The beauty of Dungeons & Dragons lies in its immersive role-playing structure that bestows upon you the role of an author, but you never truly know where the story is headed. It’s quite humane in that sense, where no matter how well-prepared you are, fate’s inevitable gnarly fingers might have different ideas for us. Larian Studios’ latest Baldur’s Gate III explores the Forgotten Realms, a dark fantastical corner of D&D that’s brimming with devils, deities, and the supernatural. A highly dynamic world that reacts to the digits on a polyhedral dice to weave an emotional tale about a group of broken people, gambling their lives against sinister forces that ooze Lovecraftian vibes. On the other hand, you can take a backseat and watch it all fade to misery, as you scroll through Astarion fan art and look up the quickest ways to romance bears in-game.
Baldur’s Gate 3 review: Limitless freedom
That’s the kind of impeccable choice-based writing that powered Baldur’s Gate 3 to its instant success, at one point glueing 875,343 Steam players to their seats. The amount of passion and care dedicated to minor details is astonishing, and personally, I feel like calling it anything less than a cultural phenomenon would be an insult. It’s not very often that a modern-day RPG anticipates failures or out-of-the-box actions from a player and delivers equally absurd outcomes that let you continue the journey regardless. It fully embodies the meaning of player choice, with events unfurling at a pace you desire and rarely setting any limitations for what can be done. Sure, that level of escapism can be credited to age-old tabletop RPG mechanics, but when a game’s programming ignores player agency to keep vital characters alive or restarts a level for narrative purposes, it loses its magic.
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Early on in Baldur’s Gate 3, I thought it’d be funny to let an overconfident bard perform eye surgery on me, hoping to extract the parasitic tadpole swimming within my ocular region (more on that later). It was clear he didn’t know what he was up to when he whipped out a long, unsterilised needle and began uncertainly prodding my orbital socket, as I shrieked and clenched my fists in pain. The narration was top-notch here, describing the needle’s back-and-forth motion, as it plucked my nerves like a harp string, to no avail.
As he then brandished an icepick for better coverage, I wondered what’s the worst that could happen. If he ends up stabbing my brain, I die and reload an older save — I was mentally prepared for it and let it happen. However, the game subverted expectations by keeping my now one-eyed character alive and granted me a replacement prosthetic eye that helps with seeing invisible creatures!
It was a reward for exploring the unknown, the path less travelled, since stopping the surgery midway would’ve simply left me with a bleeding eye. But because I chose the more outlandish option, I received a bonus perk for free. Having confirmed both results by reloading save files, I can’t help but applaud Larian for thinking so far ahead and trusting the player to experiment with all possibilities. Baldur’s Gate 3 has a strong understanding of gamer psychology — the curiosity of wanting to stand before a mirror to look at your reflection, jumping into a water body to see if you die, or pressing the big red button despite warnings. Its choices hinge on this ‘what if…’ concept to yield worldly repercussions, but you don’t necessarily have to follow those rules.
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Even the conditions for certain death present themselves in such delectable fashion, that I often found myself saving the game mid-conversation to see how the cutscenes would play out. When one of my party members, the rogue Astarion, outed himself as a vampire spawn and expressed his desire of taking a nibble out of my neck, I let him suck out all my blood dry, just to see what happens. Instead of restarting from a checkpoint, the next morning, my carcass just lay there on the ground, while my companions went about their daily tasks.
It was shocking to see the game just continue without me, as Astarion cluelessly remarked that something horrible had happened. (Gee, I wonder what it was!) Other times, I’d fail a Perception skill check while exploring dimly lit areas, only to trigger a booby trap and watch my entire squad burn to a crisp. It’s funnily unpredictable, and stays true to the chaotic principle of D&D that continues egging on unlucky players who roll single digits on the dice.
Baldur’s Gate 3 review: Companions
The absurdity wouldn’t be enjoyable, were it not for our delightful cast of companions, who grow and expose their flaws over the course of the campaign. That’s assuming you didn’t kill them upon the first meeting, which is hard to do considering how closed off and untrustworthy they all come across as. We’re all nothing but victims of tragedy, having found common ground in our worsening condition, thanks to a group of Mind Flayers infecting our brains with a parasite. If we don’t find a cure soon enough, our flesh and bones will morph from within, turning us into a monstrous Illithid with four tentacles hanging from our chins. And you don’t want that, right? In Baldur’s Gate III, there are no rules, so it’s entirely for you to decide whether to resist the corruption or embrace its otherworldly powers.
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You do it by consuming bottled specimens of the said parasites, which unlocks an entirely separate skill tree that grants boosts for attack and ability checks, alongside access to some special Mind Flayer powers, much later. Unless you’re going for a goody-two-shoes run, the only downside to eating them is that many of our companions start seeing us in a negative light. But thanks to the power of D&D mechanics, we can charm or persuade them to support our cause — or at the very least, understand our view. Conscious beings change their minds all the time and are open to reasoning if you play your cards right. It’s a trait Baldur’s Gate 3 revels in, regardless of whether your intentions are good or bad. Now THAT is a detailed role-playing game.
Throughout our journey we recruit new members for our motley crew, starting with the ferocious Githyanki assassin Lae’zel, who’s sworn to prove herself worthy to her kind. The gloomy cleric Shadowheart is sent on a suicide mission with no memory of her past, the chatty wizard Gale is fighting an internal magical corruption, the cheerful Tiefling Karlach has a highly volatile engine for a heart, and the disapproving Wyll wants to escape a devilish bargain. All of their plight is now compounded by the lingering fear of transforming into some squid-faced horror, and you uncover their backstories by progressing sub-quests and exhausting dialogue options.
I personally took a liking to Astarion though, the silver-haired vampire spawn, who not only loves watching others suffer but is open to using the parasite’s powers to his advantage. What works incredibly well for his character is his sassy, almost melodramatic persona, fuelled by the occasional snarky comments and piercing red eyes that constantly judge you for performing heroic deeds. I also liked the tiny character-defining details Larian added to his camp, ranging from a chalice of dried blood to a nicely-maintained mirror. The latter is a rather depressing touch when you consider that the poor soul has been unable to see his own reflection for centuries now. Similarly, Lae’zel’s space has a grindstone for sharpening her weapons, Gale’s got a telescope, and Karlach has a raggedy stuffed bear to cuddle with.
By now, Baldur’s Gate 3 has also earned itself a reputation as an engaging dating simulator, spawning an array of speedrunners looking to romance a companion, as fast as possible. This has to do with the game’s approval system, where your party members’ interest in you is entirely dependent on the way you interact with the world and treat its NPCs. At the beginning of my run, I largely chose violence and was mean to everyone, even forcing one of the Tieflings in a village to kneel before Lae’zel. My lack of kindness impressed the brutal assassin, who praised my courage and confessed to wanting to have sex.
But instead of solely relying on nudity and having its characters mutely hump each other, BG3 uses sensual wordplay and stellar voice acting to amplify those moments. It’s quite effectively done, and so, I really appreciate the inclusion of a nudity filter to tone it down, in case you’re ever in a potentially awkward situation.
Baldur’s Gate 3 review: Combat and tools of trade
The combat in Baldur’s Gate 3 is turn-based — a formula that doesn’t get adapted as much in mainstream gaming these days, with the new Final Fantasy XVI completely abandoning it for a real-time affair. For many, this notion of waiting turns before attacking might be a deal-breaker, but I assure you that it’s the most dynamic combat system you’ll have ever faced. The design philosophy lends itself to DnD’s 5th Edition ruleset to encourage more tactical and out-of-the-box thinking, rather than running headfirst into enemy encounters like a headless chicken.
My experience with CRPGs is fairly limited, having only played Disco Elysium, which is a literary RPG about an amnesiac detective going through an existential crisis. There’s no actual combat in it, and so my early brawls in the Forgotten Realms were a little prickly.
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There’s a steep learning curve to BG3’s combat system, partly attributed to the shortage of solid tutorials that just assumes everyone playing the game is well-versed with D&D mechanics. I feel like better explanations for things like resource management would’ve worked in its favour, and that adapting 5th Edition so closely made it so your characters are incredibly powerless in the early levels. That said, once you get past it and have gotten a hang of the system, every battle feels incredibly rewarding. As an experienced Dark Souls player, I’ve learned that if I get stuck somewhere, it’s because I’m not supposed to be there yet — or there’s a different method to approaching the challenge.
I encountered my first hurdle at a chapel early in the game, where I dropped down a suspicious hole that led to a dungeon. Lying in wait was a large group of bandits who kept killing my team numerous times until I was frustrated and forced to think up a new strategy. Since my placement wasn’t ideal, I decided to move the camera around, zoom in, and analyse the area, only to discover a cluster of oil barrels conveniently set in the enemies’ position. I instinctively hurled a fire spell at it, blasting half the wretched crooks into smithereens and gaining the upper hand. It was here that I learned about relying on all the tools at my disposal — not limited to weapons and spells — even if some actions might feel silly. The cool rule about DnD is that if you think something can be done, then it’s very likely possible in the universe.
For instance, you can coat armaments with poison, so when you slash enemies, it deals bonus damage over time, like a ticking time bomb. If you’ve run out of attack cooldowns, you can pick up random furniture lying around and fling it, or if up close and personal, just shove them away. The latter is quite effective and comical when fighting atop elevated areas, so you can push foes over the edge to their death, without having to waste any resources. Splashing the ground with grease is a nice way to slow down enemies and make them slip and fall. Plus, they’re highly flammable, so once you’re done roasting creatures, you can douse the flames by tossing a pot of water and clear your path for safe travels. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible in this game.
The insane flexibility also makes it so you can avoid combat, by sneaking around or launching a weighty, surprise attack on an NPC, who isn’t in a defensive stance. In a lot of cases, fights are also tied to the larger story, kicking off mid-conversation when you say something that pisses off people. This often leads to save scumming (reloading save) for better outcomes, but there are some hard choices that are unavoidable and define your alignments for the rest of your journey. Baldur’s Gate 3 establishes this at Emerald Grove, the druid camp that’s reluctantly housing a pack of horned Tieflings, who are awaiting an assault from a cult of goblins, led by the ruthless drow Minthara.
For the next few hours, I had to decide whom to side with, having paid a visit to the goblin camp and heard Minthara’s side of the story. On the surface, I had the option to kill her right away, or join the goblins in the raid, which would result in countless innocents dying. But I went for the unspecified third option, wherein I betrayed the raiders midway through and defended the Grove from the invasion. Taking headcount into consideration, the goblins had a clear advantage, but guilt got the best of me and I painstakingly laid waste to them from high ground.
Sure, it was a hard-earned victory, but I was left feeling empty by the end of it because siding with Minthara would’ve led to an entirely new questline, later on. Was killing her worth it? I don’t know. There’s no way to experience everything Baldur’s Gate 3 has to offer in a single playthrough, which while mildly annoying, paves the way for quality replayability with new, branching paths.
Baldur’s Gate 3 review: Structure, and technical shortcomings
Structurally, Baldur’s Gate 3 is a massive playing field with loads of quests to do, though it’s not an open world. The story is spread across three acts, with each of them presenting an entirely unique location and vibe, in addition to switching up your party’s priorities. Act 1 is based in the wilderness where you learn about the Ilithid’s powers, whereas Act 2 makes things spooky by pitting you in the dim Shadowlands which establishes the game’s major threat.
Through it all, I love how you feel yourself getting progressively stronger, be it through accruing spells or level ups. I began my journey on Balanced difficulty, and a bit into the second act, felt confident and in tune with the game’s mechanics that I bumped it up to Tactician difficulty. And since the enemies don’t scale with your level, there were times I went off the beaten path and was able to totally overpower them.
Act 3 is set in the bustling metropolis of the titular Baldur’s Gate, serving as the final showdown that brings all our companions on a united mission to topple the bad guys. While its streets are densely populated, I found it lacking in valuable NPC interactions and quest-givers in this area — most characters and companions were focused on the key objective. Regardless, this section suffers from performance issues, ranging from lagging cutscenes to jittery movement when the camera pans around. There were several reports of quest-ending bugs, albeit I haven’t faced any of them yet. Hopefully, they get ironed out in the upcoming patch, because that’s the only negative I see in this masterpiece of a game.
Baldur’s Gate 3 review: Verdict
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a masterclass in table-top-inspired CRPGs, rewarding imagination above all in a gorgeous presentation that brings the Forgotten Realms to life. Larian Studios’ ambitious scope has birthed one of the most reactive worlds in all of gaming, where player choices govern both landmark events and smaller romantic flings with its delectable cast of companions. Through a nicely woven story that best represents its characters’ misery and a combat style benefitted by unorthodox tactics, it has rightfully alarmed the larger AAA games industry to do better. Sure, there are some technical shortcomings in the final act, but that doesn’t diminish its status as my Game of the Year so far. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a certified must-play title and I can’t wait to start my second playthrough — preferably as a monk Dark Urge, given how untimely and goofy his quotes are.
Rating (out of 10): 9