Baldur’s Gate III Early Access Review – A Hard Sell

After the success of Divinity II: Original Sin, the shoe fit for Larian to take on the Baldur’s Gate franchise, which itself is based on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Although they are quick to do away with some of the franchise’s traditional concepts, Larian helps the franchise adapt and prosper under a new direction, one that embraces a series-first turn-based combat system as well as a bastardised version of the fifth edition ruleset that tips favour towards the player to help make Baldur’s Gate III thrive as the most enjoyable, if not accessible, entry of the series. 

Set a century after Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, this sequel doesn’t so much adopt a Stranger Things flavour as it does an aftertaste. The journey begins with you held captive aboard a ship manned by a curious race of bipedal octopi, and it’s not long before the Eldritch nightmare is force-feeding a tadpole into your eyeball. The ship then comes under fire and in the turbulence, you force a crash landing in Faerûn. It’s here where the player-character sets off to find a healer who can fish out the toothy tadpole before it manages to scramble your grey matter, whether this is the driving force for the whole plot remains to be seen, though I can safely say it’s the central focus of the early access release, which is limited to the game’s first act. 

Throughout your time exploring the fantastical land that surrounds the crashed ship, you’ll meet a few survivors who experienced the same transorbital distress you did at the hands of Octodad. One by one, your party grows and the hunt for good health continues, though it’s fair to say it isn’t a case of love at first sight. I’ve seen a lot of chatter around just how maligned the player-character can be in this first act but I think it’s being forgotten that this slice of Baldur’s Gate III is the first twenty hours in a much larger tale and I expect that camaraderie will be well and truly earned by the closing credits. It’s fortunate the supporting cast do the heavy lifting as far as driving the narrative goes because the player-character is about as entertaining as a house brick. They look off and almost never blink, plus nearly all of their dialogue at this stage is text-based while the supporting cast is all tremendously full-voiced. 

One of the first things you’ll do in Baldur’s Gate III is tinker in the character customisation screen and it’s no wonder that’s been widely reported how great it is. Although some of it is gated for future updates, there’s a huge range of race and creed to choose from. Regretfully, my main looks a bit like the white-bread male Eivor from Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and I’m kicking myself for not being a tad more adventurous.

Exploring Faerûn makes up a large part of the Baldur’s Gate experience, it’s true to its role-playing roots in that regard. There’s even a narrator that chimes in from time-to-time, detailing your inner monologue like a true-to-life Dungeon Master so it feels like an authentic tabletop experience during the exploratory part of the adventure. There’s a relaxing pleasure in absorbing the world itself and the stories of those within it, I found myself riveted by every chance encounter I had on the road, it takes peeling back the layers of each quest, like “Hunt the Devil”, to appreciate the work that has gone into establishing Faerûn as a thriving hub of activity.

I feel like it’s as soon as combat rears its head that the experience becomes a bit less enjoyable with dice rolls not seeming to add up, as well as other general frustrations that turn up trying to balance a turn-based game with myriad class systems and skill paths. Of course, it’s a role-playing game right down to its marrow so Baldur’s Gate III is more than happy to reward creativity when it comes to dealing with troublesome goblins. I might have been under-leveled for most of the battles I did tackle and frustrated reload awoke a cunning in me to scour the area for aid. Sometimes it meant climbing into the rafters to gain the high ground, but oftentimes, it was as simple as charging the ogre boss sitting in his throne and pushing him into the conveniently placed pit next to him. The combat is systemically-rich and it will reward those who level right and pay close attention to the finer details, unlike me who’s happy enough to play the odds and abandon any illusion of playing Baldur’s Gate III as a paragon.

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My name was mud by the time I reached the goblin camp I was searching for. To avoid conflict with an army of goblins in a neighbouring township I, with a smile, smeared shit on my face like warpaint to the bitter disapproval of my entire party. I was a constant force of capitulation if I thought it meant I could avoid conflict. That said, toward the end of my twenty hours something did click and I felt like a born again strategist, though I still couldn’t hit the side of a barn with my sword at arm’s reach so the invisible stat-dense nemesis known as a chance itself kept plaguing my experience to the point where I thought something must have bugged out. But the game is made accessible in several other ways, for a price, dead characters can be revived at camp courtesy of an omnipotent, mysterious hood-wearing skeleton and this reprieve can be sought at basically any turn which is another feature I’ve seen criticisms leveled at, I suspect high-level dungeon-dwellers fear being able to escape rope out of precarious situations might become like a safety blanket to a degree and does little to promote player-growth and awareness. Personally, I think any features that might make the game more enjoyable for the uninitiated are a good thing.  

The bugs in Baldur’s Gate III feel almost like a feature on their own, they come in such a quantity. Of course, being an early access build, I think Larian probably gets a pass on most of them. I’m not going to sit here and say the game is unstable, in fact, it loads in and runs rather well. A large helping of the game’s issues are aesthetic, though I never get tired of a goblin’s body distorting and twisting like a malformed piece of jerky and pinging into and getting trapped in parts of the map’s geometry, it’s become a laugh riot. 

Of course, there’re more bothersome bugs that lock you in frustrating freeze-states and turns don’t lapse, leaving characters standing out like stunned mullets for eternity, plus bugs that lockdown the enemy A.I. keeping them from firing a shot. Larian is extremely front-footed about the bugs and does encourage bug reports and I understand they trawl forums for feedback. It’s at the point where they’ve pushed two updates live in the last couple of days, so the experience will only become more rounded and stable in the weeks and months to come. 

I feel like there’s a tremendous inconsistency with how Baldur’s Gate III presents itself, it’s strong in the opening hours and begins to wane near the tail as the quality of animation in cutscenes nosedives with models clipping into the frame or even disappearing entirely. As noted, the character creator offers some nice variety, it’s just a shame that our in-game avatar often appears the most wooden and lifeless of the cast while the supporting characters feel fleshed out, realised, and look really nice. Each area of Faerûn I covered felt vibrant and colourful for the most part, and while there was a bit of artifacting and things like smoke or fire would often become pixelated, the game does look quite nice given its scale. There’s a particular part of the act that stood out to me as being ethereally striking and that was the moments before the facade of the Putrid Bog fell, it was like a fairytale come to life, and felt at home in a fantasy epic such as this. 

Larian is a class above when it comes to tucking lore and story beats into quests like a paper fortune teller for the player to unfold if found and retrieve the secrets within. The setting sits comfortably atop Baldur’s Gate III’s crowning achievements in an early access build that, for the moment, falls a tad short in other key areas of the game experience. 

Baldur’s Gate III has the promise of a sprawling, hundred-plus hour fantasy epic that’ll draw you into its world and its characters, the only problem is that it isn’t that right now and probably won’t be for another year. Having people commit their time and energy to a game of this scope at this early stage, at full price, and knowing reset after reset will curtail progress, is a hard sell. There’s no harm in waiting.
A beautiful, rich fantasy setting worthy of Baldur's Gate
Looks and sounds pretty
Obviously rather buggy
There are frustrating niggles with the combat