Due in no small part to the debuts of Stranger Things, Critical Role, and The Adventure Zone, Dungeons and Dragons is back. Almost perfectly timed with mainstream media’s renewed interest in the game, a stunningly streamlined and inviting 5th edition has revitalized the role-playing game and is bringing players of all ages and experience levels back to the game table. Naturally, video games are along for the ride.
Of course, role-playing never really left games. Games as far removed from each other in tone and setting as Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2 feature carefully integrated RPG elements, and massively popular games such as The Witcher 3 and The Outer Worlds very squarely center RPG trends into their narratives, systems, choices and more. They just do it without a direct connection to the originator of many of their tropes and nuances — the tabletop experience of Dungeons and Dragons.
Computer roleplaying games (CRPGs), though, a much more narrowly defined genre featuring much more recent renewed interest and releases like Pillars of Eternity, Divinity Original Sin and Torment: Tides of Numenera, centralize the D&D experience with intensive character-building, choices, mechanics, usually isometric perspectives and well…role-playing in a way those more mainstream, action oriented games above do not.
What has seen the latter’s revitalization alongside D&D at large? An immense debt to, and mimicry of, a series of seminal BioWare and Black Isle developed Dungeons and Dragons games released across just three years: Baldur’s Gate I, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale. These games didn’t invite the CRPG genre, and they weren’t the first D&D games, but they most certainly refined and popularized both in a series of well-timed swoops.
Indeed, if you want to understand the renewed interest in a somewhat overlooked genre, live out the D&D experience between game nights, and see some of the best narratives in video games through, you need to go to that source. Easier now than ever before thanks to developer Beamdog’s enhanced edition of the games available now on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PS4 following their PC debuts some years ago.
What are they all about and how do they feel on console, though?
Baldur’s Gate (1998): The first game in the “series” Baldur’s Gate began development in 1995 as the first game utilizing the Infinity Engine and was released for PC in 1998 to staggering acclaim and accolades. The narrative finds the player attempting to uncover the shadowy circumstances around their birth following the death of their guardian. Wade into complicated and nuanced interpersonal conspiracies and politics alongside now famous character such as Minsc, Boo, and Drizzt Do’Urden in a game that has aged incredibly gracefully if you can overlook the strange intricacies and eccentricates of the 2nd edition of D&D upon which the mechanics are based — THAC0 and all. The enhanced edition does not include the more recently released Siege Of Dragonspear expansion as part of its base content but you can purchase it. This entry comes packed with its sequel for $49.99.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000): The sequel to the 1998 game features enhanced storytelling techniques (read: more spoken lines), more narrative depth, more choice, and more confusion as the player picks up the very Bhaal-centric threads introduced in its predecessor in a journey to not only shine a light on their newly revealed lineage but also to own it. A fantastic game that expands on the scope introduced in Baldur’s Gate in almost every way, the only thing holding this back is a dastardly and memorable for all the wrong reasons Underdark section. This version includes all of the expansions released shortly after the game’s original release.
Icewind Dale (2000): A more combat focused experience set in the eponymously named section of the Forgotten Realms, this entry features a surprisingly streamlined narrative given its debt to R.A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale novels but really succeeds in streamlining some of the more archaic 2nd edition rules and systems and in reveling in a twist ending that stuck with me for a very long, long time (19 years to be exact).The recently enhanced editions do not feature Icewind Dale II as Beamdog has previously reported that the source code for that game has been lost and the studio has moved onto other projects. This one comes with Torment for $49.99 as well.
Planescape: Torment (1999): The most narratively rich, memorable, and acute of the series. Torment is the game anyone interested in these seminal games should play if they only have time for one. More immediately about, and relishing in, D&D’s alignment system, Torment sees the player taking control of the most recent incarnation of an immortal god known as The Nameless One whose memory resets every time they die and that’s just the start of this satisfying, serious, and silly plane-hopping affair. The complex narrative, choices, and fleshed out, far-reaching responses to player decisions popularized and aged up moral relativism, death, sexuality and a whole lot more for both D&D and gaming at large in such a way that 2017’s Tides of Numenera is the only recently released game to share a direct lineage with any of the entries collected here. It also features a very good talking skull named Morte whom I love.
But that’s enough about the games to pique your interest what’s new here and how does it play?
Beamdog’s website touts over 400 enhancements for Baldur’s Gate alone but I had difficulty finding exact details on what all of these might be. What I know definitively is that every one of these games features widescreen support, adaptive UI and text scaling, enhanced audio, a new graphics rendering system, additional game modes, relatively seamless multiplayer, NPC pathfinding, and additional characters and equipment. It’s not a small amount of changes and tinkers which is naturally worrying to those that have a great fondness for the original releases but I found during my time across all the offerings that none aside from some balance breaking (in the player’s favor due to the introduction of new kits) was detracting from the experience nor overbearingly noticeable. These feel like the realizations of the game’s full potential more than anything.
The aforementioned enhancements mean, of course, that the games’ appearances have changed. Almost unanimously for the better. Widescreen support is offered seamlessly and looked fantastic on my 65” 1080p TV. Additionally, scaling of UI and text to larger or smaller is a deeply appreciated feature missing from even modern AAA games (I need a microscope for Control or Death Stranding). Unlike other games of their time, the original releases of the Forgotten Realms saga were not developed using a tile-based graphics engine but rather uniquirely rendered and that attention to detail and hand placed design implementation is more noticeable here than ever before.
This is the area I was most worried about before embarking on these journeys due to the original development for PC but I was pleasantly surprised by how Beamdog has implemented controls. There is no key-mapping or quick save to my disappointment, but the slightly removed and previously clunky pause-play style across these entries finds itself both sped up by, and fine-tuned, for controllers. I might actually enjoy having all the options easy to cycle through on the Dualshock more than the arthritic strain of hours on a keyboard and mouse and I hear the implementation on Nintendo Switch is equally easy to use and considered.
The sound design of the Forgotten Realms contributes immensely to the feel and tone of the world and it is, thankfully, largely unimpeded here. I found the sound mixing on tracks to be a little loud or uneven, and while I’m not certain this has changed, it seems like Beamdog has out-of-the-gate reduced how frequently your NPCs remark on the tides of battle in deeply memorable and nostalgic sound bites (this is probably for the better but I missed it until I found the sound options which include the ability to min-max selection, character, and other cues.
That leaves us with the leftovers, the things that don’t fit into any of the above categories but are still noticeable to either new or long-time players. The first of these is that some 2nd edition rules, and by extension the mechanics in these games, are completely and totally nonsensical. Players only inherit the weapon skills of their first class despite being able to multiclass, THAC0 does…something (people still argue about exactly what on D&D forums to this day), Icewind Dale lacks the replayability and memorability of the others, and there are easy-to-stumble-upon exploits that make the game trivially easy OR more difficult depending on the player. These are old games, and no amount of revision or tinkering can completely remove that feeling.
However, that’s also their strength – that nothing before or since, even the deeply referential new wave of CRPGs has really captured what these games do so, so well. The only way to experience the depth of the narrative, integration of the systems, reverence for the source material and more that’s all perfectly packaged here is to play them.
So get to it. You only have so long before Neverwinter Nights comes out and we’ve got to buy all those up so they make Dark Alliance anyways.