Baldur's Gate, along with having the distinction of being one of the chief reasons that the PC RPG genre came back from the dead, told the intriguing story of a hero that discovered that he was the child of Bhaal, deceased God of Murder.
Baldur's Gate II, along with being one of the longest, deepest, most engrossing RPGs of all time, had your character further discover some of the incredible powers imparted by Bhaal's blood, as well as the consequences.
With the two titles both being commercial and critical successes, it's only natural that an expansion pack would come out. Fortunately, Throne of Bhaal is a real treat, and a must-have for any fan of the series.
Bhaal the pimp
While it was discovered in the two prior games that three main characters were all Bhaalspawn - the hero, trusty friend Imoen, and evil half-brother Sarevok, it raised the question of just how many progeny Bhaal produced in his mortal days.
As it turns out, Bhaal was a very, very busy God of Murder. The land of Faerun is absolutely full of Bhaalspawn, many of which have learned of their powers and are using them to rampage across the land. The more powerful Bhaalspawn are killing innocent citizens and weaker Bhaalspawn, and the spread of evil is only getting worse.
After staying with the Elves for several months following the events of Baldur's Gate 2, your character and comrades decide to head back into the world to see exactly what's going on. After being attacked by a Bhaalspawn and triumphing, you're drawn into your own little realm - a "pocket plane" - and informed of your ultimate destiny by a divine being.
While there are some fun twists and turns along the way, the journey will involve conflicts with some of the most powerful Bhaalspawn walking the lands, and the story started in Baldur's Gate will finally come to a close.
Indeed, considering this is an expansion pack, we've got a story that could stand alone as a third title in the series (granted, it'd be a bit short, but it could work). Fans of the series will be right at home, and there's a lot to like here for fans and non-fans alike. It's a good plot, and one that both elaborates and enriches the legend of the Bhaalspawn.
The graphics and sound effects are up to the standard set by Baldur's Gate II. Indeed, many of the character models are the same, and while there are some new creatures added (some very impressive ones), there's very little here that we haven't seen from a graphical perspective. This certainly isn't a problem with - Baldur's Gate II looked rather nice, even though the characters seem small (a trait shared by all Infinity Engine games, except for Planescape: Torment). It's a trade-off with the expansive size of the maps and of the world.
The music is very nicely done. The compositions are well orchestrated and suitably epic, while not playing constantly. While it would seem that stretches without music would become annoying, the fact that the music is allowed to play for short spans and then halt allows for nicer sounding music that doesn't have to loop. In particular, I was fond of the music in the pocket plane, and some of the more epic encounters also had very nice tunes. Overall, Throne of Bhaal has a very nice soundtrack.
The sound effects also live up to the Baldur's Gate standard. While most of the combat and magic sounds are the same ones heard before, the new voice acting is consistently good and adds to the game. I was rather fond of Cespenar the imp in particular - a very amusing voice for an amusing little side character.
Godly power, epic encounters
The fact that Throne of Bhaal deals with the final journeys of an epic hero means one simple thing - the encounters are going to tend towards the epic. This is the expansion's biggest strength.
With the experience cap lifted to a whopping 8 million experience, your characters can all get into the astonishing level range of the upper 20's and 30's - in D&D terms, demi-godlike power. In fact, it's almost assured that unless you rush through the expansion, you'll have a party at least in their lower 20's, still a very powerful level to achieve.
There's one new NPC you can add to your party - a very familiar face. While it may be disappointing that you can only get one new character, the sheer power demonstrated by this character is more than enough to compensate. Moreover, all of the NPCs present in BG2 can be obtained in the expansion, so it's a simple matter to tweak your party to include whatever balance of fighting and magic you desire.
If you want to create a new character to use in Baldur's Gate II, there's a new kit to play with, as well - the Wild Mage. This character kit gains some unique spells to play with and use. The fun part is that there's a chance that the spell will go awry and random things will happen - both good and bad. While I didn't test the Wild Mage out, I can imagine that they'd be a blast to play.
The ability to adjust your party is an important one. This reviewer found that in the original game, a magic-heavy party was a very powerful force. When I tried to move through Throne of Bhaal with the same party, however, I had great difficulty. By switching to a more melee-oriented group, I was much more easily able to progress (thanks largely in part to the aforementioned new NPC). This corresponds to the D&D rule set tending to favor melee characters in the upper levels.
Regardless of the composition of your party, the game rewards your advanced status with some incredible abilities. Beyond a certain point, each increase in level gives the character one more advanced ability. Magic users get access to highly powerful quest-level spells that can't normally be obtained. These include the damaging Dragon's Breath spell (a 20d10 fireball that can knock creatures unconscious), the ability to summon Planetars and Fallen Planetars (divine creatures with great offensive and magical abilities), and other powerful spells.
Melee characters are arguably even better off, with a variety of offensive and defensive boosts. The most notable of these is Greater Whirlwind, which allows the character to attack an astonishing 10 times in one round (six seconds) with no penalties. Needless to say, even the hardiest of creatures have trouble withstanding such power.
To accompany these new abilities and spells are a variety of new magical items. Just about anything you could ask for is in here - new armors, incredible weapons, and a variety of useful artifacts. Some of the best items can also be upgraded by Cespenar the imp, to make them even better. Whether it's a matter of making the Holy Avenger sword even better, or turning dragon scales into wonderful armor, you'll find yourself spending most of your cash on upgrading and creating legendary artifacts. It's no surprise melee characters end up so dominant when you can easily equip them with a variety of +4, +5 and +6 weapons with beneficial effects.
Many of these items are found in Watcher's Keep, the new optional dungeon (which is also a tremendous source of experience). While Watcher's Keep is definitely designed for advanced characters, it's available for those people still playing the non-expansion areas. Watcher's Keep has five grand levels, full of treasure, fearsome creatures, and puzzles. Players who explore the entire Keep also have the opportunity to fight Demogorgon, the Prince of Demons - it's an entertaining encounter and a suitable way to finish up the dungeon.
Indeed, Watcher's Keep is the only optional area in Throne of Bhaal. Unlike the grand number of side-quests available in BG2, Throne of Bhaal tends to remain very linear, and most quests tend to be required (though there are generally multiple ways of completing your objectives). This linearity is a strength, as it focuses your character to develop and grow sufficiently to complete his journey. There's still plenty to do, and the areas all tend to be rather large, so you'll still be busy - 30-50 hours seems like an appropriate estimation of length.
To be fair, the game boils down to quite a lot of combat, albeit with very strong plot. This is a nice feature of the game, though - with such godly power at your control, who wouldn't want to fight? BioWare has done an excellent job with variety - each of the areas has different types of challenges, and while some areas feature a variety of moderately strong opponents, others feature epic foes to overcome.
My personal favorite was one of the conflicts midway through the pack - my party had to fight a foe who created copies of herself, all with differing abilities, as a constant stream of Drow entered the chamber to strike. Between keeping my party members alive (and under my control), dispelling my opponent's protections, and managing to stem the flow of Drow, I was incredibly busy. It was perhaps the most entertaining encounter I've had in any of the various Infinity Engine games, and it wasn't impossible - just difficult, and highly rewarding.
The new content is certainly difficult, but at the same time, it was much less overwhelming than some of the encounters in Baldur's Gate II (the dragons come to mind). The combination of well-designed battles, along with the new abilities and items you can acquire, makes the pack a blast to play through.
Being the child of an evil god was never this much fun
It's hard to find any real flaws in Throne of Bhaal. It's a bit pricey, but at the same time, it's a very long expansion. It's very difficult if you don't build your characters up, but the new content (particularly Watcher's Keep) is well designed and holds your interest while preparing you for the journey ahead. There aren't a lot of side-quests, but you don't become overwhelmed with your options either. There also aren't as many quirks with the Infinity Engine as usual - the designers have created areas that seem to minimize the path finding and AI bugs inherent with the engine.
If you liked Baldur's Gate or Baldur's Gate II, you'll enjoy Throne of Bhaal. If you haven't tried them, pick either up, and you'll probably have a blast. Throne of Bhaal is a great end to a great series, filled with enjoying and challenging content. It's a bit sad to see the saga finish up, but it's hard to imagine where the designers could go from here.
Besides, Neverwinter Nights will allow you to use your BG/BG2 characters. I wonder if there's anything there for a level 26 archer...