Baldur's Gate's Complex Interface Translates Surprisingly Well to Switch

Baldur's Gate's Complex Interface Translates Surprisingly Well to Switch

Beamdog's Infinity Engine collections find great ways to bring those games to consoles.

For a long time, there was a class of RPGs that rarely made their way to consoles. For these games, their proper home was in the genre tag CRPG, "computer role playing game." It means a number of players weren't exposed to them; I myself didn't get into BioWare with the launch of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on Xbox.

Part of the issue has been the difference between control schemes. Most desktop PC owners play games with a mouse and keyboard, while console owners engage with controllers. Certain input concepts translate over easily—pressing the A button on the controller isn't all that different pressing A on a keyboard—but other issues persist. The major difference tends to be in mouse control. You can use a mouse to easily point anywhere onscreen, while a joystick pointer has to be moved physically. There's a pinpoint precision in the former that's missing in the latter.

Over the past few years, it's been harder for PC-centered developers to ignore consoles. Thus we've seen a slow movement of PC RPG and strategy titles getting ports over to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Switch. Divinity: Original Sin, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Frostpunk, Torchlight 2, and Diablo 3 have already made the transition, and console ports of games like Civilization 6 are incoming. The original developers and porting studios have to spend a long time working out how to cram some complex input options in your average 14-button, two stick controller.

This week marks the release of two collections of classic BioWare CRPGs from Beamdog. These collections, Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition and Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition, bring the Infinity Engine titles to Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. They're definitely showing their age in terms of visual prowess—there's no way to hide the fact that these games were made for older resolutions, and you can't clean that up without wiping away some of the charm. But these are still some of the best RPGs of all time and the foundation some of our modern greats are built upon. Planescape: Torment is still a triumph of storytelling and Baldur's Gate remains one of the best translations of the fantastic Dungeons & Dragons RPG system to gaming.

I've been playing the Switch version of both collections on-and-off over the past week, and I found myself impressed with the new default control scheme. If you want to stick with the old point-and-click control scheme, you can change back to it at any time by pressing Right on the Joy-Con d-pad. (This is called "Tactics Mode".) Moving a visible cursor around the screen with the left analog stick is pretty cumbersome though, and I found it was only really useful for focusing in on a specific character or item onscreen.

With these console ports, Beamdog has offered a brand-new option where you directly control your character, which works largely like modern RPGs. Pressing the left analog stick in a direction moves your character, and you can move the stick slightly to walk or push it in further to run. The right analog stick pans the camera around the region. The big improvement here is that direct control means the earlier pathfinding problems you'd run into is largely a thing of the past. In prior versions of these games, you'd click on a region and then your heroes would get stuck trying to figure out how to get there. Now you can simply guide them there yourself.

A helpful way to interact with objects under the new control scheme. | Mike Williams/USG, Beamdog

In addition, there's a new interaction system which highlights interactable objects with a light blue sheen; you can access the highlighted object by simply pressing A, or press left on the D-pad to change your target within the immediate area. It's not as robust as the area scan feature that Larian Studios added to the console version of Divinity: Original Sin 2, but there are fewer interactable objects in one area in many of these games.

The rest of the control changes are joined by user interface tweaks. ZL brings up a new radial menu of setting up parties, while the ZR radial menu has your inventory, spells, and journal readily available. X brings you to the hotbar of meaningful actions like talking and attacking, though the interaction highlight system prioritizes what it assumes will be the first action you want to use, meaning you don't have to engage with the hotbar all that often. And you won't get as lost anymore, because the Y button give a full area map, while up and down on the D-Pad zoom in and out as you play.

Together, these changes add up to a thoughtful revamp of these old games. It's a welcoming addition focused squarely in helping ease in newcomers who aren't used to how classic RPGs operate. These ports are teaching developers valuable lessons that can be carried forward into future games or further ports of the classics.

Baldur's Gate has tried to appeal to console players in the past, though it did so by creating an entirely new experience. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel were actually very successful—the first game won an Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences award for Role-Playing Game of the Year in 2001—but they did so by being vastly different games. They were hack-and-slash adventure games, leaning heavily on combat and offering few role-playing options. I remember enjoying the first game, but it clearly split the difference between an action-adventure game and what BioWare's Baldur's Gate was.

This was console Baldur's Gate back in the day. | Interplay

And that's how it's always been in the past. CRPGs and strategy games would make the transition, but with the complex edges sanded off. Developers usually didn't sit down to really figure out what made the original work, instead just assuming the brand would carry the day. Occasionally, you would get a version that leaned into the strengths of the console platform, but that was generally a console-only release. That's how you'd end up with games like Civilization Revolution, instead of its more robust older sibling Civilization.

With this generation, there's been a much stronger push to bring these titles over whole cloth. Titles that I'd never expect to see on consoles, including Cities: Skylines, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin 2, and Civilization 6 are making the transition, content complete. All the good stuff PC players have come to expect is still there, but with control schemes and user interfaces that make sense for playing on television or on-the-go. It's a wonderful future, both for someone like myself who straddles multiple platforms, and for new players, who get to experience all of these groundbreaking games for the first time. So if you've wondered what all the fuss around Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment is about, now is the best time to pick them up on Switch, PlayStation 4, or Xbox One.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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