A very long time ago… I’d rather not say how long because thinking about it makes me feel old… but a very long time ago, a computer game came out called Baldur’s Gate. It promised to be the most pure adaptation of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons experience to date.
You have to understand, this was not the first Dungeons & Dragons game. There were lots of computer RPGs that emulated D&D sensibilities. Bard’s Tale. Wizardry. Ultima, once upon a time. There were the actual Gold Box games with the D&D license. They were all awesome.
But none of them quite captured the same type of feeling you got forging a story with your friends, the type of feeling you had sitting down playing D&D and knowing the only limits were your imagination.
Baldur’s Gate came the closest. Relentlessly adhering to the AD&D 2nd Edition rules, Baldur’s Gate would start you off as a 1st level chump, just like when you played with your friends. Your life expectancy was about half a session in those days at first level. You were lucky to survive introductory encounters in Baldur’s Gate, especially if you decided to be a mage. Wandering into the woods was a potentially fatal proposition. You needed a combination of luck, stalwart companions, and a healthy dose of quicksave combined with reloading to survive.
It was faithful to a fault, and there was nothing else like it. It changed what we thought RPGs could do, and practically helped invent the concept of the Western RPG vs the Eastern RPG. It is important, seminal stuff.
And now, it is on iPad. In an “Enhanced Edition.” The same game that regularly used to demand that you keep multiple CDs worth of content nearby at all times for constant disc swapping can now be magically teleported via space to a travel device. We are living in the future.
But here’s the thing. Baldur’s Gate is a wonderful game. Nothing can ever change that. The fact that it is on the same device I’m using to type this review while in the freaking sky is nothing short of remarkable. But… I feel it must be evaluated not on the merits of its past, but what it is now. When you label something an “Enhanced Edition,” it must be improved in some way. Enhanced, if you will. Is it?
I don’t feel that it is. Sure, the game is still fun to me. But it is also frustrating. Nostalgia pulls me through the frustration of trying to find the exact pixel to touch to get through an open door. Knowing that the next plot twist coming up means I better save before dialogue starts doesn’t change the fact that trying to actually select dialogue options is extremely difficult due to the size of the targets. Trying to operate combat without a space bar in this game is at times brutal. Why couldn’t there have been some kind of swipe that paused to simulate that same feeling of control? And even with the ability to zoom in and out, battlefield control is a headache compared to the PC. You think you’ve clicked on the enemy you want to attack, only to discover that your warrior has run up next to that orc and is standing there taking hits because you missed your touch by a pixel.
The hand drawn backgrounds are still beautiful, but the characters themselves wandering through the world look like a pixelated mess when you zoom in. Why couldn’t they have been touched up?
And lastly — the landscape has changed so much. We are in the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons and headed for a 5th. The rules are archaic even for a guy who played them obsessively. I’m not saying they should be changed, but what about some extended tutorials explaining everything for newcomers?
The bottom line is if I hadn’t played Baldur’s Gate… oh, at least a dozen times from start to finish… before I played the Enhanced Edition on my iPad, I have a hard time thinking I would have enjoyed it so much. We have games now that copy a lot of what the Infinity Engine did that do it better on the iPad. Spiderweb Software has produced admirable ports of their own PC games like Avadon and Avernum that work wonderfully on the iPad. Baldur’s Gate, the original, the grand daddy, should be the best, most well executed of all of them. And it just isn’t. There are too many annoyances that, without the gift of the memories of a time gone by, would have made me put this game down. Too many times I would rather have simply been playing the original version on my PC.
But hey, the music is still terrific.
It is a gift that this game exists on my iPad. I have no regrets playing through it on this device, and I’m sure I’ll do it many times more. But mere existence is not enough to warrant a recommendation for those who haven’t played it before. I would still to this day recommend the original version of the game — heck, you can buy both 1 and 2 in a bundle for as much as the Enhanced Edition. Play it on the PC if you haven’t done so. If, like me, you’re an old dude that has played this so many times you know almost everything by heart, you’ll enjoy having it to take with you wherever you go. But like watching a movie on a portable device, the capacity to do something does not mean the experience is not diminished in important ways.