Baldur’s Gate, the spark that lead to the return of the RPG, has returned to our computer screens to finish the journey started nearly three years ago and bring the close to an adventure that stole so many hours from so many gamers. Throne of Bhaal (TOB) is the final chapter in one of the first true epic sagas of computer gaming history, closing the book on an engrossing story that has expanded and flourished the way RPG’s are made and where they’ll go in the future.
Almost a sequel, TOB goes above and beyond a simple expansion pack. The gaming community was somewhat left with a bitter taste in its mouth after the Baldur’s Gate I expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, was released back in 1999. Little more than some new areas to explore and a handful of interesting new items, the story was virtually non-existent. Throne of Bhaal soars past many of our expectations to rise above the usual “expansion,” providing the gamer with not just new areas to explore, but actual story and substance. I was somehow saddened that the conclusion to this fantastic tale was released as an expansion, but after playing, the realization of just how outstanding (and how well it improved) the series was shines brightly to leave that warm, fuzzy, content feeling of a job well done and well rewarded.
TOB is actually divided into two separate pieces: the final chapters and the huge side quest of Watcher’s Keep. The chapters sum up the chronicles of your character, Bhaal Spawn and child to prophecies and legends. Watcher’s Keep, however, gives players access to a complex and intricate side excursion, playable from both the expansion chapters and the earlier game. The sheer magnitude of the concluding chapter is great enough, but the inclusion of Watcher’s Keep makes the experience so much more entertaining.
As the battles between all of the Bhaal Spawn rages, the numbers are dwindling down to the remaining, most powerful of the Fallen God’s children. Motivated by the power to be gained, these last few are trying to become the last survivor and take the Throne of Bhaal for themselves. Like your character has learned over time, they are one of these remaining. Wherever your motivations lie, the end is the same; you must destroy your brethren and assume the Throne. TOB places you on a journey to eliminate the remaining Bhaal Spawn and claim your destiny.
The Watcher’s Keep sub quest, while not being part of the main plot, has a nice little story to go along with it. An evil of supreme power has been imprisoned in Watcher’s Keep for ages and the magic holding it is declining. Those who have held the vigil now are fearful and have come to you for help. You must descend the depths of the keep and incite the ritual to renew the chains that bind the evil within the keep.
For the most part, until now, most of the strategy was limited to the weapons of magnitude, relying heavily on brawn as opposed to true thinking. Spell planning and character control is crucial in TOB. Your enemies aren’t here to play and many of the key battles come down to timing, spell selection and placement. Mighty dragons, powerful demi-liches, and multitudes of demons confront and force the gamer to make decisions just to stay alive (and save the game a lot).
Assisting your party members is an increased book of spells, allowing mages to memorize ninth level and quest level spells. The level cap has basically been thrown to the wind, allowing characters to reach levels higher than any previous AD&D cRPG. These high levels also grant characters access to new special abilities to bolster their combat prowess. These special abilities are both useful and also somewhat pointless. The new spells are very powerful, but many of the combat abilities don’t particularly help. Deathblow, for example, doesn’t do anything to creatures of 11th and above (13th and above for Greater Deathblow) and that really limits the usefulness when many of the creatures encountered are far beyond these levels.
TOB is not an easy game by any means. Even veterans of the previous games will need to reassert their skills to get through many of the key battles. Most will be full of spell casting opponents along with a good share of physical violence. The ability to counter spell attacks, magical resistances, and spell shields is crucial. The game will try your abilities and have you constantly reaching for the quick save button (and the quick load button), but every accomplishment makes you feel that much better. For anyone that enjoyed the Baldur’s Gate saga, this is a must own.
The Baldur’s Gate saga introduced us to the Infinity engine. It also will be the final hurrah for this simple yet refined engine that changed the way we play RPG’s. With Neverwinter Nights looming on the horizon, a new breed of RPG’s will continue what Bioware started, but TOB closes the door on Baldur’s Gate era of RPG renaissance. I’ve grown into the BG world and for one of the few times in my gaming history, I will actually miss the world that was so viscerally created by the team at Bioware. It’s like finishing a good fantasy novel and putting it back up on the shelf with all the others you’ve read and walking away with a true feeling of enjoyment.