Last month it was revealed that a selection of classic PC role-playing games were making their console debut. Enhanced editions of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights will, for the first time, be playable on a machine that doesn’t also do spreadsheets. It’s remarkable, really. These games were designed to be played on desktop PCs, yet soon you’ll be able to play them with a controller on the couch or a Switch on the train.
But if you aren’t familiar with them, the news might have passed you by. Who cares about these beardy old RPGs? You should care, though. You should care a lot. They’re ancient, sure, but they’re also some of the best RPGs ever made. The visuals have aged, but everything else – the writing, quests, atmosphere, and combat – are every bit as brilliant as they were at the turn of the Millennium. Seriously.
Old but not forgotten
Let’s start with Baldur’s Gate. If you’ve ever wondered what BioWare was up to before Mass Effect and Dragon Age rose to prominence, here’s your answer. Set in Faerûn – a Tolkienesque fantasy world and the main setting for many Dungeons & Dragons campaigns – Baldur’s Gate tells the story of an orphan who discovers that he or she is the offspring of a Bhaal, the God of Murder. Classic.
I won’t go into the story beyond that, but this revelation is basically an excuse to form a ragtag band of warriors, wizards, and weirdos, then go on an amazing adventure across a vast and evocative fantasy world. While your character’s dark destiny is an important part of the story, there’s so much more to discover in this compelling world.
You’ll fight dragons, delve into crumbly old ruins, get tangled up in political crises, and slay classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters including Beholders, Mind Flayers, and Demogorgons. Yeah, the same hideous monsters the kids from Stranger Things named theirs after. It’s a proper adventure, and the sequel is even better.
Baldur’s Gate II is arguably one of the best RPGs of all time. It transports your character to the exotic continent of Amn, where you’ll experience the genesis of BioWare staples such as interesting companions, romances, and moral choices. One of its central locations, the bustling capital city of Athkatla, is a stunning creation, filled with history and culture and wild quests to get lost in.
The writing is superb in both games, with nuanced, fascinating characters and quests that often have alternate paths and twist endings. Here’s the catch, though – the narrative is almost entirely relayed through text. Walls of the stuff. This might sound exhausting, especially if you’ve been raised on games with full voice acting, but it allows the writers to weave deeper, richer, more detailed stories. Think of it as reading a novel versus watching a DVD.
The combat is fantastic too. It’s similar to a real-time strategy game – dragging a box around your characters to select them, ordering them to move, attack, and so on. But you can also pause at any time to plan your next move, choosing from a vast range of spells, buffs, and abilities. And you’ll have to, because just about every combat encounter in Baldur’s Gate is tense, tactical, and challenging.
Black Isle’s Icewind Dale is another RPG making its way to consoles. This one is very similar to Baldur’s Gate, and uses the same engine, but the focus here is squarely on that strategic turn-based combat. Story is sidelined in favour of dungeon crawling and monster slaying, so if you love that aspect of Baldur’s Gate, it’s worth a look. The setting, a frozen, wintry landscape, is a nice change of scenery too.
One of the greats
But the real star of these releases is the mighty Planescape: Torment, also developed by Black Isle. You’ve probably heard of this before, because whenever someone talks about the best writing in games it invariably gets a mention. Set in a surreal multiverse called the Planescape – another, much weirder Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting – Torment sees you playing as the Nameless One, an immortal amnesiac trying to piece his past back together.
Compared to the more familiar high fantasy of Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate, Torment is deeply strange. One of your companions, Morte, is a wisecracking floating skull. You can’t die, instead waking up on a morgue slab when your HP drops to zero. You can tattoo yourself with magical ink to improve your stats. And, in what is perhaps the game’s best feature, you can talk your way out of almost any dangerous situation – particularly if your charisma stat is high.
Planescape: Torment, like Baldur’s Gate, also features enormous walls of text – but what great text it is! Lead scribe Chris Avellone is one of the most talented writers in the business, and Torment is among his finest work. Every interaction is brought to life with remarkably descriptive text, detailing the sights, smells, and sounds of this bizarre setting with a vivid, literary flair. Even with those old pre-rendered backgrounds and low-res sprites, you feel like you’re there.
Then there’s Neverwinter Nights. This was an early attempt by BioWare to create a 3D role-playing game, and honestly, it isn’t great. It was well received at the time, but today the forgettable story, repetitive quest design, languid combat, and clunky transition to three dimensions mean it hasn’t held up as well as the other games mentioned here. It’s still an interesting game, especially for BioWare fans who want to explore the studio’s history, but the 2D games are where it’s at.
So yeah. Maybe you didn’t care that these ancient, dust-covered artifacts from a bygone era were coming to Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. But hopefully I’ve made you reconsider. Video games age faster than anything in any other medium, but quality writing, strong characters, and smart design will always shine through. That’s why, decades later, these games are still worth playing. And with Mass Effect on ice and the future of Dragon Age still a mystery, they’re also a chance to travel back in time to when BioWare was at the top of its RPG game.
Interested in exploring more classic RPGs? Why not check out our list of the best BioWare games of all time and, yes, they’ve been ranked.