Pretentious Opinionist: The Response to Baldur’s Gate II

Friday, February 21st, 2014

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The Pretentious Opinionist is a column dedicated to my opinion and speculation. It does not represent oprainfall as a whole, nor the opinions of other staff members, nor does it necessarily have any basis in fact. It merely represents my possibly naive notion that people might be interested in what I have to say.

Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

I recently wrote a scathing review of Baldur’s Gate II, scoring it a rather low 2/5. I was almost scared to look at the comments. I always read comments to anything I write, as I’m fascinated by opinion (especially respectful disagreement), and am always seeking to learn something new. But giving a game many consider an all-time classic a 2/5, was, I thought, sure to bring out angry comments. That didn’t happen. Actually, it prompted really good comments from readers, and I encourage you to read them. I almost posted a comment in reply to each of them, but I realized what I had to say applied to both of them. And when I started writing a comment, it quickly proved to be quite long. Then I remembered that I hadn’t done a Pretentious Opinionist in quite some time (I have a hard time finding topics to fill a whole article), so it seemed like a good opportunity.

Apples vs Oranges - Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

The one idea that filtered through every comment I received, whether that was through the comments or from other members of the staff, was that I unfairly compared Baldur’s Gate II to JRPGs. That wasn’t my intention, and that so many thought it was, was a failure of communication on my part. I brought up my experience with JRPGs to give readers an idea of where I was coming from. However, I did not expect Baldur’s Gate II would be a JRPG. That would be ridiculous; it’s a Western RPG, therefore it has completely different goals. What I did expect was that it would follow some of the same underlying rules. For instance, if you are having trouble with a boss, go back out, get a few levels, and come back. I also expected it to have a fair difficulty level, but I’ll get to that later.

Dungeons & Dragons - Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

I didn’t come into this game expecting to hate it. Actually, I was excited to play a revered Western RPG. I also hoped that it would introduce me to Dungeons & Dragons. I’m a nerd, and I would like to get into and understand this section of nerd culture. However, rather than being an introduction to D&D, this game felt as though it was built for experienced D&D players. I felt like I would need to go buy a D&D rulebook and study all the rules before I began playing. Perhaps I’m too used to newer games, but I understand rules better when I play with them. I was hoping that this game would give me a basis of understanding, so that if I was to go further with D&D, I would understand the rules and their applications better. Needless to say, that wasn’t my experience.

Now, in our staff discussions, Hailee mentioned that this isn’t unique to D&D; lots of classic RPGs (indeed, lots of classic games) ask the player to read the instructions before they play. That’s true. However, we can see with a genre that still requires that level of upfront dedication where that leads.

Risk: The Game of Global Domination - Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

If you are an old PC gamer, you may remember the grand strategy genre. If you aren’t, grand strategy games are a little like RISK. You know that game, right? At the beginning of the game, you and friends claim a certain number of territories, then you build up armies, and try to take over the whole world. Now, grand strategy games are more complex than that. A lot more complex. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses, and if you want to beat the computer, you need to know all these strengths and weaknesses before you begin playing. Grand strategy games are still being made today, in a pretty decent number. However, you often don’t hear about them. Why? Because most people don’t have the time or patience to learn how to play a game before they begin playing. There’s a niche of players who keep the games profitable, but grand strategy games will never be mainstream successes in their current state.

Sid Meier's Civilization - Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

“But,” I hear some of you saying, “that sounds a lot like Civilization, and that series is quite popular.” Yes, Civilization is a grand strategy game, but has a key difference: it teaches players as it goes along. Think about it. When someone starts a game of Civilization, they start the game at the beginning of human civilization. Players start with two bare bones units, one settler to start a city and one warrior to either explore or defend that city. By giving the players a settler instead of a city, players learn exactly what a settler does, so they know what to do once they make another one. Players then get a small number of things to do with a city, with recent installments recommending certain things. Meanwhile, if you sent your warrior out to explore, he comes across barbarians to teach players about fighting. And further complexity is added with progression in technology. It’s a brilliant design, as it gives new players the chance to jump in without requiring foreknowledge of the game. And in mulitplayer, it doesn’t give advanced players much of an edge on newer ones. I, a relatively inexperienced Civ player, can have just a good of a chance of victory as my Dad, who has played more games of Civilization of over the years than anyone can count.

Civilization Sidebar - Baldur's Gate II | oprainfall

So, why the sidebar on Civilization? It’s to show the difference in popularity between a game that teaches its players, and one that expects its player’s to have understanding before they play. You may not have a problem sitting down to learn the basics of play, but you are in the minority. And that’s not a bad thing, I stress! Seriously, without people like you, we probably wouldn’t have games today period. People like you allowed creators to make a profit off of certain games that allowed thoughtful designers to ask questions like, “why does this system have to work that way?” If D&D wasn’t popular enough to be profitable, the designers that worked to design simpler, better systems wouldn’t have bothered. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Dragon Quest today if it weren’t for D&D. That said, if someone like me reviews a game like this, I’m going to be lost and not enjoy the experience. Thus, my low score.

Just because something is important and innovative, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. One of the comments was: “I have to admit, I’m a little confused that we’re complaining about a D&D game having D&D mechanics.” I don’t think it’s correct to ignore Baldur’s Gate‘s design problems, because it is based on D&D‘s design problems. That would be like excusing problems with a remake because the problems existed in the original game. If problems exist, they should be fixed; and if they aren’t fixed, they need to be called out.

Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition - Spell Scroll

In my review, I called out one such problem: the spell system. One commenter took issue with that. He said, “the spells per day system isn’t a negative aspect at all- it forces you to use your noggin with spell memorization and usage instead of just spamming lightning bolts when it suits you.” You know, I can actually understand that. I’m sure in the designer’s mind, forcing players to chose what spells they were going to use, and limiting their use in that way, would force players to be strategic, choosing only the spells they’d need, and be careful with their use. My point is, in practice, the system is broken. It punishes players who don’t know the enemies they will face and, in light of that, don’t prepare for them properly. After the player fails, they’ll have the knowledge necessary to properly prepare, but that is bad design. It makes the player feel cheated. It should be possible to win every encounter the first time, without having to come back better prepared.

Dark Souls II 011

Think about games like Dark Souls and Shin Megami Tensei. Both games are incredibly challenging. Yet, both games use a magic meter. You might think that in games where challenge is a core part of the experience, that they would welcome a system that forces players to properly prepare. So, why don’t they?


The designers of these games realized that every spell a player knows is a tool. When a carpenter comes to do some work, he shouldn’t pick and choose only the tools he thinks he’ll need; rather he should bring the whole tool box. If he doesn’t need a tool, it’s okay not to use it. By putting these games on a magic meter system, the designers have given players every tool in their toolboxes. It is now up to the player to decide how to use them.


There’s one other statement that was made that I’d like to touch on. The commenter said, “It also confuses me as to why grinding your way to victory is considered superior to working out how to achieve tactical success. I was under the impression that most games are a lot better when they legitimately challenge you instead of processing you to a point where losing is not a threat.” That’s certainly a valid statement. Let me be clear, I love challenging games, like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, the Mega Man series, old-school Castlevania, the list goes on.

However, there’s a difference between challenging and punishing. A challenging game is one that doesn’t tolerate mistakes, but ensures that the player is able to complete any challenge that’s thrown at them on their first try if they’re good enough. A punishing game is a game that relies on memorization rather than skill. A punishing game never tells its players ahead of time what curve-balls it’s going to throw, forcing the player to retry with new foreknowledge. And Baldur’s Gate II is punishing, not challenging.

Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - Combat | oprainfall

Now, RPG is the one genre capable of recovering from a punishing difficulty, since it should give the player the ability to become nearly invincible with enough dedication. But Baldur’s Gate doesn’t even give players that option, since enemies you’ve killed never respawn. Even Dark Souls has respawning enemies, so level grinding is an option for the less skilled. It’s another example of poor design choices that permeate D&D, and by proxy Baldur’s Gate II.

Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition - Logo

Look, Baldur’s Gate II is an important game. It’s an early example of the the player-influenced stories that BioWare would become known for in games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. However, in my opinion, this game does not hold up well, nor is it a game for the mass market. That was my point.

About Guy Rainey

I’m Guy Rainey. I’m a hardcore Nintendo fan, a PC enthusiast, and a Sony sympathizer. Also an amateur/aspiring game creator. I love any game that puts story as the main focus of the game, so that means JRPGs are my favorite genre almost by default.

  • Callandor

    You say you like Dark Souls but dislike the Baldur’s Gate series, but Dark Souls is, by your definition, just as if not more punishing the Baldur’s Gate. Dark Souls relies on memorization more so and the player is constantly punished for not knowing whats in front of them. Bosses, mini-bosses, and difficulty tuned encounters will often kill the player simply because they don’t know the mechanics. E.G. ANY boss fight, the golem at the bottom of the tower at the start, and the dark knight in undead burg are the earliest examples. A mere hour into the game.

    As far as the “magic bar system” the reason this works in Dark Souls is due to the fact that magic has a draw back. Magic in and of itself requires tactical application due to targeting and cast time. Use a spell at the wrong time and you take a insert random weapon here to the face. SMT and JRPGs as a whole focus more on spamming the most powerful ability you have ad infinitum until stuff dies. The SMT series has certain stop gaps in place to prevent this but it often also leads into memorization territory, such as using an ability on an enemy that reflects that certain attack.

    The final thing about Baldur’s Gate, i’v played through both and found very few instances where my current spell pool could not do what i needed it to do when tactics is applied to the battle. Baldur’s Gate isn’t about jumping from one encounter to the next swords swinging and fireballs flying. Baldur’s Gate is about using every tool you have at your disposal… The right equipment to offset your weaknesses, the right spell to further counteract those weaknesses, and the positioning to set your team up in a way to ensure that the right attacks are going to the right place. I personally can’t think of a “difficult” rpg that these rules don’t apply.

    Also grinding is terrible and should never be a design decision.

    • Guy Rainey

      I think that the fundamental difference between Baldur’s Gate and Dark Souls for me was telegraphing. Every enemy in Dark Souls have some kind of tell that let’s the player know when they are going to attack and what that attack is going to be. Even though I died many times in Dark Souls, the fireplace system ensured that I was never too far away from where I was last defeated. I always knew exactly why I had been defeated, and I’d learned some new trick or some new tell that would help me defeat the foe.

      Baldur’s Gate had no such tells. I often had no idea of why I had lost, or what I could do better. Also, since I was the one in charge of saves, I would often not realize I needed to save, so I’d have to go back through my saves to find out the best place to retry from.

      And while grinding isn’t ideal (I agree that it’s just a cheap tactic to extend the length of the game), grinding is not inherently evil. If I would rather spend time becoming unbeatable than learning the game’s systems, why shouldn’t I have that option?

    • Xx_Kares_xX

      ‘And while grinding isn’t ideal (I agree that it’s just a cheap tactic to
      extend the length of the game), grinding is not inherently evil. If I
      would rather spend time becoming unbeatable than learning the game’s
      systems, why shouldn’t I have that option?’

      Because it defeats the entire games purpose. The games goal was not to have you cheat your way through the game, but to actually become good at it. That’s like asking if you can reroll your dice while playing monopoly until you get the number you want. I agree grinding has it’s time and place, but it is the biggest flaw put into any rpg ever that actually wants to be challenging or require any level of skill. One of the most important things in a game is balance, and with grinding, balance is almost always completely lost.

    • Callandor

      So going off optional grinding, my issue with having a system in place that allows the player to grind means i often have to change my own play style or im forced into an exceptionally boring experience. I prefer to explore everything, to see everything the game has to offer and to look for the secrets developers like to hide. If grinding is “allowed” in a game then often just the act of doing what i stated puts me at a power level WAY higher then what the developers expect the average player to be at, at that point in the game.

      Also you have that option in Baldur’s gate, with a drop in difficulty the game becomes a breeze. through use of the slider you lower the difficulty of the game WITHOUT adding in grinding… It’s a system that doesn’t effect me in the least and id rather see more of that as opposed to the former where i have to change the way i personally play a game to allow it to still present a challenge.

      As far as the Dark Souls vs Baldur’s Gate debate, while i do at least partially agree with your point, i also disagree with some of it. Dark souls enemies did have tells, but those tells don’t always help you when you enter an area the same way you did the first time and enemies react differently. E.G. “If I run across this bridge as fast as i can, i dodge the fire bombs and i can enter the room and battle the 4 skeletons, and if i move fast enough i can back into the hallway so I’m only forced to battle 2 at a time.” Ok, great. The system is figured out, superior tactics prevail. Until you try to do just that, but this time the Skeletons are already at the door blocking you before you even make it across the bridge, and back to the camp fire you go.

      Now I’m not saying that is bad completely, it forces you to adapt and adjust on the fly at times, which is fine. But Baldur’s gate often does the same thing. Dude has a robe? Expect spells, Giant sword? Keep him away from the mage. There are certain situations where this doesn’t apply… like walking in on a dragon shortly after you leave Amn. Does it suck? it could, if you didn’t save. But you know the dragon is there now and avoid it until you are strong enough to take it on. A good thief, and a diverse selection of spells and items can take you through the vast majority of the game headache free, and parties of all different types have been used to finish the game for different player made challenges. The game IS accessable, it just requires a bit more tactics then your average (modern day) CRPG

  • Thanatos2k

    I think it’s well established knowledge that the Enhanced Edition is a pretty poor port, so the review is unsurprising.

  • James Daniel McDade

    A scathing review of Baldurs Gate 2 done by someone coddled by console rpgs. Nothing really surprising here. Dark Souls is not challenging at all unless you’re playing a naked run and even then the enemies blatantly telegraph everything they do and the only real difficulty comes from the fact you lose all your “currency” if you die and you’re set back to where you last used a bonfire. Still, you can always return to your location of death. I love the Shin Megami Tensei series but its difficulty varies greatly from each game and when I say “I love SMT” I mean the main line games, not Persona (which I like as well but doesn’t compare to). Many boss battles in the SMT games feel like puzzles in themselves where you figure out a spell or skill to use and you’re set -or- you fuse up a demon with resist everything and buffing skills then dooooooown goes the difficulty. That’s really how you “beat” an SMT game if its kicking your ass, at least in the ones I’ve played.

    The review by the OP is the perfect example of current video gamer mentality and why I dislike gamers and most video games anymore. Call me crazy (you probably will) but a big chunk of fun for me in BG:2 was in fact having to learn everything, figure out how certain spells worked, getting my ass kicked over and over until I finally tried something different. The game feels rewarding to me and I enjoy the depth but I can see how someone can be turned off from all of that. Gamers want instant gratification instead of a long journey to the top of the mountain. BG and many classic western computer rpgs were like this.

    That’s really all I can say without flinging silly insults at the OP in a tongue in cheek manner. Personally, I think that if a person loves roleplaying games at all and hate BGI and II its akin to saying “oh I love platformers but I HATE the original mario games”. I guess that’s an extreme way of viewing it, BG1 and 2 are not flawless at all but whatever. The Baldurs Gate saga are excellent roleplaying games and they actually -GASP- LET YOU ROLEPLAY in many cases, it sounds to me that you (op) do not like rpgs but like hack and slashers, which again, is perfectly fine.

    I want to say “give the game another try” but you clearly hate it, which is fine. Your review is the perfect consensus of the modern day gamer though, I must commend you for channeling it beautifully. Bravo.