Baldur's Gate 3 pushes player freedom to the absolute limit. That unparalleled level of freedom can be found in nearly every aspect of the game, from its character creation to combat, and after two full playthroughs and a dozen ongoing campaigns, I've still barely scratched the surface. No two experiences are alike, and every character I've created feels unique. While the game can't always keep up with the spontaneity of a real-life Dungeon Master, it manages to offer plenty of agency while also ensuring that its vast, web-like narrative is compelling from start to finish.
Baldur's Gate 3 begins in the belly of a Nautiloid, a Lovecraftian spaceship piloted by a squid-like race known as illithids. After you create your avatar and pick a class, you are infected with a parasite that slowly (and painfully) turns its host into a tentacle-adorned mind flayer. You and the other affected members of your party must find a way to remove the parasites before the transformation is complete. It's a wonderfully dark setup that allows Larian Studios to pull together an eclectic batch of characters with a wide array of beliefs, dispositions, and backgrounds and give them a common goal. These characters aren't adventuring together out of friendship (for the most part), but necessity. In many cases it's an uneasy allyship rife with internal drama and conflict.
Baldur's Gate 3 regularly puts its characters first, and it's better for it. While the narrative isn't all that interesting on its own and basically amounts to "purge the parasite and save the world," the diverse cast of characters makes it so much more memorable by creating an extra layer of nuance that grounds the entire experience with more personal stakes. Karlach is a hot-headed tiefling barbarian with a heart of gold, Astarion is a pompous and flamboyant rogue with just enough charm to win you over, and Lae'zel is a battle-hardened warrior that puts an interesting spin on the fish-out-of-water archetype. There are 10 potential party members in total, and each one is backed by sharp writing, impeccable acting, and spirited animations.
What's most impressive is how these characters react and grow to your decisions throughout the game. How you play your character factors into your relationship with your party. For example, Astarion can be sadistic and power-hungry, and you can either nurture those dark tendencies or deftly try to steer him away from them. This allows Astarion to act as a dramatic foil to a goody-two-shoes character or a sinister confidant to a more chaotic character. No matter how you choose to play your character, you will befriend some characters and make enemies with others, and if you clash with a party member too much they can abandon you altogether. This is part of what makes Baldur's Gate 3 feel so reactive. Although the story and the setup remains the same across various playthroughs, the party dynamics and character interactions continue to surprise on each subsequent playthrough.
What also keeps the characters and interactions fresh is the game's sense of humor. Baldur's Gate 3 is funny and, if you lean into the absurdity, it can be hilarious. The comedy works so well because it stems from your failed dice rolls, poor decisions, and unpredictable combat interactions. This means that these moments of levity feel unique to you and your party. Sure, there are some written into the script, like convincing a goblin to kiss your feet in Act 1, but the funniest moments feel accidental. For example, my character had a beautifully written heart-to-heart with Lae'zel as she came to appreciate a sunrise she once despised. However, I forgot to wash off some clown makeup I purchased at a circus, so the moment was somewhat undermined by my look.
These scenes and relationships are supported by an uncompromising presentation. For a game with so many variables, every conversation feels handcrafted thanks to the cinematic approach Larian Studios took with dialogue. Every line other than your own is fully voiced, characters are expressive, and the camera cuts seamlessly between the action. While this approach isn't novel, few games, if any, have done it to the scale of Baldur's Gate 3. Presentation isn't everything, but in the case of Baldur's Gate 3, it makes each playthrough, no matter how ridiculous, feel authored and intentional.
This impressive level of reactivity extends to combat. While combat is based on D&D's 5th edition ruleset, Larian Studios took some liberties to make it more approachable in a virtual setting. The result is a rich, layered combat system that plays out like a turn-based tactical RPG. Initially, every character has one action and one bonus action. Attacks and spells typically require an action while secondary skills like jumping or using an item require a bonus action. There are exceptions, but generally, most of your damage-dealing moves require an action. Combat itself is calculated through hidden dice rolls. Like D&D, this adds a bit of uncertainty to the equation.
Where Baldur's Gate 3 sets itself apart from other tactical RPGs, though, is how flexible its combat mechanics are. The game rarely, if ever, tells you "no," even in some of the more critical fights. In fact, the more you level up, the more absurd and unpredictable combat gets. For example, I turned a particularly challenging boss into a goat using a polymorph spell, and had our tiefling goddess Karlach kick him into an abyss. In Act 3, the friends I was playing with learned that the Hero's Feast spell makes the entire party immune to poison damage until the next long rest. This meant that our wizard could cast Cloudkill anywhere while our fighter and paladin-warlock could mop up the suffocating foes, all while ignoring the spell's deadly effects. Even something as simple as casting Haste and Action Surge on a level 11 fighter so they can attack nine times (10 if they have a bonus action attack) in one turn feels like bending the rules to execute a clever play that can dramatically shift the tide of battle, but the game encourages it.
The combat is so flexible, especially near the end, that a well-optimized party can obliterate even some of the toughest foes in the game. Yet even when the battles start to feel a bit too easy, they never become rote. Every spell interaction, environmental trap, or clever maneuver feels like a stroke of brilliance that only you and your party could have conjured up. During one fight, a handful of traps were spewing smoke powder bombs that would explode after a turn and send anyone in the blast radius flying. The obvious course of action would be to disable the traps or steer clear of the bombs. However, since the bombs didn't detonate immediately, I put down a Wall of Fire with my sorcerer, and the rest of my party members strategically hurled the timed bombs in order to launch my foes into the blaze. Was it efficient? Probably not. Was it effective? Absolutely. The fact that Baldur's Gate 3 allowed me to play around with all these variables and rewarded my ingenuity speaks to how much creativity the combat can enable.
Where Baldur's Gate 3 sets itself apart from other tactical RPGs, though, is how flexible its combat mechanics are. The game rarely, if ever, tells you "no," even in some of the more critical fights. In fact, the more you level up, the more absurd and unpredictable combat gets
Depending on your choices, every facet of Baldur's Gate 3 works in tandem to deliver a climactic third act. The story builds to a difficult final choice, key combat encounters are appropriately epic, and it all takes place in the dense city of Baldur's Gate. As good as the first two acts are, it really feels like Baldur's Gate 3 saves the best for last. The resolution of character arcs in particular really stands out. In my adventure, Karlach's story wrapped up with a bittersweet, heartfelt moment that almost brought me to tears. Meanwhile, I managed to "fix" Astarion's darker tendencies by unearthing some of his trauma. While different, both arcs felt equally satisfying and rewarding.
But your decisions can also lead to an anemic third act that lacks any emotional payoff whatsoever. In a very chaotic co-op campaign, my party and I killed and/or pissed off just about every important character. Your quest log still leads you to some of Act 3's key set pieces, but most of them felt bare without characters like Shadowheart and Astarion to ground the experience. It's a weird problem to have, because most games simply wouldn't let you kill off characters that are this integral to the story, but Baldur's Gate 3 lets you, and there are consequences. Is it Larian Studios' responsibility to ensure that every single quest, plotline, and character arc is satisfying if those characters are no longer around? I don't think so, and in the case of Baldur's Gate 3, that unapologetic player freedom is far more important to the overall experience. You reap what you sow, and sometimes what you sow is a sad and lonely conclusion.
If anything, that kind of outcome shows that the game's level of freedom extends beyond a solo adventure to co-op, where the variables are complicated further by having other human-controlled adventurers. Up to four players can create their own character and play through the entire campaign together. Surprisingly, the co-op is nearly identical to the single-player experience. It does have some quirks, but any player can push the story forward, make important decisions, and aggro NPCs without anyone else knowing. It's empowering (and a little terrifying) knowing that you could potentially sink an entire questline or character arc based on a decision you make that the rest of your party might miss.
In my co-op run I decided to play as the Dark Urge, a customizable pre-made character that has a penchant for murder. In order to properly role-play this character, I decided to choose all of the Dark Urge-specific dialogue options. This meant I bit off Gale's arm right from the get-go and we never saw him again; his entire questline and character arc evaporated quicker than my character could swallow his severed arm. In another instance, one of my party members was trying to de-escalate a tense situation between the druids of Emerald Grove and some tiefling refugees. As he was trying to calm everyone down, I got too close to their idol and aggroed the entire village. It was funny in the moment, but since we decided early on that we wouldn't save scum, this meant we failed an entire questline because I was a little too antsy.
Even if your party plays it straight, it can be difficult to track companion quests, especially with three or four active players. Sometimes only certain players can talk to specific party members, conversations are often repeated, and the game can't always track who said what to whom. To make things more difficult, if you do have a four-player campaign going, you may not be able to take party members along for their specific quests. Shadowheart, for example, abandoned our party because we didn't have room for her during a pivotal moment of her arc. There are ways around this, such as choosing an origin character at the beginning of the campaign or by swapping party members on the fly. However, choosing an origin character limits your customization options, and swapping party members on the fly only works with a group of two or three players.
By the time my party had made it to the third act, Shadowheart had abandoned us, Gale had vanished after I bit off his hand, Wyll had died during the Emerald Grove fiasco, Karlach had refused to join us because of the Emerald Grove fiasco, Minthara had attacked us because a party member tried to read her mind promptly after a sexual encounter, and I had killed Astarion because I didn't like the way he treated me. Our only surviving party member was Lae'zel who, miraculously, was undeterred by our (mostly my) senseless violence. This resulted in a hollow and fragmented final act that forced us to fill in the blanks. Once again, this issue is rooted in Baldur's Gate 3's immense level of freedom. Sure, Larian Studios could have put up safety rails so we could have had the “proper” experience, but that would come at the cost of the freedom that is so core to the game, especially in a cooperative setting where every player should feel like the hero of their own story.
The preservation of absolute freedom in co-op also elevates the already excellent combat. With up to four players, each controlling a character, the pace of skirmishes slows to make it feel more strategic. As your party unlocks new spells and abilities, communication becomes vital. Sometimes this can be to execute high-level combos and strategies, other times it can be to simply avoid being incinerated or thrown off a cliff by your friends. Either way, co-op combat becomes a tense and deeply satisfying affair that rewards teamwork and coordination.
I spent roughly 20 of my 200 hours of playtime on PlayStation 5. Based on my experience in Acts 1 and 3 of the console version, the performance was rock solid. Combat, exploration, and dialogue ran smoothly, and thanks to its cross-save functionality, I was able to pick up where I left off on PS5, Steam Deck, and PC. While I prefer mouse and keyboard for a game like this, the DualSense works surprisingly well for Baldur's Gate 3. Most of the heavy lifting is done through radial menus. At any time you can pull up your action menu and cycle through customizable radial menus that house your actions, attacks, spells, and items. Inventory management can get a bit dicey, though, especially if you are playing solo and transferring items between all four party members. It can be a little overwhelming, especially early on, but I can't imagine another way Larian Studios could have crammed all those interactions into a controller. And, if anything, I preferred directly controlling my character and the camera with analog sticks over clicking around on a map.
PlayStation 5 also allows for two-player split-screen co-op. It's a nice addition that is almost as robust as online co-op. However, condensing the HUD and all that pertinent information into two separate lengthwise panels is far from elegant. I did also run into some minor audio bugs, particularly when it came to dialogue not always triggering.
Although PlayStation 5 isn't the best way to experience Baldur's Gate 3, it's still well worth your time if that's your only option. There might be some growing pains when it comes to the interaction wheel and inventory, but it all feels trivial when you factor in the scope and ambition of a game like this.
Near the end of Baldur's Gate 3, a character says, "Too much freedom can be frightening." It's a powerful line within the context of the story, but it also speaks to Baldur's Gate 3 on a deeper level. The freedom that it offers is unprecedented, and it takes a little while to really see the scope of what that means for the game. At times, the sheer number of choices and consequences can be overwhelming. But before long, it becomes apparent that Baldur's Gate 3 allows players to be the authors of their own destinies in a way no other game has before. It's that freedom and reactivity paired with its excellent presentation and fantastic characters that really set Baldur's Gate 3 apart, and it's why after 200 hours I'm still coming back to it. Too much freedom can be frightening, but Larian trusts its players to make the most of it, for better or for worse.