Baldur's Gate 2 S Athkatla is still one of the best RPG cities of all time (2023)

By the time you see the doors, you'll already have your half-sister Imoen imprisoned by a council of wizards. You may or may not have already chosen sides in a war between assassins and vampires, taken your first steps in acquiring armor made from human flesh, and started collecting body parts for a talking skull. Twenty years later, Athkatla is still one of the densest cities you'll find in a CRPG. There are something like 35 quests in all, which is about the same as Novigrad from The Witcher 3, but spread across the city's eight districts in such a way that you're never more than one or two NPCs, most of whom have some unique mission type. dialogue. - to find another. One of Athkatla's most effective Djinni tricks for keeping its illusion of a two-decade-old city alive is how its policies and laws directly encroach on players' freedoms. After seeing the hooded mages imprison Imoen and Irenicus for illegal use of magic, you might be tempted to try your own magic. Try it once and an assistant will teleport and tell you to stop. Keep trying, and some of them will show up and start trying to incinerate you with high-level spells.

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You can spend 5,000 gold on a magical license, and the 5k isn't too hard to come by, but just forcing the player to buy their way out of the Byzantine city government goes a long way toward effectively conveying the burden of bureaucracy. from Athkatla. If you're used to an open world without consequences, it's an effective way to set the mood. Add in the guards who wake you up and call you a vagrant if you try to sleep on the street instead of an inn, the spontaneous fights that break out in the street between Shadow Thieves and Vampires, and all the idiots in town trying to hack your sorcery. Powerful party with less than a short sword of confidence lost, and the place starts to feel a lot less static than it might otherwise. It has become a cliché to point out the dissonance in open world games that set up an apocalyptic scenario. scenario before letting you piss on a fishing rod for forty hours while local towns burn, but that's partly because it happens so much. BioWare's solution here was to have an Athkatla Thieves Guild representative, Gaelan Bayle, ask you to gather 20,000 gold before he helps you free Imoen from Spellhold. The entire second chapter of the game is built around collecting that money, and it's a great narrative trick to get around the loss of urgency. Each side quest, no matter how small, works towards the main plot objective. Athkatla is also known as the City of Coins, as a result of its thriving trading economy in relation to the rest of Faerûn. Our partner Jaheira tells us upon arrival, and it is the first sign, although not the last, of breaking the fourth wall. Kind of a meta nod to BG2's awareness of itself as an RPG. It's hard to walk a few meters in Athkatla without encountering someone with a problem who needs a solution and money to pay for it. Or, if you prefer, an absent-minded nobleman with a bulky bag. When Bayle assigns us our task of gold, the city willingly reshapes itself into rows and rows of arabesque sofas to dive for coins or pockets to collect jewels. When Jaheira tells you the city's nickname, she may very well be telling you that Athkatla is the city of quests, such is the place designed as a free-form playground centered around a structured quest objective.

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True to the point of impenetrability, as the game follows second edition D&D rules, its most accurate tabletop homage is how off-the-cuff many of the quests that take place in Athkatla feel. One of the main goals of CRPGs has always been to provide an attractive and satisfying DM simulation within technology and budget constraints. You can't give the player the infinite choices they would have sitting at a table, but you can write answers that roughly match the lineups and maybe add some wildcards. It's all there, and some missions can play out considerably differently. But the real harmony with its tabletop counterpart is how, on a first go-round, the game can feel like it's spinning threads, threads, and entire tapestries in response to the player's curiosity. Then the GM casually mentions a circus tent in a mall. , it was only thought of as a small detail to bring color to the scene, but players don't give up. About an hour later, the party emerged from the tent, having rescued a winged elf from an illusory palace created by an embittered circus worker. Equally labyrinthine is the Copper Coronet Tavern, which hides fighting pits and slaving operations behind a side door, suspicious only for a single guard. If, like me, you judge RPGs by the number of evil dwarves they feature, then Copper Coronet has two. One of which you can recruit into your party, yes, Baldur's Gate allows you to have Chaotic Evil companions, the other you can kill to retrieve a teddy bear for the ghost of a murdered child you find floating in the town's cemetery.

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Planescape: Torment's Sigil was also known as the City of Gates because of the way it connected the planes, but I think it's an apt name for Athkatla. From the Planar Sphere that spawns in the slums above an old woman's house to the talking sword you find in the sewers below the Coppercrown, Athkatla can feel as much a blur of spectral anomalies as a Matryoshka doll from side quests. For all its comedy, there's a meanness to the town that makes it, come to think of it, one of BioWare's darkest settings. The first tavern found, on the upper levels of the riverside area, is full of nobility. A corner miner, who recently got lucky with a vein of gold, explains how the city's upper classes treat everyone like dirt. The first noble you talk to tries to buy your partner Jaheira for sex. Later, another patron of the tavern tries to buy his fellow Minsc's hamster Boo to eat. The slave operation in the back of the Copper Coronet leads to another quest chain. Search long enough and everything in The City of Coin will be for sale. If Athkatla set the standard for dense, open environments in CRPGs, it's also where many tricks that would become BioWare staples found their first iteration. Spontaneous conversations between group members and romances that responded not only to how you treated your peers, but how you acted around the world. The fifteen companions in Baldur's Gate 2 meant that all but a few could have lower tolerances for player silliness, leaving the group for good if you made too many lineup decisions they weren't happy with. Athkatla, with its wheeled structure and taverns full of recruitable party members, was a great way for the player to test their own chosen moral compass for that game.

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Perhaps best of all, Athkatla pulled off one of my favorite tricks in sprawling RPGs: letting you return to areas you've already been to later in the game, with a much more powerful party, just to give you a powerful idea of ​​just how much. you had grown Follow the sewers below the Coppercrown long enough and you'll find an underground lair full of mind flayers. These Illithids are terrifying even at the highest levels, and Larian's choice to feature them so heavily in Baldur's Gate 3's marketing and setting takes me, I guess, back to just how high these encounters were in the prequel. Along with Kangaxx the Lich, a tough fighting bastard BioWare paid homage to in the original Dragon Age with the clever demon Gaxkang, these skinners were indeed one of BG2's super bosses. all a game of Baldur's Gate needs to do to be worthy of its named legacy is transport the player somewhere else. The expansive nature of Athkatla never felt content for content's sake, but more like the masterpiece of a team bent on creating the illusion of a living city, having so much to do that it felt like a constant journey of discovery. Having a new team take over the reins of the franchise for Baldur's Gate 3 might seem like a gamble, but given Larian's track record, I couldn't be more excited to roll the dice again. Check out our list of the best RPGs for more like this one. .

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