Achilles and the Grognard: Vanquishing Sarevok

By Bob Case Posted Saturday Oct 19, 2019

Filed under: Video Games 48 comments

Achilles: So Sarevok, like me, is one of the Bhaalspawn.

The Grognard: Correct.

Achilles: Bhaal, the God of overcomplicated schemes, sired human children to take over for him in the event of his death.

The Grognard: Murder. Bhaal is the Lord of Murder.

Achilles: Yeah, but overcomplicated schemes must be one of his sub-portfolios or something. I mean this Sarevok guy sabotaged several iron mines, had this “Iron Throne” group start another, secret iron mine, sponsored two different bandit groups to raid the roads, blamed all of the above on either Amn, Zhentil Keep, or both.

The Grognard: Not to mention the Shadow Thieves. He framed them as well, for the murder of one of the Dukes.

Sarevok tries to get himself named Duke. He was so confident in his plan that he didn't even bother to change out of his evil armor into something nicer.
Sarevok tries to get himself named Duke. He was so confident in his plan that he didn't even bother to change out of his evil armor into something nicer.

Achilles: I didn’t even know who the Shadow Thieves were until now. I’m still not entirely sure. Then, there’s the part where the villain approaches us in a hilariously transparent disguise we’re obligated to fall for. My eyes nearly rolled out of my head when a mysterious character named “Koveras” showed up.

The Grognard: Yes – that was the “infuriatingly obvious frame-up that everyone nonetheless falls for” section of the plot.

Achilles: Then, to top it all off, he also had doppelgangers infiltrate and sabotage other merchant leagues. Then he killed the leadership of the Iron Throne and took over himself, but not before framing us. He also made Duke Eltan sick and replaced his doctor with a doppelganger. It’s a good thing these doppelgangers are ridiculously easy to spot, and happily reveal their true identities under casual questioning, or Baldur’s Gate could really have been in trouble.

The Grognard: Doppelganger plotlines are almost always disappointing in RPGs. They start out high-concept and then end up rushed in the execution, probably because of time constraints. The same thing happened in The Witcher 3 – an elaborate doppelganger plotline got teased and then just kind of fizzled out.

Achilles: There was that scene where “Elminster” and “Gorion” showed up in the catacombs under Candlekeep. They at least were halfway convincing. My point is that this game got real complicated in the final ten hours or so, and I’m still not entirely sure what happened.

The Grognard: Long story short, Sarevok wanted to start a war with Amn. He figured enough people would die that he could “ascend,” and become the new Lord of Murder.

Achilles: This procedure for becoming a God is a little vague on the details. But in the end, I foiled his plans, presented proof before the city’s nobles, and he fled into a previously unmentioned maze below the thieves’ guild, which led to a previously unmentioned hidden city.

The thieves' guild maze. If you've ever wanted narrow, winding passages, endless enemies and traps, a repetitive tileset, and terrible pathfinding AI all in the same package, the thieves' guild maze is for you.
The thieves' guild maze. If you've ever wanted narrow, winding passages, endless enemies and traps, a repetitive tileset, and terrible pathfinding AI all in the same package, the thieves' guild maze is for you.

The Grognard: You seem unsatisfied with the story’s conclusion.

Achilles: There’s a bit of a shift. You go from a carefully placed whodunit into an info dump pretty quickly. At one point I found Sarevok’s journal and it was practically novella-length. I skimmed it. I expect the developers probably hoped players would read that journal, but I’m gonna be honest: I skimmed it. It’s a familiar feeling: you get to the final third or so of a big RPG, and you find yourself rushing towards the end.

The Grognard: That’s a familiar feeling?

Achilles: Familiar to me, at least. Once I can see the ending of a game on the horizon, it somehow seems less real to me.

The Grognard: That means that it felt real to you at some point, though. In my opinion, the thing this game did best was its sense of place. There’s care put into everything – the art, the dialogue, the items, all of it.

Often, characters speak in I've come to call 'Forgotten Realms-ese,' a dialect unique to the setting. It sometimes bumps up against being cheesy, but also has a memorable character.
Often, characters speak in I've come to call 'Forgotten Realms-ese,' a dialect unique to the setting. It sometimes bumps up against being cheesy, but also has a memorable character.

Achilles: So much so that it’s crazy how few people worked on the damn thing. If the credits are anything to go by, the dev team was barely indie-game sized by today’s standards. But they put this game out in ’98, a big expansion out in ’99, and then an entire, even bigger sequel in 2000. And that was two years before monster energy drink was even invented. How did they do it?

The Grognard: Unfortunately, I think part of the answer is the same as it always is: crunch. But the other part is the tools. The Infinity Engine was easy to work with – easy to get a lot of content out quickly.

Achilles: I was thinking about how this game was one of the first to have an extensive mod scene. Wasn’t it? Even hobbyists tinkering with .ini files at home made some pretty extensive additions. There are mods – not just one but several – that pretty much entirely rebalance the game, and others that fix huge lists of problems. To the point where Baldur’s Gate belongs to the modders as much as it does anyone else.

I honestly think the credits may have been made in MSPaint. A part of me prefers the fly-by-night charm of early Bioware to the polished AAA behemoth they became.
I honestly think the credits may have been made in MSPaint. A part of me prefers the fly-by-night charm of early Bioware to the polished AAA behemoth they became.

The Grognard: So – final verdict? You said you were going to have to break it to me gently how overrated the game is.

Achilles: I may have softened that opinion a bit. But this game is far from perfect. For one thing, I never felt that much in the way of emotional stakes. I think I was supposed to hate Sarevok and love giving him his comeuppance. But honestly, I forgot about the guy entirely for the whole middle third of the game. He killed Gorion, sure, but I’d only met Gorion like two minutes earlier.

The death of the hated Sarevok.
The death of the hated Sarevok.

The Grognard: Without giving too much away, I think you may like the second game more on that count.

Achilles: Then, there’s all the filler. Too many of this game quests are one-step throwaways. Some of them are so glib they seem like they’re just in there as jokes. Too many trash mob pulls on too many nearly-identical maps.

The Grognard: I believe you may be pleased on that point as well. Anything else?

Achilles: For the love of Tyr, please more variety in the tavern music. I spent countless twenty-minute inventory-juggling sessions listening to the same two goddamn Renaissance-faire sounding tavern songs. I refuse to believe the denizens of Faerun haven’t murdered all the tavern musicians by now for insisting on playing the same two songs over and over and over again.

The Grognard: That… well, two out of three ain’t bad. We’ll start up on Baldur’s Gate II next time, and we can all first first-hand just how far the genre has fallen since 2000.




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48 thoughts on “Achilles and the Grognard: Vanquishing Sarevok

  1. Hector says:

    Now face the NEW. LORD. Of MURDER!

    On a side note, is there any intent to cover Dragonspear?

    1. Christopher Wolf says:

      I would like to see Dragonspear coverage as it is generally less known then the other two games.

  2. Asdasd says:

    If forgotten-realms-ese is a dialect, it’s one partly relayed through font. And if there were a greater variety of tavern music, I wouldn’t remember it so fondly!

    I think the biggest criticism I can level at the plot of Baldur’s Gate is that I played through all of it, and precisely none of it stayed in my head. Something something Gorion something something bastard Kobolds in the mine let me SLEEP something something Dynaheir something something end of the game. The sequel is more memorable, and I suspect it’s – I know this will raise hackles – thanks to its linearity, at least in part. But my favourite bit was the free flowing adventures in Amn in Chapters 2 and 3. Getting thrown onto the rails that succeed it was a huge (and hugely unwelcome) change of pace.

    1. tmtvl says:

      I usually hold off on most of the sidequests until after I get back from the island. But yeah, it has an interesting mix of more freeform adventuring and dungeon crawling. Although there is some allowance for player freedom after you free prisoners and chase Jon off.

  3. Math says:

    I actually replayed this myself rather recently, and agree that the plot shifting into overdrive once you meet “Koveras” is rather jarring consider the rather slow, freeform pace of the game up to that point. I too felt a noticeable decline in how much I cared about the plot and instead a “let’s get this over with” attitude.

    1. Ofermod says:

      I wonder how much of that is because in theory, by the time you reach Koveras, you’ve (possibly) have already completed most of the other sidequests – both in the wilderness maps, and in Baldur’s Gate itself. There’s not necessarily all that much left to do, if you’ve done your best to complete things as you run into them.

      It’s like in BG2, if you do all the sidequests before leaving for Spellhold, there’s not really many new ones when you get back.

  4. Narkis says:

    how far the genre has fallen since 2000

    Oh man, that gave me the feels…

  5. jawlz says:

    That ending party looks like the canonical ‘starting party’ of BG2, IIRC.

    1. Ofermod says:

      You are indeed correct. Minsc/Dynaheir, Khalid/Jaheira, and Imoen.

      1. Zaxares says:

        Dangit, I was going to comment on that myself. XD

      2. Sartharina says:

        They’re pretty much the first 6 people you meet (The evil pair generally die/walk away early). And, they’re all connected to the player character: Imoen’s his sister, Jaheira and Khalid are ‘family friends’, and the Player is a huge fan of Minsc.

        1. Mr. Wolf says:

          Dynaheir is loosely connected too. In her secret greeting she says she’s specifically investigating the Bhaalspawn. So it makes sense that she’d stick around with you in the late game (the early game she doesn’t have any leads on them, so it’s just gratitude at that point).

          1. Christopher Wolf says:

            Wow, I have played those games a ton and never knew about any of that. Thanks!

    2. GloatingSwine says:

      The reason they got used as the canon starting party for BG2 is because, frankly, they’re an easy to form balanced group of good aligned characters that are all encountered along the critical path (as long as you fetch Dynahier).

      So almost everyone ends up with that party for their first game.

  6. Philadelphus says:

    Typo patrol!

    and we can all first first-hand just how far the genre has fallen since 2000.

    Other than that, an interesting read about a game I haven’t played.

  7. Mako says:

    Wait. There was a doppelganger plot in Witcher 3?

    1. Wanderer says:

      Part of the main quest too, if I recall. Or may it’s just all the Novigrad running-after-Dandelion stuff blurs into one long mess.

      1. Hector says:

        Dudu the doppleganger is one of Geralts friends, and is involved with the Novigrad quest.

        1. Mako says:

          Ah yes, that’s right. I could have sworn that was a sidequest, though. Maybe I’m misremembering it. Now that you’ve reminded me I can recall I really enjoyed that bit, since Dudu is a character from the books.

          1. Mr. Wolf says:

            There was also a doppler sidequest, but it was rather bare-bones. For a creature that could look like anybody and couldn’t be detected by magic, it was really easy to find.

      2. Biggus Rickus says:

        There is a fair amount of good stuff in The Witcher 3, but I nearly quit several times trying to get through Novigrad. If I hadn’t made a conscious decision to finish the game (it was my third or fourth attempt at getting past the first couple of hours), I probably would have.

  8. Shen says:

    One of the more bizarre things, writing-wise, is how they handled the character’s investment. It starts off with a perfectly good hook too: you’ve lived a sheltered but happy life, father figure is suddenly twitchy, assassins start jumping you from within your home, you’re taken on the run and your mentor is immediately killed by the villain looking for you. Even including alignment, your character suddenly has plenty of potential motivations (revenge, justice, answers, power etc.) and a lead: an instruction to find your mentor’s friends – fellow members of a secret organisation pledged to defend the balance of the world.
    Then you find them and they’re like “hell if we know, let’s raid a mine and kill some bandits for a lark.” And the meat of the game is pretty much just that until suddenly everything happens at the end. I have absolutely no idea why Jaheira and Khalid couldn’t have already found some clues between your pursuers and the Iron Throne – or at least something tying you to Nashkel Mine. When dealing with the baddies you get to talk to, why not write some motivation-laden dialogue options to keep it in the player’s minds? The game is ABOUT, really, undoing a sinister organisation’s operations but if it wasn’t a video game, the player character has zero motivation to DO it.
    This really isn’t something that can be chalked up to “ooh, those crazy earlier days of RPGs.” Dealing with player buy-in and character motivation was a staple of tabletop gaming even back then – not to mention just basic story sense. Frankly, when I first played BG, I honestly started to feel a bit mean to the Iron Throne. Seemed more like my Charname was just taking out their frustrations on some unrelated criminals than any righteous desire to do the right thing and the game deciding it suddenly had a plot at the end was a bit surreal.

    1. Zekiel says:

      I have to say the plot worked for me. It basically assumed you would want to investigate the iron crisis due to being an adventurer (hope you chose a good alignment!) and then you gradually untangle this web of conspiracy which leads first to the Iron Throne – but they turn out to be patsies for Sarevok. I like that sense of slightly directionless wandering, where the regular assassination attempts (and mysterious dreams) keep reminding you of the main plot.

    2. Chad Miller says:

      I’d take this over something like, say, Fallout 4 giving you a child-kidnapping plot and always telling you where the next clue was so that anyone genuinely roleplaying would feel guilty for actually playing the game.

      I’m not sure if it’s that it’s a hard balance to strike, or that most people just don’t care whether the balance is struck or not. The original Fallout had a time limit and was still better at avoiding the feeling of guilting you away from the sidequests you wanted to do.

      1. galacticplumber says:

        This is why starting the game with an antagonist shooting YOU, and having the main quest be about you and YOUR framing on what to do about it is such a better idea. Have your quest center on something the player can get attached to, but doesn’t necessarily feel an obligation towards. That’s how you do open world story hook.

  9. Joshua says:

    “Without giving too much away, I think you may like the second game more on that count.”

    Maybe it’s better than the first game (barely played BG1), but I remember BG2 as mostly sidequests with Job Irenicus bookends and a middle section in that mage stronghold. So many of the other quests have time limits with your companions and lead into other quests that dozens of hours would go by and I’d be like “Oh yeah, supposed to be chasing after this villain”.

    1. Gethsemani says:

      BG2 is the proto-“BioWare Game” in a lot of ways:
      Fewer companions (15 compared to 25 in BG) but each with their own story, quest line and, for the time, tons of interactivity with player choice and quest status.
      Denser maps with just about every location in the game (including ‘random houses’) being tied to a quest in some way.
      A distinct opening, middle/Point of No Return and ending act that are fairly railroaded, but player freedom in-between to do side quests and explore.
      The first real player choices that aren’t “Good/Evil” but requires the player to take a moral stand, particularly the Shadow Thieves/Bodhi’s Vampires choice.
      A personal story where the stakes involved in failure would have repercussions for the entire world.

      When comparing BG2 to KotOR, Jade Empire or DA:O it becomes pretty obvious that BG2 was in many ways the game were BioWare figured out the template that really worked for them. Later games would refine it, especially since BG2 could feel pretty disjointed in the 2nd/3rd act, since you often got side tracked by the gazillions of side quests thrown at you.

  10. BlueHorus says:

    The thing about doppelganger plots is that they’re so flexible, possibly just too flexible for a computer game – player responses run the entire range from ‘I have Intelligence 18 / Truesight / something similar and spot the doppelganger immediately, ruining their plans’ to ‘I never spot the doppelganger; they do what they want to and escape’.

    That would be a masssive inconvenience for a Pen & Paper DM to adapt a story around, let alone a developer to to try and code.

    1. Joshua says:

      I must confess I’m not a big fan of plot in tabletop gaming where the PCs have very little chance of finding out why things are occurring. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be using the philosophy of “PCs inhabit a living, breathing world, where not everything revolves around them”, but in practice (in my experience) it just ends up where the PCs see a bunch of random plot things happen, and then DM has to explain to the players what was really happening the whole time, AFTER the game is done. I’ve just never found that satisfying.

      It seems to me that Doppelgangers could easily have this occur if not handled well. “Well, the reason the merchant was acting really oddly in our last gaming session was because she was secretly a Doppelganger who was trying to start a trade war, but no one used magic to discover her”. Players: “Uh…we don’t care”.

  11. Zekiel says:

    Ah the Thieves Maze. Who would have thought they could come up with something more annoying than the Firewine Bridge ruins?!

    I still remember the first time I beat the game: my tried and tested strategy of inching forward to gradually reveal the fog of war meant I ended up fighting all of Sarevok’s minions one by one until I faced him alone, then I found him impossible to beat without party member deaths until I just summoned hordes of hobgoblins on top of him and filled him with arrows (aka the “Drizzt strategy”.

    Still love that ending cutscene though!

    1. Scampi says:

      I still wonder if people who make claims like this played another version of the game than I did or just make it up.
      I remember my finale as an experience where calling any enemy’s attention at all to me called forth every single participant in the fight, including a few spells cast from out of the fog of war.
      I had to reload multiple times, tried again and again to avoid fighting all of his minions and Sarevok at once, just to find out that I had no way to do it. Once anyone realized my party was in the room, everyone attacked me immediately.
      I finally managed to defeat them all in one fight, but the strategies I read should work never did for me.

      1. Zekiel says:

        Yes the second time I played, it happened as you described. My guess is some sort of AI script failed to trigger for me on my first attempt!

        1. Zekiel says:

          Bear in mind I was playing the original version, 20 years ago, probably unpatched as well.

      2. Khizan says:

        One of the biggest “secrets” to beating difficult encounters in the game back then was to go into the options and crank the pathfinding settings down to the absolute minimum.

        This wouldn’t harm your party much because you could pause and manually direct your characters as well as using shift-clicks to set waypoints, but it could very easily cripple the enemy. Enemies would be unable to walk around obstacles due to pathing problems and groups of enemies could interfere with each other’s pathing and would sometimes just mill aimlessly around the other side of an empty room.

        One of the easiest ways to kill Drizzt was just to tank the pathfinding settings. When you find him he’s standing near a pond that has an island in the middle of it and a bridge leading to that island. With minimum pathfinding settings you could stand on that island and kill him with ranged weapons, and he’d never manage to find his way across the bridge.

        A surprising amount of fights in that game could be handled in a similar way.

      3. DeadlyDark says:

        Yeah. I also used a kiting strategy. My PC with boots of speed was baiting Sarevok while others just used bows and such (I think, I used all magic missiles rods I had in inventory)

      4. GloatingSwine says:

        Pretty much every time I’ve done it I’ve kited them out separately to save trouble.

        Drowning Sarevok in summons is less useful outside of the original engine though, because the BG1 engine would summon far more units with each use and he only has so many attacks per round…

    2. GargamelLenoir says:

      Yeah, for those two dungeons the idea was clearly to punish US for the shitty pathfinding THEY implemented…

  12. chris says:

    I don’t think its just crunch that make a big game like this easy to make. I think it has a lot to do with having a smaller team. Instead of having an art guy that does 5 different roles, you have 10 different guys that all do a part, have to constantly meet to make sure everything looks consistent, have meetings where they orient their tasks, if some other division wants something done they have to talk to the head of the group who has to pass the info around. Also assets were easier. Like with writing, instead of having voice actors that need to be hired and say all the lines, meaning any change in the dialogue would require them to record new stuff, the writer can just make changes without any problem. Something like that also happened with ion storm. Romero figured he could just bang out daikatana in a few months since he would just hire 10 times as many people as they had at id. The typical manager idea of “hire 9 women to birth a baby in 1 month”

    1. The Wind King says:

      That works if you’re building smething where one part clearly comes after another, like say… building a car engine…

      You can have 1 person building each part of the engine, and then putting it together, or you can have ten people building ten engines, and probably get about a 800% efficiency increase (some people wouldn’t be as fast or as good as that single person, and they’ll require training, and sickness, and maybe they’ll chat, and people will be people and want tea breaks, or biscuits, or they’ll hurt a hand)

      If you had ten people building the parts, and 1 person building the engines from those parts, it’s going to bottle neck and you’re not going to see much efficiency increase, and maybe a decline, and I think this is where coding bottlenecks too.

      Sure you can have 10 people making assets, designing levels, and playtesting, but at the end of it all, it requires a small team working together, and communicating, to make sure the coding work properly, and just backlogging everything behind them is only good for increasing stress.

      I am an accountant / office admin for an outdoors activity company so if I’ve got this hilariously wrong please explain so kindly

      1. Sartharina says:

        Generally, division of labor increases efficiency, due to throughput. If you tried to have 10 guys build 10 engines, you’d get it done faster having the 10 distribute labor so everyone does a tenth of a step of engine building, rather than each build their own engine. There’s no loss of efficiency to changing tools or ‘shifting gears’.

        Modern games require bigger engines to be made, though.

    2. Gethsemani says:

      I am trying to find that article I read the other week about the development of Deus Ex. The guy interviewed basically said that if they needed a new “bed” asset, he could just spend an hour or two putting it together in Unreal Editor and toss it in and that a bunch of assets in DE came about simply because one artist spent a few hours mass producing various mundane things that way and then just dumping them in a map called “furniture” for people to export. With modern game engines being so much more powerful and complex, you can’t just simply put 6 cylinders and 2 blocks together in an hour and say that it is a chair, because you need to apply material properties, get all of the bump, trump and dump maps on it and what not. Essentially, back in the early 00’s you could do assets as a side project to level building and could create extra assets on the fly as a level designer, because the graphics and tools were really basic. Today making assets is a time consuming and complex, which is why many studios outsource basic asset creation entirely.

      If you will, it is the difference between making the first kinds of automobiles, which are basically a pair of pedals and a wheel connected to a motor on top of a basic carriage. Complex, sure, but compared to making a modern day luxury ride like a Koenigsegg it is child’s play, to the level that hobbyists today construct more advanced cars from scratch in their homes. The rise of complexity doesn’t necessarily mean you need more people doing the basic stuff (putting together levels, making engines) but rather that you need more people doing support tasks that enable the basic stuff (asset creation, making the computer’s computer and electrical wiring etc.) and putting more people on making engines when what you need is advanced on-board computers is just a waste of time.

  13. Ancillary says:

    We’ll start up on Baldur’s Gate II next time, and we can all first first-hand just how far the genre has fallen since 2000.

    Bioware, sure, but there are still worthy story-based RPG’s coming out, if not as frequently. CDPR, Obsidian, and Larian continue to do their thing, and I’m hearing a lot of praise for this Disco Elysium.

    1. Ethan says:

      It really depends on what is meant by “the genre.” I’ve played tabletop RPGs for nearly two decades, but I definitely think that the immersion of a cinematic RPG like ME1 is a superior RPG experience compared to the party-based RTWP kerfuffle of isometric RPGs. BG2 does some things better than ME1, but I certainly don’t see the genre as utterly “falling” from 2000 on.

      1. djw says:

        Remember though, that was the Grognard talking.

  14. Christopher says:

    Yeah, this doesn’t sound super climactic.

  15. Lino says:

    As someone who hasn’t played the game, I was kinda lost when they were discussing the plot and the ending. But still, I look forward to seeing more of this series.

  16. DeadlyDark says:

    I think, that’s why I like Sarevok the best, from all other Bioware villains. He’s such a conspiracy schemer, which sounds weirdly with odds with his goal of becoming the god of murder and chaos. In a newer bioware game, he’d just raised an army of demon-zombies and that’d be all

  17. RFS-81 says:

    You know, I only noticed that Koveras is Sarevok backwards when a NPC pointed out that’s it a really shitty pseudonym. Then I groaned out loud. Good thing that I didn’t have my PhD in cryptography back then, otherwise I’d probably have to give it back.

    Bonus fun fact: This was on my second play-through. Years after the first, but still…

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