Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast

The expansion to the original Baldur’s Gate reveals an evolving level of skill and design philosophy in the game’s development team. This is a focused effort to engage the player in a different way than the original, and it largely shines as a result.

While the main draw for players may have been the increase in the level cap, Tales of the Sword Coast offers some compelling combat content that puts much of the original game to shame. There are three new areas to explore and clear, in addition to a new town. These range from a simple mage-filled maze, an island with mysterious inhabitants, and a multi-level tower filled with traps and puzzles. All are rewarding, both in the sense of being fun and in terms of giving fantastic loot and experience.

The centerpiece of Tales of the Sword Coast is Durlag’s Tower, a new dungeon that appears in the southern part of the map. Despite its proximity to some early game areas, the challenges here are for high-level players. The upper floors of the tower are filled with traps and monsters making up a classic but compact RPG dungeon. The lower floors are more puzzle based and populated with powerful foes that you’ll be hard-pressed to defeat without considered tactics (or save scumming).

You don’t actually need to complete any of this content to beat Baldur’s Gate, considering that the final battle was designed for a party without access to the expansion, but its contents are rewarding enough to make it well worth your attention. Tales of the Sword Coast is a preview of things to come, and has a lot of aspects of what made games like Baldur’s Gate II so great.

Review Score: A−

Retro Review: Baldur’s Gate

Baldur’s Gate introduced the world to the Infinity Engine, a 2nd edition AD&D game engine that would power several classic RPGs. The original game is notable but lacks the polish of its successors.

One issue plagues Baldur’s Gate above all others: it is a low-level AD&D adventure. Starting at level 1 is rarely fun, since bad combat luck can make even the simplest encounters deadly. Your party lacks a lot of options, both in terms of a limited number of spells and abilities and in access to advanced items or tactics. All of these issues make starting off in Baldur’s Gate a bit of a slog.

You create a single hero character in Baldur’s Gate, almost without limitations. You can even be entirely evil, though taking this too far can make the game unplayable. You even have the option to create your own custom party of six, though the game encourages you to recruit various NPCs instead. These NPCs vary in their usefulness (though most have suspiciously high stats), but their interactions with the player and each other range from somewhat interesting to downright fantastic.

The actual game system is based on AD&D, but the core combat engine runs in real time rather than being turn-based. As a compromise to allow this to work, you can pause the game at any moment and give your party specific orders. This works out surprisingly well, but other aspects of the combat system do not. Character positioning in particular can be a pain, even outside of combat.

The good news is that Baldur’s Gate has an engaging story that stars your created character. You will spend a considerable portion of your time playing the game on various sidequests that allow you to gain the levels and equipment required to face all of the available challenges. The main plot thread ties everything together and leads to a confrontation with a powerful villain and rival you’ll want to take down, regardless of your character’s motivation.

Sadly, the best that can be said about Baldur’s Gate is that it spawned so many great games. This original attempt is lacking in a variety of ways, no doubt due to the team’s self-admitted lack of experience with the genre. Inventory management is painful and everything seems slower than it rightfully ought to be. It’s a game worth playing if only to import your character into the absolutely fantastic sequel, but it’s not the classic that sequel has proven to be.

Review Score: B−