At PAX East, Swen Vincke and Ghent-based Larian Studios revealed the early gameplay for Baldur’s Gate III. Though peppered with technical difficulties, the hour-and-a-half panel gave gamers their first glimpse of the highly-anticipated role-playing game based on the widely-popular Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition (D&D 5e) RPG by Wizards of the Coast.
“You exist because we allow it. You will end because we demand it.”
After host Jesse Cox hyped up the crowd, Larian founder Swen Vincke did a live playthrough of the early access version of Baldur’s Gate III. The gameplay began with the game’s opening cinematic cutscene: gorgeously-animated CGI of a grotesquely-horrific scene. A squid-headed mind flayer in its fleshy lair, with dozens of unconscious humanoids imprisoned in bone-like cages along the room’s walls. One cage contains a githyanki: one of the gith races that emancipated themselves from mind flayer enslavement millennia ago. Now ruthless pirates and planar raiders of the Astral Sea, the githyanki continue to hunt their hateful former oppressors to this day. With a flexing of its fingers, the mind flayer opens up a pool in the center of the room. Plucking a tadpole from it, the mind flayer raises it up to the githyanki’s eye. With a tiny and terrifying screech, the tadpole grabs onto the githyanki’s eye and slithers behind it. The perspective then changes to first-person…YOU, the player. Helpless, you watch as the mind flayer takes another tadpole, holds it up, and the tiny mind-flayer-to-be lunges forward to begin the process of ceremorphosis. And the screen goes black…
And that’s how we get to character creation screen! Character creation in Baldur’s Gate III is not unlike the D&D 5e that the video game is based on. The player can choose their race, class, background, and more. The character Swen briefly makes for the stream is an Asmodeus tiefling Wizard (a tiefling of devilish, rather than demonic, ancestry). Swen informs us that the races and classes in today’s gameplay (and thus, available for early access) are some of the total character options available to the player in the finalized game. So it’s entirely possible that Baldur’s Gate III at official launch will have all races and classes currently available in D&D 5e. Confirmed playable races for Early Access include tiefling, drow (dark elf), human, githyanki (like the poor soul with a mind flayer now inside their head), dwarf, elf, half-elf, half-drow, and halfling. There are six available classes for Early Access: Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, and Wizard.
However, Swen informs us that the gameplay (and thus, the early access) will follow a pre-constructed origin story, rather than a custom character. We are shown five characters that we can play as, who will be five possible companions for your player-character later on: Lae’zel (the githyanki Fighter from the opening cinematic), Gale (a human Wizard with a big problem…he has an elemental bomb in his chest that is going to eventually explode), Shadowheart (a half-elf and dark Cleric of Shar), Wyll (a human Warlock and monster hunter, who regrets the pact he made with a devil), and Astarion. Swen chooses Astarion: a high elf Rogue and vampire spawn. Which is to say, a humanoid in the early stages of vampirism and the slave of a true vampire.
The cinematic from earlier resumes as the mind flayer floats up to some kind of command chamber. With a wave of its hands, it opens the fleshy walls to reveal a city of the Sword Coast below (not Baldur’s Gate itself, Swen assures us). For the mind flayer’s lair is a nautiloid: the flying nautilus-like ship used by the mind flayers to traverse the planes of existence. Smashing a guard tower before it can sound the alarm, the nautiloid begins attacking. Striking panicking civilians with its tentacles, the nautiloid’s tentacles teleport the helpless civilians into the cages surrounding the tadpole pool. However, the nautiloid comes under attack when three dragons suddenly teleport into the skies above the city. Riding the dragons appear to be three githyanki, apparently pursuing the nautiloid. The dragons attack the mind flayer ship with tooth, claw, and dragonfire. Realizing it is outnumbered, the mind flayer plucks two tentacles which causes the nautiloid to teleport away to Cania: the icy storm-ridden eighth layer of the Nine Hells. The githyanki dragonriders teleport and continue their pursuit. One dragon manages to tear its way inside the nautiloid and sets fire to the tadpole pool. With the nautiloid starting to explode, the mind flayer teleports away again, with the lone githyanki and dragon in tow.
Gather Your Party
Swen informs us that he will be skipping the tutorial, because it’s not finished yet. The tutorial involves the player teaming up with Lae’zel to seize control of the damaged nautiloid, which then crashes back on the Prime Material Plane, about 200 miles east of Baldur’s Gate. The gameplay begins with Astarion coming to consciousness amidst the burning wreckage of the nautiloid…and in daylight, unharmed?!? Swen manipulates the camera angle to change the more contemporary third-person view to the classic top-down view of previous Baldur’s Gate games, and back again. As Astarion approaches the river, he makes a comment about not wanting to tempt his luck with running water. He approaches a keep built into a cliffside and sees a half-elf banging on the doors: Shadowheart.
The conversation begins with both characters experiencing a momentary psychic backlash that causes their heads to ache and they briefly can read each other’s thoughts. Shadowheart reveals that the tadpole will eventually take over and turn them into new mind flayers unless they can get to a healer as soon as possible. Dialogue is reminiscent of classic RPGs like Baldur’s Gate II or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is to say an unvoiced protagonist and a list of numbered dialogue options. Voice-over for Astarion (and thus, the player-character) seems to only take place when voicing one of Astarion’s internal thoughts. Dialogue options are tailored for the player-controlled character, ranging from simple questions like “Who are you?” to more darkly humorous vampiric thoughts like “I looked at her and realized how hungry I felt.” Shadowheart introduces herself and joins the party.
Up ahead, the party encounters a trio of intellect devourers: walking brains with four bestial clawed legs. As the name suggests, they attack humanoids and devour their brains. Swen attacks and tries to take advantage by having Astarion (a ranged attacker) take the high ground while Shadowheart defends. Combat is turn-based, with the party and the enemies rolling initiative, and then all friendly characters take their actions on the same turn. Instead of making dice rolls, Larian converted those checks into percentages for the player’s benefit. Astarion uses the high ground to his advantage by casting Mage Hand and having the ghostly hand shove enemies off the ledge or throw objects at them. (A common combat strategy for those familiar with Divinity: Original Sin II.)
Unfortunately, the intellect devourers are able to climb and pursue, and it’s not long before both Astarion and Shadowheart are defeated and knocked unconscious. Restarting the game (and lamenting his defeat in spite of playing this game 30-40 times), Swen takes a stealthier approach. Activating the game’s optional out-of-combat turn-based mode, Astarion sneaks up on the intellect devourers. Turn-based mode is based on D&D 5e‘s combat rounds, so each round lasts only six seconds. Out-of-combat, this allows you to move and take actions, then enemies move, but only for six seconds. This gives players more time to survey and react to their surroundings. Stealth and turn-based mode allow Swen to spot an explosive object, which Astarion detonates.
The intellect devourers are alerted to his presence, but now they’re down to two. With new tactics by keeping Shadowheart immediately in front of Astarion, the party is victorious! Swen chalks up his earlier difficulties to the intellect devourers’ challenge rating, which for the demo was taken right from the Monster Manual, rather than being scaled for a party of two Level 1 characters.
Using Old Favorites to Mimic D&D’s Freedom
Continuing on, the party finds an abandoned cart with several crates. Swen takes the opportunity to show how characters can pick up objects and move them around the environment…accidentally stabbing Shadowheart when he does so. A bug prevents Shadowheart from reacting to Astarion’s sudden but inevitable betrayal, so the party continues. Swen demonstrates finding hidden objects when Shadowheart’s Nature skill allows her to find a treasure chest hidden under a large rock. Swen then shows the camp feature, having Astarion and Shadowheart set up the party camp. The party camp will expand as the player recruits more companions later on. Camp is where a great deal of companion interactions and relationships take place and develop. Before Astarion takes his long rest, he wonders if ceremorphosis can turn an undead creature like himself into a mind flayer?
Continuing ahead, the party meets with a swaggering Wizard named Gale. Gale reveals the process of ceremorphosis and that after a period of painful gestation, the tadpoles will convert them all into mind flayers unless the party can find a healer. After Gale briefly flirts with Shadowheart (and Astarion is tempted to feed on the arrogant Wizard),Gale joins our party. Up ahead, Swen demonstrates the effect of spells in Baldur’s Gate III. Gale casts Fireball at a nearby puddle of water, causing it (in true Divinity fashion) to turn into a cloud of steam.
Swen also demonstrates the game’s verticality by having Gale cast Feather Fall and jump off the cliffside. Gale safely drops below. It is a radically different approach to the environment than the original Baldur’s Gate games…which is to say Baldur’s Gate III actually *has* an environment the player can interact with and manipulate. After Gale returns back, the party finds a group of humanoids patrolling a courtyard: the top of the keep from earlier. Swen positions Astarion in stealth behind one of the watching archers, demonstrating the effect that shadows have on a character’s stealth: characters are harder to spot than in broad daylight.
They Are Only *Mostly* Dead
Switching Shadowheart to the party leader, Swen goes to chat with the group’s halfling leader: Gimblebock. It turns out that these are a group of looters that have set up shop inside the keep. Apparently, there’s a crypt inside they’re trying to break into, and now they’ve decided to claim the crashed nautiloid as well. Because of a failed Persuasion check from Shadowheart, Gimblebock decides to eliminate the “competition”. Immediately, Swen uses his turn to shove the archer off the ledge (because Astarion is behind the archer in stealth, the shove has a 100% chance of being successful).
It becomes immediately apparent that Larian has suffered a bit of a learning curve adapting D&D 5e mechanics to their more familiar Divinity gameplay. In Divinity: Original Sin II, characters can do a lot more damage. A greatsword deals 12-18 damage, and a fall from a ledge is normally fatal. But in Baldur’s Gate III, that same greatsword will only deal 2d6 damage (which is rolled offscreen). Rather than be fatal, a fall from a ledge will knock an enemy prone and deal about 6 points of bludgeoning damage. Not really the one-hit knockout that Swen apparently expected.
Unable to kill his opponents as quickly as intended, the battle takes a turn for the worst when both Gale and Shadowheart fall unconscious. Like D&D, once a character falls unconscious, they make a death saving throw once per round. Three failed death saves, and a character is dead. Astarion manages to turn the tide by drinking a Potion of Speed (giving him an extra action per round). Unfortunately, Shadowheart is attacked by the halfling leader, which results in two automatic failed death saves. Astarion revives Gale after the battle, but Shadowheart is dead.
Since Gale is low-health (and so Swen can show off the game’s more stealthy elements), Astarion continues to the keep. Fooling the door guard with a Deception check into believing he is the looters’ leader, Astarion enters the keep. A big change from Divinity: Original Sin II is checks being made with d20 rolls and then adding a skill modifier. In Divinity, if you have a +4 Persuasion modifier, you are nearly 100% guaranteed to succeed at every check. However, because of the randomness of the d20, a character that invests heavily in Charisma might find themselves in a fight regardless. Veteran RPG fans might be frustrated that they’re ability point investments can be thwarted by rolling a Natural 1, but it also forces the player to think more like a traditional D&D player and how quickly a situation can turn into a combat encounter.
Swen uses turn-based mode to kill the door guard before he can raise the alarm, and then proceeds into the mini-dungeon of the looters’ keep. Maneuvering around a patrolling looter, Astarion stealths behind her and gets a Sneak Attack bonus to his attack. Astarion continues to sneak around and loot the place (at one point getting held up by a “very nasty trap” involving a greased floor around a sarcophagus and walls that shoot fire). Swen mentions how risky this is to do in multiplayer: dashing off to explore and just leave the rest of the party behind. Which is also the most low-key way to announce that Baldur’s Gate III will indeed feature multiplayer (but no word if this will be similar to or include the Game Master Mode featured in Divinity: Original Sin II).
Swen wants to loot the hidden tomb, but Astarion’s Perception isn’t high enough to notice the secret button. Swen brings Gale into the mini-dungeon by revealing a secret way into the keep besides the courtyard door. By attacking a broken archway, Gale brings the archway down onto the broken courtyard tiles, which opens a hole into the keep below. Swen explains how doing so would alert the looters inside if he hadn’t eliminated the patrolling looter first. Gale finds the button and then Swen places Gale next to the ladder exit, anticipating the need for a quick getaway. Astarion enters the hidden tomb and loots the sarcophagus causing all the skeletons in the tomb to reanimate. He tries to sneak away, but a skeleton spots him during the enemy turn. Astarion makes a run for it, and both Astarion and Gale escape through the exit.
Unfortunately, the game crashes as it gets stuck between combat mode and out-of-combat. Swen ends the demo, as the panel is running out of time for a Q&A. Swen quickly details how the last five minutes would have been going to camp for a long rest where Astarion would have attempted to feed on Shadowheart while she slept.
Wrapping Things Up
In a quick Q&A, Swen shared more details about Baldur’s Gate III. Swen could not share whether players can re-stack their companions’ stats and abilities, because that is a decision Larian has yet to make. Alignment will be included in Baldur’s Gate III, but true to 5th edition (and at the insistence of Wizards of the Coast), alignment won’t have a huge impact on the story (other than the consequence of evil actions turning your Good alignment to Evil, and vice-versa). And sorry, Baldur’s Gate fans: Swen can not confirm any other characters beyond the five that were shown. So no word yet on a certain Ranger with a hamster companion.
And that’s what we’ve seen so far of Baldur’s Gate III! What do you think so far? Does what you’ve seen make you excited to try Baldur’s Gate III on Steam Early Access later this year? Or are you concerned that Larian has a lot of work ahead of them? Let Geek Girl Authority know what you think, and keep a non-tadpole-infested eye on GGA for more news and reveals out of PAX East!
Baldur’s Gate III Gameplay Reveal:
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