Baldur’s Gate III is the latest new installment of the Baldur’s Gate series since Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II back in 2004. The game is being developed by Larian Studios, who are largely known for the Divinity series of games.
Players are thrust into an inter-dimensional escape, as the game opens onboard an Illithid Nautiloid ship piloted by a Mind Flayer. The ship is harvesting new victims to be converted into thralls, Intellect Devourers, and new Mind Flayers, when they’re set upon by their enemy: the Githyanki.
The Gith were a slave race who escaped a long period of enslavement under the Illithids, and now dedicate themselves to roaming the Astral Sea and fighting the aberrations wherever they might be found.
It’s during one such attack that the player must escape. The Nautiloid ship they’ve been imprisoned on is on fire, and had warped to one of the layers of The Nine Hells in a failed attempt to escape the Githyanki.
Along the way, the player encounters a Githyanki that had been imprisoned with them. The two decide to join forces to escape, and she explains to the player that they’ve both been infected with an Illithid parasite that will inevitably turn them into a Mind Flayer should the worst come to pass. But the first order of business is escaping.
Older fans of Dungeons & Dragons will recognize the trappings of a Spelljamming Ship, which brings the odd contraption to the front and center of fifth edition. Spelljamming Ships are magical vessels designed to travel the many planes, Astral Sea, (and other campaign settings in the tabletop game).
Companions are varied and players will get to meet a priestess of Shar, a vampiric rogue, and a wandering hexblade. Companions aren’t afraid to voice their opinions or their reactions to choices that you make. This gives an immersive feeling of peer pressure, and allows players to weigh options clearly; deciding between their own desires and their companions’.
The story is too short to say much about, and the connection between this title and the other Baldur’s Gate titles isn’t apparent. That is, outside of it taking place near the city of Baldur’s Gate. Those familiar with the older titles know that the common thread of the series is about the Bhaalspawn, descendants of Bhaal the god of murder.
Those who’ve played Divinity: Original Sin will be familiar with Larian Studio’s attention to detail when it comes to dialogue, and odd places it can appear (such as the Pet Pal ability which lets you speak to animals in Divinity). In Baldur’s Gate III, this breathes life into non-combat spells like Speak With Dead that are otherwise overlooked in other CRPGs.
The music also has a few good songs. Though there’s typical nondescript ambiance, some of the battle music includes rumbling and operatic vocals and enhance the drama of a fight.
Unlike the first two Baldur’s Gate games, Baldur’s Gate III is strictly turn-based. While the first two simulated real-time combat while still using Dungeons & Dragons rulesets; Baldur’s Gate III uses the Divinity engine. Those who have played Divinity: Original Sin or its sequel will be familiar with the way combat works.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and feels more like playing actual Dungeons & Dragons. The game operates like the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons where players get an action, bonus action, and move action once per turn. But to that end, it suffers from the same pitfalls as the regular game.
Low level characters are squishy, and thus the combat is largely reliant on luck. This is more a condemnation of the tabletop than Baldur’s Gate III specifically, but it can be frustrating to have your level 1 Fighter go down to an Intellect Devourer that decides to crit you for 8+ damage.
However what the game does do well is skill checks. Skill checks are an oft overlooked part in tabletop sessions outside of obvious and overt uses. In Baldur’s Gate III you get plenty of opportunity to flex them.
For example, Illithid sigils require Arcana checks to decipher. An early encounter makes use of your Perception and perhaps Medicine skills depending on how you solve it.
More detail is also put into terrain than typical CRPGs. Players receive a small bonus to firing at a range from the high ground, and players can actually jump to clear gaps or hazards.
Hiding, running, and jumping might sound basic, but they’re incredibly versatile tools that can be accessed in the middle of combat to create choke points, seize the high ground, or kite foes that lacked foresight by only bringing melee weapons.
Baldur’s Gate III also manages to run a little more smoothly than the Divinity games as far as movement is concerned. The AI companions do a better job of not walking into every trap or hazard as they follow the player.
Though Larian Studios goes too far to make terrain effects relevant, being able to “dip” my greatsword in a puddle of burning debris for bonus damage for a few turns is silly and somewhat immersion breaking.
But ultimately, Baldur’s Gate III takes too much advantage of being an “Early Access” title. The game is largely unfinished, and currently only part of the story is available. Textures fail to render, bodies ragdoll into stretched splotches as they clip through terrain, and lipsync fails more often than not.
Which is a shame because the voice acting is great and omnipresent. Most if not all encounters are fully voiced, even minor one-off NPCs who are encountered only once or twice.
Some key features are also missing. I went into the game trying to create a fighter-wizard (rather than simply use the Eldritch Knight subclass of Fighter), but no option was seemingly available to dabble when I leveled up. Companion characters are similarly locked into their classes.
Fans of CRPGs with a lot of customization will also be disappointed. By nature, fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons offers a few choices in terms of class, subclass, race, and build. But those who are used to getting a feat every level will have to wait until level 4. Feats and ability advances have been bundled together as part of the new edition.
Character creation is missing a few important details important to the Forgotten Realms. Players aren’t asked to choose an alignment, or to choose a patron deity. There’s nothing else to say about customization, all the basics are there; a few hairstyles, skin colors, and other odds and ends. Half-orcs are noticeably absent, but since it’s Early Access not all playable races are available yet.
Those purchasing Baldur’s Gate III anytime soon will feel more like they’ve paid the price of a full game, just to beta test the first leg of the adventure. This isn’t necessarily wrong, as Kickstarter campaigns offer promises in exchange for funding already. But at least they’re straightforward about what they are.
To call Baldur’s Gate III “Early Access” is technically true, but incredibly generous at the same time.
Baldur’s Gate III is available now as an Early Access title on Windows PC (via Steam and GOG), and Google Stadia.
Baldur’s Gate III was previewed on Windows PC using a preview copy provided by Larian Studios. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.