On paper, Baldur’s Gate 3 from developer Larian Studios has all the potential to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
A party-based tabletop roleplaying CRPG that stresses freedom, exploration and experimentation atop the highest of production values, Baldur’s Gate 3 is quite a bit more than a digital Dungeons & Dragons session.
And now, not far behind its PC counterpart, the game comes to PlayStation 5 in very much the same form.
No surprise here from Larian Studios, whose award-winning work on Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and the follow-up a few years later continues to reset the CRPG bar.
But the wealth of freedom, choices and emotion poured into a 100-plus-hour journey in Baldur’s Gate 3 would appear to represent the most dramatic of leaps for the genre, if not RPGs as a whole, creating an entirely new benchmark.
Graphics and Gameplay
Courtesy of the Divinity 4.0 engine, few games look as vibrantly colored and detailed as Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms here.
All races and manner of people and monsters alike densely populate a detailed world across multiple biomes. Be it underground caverns lit by bioluminescent foliage to the expected hot or cold areas or even the near-overwhelming late-game city streets, it’s impossible not to find oneself immersed.
Unlike many games, it’s not just window dressing either that if squinted too closely at, reveals some of the inner workings of a video game behind the proverbial curtain.
Simply put, the versatility of the world is impressive. Most doors can be broken down as opposed to needing unlocked or picked. Lighting up things that appear they might catch fire if prodded with a spell is never not satisfying. There’s a level of interaction here that CRPGs have struggled to ever find compared to the anything-goes nature of imagination while playing an actual tabletop RPG with friends.
Characters are nearly as dynamic in their impressiveness. The lip-synching is never not good and the wide range of emotions displayed by all is staggering when considering the actual size and scope of the game.
There is incredible voice acting too, an idea that extends to random passersby on streets and out in the world, of which there are many. Plus, the conversations are as deep as they get in a Mass Effect style, though it’s not an exaggeration to say Baldur’s Gate 3 is in a league of its own at this point. A huge number of dialogue options await at every moment and the way a player navigates a single conversation can have huge ramifications. At one point, handling one chat a certain way meant seeing the same character again later with new side quests available where they might not have been otherwise.
It’s a newfound level of immersion for the genre, truly. Similar games of this size, with something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim coming to mind first, had plenty of repeated dialogue lines or it was painfully obvious the same voice actor was working many roles. Not here—to the point it’s a little unfair to RPGs launching in the wake of this one.
The experimentation and freedom extends to combat, where players peel back into a turn-based approach while asked to manage movement and strategy atop a myriad of spells, damage types and more.
There are 10-plus classes in the traditional CRPG sense. Barbarians are good with armor and simple weapons, while druids can transform into beasts, bards weave powers through music and rangers excel at scouting and hunting, to name a few.
It goes much deeper than that, but we’d be here for thousands more words. Just know that this is nearly as deep as an actual tabletop game, if not more so in some cases.
Ditto for the encounter design. It is so varied, in fact, that players are usually uncomfortable (in a good, fun way). Falling back on the same old attacks and/or skills is a good way to lose. Even the way of entering an encounter will vary heavily by player.
Enemy A.I. is fantastic and only assisted by the extremely varied encounter design. One moment a player will find themselves flanked by ranged enemies, only to next fight foes who teleport in and kidnap all party members, asking them to fend for themselves in order to survive.
Outside of combat, resting is a key element between fights. A short rest eats an hour of in-game time. More strategic is the long rest, which is only available once a day and uses camp supplies. Different types of rest will recharge certain attacks (or not) for the next inevitable encounter.
And look, the gameplay isn’t going to be for everyone. Some just don’t like to click and have characters auto-walk while also trying to juggle companions. Others might not like the turn-based style of combat. But even these are things naysayers might be able to overlook given the stunning amount of choice, experimentation and immersion that quickly grabs a player and refuses to loosen the grip.
The game’s user interface (UI) can get a little too clogged at times, given the map, information on the top, more information on the left and the staggering number of options and items on the bottom bar. Not that it doesn’t do a good job of relaying information, but it can overwhelm, especially early.
Gameplay is obviously superior for the ease of point-and-click on a PC, but the ability to customize radial dials on gamepads makes for a rather pleasant controller experience, too.
Story and More
Baldur’s Gate 3 takes place 100 years after the second game and the three-act story classifies as an epic, given the stunning amount of time it could take to reach the end (let alone the city sharing the same name as the game’s title).
Players open up the experience in an extensive character creator where they pick and background, the latter influencing skills with abilities, weapons and armor.
To quickly summarize the backdrop, players get infected with a parasite that gives them something of a mind flayer curse, so to speak, before linking up with those who suffered the same misbegotten fate.
It’s hard not to find gripping narrative beats or even side characters throughout the experience. The ripple effect of even minor decisions throughout 60-plus hours and into each of the game’s three acts is both jaw-dropping and encourages multiple playthroughs, to say the least.
This world is painstakingly handcrafted in the sense that everything feels like it matters. Environmental storytelling is a phrase often thrown around video games but it feels masterclass here. A note found on a downed enemy that makes a player feel remorse for deciding to settle things permanently is something most games never come close to achieving, for example.
It’s a little hard to stress just how many ways players can tackle objectives or fights here. It’s not just window dressing on the back of a box like so many other games. Spoiling the many ways to address scenarios wouldn’t be fun, but let’s say players can read minds, sabotage buildings where enemies might be, teleport, control animals, even get an enemy drunk or distracted by a friend (why not both?) or talk through things—and that’s really keeping it simple with a handful of examples.
Along the way, players have standard stats to juggle (strength, dexterity, etc.) for their chosen character, though re-speccing is eventually available.
The game wouldn’t be complete without a morality system—and it’s a doozy in the best way. Origins, playable characters who otherwise can become companions, are a good example of this. They’ll react to the player’s action with various outcomes ranging from friends, romance options, rivals or outright enemies. Each of the unique characters have their own personalities and goals that permeate throughout the experience, adding to the variety of possible outcomes.
Note that this doesn’t have min-maxing in the traditional sense of leveling up endlessly and clicking buttons on a skill tree. Rather, the min-maxing happens out in the world via the staggering number of magical items, potions and more to equip in interesting ways to both the player’s character and companions.
Also keep in mind the game boasts multiplayer too in the form of four-player co-op, online or local. Not only does the co-op perform well, it adds to the hilarity of the experience tenfold, especially when friends start coordinating off the story path to trick guards or set up ambushes.
Accessibility is a cliche double-sided coin here when it comes to something as complicated as tabletop RPGs. On one hand, players can click a button while hovering over pretty much anything to get some explanations. But seeking out tutorials is often lacking or omitting information players new to this type of experience could need.
That’s to say the player onboarding process for complete newbies is rough. Not unfair, but overwhelming—but also, if it wasn’t clear, worth toughing out.
Baldur’s Gate 3 also runs well and doesn’t offer up many bugs or glitches of note. There is an extensive suite of options tucked into the menus as well, hitting most of the proper quality-of-life and accessibility notes.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is destined to enjoy a healthy speedrunning community for a long time.
Funnily enough, the jaw-dropping flexibility of the gameplay systems has already produced stunning world-record times (don’t read too far into the strategy for sake of spoilers).
For those who don’t want to go that route, doing things such as skipping cutscenes and dialogue are a must for good times. So is eventually routing a path that leads quickly through and even past key events, boiling a 100-plus hour campaign down dramatically.
In combat, when fighting is even absolutely necessary, entering with an element of surprise via ambush makes sense. That, or bust out a spell that permits pushing a boss off a ledge to their doom, collapsing a building on them or even talking them out of it.
Truly, the most enjoyable facet of the speedrunning community around the game will be the creativity that oozes from every attempt thanks to the stunning systems in place, making for an unexpected monster hit in this subsection of video gaming.
In an absolutely stacked 2023 calendar year, Baldur’s Gate 3 stands near the forefront of the Game of the Year conversation.
Games that combine the scale of the biggest, richest RPGs with captivating environments, unforgettable characters and narrative beats while grabbing that old-school RPG combat feel just don’t come around often.
Somehow, Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of those, a you-had-to-be-there moment for RPGs. It’s rich in its storytelling, almost concerningly dense and captivating in the agency it hands a player to experiment—with meaningful consequences.
Simply put, Baldur’s Gate 3 is an epic, one of those instant classics that hits every item on wishlists and is well worth overcoming a big learning curve because frankly, there’s nothing else like it.