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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Baldur's Gate II (Shadows of Amn)

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
(Game release date: 2000)
Nothing short of brilliant--if you haven't played this one yet, run out and get it today!

BG2 Walkthrough page
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Highlights: Interactivity, memorable characters, non-formulaic quests, interesting storyline, rich gameworld, replayability Lowlights: Spell management can be annoying, game takes a long time to complete

Baldur's Gate 2 (Shadows of Amn) is the closest a game has come to my ideal yet. The gameworld is huge and rich with detail, as evocative as the Ultima games at their best. The many quests and subplots are so well-written and varied that some of them are bound to arrest your attention no matter what your play style is--and gameplay is so well-designed that you will be able to spend the most time pursuing the ones that interest you the most. Many of the game's quests can be addressed in more than one way, and almost all of them are more complex than your run-of-the-mill object retrieval and delivery assignment. The NPC's have the best-developed personalities I've seen in a computer game yet and are genuinely interactive--they remember dialogue options you picked in earlier conversations the next time they talk to you, and you can pursue long-running character arcs like friendships, arguments, and even romances. The plot is satisfying, building your character up to high levels is fun, there are unique combat abilties to develop and artifacts to forge yourself, and the voice acting is terrific.

If you're a meticulous gamer you may be frustrated by the fact that you can't do all the possible quests and plots in one run-through (some are dependent on your character class, some quests have more than one possible ending, and completing some quests will preclude others). However, Baldur's Gate 2 is a game with remarkable replayability--I played it through a grand total of eight times before getting tired of it, more than twice as many times as I've completed any other CRPG in my life--so this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've got a good Baldur's Gate 2 Guide up online which may help gamers who feel a little overwhelmed by it all. The fact of the matter is, though, even if you do only a tenth of what's available in this expansive game, you'll still have an enjoyable playing experience, so being overwhelmed should be the least of your worries.

Style: Baldur's Gate 2 is a D&D-based CRPG with a third-person birdseye interface. You control and develop a six-person party of which one character is your protagonist and the other five are chosen from a group of 18 NPC's each with his or her own voiceset, personality, and agenda. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy, horror, psychological, and relationship themes. The game is untimed and requires no manual dexterity. Combat is turn-based.

Series: Shadows of Amn is part of a series by Bioware and Black Isle Studios which includes Baldur's Gate, Tales of the Sword Coast, Shadows of Amn, and Throne of Bhaal. Shadows of Amn is effective as a stand-alone game--the few elements you need to know from the original Baldur's Gate game are filled in for you early in Shadows of Amn, and Tales of the Sword Coast is an optional Baldur's Gate add-on completely irrelevant to the main plot of the other three. Throne of Bhaal is an add-on sequel to Shadows of Amn which doesn't make any sense without having played Shadows of Amn first. So... should you approach this series by playing Baldur's Gate first, or Shadows of Amn? It's a tough call. Shadows of Amn is a better game, with a nicer interface, more complex character interactions, and better quests, and it's always harder to go from the better interface back to the worse one. If you're sure you're going to want to play both eventually, I'd start with Baldur's Gate. On the other hand, if you're not sure whether you're going to enjoy the trilogy or not, then by all means start with Shadows of Amn, the best of the three. If you find you've fallen in love with it, you can always go back and play Baldur's Gate when you're through... and then export that new character and play SoA all over again. Luckily these are all very replayable games. (-:

Finding Shadows of Amn: This game was extremely popular and as of 2010 is still being carried by many software stores, so you should not have any problem getting your hands on a copy. It often comes bundled together with its add-on Throne of Bhaal, like this, which is an especially good value. Otherwise, Baldur's Gate 2 is available for both PCs and Macs.

Getting Shadows of Amn to Work: I did not encounter any problems running Baldur's Gate 2 on XP. Like most games released before about 2007, it doesn't always work properly on Vista, but running it in administrator mode using XP compatability should eliminate most problems. Bugs occasionally do occur in some of the longer-running interactive sequences (such as the romances) when you somehow skip one of the important dialogues. If this happens to you, visit one of the several active Baldur's Gate 2 forums; it's usually fixable from the console, and one of the regulars there can step you through it.

Hints For Shadows of Amn: I have a page of Baldur's Gate 2 hints up online, with a complete low-spoiler walkthrough for the game as well. If you prefer, you can also buy a Baldur's Gate 2 Hint Book.

Pitfalls In Shadows of Amn: There's nothing you need to be aware of before you start, except that this is an extremely long and involved game compared to most others on the market; don't expect to finish it in a weekend of play. If you want some spoiler-free character creation and general playing suggestions, click here.

Game Length: Between 50 and 150 hours, depending how many side quests you investigate. This is a long game with a lot of possibilities to explore, but most of them are optional. Baldur's Gate 2 is also the most replayable CRPG I've ever played--the main plot is always the same, but each new character is likely to encounter conversations and quests you've never seen before, and the gameworld is so full of interesting details that the temptation to play again is strong. I've probably gotten 500 hours of fun playtime out of this game all told. No kidding. Only Sid Meier's "Civilization" has used up more of my life. (-:

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to disturbing themes (the main characters are tortured, innocent people get killed, the main villain is very creepy) and small amounts of non-graphic sex (including prostitutes).

Lora's Shadows of Amn Review: (Outstanding)

Plot and Quests: The main plot is good, but even more impressive are the wealth of side plots, character subplots, and variety of quests. I counted 89 significant quests in this game, most of them original and well-written, ranging from rescuing a prisoner to sleuthing out a murderer to figuring out how to put a ghost's soul to rest. Many quests have more than one possible solution.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Baldur's Gate 2 has its share of riddles and word puzzles, but the most challenging aspect of play is following the trail of clues on some of the more complex quests and figuring out who the right person is to approach with them. If you like logic puzzles, whodunnits or tabletop RPG's, this game is going to be right up your alley. If not, you may flounder a bit in places. There aren't any spatial or visual puzzles in Shadows of Amn, nor much in the way of old-school dungeoneering.
Characters: You only get one PC in Shadows of Amn, but this PC is completely customizable and you can develop his or her personality to your liking using the many different conversational options you get. There are also eighteen extremely well-developed NPCs, each with his or her own personality, interactive style, and personal subplots, and you can have up to five of these NPCs in your party at a time. They have a tremendous amount of interaction with you, with each other, and with the gameworld, including four possible romantic plotlines with your PC (!) All the dialogue is well-written and compelling.
Gameworld: Shadows of Amn takes place in the Forgotten Realms, so the setting doesn't have any surprises in it for the veteran player of either CRPG's or tabletop D&D. Yet despite the familiarity and slightly jaded attitude I had towards Faerun going in, I found myself quickly immersed in the gameworld and its myriad of consistent details. The inhabitants of Athkatla, in particular, were wonderful. It's very hard for a game to populate its cities well--either they wind up full of pointless clones with nothing to say, or they wind up empty except for important questgivers. Baldur's Gate 2 has actually filled its world with townsfolk who have things to say about each other, the progressing events of the game, and your teammates. Most of these things are unimportant, but they all interconnect. It's quite something. The only jarring moments were idiotic cameos by Elminster and Drizzt.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): Straight AD&D-based, a good solid rendition of that game system. You get a lot of input into the character development of both your PC and your party NPC's.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): The player has an Ultima-style birds-eye view of the party and the world they're interacting with. Party movement has improved since Baldur's Gate I (where your NPC's would constantly be wandering off down long hallways). Keeping them in formation still requires effort and, often, waiting for slower NPC's to catch up. Combat is turn-based and very tactical, and success often depends upon spending fifteen minutes prepping your party for combat by having all your characters cast enhancement spells and activate items in the proper order before entering battle. Unlike some games, there is no way to automate this protective spellcasting fest, and it gets tedious manually casting the same eight spells over and over again.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): It's all competently drawn, though only Ust Natha and the dragon opponents really stood out as visually impressive. The music is pretty good, but what really blew me away ambience-wise was the voice acting. If there was an Oscar for video game acting, the guy who played Irenicus would have won it hands down.

Other notes: Baldur's Gate 2 comes with a built-in and easy-to-activate console that can be used to completely customize your playing experience and/or cheat your head off. I'm not a big fan of cheating ordinarily, but this console adds to the replayability of the game tremendously by allowing you to eliminate the elements you find most tedious on subsequent play-throughs.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Baldur's Gate 2 for anyone with a computer over the age of 13. This really is one of the best games ever made--don't miss out on it!

If You Loved Baldur's Gate 2: Then you should definitely play Throne of Bhaal, which finishes off your character's saga in a satisfying way. You may also enjoy going back to play the original Baldur's Gate. Its characters and quests are not as breathtaking as its sequel, but they're still very good, and despite some interface flaws, it's still a fun game today. Planescape Torment, created by the same team who made Baldur's Gate 2, is a very different style of game (darker, more story-driven, your character is immortal), but its ambience and NPCs are similarly wonderful. Other high-quality CRPG's you may enjoy include Fallout II, Morrowind, and Wizardry 8. Finally, since you share my love of Baldur's Gate 2, I'll also recommend my favorite game from the graphic adventure genre: The Longest Journey.

For a more detailed critique of Shadows of Amn involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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