Retro Review: Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn
Over the last few months in my downtime I've been replaying one of the games that I spent many hours on in my teens. - Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. It's been a wonderful trip down nostalgia lane, but with so many years between when I originally played this and now, I've come back to it with a more critical eye. The way we play games has fairly dramatically changed, and our expectations of those games has also evolved. As I discuss my replay, I'll cycle back to these ideas, and how they've coloured my opinion of this latest playthrough.
That said, I want to be clear: I love this game. I loved it when I first played it, and I love it still. It's a wonderful D&D based RPG that features a great cast of characters, in a fun and fairly well fleshed out world. You have a fairly robust variety of options for the type of character you play (though, some classes are locked to certain alignments or races), and you pick up a decently large cast of potential companions throughout your adventures. This particular playthrough, I chose the Mage(Wizard) class. My party changed a few times, though Minsc and Jaheira were consistent companions. (As they have been since the very first time I played Baldur's Gate 1, wayyyy back in the 90s).
So, now let's delve into what I thought of it this playthrough, and how I remember it being from the first several times I crushed through the game in my teens. Note that I am not reviewing the Enhanced Edition here - I have BG2:SoA on GoG.com so we'll be reviewing the "original" BG2 here. As I understand it, some of my criticism with the game's legacy feel are addressed in the Enhanced Edition. Overall, I think the game is still fabulous, as I stated. It has some clunkiness around controls and just getting used to a game that's nearly 20 years old, but it's nothing that you can't get used to fairly quickly. There's a lot of inventory management, and the few containers you get that are viable to use, are somewhat clunky to actually use as you interact with items one at a time, but that's not so bad really. The game starts off as a very open-world feeling adventure, where you can sort of go to any of the available locations at your whim - and the first several 'Chapters' of the game are like this. There's tons to do, tons to explore, and a somewhat free choice of what order you tackle the first quests and side-quests. Unfortunately, that changes in the last few chapters of the game, and it changes from a somewhat open world feeling, to a very 'on-rails' feeling where you're just going through the motions of finishing the game - but in a kind of dragged out way. After you complete the quests and areas in the first 3 chapters, very few locations open up - basically a location only opens up to immediately and directly progress the story. These locations are wonderful (the Underdark is still one of my favorite locations in this game), but they don't have the same robust feel of the open upper world - and as you hunt down your nemesis and finally finish him off, this on-rails feeling only deepens. Which I guess makes sense, given that you're crushing out the final beats of the story - but it felt like a chore for me. Chapters 6 and 7 in particular feel like a slog. Chapter 6 (the second from last chapter in the game) pits you against Bodhi - the second-in-command to the Big Bad Evil Guy of the game, and while it seems like the idea was to make this section still fairly open, it really boils down to just traveling to a depressingly small number of locations to get some allies for the second-to-last big fight of the game. A few minor new locations show up on the map, but there is little to do in them and they have next to no real impact on the story, or your character. Chapter 7 is the last chapter, and the big showdown of Shadow of Amn, where you finally go toe-to-toe with Jon Irenicus, the BBEG of this story. The settings for the showdown are unique and fun, but it again feels very much like you're just going through a checklist. (Complete with a fetch quest, because after 7 Chapters of gameplay, who doesn't like a good ol fetch quest?) That said, the story and the game overall are very enjoyable. Though I have mixed feelings about the last couple of Chapters, they do still come together to complete the narrative in an enjoyable way, and if you know to expect a bit of a slog, it's a little easier to manage your expectations going into it. Unlike games today where endings often come to us quickly amid a lot of action, making the pace feel like it's really amping up to a finale, this does not do that.
I definitely think that the first couple of Chapters have the most strength and by far the most replayability, given that you meet almost all available companions in the first few chapters and the character class-specific rewards happen very early in the game, which - for me at least - is a big part of the draw behind replaying the game. Overall, still a very solid title. Little dated, and janky around the edges, but worthy of a replay now and then!