Do you want to pay $20 for decent video game fan fiction? That’s the question potential players will have to ask themselves when purchasing Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. With some caveats, I think longtime Baldur’s Gate fans will feel satisfied with Beamdog’s latest outing… if perhaps barely.
The game is neither as lofty and “just” as its defenders claim, nor as poorly-written and buggy as its detractors will insist. Instead, it’s a lot of solid work on the back of an inherently flawed concept. Siege of Dragonspear serves as an interquel between Baldur’s Gate’s original Throne of Bhaal expansion and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Essentially, Beamdog attempts to knit together all the best elements of the two games and tell an original story at the same time. These dual masters create a diluted result, albeit with moments of greatness.
Some improvements to inventory management and navigation were nice to see, especially regarding quickly being able to tell which weapon or armor piece is better, or which characters can use a given item. The increased number of gameplay modes was also nice – experienced players will want to play on Core Rules mode, since normal is a bit too easy if you’re used to Baldur’s Gate.
Yes, Rasaad, Neera, Dorn and Baeloth from the Enhanced Editions are back, as are the base characters from the original Baldur’s Gate, though Imoen isn’t available to use in your party. I stuck with old favorites Minsc, Dynaheir and Jaheira, because as much as I like Rasaad as a character, he still has trouble staying on his feet in fights. Some day I’d love to see a Baldur’s Gate style game designed specifically for the monk character class, because I don’t think monks do well unless a campaign is designed specifically with them in mind. The other reason I stuck to a base roster is that there are some new characters to try out, and at least one is a winner.
My favorite new character is goblin shaman M’Khiin. Not only is she an interesting character from a concept and voicework perspective, but she’s handy in battle, capable of summoning shadow creatures and large numbers of healing and protection spells. Since Siege of Dragonspear doesn’t give characters much room to level up, I found M’Kliin to be a very necessary addition.
The other new characters didn’t thrill me as much. Gnome cleric/thief Glint Gardnersonson is cute. I liked him, but I didn’t find him useful. He’s got a cute side quest though, wrangling other members of his family.
Conversely, lesbian single mom archer Schael Corwin is SO CLOSE to being a great character, but she just misses this status due to some sloppy dialogue. It’s great that Beamdog attempted to include a conflicted, struggling, responsibility-driven single mom. But Corwin also comes across as hypocritical and jealous, wanting space to think one minute, chiding me because Rasaad the monk said something nice to me the next. Being emotionally distant while trying to control what a romantic partner does is a sign of an abusive relationship, and it creeped me out. I chose Corwin as my romance option because I was curious about the lesbian single mom angle, but there were too many shades of the batshit crazy lesbian stereotype for me.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the game hadn’t been marketed on something of a “we’ll give you your social justice and you’ll take it and you’ll like it” paradigm. Despite the staff protests despite giving Jaheira more development, she’s still very much a nag… and that’s okay, because that’s Jaheira.
This brings us to the oddly controversial trans character, Mizhena, who is an extremely minor part of the game, and altogether too big a deal was made of an extremely small part of a fairly large game. The scandal was a ridiculous shitstorm over nothing. But that being said, Mizhena’s writing is uneven to the point that she, too, seems unhinged. Though voiced as a soft-spoken and serene character, she suddenly becomes a trash-talking hardcore in accordance with the god Tempus when you actually need her to do something useful.
Meanwhile, the “female villain”, Caelar Argent, is two-dimensional and cliche. She’s no Irenicus. She’s no Sarevok. She’s another female character in video games that feints at being “strong”, but lacks depth, lacks personality, and even lacks any real evil. We never really get at what makes her tick, and once her story is told, the game takes the player on a very strange epilogue that I would have preferred was a fully-formed fifth act. THAT story interested me.
The most profound “social justice” moment in the whole game for me came about because Beamdog maintained the fact that the world of Faerun is deliberately regressive regarding race. Taking the goblin M’Khiin into your party gives you a 2 point penalty to reputation, and some NPCs will complain that she’s around. But M’Khiin is a stalwart and brave character, as well as an exceptionally free thinker. By showing, not telling, the game makes a fantastic statement against prejudice that isn’t forced down the player’s throat. That’s how you do social commentary in video games.
This strange “best of times, worst of times” mix repeats itself technically and artistically throughout the game. The game music is sometimes just far too loud, drowning out all of the voices. The voice work itself, however, is usually excellent, with the return of Jim Cummings as Minsc being especially stand out. Except for that one “ethics in heroic adventuring” line that made me very sad, Beamdog nailed the depiction of Minsc, which was no small feat. Boo even gets a unique moment to shine talking to a rat to find the source of a plague. Minsc is a definite highlight of Siege of Dragonspear, and there’s lots for Minsc fans to love.
On the other hand… and it breaks my heart to say this, but… shoehorning David Warner into events before Jon Irenicus is an official part of the Baldur’s Gate story doesn’t work. While it’s believable that Irenicus may have done surveillance on the Hero of Baldur’s Gate before capturing his or her adventuring party, the amount of direct interaction that his character, here called “The Hooded Man”, was retconning overkill. Warner’s voice is too delightfully distinct, and Irenicus is too physically unique, for the hero to not immediately recognize him after being captured in Baldur’s Gate II. Worse, we really learn no more about him, his past, or his inner thoughts, through his inclusion in Siege of Dragonspear. Less would have been more regarding “The Hooded Man”.
In another strange turn of events, Jaheira’s new lines are not given a voice actor. My understanding is that this is because Beamdog couldn’t get the original voice actress back, and they didn’t want the new voicework sounding too different, but Jaheira has entire conversations with other party members where only one side is speaking. Perhaps this would have been a good job for Biff the Understudy?
Regarding graphics, I found the game quite dark, and couldn’t for the life of me find a brightness control. I had to turn on the option that revealed transversable portions of the map to be able to see all of the different winding halls in some of the darker dungeons.
And finally, we get to the story itself, which is similarly uneven. There are enough very good side quests to make the game worth its twenty dollar purchase price, especially a brawl with a cult of wizards that seemed impossible until I figured out the strategy for victory. There are also great little class based moments, and I enjoyed being able to talk my way out of some situations in good halfling fashion.
However, the main quest itself is unsatisfying, and in places, it’s a downright hot mess. Some weaknesses in the journal details and some outright broken quests had me extremely frustrated in places. The high point is a series of battles where you get to head up a larger squad of fighters, as well as the fight to take the castle itself… well, at least that would have been great if it hadn’t crashed on me twice, making me redo twenty minutes of fighting each time.
But on the whole, Siege of Dragonspear displays moments of legitimate talent regarding its ability to tell a good Baldur’s Gate story far beyond what Beamdog has shown in the past. It suffers, however, from a lack of play testing, which would have caught many of the bugs and clunkier story moments. Furthermore, it needs to get better at treating characters like characters, instead of soap boxes. Overall, I’m left hopeful that with Bioware alumnus David Gaider joining the Beamdog team, the best of Baldur’s Gate may still lie before us, once Beamdog gets the confidence to start telling its own stories, instead of inserting chapters into pre-existing ones.
As for Dragonspear itself, I think it’s worth a whirl once it’s patched. It feels less fan-fictiony in the side missions, and it was pretty fun to play someone else’s extended D&D campaign.