Baldur’s Gate II takes the promise of the original game and delivers an epic story and some great Dungeons & Dragons action. Unfortunately, a number of questionable design decisions bring the game down a notch.
BG2 adds a number of features to the original Baldur’s Gate engine, including increased resolution and a better overall UI. It also adds new spells, new class kits, and even a few totally new classes from 3rd edition D&D (recently released at the time), in addition to greatly increasing the selection of monsters to fight. Notably, this includes actual dragons. Other rules tweaks like more granular weapon proficiencies add to the depth of the game. The main downside to the new options is that characters imported from the first game can’t take advantage of some of them (like the new classes), though they can choose to assign kits or change proficiencies.
Where Baldur’s Gate II shines is in its structure. The plot spans seven chapters, the middle several of which are a string of connected dungeons. At the beginning and end, however, you have free reign to explore the world and recruit a variety of new characters. The world map now consists only of relevant areas you’ve discovered through quests or other means, rather than semi-contiguous wilderness areas. This cuts down drastically on the exploration time required (or in the case of completionists, allowed). In a counterintuitive decision, there are fewer characters to recruit than in the previous game, but the characters here have more personality, interactions, and in most cases unique personal quests. You can even start a romance with several of them.
The game’s story has some tension with its structure, giving you a story reason to hurry up and get on with the quest while the game encourages you to explore and take things slowly. This isn’t a big problem, particularly since the early game has an open-ended quest goal that somewhat justifies your meandering, but character-specific quests are usually on a timer and this can make random questing seem frantic even when you’re taking your time. Party members will generally leave for good if you don’t follow their requests, though you are given ample time to keep everyone happy as long as you don’t ignore them.
In addition to recruiting a party to suit your tastes, your main character can earn one of a variety of strongholds, depending on their class(es). These strongholds act as a home base (and somewhere to store extra stuff you don’t want to sell) and offer various unique quests. Playing through the game more than half a dozen times to see every stronghold quest is not practical, but it’s cool to have an incentive to try out different characters.
Baldur’s Gate II’s story is its crowning achievement. You start off captured by a villain with unknown motives, and by the time you take the fight to him in the end, you’ll probably want revenge as much as your character does. Your companions are varied and interesting, and their quests and interactions add a lot of flavor to the world. While the plot is pretty linear no matter what you do, you do have full control of your character’s motivations and the game can be played as any alignment. You’re not tracking down the villain because you’re the good guys, you’re tracking him down because he has wronged you personally.
There is one aspect to Baldur’s Gate II which does, in my view, hurt the game substantially. That is how it treats enemy mages, and particularly liches (of which there are a shocking amount). Mages use contingencies and spell triggers to put up defenses that require either a very specific set of counterspells or various types of cheesy tactics to defeat. Notably, none of the most annoying spells seem to actually exist in pen and paper AD&D, and those that do are made far more powerful in game. Granted, mage fights without these protections tend to be very easy, but these fights can quickly become tedious and annoying. Constant one-hit kill spells are no fun either, especially when bugs result in things like your romance being cancelled because your paramour was petrified.
Annoying magic fights aside, Baldur’s Gate II is a fantastic game and a model for western RPGs that followed it. The character recruitment and quests clearly inspired the systems for games like Mass Effect (also by BioWare), and the overall structure really nails the balance between linear narrative and exploration of part of a living world. The writing is excellent, the rewards for side quests are worthwhile, and the potential for replayability is high. There’s a reason this is one of the all-time RPG classics.