'Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition' Review: gather your tablet before venturing forth (iOS)

by Jillian Werner

January 26 2014

This genre-defining classic remains one of the most epic RPGs to date, boasting a scale and story no other tablet game can match. Only less-than-perfect touch controls and a lack of modern updates keep this 'Enhanced Edition' from being 'Godlike.'  (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)

The importance of BioWare's Baldur's Gate series to computer role-playing games cannot be overstated.  Its massive Forgotten Realms setting features so many areas, quests, and characters to explore that a 100-hour playthrough could not reveal them all.  The focus on player decisions, reputation, and morality as either/or instead of right/wrong allowed for more open, personalized progression through the plot.  And the series' strict adherence to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset created a meticulously detailed combat system that allowed for dozens of ways to successfully (or unsuccessfully) approach every encounter.  All of this, previously restricted to PC and Mac players alone, is finally available to tablet gamers via Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition.

The Enhanced Edition is mostly a direct port of 2000's Baldur's Gate II, with a few minor gameplay tweaks, graphical updates, and bug fixes.  Both the original quest, Shadows of Amn, and the expansion pack, Throne of Baal, are included, as well as the arena-styled addition The Black Pits II.  The final extras are six new portraits and four characters created specifically for the Enhanced Edition, each integrated into the story with their own histories, dialogue, and quests.  While these are included in the PC version, tablet players will have to pay $2.99 for the portraits or per three of the characters (the Monk, Rasaad, is free).    

The plot of Baldur's Gate II picks up soon after Baldur's Gate leaves off, and players who wish to enjoy the story from start to finish can begin with the Enhanced Edition of the original, also available on iPad.  Although doing so will afford you another 100+ hours of RPG goodness and the chance to import your character for added continuity, it's not necessary, as Baldur's Gate II fills in the backstory through extended dialogue options.  The player character begins imprisoned in a dungeon by a mysterious mage named Jon Irenicus.  Irenicus knows of the player's true origin as a Bhaalspawn, a daughter (or son) of the god Bhaal, and seeks to use this power for his own ends.  While the player manages to escape Irenicus's prison with the help of three allies from the first Baldur's Gate—Jaheira, Minsc, and childhood friend Imoen—the elven mage becomes the game's primary antagonist and his vile intentions are revealed in depth as the main story progresses.

As someone who missed out on playing the Baldur's Gate series during its initial run, I'm impressed at how well the plot and characters hold up.  The grandiose adventure that captured players' hearts nearly 14 years ago is just as engrossing today, with expertly written dialogue and events that bear no wear from age.  Minsc's gung-ho attitude and "space hamster" partner, Boo, are hilariously charming.  Imoen's irreversible trauma at the hands of Irenicus is truly distressing, along with many of the other more spoilerish events you're forced to witness.  Your party members are not just combat shells; they have relationships with your character and each other, as well as their own lives and feelings that can affect your progression and reaction to the game as a whole.

The battle system is less welcoming to newcomers, but rewarding for players who stick with it.  The abundance of options bombards you from the get-go, with classes, class kits, proficiencies, ability rolls, and more required upfront before the game even begins.  Once you're actually in-game, the unintuitive interface options and frequently visible but unexplained AD&D rules result in more time spent confused or researching rather than playing.  Unfortunately, despite being an "enhanced" edition released in 2014 on an entirely new system, very few upgrades or tutorials have been made to help ease new players into the daunting complexities of the series. Once you finally get the hang of it, though, the depth and options available to you are astounding, and battles will range from muscle-flexing two-shot affairs to sweaty-browed slogs that require frequent pausing, re-grouping, spell-casting, and changes to your tactics.

While the lack of any help for newcomers is daunting, this can be alleviated with external sources.  More disappointing is the shortage of other modern upgrades that could have enhanced the gameplay itself.  Baldur's Gate II takes place in a gigantic world, where even exploring just the city of Athkatla can fill dozens of hours. A teleport option or speed-up button could easily resolve walking drudgery and let players focus on active events.  The exclusion of the PC cheat console means any bugs that made it through (and there are definitely some progress-stoppers remaining) must be fixed via awkward save file editing outside of the iPad itself, or a complete restart.

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This isn't the only advantage PC players can claim in their Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition playthroughs.  Despite some enhancements that attempt to keep touchscreen play up to speed with mouse-and-keyboard, the overall experience is slower and more finicky.  The Highlight tool makes treasure chests and doors easier to find, but doorways and stairwells are not called out and are easily obscured on even a full-sized iPad screen.  One of the most time-consuming frustrations is the act of reading item and magic descriptions, which requires holding your finger down on the object in question long enough that the game registers it as a hold instead of a tap.  This time limit varies wildly, often resulting in a tap-fight with a magic spell that refuses to open its sub-menu.  In a game as detailed and descriptive as Baldur's Gate II, this information is crucial to battle prep and the time spent reading—or trying to read—is not negligible.  

The end result is an epic, unmissable classic that doesn't always play nice with touchscreens.  The tablet port contains all the content that makes Baldur's Gate II the critical darling and transcendent gaming experience it remains today.  But given the option, the PC version is the definitive way to play, the tablet port best reserved for on-the-go cravings for swords and words.

  • Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition
  • Developer: Overhaul Games
  • Publisher: Atari
  • Platform: iOS
  • In-app purchases: Yes
  • Price: $14.99

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