You've Stolen My Soul!
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of AmnPlatform: PC | Genre: Role-Playing Game
Publisher: Interplay |Developer: BioWare | Released: 2000
While BioWare and most other developers of computer role-playing games have long since moved over into glorious 3D, it's still worth remembering that the glory days of CRPGs were back in the days of now-archaic 2D graphics, when games like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Baldur's Gate wove together interesting settings, wonderful combat systems, colorful characters, and incredible stories into what became some of the greatest computer games ever produced. Although everyone who played CRPGs in the late 1990s probably leans toward a particular favorite game, there's little doubt that Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn deserves to stand among the very best games of the era, or indeed among the greatest games of all time.
No one can deny BioWare's pedigree as a developer of superb RPGs. Between the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare has been steadily reimagining the way gamers interact with their RPGs and the characters within. Arguably its finest achievement, however, was the Infinity engine, which powered the Baldur's Gate games, as well as the Icewind Dale series and Planescape: Torment. While plenty of games had included an isometric perspective before Baldur's Gate, the Infinity engine managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of taking TSR's turn-based Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gaming system and rendering it in real-time gameplay, while remaining mostly faithful to the underlying mechanics. Thanks to the artificial intelligence scripts that you could outfit your characters with and the pause-anytime command system (which let you freeze combat to adapt to a changing situation or override a script by issuing a new command to your party members), the Infinity engine was--if somewhat off-putting to D&D and turn-based gaming purists--immediately accessible to a wide audience that liked its games to have a bit more action and a bit less waiting.
Though Baldur's Gate featured the Infinity engine, Baldur's Gate II is when BioWare really hit its stride as an RPG developer. In Shadows of Amn, you continued the story laid down in Baldur's Gate, in which you (the main character) were revealed to be one of the Bhaalspawn--that is, a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder. Most of the familiar characters returned from the first game, including Imoen, a somewhat naïve fellow orphan and fledgling mage/thief; Jaheira, a druid harper who was obsessed with keeping your character on a path balanced between good and evil; and the fan favorite Minsc, an eccentric ranger who kept his pet, Boo, a miniature "giant space hamster," on his person at all times. Numerous new non-player characters were included as well, including Aerie, a waifish member of a race of winged elves, and Jon Irenicus, the nefarious elven exile who saw your character as his key to godhood.
At the outset of the game, a few of the characters from the first game are killed off, and the remaining characters, including your player character, are placed inside one of Irenicus' lairs, underneath the great port city of Athkatla. After fighting your way out of imprisonment, your initial goal is to find and rescue Imoen, who has been locked away with Irenicus in Spellhold, a prison for spellcasters. When you do finally find her, however (and doing so will probably take 15 to 25 hours of gameplay, depending on how many side quests you take on), your reward is to have your half-divine soul stolen by Irenicus. A lengthy and involving adventure follows, which sees you pursue Irenicus through the Underdark and into an elven city that he's threatening to destroy. After killing him, though, you're sucked after him into hell, where you're forced to destroy him one last time to regain your soul, and your life.
All in all, Baldur's Gate II is a towering achievement in the history of role-playing games, giving you a huge world to explore, plenty of well-drawn NPCs to argue with or get romantic with, and an engaging story that's simultaneously epic and personal. -- Matthew Rorie