I have never played proper Dungeons & Dragons. Sure, I've played a host of D&D-inspired games like the entire RPG genre or the classic Baldur's Gate games, but at no point has anyone ever gone, "Hey Mike, you want to play some D&D?" I've even played other pen-and-paper RPGs briefly, just not D&D.
Nevertheless, as a staunch fan of Larian Studios' past efforts, Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2, I'm compelled to play Baldur's Gate 3. It's the studio doing what it does best—making RPGs with deep, systemic worlds—but with the addition of additional polish and presentation, plus the entire Dungeons & Dragons universe to draw from. Well, at least the universe that intersects with the city of Baldur's Gate.
Make Me a Hero
From the moment I load up the character creator, I'm lost in a world of terminology I don't immediately understand. What's a cantrip? (A spell that doesn't take a spell slot to cast, seemingly.) There are eight races—Elf, Tiefling, Drow, Human, Githyanki, Dwarf, Half-Elf, and Halfling—but also sub-races within those. The Tieflings, for example, are split between red demon people (the Asmodeus) and blue demon people (the Mephistopheles). There are just straight-up demon people walking around and folks are fine with it?
I find out that Humans kind of suck. I normally play a human in games like this, but all they get here is a basic stat bonus, while everyone else can see in the dark or choose free cantrips. I settle on a Wood Half-Elf, grumbling to myself. Here, it's clear that Larian has put the additional resources to good use. The hair is pretty solid; there's actually a hairstyle that mimic my short-cropped curly hair for once! I'm not able to see the skintones right as a half-elf—I assume the elven side is tripping me up—but I get my skin as dark as I can.
There are only six classes available—Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, and Wizard—but the difference between them is wide indeed. The Cleric has a choosable deity and domain, each of which determines the spells they have available. Wizards have a whole mess of spells, prepared spells, and cantrips available to them. I went with the Ranger, which allowed me to choose a favored enemy that I'd deal increased damage to, and a "Natural Explorer" benefit that lets me tame beasts, sneak through cities, or survive harsh environments.
Mind Over Matter
Finishing up my skills and attributes, I'm thrust into the story proper. A Nautiloid ship sails over a city, kidnapping citizens and teleporting them in holding pods. You're seemingly one of the people kidnapped, as you find yourself being implanted with a tadpole that will ultimately turn you into a mind flayer. Luckily, a squad of Githyanki riding dragons attack the ship, giving you a chance to escape. Here you're thrust out into the bowels of the ship and allowed to experience Baldur's Gate 3 for the first time.
In most modern RPGs, skill checks are based on two factors: do you have the right skill, and is it high enough? If you clear those, you'll have no problem coasting through your chosen path. Baldur's Gate 3 is based on the old pen-and-paper games, so that's only half the battle. Your skills and attributes determine how high or low the number you have to beat is on a roll of a 20-sided die. This means the name of the game is managed luck.
My luck is bad. The dice rolls in Baldur's Gate 3 want me to fail.
Take an early situation, where you're talking to a mind flayer brain that's trapped within a corpse. Thanks to one of the previous dev diaries, I know that you can pry this fella free and you also have the option to jam a thumb into the grey matter to make it compliant. You can use your Strength to break the skull holding it in place, or Dexterity to gently pull it over. (I also have the option to use my Medicine skill to perform surgery.) I choose Dexterity, thinking that I'm a Half-Elf Ranger, I should have this.
My target roll is a seven. That's pretty low, so color me shocked when I don't even clear that bar. I roll a three. The brain screams as my monster hands utterly fail to drag it from its prison. With a fail roll, my only option left is to leave the brain there or put it out of its misery. I do the latter.
The rest of this intro dungeon has you fighting your way through demons and imps, as the Nautiloid soars through one of D&D's hells. Ultimately, you're successful in bringing the ship back to the normal realm, where it promptly crashes due to all the damage. You have to crawl from the wreckage and save yourself. This is the proper beginning of Baldur's Gate 3.
This is the BioWare Way
Once you find yourself on a beach near the wreckage of the Nautiloid, Baldur's Gate 3 sets to introducing you to the cast. The first one I ran into was Shadowheart, the elven Cleric, but in short order you'll also meet Astarion, the vampire Rogue and Gale, a mage who's probably more inquisitive than he should be. The benefit of this premise is it gives a concrete reason for your group to stay together: everyone has a tadpole in their head, and only by working together can they find a cure.
Overall, the impression Baldur's Gate 3 leaves is much closer to the modern BioWare titles, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. The voice acting and motion capture is top-notch, buoyed by great writing and more cinematic camera angles. Across Divinity: Original Sin and Divinity: Original Sin 2, Larian Studios has slowly improved on its narrative presentation, and with Baldur's Gate 3, they seem prepared to deliver where the BioWare of today may have faltered. And under all that is excellent combat, an area where the BioWare of old didn't always deliver. I'm interested to see where the story of Baldur's Gate 3 goes, considering it has to live up to some classic tales.
Part of the story involves the outcome of your choices though, and my outcomes have been largely bad. Baldur's Gate 3 is in early access, and Larian has been quick to offer updates—three over the course of a few days. The first cleaned up some animation errors I noticed, but also required a restart in terms of my save game. I spun up a new character, forgoing the powers of the other races to pick a standard human. Boring, I know. And the second time around, my luck in terms of dice rolls continued.
Once again, I was unable to free the poor disembodied brain. Fresh from the wreckage of the Nautiloid, I came across a trio of fishermen helping a mind flayer trapped under rubble. In my first playthrough, I was able to convince them they were being controlled through a Persuasion roll. On the second playthrough, I failed. This meant I had to kill two of them, before the last one broke the curse. I had to tell the poor dwarf that I killed his friends. Oh well.
The area you find yourself in is overrun by a goblin horde, and on the far end of the map, I found a group of Tieflings defending themselves against a goblin attack. They're not doing too well, losing a good number of folks in the initial attack even with my squad's help. Unfortunately, things are worse for them, given the sanctuary they're hiding in is a druid's grove, and the local leader is going to close the grove off to all outsiders.
Failure dogs me through the entire area. A brother and sister are arguing about staying and fighting; the sister wants to fight, the brother wants to run. I try to persuade them to stay, and I fail, rolling an eight instead of the 12 I need. Further into the cave, there's a young Tiefling who needs some pointers about the finer art of swordfighting. I have the options of showing him a few moves with my Athletics skill, or give him hints with my Insight. I choose the Insight, but once again, I miss the roll, getting a four instead of the needed six. He shoos me away in frustration, telling me that I've made things worse. I really can't argue.
There's also a host of small rolls that happen outside of conversations. Looking at an organic control panel within the Nautiloid, my Arcana skill activates as I glance at three screens. I'm able to decipher two of them, but fail the roll for the last one. On the ravaged beach, my Nature skill comes into play, noticing that a rock has been dragged into place to hide a treasure chest. The dice underpin everything about Baldur's Gate 3, as they probably should for D&D.
In Divinity: Original Sin, you can build your character to open varying paths through the story: if you want to talk to animals, you can just take the skill and know it'll work every time. If you want to be a silver-tongued devil persuading folks, you can just throw points into the skill. It's numbers versus numbers. Straightforward leverage.
The dice rolls change the feel of Larian's RPG foundations. You can't just rely on your skills to carry the day, at least in terms of conversation and choice. It's an additional element of uncertainty to everything you do. Sure, you might have the skills and attributes to get that Medicine roll down to a two or three, but you still might end up rolling a one. Sometimes, the Random Number God smiles upon you, but at least during my first playthrough, it spit on my every move.
It's sort of exciting, to be honest. There's a thrill to uncertainty, which is probably why D&D is a classic game with years of history behind it. I don't want the next Original Sin to rely on the dice, but Baldur's Gate 3 has a different flavor to it; French vanilla instead of natural vanilla. Even with 20 hours into Baldur's Gate 3, I'm just scratching the surface of what's available here, and having gone through Divinity: Original Sin 2's early access period, I'm looking forward to the further improvements to come.
In short, Baldur's Gate 3 is going to be something special y'all, even if I fail every goddamn dice roll.