Baldur's Gate 3's big reveal to journalists wasn't like most press events. Taking place in a San Francisco pub, it wound up being a three hour hands-off session guided by Larian CEO Swen Vincke. If you've ever watched a popular D&D stream like Critical Role, it was a bit like that, but with an added element of audience interaction thrown in for good measure.
At one point Vincke's player character, a vampire spawn named Astarion with the ability to move about in daylight, decided to take a bite out of one of his companions. He asked the audience if Astarion should try to resist, but the assembled journalists goaded him into trying the roll. A cheer went up in the room when the on-screen D20 hit the relatively high success threshold and Astarion went to drain his teammate.
While Larian had hoped to have direct hands-on ready for the big reveal, the demo was nevertheless a pretty good demonstration of what Larian hopes to accomplish with Baldur's Gate 3. Compared to the hyper-personal experiences of the first two games, it feels like Baldur's Gate 3 is intended to be a spectator sport in the vein of the most popular D&D streams.
We also learned a lot of other details about Larian's approach to Baldur's Gate 3. Origin characters, a Larian innovation from Divinity: Original Sin 2, will be returning in Baldur's Gate 3. You will also be able to create your own character. The combat will be turn-based instead of real-time with pause. It will boast 15 D&D races and eight classes, 4-player online multiplayer, and two-player split screen co-op.
As was hinted in the reveal trailer, the Cthulhu-like Mind Flayers will be one of the key villains in Baldur's Gate 3. The major conceit is that all of the major characters are infected with tadpoles—horrific little worms that eat your brain—and that they have for unknown reasons received special powers from the infestation. Larian hasn't formally revealed it, but there will eventually be an entire "Tadpole Skill Tree" that will allow you to unlock dark parasite-related powers at a cost.
All of this should speak to role-playing fans who have been anxiously awaiting a true sequel to one of the most beloved RPGs ever made. Baldur's Gate 2 helped to establish BioWare as a powerhouse developer in the early 2000s, and judging by Baldur's Gate 3's relatively high production values, it's clear that Larian is hoping that the sequel will do the same for them. But tempting as it might be to go "mainstream," it seems as if Larian is going the other way and making Baldur's Gate 3 more complex than ever.
Yep, Baldur's Gate 3 is Turn-based: "It Was Never Really a Question"
One of the biggest questions going into Baldur's Gate 3 was whether Larian Studios would retain its familiar turn-based approach from Divinity: Original Sin. As most RPG fans know, Baldur's Gate has traditionally been a series built around real-time mechanics, but with the ability to pause and set your moves ahead of time. With Baldur's Gate 3, Larian is opting to dispense with that tradition.
"It was never really a question," Design Producer David Walgrave says. "We've been doing turn-based for a while now. We're pretty good at it. Dungeons & Dragons is turn-based in itself, so it makes a lot of sense. Even after we implemented the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, the result was so different from what we concocted with Divinity: Original Sin that we saw that the combat designers would have to do it completely different, so that was a challenge. And we're doing things that we haven't done before, so for us it was the best choice."
Larian's approach winds up resembling Divinity: Original Sin in many ways. Environmental interactions are once again a huge part of the combat, with the ability to ignite traps, move objects, and exploit height all conferring major advantages. But it's also got a decidedly D&D flavor. Before every combat encounter, the game automatically rolls for initiative, which should be a familiar sight to fans of the tabletop game. The tactics are fairly open-ended, allowing you to pull off sneaky tricks like robbing skeletons of their weapons before they rise to attack, assuming you have the wherewithal to do so.
Speaking of dice rolls, they're extremely prevalent in Baldur's Gate 3. Larian makes a point of showing an actual D20 being rolled whenever a significant action takes place, lending a degree of tension in every decision. Over the course of the demo, the audience cheered or groaned with every dice roll. It will undoubtedly go over well on streaming platforms like Twitch, where D&D has become very popular.
"If you play D&D tabletop, you're constantly rolling D20s. We wanted to have the feeling that you're playing D&D, and the anxiety of, 'What's happening? What's not happening?' We wanted to get that feeling in Baldur's Gate 3 immediately," Walgrave says. "Whenever you make a choice and everyone rolls a D20, you feel like that choice matters."
Larian's Engine Has Been Revamped to the Point of Being Almost Unrecognizable
Larian's technology is well-established. The studio has been iterating on its engine for years now, and Baldur's Gate is no different. Still, this might be the most substantial revamp Larian's tech has seen to date. While the systems and the simulation of the world will remain, almost everything else will be different.
"We were afraid that people would say that it was just Divinity: Original Sin 2 with a skin on top of it. We want no one to think that when they see it," Walgrave says. "Apart from technical improvement, we basically threw away the gameplay engine that drives all the ruleset because D&D is so different from what Original Sin was. We did keep a lot of things, mostly the systems and the simulation of the world. But as a producer, I think the biggest risk we took was changing so many things in the worlds, because it would give the Q&A team a lot of work."
Probably the biggest improvement is in the way that it utilizes height, as mentioned above. "You see how much fun it is when you shove someone off a cliff," Walgrave says.
On the narrative front, Baldur's Gate 3 is far bolder than Divinity: Original Sin 2 in its use of cinematic cutscenes for its dialogue choices. It has a huge effect. Every character is fully animated and voiced, making them easier to identify with. It reminds me, say, of Dragon Age: Origins, where Divinity: Original Sin 2 on the surface looked more like a basic Infinity Engine game from the 90s (not that it was ugly or anything, far from it).
"I can't imagine Baldur's Gate 3 without the cutscenes because they make the characters come out so much more, and one of the things we wanted to stress were our companions and personality," Walgrave says. "Baldur's Gate 3 should really be a triple-A experience."
Branching is "Very Elaborate" and Party Members Will Have Their Own Agendas
A hallmark of BioWare's run with Baldur's Gate was the way that party members felt alive. The lively interactions it engendered would subsequently be BioWare's calling card during its successful run in the 2000s. Walgrave isn't afraid to admit that Larian was jealous of BioWare on that front.
"There are many things that were in Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 that we still want to have in there. The fact that you have companions, and that they're in a party, and they think in a certain way of you, and they will banter about what's going on, and they can even leave your party. They are reacting to each other and to each other's decisions," Walgrave says. "These are things we wanted to take to the next level because we've never really had them at the level that they were at in Baldur's Gate 1 and 2."
According to Walgrave, the type of branching involved will get very elaborate. Every companion will have their own personality and agenda, and they will react to your actions accordingly. Naturally, there are things they will never accept, and they may leave the party if they think you're crossed the line. They can also die—Astarian can actually drain his aforementioned companion dry if you're not careful—or be turned into Mind Flayers due to the tadpole wriggling around in their brain.
Some RPG studios worry about hours of hard work being hidden behind a wall of cutscenes, but Larian isn't one of them. "Sometimes we think of what needs to be included, and the poor scripter says, 'Only 0.01 percent of people will see this.' And we're like, 'So what?' We need to support it because it's a possibility," Walgrave laughs. "We know that there are so many permutations that we need to take care of, but I think this is something that's already present in the DNA of Larian because we've been doing it the past decade."
On the subject of romance, Walgrave is vague for now. Baldur's Gate 3 will definitely have them—that much he's willing to confirm. Aside from saying that they will be more realistic than the romance in Divinity: Original Sin 2, he won't really elaborate. It's one of many instances in which Walgrave expounds on Larian's desire to grow and improve.
The main takeaway is that Larian Studios sees itself as able to take on seriously ambitious narrative work. "In the end if you can pull it off, and I think by now we can because our team size has increased, then I think you should," Walgrave says. "We now have the team size. We have 12 writers. We have a couple dozen people doing the cinematics. It comes down to data now. Data and manpower. The budget that's going into Baldur's Gate 3 allows us to do that."
Role-playing games rarely demo well, so it's often difficult to have any definitive takeaways about their quality after a preview event. It's the kind of genre that demands time: time to get to know the party, the battle system, your own character. Even a three-hour session will only barely scratch the surface of what's possible in a good RPG.
Still, Larian's excellent track record of late has earned the studio plenty of respect. Talking to the developers themselves, it's clear that they are entirely confident in their ability to make a high-quality RPG, and that they are perfectly happy to do things their own way. Larian isn't watering down Baldur's Gate 3 in the name of mainstream appeal.
We're still several months away from release, whenever that might be, but it's clear that Larian is all in on making Baldur's Gate 3 its most elaborate RPG to date. Fans will be pleased.
Baldur's Gate 3 is coming to Steam Early Access relatively soon. If you're feeling nostalgic after reading this, the enhanced editions of both the original Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2 are currently available on Switch, PC, iOS, Android, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.