RPG Codex Review: Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear
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RPG Codex Review: Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sun 24 April 2016, 18:52:27Tags: Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear; Beamdog
Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is Beamdog's recently released interquel set between Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, which got heaps of praise from none other than Chris Avellone pre-release. But is it actually any good? Let's find out.
[Review by Delterius]
From the creators of the Neverwinter Nights original campaign and the Codex's marketing plant emoticon comes Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, an expansion for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition that aims to bridge the gap between that game and Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. Siege of Dragonspear has taken our forum by storm, raising issues such as Faerun's realism in face of vicious packs of Horse Spiders and the role of human subjectivity in scientific research. There's much at stake here. What follows is the result of my investigations into this seminal title.
Siege made me feel as if I'd come home after a long absence to find old friends waiting for me, with the same life and spark I remembered from when they first journeyed by my side.
Chris 'Wolfsbane' Avellone
Chris 'Wolfsbane' Avellone
The story of Siege of Dragonspear begins a few weeks after Sarevok's defeat. As the Hero of Baldur's Gate, you are tasked with disposing of his last few remaining minions deep in the catacombs of the city. To assist you, the game assembles a default party of companions determined by your character's alignment. An evil PC gets characters like Edwin and Viconia, while a good one gets Minsc and Dynaheir - you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, these default companions are precisely those who show up as companions in the sequel, with the notable exception of Imoen, who is demoted to NPC status for this adventure. This is explained by the fact that she is training to become a Mage, a reference to her Dual Class in Shadows of Amn - a nice touch, I thought.
Anyway, the real plot kicks in after you're done tying up these loose ends, as you are beset by assassins sent by antagonist-of-the-week Caelar Argent, AKA The Shining Lady. Caelar leads a makeshift army of well-intentioned jackasses known as the Crusade. Their objective is to spread the Good News to open an ancient portal to the Nine Hells in Dragonspear Castle and use it to tear down the Wall of the Faithless. Or something. Along the way there's a big reveal about darker powers at work but whatever. You probably already expected that sort of thing.
The crusaders can't help but leave a blazing trail of destruction in their wake, but have somehow persuaded a great many people to join their cause. It must be that Aasimar Charisma bonus at work (she ain't called the Shining Lady for nothing). So it's up to you and a coalition army from Baldur's Gate, Waterdeep and Daggerford to foil their plans. The plot of the game mostly revolves around the Flaming Fist's march towards Dragonspear Castle and the various difficulties it encounters on the way.
As such, there is no big open world to explore in Siege of Dragonspear, nor even a BioWare-style middle act where you get to choose which of four quests you want to complete first. The expansion offers two or three wilderness areas off the beaten path, and that's about it. This fits well with the urgency of its plot (and most likely, the needs of its budget), but it might be a deal breaker for those who felt claustrophobic in Throne of Bhaal. Personally, I'm inclined to be forgiving towards this. The game might not have a lot of optional content, but what it does have is pretty good.
In fact, it's there that Siege of Dragonspear shines the most. Walk away from the straightforward main quest and you'll find some cool environments, quests and sometimes even reactivity. Nothing evokes that D&D feeling like helping some dwarven clerics of Dumathoin clean out an undead-infested excavation site, only to find an ancient library containing tomes about the nature of life and death, along with the arcane rituals to transcend it. That's the sort of thing that gives you reason to soldier on and find the surprise waiting for you at the end at the dungeon.
There are a lot of choices to make in Siege of Dragonspear. Don't get me wrong, most of it is just fluff. Being rude or witty towards strangers isn't that big a deal, and the game has this habit of writing the plot into a corner by giving you too many choices and then railroading you back to the script by force. It's definitely no Age of Decadence. However, it still has a good deal of reactivity based on your class, race, which quests you complete and how you choose to end some of them. This builds up to something similar to the finale of Dragon Age: Origins, where the factions participating in the final battle are determined by your decisions. In the words of an old sage, that makes Dragonspear more of a 'full-scale RPG' compared to its predecessors.
The actual writing is a different beast, however. Siege of Dragonspear is a game released in 2016 and this is where the gap of fifteen years is most profound, running into the risk of appearing like mere fan fiction. Not only are the writers very different people from those of the original games, but their tools of the trade are much more modern. As mentioned earlier, the expansion is quite linear, but that doesn't paint the whole picture. Its storytelling also makes abundant use of voice acting, cutscenes and a heavy script that is as far away from the first Baldur's Gate as it gets. This can be a bit jarring, given that we are talking about an interquel - not even Shadows of Amn went this far with cinematics. But it does continue a historical trend set by BioWare themselves. One that has serious implications for the way the expansion's characters work.
Depending on how you look at it, writing Minsc into a long, drawn-out drama with lots of banter is either the easiest job in the world or a thankless task. The original Baldur's Gate companions aren't much more than a collection of one-note stereotypes defined by a set of catchphrases. As the number of lines grows, this becomes a frustrating torrent of references. One or two lines about Boo is fine but four jokes about Dynaheir's unfortunate speech impediment is ten jokes too much. One way to fix this issue is with character development, which is what Shadows of Amn did. Minsc and Jaheira both lost their significant others, and had to deal with that (by swearing to protect Aerie and becoming romance fodder for the PC, respectively).
But on the other hand, for all of their limitations, those original Baldur's Gate characters were still endearing to a lot of people. Fans have formed their own interpretations of them over the years, to the point that any new additions would likely be intolerable. For example, many people have complained about how Jaheira and Viconia act in Siege of Dragonspear (and I agree with them, as far as Jaheira goes). It's a difficult problem to solve.
Things get really interesting when you confront the old characters with the new ones. One of Siege of Dragonspear's new companions is Corwin, a staunchly loyal captain of the Flaming Fist and single mother. So far so good - you've got a reasonably well-rounded character who is defined by a coherent backstory rather than a personality quirk. Should work great in dialogue, right? The problem is, when you put Corwin in the same room as say, Tiax, you end up with somebody who acts like a normal person while surrounded by insane, over-the-top cartoon cutouts. Her portrait and frankly boring-sounding voice acting only further accentuate this inconsistency of tone.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Glint, a hyperactive tiny person with a big mouth and a big family. He kind of reminds me of Dragon Age's Leliana, the way his romance starts way off in left field. Which is something that would be less creepy if gnomes didn't look like small bearded children, but I digress. Glint's defining characteristic isn't so much his personal issues or his backstory (he just turns up at camp, ready for recruitment) but rather his tendency to say something about everything and everyone, usually with a random joke. The character comes across as a poor attempt at comic relief that doesn't really fit with the tone of the series. He's like the embodiment of those moments when you come up with an unfunny "witty" remark about something days after you originally heard it. Siege of Dragonspear's writing vacillates between these two extremes of straightforward and cringeworthy.
Before I continue, a few words about the overall story. The expansion serves as a good opportunity to flesh out upcoming events in Amn and it does so competently. The characters of Imoen and totally-not-Irenicus are better established, as are the dark circumstances that force you to leave Baldur's Gate. The whole thing feels a bit contrived at times, but it's better than what we had before. The main plot is true to the Baldur's Gate experience - someone tries to kill you, they end up hurting someone else instead, and you set out to kill them and their families and burn their house down. It's just a backdrop to the real adventure, which is about kicking ass and getting experience points. The one plot development of note happens at the very end of the game, and I don't want to spoil it. Imagine if George Lucas owned Beamdog and decided to combine all of the D&D CRPGs into one expanded universe. Would you find it lame if I told you that the dark power behind Kaelyn the Dove was actually The Nameless One all along? It's NOT that but it's kinda like that.
Now, let's get to the good parts.
I think the game industry in general doesn't give enough credit to gamers. Games are often dumbed down to "Chimp Factor Five" as a means to broaden the appeal.
Indeed they are. While the question of Siege of Dragonspear's story is very much up in the air, the actual gameplay can't be all that different from the original games. After all, it uses the same ruleset and engine. Beamdog did try to make the UI more accomodating to new players. For example, when you pick up a piece of equipment in your inventory, the portraits of characters who can use it and benefit from it are highlighted. While purists might feel that this is unwarranted handholding, the most drastic changes to the UI, such as the godawful HP bars, can be disabled.
New and old players alike can make use of Siege of Dragonspear's extensive difficulty options to customize their experience. There's a Story Mode for those of us who have yet to find a videogame we'd rather play, and Legacy of Bhaal, an extreme difficulty mode for HP bloat afficionados. More interestingly, the various difficulty modes also modify enemy encounter composition. The Hard and Insane difficulty modes give enemies an artificial damage bonus as well, but there's an option to disable that. All of these are very much welcome additions.
While I didn't find Siege of Dragonspear's monsters to be incredibly innovative, it's good that Beamdog didn't shy away from combining Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale's bestiaries to keep things fresh. Ghouls and Shadows have joined forces with Shades and Imbued Wights to make (un)life a bit more colorful. When helping the dwarven clerics I mentioned earlier, I had to deal with level and attribute draining, stuns, long-range health draining and enemy healing, not to mention those bastards who open fights with salvos of magic missiles. The dungeon caps it off with a final boss who far outclasses you, and who you may only be able to defeat by using a special item, much like the Unseeing Eye quest from Shadows of Amn.
Of course, enemies are more than just blocks of stats and abilities, and the AI in Siege of Dragonspear has also seen some good progress. I'd describe it as in between vanilla Baldur's Gate and the popular Sword Coast Stratagems mod. Thieves make use of invisibility and stealth to harass your squishiest party members (which won't always be your mage - the AI recognizes Stoneskin and other defensive buffs). Mages use their spells more judiciously and always buff themselves up with protective spells like Otiluke's Resilient Sphere and Minor Spell Turning. Archers in particular love to retarget, always on the lookout for an easier mark. Just about everyone uses consumables and even classic trash mob enemies like orcs and hobgoblins travel in larger numbers and have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Siege of Dragonspear's encounter design occasionally makes use of terrain. In one battle, poor Dynaheir was pelted by arrows fired through a broken window by a group of skeleton archers inside a locked room. Other highlights include an encounter with a squad of hobgoblins positioned on the other side of a bridge and an ambush in a dead magic zone. Unfortunately, battles like these are more the exception than the rule in Dragonspear. The expansion's more open areas tend to be stuffed with scores of filler trash mobs.
One feature that Beamdog hyped up before Siege of Dragonspear's release was the so-called epic battles. Their tweaked Infinity Engine can render many characters and spell effects at once, and the game makes ample use of this improvement, as you find yourself engaged in progressively larger skirmishes between the Coalition and the Crusade. Naturally, as the number of combatants on both sides grows into the dozens, your individual actions matter less. I see the titular siege of Dragonspear Castle as more of an interactive cutscene than an actual encounter, but it was fun nonetheless. What impressed me the most was that there were virtually no pathfinding issues. NPCs were well-coordinated and did not shit themselves trying to navigate through the castle's narrow pathways.
As far as loot goes, there have been some changes. Many of the expansion's new items have special abilities that require a particular race or class. A holy symbol of Helm will grant +2 to the Wisdom score of an appropriate cleric, but just +1 to everyone else. Traditionally unsupported classes get some love here. For example, there's a set of musical instruments available for Bards. Items tend to use 3rd Edition-style attribute bonuses, rather than setting your attributes to a particular value. This is a potentially major change to the entire series, as the expansion's new items are meant to reappear in Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, and they make it much easier to achieve a godlike character sheet.
The final major new feature in Siege of Dragonspear is a new class, the Shaman. The Shaman is a divine spellcaster who can't wear heavy armor or dual-class, but more than makes up for that with the ability to cast Druid spells spontaneously and a handful of unique powers. Among these is a modal ability called Shamanic Dance, which locks the Shaman in place but allows him to summon and maintain up to three spiritual allies. Shamans also get Detect Illusion as a class skill and a few unique spells such as Spiritual Clarity, a third level spell that removes all charm effects from one party member. All of these abilities combined make the Shaman class very versatile, and probably the most powerful support class in the game, much in the same way that a well-built Sorcerer usually outclasses ordinary Mages.
I did not have high expectations for Siege of Dragonspear after my short playthrough of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. The new characters clashed mightily with the original game and Beamdog's original maps were atrocious. But now things are different. Simply put, the combat is what ultimately left me with a positive impression of the expansion. Sure, having played the original saga I've already seen most of these challenges in one way or another. Nonetheless, I feel that Beamdog have made good use of the wealth of assets built into the Infinity Engine games to deliver a solid experience.
The magical world outside the RPG Codex has always praised Baldur's Gate for its writing and memorable characters and disregarded everything else. I'm here to disagree with some of the reviews out there that insist that the Infinity Engine interface is archaic or that it's silly to expect people to learn their saving throws in 2016. It's sad that people are unable to appreciate the virtues of those classics - how reliable and powerful their controls feel, the sheer breadth of content that they have to offer. That's what I think this expansion is really about. It's a final farewell to that wonky, broken ruleset filled with personality. A farewell to facing off against everything the Monster Manuals can throw at you. A farewell to the greatest Monty Haul campaign ever. A whole era of game development has passed us by, and that's something that even crowdfunding can't bring back.
The story of a videogame is more than just an Irenicus voiced by David Warner or a Minsc and Boo. It's what you, the player, make of it. The Bhaalspawn Saga is about an adventurer of divine heritage surviving against all odds from one battle to the next. Much more than in any scripted dialogue sequence, you live through that narrative as you play the game. And that's why the next time I play through the Baldur's Gate trilogy, I'll be sure to add a few hours more with Siege of Dragonspear.
What are you still doing here? The review is over. Beamdog's representative will be here at any moment to give me my hard-earned bribe. Oh, I see. You're waiting for that. The great controversy of our time. Let me tell you something, as a BioWare Social Network survivor, there's nothing I enjoy more than a schadenfreude festival, where the fanbase turns on itself and individual developers duke it out with strangers on the Internet in vast Twitter wars. It's especially funny that a game that's so remotely connected to modern BioWare still has the potential to throw the Web into a collective hissy fit. Too bad Beamdog failed to keep that flame going strong.
One point of contention is the existence of downtrodden refugees from the Crusade in the city of Baldur's Gate. It is claimed that the game's dialogue gets a bit preachy about this contemporary hot-button issue. The idea that medieval soldiers would abuse and extort money from the poor just wasn't on people's radars, apparently. There's a scene where all of the gold you acquired in the base game is stolen by refugees who distribute it amongst themselves, never to be seen again. Apparently that's enough to make people feel bad about themselves and their countries' border control policies or something? I wouldn't know. With all due respect, I could not see where that complaint comes from after bathing myself in the blood of the thieves with no reputation loss.
The same doesn't apply to Mizhena, the transsexual cleric of Tempus who relays her backstory to you after about two lines of conversation (something that no character has ever done before in any fantasy RPG). Some people have pointed out that unlike nearly every other conversation in the game, you don't get a rude dialogue option in this exchange. This clearly indicates a terrifying Realms-wide conspiracy to normalize the use of the Girdle of Gender Bending. In my opinion, all this rhetoric distracts from the very simple issue that this is just poor writing.
Beamdog's writers probably believed that they portrayed the character in a uncontroversially natural, matter-of-fact way. However, sometimes it's better to trust your fans to piece things together on their own, especially when going on a tangent into heated political territory. Baldur's Gate is, after all, just a videogame about killing orcs and bad guys. Its themes are as shallow as they come and aren't reinforced by the inclusion of a transexual character. The last thing you want is to become like one of those 90s children's cartoons that suddenly decided to have an episode about AIDS.
To avoid this shallow tokenism it is necessary to invest more time into the character. She has to be established as somebody who is more than just her gender, and the fact shouldn't simply be described as is. This might call for a great deal more subtlety than most writers in the gaming industry are capable of, but if Mizhena is a natural part of the Forgotten Realms then her gender shouldn't even come up in discussion. She shouldn't have to defend it. It is us, the players, who find this unusual, not the people on the screen, who live in a world far crazier than ours.
Then there's the moment when mere incompetence turns into outright stupidity. Minsc has a rare prompt line where he satirizes an Internet mudslinging contest known as Gamergate. There are some loud voices out there who will tell you that this is the great cultural war of our time. Here's a reality check. Nobody cares. Really. Gamergate is just a fun diversion for everybody except its most fanatical participants. Some of you may live on the Internet, but most of us just vacation there. If your life, your identity and future depend on whether a barebones broadcasting service can be used for civil discussion then you are not at the vanguard of human relations, you are at the bottom of it. Minsc's Gamergate line is a pointless addition that hurts the entire product, but rejecting a game on the basis of a throwaway line that toys with controversy reeks of First World problems.
All that said, unlike BioWare back in the day, Beamdog don't seem to have such dangerously inflated egos that they're unwilling to do what is necessary to defuse a bad situation. They've stumbled a bit on the way, with the developers foolishly joining the fray on the Internet instead of shutting up, and studio head Trent Oster asking people to post positive reviews on Steam and Metacritic to counter the bad ones. But in the end they accepted most of the criticisms, removing Minsc's line and admitting that Mizhena was poorly implemented.
And that's all there is to say about that.
If you feel like giving it a try, Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is available on Steam and GOG, among other places (such as Beamdog's own digital download service which nobody in their right mind cares about).