The original Baldur’s Gate games are still considered the high watermark when it comes to CRPG games, setting the standard for all DnD style games that have come since, even well over a decade since their releases. It’s not hard to see why, with their huge, expansive worlds filled with dungeons, dragons, and plenty of memorable characters and quests. They’re probably the closest we’ve ever seen to a proper DnD campaign in gaming form, and thanks to mods and the recent Enhanced Edition they’re still really fun to play.
Considering the recent spate of outstanding CRPG releases, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Beamdog, the team behind the aforementioned Enhanced Edition releases would be keen on releasing new content for Baldur’s Gate, with the success of games like Divinity:Original Sin, Wasteland 2, and Baldur’s Gate‘s own progeny Pillars of Eternity. So, 17 years after it’s original release, the first Baldur’s Gate has received a second expansion pack in Siege of Dragonspear, a middle point between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 looking to answer some questions. Is this a campaign worth running, or should you break the siege off?
The setup to Dragonspear starts only a few weeks after the end of Baldur’s Gate. You, the hero of the titular city, have finally wiped out the last of Sarevok’s minions and restored peace to the city. It’s a short lived peace thanks to an invading army known only as the Crusade, lead by a divine woman known as Caelar Argent. Caelar sends assassins to kill you so you do the rational thing and decide to hunt her down, joining up with a group marching on her fortification at the ancient Dragonspear castle, all the while dealing with the awakened blood of the dead god Bhaal running through your veins.
Unfortunately this setup restricts the game quite a bit, and as a result Dragonspear feels uncomfortably linear for much of the campaign, giving you very little room to explore and even less reason to do so. There are a few side-quests, but they’re often so short and unnoticeable that you’ll either miss them, or complete them without even realizing it. Much of the DLC campaign pushes you along such a strict path that the few side-quests you do come across always seem to resolve themselves within the same map, and once you complete a section of the game there’s no going back, so be sure to check off every objective before moving on.
Not that you’ll really want to complete the side content, and that brings us to the primary complaint about Dragonspear: the writing. The Baldur’s Gate games were renowned for their writing, with memorable characters and quest lines often mixing jokes with serious discussions that felt right at home in it’s setting, and pretty close to a proper DnD campaign. Dragonspear doesn’t have any of that, and the only characters that are memorable usually are for the wrong reason.
Quest writing ranges from boring to confusing to outright aggravating when the game doesn’t seem to know how to react to your input. There’s a quest at one point to infiltrate a camp and steal a scroll from a wizard. When I entered the camp there were three people that sort of looked like wizards. I tried pick-pocketing one, which failed and turned him hostile. I killed him, somehow without the rest of the camp noticing, and tried to find his scroll. No luck. I managed to pick-pocket the second wizard, again no luck, and the same for the third. I looted every container I could find, but never found any scrolls. Finally, I saved my game, killed the two remaining wizards and checked their bodies for the scroll, which neither had. I never found that scroll, and the game carried on without it.
That’s just one example, but most of the quests play out like that. Despite whatever idea you might have, and even if that idea worked in the last game, it probably won’t work here. Quests have one, maybe two resolutions, and anything outside of that is a no-go, usually breaking the game. There’s no sense of adventure, and no joy in figuring out obscure ways to finish missions like you would in a real DnD setting, just go to X and kill/collect/activate Y. Very few of the quests have multiple endings, and your choices rarely make a difference, save for one or two major sections.
Worse is the NPC writing, with most characters vomiting up their entire back story to you the second you meet. There’s no progression over time, it’s just “hello, my name is X, and here is my entire backstory and character arc, thank you, come again.” within the first few seconds. That’s if the writing stays within the game, and while the original Baldur’s Gate had some fourth-wall breaking moments, way too much of the writing in Dragonspear seems to be pop-culture references, often thrown in randomly without any reason. There’s a hippie you can meet that has some of the most aggravating dialogue in the series, or the “LOL, so randumb!” writing of one of your companions. There’s a Viking character that only ever mentions that he’s a Viking and nothing else, and several references to things that have absolutely nothing to do with the world of Baldur’s Gate that are out of place and immersion breaking. Returning characters now have inconsistent and occasionally paradoxical personalities to what they used to have, and most often character’s intentions make very little sense, even after you learn their whole story.
Even your player character isn’t safe from this. Almost every dialogue encounter will feature the same three, possibly four, options that are always, without exception, in the following order:
- I AM A SHINING KNIGHT AND WILL SAVE YOU AND YOUR PEOPLE!
- I am a funny guy, I have a joke, you like jokes?
- Pay me or I break you.
- I’m going to kill you now, screwing up this entire section and forcing a reload.
This happens every time you speak with someone. If you decide what kind of character you want, you can mostly just spam 1,2,or 3 on your keyboard and skip through the game. The finale of the game makes so little sense within the context of Baldur’s Gate 2 that it’s better to just chalk this up as a fever dream your character suffered in Irenicus’ dungeon.
Even if the writing were better, Dragonspear is still something of a mess. Working off of an improved version of the engine, the game is now able to render more NPCs on screen, and it uses this to make crowded areas like the streets of Baldur’s Gate seem actually crowded. The effect looks cool and really works to sell the scene, until you realize that this has completely ruined the game’s already spotty path-finding AI, making it an absolute chore to move around and a nightmare to identify your party in a sea of faces. It also contains several battle scenes, which handle like a hot mess when there’s dozens of weak NPCs clashing and loot drops littering the field. If there’s something you want to actually take when the fight is done, you’ll need to dig through a mountain of useless garbage to get to it, and trying to keep track of your party during these scenes is nearly impossible.
Difficulty balance is all over the place, and it plays like a roller coaster going up and down violently. Only a few hours in you’ll need to sneak past a dragon that’s nigh un-killable, then fight a few poorly armed thugs before taking on a mind-flayer and his giant worm minion before clearing some more thugs, and finally getting past that dragon again praying you don’t accidentally walk in his line of sight. That’s the second dungeon. There’s countless easy-to-kill enemies that lure you into a false sense of security only for the game to smack you over the head with something completely out of left field, and it creates an uncomfortable tension that fails and annoys more often than the intended effect. At best, enemy placement seems random, like they realized that the levels needed combat encounters but didn’t actually know what to throw in.
All of this is assuming the game actually works. There’s no hard-crashes but the AI seems to have taken more than a few potions of reduce intellect. There’s the aforementioned path-finding issue, but it’s worth talking about again, the path-finding in this game is abysmal, with characters seemingly going anywhere except where you want until finally it clicks and they trudge to your marker. That’s if they don’t get caught on something, which they will, be it any random object or other character. At one point my character got stuck between a horse and the environment, and I had to kill the horse. For some reason this sent the rest of the party into a blood rage and without provocation they slaughtered the rest of the stable. Combat AI was “smart” enough to waste all of their spells on low-level creatures, but couldn’t figure out how to quaff a health potion when bleeding, and I eventually turned it off completely out of frustration.
Furthermore, there’s issues just playing the game, and the simple act of loading a saved game can cause bugs and break quests. Quest triggers don’t always fire off, and characters in cutscenes can become frozen or stuck on something, either breaking the scene or forcing the game to just remove a character from existence. Enemy AI only occasionally triggers properly, and there are several times where you can mercilessly slaughter someone while their friends stare without reacting.
Graphically the game looks fine, although most of the new areas feel bland, generic, and worse, very small compared to the original game. There are a few interesting dungeons, but mostly you’ll find yourself in a generic forest, generic caves, or generic stone castles. Levels often feel downright tiny and rarely open up for any exploration at all. The engine also generates way too much black around map borders, making already small levels infinitely minuscule ruining whatever grand scale they might have been going for.
On the audio side, while the music is good, voice acting ranges from bad to terrible. Yes, they did manage to get returning voice actors for the old companions, and David Warner reprises his great role as Jon Irenicus from Baldur’s Gate 2, but their writing is so bad you just feel sorry for them. Then there’s the new characters, who often sound like they were recorded via skype with next to no direction for how to say their lines. Thankfully most of the game is still text, but there are lines of dialogue that are just downright cringe-worthy.
Dragonspear felt like someone tried to make a new Baldur’s Gate game without ever bothering to play the old games. Between the confusing and boring writing, bland and generic locations, and myriad of bugs there’s no way any fan of the original games should play this when so many better options exist. Beamdog have said they want to make a third Baldur’s Gate game in the future, and if Dragonspear is what they do when given creative license, then perhaps it’s best the series remains dormant.