When I first booted up Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition on my Xbox One X, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe, I don’t know, something more than I got when I first booted up Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition on my Google tablet back in about 2013. Back then, it made sense — a new breed of tablet at an attractive budget price; Surely the perfect way to relive a classic adventure? But in 2019, across a set of cutting edge consoles, I can’t help but wonder what Beamdog are playing at.
I quickly followed my initial foray into Baldur’s Gate — a game I first played over 20 years ago — with a dip into Baldur’s Gate 2, then Icewind Dale, then Planescape Torment. Between these four titles, released as two dual packs at a price of £44.99 each, these games represent a ludicrous amount of content. Icewind Dale’s only expansion is included, whilst there are a couple for Baldur’s Gate and several for the most critically successful game in the series, Baldur’s Gate 2.
In all honesty, you could buy these two packs and still not see all they have to offer if you played them solidly until Christmas. The core campaigns alone amount to hundreds of hours, but the expansions add up to about half as much again, with the only shame being that Planescape Torment was never extended beyond the original game. Ironically, it seems, because players at the time either loved or hated its exceptional, yet truly bizarre, plot, writing and setting even though we now look back on it as perhaps the most unique game in the series.
My personal favourite from the series (perhaps a fairly safe choice) is Baldur’s Gate 2, and I was keen to see how the “Enhanced Edition” had improved things in comparison to both the original, and verses the Enhanced Edition on tablets which I played in 2013. I should note at this point that I’m playing these Enhanced Editions on my Xbox One X, so I can’t comment on features that might be specific to the Switch, for example, such as being able to play these games on the move — which I feel is probably a nice bonus for purchasing the games on Nintendo’s console.
The reality is that the improvements feel relatively minimal, especially if you were a first time player. There’s no doubt that each of these remakes is a big step up from the originals, especially when you consider that each of those games was originally designed to be played on a very low resolution CRT monitor. That said, when played on a 55 inch 4K television a few months before 2020, a lick of paint applied in 2013 isn’t much of a consolation.
There are some more material changes to the gameplay, but it’s a challenge to list them all in a meaningful way. Baldur’s Gate 2, for example, now features four additional companion characters that were never in the original release. There’s also the ability to transition three of these characters into the original, which is nice. A number of new and amended encounters accompany them, as do a raft of other changes both minor and more material, but these are things only returning fans will notice.
Across all four games, especially those set in the classic Dungeons and Dragons universe (Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 and Icewind Dale) gameplay is very, very old school. Planescape Torment is no different, except that compared to other tactical RPGs of the era, it is much more focused on dialogue and story, with less combat to worry about. The combat across all four games is a challenge because not only was it always hard as nails in the originals, but it now comes with various interface issues that persist despite a heroic effort to make these games controller compatible.
The good news is that if you can get used to Baldur’s Gate 1, then you’ll likely only see iterative improvements appear in both the sequel and Icewind Dale. Planescape Torment, being the “newest” of the collection does have some differences, but it is essentially very similar and if anything it has several stripped down elements that make it easier to come to terms with overall and a lot easier to live with during gameplay.
The learning curve is steep, and as such, Baldur’s Gate now includes a story mode that essentially lets players dance through the harder fights by making them unable to die. Most purists and returning fans won’t bother with this nonsense, but given that the rich storyline is one of the most compelling reasons to play these games, it’s not a bad option for new players. Oddly, this feature isn’t available in Planescape Torment, although it does feature several nannying options such as auto-healing and a few other changes to help out, given that combat isn’t quite as frequent as it is in the other games.
Coming back to the story, that’s really what makes these games compelling even twenty years on. Fans of Pillars of Eternity or Divinity should know that almost all of the concepts, ideas and settings that they love so much have been inspired by, done before or rehashed from Baldur’s Gate and its stablemates, with many of the same people still working on them, or passing on their insights and experience to the teams that work at Larian Studios today.
The darker, more otherworldly setting of Planescape Torment will appeal to fans of the not-unintentionally-named Torment: Tides of Numenara, which is probably the only other tactical RPG that I can think of to feature as little combat as Planescape Torment. If your bag is classic roleplaying fiction, then the Baldur’s Gate double pack should be your go to, whilst the combination of Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment is simply a marriage of convenience.
There’s no doubt that Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment were the less commercially successful games of the four, and one could argue that Icewind Dale was seen as the “worst” in terms of its original review score. It would also be possible to argue that Planescape Torment, despite its oddness, was considered the “best” by many, even if the critics originally ranked it at around the same level of overall quality as Baldur’s Gate 2.
Playing it now for the first time, I have to admit that Planescape Torment (a lot like Torment: Tides of Numenara) has a difficult setting to take in. Casting aside the camaraderie and whimsy of classic RPG’s, Planescape Torment’s setting is dark and oppressive, with players acting in the role of the Nameless One — a hulking brute covered in scars who can never truly die.
Even measured among the other games under scrutiny here, Planescape Torment features an inordinate amount of text based dialogue and written information, giving the game a very slow pace. It is, however, a very rewarding game to play and the text that seems so daunting early on is filled with humor, subtlety and exposition that brings the otherwise grey and unwelcoming world to life.
As a side note, If you’ve always wanted to play one of these RPGs as an evil character, then Planescape Torment is the one to do it in. In my mind, The Nameless One is at best true neutral; and I can’t imagine for him a backstory that leads him to being good, although you can certainly play him as such as well.
One thing that is almost certainly true is that by dramatically reducing the players options during character creation (in comparison to almost all other RPGs) Planescape Torment has a much more focussed and detailed storyline than I think would have been possible had players been free to build any character they wanted. The other three more classic games across these Enhanced Editions still have truly epic story arcs, but they are much more traditional and vanilla in flavour.
Despite their validity as classic, genre defining RPGs, it is hard to see the logic behind the release of these enhanced editions onto consoles at this particular moment in time. I can’t imagine what delayed their release until now, unless programming these games to operate on console hardware is a lot harder than it is to achieve the same outcome on a now obsolete tablet. Bear in mind — there are no new visual or gameplay enhancements here that we haven’t seen before.
Even though this version comes years after the original Enhanced Edition release, players will now need to decide what price they place on nostalgia. Whether you’re coming to these games for the first time or as a returning player, the cost of both time and money you’ll need to pay in order to experience the Enhanced Editions on console is significant.
There’s easily more than £90 worth of value across the four games if you count their worth as the cumulative hours of playtime, but you’ll almost certainly spend some of that time confused and frustrated by the very old-school logic and interface. There’s a lot more reading than you’ll be used to in most modern games as well, although the quality of the text, the scripting and the humour is, I would say, at a much higher level than you’ll see in more recent games (on average).
Baldur’s Gate I & II, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment’s Enhanced Editions are now available — in various forms — across PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PS4.