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Sibling rivalry takes on a whole new meaning
By: Lord Craxton
Pioneering the concept of expansion-as-sequel, seen more recently in Tribunal, Throne of Bhaal is the final chapter in BioWare's reputation-making RPG series, the Baldur's Gate trilogy. The material here was originally intended to become Baldur's Gate III, and the story elements have been compressed and slimmed down into this small, 20-30 hour game, losing remarkably little in the transition. As a result Throne of Bhaal may seem to have a rushed plot, and could be too linear for fans of hardcore PCRPG's. Nevertheless, fans of the first two Baldur's Gate games simply MUST play this, for it is not merely another expansion or sequel, but a finale to an epic storyline. And what a grand finale it is.
Throne of Bhaal takes most of its cues more from the original Baldur's Gate then from Shadows of Amn. Whereas the Children of Bhaal, central to the plot of Baldur's Gate, were a minor plot point in Shadows, here they're once again front and center. As the backstory goes, during the whole time you were chasing Jon Irenicus around Amn, a coalition of five powerful Bhaalspawn was cutting a bloody swath through the Sword Coast, killing off their siblings as they went. Their armies have now reached the kingdom of Tethyr, and when word of the destruction reaches Suldenesselar, the Ellisime politely shoos you away. After some brief strangeness- including an encounter with the last person you'd ever expect to see again, let alone invite into your party - you wind up in Saradush, a city under siege for harboring Bhaalspawn. From there you'll be mounting a one-party crusade against The Five, with the power of a god as the ultimate prize.
As I said, the plot is pretty linear. There are a few very minor subquests, and character plots from Shadows of Amn continue, including the romances. The new character I mentioned also has some concerns to work through. Though none of the character plots result in formal quests this time around, they are welcome anyway, because they provide a sense of personal investment in what would otherwise be just another string of epic confrontations. If anything, there's too little inter-party dialogue this time around. Jaheira is pretty quiet, and though Minsc is his usual loopy self, his shtick is getting tired by the end. Several references to Boo's flatulence don't help. Most of the random cut-scenes concern either the new party member, your romance, and the awakening of Imoen's Bhaalspawn powers. (The last is bugged, apparently - I found out about it only when she mentioned it in the ending). Still, Throne of Bhaal is exactly what a good finale should be - a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish between the hero and the dark forces arrayed against him, with his party supporting him to the end. And Throne of Bhaal provides a real ending, a conclusion, rather then the foreboding, open-ended finales of Baldur's Gate 1 and 2. At the end, you'll finally meet your destiny, and there are shorter text endings divulging the fates of your comrades. These - and the new varieties of whupass, are enough to warrant taking a run through with any old BG2 parties you may have, so replay value is what you'd expect.
The general look and feel of the game hasn't changed much. There's the usual smattering of new material - new cutscenes, new graphics, new sound effects- mixed in with most of the usual stuff from Shadows. It's nothing special, but you will find a number of new portraits, and characters have different voice samples. There are also a few new BMGs, and some new enemies with their own sprites and voices. The interface is identical. Overall, not a lot is different in the production values department. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In terms of gameplay, Throne of Bhaal is more or less Shadows of Amn at higher power levels. You'll begin finding +4 and +5 weapons right off the bat, and many can be further upgraded by an imp named Cespenar whom you'll meet at the beginning. This aspect is much more pronounced then in Shadows. There are more potential modifications, and you can perform them basically at any time, instead of waiting until the final act. Your party will also begin to get high-level abilities- by the end, even the middle of the game, Druids can transform into Elementals, Mages can smash enemies with Comets, Clerics can summon angels and cloak themselves in Flaming Auras of Death (an actual spell name), and Fighters can throw off brutal Whirlwind attacks. Indeed, it could be argued that BioWare's gotten a bit carried away with the power levels - I gained more experience levels in Throne of Bhaal then I did in the previous two games combined, and the powerful spells and abilities made most of the spells from the Shadows next to useless. Frankly, there's not as much strategy in Throne as there was in Shadows- due to the immense powers at your commands, sheer brute force often works just fine. When a viable solution to a battle with high-level enemies protected from magical weapons is to beat them down with normal weapons, I can't help thinking something's wrong.
Throne of Bhaal also includes some add-ons to Shadows of Amn. The biggest addition is Watcher's Keep, an extra dungeon playable either from Shadows or Throne. I definitely recommend trying it out - it's a varied dungeon with a lot of puzzles and unique challenges. Plus, it contains some of the best treasures in either game, including some upgradeable weapons and quivers with infinite arrows (though I for one still prefer the Gesen Bow). The rest of the enhancements are minor- small spell tweaks and a few new graphic effects. There's also a new playable class, the Wild Mage, but I wouldn't play through Shadows again just for that.
I waver over whether to rate Throne of Bhaal a 9 or a 10. While it certainly does everything I could have hoped, one could argue that the fairly low challenge level warrants knocking it down a notch. On the other hand, one of my major complaints against the original Baldur's Gate was that it was too freakin' hard, especially the last chapter where the designers throw the kitchen sink at you. Besides, there's a time to be challenged, and there's a time to just kick butt. And after a long epic where the hero has struggled and fought through everything imaginable, manipulated and plotted against every step of the way, you WANT to see him busting heads on his own terms in the end. Throne of Bhaal makes a thrilling and marvelous conclusion to the saga of Baldur's Gate, and long-time fans, who remember standing in front of the Candlekeep inn with nothing but their clothes and a quarterstaff way back in 1998, will be most pleased.
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