Eliminating Illithids

Just finished the Captured by Mind Flayers quest in Baldur’s Gate II. That was hell. So many tries to get through that. The room right before you get to the area that leads to the Master Brain was the worst. Just a lot of Illithids. A lot. The worst. I had to step away from the game a little bit, but I found if I’m persistent, and take a week or so off if I get too frustrated, I’m eventually able to get through anywhere in these games. After that fight, the penultimate fight against a small room of mind flayers and the final Master Brain fight were far easier in comparison.

BG II is really fun when it’s focused on plot, characters, NPC dialogue interactions, puzzles, and so on. But the combat can range from a laughable breeze to INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING AND HARD, and it’s hard to predict what each encounter might yield.

Oh well. Old games were like that. Anyway, just wanted to share. I’m glad to put that hellhole behind me.

Breaking through Baldur’s Gate

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’ve tried to play the first Baldur’s Gate before, but never got very far; it’s the only game in the series I’d ever tried. Beating the campaign feels like an accomplishment. And especially once my party was around level 5, the game did start being generally more fun, the truly challenging battles more memorable instead of just another in a long slog of painful party wipes and reloads.

I knocked out the Tales of the Sword Coast content along the way; while nothing in that was vital, I thought that it represented a general improvement in storytelling, with a concentrated hub town serving as a springboard for a variety of diverse quests, from a variety of events related to delving into a truly nasty dungeon, to sailing for a fabled shipwreck on a distant island only to find yourself in the middle of lycanthrope tribal warfare, to putting down a cult dedicated to a powerful demonic enemy. (There were probably more Ancient and Terrible Evils in the quests of Tales than in the entire base game–it did start to feel a little crowded). Two very different elements represented my favorite components of the expansion. Probably my single favorite was uncovering the layers of mystery and deceit associated with the shipwreck and islanders; having the option to befriend a local islander and a long-lost mage and having them both help me in the final moments felt surprisingly organic for a game whose mechanics typically grind away all too visibly. Second favorite was dealing with some of the puzzles in the lower levels of Durlag’s Tower, which really helped develop the setting and the tortured mindset of the dungeon’s creator and long-dead lord. The dungeon wasn’t just dangerous and torturous; it was created by a man who had suffered great losses, and his psyche left a permanent impact on its design and implementation. Both of these examples of favorite moments highlight where characterization and environmental storytelling won out over heavy lore dumps and hackneyed, conventional plotting; the latter, unfortunately, constituted the majority of Baldur’s Gate. (While I liked some of the lore I picked up from the game’s items, I object to the idea of lore descriptions for items. How are the characters gleaning this detailed information just from inspecting it? Meanwhile, the in-game history books, mostly short chapters of larger histories, suggest there’s almost too much lore for the relatively straightforward story being told in the game itself. But that point probably has more to do with the Forgotten Realms setting in general.)

I don’t really want to focus on the bad, though. It’s an old game, and I don’t want to just pick away at it. Still, it must be said: the plot largely serves as a vehicle for advancing your character in power and exploring new map segments. It’s (mostly) serviceable, but ultimately mundane and uninspired. That said, even the base game had its moments. I liked exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate itself and learning more about its mercantilist government topped by oligarchs. I liked learning more about how the disparate pieces of the story fit together into Sarevok’s master plan–which was more interesting than any boring old stuff about a Great and Terrible Destiny for the player character. I think my favorite moment in the base game was when you encounter the doppelgangers who take on the aspects of Elminster and Gorion in the dungeons below Candlekeep. Before that, the doppelgangers are very transparent, often clearly searching for a weakness if not outright hostile even before they reveal their true forms. But these two, for a moment, had me wondering what was real. Could Gorion have survived? What “Elminster” and “Gorion” said sounded sensible. I hadn’t confronted doppelgangers putting so much energy into convincing me of their worn identities, and their answers were plausible. What if I had fallen under the sway of a powerful illusion? Forcing me to pick dialogue responses there really made me consider my decisions and how I reacted. I had to remind myself that everything I’d seen before indicated that these two were fake. And of course, they were. But the game made me doubt myself, and I was anxious and uncomfortable with the prospect of choosing to fight them, even though I felt it was necessary. Seeing them revert to doppelgangers to start that fight was a huge relief a little too soon, so it’s possible that the game could have pushed harder. Imagine if they’d stayed in their forms and used spells you’d expect a mage to have up until the moment of their deaths! But it was still a very good moment where the emotional stakes were raised, however briefly.

As soon as you defeat Sarevok at the end, there’s a closing cinematic, the credits roll, and then, in the particular version I have, you’re immediately launched into the opening cinematic of the 2016 Beamdog expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. That opening cinematic does a good job of establishing the setting and the new antagonist. Then you’re dumped into a new dungeon, where a quick game-engine cutscene shows that you’ve pursued the final holdout of Sarevok’s followers to a decrepit tomb. Already, there’s a little more dialogue, and the characters of my party feel familiar and comfortable together. The relationships largely built up in my head with little textual support feel reinforced by that opening. What I mean to say is, the story was already more interesting to me, the characters more alive, in just the opening 5 minutes. Kudos to the writers–of course, they’d had almost two decades to let the first game permeate, and they could take into account the elements of the second game and developments in game storytelling over time. Still, I’m impressed. I’ve sunk many hours into Siege of Dragonspear since when I originally started this post, and the improvements to characterization, pacing, and storytelling have remained sharp. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a colossal leap forward when compared with the original game.

A comfortable gaming routine

While I’m still struggling to pick up a regular reading habit again, I have found a very comfortable gaming routine. I try to spend some time in Ring Fit Adventure every day. I aim for 8 PM every night, but in reality this ends up being one of the last things I do before I get ready for bed most evenings. Then, my weekends get split between two games. A good chunk of at least one day is spent playing a single-player RPG; currently, that’s involved the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but I have a lot of other unplayed options lined up. Then I’ll spend a couple hours with some friends playing Star Wars: Squadrons on the other day of the weekend. It’s a satisfying cycle.

I’ve barely touched the single-player mode in Squadrons. If I ever get around to finishing the campaign, I’ll probably write a short review. But I’m there for the multiplayer, which is so very unlike me. We’re usually flying with a near-full squadron of friends at this point. The dream will be all five slots filled with friends. It’ll be a while before we’re doing more than battles against AI opponents, though. I made two important changes to how I play: I’ve switched from mouse/keyboard to a 360 controller, and I’ve finally figured out how to effectively use targeting and call-outs. Really basic. I would never claim to be a natural at these sorts of games! But now it feels like Star Wars, with really fun dogfighting, working together with a buddy to take on the enemy squadron, coordinating our strikes and retreats for resupply, swooping in to try to pull enemies off our companions or to draw attention away in anticipation of a bombing run. I’m sure I’d be absolutely shredded against a human opponent, of course! But it’s great fun and something to look forward to every week.

So I’m finding fitness, socialization, and immersive storytelling all in gaming. Now to find ways to implement more reading into my days!

My Five Favorite Games in 2020

Continuing the theme from the past couple years, I’m listing my top five favorite games that I enjoyed the most while playing over the past year. As is now tradition, they weren’t necessarily released in 2020; that’s just when I played them.

1. Ring Fit Adventure

Last week’s post should make it clear how much I love this game and how special it is to me. It’s made fitness fun for me. Enough said for this post. I’m so grateful for this game.

2. Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park

I’ve written a fair amount about Jurassic World: Evolution, even before it came out. Steam tells me I’ve put 200 hours into the game. I have unlocked 69 of 73 achievements and finished all story content. I’ve been playing intermittently since the game came out. But I did not include it on my favorite games lists for 2018 or 2019. Partly that’s because I played a lot of great games in those years, but partly it’s because the game felt incomplete and a bit rough around the edges. With a couple years of polishing and enhancements in the form of several free updates and paid DLC packs, the game is in a much better place. Furthermore, the nostalgia of running a park with the aesthetics of the original movie and a slicker, more streamlined economy without some of the more ethically dubious contracts of the base game make the Return to Jurassic Park expansion the singularly best version of Jurassic World: Evolution available. (Its story mode, while not incredible, is also the strongest in the game.) Encountering this new mode finally gave me the ammunition to add this to a year’s best list.

3. Prey

This creepy, compelling sci-fi story grows from survival horror to power fantasy all while presenting a smoldering plot guided by mysterious figures with competing motivations aboard a derelict and alien-infested space station. Moral choice, manipulable environments, a crafting system that requires you to make tough decisions with limited resources, and a varied and robust skill system make for unique gameplay experiences. And as required for a game of this type, the environmental storytelling as you explore the station and uncover its secrets is top-notch.

4. Dishonored 2

This is the peak of the Dishonored series for me. I enjoyed sneaking and fighting my way through the levels, and I loved the intimate characterization of its cast. As I said in my review, its plot was largely a repeat of the original game’s, heightened by an emphasis on legacy at least when playing as Emily. But that just gives it the opportunity to be bigger and better, the Terminator 2 to Terminator. And just like Prey, Dishonored 2 is another example of Arkane Studios’ excellent environmental storytelling.

5. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

I didn’t write about this one for the blog before now. Baldur’s Gate came out way back in 1998, and the Enhanced Edition was released in 2012. So even this newer version is still getting up there. Baldur’s Gate was such a formative experience for roleplaying gamers of my age; more broadly, it was hugely influential and came to form much of the basis of the Bioware style and of what people expected from CRPGs moving forward; even those who had never played it, like me, heard plenty about it. I had a disc at some point with several old Black Isle Studios CRPGS on it, and I gave Baldur’s Gate a try then. I didn’t get far. The Enhanced Edition, courtesy of Beamdog and Overhaul Games, provides several modern conveniences and lower difficulty settings, but my first encounter with it a year or so ago didn’t go so well, either. I decided to give the game another try out of the blue, and while the initial hours were still frustrating, it clicked with me enough for me to persevere until I got my party to a high enough level to where the game was actually fun and challenging instead of punishingly difficult. The story is basic, nested in tired tropes even when it originally came out, and the excessive and convoluted lore in this game feels so detached from the actual world-building, but there are a lot of distinctive, quirky characters (to be expected of a Bioware game) and several fascinating side quests that range from weird to funny to strikingly poignant. I might be playing more out of momentum than anything else, but I do generally enjoy myself, and it’s seen a lot of hours logged in the past month or so. I’d been wandering the city of Baldur’s Gate more recently, wrapping myself in the city’s intrigues, but the last play session led me off to a voluntary detour to Ulgoth’s Beard, and now I’m making my way down through the torturous labyrinths of Durlag’s Tower as I attempt to complete content from Tales of the Sword Coast. I’m having enough of a good time that I’m considering more isometric CRPGs for 2021, perhaps building up to another attempt at Divinity: Original Sin II, which I’d given up on near the start of 2020. Heck, maybe my newfound patience for old-school RPG mechanics (and their associated difficulty) might finally lead me to take another crack at Arena…maybe! For getting me excited about isometric CRPGs, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition deserves to make this list. It didn’t hurt that I lacked strong alternative contenders this year…