Baldur’s Gate 3 Review (Early Access) — Role for Initiative

Baldur’s Gate 3 Review (Early Access) — Role for Initiative

With a high level of player choice and role-playing systems, Baldur's Gate 3 already looks like the promising start of a deep, immersive RPG.

When playing through a campaign in Dungeons & Dragons, there is always the pretense that players are being guided through a set narrative, but the real joy of a tabletop RPG is the unpredictability. Even with the best intentions and well-laid plains, a stray dice roll or a wayward saving throw can completely change the narrative for players, something that has always been at the heart of a good D&D campaign. In that sense, with Larian Studios serving as the Dungeon Master, Baldur’s Gate 3 almost perfectly captures what makes banding together on a fantasy adventure through roleplaying so alluring.

As the developers behind the Divinity: Original Sin series, Larian already made a case for themselves that they were up to taking the mantle of the Baldur’s Gate series, which is still regarded as one of the all-time RPG classics. Though players of Divinity: Original Sin 2 will likely find a lot of that game’s DNA strewn throughout Larian’s latest project, Baldur’s Gate 3 is unabashedly a D&D-inspired adventure with a truly heavy emphasis on role-playing. From its storyline set in the Forgotten Realms, to its systems that feel right out of the 5E Player’s Handbook, Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of the best game adaptations of the D&D universe yet, even though it clearly has a long way to go to reach its full potential.

Baldur’s Gate 3 has been released by Larian Studios this week in Early Access on PC and Mac, which will give players the chance to delve into the RPG before its full release sometime in the future. However, the most notable part of the Early Access release worth mentioning is the fact that this build isn’t the full game and instead is focused solely on the first of the game’s three acts. A dense experience on its own, the first act of Baldur’s Gate 3 offers about 20-25 hours of gameplay, while also giving players a glimpse at most of the systems and mechanics that will fuel the rest of the experience once it hits its finalized release.

Normally I’m someone that tends to shy away from playing games in Early Access in favor of playing a finished, polished release, and playing through Baldur’s Gate 3 a few days prior to its Early Access release was a reminder of why I tend to wait. New builds of the game were introduced over the past weekend that erased progress from previous ones, and new updates and patches released would gradually fix some of the issues that I ran into. There are placeholders for features like pre-made Origin characters that aren’t in the game yet, along with other components that aren’t fully fleshed out, such as a wider selection of character classes beyond six basic D&D staples: Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Ranger, Cleric, and Warlock.

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In its current form, there’s no question that Baldur’s Gate 3 is very much an Early Access experience with bugs and technical issues to spare. In my time with the Early Access build texture loading, missing character animations, and delayed sound cues were among the most common issues that I ran into, along with some initial tweaking with the game’s settings to improve performance. Though the game as a whole often looks gorgeous, there were moments where beautifully-rendered scenes were dampened by low-res textures or a character model that didn’t fully render correctly, reminders that this build is functional but not yet fully polished.

However, despite some of those issues that are inevitable with a release that is clearly a work-in-progress, what Larian has offered with the Early Access version of Baldur’s Gate 3 is still an enjoyable and satisfying experience in its own right. Given that there are plenty more updates and tweaks in store for this build over the coming weeks and months, the best approach towards the Early Access release is taking it in as a very extended demo of what will (eventually) be an enormous, highly-detailed RPG. From the hours that I’ve spent with the game, there are already a vast assortment of options and ways for scenes to play out, giving more of an incentive for players to experiment with each of the available classes and races in the Early Access build.

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After a cinematic opening cutscene introduces the threat of the Mindflayers to Faerun, Baldur’s Gate 3 brings players into its character creator to create both their playable protagonist and their potential love interest. Here, Larian Studios strikes an excellent balance with a fantastic character creator that feels streamlined, approachable, and with enough depth to bring the player’s characters to life, especially since they all look incredible when finished. Whether you decide on a Tiefling Wizard or a Half-Elf Cleric, the character creator in Baldur’s Gate 3 offers enough depth that players can finely tune their characters from skin and hair color to tattoos and facial features, but with enough approachability to not feel too overwhelming if you want to delve right into the action.

That last point especially defines the opening hours of the game, as Baldur’s Gate 3 doesn’t waste time introducing players to its story, world, and the stakes at hand. Your playable character finds themselves onboard a Mindflayer ship alongside other captives, with the infamous D&D nemeses implanting their prisoners with parasites to turn them into members of their growing army. With the help of a Githyanki Fighter named Lae’zel, your character escapes the prisoner ship and discovers that they have yet to turn into Mindflayers themselves, leading to the search for a cure and to thwart the Mindflayers’ plans to overrun Faerun.

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From the simplicity of its opening setup, the rest of the Early Access experience of Baldur’s Gate 3 puts a greater emphasis on teaching players the basics of exploration, combat, character interaction, and the dynamics of its many gameplay systems. Like the Divinity games before it and the Dungeons & Dragons mechanics it is drawing from, Baldur’s Gate 3 will likely be a bit complex for those without a basic understanding of the D&D fundamentals. But even then, Larian does a solid job of laying out the core mechanics of exploring each environment for what objects you can interact with, how to approach conversations with different characters, and eventually how to engage with combat.

The influence of the Divinity series is especially felt in Baldur’s Gate 3, as Larian puts a heavy emphasis on interactivity within each environment. Elemental effects and learning how to combine them with the environment is a tactic that players can make full use of in Baldur’s Gate 3, such as dousing enemies in oil and lighting them on fire with a flaming arrow to deal extra damage. For fans of the Divinity games, it won’t be much of a hard transition at all with so many of that series’ staples and mechanics working their way into Larian’s latest project.

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However, Baldur’s Gate 3‘s more immediate D&D influences are felt in conversations with other characters and exploration, which rely heavily on dice rolls and saving throws to determine the outcome. In several situations, players will be presented with a d20 dice roll and a number that they will have to surpass in order to successfully pass through an encounter, lending itself to the ways that situations in Baldur’s Gate 3 can vary wildly between playthroughs.

For example, in the game’s opening where the player encounters an Intellect Devourer (I.E., a brain with legs) feasting on the skull of a captive prisoner, choices are presented then to either destroy the brain, gently remove it and have it join your party, or leave it be. Having played through the opening section of the game twice, both of my outcomes were wildly different. At first, I managed to have the brain follow along in my journey battling Imps, while in the second playthrough, I flubbed the attempt to remove it and left the encounter in a bloody mess. Though this is just one specific example, it speaks to the ways that Baldur’s Gate 3 really embraces giving players a variety of outcomes and choices for how they approach each encounter, with surely a lot more to come.

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In terms of combat, Baldur’s Gate 3 plays out in a turn-based fashion between your party members and the enemies that you engage, with each character having a movement action, attack, and bonus action to utilize each turn. If you already have familiarity with D&DBaldur’s Gate 3‘s approach to combat should be straightforward and approachable, with a few tweaks made to streamline things a bit. Even if you aren’t, Larian has made its systems approachable enough that if you’ve played some form of tactical RPG or strategy game–even something like XCOM–you can quickly get the hang of how to take on enemies, with its turn-based combat giving a chance to reflect and plan out your next moves.

Coming off Divinity: Original Sin 2, it’s no surprise that Baldur’s Gate 3 already shows a ton of promise not only to build off Larian’s predecessor, but as a worthy successor to an iconic RPG series. The caveat of course is that it isn’t quite there yet, instead showing players a foundation for what’s to come through its complex but satisfying systems of exploration, combat, and player agency and immersion. In its current state, the Early Access release of Baldur’s Gate 3 is an entertaining but buggy one-shot versus a fully-polished experience. But even in that form, Baldur’s Gate 3 looks like the beginning of a grand campaign for the ages.