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Baldur’s Gate 3 Early Access Is Deeply Unfriendly and Terribly Exciting

The foundations for an incredible game are here, but I'd rather wait for the full release.

Playing over 10 hours of Baldur’s Gate 3 in early access made me realize I absolutely do not want to dive back in anytime soon — and not because I don’t love it.

I contend that Larian Studios’ last game, Divinity: Original Sin II, is the best RPG ever made. It’s a nearly flawless masterpiece that singlehandedly converted me into someone excited about anything and everything Larian Studios creates in the future. Right now, the Baldur’s Gate 3 early access build shows potential to be just as enthralling as that masterpiece. It’s because I want to experience that magic all over again that I’ll be holding off on playing the rest of the game Larian Studios has set the clear foundation for.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is the third entry in one of the most well-known RPG series of all time. Yet its story is perfectly accessible to newcomers such as myself. It takes place almost a century after the events of the previous game, which was developed by BioWare and released 20 real-world years ago. Creatures known as mind flayers — big, big bads in Dungeons & Dragons lore — have invaded Faerûn, during which they take your player character captive. They implant your brain, along with those of several others, with Illithid “tadpoles” that will grow until converting you into a member of the mind flayer army.

Somehow, you and your companions outlive the short timeframe these tadpoles usually take to gestate. Your common plight and the mystery behind it brings you together. And it’s only together that you’ll hopefully find a cure before you become mind flayers. While there are numerous conflicts at the forefront and background of this story, this is the game’s immediate hook. I didn’t need to be invested in the Baldur’s Gate universe to quickly understand this urgent mission. It absolutely helps that I’m accompanied by very attractive and compelling characters I can kiss, too.

Currently, you can only play as a custom character, unlike Original Sin II, which let you take on the role of named party members as well. The “origin” characters are coming later. That’s perfect for me. It’s how I prefer to play games like this anyway. Though I needed mods to love my character’s face and overall look in the previous game.

Much to my immense joy, that’s no longer necessary. Not only is Baldur’s Gate 3 gorgeous, its character customization system is one of my favorites so far. There are so many faces, hairstyles both long and short (the time for pretty long hair in an RPG has finally arrived!), makeup styles, and (most importantly) skin colors to choose from. I was so happy that I could make my ideal character — one with my particular medium skin tone and curly hair type. Aside from the opacity of your character’s makeup and tattoos, there aren’t any sliders. But there’s plenty of diversity in your options, which, although commendable, should be the expectation in every RPG of this day and age.

Less accessible than the story of Baldur’s Gate 3 is its intricate Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system. It brilliantly replicates the current rules of the pen and paper game. Yet that may not actually be for everyone. Even though I’m a lifelong RPG fan, I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons proper, so it took me some time to get used to the dialogue and battle systems. I can see others also struggling with it — especially if you’re the type to obsess over getting the best possible outcomes and controlling as much as you can.

In terms of dialogue, you’ll often roll a die onscreen when it comes to choices both big and small. Whether you roll the number you need to pass a check depends on luck as much as your stats. There are positives to this method, of course. While you put points toward aspects like deception, intelligence, and strength, you’re not locked out of making certain decisions just because you might not meet an arbitrary number of points. Yet while my character is a diplomatic cleric, any choices marked for wisdom — which should be the easiest for me to execute — were some of my least successful. She intimidated numerous people to get what she wanted. At no point did the game gate me from making her do so instead. I adored that. It also feels less “like a video game” this way. It’s truer to life and its chaotic developments.

At the same time, it makes for an often unfriendly experience. Autosaves are sparse. I found myself more-or-less forced to stick with decisions and their unpredictable outcomes. That wasn’t because I necessarily believe in them. It was more because I had done too much and rolled too many lucky dice since I last saved…

I absolutely get the intent and appeal here. That doesn’t mean I love it as someone with a micromanaging brain. I enjoy the comfort of working towards a specific level to pass stat checks. In other ways, though, I appreciate this aspect of Baldur’s Gate 3. It’ll probably be one of the most charming, divisive aspects of the game for players more used to Fallout and Dragon Age than Disco Elysium.

The system will also impact difficulty. Larian Studios’ games are notoriously hard. Divinity: Original Sin II certainly was, at least. I don’t envy anyone who had to review it or play without various difficulty modes and mods. I struggled with it even on the easiest setting.

Constant gameplay challenge just isn’t for me. I can’t say the D&D combat in Baldur’s Gate 3, with only the normal difficulty setting at my disposal, was too fun for me, either. I enjoy the occasional challenge — and coming up with battle strategies captivates me for a while— but I get little satisfaction from treating every encounter like a chess game. A good portion of players like me would rather focus on exploring the story and universe that has been so lovingly crafted. At least easier and harder difficulty modes will surely be added in due time. That only gives me another reason to painstakingly await the full release.

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I say “painstakingly” because, as much as I loved playing an RPG with bantering party members, interesting social conflicts, and a riveting universe again, Baldur’s Gate 3 is still in early access. And it really shows.

More often than not, for instance, characters’ mouths just didn’t move in my game. One of my favorite quests involved a bard who found the will to sing again after her teacher’s passing. After struggling for some time to write a melody that honored her teacher’s impact on her, she found the lyrics she was looking for. Then she proceeded to sing a beautiful song… but I was only interested in her completely still face. Sometimes textures took up to a whole two minutes to load. While some animations and facial expressions looked great, others were stiff.

At one point, my potential girlfriend Shadowheart randomly died a bloody death in the middle of the night. It was on the same night that I let my potential boyfriend, Astarion, suck my blood. (He’s a vampire; it’s not, like, his kink or something). I’m still unsure if the murder was his doing or a huge glitch. He only indicated that he wanted my blood. I revived Shadowheart with a scroll of resurrection. Yet her bedroll remained bloody for the rest of my playthrough.

Overall, it was rare for me to go a few minutes without any bugs or even quest-ending glitches. My game crashed numerous times. A patch released over my final weekend with the game fixed some of the bigger issues, but it erased my previous save. I replayed just enough to see if there were still frequent graphical errors — and there were — but I had neither the time nor motivation to redo 11 hours of progress. More patches are already being pushed as the game goes public, however.

I won’t say it all didn’t affect my experience; it did. At the same time, while I feel compelled to acknowledge these issues, they didn’t ruin my time with Baldur’s Gate 3. I laughed most of them off, since they made for a few unintentionally funny moments. Larian Studios is one of the best developers working right now. That doesn’t mean its work is infallible. Especially when it comes to releasing the early access version of a sprawling, story-driven, and incredibly complex RPG during a global pandemic.

But it does mean I expect a certain level of quality from its games. That quality shows through how deeply realized this world is. I can already see how heavily my choices impact the world, while the characters gripped me as quickly as Original Sin II‘s misfit cast. I know the aforementioned issues are technical ones that will be ironed out over the course of the game’s early period. I’m frankly surprised the developers at Larian got even this much out at all in 2020. That’s not a commentary on their capabilities! Those have been proven time and time again. Instead, it’s on the extremely difficult and unpredictable nature of game development without counting the effects of a pandemic — much less with them. I think a longer delay would’ve benefitted the pre-release, but at least the point of an early access is for the developer to gradually improve the game.

Hopefully that full release comes sooner rather than later. I’m happy to wait as long as the developers need. What is here (the first of three planned acts) is captivating enough that I think many people will feel similar. I’m already in love with these characters. I’m in awe of the more dynamic presentation and better-looking tech. I’m so excited to see how the many stories within will unfold. It’s because of this that I’d rather wait for the least blemished Baldur’s Gate 3 experience possible.

I like seeing how multiplayer games more focused on gameplay than story develop throughout their early access periods. A game with a dense story full of risks in every corner, battle, and decision? Not so much. I’ve always been too impatient to believe much in the saying “good things come to those who wait,” but I’ll make an exception for this.

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Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.