Sunday, 4 October 2015

Baldur's Gate: In-Depth Retrospective on the Original Incarnation - Part VII

(Continuing from: Baldur's Gate Blathering Part VI)

Labyrinth of the Elements & The Chessboard

In contrast to the last two labyrinths - which focus on traps and puzzles - this labyrinth tests the player's tactics by introducing exotic encounters and increasing spawns for "Greater" variants. The object of the labyrinth is to defeat a guardian in each of the four elemental chambers - those of fire, ice, slime & wind. When that's done, the party is suddenly whisked away to find themselves fighting for their lives on a gigantic Chessboard! This is one of the highlights of Durlag's Tower.

On-rest spawns invariably consist of two Greater Ghouls that move at a rate of knots and inflict paralysis with their claw attacks. Their ApR is high and their THAC0 low: don't underestimate them!

Parties initially find themselves boxed in at the stairwell, the door to the first chamber being shut. Perceptive players will hear intermittent explosions coming from behind the door, and see flames licking at the walls. Nevertheless, the door must be opened. By doing so an explosive chamber is revealed, a hub with three exits leading to the rest of the labyrinth (east, west, south). A central contraption emits fiery rings from its center at intervals, but it cannot be disabled which means good timing is needed for each party member to reach one of the escape exits (Haste is helpful, as is fire resistance, Mirror Image etc.) It doesn't matter which exit is chosen: the important thing is just to get the hell out of there before the party is turned to cinders!

Below left: Map of the third labyrinth.
Below right: Negotiating the explosive chamber!


The east exit opens into a heavily trapped hedge maze plagued by several blood-thirsty Greater Ghouls and a couple Ashirukuru with a triple backstab multiplier (below left). New players may not expect to die here - "Ooh, a pretty garden, and children laughing!" - but they probably will. The birdbath in the center of the garden may be looted for Bala's Axe, valuable for its on-hit Miscast Magic.

Taking the hub's south exit leads to an obnoxious chamber teeming with a dozen skeleton archers and laced with Stinking Cloud traps. Nothing much is gained here other than the satisfaction of cleansing the chamber (below right).

Below left: Yes, that mage has been swarmed by Greater Ghouls who have dispersed her mirrors in short order. Death is imminent. Inset: A stealthy Ashirukuru assassin.
Below right: I hate this chamber!


The massive framework of a dead dragon looms over the chamber west of the fiery hub (see map pic); it is that of Mechezaran. A talkative skeleton greets the party and warns them of "winged beasts". It points out the stone statues representing five failed adventurers whom the party may temporarily reanimate as allies to use as fodder against three Greater Wyverns. The heroes are: Moorlock (human warrior), Bullrush of clan Blackmane (hobgoblin archer), Meiala (sirine warrior-enchantress), Hack (ogre berserker) and Tarnor (half-dwarven axe-wielder). After a time the heroic fodder will turn on the party and fight to the death. Much kill experience is to be had in this chamber.


The southern section of the labyrinth is dominated by a hall wherein huge bronze masks give hints about the elemental guardians and upcoming Chessboard battle. I will quote the hints as I treat each chamber.

Down four tunnels lie four foes. Kill all four and the game begins. (the game of Chess)
Fire, Ice, Slime & Wind. All must perish to continue.
- Bronze Mask.

So, the object is to enter the four elemental chambers and eliminate the guardian in each. The order is irrelevant.


The chamber of ice is guarded by four winter wolves and the first guardian: Kaldran, a polar bear who fires icy projectiles at the party. An unimaginative party may simply wave their fire wands to burn the arctic beasts to a crisp. This is the easiest chamber, by far.


Ooze only parts before blows and spells, but evaporates in the cleansing of fire. - Bronze Mask.

The chamber of slime is guarded by a "single" Fission Slime, an ooze that inflicts both slow and poison upon its victims. The slime is bemusing in that it divides in two each time it is "killed", unless its utterly vanquished by means of fire (below left).

The guardian of the chamber of wind is an Air Aspect, a wyvern-like creature with insane attack rate. It is backed up by three Invisible Stalkers (below right).


She who fires flame must be killed before her bow is drawn. - Bronze Mask.

Two Phoenix Guards [1] patrol the chamber of fire: a female archer and the swordsman guardian (the target). If the archer lets loose her Detonation Arrow at the party, its impact will spawn a horde of Phoenix Guard swordsmen - each of whom detonate on death to cause a conflagration! Therefore, fire resistance is paramount. This is the most lethal elemental chamber, and backstab is the most elegant solution.

Below left: Everything seems tranquil, doesn't it? Just two foes to kill!
Below right: The archer wastes no time firing her bow. A maximum of eight Phoenix Guards spawn from a single arrow!


After the Phoenix Guard swordsman falls, the party is automatically whisked away (regardless of whether or not they have explored the rest of the labyrinth) to the gigantic lightning-trapped Chessboard upon which a challenging battle is staged!

[1] It's possible the player may have encountered Phoenix Guards earlier, in Nashkel.

The Chessboard

Queening can change a match - much for the worse if you're the other player. - Bronze Mask.

Translation: if one of the dwarven Pawns (below right) reaches the row the party occupies (below left), they will be converted to a Queen as per the rules of Chess. In terms of the encounter, that means the player must contend with an additional mage for each Pawn "queened".

Further rules are announced by an Ethereal Voice upon entry to the Chessboard chamber, but basically: the player assumes the position of King regardless of their order in the party, and the player may not move from their square without being electrocuted by bolts of lightning. The fifth party member assumes the position of Queen and may move anywhere on the board. Knights may move freely like the Queen, but the black Bishop must stick to black squares and the white Bishop to white ones. With only a six-person party, the player doesn't possess Rooks or Pawns. However, Durlag has a complement consisting of one King (bare-knuckle boxer?), one Queen (mage), two each of Bishop (cleric), Knight (paladin) & Rook (archer), and eight Pawns (dwarven grunts) for a total of sixteen pieces!


The object of the encounter is simply to vanquish the King, at which point all other pieces vanish,  the lightning traps are disabled, and access is granted to the exit leading down to the fourth and final labyrinth.You can see the exit in the above-right pic, behind Durlag's King & Queen.

The Chessboard battle may be tackled in a multitude of ways; it really depends on party composition. By creeping the Queen forward into the fog of war, the Pawns may be lured out and vanquished without interference from the big guns, who in turn may be provoked without the annoying grunts getting in the road. In addition, mage-heavy parties may also stand their ground and simply fire wands of fire, Cloudkills and Skull Traps into the fog of war, decimating Durlag's pieces. For under-leveled parties Web may also be employed to great effect, and for scrubs there's always summons cheese.

Below left: Here, the hasted Xan (my pessimistic Queen!) has moved forward to show how quickly Durlag's pieces react. He is doomed!
Below right: The best opening move in Chess is Fireball, didn't you know? :P


With the King's demise the northern exit door is de-warded and access is granted to the sprawling fourth and final labyrinth: The Labyrinth of Durlag's Ghost!

Next Up - Baldur's Gate Blathering Part VIII
The Labyrinth of Durlag's Ghost & The Demon Knight



5 comments:

  1. This level of Durlag's Tower did a good job of presenting players with non-standard challenges that required something more than straightforward hacking & slashing & zapping to overcome (not that there is not a good bit of the latter required as well). I mostly liked them, though the Chessboard battle was kind of stupid in that the enemies just charged right across the board paying no attention at all to chess rules, which rather undermined the point. Presumably anything more was beyond the capacities of the AI, but if you could not do a pseudo-chess game right it might have been better to just not bother with it at all and create similar effects by confining the party member with some sort of barriers or partial paralysis, or something more abstract like that.

    The immense dragon skeleton forming one of the dungeon walls is one of the more interesting terrain/visual effects I have seen in a game. Stuff like that helps get one thinking about the lore of the place and how such a thing came to be there, and thus can really help the atmosphere.

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    Replies
    1. Perhaps the Chessboard was an overly ambitious set piece, considering the engine's infancy at the time.

      Some lore on Mechezarin would have been nice. Maybe an epic account, penned by a bard, of Durlag's slaying of the beast (not out of the question, it is said he slew Aec-Letic with a single axe-blow)... did it teleport in there, was there once a shaft from which it descended to wreak havoc, or was it there before Durlag's Tower, like a long-extinct pre-historic great wyrm the dwarves discovered as they delved ever deeper? You're right, the mystery is nice, too.

      I am sure the BioWare devs were just itching to give us an encounter with a living dragon; again, the engine not supporting such large "sprites" at the time. It was a lil' disappointing that Firkraag and the other BG2 dragons were so small compared to Mechezarin, though!

      (The last post contains the Labyrinth of Doors, btw. I changed things around a bit, so hope you didn't miss it).

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    2. I remember when I first saw that skeleton wondering if the BG devs would ever produce a sequel in which they found a way to let us actually fight such a monstrous creature. We did get to fight dragons in BG2 but they were indeed disappointingly tiny, by comparison.

      I read the previous post, just did not find time to comment on it.

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    3. BioWare released a statement when BG2 was announced, something along the lines of "BG2 will have creatures larger than even wyverns & Aec-Letic!" Everyone knew what that meant.

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  2. The chess battle might just be the single most difficult BG1 + Stratagems battle. Especially if your PC is a mage or a similarly squishy character.

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