If we could recall the Voyager spacecraft, resurrect Carl Sagan and have him imprint new data on their famous gold discs, I’d argue he should include Baldur’s Gate among humanity’s other enduring achievements. I’d sit zombie Carl right down and say, “Look Carl, I know you’re weak in the knees for profundity—and, at the moment, for lack of ligaments—so you’ll have to trust me when I say this is one of the most profoundly important games ever made. It’s not just a game, it speaks to an archetype, a whole approach to how games should be crafted. It’s Baldur’s Gate: triumph of the late ‘90s, savior of a dead genre, pinnacle of RPG design! I’ll let you keep Mozart or Beethoven, not both.”
I wouldn’t be the game’s only advocate, as evinced by Beamdog’s careful feat of restoration and preservation. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is now available for the iPad, and if its vaunted legacy isn’t enough to compel your purchase, then steel yourself! For with my muse as my guide I aim to bring you around.
BG:EE earns its awkward new semicolon and subtitle mainly by way of some under-the-hood but still significant improvements to the old codebase. The game now includes the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion by default. It uses the Baldur’s Gate 2 engine and so benefits from the sequel’s extra character classes, weapons, and whatnots. The developers have even incorporated some fan-made patches. The changes are all tasteful enough that everything still looks and plays as it should.
The game’s plot revolves around a smattering of mysteries. Why are all the iron tools in the region suddenly crumbling and disintegrating? Why do strange, unkempt itinerants keep trying to kill you? Why won’t your foster father trust you with the answers to these questions? Within the first hour or so of gameplay these pressing issues will force you out from your home town and into the wide world, where you’ll need to find allies, form a party, and pursue a life of heroism or villainy as you see fit. Though you aren’t as free to ignore the plot as in your typical Elder Scrolls game, Baldur’s Gate offers many dozens of hours of distracting side quests. “Side quests” indeed! They’re actually the game’s main draw. The overarching plot is ultimately cliché and predictable, but the line-to-line, NPC-to-NPC writing is colorful and varied. Thus the real reason to explore Baldur’s Gate isn’t to solve its main quest, but to explore its rich, detailed world and its myriad inhabitants.
The game world, intricate and layered though it may be, seems far richer than it is. In any given zone there may only be a few dozen things to do, but the sumptuous hand-painted background art suggests a far more complete and lived-in space. Every bit of the game’s geography is worth exploring just for its intrinsic charm. Compared to the PC version of the Enhanced Edition, the iPad’s background textures are sadly blurred somewhat by texture compression. Nevertheless the world is visually captivating. Let the gorgeous orchestral soundtrack set the mood while you march about prodding the world with your sword, camping under its stars, slaying its disagreeable denizens and gawking at its sprawling cities.
Combat can occur suddenly but you can always pause to issue orders. The traditional tactics work well: archers and mages in back, fighters in front. Your pre-combat choices can be just as important as your mid-combat tactics. Which character gets to hold the party’s last healing potion? Which spells should your mages and clerics memorize? Will you sneak ahead with your stealthy thief or keep the party together in a group? The game always rewards such careful deliberation, and as a corollary it will punish you ruthlessly in proportion to your haste and ignorance.
Speaking of ignorance, if you’re new to Baldur’s Gate and its creaky AD&D 2nd Edition rules, you’ve got some learning ahead of you. Two massive PDF manuals and a short but thorough tutorial facilitate your task. If you’re going to commit the roughly 80 hours it will take to see and do everything, you’d be well advised to spend one or two studying the game’s byzantine mechanics. Be aware, for example, that while low Armor Class scores are better than high ones, bonuses to AC are described with a plus sign rather than a minus sign. If you want to understand how the combat system works, you’ll need to churn through some basic arithmetic. And pay special heed to the way that characters level up; when you make your various selections you’ll want to be sure you’re planning well for each character’s future.
Beamdog has quite thoughtfully redesigned the game’s interface for our fingertips. I’ve posted more detailed impressions here, but the short of it is that pinching and swiping about the map feels just amazing. In my time I’ve seen plenty of titles revamped and rereleased on new platforms, but I’ve seldom seen a game so successfully rejuvenated as this. If you’ve never played the original you’ll never notice the interface’s new elegance, which is right and proper. If you’re a veteran BG’er, you’ll weep for all the years you’ve devoted to a version you must now regard as inferior.
I should qualify: inferior in some ways. The procedure to bring Baldur’s Gate’s to the iPad has left a few scars. By far the most frustrating interface problem involves the doors, stairways, and other passages that connect one zone to another. It isn’t always obvious to the eye what parts of the background texture are interactive. On the PC you can discover functional doorways by hovering your mouse cursor, which changes to signify that you can click to send your party on their merry way. But the iPad presents a couple of problems. First, in a bizarre oversight the “loot” button that’s supposed to highlight all the tappable on-screen elements, actually fails to highlight most of the doors in the game. Second, you often have to tap a door just so before the game understands that you want to use it. Sometimes you need to tap the door itself, other times the little patch of ground just past the door. No, not that patch, the one next to it! But first you’ll need to move your whole party away from the door before you can try it again, like a jet fighter circling its carrier for another landing pass.
I’ve encountered occasional bugs in my prerelease version of the game, but none so severe as to warrant alarm. The quest journal goes blank whenever I roll a new custom character, but if I exit and relaunch all is well. The game crashed once when I tried to reload right after some giant spiders had savaged my party, but since I’d already been kicked to the menu this wasn’t so bad. The worst and most consistent bug causes my frame rate to plummet whenever a character casts a long-lasting area-of-effect spell. The developers are aware of this problem, so I expect a future update will address it.
Beamdog has added three new characters to the game, each of which can join your party if you’re willing to pay extra for the DLC that unlocks them. Since my reviewer’s code doesn’t come from the App Store proper, I’m unable to try out these new characters. Nor have I been able to try the game in multiplayer. I can only say that Baldur’s Gate doesn’t stand in need of any new content, and the notion of wading through its ample text jointly with friends seems bizarre.
I view Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition not just as a smashing success, but as an important proof of concept for the future of touch-based gaming. BG and the other old Infinity-engine games have long comprised a Platonic ideal for the entire RPG genre. That ideal has always presupposed the PC platform or something quite like it, but in the years to come we may witness a shift. If a game like this can play so well on the iPad, what else might?
5 out of 5
- iPad edition: Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition