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PAX East Impressions: ‘Baldur’s Gate III’

This PAX East marked the grand gameplay premiere of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate III after the game’s announcement at last year’s Google Stadia presentation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get hands-on time with the hotly anticipated Dungeons & Dragons based RPG, but I was treated to a one hour long live gameplay demonstration by the senior writer of Larian Studios, Adam Smith, and what he had to show was utterly enrapturing.

Like any proper D&D campaign, Baldur’s Gate III starts off with character creation, offering up a bevy of races, classes, sub-classes, abilities, and so forth that’ll make any table-top veteran drool. On top of creating a character from scratch, though, there are also origin characters that come with a preset background and skillset to play through the campaign as. Adam picked one such origin character for this demo: Astarion the elvish vampire spawn, who is also a rogue.

The setup to Baldur’s Gate III‘s story is exceedingly grim, opening with a first-person scene of your character captured on a mind flayer (octopus-like humanoids) flagship. You watch with excruciating detail as a mind flayer places a parasitic tadpole on another prisoner’s eye, allowing for the creature to enter through the socket. Your own character is then subjected to the same fate. It’s a visceral, downright unnerving scene that I almost turned my own eyes away from. We later found out these tadpoles will slowly turn their victims into a mind flayer themself, a process shown off in the original reveal trailer.

Baldur's Gate III

The game isn’t all oppressively bleak storytelling, though — despite such a macabre opening — as we saw once our vampiric Astarion woke up from the crash site of the mind flayer flagship. True to the fame Larian Studios has built up with their systemic games like Divinity: Original Sin 2, Baldur’s Gate III features a staggering number of conversation options that let you get incredibly granular with your speech, with some exchanges even containing up to seven different responses. In the one hour demo, we saw Adam make Astarion thirst for a party member’s blood (more than once), choose to dream of his master bursting into a ball of flame, and throw sass at an uppity mage.

Depending on the option you choose, you may be subjected to a classic D&D “check,” which is accompanied by a large D20 die being rolled onscreen. Nothing screams D&D more than missing a low check with an even lower roll, which happened to Adam’s misfortune and my delight plenty of times. Those failures showcased just how well the story changes and adapts to perfectly fit the outcome, though, much like how a dungeon master controls the flow of a D&D campaign, and that applies to combat as well.

Baldur’s Gate III largely adopts the 5th Edition ruleset, including the advantage/disadvantage system. Since Astarion was a bow user, Adam always tried to maneuver him to higher ground to gain advantage on his attacks, for instance. There’s also your usual spells and cantrips and the ability to interact with your environment like dropping a boulder on a poor sap’s head. Different from 5E, however, is how all units in your own party will move before all the units on the enemy side do, instead of individual turn order being determined by initiative.

Another intriguing bit is how one party member entering combat doesn’t drag all members into the turn-based combat mode. Even when our cleric was locked in combat and engaged in turn-based mode, Adam was still able to move Astarion in real-time because he was not engaged. That allowed him to move Astarion up and around the enemy group before engaging them in a pincer attack with the cleric, which then put Astarion in turn-based mode as well. This will open up some interesting potential combat strategies once someone wraps their head around the idea.

Baldur's Gate III

Turn-based mode isn’t relegated to just combat, either, as you can turn it on and off at any point in the game. This can give the player some breathing room to make what would otherwise be spur of the moment decisions, such as choosing to chase down a fleeing boar or figuring out how to handle a trap you just triggered. It doesn’t always work out, though, as Astarion still got burned to ashes from the trap he tripped in a crypt. Classic D&D, nothing to see here.

And that’s just it. Honestly, watching this demonstration was like watching a D&D session I used to have with my friends. It’s crystal clear how much love Larian Studio has for tabletop gaming and it’s incredible how accurately they seem to have translated that to a video game format. Other games have tried it in the past, but not nearly to the extent Baldur’s Gate III is showing. The possibilities seem nigh endless, and while a proper release date isn’t in sight, we can look forward to an early access period going up in the coming months.

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