Baldur’s Gate 3 has arrived with a clamour of both expectation and fervour, not least because it’s been building to this point across two years of Early Access on PC (and for a while on the dearly departed Google Stadia). While BioWare handled the iconic orignals, the third entry found its way into the hands of to Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios, whose experience with RPGs made them a perfect fit. Perhaps more than perfect, as Larian have crafted something undeniably special in Baldur’s Gate 3, in the process emphatically eclipsing the previous two games and cementing themselves as one of the best RPG studios in the world.
Things aren’t going well for your character at the beginning of Baldur’s Gate 3, but before we get to that, you’re going to have to decide just who your character is before this terrible fate befalls them. There’s a cavalcade of character classes for you to choose from, with each bringing with them particular strengths and weaknesses, from burly Barbarians through to randy Rogues, and how they behave will dictate much of your playthrough, whether you’re sneaking through the shadows or running into battle in a furious rage.
Each time you level up you have the opportunity to further specialise and craft your character, learning new Cantrips and Spells, or finding new Feats that make you a better warrior, wizard or simpler tougher in battle. It feels like they’re genuinely growing rather than just experiencing the ‘numbers getting bigger’ style of levelling that most RPGs feature, and across your playthrough you’ll become ever more attached to both your character, and those in your party.
That party is set at four, though from time to time you’ll be joined for a particular quest or task, or you can summon a familiar to fill out your ranks. You can recruit a number of party members through the course of your quest – ten in total – with many of them appearing towards the start of the game. It is absolutely possible to run through a playthrough without meeting them all – I made my life exceedingly hard by only having two party members for hours and hours – and some of them simply won’t join you depending on whether you’ve decided on being a goody two-shoes or more villainous.
They, as with many of the characters you encounter, are exquisitely crafted and performed, from the vampiric high-elf Astarion, to the Shar-worshipping Shadowheart. You can befriend, upset, mock, romance and dismiss each and every one of them, and they each have their own questlines and stories that are organically woven into the overarching narrative rather than sitting off to the side, waiting for you to spend some time with them.
Baldur’s Gate 3 begins aboard a Nautiloid ship, a be-tentacled organic flying ship, that’s controlled by a race of terrifying squid-like creatures known as Mind Flayers. You are one of their many prisoners, but during an attack upon the ship you’re able to break free and, after picking up a couple of companions along the way, you take part in the ship’s escape and subsequent crash. Luckily for you, there’s a shadowy presence protecting you, helping you to survive the crash, and giving you a new chance at life.
That new life could be an exceedingly short one, as the Mind Flayers have infected your mind with one of their parasites. This should result in a painful and grotesque transformation into a Mind Flayer, tentacles and all, but thanks to some magical protections you are surprisingly quite perky. Still, you and your companions don’t want these worms wriggling around in your heads so you set off in search of someone who can help. This being an RPG though, a litany of requests for help, new questlines, and vicious creatures who just want to smash you into little bits appear to slow that process down. Taking things slow isn’t all bad though, and there could be some advantages to getting to know those worms along the way.
The fact that Baldur’s Gate 3’s entire narrative is fully voiced continues to impress many hours in, and the quality of voice actors that Larian have used – you’ll find stars like Jason Isaacs and JK Simmons sitting alongside Divinity: Original Sin II alumni like Amelia Tyler and Jennifer English – ensures that it forever sounds like a tale that’s being told by the best possible people.
If you’re exceedingly hard to impress, then the visuals will likely further win you over, as Baldur’s Gate 3 looks absolutely stunning. The different areas, from overgrown ruins to dank dungeons, are brimming with incidental details, including hidden switches, traps and treasure, and the characters within them look just as good. That’s never less obvious than during any cutscene or conversation, with the closer camera angles ensuring that you can see every fibre, sinew and scar in remarkable relief. I know graphics aren’t the be-all and end-all for a game, but they’re truly a pleasure to engage with here.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is built upon the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, bringing with it those character classes, spells, weaponry, and vile monsters to rid the land of. It also brings with it all of the rules of the fifth edition, and Baldur’s Gate 3 has the dice rolls and perception checks to prove it, making sure that there’s an awareness of its genuine role-playing roots throughout. That’s made all the clearer by Amelia Tyler’s constant presence as the narrator, her timely account of the current events bringing that flavour of sitting around a table with a dungeon master overseeing your quest.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is fundamentally a game of detail. From the incidental details that lie around every location, giving every area a grounded, lived-in feel, to the incredible character and creature work that can be engaging, enrapturing, or just plain laugh-out-loud funny. The inebriated goblin who decides to more or less piss on your feet, completely unaware that you’ve slaughtered every other goblin in a ten-mile radius. Duegar’s giving a Gnome a hard time and deliberately calling him “Stick shit”. The orc and her lover that you accidentally disturb in a barn, leading to a very painful end – for you that is, what they were doing didn’t seem all that painful.
The craft and attention with which Larian have approached Baldur’s Gate 3 is almost intimidating in its complexity and comprehension. I can’t think of many studios – other than, well, Bioware or perhaps Bethesda – who would be able to maintain the level of creativity and consistency needed to build a world as believable, enthralling, and downright masterful as that found in Baldur’s Gate 3. You will find yourself constantly marvelling at the tale that’s being woven in front of you, and with the freedom you’re afforded it will undoubtedly be one that’s personal and unique to you, despite the overarching narrative.
Larian has done a fantastic job of weaving together so many of the sprawling possibilities and options available to you, and they’re already at work on additional content to cover off even more, acknowledging some weak spots and places where they didn’t meet fan desires. Patch 2 added additional ending for Karlach’s companion story and they’re planning to revisit epilogue scenes left on the cutting room floor, giving more and better resolutions for other characters as well.
That freedom doesn’t come without a few hindrances, though. You cannot play Baldur’s Gate 3 without save scumming, or, at the very least, you shouldn’t. I like to think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure book where you’ve kept your finger in the page you’ve just left, and upon turning to a new page where you instantly die, you carefully turn back the other way and pretend it didn’t happen. You will be doing this a lot in Baldur’s Gate 3. That’s because with the great freedom you’ve been given by Larian comes a great possibility you’re going to find yourself face to face with something that is absolutely lethal to your puny party of under-levelled characters. You can try to face them, perhaps you’ll get lucky, but normally these things end in bitter, embarrassing defeat, and so they should.
The particular downside to this is that Baldur’s Gate 3 can be resolutely frustrating at times, particularly at the beginning where you’re finding your feet and initially trying to level your characters up. My quest came to an early end so many times that I lost count, and I can see some players holding their arms up in horror at that possibility. You have to learn to live with it, saving incredibly regularly, or perhaps you should approach it like a real game of D&D and live with the consequences of your actions. Either way is valid, and either way you’re going to experience a true role-playing adventure.