Gather your party, folks, because Baldur’s Gate 3 is finally upon us. A whopping 23 years after the Bhaalspawn and their buds took a trip to Athkatla in Baldur’s Gate 2, we’re back in the Sword Coast slaughtering goblins, getting spooked by mind flayers and spewing out magic missiles. And even for a jaded old man like myself, who’s a bit tired of traditional fantasy, I’m having a blast returning to my old stomping grounds.
I’d like nothing more than to slap a score on this thing and send you off on a grand adventure, but I’ve only had access to the review build since Sunday night. Sleep is for the weak, but even after spending every day since then playing until dawn, I’ve still got a long road ahead of me—hence the “in progress” part of this review. You’ll need to wait a wee bit before I render final judgement.
The good news, however, is that so far this is an absurdly impressive CRPG. My dream CRPG, really. As I’ve fought, stolen and sang—yes, I’m a Bard—my way through the Forgotten Realms it’s felt like I’ve been playing the Greatest Hits: the best parts of Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin… all the heavy hitters.
Here are a few of my highlights:
- I’m becoming BFFs with an extremely theatrical vampire
- I recently adopted an owlbear cub
- I’ve embarked upon a complicated romantic relationship with a tiefling whose very touch kills thanks to the infernal engine encased in her chest
- I’ve replaced my eyeball with an artefact that lets me detect invisible enemies
- I consistently talk to the dead and animals, the latter of which are always a laugh
- I’ve put on countless impromptu musical performances for gold and applause
- I’ve caused more “accidental” deaths than Agent 47
- I’ve found several excellent hats
Basically, I’m having a whale of a time. And thank god, because it would be very upsetting if I was forgoing sleep so many nights in a row for a game that didn’t rock my world so hard.
Brains and brawn
Rather than a direct sequel to the Bhaalspawn saga, Baldur’s Gate 3 takes a very Larian approach to D&D, turning it almost into an immersive sim where anything goes. Every quest and combat encounter has a ridiculous number of ways for you to tackle it, rewarding creativity and curiosity at all times.
Spells, skills and physical manipulation of the world around you opens up so many doors, literally and metaphorically. You can make a fight against a trio of ogres go your way by smashing the rickety pillars holding up the building they’re hanging out in, turn into a gas to sneak your way through tiny cracks, or use magic to persuade animals to turn on their masters. This is a game where something as innocuous as an empty box can become the linchpin in your strategy as you move it around to reach places above you, neutralise poison-spewing vents or just drop it on top of an unsuspecting enemy. Everywhere you look there are opportunities to feel like the smartest person in the room.
But this is also very true to D&D, with Larian effectively taking on the role of a flexible Dungeon Master. It’s a much more authentic tabletop experience than what you’ll be used to on PC as a result. And I hope you like skill and ability checks, because there sure are a lot of them. You’ll be rolling that d20 all the damn time. Thankfully, it’s a real treat.
See, your class, race and background each offer myriad ways to overcome all manner of obstacles and situations. At the most basic level they inform your dialogue choices and the way NPCs react to you. So, as a Bard, I crack a lot of jokes, come up with the best insults and tell the most colourful lies. As a half-elf drow, I’m more trusted by certain denizens of the Underdark, where the drow live, but surface-dwellers are a bit more troubled by my appearance, given the drow’s reputation for evil, slavery and generally being super arrogant.
They see me rollin’
Sometimes challenges crop up during conversations, however, necessitating the roll of the d20. The charlatan background, for instance, gives you skills like deception and performance, which can increase your chances of success when you tell tall tales to get out of a sticky situation, or compose a poem on the spot because your life depends on it. Options relating to these skills are clearly marked, and if you select one you’ll have to roll your die. The result is compared to the difficulty of the skill check, determining whether you succeed or fail. If you’re not a fan of RNG, though, don’t worry, because there are so many ways to augment your roll, giving you a huge amount of control over the results.
All sorts of modifiers come into play, effectively buffing your roll. As a Bard, my charisma ability score can be used to help me make a more persuasive argument. My Friends spell, meanwhile, gives me Advantage, allowing me to roll two d20s, with the highest roll being picked. Even my companions can help with their own spells. D&D’s Inspiration mechanic is also a huge boon. Just like the tabletop game, being a good roleplayer rewards you with Inspiration, which allows you to reroll dice. So if you perform deeds that match your chosen background, or the backgrounds of your companions, you get another point of Inspiration added to your pool.
These mechanics also crop up when you’re disarming traps, picking locks and getting into fights, though when it comes to the latter you don’t make the rolls yourself—that would make combat drag on for hours and hours, and a lot of fights are already marathons. You’ll also encounter skill checks happening in the background that reflect you suddenly noticing something. Or not noticing it if the check fails. An Arcane skill check might let you recognise that the potion someone is offering you is in fact going to kill you, while perception checks let you spot traps and secret doors. These happen all the time, so manually rolling for them would be a bit much.
Not that the dice-rolling sequences aren’t an absolute joy. It’s a stroke of genius on Larian’s part, demystifying the systems that drive the game and putting players in charge. Stuff that’s normally under the hood in most RPGs is transformed into some of Baldur’s Gate 3’s most exciting moments, as you hold your breath and pray for a natural 20.
If you were hoping for something more in the vein of the classic Baldur’s Gates, however, you’ll still be well served as you delve into sprawling, trap-infested dungeons, listen to your bickering but delightful companions and deal with a curse that’s not a million miles away from the legacy of Bhaal.
See, you’ve got a mind flayer tadpole in your brain, but instead of swiftly transforming you into one of these psychic, tentacled monsters, it instead gives you telepathy, mind-control abilities and, should you choose to consume more tadpoles from others with a similar curse, a whole web of weird abilities, from supernatural luck to the power to shapeshift into a displacer beast. But at what cost? Well, that’s the conflict at the heart of Baldur’s Gate 3: how much do you give in to your new powers, and when do you stop being an elf or a human and start becoming a mind flayer yourself? I guess I’ll find out in another 80 hours or so.
I started out denying myself the fun of my mind flayer powers, but now I’m all in. They’re just too much fun to ignore. I’ve even managed to talk most of my party into embracing the way of the tadpole, increasing their own effectiveness in combat, potentially at the cost of their humanity. Am I a bad boss? No, I’m helping them reach their full potential. Am I a bad friend? Oh yes, absolutely.
Foisting this curse on them is much harder because they’re such a likeable bunch. Gale the Wizard and Astarion the vampy Rogue are perhaps a bit too alike, with their bantery joking around, occasionally evoking the now-exhausting Marvel approach to dialogue, but their playful charm has me smitten. Wyll the Warlock (catchy) is a bit more understated, but I haven’t spent as much time with him yet. It’s the women of Baldur’s Gate 3 who deserve top-billing, however. There’s Lae’zal the githyanki Fighter, who won’t stop bullying you even when she considers you her best friend; Shadowheart the Cleric, who hides her half-forgotten trauma behind biting sarcasm and zealotry; and Karlach, the tiefling Barbarian who is powered by an infernal engine, loves to chop heads, swears all the time, and who is one of the thirstiest characters in any RPG. We are hot devil girlfriend stans in this household.
Each of these characters can also become your player character, too. At character creation—which, I should add, is phenomenal, offering a vast array of cosmetic and practical choices, right down to the shape of your genitals—you can select an origin character, letting you play as any of the above characters, benefiting from their unique perspectives and hooks.
After deciding to play Astarion as soon as he was revealed, I changed my mind late in the day after Larian CEO Swen Vincke argued for playing a custom character first, and I’m glad I followed his advice. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know them as companions, learning about their dark secrets organically while developing my own unique character. Plus, I just really wanted to play as a drow because I’m basic. And now I have something to look forward to when I inevitably start my second playthrough.
Murder and mayhem
I’ve spent a long-ass time exploring the Sword Coast so far, but a nearly equal amount of time has been allotted to beating the crap out of goblins and ogres and bugbears and duergar and… look I’ve made a lot of enemies, OK? Baldur’s Gate 3 is a turn-based deal (outside of combat it’s real-time by default, but with the option to switch to turn-based when you, say, want to perfectly time a sneaky infiltration of a monster-filled ruin) and is thus a bit slower than its predecessors when blood’s getting spilled. It’s also so much better.
Fights are similar to Divinity: Original Sin, each feeling like an experimental, free-form puzzle where there’s a good chance of explosions. Larian has made the familiar roster of D&D spells and powers extremely exciting and fun to play around with, especially in the way that they interact with the battlefields themselves.
Instead of just firing Melf’s Acid Arrow at a gnoll, you can instead fire it at the ground they’re standing on, making the surface acidic. Then you can follow it up with Firebolt, which combines with the acid to create a fiery explosion. This is the system at its most basic, and as you unlock more elaborate spells things really kick off, allowing you to create massive AoE traps that can take out small armies.
Then you’ve got all of your reactions, which allow you to, among other things, counter attack, as well as bonus actions like jumping, dipping your weapon into a surface (giving it a flaming effect etc) or pushing idiots over. So you can get acid all over your blade, jump up to an enemy above you, push them off a cliff, and then start melting their mates. Not all in one turn, of course. You can also throw any random objects from your inventory, or find things scattered around the battlefield itself. I especially love to sneak around before I’ve been spotted and drop a boulder, a hanging brazier or whatever else I can find as an opening to combat. It just makes me deliriously happy to start a fight by instantly crushing some fools.
Expect some incredibly tricky fights where you are vastly outnumbered, but there are always multiple ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sneaking around to get the lay of the land and figuring out where to position each party member is absolutely key, and every fight that I’ve become embroiled in that seemed too hard, too frustrating, just necessitated a rethink. It could be as simple as starting on the high ground. Or maybe there are some NPCs or critters nearby who could be roped into helping you out. If you get a chance to chat before things kick off, you can gain some advantages with your sharp tongue. Pissing off an enemy before you brawl, for instance, could give you the initiative, letting your party attack first. It’s elaborate, complex and, yes, incredibly intimidating, but I’ve never had such a good time beating people up in an RPG before.
I already feel like I’ve experienced what would usually be a full RPG by this point, but really I’m just at the beginning. Baldur’s Gate itself is dozens upon dozens of hours away. With Baldur’s Gate 3’s immersive sim tendencies, I cannot wait to see how it handles a big urban space, but I’m also still content trekking through the wilderness, ancient ruins and, of course, the surprisingly colourful and extremely deadly Underdark.
If you’ve played through the early access version, you’ll be familiar with the game’s first 30-odd hours, but new spells, subclasses, races and origin characters, as well as the huge amount of tweaks and that extra layer of polish should make it feel novel again. The flexibility of its systems and the brain-melting number of optional paths and class/race/background-specific options mean it’s a lot of fun to play through again, which bodes well for anyone hoping to go through the entire thing multiple times.
Performance has largely been very good, too, but I’m playing on a beefy rig with an RTX 4090 GPU and an i9 13900K CPU, which demolishes pretty much everything. I’ve streamed it to my Steam Deck as well, however, and I’m impressed by how well it suits the handheld system. I intend to see how it performs natively on the Steam Deck, too, but I’m just steeling myself for the incredibly long download time first. It’s not a small game.
I’ve encountered a few very minor bugs, like the screen going black for 30 seconds after a cutscene, but that’s very rare. The worst issue was a crucial dialogue sequence that cut out early, on multiple attempts, which isn’t too bad for a game of this scope.
So! I might not be ready to give it a score yet, but if it wasn’t immediately obvious: Baldur’s Gate 3 is utterly brilliant. So far. Let’s see if it can keep this up for the next 80 hours. And I’ll be updating this review-in-progress in the meantime, so come back for my thoughts on things like co-op and the titular city. Pretty much all of us at PCG are playing, too, so expect plenty of takes, features and guides on every aspect of this mammoth RPG.