some goblins finally died a larger group from within the camp took notice and promptly sent me back to the loading screen.
One time I was able to just walk right into the camp after using the slug inside my head to convince the leader I wasn’t a threat. But I made the grave mistake of walking into a room with three massive ogres discussing their favorite flesh to eat. They asked if I was a friend or foe and to prove it since I didn’t have the item they were referring to prove I was a friend–I didn’t even know what they were asking for–the whole camp turned against me and massacred me again. I wasn’t able to mind-read my way back into the camp either. After hours of trial and error, I somehow killed every goblin–the ogres remained in their shed, oblivious to what I did to their companions–and continued on with the game.
Looking back at these criticisms now, I wrote these when I only had 5 hours of playtime. Yes, I still don’t know much about the Dungeons & Dragons universe, and yes, the game is still hard even when I cracked under pressure and switched to the lowest difficulty. But now I’m 30+ hours in. My party is stronger, I’m deeper into the game, I’m exploring every corner of the map and my reluctance to help NPCs is gone. I am in love with a literal demon barbarian that fought her way out of hell and has an infernal engine for a heart and I have my closest friends screenshotting my absurdly long game sessions – to prove to me that I like this game.
My friends are right. Not only was this screenshot incriminating evidence of my addiction but it was the intervention I needed in order for me to finally realize how much I like this game. I had this internal battle within me and the dominating voice was telling me that I disliked this game and couldn’t stand it because of the grueling combat, my unlucky dice rolls, and the time it took me to get used to the controls. While it hurts like hell to lose a fight and have to restart over and over again, it feels invigorating to win and discover more about the game in ways I never thought possible. Once I actually learned how to play and got comfortable, everything changed.
So friends, if you’re reading this, I really like Baldur’s Gate III. In fact, I love this game.
Despite all of my confusion and strife with that infuriating group of goblins, cultists, or whatever enemy threatens to take me out, Baldur’s Gate III is still a game that I incredibly enjoy. I just need more time to play and feel my way through the unfamiliar territory that is this game. Playing Baldur’s Gate III and writing this review has shown me that I am not used to having this much choice in my games. Having the ability to shape my characters’ destiny, the way they fight, talk, and build relationships to such an intense degree while having all of it have an impact on my playthrough is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s overwhelming. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s fun, and I welcome this drastic change of a game in my life.
Toward the end of that 11-hour play session, I was playing a song on my lute to a group of sentient fungi after I gave them the severed head of their enemy. They all danced around me gracefully, and the non-mushroom people in the area threw a few gold coins my way in praise. I had nothing but a big, goofy smile on my face as I saved, closed the application, and swore to finish this review before I played another minute If real-life Dungeons & Dragons is anywhere near as exhilarating as Baldur’s Gate III, I can’t wait to play that too and start this beautiful, painstaking, yet fulfilling process all over again.
Senior Intern Kimari Rennis, who has been with the NYVGCC for many years, is a junior at NYU’s Game Center.