After Interplay's Descent to Undermountain I swore I would not buy another game from them until I had read the reviews. Thankfully Balder's Gate is nothing like that disaster. Balder's Gate marks a return to the AD & D rules of the Forgotten Realms, and it is a long time since the last instalment, Menzoberranzan by SSI I think ?
The story sees you being asked by your guardian Gorion to pack urgently and get ready to leave town. You leave only to see Girion killed, you are now on your own with little idea as to what is going on, Gorion did tell you about a couple of friend to find, but little else. Gradually you hear about a strange iron shortage, whilst investigating this bits and pieces of a larger plot and your true heritage slowly come together.
Up to five other characters can join your party. It is best to recruit as many as you can in the first chapter as the first few battles can be tough. Don't worry you can drop characters you don't like at any time. Try to balance your characters across all classes, Balder's Gate is one game that requires a skilled thief, so make sure your have one. It is best that your characters are of similar alignment, it may be necessary in the first couple of chapters to have a mixed alignment, but if you persist in the long run you will see your party reduced to petty squabbles with each other. This character interaction is one of the games strong points. You really have to manage your characters.
Combat is a hybrid of turn based and real time. If I have but one tip it is get used to space bar ASAP. At any stage in a battle ( or even before ) you can pause the action by hitting the space bar, during this pause you can issue orders to your characters, hit the space bar and your characters carry the orders out. Once mastered it is really a great system.
Graphics are very good and remind a bit of Ultima 8 or Diablo, but of better quality. The spell affects are very good and other than the thief, a mage of some sort is also an invaluable companion.
Sound is passable, but to be honest I did not find it inspiring. Shadows over Riva still has the best music ofany role play game in the last few years, and monster sound affects are still won by Elder Scrolls. The voices are well though, and thankfully stay away from broad American accents ( except for one shopkeeper ).
There is some room for improvement. The game is not much of a mental challenge, it is mostly hack and slash, There are no puzzles, hidden switches or the like. My other gripe as petty as it sounds is that the Party AI button is too close to the Select all characters button. You invariably hit the party AI and don't realise it until you characters start chasing after a fleeing gibbering. The party AI can have dangerous consequences in the city of Balder's Gate itself. The last chapter sees you dodging Flaming Fist mercenaries, you can combat them, but they are good guys so your reputation plummets, and if you have a party of lawful characters disaster will break out in your camp. Of course I had accidentally hit the AI button at the absolute worse frame in the whole game and that is outside the Duke's Palace in Balder's Gate, my party immediately decided to take out an annoying Flaming Fist guard, Bill the palace gatekeeper decided to get involved and was also promptly shot. Unfortunately without Bill to open the Palace Gates the story cannot proceed at a later point in the game.
But overall Balder's Gate is an enjoying experience, I just hope Balder's Gate and the recent spate of 'easy ' role plays is not the trend for the future though.