More Exploration!

I haven’t seen this many books in a long time. It’s hard to believe such places could exist. Perhaps that’s just the times speaking. Why keep a million books when I can store everything on a laptop?

But that’s part of the point of fantasy. These are things different from what we know.

Because I didn’t feel my duties to be pressing, I walked around and talked with a bunch of people. This Enchanter taught me about the various mage factions. Some are content with their lot; some want to change the system; others want to rule; a few want to isolate themselves completely. I’m in favor of whichever supports my decision to obliterate all who stand between me and power.

This is a tranquil mage. It’s a misnomer because, as I understand it, tranquil mages cannot actually practice magic. They are failed apprentices who had the magic stripped from them; as a side-effect, they become emotionless. It seems they are retained as caretakers. Soulless, robotic caretakers.

Meet the Templars. Knights in shining armor. Brave guardians of the Chantry. Keepers of a sacred tradition. They kill mages the moment they step out of line. But really, I’m sure they are nice people once you get past their paranoid magiphobia.

From left to right: Knight-Commander Greagoir (the most convoluted spelling of “Gregor” I’ve ever seen) of the Templars, Duncan (in the back; wish the shot captured him better) of the Grey Wardens, and First Enchanter Irving of the Chantry. Irving also moonlights as Saruman when things are slow at the Chantry (notice the staff).

Irving congratulates the MC on passing his Harrowing. He hands the MC a few new items in celebration of his graduation, then asks him to take Duncan to the guest quarters.

Duncan explains he is here seeking mages to join the Grey Wardens. The Darkspawn (demons) are breaking through dwarf lands and into human territory. Mages are essential to the kingdom’s defense. I expressed interest; joining the Grey Wardens means exploring the world, gaining membership in a powerful organization, and rising above discrimination. Plus, if the Darkspawn win, I’m screwed anyway.

Jowan approached after I left Duncan’s room. He introduced the MC to his girlfriend, an Initiate. I’m not yet sure what an initiate is; a member of a religious order, obviously, but I don’t know the details – I think she is training to become a Templar. Anyway, forbidden love. Jowan’s scared because he learned the Chantry intends to make him Tranquil, on suspicion of him practicing blood magic. He professes innocence, of course, and asks for my help finding his phylactery and destroying it, so he can flee.

Phylacteries are deposits of a mage’s blood. The Chantry and the Templars can use these phylacteries to hunt down mages. The phylactery is a trope: in some stories, a mage could cast a spell through the phylactery to harm, or even kill, the mage with which it is bound. However, the phylacteries in this game seem to be more of a homing device. One rigorously enforced; there aren’t many rogue mages.

Jowan asks for the MC’s help. He claimed that the MC could escape alongside him and that nobody would notice until it was too late. I stalled to make my decision. I figured Jowan for a love-sick fool who would say anything to effect his escape. Plus, the accounts of blood magic could be true. Furthermore, could there be a reward for turning him in? Finally, getting involved meant I could get myself killed, unless I knew this would work. I decided to inform Irving about the matter.

Irving took the news well and promised a reward for betraying them. He already knew about their relationship, and knows that Jowan is screwed, but he wants to take down the Initiate girl as well. He asked the MC to play along so the Chantry could catch them both red-handed. I agreed.

Jowan planned to break into the vault by destroying the vault door with a Rod of Fire. I acquired it for him from the storage room. It was easy; I just needed Irving to give me his signature on the requisition form. Irving pointed out that the rod wouldn’t work there, but that there was a weak wall elsewhere, and an artifact that could amplify the spell. It’s so nice to work alongside the man who owns the building.

As expected, the vault door was immune to the rod of fire; anti-magic glyphs. I continued playing along, and we explored for another entrance. Another door fell quickly to the power of the rod of fire (a pity I don’t get to keep it).

After we broke the door, a nearby statue came to life. It’s a creature called a Sentinel. Despite being knights in armor, they are pathetically weak. The creepy part, though?

They bleed. Yes, these things apparently are full of warm blood and bones. What demented mind built them like that? Couldn’t they have settled on just animating a statue or suit of armor? It’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?

The Deep Stalker is a name far too cool for this little guy. He’s like a tiny raptor from the Far Realm. With a name like Deep Stalker, I would have expected something much larger than a person, with huge claws, bulging muscles, and a job other than “dusty repository guard”.

I’m posting this shot just to show off how beautiful the repository is. The half-formed statue; the way the light pours into the room. It almost makes up for the goofy hat my character is wearing.

One of these two statues can talk. Sadly, it’s not the three-headed demon.

The talking statue was a prophet and a mage. The king she served became angry at her and had her turned to stone. The other two in my crew get worried about the statue and talk about it practicing dark magic. Naturally, I want to know more, but the conversation ends.

The more important statue is this dog. When I use the rod of fire on it, the statue amplifies the power and blows a hole through the wall, into the phylactery room. Thank goodness for convenient positioning.

The Sentinel Guardian is the “boss” of this mini-dungeon. He isn’t too tough, so I’m not too upset that he doesn’t drop anything. But one of his subordinates does; ironic. Also, redundant. I mean, he’s a Sentinel. And a Guardian. Kind of the same thing. What were the rest of those sentinels then? Guardian-posers?

I found Jowan’s phylactery on a desk before this cool-looking statue. If you are wondering why the room looks funny, it’s because the room is full of ice. I guess the cold temperature preserves the blood without somehow also freezing them. Jowan grabs his phylactery (presumably identifying it amongst the countless others by using sympathy magic) and smashes it. He pauses, relieved, and sounds just a little ominous. (Blood mage, blood mage, blood mage…)

The party steps out of the vault’s entrance and climbs up the stairs to the first floor. As planned, Irving and Greagoir approach the group and confront Jowan. Jowan is sentenced to death, and the Initiate is to be locked away. Jowan takes the news badly.

Very badly.

Jowan is a blood mage, no surprise there, but he really is in love. His girlfriend rejects him and he runs off. The Templar don’t give immediate chase to him and he escapes. The Initiate is taken away and presumably jailed.

Fortunately, the MC gets off without penalty. Irving explains the MC was employed by him. At his recommendation, Duncan takes charge of the MC and leaves with him to teach him the ways of the Grey Wardens.

And, by the way, when asked if I took anything, I did admit that I took a staff. They took it. And did not even reward me. That lying… yes, joining the Grey Wardens is great, but I was also hoping for a material reward.

*twitch* I could have lied and kept the staff. In retrospect, it didn’t matter whether or not I gave it up. Let’s call that a mark against staying “in character”, in one sense; yes, my character is selfish, but part of that is getting whatever he can out of things – if he thinks he will be rewarded, and continue to gain power, he will do nice things. However, if the game doesn’t care about some things (like whether I keep this staff), I might as well keep it, and act on my meta-game knowledge that I am definitely leaving this place and nobody can really stop me.

Now I’ll ask you, the reader:
When you started playing DA, did you have a “character concept” in mind? Did you know what kind of personality you wanted to run, and how you wanted your character to act? Did you stay “in character” throughout the whole game?

Exploring the Mage Tower

My character awoke in his bunk bed, where the mages brought him after his Harrowing. Apparently he passed out. I would have thought they had a special chamber set aside for mages who passed their test, since I imagine passing out is a fairly common occurrence.

Anyway, Jozan, an apprentice mage and my character’s friend, fills him in about what happened. This also marks the beginning of something I find frustrating. The MC has spent a lot of time here, presumably. He should know most of the interesting things that happen, or at least about them. Certainly an apprentice wouldn’t be privy to many of the mages’ secrets, but there are some things which he just should have known about. The Rite of Tranquility turns a lot of would-be mages into emotionless, non-magical people; how did he not know about this? I suppose I could just not ask about such things, but I as the player don’t know. Because the info is clearly there for the player’s benefit, I don’t usually knock this kind of thing too hard.

Jozan is really here to tell the MC to go speak with Irving. He doesn’t explain why.

But first, any good mage knows to take everything not nailed down. I found a lot of objects that sparkled. I try to depict one here, but the effect is lost without seeing the golden sparkles in motion. It’s like a Circle Mage cast a spell that just screams “take whatever’s in here” on a bunch of objects. Now, and this is just me, I think I would have practiced an Arcane Lock spell instead. But they didn’t, and so their blank papers, private documents, magic dust, and copper belong to the newly-appointed mage.

Oh, those wacky mages. Promoting a kleptomaniac and training mages in fire magic at their libraries full of expensive, rare, and easily flammable books. Don’t worry, though; he set fire to only himself – this time.

There is also a mage being taught how to properly shield himself from a potent magical blast. Safety concerns? Mages laugh at the notion that dangerous magic should be practiced where nobody can get hurt and in well-secured unfurnished rooms. No, no, much better to practice it in the library; and be sure that a group of children are being taught the fundamentals of magic right between both of these extremely dangerous practice sessions. What could possibly go horribly horribly wrong? … And the mages wonder why nobody likes them.

Into the Fade – The Apprentice’s Graduation

I am starting as an Elf Mage, after a lot of consideration. I thought of trying one of the more standard Origins first, but changed my mind: I want to jump straight into the weirdness that a mage Origin promises.

I could have played a Human Mage, but here’s how I see it: the principle thing about being a mage is being a mage. If elves are naturally better built for that, so be it; I play an elf.

Put all five points into Magic. I plan to raise Willpower whenever I feel like I need to cast more spells, and into Cunning when time comes to raise Coercion.

Put my first spell point into Cold. Second point went into Heal. Working on picking up Cone of Cold. As for Heal, I hear every mage should have the first rank in it.

Elf Mage Origin
The story begins on a cautiously optimistic note. The good news is my character is about to graduate from his magi apprenticeship. The bad news is that the graduation test involves going to hell (the Fade) and fighting a demon. Success means becoming a full mage. Failure means demon possession and summary execution.

This trial sounds exciting, but I think it sounds like I am becoming an Imperial Psyker in Warhammer 40K. “You have two choices: 1) Master your power, or 2) Horrible Death.” Of course, the difference is that in Warhammer 40K, option 1 also eventually ends in Horrible Death.

I am sent to the Fade, which is part- hell, part-dreamscape. Everything looks dessicated and bones protrude randomly from the ground. There are also bizarre statues. The blurriness on the screen’s edges is the most disorienting part of the experience, but the ambient music comes in a close second.

Right off the bat, I got to fight my first enemies, a Wisp Wrath. It’s a little ball that shoots pathetic lightning bolts. A couple blasts of arcane power is all I needed to annihilate it.

Next, I encountered this mouse. Ah, but he’s no ordinary mouse. He’s also a man. Or dead man. Or Willem Dafoe.

(Seriously, there’s a family resemblance there)

Anyway, Mouse, as he calls himself, is a former apprentice who failed his quest to overcome a demon. The Templars decided he took too long and struck him down. Funny… they never told me there was a time limit.

Anyway, Mouse is somewhat confused. The Fade has screwed with his memory, and he sees himself as a small inconsequential thing. Therefore, he usually assumes a mouse’s form. Feeling inspired, he accompanies the main character (MC).

We passed by a clearing, where he told me the demon would eventually appear. In the meantime, I had to go find things to do. It seems even dream worlds and hell are not exempt from plot delays.

After fighting a few more Wisp Wraths, I started encountering Spirit Wolves. These things get into melee, which could interrupt my spellcasting. Fortunately, they didn’t pose any real threat. Of course, this being the first dungeon, and designed for a mage, nothing here should be too dangerous. If only Wild Arms used that same principle: both the first and second Wild Arms games featured solo quests for the mage leads. These quests were incredibly hard compared to the solo quests of the other leads because the designers didn’t balance the dungeons as well as they should have.

This is a sloth demon, caught in the rare act of actually moving. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know spiked demon bear wasn’t one of the options. Despite its fierce appearance, the sloth demon is lazy and non-confrontational. It actually spent most of the conversation laying down, literally unmoving.

The conversation began unhelpful: “Hi, I’m here…” “Yes, you are… Now leave before I eat you.” Usually, a person would leave it at that, but since this is an RPG, I asked it for help. It offered to teach Mouse how to transform into a bear: Mouse was reluctant, but I convinced him with a pep talk.

It’s not that my character cares about Mouse’s personal improvement; he just wants a bear on his side. Some might say that is a terribly selfish reason to inspire personal apotheosis; I agree, and again refer you to Exhibit Bear.

I had to earn Mouse’s transformation by answering a series of riddles. Because I just beat Baldur’s Gate II and Icewind Dale, I already knew one of them, and the other two were easy to figure out. By the way, I like the Sloth Demon’s voice. Its low, passive-aggressive tone epitomizes both its laziness and its terrible demonic nature. I found the creature amusing, but wouldn’t want to fight it.

With bear Mouse in tow, I returned to the main demon’s haunting grounds. Nearby, I found a glowing figure.

The Spirit of Valor is a manifestation of perfection through combat. It offered me one of its weapons in exchange for battle. However, with my high willpower, I made him both lose his temper and feel ashamed for not joining the MC in battle. He gave up a weapon for free.

Yes, I am playing a character who diverts confrontations. He will obliterate anything that stands in his way if it doesn’t budge, but if he can gain an advantage through negotiation, all the better.

The Spirit of Valor handed my party a staff. I can’t tell whether it’s very good, because I do not have anything against which to compare it. Plus, I don’t know whether it disappears once my party leaves the Fade. I almost assume it does because it is literally a dream weapon.

The Rage Demon finally appeared at its haunting grounds. Creepy thing; its the big line of semi-eyes that weirds me out the most. Won’t stop me from killing it, of course. (Irony of the day: defeating the Rage Demon with violence…) It starts out by laughing at the party and tells the MC that Mouse is on his side. Mouse would lure apprentices to the Rage Demon, in exchange for the scraps; but Mouse is a different creature now – specifically, a bear. We tore into the Rage Demon easily. And with that accomplished, the MC could finally return.

However, Mouse wanted to come along. He suggested there could be a way for him to hitch a ride. That’s when I questioned the situation: after some brief probing, Mouse revealed he was actually a Pride Demon. This had been an elegant ruse the entire time. With a warning to beware of being too trusting, the creature disappeared, and the MC awoke from the Fade.

By the way, that is an incredible ruse. Either he had everybody else in on the deception, or he tricked all of them. Or perhaps conjured all of them. And that part where he, as Mouse, gained his confidence and was truly ready to help the MC – it’s hard to believe all of that was faked. If this was foreshadowing, very crafty opponents populate this game. If so, then hopefully I can weave a path through their tortuous mind games. Sounds like fun.

I’ll try to get another post in later on Thursday.

In the meantime, a question: Which do you prefer? The the full size photos, which break up the text; or the thumbnail photos? (You can leave comments without registering on WordPress)

Dragon Age Origins: Introductory Thoughts

I’ll have a hard time going back to JRPGs, says a good friend of mine.

Dragon Age: Origins (DA) has a lot of buzz around it, like the comment above. Baldur’s Gate might be its spiritual predecessor. At least, the game’s mechanics, and many of its spells, are apparently based on Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Over the past few months, every game I played used such a system.

The difference is seven years of gaming evolution. Coincidentally, Bioware, DA’s developer, also made the Baldur’s Gate series, and Neverwinter Nights. I am skipping over Neverwinter Nights (but do intend to go back to it), so this is actually an eight year leap for me.

I’ve been told that, unlike the Infinity Engine (IE) games, DA is friendly to new players. I’m still doing some pre-game preparation; that habit won’t be going away quickly after playing every IE game this year. That said, I’ll try to not overthink it.

I’m told that the game is worth multiple playthroughs. That, at the very least, I need to play every Origins story. I will definitely do the latter, and will probably do the former, if DA feels different from every other CRPG I have played. By now, I am accustomed to the Fallout Formula. In Fallout 3, there really is only one way to do the main plot for most of the game. The game diverges at a few key points, but they are few and far between, and so most plot-relevant decisions actually don’t matter. I could see doing a second playthrough to do all the side-quests, but not really for the story. I found all of the IE games felt like that. Yet I hear DA is very different, so I am cautiously optimistic.

I begin tonight or tomorrow.

10,000 Views and One Year Anniversary!

Amazing. My blog has now been active for over a year. I meant to announce this earlier, but I wanted to first catch up in my posts.

So, what happened in Year One of the Blog?
I beat eighteen video games (mostly RPGs). Twenty two, if you count various expansions.
The site passed 10,000 views. Not a bad start.
I beat all of the Infinity Engine games. Coincidentally, the first game about which I blogged was Planescape: Torment, and I rounded out the year beating Icewind Dale II.
(Technically, Kartia was the first game I mentioned – but that was just a review)
I bought a new computer, opening up a world of CRPGs.
The game poll has grown, and has over 200 votes sitting on it.

Now, a few announcements…
My next game is Dragon Age: Origins. I will probably play Awakening immediately afterward. After that, I need to make a decision. Usually I play whatever is next on my poll, but I also like to play an entire series of games if I like one entry. Since I beat Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I might play the sequel next. Or, because I enjoyed the Infinity Engine games, I might play Neverwinter Nights. I consider it part of the IE extended family, but I don’t feel like jumping into it right now.

A small site change: you can now get to the blog by typing in . It redirects here.

Expect to see the blog contain more screenshots from now on; at least for CRPGs. Once I get a screen capture device for my other game systems, I can do the same there.

As always, you, the reader, decide which game I play next. The poll’s link on the right sidebar will point you in the right direction.

Finally, in celebration of my one year anniversary, and passing 10,000 views, I have decided to do something special. I am going to put together a vlog. Now, don’t expect to see it in the next week. I want to do this right, without rushing. Hopefully I will have time to work on it in the upcoming weeks. Thankfully, I’m finding my rhythm in law school, which means I have more time to work on this blog.

Thank you all for following my gaming journey for the first year. Your views, comments, and game recommendations make this blog even more fun to write. Let’s journey onward. Another year awaits.

Different Infinities – Comparing the Infinity Engine Games

Baldur’s Gate
Tales of the Sword Coast
Baldur’s Gate 2
The Throne of Bhaal
Icewind Dale
The Heart of Winter
Trials of the Luremaster
Icewind Dale 2
Planescape: Torment

I have played them all. This year, I beat every Infinity Engine game. I have seen the system’s strengths and weaknesses, pulled to cover two different game mechanics systems, and play backdrop to nine different stories (if one counts the expansions). Now it is time to contrast them against each other.

Some might notice there are two more games I could have put on that list. “Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance”, and “Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II”. I did not play those games for a few reasons: 1) They were on the Playstation 2 and X-Box, not the PC, and therefore I don’t think the system is quite the same (the first game was not even produced by either Black Isle or Bioware), 2) They are not actual sequels to either Baldur’s Gate, and 3) They are reputedly terrible. For those three reasons, I chose to exclude them from the discussion.

Because I know little of the technical details of the engine itself, this is a layman’s analysis.

Three dimensional sprites maneuver on a 2D hand-drawn background. Over time, both evolved. Backgrounds in earlier games, like Baldur’s Gate I (BGI) and Icewind Dale I (IWDI), are often detailed, but cramped. Most structures are small, pathways are narrow. BGI, ironically, also has a lot of “white space”, areas with nothing happening – maybe a random monster group. As the games evolved, the designers became more economical with space. Baldur’s Gate II (BGII) is the best at this: practically every room has a purpose, and most stretches of forest have at least one thing going.

Anybody playing BGI and IWDI will appreciate how the later games fixed a perspective issue. In both of those games, many doors are invisible because the game’s 3/4 perspective hides objects facing northwest. Ironically, Planescape: Torment (PST), which was released between BGI and IWDI, does not have the same problem (as I recall). Since the backgrounds are hand-painted, it is also easy to miss items that can be manipulated. Later games emphasized important objects: if the player notices something standing out, it is probably important. Those games also introduced the “Alt” or “Tab” button function, which highlighted most doors and objects that can be manipulated. IWDI, fortunately, gained this feature retroactively. Its first expansion, Heart of Winter (HoW) was released after Baldur’s Gate 2, which introduced that feature; playing IWDI with the HoW expansion retroactively adds the “Alt” feature to IWDI.

Because the backgrounds are hand-drawn, game effects sometimes look bizarre. Earlier games rarely used environment manipulation: PST has the earliest example, to my recollection – at one point, a dead end becomes an open street. Later games tried to either bring the backgrounds into the forefront, or put sprites over the backgrounds, with mixed success. Near the end of BGII, the party faces a group of gigantic parasites that are not actually sprites; they are pieces of the background which can be targeted. When the characters attack them, they do not seem to actually be hitting them; since the parasites don’t move, it looks silly. Icewind Dale II (IWDII) tries two different approaches: sprites on backgrounds, and background switching. The former comes off as cheesy: a puzzle at the end of the game requires the player to select a series of five spheres in the right order. This creates a star pattern, but the pattern is represented by Azagarr’s Scorching Ray animations. It looks tacky. On the other hand, at several points, the game screen fades to black and comes back with a full environment change, or one part of the background instantly shifts from one state to another. Both kinds of the last effect are obvious examples of the system’s limitations – it would be tough to hand-draw a constant change of the background, but do look better than the other approaches.

The sprites themselves became more detailed over the course of the games. My perspective is a little biased: I played BGI and PST with a widescreen mod, resolution set to 1920 x 1200. Higher resolutions make the game look zoomed out, sprites appear grainy, and text becomes difficult to read. All of the games look best at lower resolutions; I played the others at 800×600, and recommend using that resolution. Yes, sometimes enemies are sighted before they are on screen, but that is a small price to pay for actually being able to see the enemies.

That said, the monster sprites do become more detailed in later games. Throne of Bhaal (ToB) and IWDII in particular have some impressive giants and dragons. Ironically, non-monstrous sprites (including party members) look very bland throughout most of the engine’s history. Only IWDII really adds detail to their models. (note: most helmets look silly on characters in any game).

All of the games have a day/night system. Usually, nothing special happens: some people move around, and some events can happen only at night, but the difference is not pervasively important: this never affects the strength or presence of enemies, even undead.

The greatest failure of the engine is its incompatibility with later operating systems. Because of the way the engine makes its sprites interact with DirectDraw, any system running a relatively modern OS will experience terrible lag. The engine has trouble processing information on these systems. Windows 7 (and perhaps Vista) have the worst of it: in Windows XP, DirectDraw can be disabled. this causes minor graphics problems, but the game runs without lag. Windows 7 has its own version of DirectDraw, which is actually integral to the OS. There are ways to deal with these problems, and I discuss them in my earlier reviews of IWDI&II.

Game Mechanics
Up through BGII, every IE game’s mechanics are based on Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules (D&D2E). Between BGII and HoW, TSR, which owned D&D, sold the game’s licensing rights to Wizards of the Coast (WotC). WotC produced a new edition of D&D, 3rd edition (D&D3E). The HoW designers introduced some of the 3E game mechanics to IWD. When IWDII rolled around, the designers switched wholesale to 3E mechanics.

Which is best is a matter of perspective, but actually largely irrelevant to the games themselves. Because any edition of D&D is so much more than the combat rules, a lot of material was not included.

The biggest difference is that IWDII introduces feats and skills, which can be used to further customize characters. It also loosens up the multi-classing rules. Generally speaking, the 3E system is deeper. Perhaps a little too much for its own good; many feats and skills are unnecessary, and because IWDII also ports all of the spells from IWDI, the game feels very bloated. I still favor it, but some players might prefer the simplicity of earlier games.

All three game lines handle combat differently. PST has very little combat. Most battles can be avoided, and unavoidable fights almost never have large groups of enemies; most come alone, or in pairs, usually three at most. I can think of only one instance where there are more than six enemies, and even that circumstance is avoidable. Even the final boss can be talked out of fighting the party, and the ending is actually even more interesting because of that. It fits the game’s message: violence is not the solution. Notably, the main character (MC) cannot permanently die; he always revives.

The BG series doesn’t force the party to fight every enemy they meet, but most foes won’t back down. Also, BG has a lot of dungeon crawls, and these places are occupied by many enemies. Enemies in BG usually come in groups of 4-6. However, the combats are significantly tougher than PST because the game also goes to a much higher experience level, and wizards begin casting some very impressive spells, like Time Stop and Chain Contingency.

The IWD series is almost entirely one massive dungeon crawl. Furthermore, many enemies attack in very large groups; it is rare to encounter a group of fewer than six enemies. Rather, there are instances where the party fights a dozen, two dozen, or more(!) enemies; to be fair, they usually come in waves, but the waves still come in groups of about six at a time. In a sense, the combat is also a step back because the game lacks as many of the impressive defensive spells of BG and no methods to counter such spells in any case, nor does it have extremely deadly spells in the same vein as Time Stop.

PST has the most dialogue of any video game, ever (except Fallout 3: New Vegas). Like I said, the MC can even talk the final boss out of a fight. Huge dialogue trees permeate the game. Investigation turns up deep and fascinating truths. Every party member has a deep past the MC can learn through constant conversation with them. The MC can either quickly blunder through the story in ignorance or explore his own past through deep engaging encounters that stretch the game and reveal a tragic tale.

The BG series follows the MC’s personal journey (although I argue that BGII is one very long tangent) and much of the game focuses on the story. Yet the game is still part dungeon crawl. BG also diverges from PST by being more humorous. In fact, it is the most humorous of the three series. Many of the conversations and characters are silly, even if the game itself is serious. Unfortunately, the story loses focus after the first game. The Tales of the Sword Coast (TotSC) expansion doesn’t add anything to the personal narrative, BGII is one long tangent, and Throne of Bhaal (ToB) sometimes feels like dungeon crawl, even though the MC’s personal narrative will continue.

Because the IWD series is basically one long dungeon crawl, the story plays second fiddle to the combat. IWDII is a little better – I kind of like the plot – but it won’t blow away anybody like PST. The series usually takes itself completely seriously. There are a few funny bits strewn throughout, but nowhere near the amount as the BG series. Perhaps this is a bad thing; the dungeon crawls are sometimes so drawn out they could use some levity to change the beat for a moment.

Game Length
Counting direct sequels and expansions, the BG series is the longest of the three. BGII is probably the longest out of all the game, although I recall PST being relatively long too. IWDI is easily the shortest game. Even with all its expansions, it clocks in under 20 hours no doubt. The core game alone is about eight hours long.

All of the games have a “best” path. Sure, things can be done in different ways, different orders, and not everything is mandatory. However, there is usually one path that gives the player all the interesting battles and dialogue. If any game is an exception, it is either PST or BGII + ToB. In PST, there are so many dialogue trees that many situations can be approached in numerous ways. The game’s ending is different based on how the character acts at the end, and whether he uncovered certain things throughout the game. However, there really is still only one main path through the game, and mostly a single series of options in any given dialogue which result in the most interesting information. As for BGII + ToB, many characters can join the party, most have their own side quests, and they all have interesting conversations with the MC and other party members. They also throw in some interesting dialogue with non-party NPCs. However, the overall game won’t change much no matter who is in the party.

Voice Acting
Voice acting is consistently strong throughout all the series. However, the BG series has the best of it, the most memorable voices. BGII + ToB, in particular, have some excellent voice talent at work.

For pure hack-n-slash, the IWD series is your best bet. The games are almost entirely a giant dungeon crawl, and a very challenging one. The stories won’t wow anybody, and that is a bit of a loss, but the tactical experience is exciting.

The BG series is most along the lines of what people probably think of for a CRPG. The story is balanced with the combat; the story is interesting and the combat is very tactical. It is an all-around great adventuring experience.

PST is a very different sort of game. There is very little combat and the game is mostly dialogue. It is, in a sense, an interactive morality play, set within a richly-detailed fantasy backdrop.

In general, the later games are better than the earlier ones – mostly for technical reasons. I wouldn’t recommend skipping BGI to go to BGII, if you at all care about the game’s story, but the gameplay of BGII is so much better (mostly due to being higher level) that a person who cares little for the story won’t mind. IWDI is okay, but IWDII refines the hack-n-slash. PST, of course, stands alone, but it is so different from the other series that neither feels like it properly refines the PST experience.

By the way, if any of you were wondering, Planescape: Torment is my favorite of the games.

Any questions?

Imperial Commendations: The Gibberlings Three

This. This is the place to go for Infinity Engine game mods. Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate; they even go a step beyond and have a few mods for Neverwinter Nights.

Their Tweak and Fix packs are essential downloads for every game. Not only do they fix a lot of bugs and glitches, they also add a lot of convenient changes to the games. For the hardcore IE fan, there are some mods which drastically change the game: adding new scenarios, upping the difficulty, introducing new NPCs. Plus, the site is regularly updated.

There are other sites out there with useful mods, but few are this well-organized and have content so essential.