Baldur’s Gate 3 is a bit of a mess, and for now, that’s okay. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t done yet. As with developer Larian Studios’ previous release, the acclaimed 2017 RPG Divinity: Original Sin 2, Baldur’s Gate 3 has been released into Early Access on Steam. It contains the first act of the game: a chunk of content encompassing around 25 hours of adventuring for players determined to seek out every last treasure chest or minor side quest.
As a setup it shows promise, introducing you to a cast of half a dozen characters who hint at the potential to become interesting traveling companions. Already on the brink of civil war and now facing a terrifying alien threat, the world itself seems to offer rich pickings for these characters to indulge. And by building on the template forged by the Original Sin series, BG3 already has the foundation of a well-engineered RPG that rewards players willing to engage with its systemic creativity.
Yet such promise is muted by notes of caution. Baldur’s Gate 3 is rough and messy and often feels like it is just barely hanging together. Occasionally it falls apart, collapsing under the weight of scripting bugs and graphical glitches, and even gives up completely with numerous hard crashes to desktop. Technical issues are not unusual in any game, let alone one still in Early Access, and so it is neither a surprise nor much of a criticism to encounter them here.
You can pet the dog in Baldur’s Gate 3.
Many such problems are trivial–a wonky death animation here, a missing bit of text there–and can be excused by the game’s Early Access state. The real price to be paid by the many bugs and glitches is a tariff on the dramatic weight of the conversations and cinematic scenes during which they arise. Tense confrontations are diminished when characters cycle through clearly unfinished animations or the placeholder camera position fails to focus on what’s actually happening. Key scenes are undermined when the faltering choreography makes it hard to discern what’s at stake. As a result, it’s tough to really invest yourself in story development or character dynamics when they’re being constantly tripped up by a presentation that is so obviously a work in progress.
Technical issues are not unusual in any game, let alone one still in Early Access, and so it is neither a surprise nor much of a criticism to encounter them here.
But that’s okay. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t done yet. Without trying to second-guess Larian’s development process, these technical problems don’t seem fundamental; the reasonable expectation is that they will be fixed, and there is plenty of time for that to happen. Improvements have already been noted in the transition from pre-release to Early Access launch, as well as in the subsequent patches, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.
Beyond technical frailty though, there are other–perhaps more intractable–reasons to suggest it may be premature to embark on your Baldur’s Gate 3 adventure.
I found the tone of much of the writing to be a turn-off. The premise has your starting character escape from a Mind Flayer experiment, but only after a gross psychic maggot crawled into your character’s eyeball and bedded down in their brain. Meeting up with a handful of other such victims, with whom you share the realisation you can now influence the thoughts of others, you decide to band together and find a way to remove the maggots. These party members are at first understandably wary of you and of each other–you’ve all endured a traumatic experience and you don’t like anyone who can go digging through your mind. I totally get it. But everyone feels cut from the same cloth. Everyone shares the same slightly petulant personality. Treating you with a certain degree of suspicion makes sense, but it’s tiring to travel with companions who all affect an air of mystery, teasing you with allusions to there being much more to their stories while at the same time clamming up and even scolding you for daring to probe further.
It seems likely the writers are shooting for a gradual building of trust. During conversations you’ll receive feedback that your fellow party members approve or disapprove of the things you’ve said and the choices you’ve made. At times they’ll even voice support or concern during the exchange. You can also have one of your party members (rather than your primary character) initiate conversations with an NPC and potentially reveal different lines of dialogue as a result. On a mechanical level, it feels good, as if your choices matter, particularly when you realize a situation would likely have played out differently if you had left one party member at base camp and brought along someone else.
Yet the dialogue itself feels off to the extent that I’m not convinced anyone wants to be there. There’s a snideness and aloofness to each party member that doesn’t align with their willingness to, you know, be a party member. It could be that it’s too early to judge, and I am all for a good long arc of character development, but the impression these characters have so far left on me is that I don’t particularly want to hang around with any one of them.
It probably doesn’t help that the primary character available in the Early Access build is a generic roll-your-own variety. The most interesting way to play Divinity: Original Sin 2 was by picking one of the pre-made characters who came equipped with their own background, a distinct personality, and an established relationship with the wider world, while the pre-made characters you didn’t select initially would later be recruited to your party. Rolling your own character at the start did let you customize their skills and appearance, but it meant you had to forgo the extra flavor that came with choosing a fleshed-out, pre-written character. It felt like you were missing out.
It could be that it’s too early to judge, but the impression these characters have so far left on me is that I don’t particularly want to hang around with any one of them.
Baldur’s Gate 3 works in much the same way. You can roll your own character, selecting from a variety of races, classes, genders, skills and so forth, along with a fairly impressive suite of sliders and presets that allow you to tailor physical appearance. Or you can pick one of the pre-rolled options and properly role-play an existing character. The exception is that the latter is not yet available in the Early Access build. It’s visible as an option in the character creation menu, but it’s greyed out.
What this means is you’re currently left with a fairly boring main character. I played through the first act with three different primary characters, switching up their race, gender and class, and I struggled to find many ways to make the experience feel fresh each time. That your primary character remains silent during conversations, while everyone else is fully voiced, only exacerbates the problem, heightening the sensation you’re playing as an interchangeable mannequin. When the option to pick one of the pre-made characters becomes available in a future update, this issue should disappear. For now, though, it’s another reason to wait.
There are also reservations to be had on a more mechanical level. Combat works very much like it does in Divinity: Original Sin 2, and for the most part that is an asset. The turn-based encounters revolve around making use of the immediate environment, whether that’s securing high ground and the advantage it affords ranged attacks or deploying spells and items to leverage elemental hazards, such as turning pools of water into slippery ice traps. Creative solutions are not merely encouraged but rewarded, and the many fights in Baldur’s Gate 3 are best enjoyed when you’re able to exploit options beyond once again swinging your longsword.
Where it comes undone is in failing to tell you about any of the more interesting ways to approach combat. Tutorials for anything beyond basic melee and ranged attacks are non-existent at this stage, and I suspect anyone who hasn’t played Original Sin 2 will find that much of the complexity passes them by. Worsening the confusion is an inventory system that does a poor job of highlighting anything useful, while the quick select bar at the bottom of the screen is a jumble of indecipherable icons, sorted seemingly in the most chaotic and unhelpful order possible.
The difficulty of encounters is similarly all over the place. I found some very early fights completely impossible while later ones proved a breeze. This led to a great deal of careful quicksaving and quickloading when exploring. I’d take a wrong turn and find myself in a pitched battle I quickly realized I had no hope of winning, so I’d reload and explore in the opposite direction. This would be fine if it felt like I was braving more dangerous territory, but instead it simply felt random and thus frustrating.
Related to the difficulty, percentage chances to hit in combat often feels very low. From frustratingly low to-hit chances to frequent steep skill checks, you will spend a lot of time in Baldur’s Gate 3 failing at various actions–failing to stab someone, failing to hit them with a spell, failing to intimidate or persuade or pick a lock. There’s a sense that you are, despite your “chosen one” status, not actually a particularly accomplished adventurer.
It’s probably best to wait and see how these things fall in the final, or at least story-complete, release.
Currently there is no adjustable difficulty setting–the pre-game setup describes the difficulty as “Normal”–and it’s impossible to know if this sort of unevenness is intentional or will be tweaked in future balance updates. Either way, it’s another example of the virtue of patience. It’s probably best to wait and see how these things fall in the final, or at least story-complete, release.
Reviewing Baldur’s Gate 3 at this point in time is a delicate proposition. It shows a good deal of promise, yet there are plenty of warning signs it may not fulfill its potential. But predicting the future is not really the task of an Early Access review. To some extent, it is fascinating to play Baldur’s Gate 3 today with the knowledge you will be able to follow its progress over the coming months–and possibly years–with a kind of academic interest in how AAA RPGs are built. You’ll be able to witness first-hand how rough cuts are beaten into shape and finally polished. And for some small section of the audience, that alone will be worth the price of admission. For the rest of us, however, there’s no rush. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t done yet. It’s okay to wait until it is.