Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Beamdog
Developer:Overhaul Games
Release Date:2016-03-31
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

A funny thing happened on my way to reviewing Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear.  When I picked the game up, I realized that I hadn't played either of the original Baldur's Gate games in about 15 years.  Since Siege of Dragonspear is supposed to be the bridge between the two, I decided that I'd play Baldur's Gate first so I could get reacquainted with the franchise.  But then I was talking to our site admin, and he mentioned that our Baldur's Gate subsite was one of our oldest, and that it could use some updating.

No problem, I thought.  I can update the subsite as I play the game.  But I have a mental problem, so to speak.  My brain translates "update" into "re-write," and so what should have been a simple(ish) procedure took months.  As a result, when I was finally ready to play Siege of Dragonspear, I was so far past the release date that I figured I might as well write our walkthrough for it at the same time, which is more efficient for me, but which added even more months to the delay of the review.

And so here we are eight months later.  The good news is that while I was working my way towards Siege of Dragonspear, a lot of its problems got fixed, and all of the dialogue that offended everybody got removed, and so what I'm reviewing here could be considered the final product rather than the initial release that everybody else looked at.  The bad news, of course, is that people have probably already made up their mind about the game.  But let's ignore the bad news.  It's Christmastime after all, a time of hope and renewal.

Just in case you haven't been following Siege of Dragonspear, it's a role-playing game from Beamdog, which is probably best known as the developer behind the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, and Icewind DaleSiege of Dragonspear is their first stand-alone project, and it purports to explain how your party went from defeating Sarevok at the end of Baldur's Gate to being locked up and tortured in Jon Irenicus' prison at the start of Baldur's Gate IISiege of Dragonspear officially is an expansion pack (since it requires the Baldur's Gate EE to play), but it is lengthy enough that you can also just consider it to be a new game in the franchise.

Characters

To create a character for Siege of Dragonspear, you have three basic paths that you can follow.  You can use any saved game from the Baldur's Gate EE to import your character; if you're playing the Baldur's Gate EE, then after killing Sarevok at the end, Siege of Dragonspear will automatically start up and import your character for you; or you can create a new character, which will get advanced to around level 7.  Obviously, the best option is to import.  Your character will have better stats (because of the manuals from Baldur's Gate), be a higher level, and have better equipment.  But you'll earn plenty of experience and find lots of high level loot in Siege of Dragonspear, so even if you start out a little bit gimped, it shouldn't be a problem by the end.

Siege of Dragonspear uses the same character creation system as the Baldur's Gate EE, so if you have to create your character, it shouldn't be too complicated.  You get to choose one of seven races, including human, elf, dwarf, and half-orc.  You get to choose one of 11 classes (or one of the 37 kits based on those classes), including paladin, mage, thief, and shaman.  You get to select weapon proficiencies and perhaps skills.  And you get to roll your attributes until you get a set that you like.  Nicely, the game allows you to save one set of attributes, so if you roll a good set then you can try beating it for a while, and if that doesn't work, fall back to it.

Along with your character, you can also work with up to five companions.  Unfortunately, this is an area where Beamdog made some poor decisions.  The original Baldur's Gate had 25 companions, and Beamdog added four more for the EE, giving 29 total.  But Siege of Dragonspear only has 15 companions total: four new ones, the four from the EE, and a mere seven from the original game.  For most games, 15 companions is plenty, but Siege of Dragonspear uses the same alignment system as the Infinity Engine games, where evil companions don't like working with good groups, and good and neutral companions don't like working with evil groups.  So that means your choices are limited, especially if you're evil, and you might get stuck with an odd group.  As an example, with my evil party I had to use the cleric Viconia (with her 8 constitution) as one of my tanks, just because she was one of the few companions available to me who could wear heavy armor.  I also had to use a neutral companion, who at random times decided to leave my party, which wasn't a lot of fun.

Another imperfect decision by Beamdog is how they determined the statistics of the companions you meet.  Basically, they decided that companions should have whatever stats they had in the saved game that you imported.  That works just fine for the companions that you used, but poorly otherwise, which is a problem because half the companions didn't make the cut, and so it's not likely you're going to get to use the same party in Siege of Dragonspear that you used in the Baldur's Gate EE.  As an example, when I played my good party in the EE, I briefly added Dynaheir while recruiting Minsc.  So when I had to use Dynaheir in Siege of Dragonspear because she was the only mage available early in the game, she was only level 3 with no equipment, and she was barely any help at all.  Yay.  I have no idea why Beamdog didn't just advance all of the companions to the main character's experience level to prevent obvious problems like the one I just described.  It also seemed pretty random whether companions kept their equipment from the saved game, or had (halfway decent) replacement equipment, or had no equipment at all, and so that didn't work out great, either.

But in better news, almost all of the companions get a quest, and they add dialogue all throughout the campaign, so they're not just automatons following you around.  Plus, all of the voice actors for the companions came back to reprise their roles, so everybody sounds like they're supposed to, and you get to hear new dialogue from the likes of Minsc, Khalid, Edwin, and Viconia.  Imoen is also around, but she's just an NPC while she trains to become a mage (a nod to all of you dual classers out there).  So in all, the companions work out.  It's just that they easily could have worked out better.


Gameplay Mechanics

Siege of Dragonspear uses the same engine as Beamdog's Enhanced Editions, which means that everything is in 2D and you get an isometric view of your surroundings.  All commands can be controlled via the mouse.  You click where you want your party to move, and you click on who (or what) you want to attack or otherwise interact with.  Characters also get a hotkey bar, making it easier to trigger their quick items and abilities, but sadly it can't be configured, and it's sort of iffy for some of the class combinations (like for the new companion Glint, who is a cleric / thief).

Combat is played out in real time, but you can pause the game at any time to issue commands.  You can also set up some auto-pause conditions, like pausing whenever a trap or enemy is spotted.  Basic fighters and rangers don't have much in the way of combat skills, but there are plenty of spells, and setting up your clerics and mages correctly is one of the keys to winning the tougher battles.  Characters can be healed by spells or by resting.  Spells must be memorized by resting, which means you only have a limited arsenal for each fight, and you have to think about when and where to use your best spells.  But there isn't a time limit for the campaign, and there aren't many places where you aren't allowed to rest.

Each creature you kill grants some experience, which is split evenly by your party.  The experience cap was increased from 161,000 to 500,000, so you can gain a couple of levels while playing.  Some creatures also drop equipment, but since Siege of Dragonspear is a Dungeons & Dragons game, a lot of it is of the unexciting +1 and +2 variety.  Unique, named items are few and far between.

Campaign

When the game opens up, you learn that somebody named Caelar Argent has started a crusade to free the souls of the people captured by demons during the Dragonspear Wars.  This sounds noble, but the crusade is heavily into the ends justifying the means, and they don't care who they trample on as long as they get closer to what they want.  You become aware of the problem when refugees start pouring into Baldur's Gate while fleeing from the crusade, and then when Caelar mysteriously sends assassins to ambush you, you decide to get involved.  There are also whispers that maybe Caelar is a Bhaalspawn, which gives you extra incentive.

Sadly, while the premise seems fine, it's also about 90% of the story.  You never learn much more about Caelar, or about the Dragonspear Wars, or about the crusade.  You just set off with a coalition of forces from Daggerford, Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep to confront Caelar, and this trip takes up the majority of the game.  I've mentioned in other reviews that I much prefer my RPG campaigns to be novels rather than anthologies, but Siege of Dragonspear is heavily into the latter category.  It's basically a road movie with generic fantasy encounters.

Luckily, the individual parts of the campaign work out reasonably well.  There are over a dozen major map areas to explore (making Siege of Dragonspear roughly twice as large as Tales of the Sword Coast), the dialogue is well-written and frequently voice acted, and the quests have some heft to them and usually give you two or more ways to complete them.  There are also some tough fights to deal with, including one variation of the final boss battle that I worked on for a couple of hours and couldn't complete -- even when cheating.  Siege of Dragonspear is definitely more challenging than Baldur's Gate.

If I were to use one word to describe the Siege of Dragonspear campaign, I might select "competent" or "functional" or maybe even "good," but I'd stop well short of "exciting," "memorable," or "great."  Everything is playable, and everything works... but it's fine, with both the good and bad connotations of the word intended.  Beamdog probably would have been better off not trying to tie their game to the Baldur's Gate franchise, especially since it's a major whiff in its stated purpose of bridging the gap between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II.  Outside of some brief and cryptic cameos by Jon Irenicus and some hand-waving at the end, Siege of Dragonspear could have taken place at any time in any game universe.  The whole Caelar business doesn't have anything to do with anything.

Conclusion

I didn't love Siege of Dragonspear, but I didn't hate it, either.  I played through the campaign twice, once with a good party and once with an evil party, and I enjoyed it well enough both times.  It took me well over 60 hours to complete the two playthroughs, and that's not bad for a $20 price tag.  So if you liked the Infinity Engine games and you want to try something new, then Siege of Dragonspear is a worthwhile purchase.  Just try to keep your expectations tempered, as Beamdog isn't quite in the same class as old BioWare.