Racing into work on Christmas eve in 1998, I fought through the remnants of the previous night’s ice storm and slid past stop streets in an effort to get to the local mall in time to do a little shopping. The item I was hoping to get? The last one of the only two copies of Baldur’s Gate that my friend was holding for me. After waiting in line for a good half an hour, the game was mine and my obsessive desire to be the first person to own every single RPG that ever existed (And those who have seen my collection realize this is, sadly, quite true) was sated.
That Christmas eve, I played the game from 9pm to the wee hours of the morning, posting screenshots on my personal webpage and linking them to the Interplay forums for the poor folks who ordered through Digital River and were bitching out Interplay on the forums for the shipping delay they were just informed of. For a brief moment, I was in CRPG ecstasy, playing a game that, for the next 18 years, would be one of my go-to games. After beating both Baldur’s Gate games a couple dozen times, I could power through them in a weekend, which made for a nice nostalgic trip when real world pressures needed to be forgotten.
Knowing how special Baldur’s Gate was to a grognard such as myself, it shouldn’t surprise you too much that I pre-ordered Beamdog’s Siege of Dragonspear expansion without any hesitation. Nothing seemed as much of a lock as that expansion did. After the experience Beamdog had gained through re-jiggering the original two games and their expansions, I logically assumed that adding a new chapter to the series would be a piece of cake for them. Especially with ex-BioWare people working within the company.
For many reasons, beyond the obvious ones you already know, I was very wrong.
Siege of Dragonspear starts off fairly impressively. You accompany Imoen to a hideout belonging to one of Sarevok’s followers, and walk through a short dungeon until finally coming face to face with them and deciding their fate. It not only sets up the plot (and Imoen’s constantly changing excuses for why she can’t join you yet) but also introduces the game’s slight non-linear aspect by allowing you to peacefully arrest your enemy, which is something you’ll regret later when they break free.
Right after that, however, Siege of Dragonspear comes off as being a very muddled, confused, and imbalanced game. Nearly every aspect of its gameplay differs from the original, and most of what is there feels like the programmer’s desperate attempt to make improvements on a formula that didn’t need improving.
How so, you ask?
First off – and you’ll notice this from the very start – the game re-uses maps. Granted, the original Baldur’s Gate overworld forest areas used a lot of the same foliage sprites and ground bitmaps, but the first three maps you encounter after you leave the town of Baldur’s Gate and start your quest are almost exactly the same.
All they are is a small forested area with the same worn-out road and a conveniently-placed cave where some *things* happen. Granted, one of those caves contains a fight with a lich and a clever little quest involving the destruction of its phylactery, but even they manage to screw that up by making it so you can bumrush the lich in dialog and kill it in two hits.
Which brings us to problem number two, and that’s the severe gameplay imbalances.
Like a poorly made and rushed Neverwinter Nights module by a newbie creator, Siege of Dragonspear seems like it just wants to throw stuff at you to impress you, not challenge you. There are three gigantic mobs of trolls in the first three areas of the game, all of which are situated directly in front of the entrance to their respective dens, making proper positioning and threat distribution impossible. This is made even worse by the troll spell-casters they place at the far end of the mob.
What makes this needlessly imbalanced is the fact that oil flasks are a rare thing in the first Baldur’s Gate, and in the expansion – at least from what I saw during my trip – are even more uncommon. Sure, you can buy fire arrows, but the shop keeper only sells +2 fire arrows, which are incredibly expensive. This is especially so when the game makes a point to throw out all of your gold after importing your character. Of course, you can get some of that gold back through a side quest, but it’s a small fraction of what you entered with.
The insult to injury here? The troll mobs have a gendered troll, a “Troll Shamaness”, which I was told by a friend who is very finicky about Dungeons & Dragons that there is no such thing as a “shamaness”, since “shaman” isn’t gendered. Neither are trolls, actually.
It’s not just mobs of a dozen or more trolls jumping you as soon as you enter caves, if it was, then I doubt I’d even mention it. Instead, there are several other odd cases of imbalances, poor planning, and amateurish design that plague the game. One of the most egregious is the level draining undead you fight early on.
Level drain is something you rarely encounter in Baldur’s Gate 1 or the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 2…and for good reason. Unless you have a devoted cleric who has never multi or dual classed, you won’t have a high enough level to cast a restoration spell to cure it. This is the problem here, since I found myself constantly returning to camp to have Mizhena return my drained levels and ended up wasting away all of my monetary resources due to the outrageous amount of gold I had to keep forking over.
That wasn’t the only problem either, since Beamdog decided that replenishing all the spawns on the overworld map was a good idea, so every time I walked back from the cave full of level-draining undead, I had to fight through three mobs of a dozen or so dire wolves. This was good for grinding of levels, but it was incredibly annoying. Having played both Baldur’s Gate games for 18 years and going through them over two dozen times, I never once saw anything respawn in a cleared area…and I now know why the original designers made it that way.
Of course, none of this would have been so big of an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the game didn’t properly level up party members prior to them joining you.
For the uninitiated, there is a well-used and known tactic in the Baldur’s Gate games that involves getting your party members as soon as possible in the story line so that the game doesn’t level them up to your character before you can do it manually. The reason why is due to the fact that the game, regardless of how much common sense it makes, will not use the “max HP per level” option when calculating their health. As the strategy goes, you grab your desired party members before you gain any levels so that you can get the “best version” of that NPC with the max HP per level toggle on. Simple, right?
One of the problems with Siege of Dragonspear is that the game’s story is so structured, so forced, that it will not permit you to carry your end game party into the expansion. Once you exit the starter dungeon with Imoen (And the silly excuses the game keeps giving to you as to why she can’t join are maddeningly hilarious), you have to “make do” with whatever left-overs the game slowly trickles out to you. Garrick the bard, Safana, Tiax? The few NPCs they give you at the start are rarely used “B-team” combatants that are as useful as a paper sword. Thankfully, Minsc and Dynaheir will return, but the rest?
If you took heavyweights like Kivan, Ajantis, or Khalid, you better not get your hopes up…because your only real tanks for a good portion of the game, at least as far as hitpoint totals go, will be Minsc and a Skald that accompanies Jahiera. What’s worse is, if you select a character in Siege of Dragonspear that you never used (and therefore never leveled up) in Baldur’s Gate, then the game will have leveled them automatically and given them the least possible hit points. Even Rasaad, the robust little monk that he is, entered my party with a pathetically paltry 52 hit points at level 9.
This is how I ended up with a party of six people and why everyone had under 50 hitpoints except for my main…a dual classed *mage* who had 84.
This may sound like nitpicking, but it all adds up to the fact that this game was very poorly planned and designed, and was crafted by people who had very little experience with Baldur’s Gate and its quirky idiosyncrasies. They seemed far more interested in crafting their own unique plotline than they did making sure the actual gameplay was well-balanced and fun.
Which is sad, because the story itself is fan-fiction level pablum that could have been easily copy-and-pasted off of a Forgotten Realms forum and copy-pasta’ed into the engine.
If you’ve read the editorial I did concerning the game’s story, you have a good idea of what I’m going to say here. Not only are the gay and trangendered characters very stereotypical and feel forced, but the main cast they are there to support do not fare much better. In fact, the worst characters of the bunch are Irenicus and Caelar Argent, the new adversary you are asked to confront.
As I stated in my editorial, Argent is a blatant Je’anneDearchetype trope, right down to her righteous fury and god-like visage. She seems to be someone’s personal fantasy woman, a feminist goddess that is perfect in every way and adored as much as she is feared. It makes her a very hard to sympathize with character, which is unfortunate, since the plot will eventually want you to feel bad for her. Though how you can feel sorry for a god with flaming eyes who has a flaming sword is beyond me. She is nothing more than a parody of every teenage girl’s self-insert medieval swords & sorcery fantasy character.
The story never improves either, since as you can see by the threads now cropping up complaining about the ending, the final moments of the game aren’t any better. Not to spoil anything, but the shoehorned-in ending has frequently been compared to Mass Effect 3, with a very abrupt and forced fitting-in of the necessary party composition needed to set up the intro scene to Baldur’s Gate 2. It shows, yet again, how incredibly slapdash and lazy the writing for Siege of Dragonspear truly is.
However, the real problem with the writing would be the altered personality of Safana, the “seductive” thief. Since the writer felt that she was nothing more than a male fantasy object, she has been made to be more of a “independent woman” the way Viconia is. which means you can expect her to be a bit hard to handle sometimes and get to now enjoy a few cheap insults thrown at you from time to time. For Viconia, that’s fine…since she belongs to the matriarchal society of the Drow…but for Safana? It destroys her character and puts her out of sync with what she is in the pre-expansion Baldur’s Gate.
On the technical side, I didn’t experience many problems. Other than some save/load glitches and a couple corrupted saves, I didn’t encounter much in the way of any nuisances. In fact, most of the changes to the game on the technical side were ones I welcomed. Unlike mostly everyone else, I loved the new smoothed-out sprites and the black lines that encased them. It seemed to make everything “pop” and gave it a visual flair that I didn’t know I wanted until I got to see it. I also appreciated the new weapon swap system that let me equip both two handed weapons and a sword & shield setup without having to go into my backpack to change them.
The only thing I didn’t like – and this was a big one – was the new statistics sheet. The way they have it laid out now makes it look messy and disorganized. I can’t believe someone signed off on it, because anyone who has played D&D games on the PC could tell you that shoving every single piece of character information in one giant scrolling box isn’t very smart. It reminded me of Sword Coast Legends and its legendarily awful stat sheets.
All things considered, I cannot recommend Siege of Dragonspear to anyone. Unless you are so incredibly new to Baldur’s Gate that your standards for upholding its lore, keeping battles balanced, and making sense hasn’t set your expectation bar too high, you should completely avoid this expansion.
Combining fan fiction level writing with self-insert Mary Sues, a whiny cast of stereotypical characters, and a plot that tries to be epic but ends up falling flat at the end, Siege of Dragonspear fails at nearly everything it set out to improve upon. Which is sad, since I was so sure Beamdog could pull this off.
If you want to play a Baldur’s Gate expansion, I would suggest getting the original un-enhanced editions and installing both games along with the BGtutu mod. After that, you can download the fan-made Dark Side of the Sword Coast, which is infinitely better than what Beamdog has created here with Siege of Dragonspear.
Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear was reviewed on PC using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict 4.0
- New visuals look crisp
- New weapon weapon swap system is long overdue
- Horribly imbalanced
- Respawns are a bad idea
- Writing is barely fanfic level
- Memes (Though now removed) and silly situations abound
- New character stat sheets are a mess