When the original Baldur's Gate hit the PC a few years back, it was a monumental game. Monumental because it not only incorporated the wildly popular Forgotten Realms campaign setting, monsters, and characters from Dungeons & Dragons, but also because it was a game that helped revive interest in PC RPGs-drawing attention away from the endless onslaught of First Person Shooters and Real Time Strategy games that were dominating the market.
Baldur's Gate went on to spawn a sequel and add-ons, and no doubt inspire many other games. Now, with the release of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, it's bringing the Forgotten Realms to the PlayStation 2-albeit with some pretty major tweaking. However, the end result is nothing short of excellent.
Go forth and save the Forgotten Realms!
If Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance has one weak spot, it's the story. It's not that the story is bad, but rather that the hack-and-slash gameplay mechanics of the title make for relatively few spots where the developers can insert story interludes naturally. Because of this, when you do stop to chat with someone and advance the plot, it often feels like little more than an exposition scene in a film.
That aside, the tale the game offers up is an intriguing one, if not wildly original.
You take control of one of three characters: an Elven sorceress, a Dwarven fighter, or a human archer. As the game begins, you'll witness a cut-scene wherein your character is accosted by thieves and left unconscious. Robbed of your money (and with your pride bruised), the local sentinels advise you to visit the Elfsong Tavern. Here, you may find information that could lead you to those who have done you wrong.
At the Elfsong (so named because the forlorn ghost of an Elven woman sings a constant and haunting melody in its halls) you'll meet Alyth, the barkeep, and an assortment of customers. After much discussion, you'll learn that a new thieves' guild is operating with Baldur's Gate-and that they're set on destroying the old guild. Finding them will require entering the underground sewers and infiltrating their hideout-but to do that, you'll need a key. Alyth will give you the key-but for a price. You must kill the large rats that are infesting the tavern's basement.
Once that deed is done, you're on your way. Like most RPGs, your initial goal (finding the thieves who assaulted you) is not the main thrust of the game. There are much darker dealings afoot-and they threaten not only you and Baldur's Gate, but the entire Forgotten Realms as well. It is up to you to save the land-by confronting evil in a variety of regions.
While the game's plot often seems forced into whatever breaks in the action the programmers could find (or artificially create), the writing itself is top notch. One of the allures of PC RPGs has always been the more mature writing and rich storylines-and Dark Alliance certainly brings those elements to console gaming. The story is progressed by interacting with a variety of NPCs, all of who speak at great length about events transpiring in the game. As you approach each, you're given choices for which questions to ask-or you can skip the conversation entirely. This allows for the gamer to experience as much, or as little, of the story as he chooses. Asking one question will often open up other areas of inquiry, and it's not uncommon to spend ten or more minutes chatting with a single character to garner as much information as he or she has to offer.
It's here, in these conversations, that the richness and depth of the writing really shines. Even minor characters (who often only have simple quests for you to undertake) tell compelling tales concerning why they're in Baldur's Gate and what tragedies have befallen them. If you're looking for a simple tale well told, then Dark Alliance has much to offer.
PC Baldur's Gate purists will no doubt dislike Dark Alliance, primarily because the transition to the PlayStation 2 has resulted in some major changes to the core gameplay.
While the game still utilizes the D&D 3rd Edition rules, monsters, etc. the mechanics of the game are far different than its PC counterparts.
At its core, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a button-mashing hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. You will spend the bulk of your time exploring areas, opening treasure chests, and pounding the holy hell out of all sorts of monsters. In this regard, Dark Alliance seems to have far more in common with Diablo than it does the other Baldur's Gate titles. This isn't a bad thing (particularly because I'm not sure if the traditional Baldur's Gate gameplay would have transferred well to a console), but it upsets the purists. If you can accept that this game is different than the PC versions, you'll find much to like in this title.
However, while I think many of the PC gamers' complaints are simply griping, I do think a few of them carry legitimate weight. The most disappointing thing here is that you're limited to choosing one of three pre-set characters. There's really very little room for customization of these characters, even by console standards. If you want to use magic, you choose the Elven sorceress. If you're a hack-and-slasher who likes to charge in and fight melee-style, you choose the dwarf. Like the safety of ranged attacks with the ability to use a little magic? Then the archer is your guy.
The limitations of only having three different classes to choose from is disappointing-but on the plus side, the differences between the three characters are distinctive enough to make playing through the quest with each a fairly unique experience.
Another complaint revolves around the linear gameplay. There's really only one path through Dark Alliance. The strategy for each character might be a little different, but there aren't any alternate routes. That's not a terrible thing by any means, but when you factor in that the side-quests are few and far between once you leave Baldur's Gate, and they don't require any divergence from the game's normal path to complete them, you wind up with a game that's not nearly as open as one might have hoped.
Now that we've got those few problems out of the way, let's talk about all the good things Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance offers up in terms of gameplay.
The game's presented in a ¾ overhead isometric view reminiscent of both Diablo and Record of Lodoss War (which seems to be the default view for games in this particular subgrenre). You navigate your character through a diverse range of environments (sewers, snowy mountains, forests, swamps, etc.) and fight the hordes of enemies who want nothing more than to taste your blood.
Battles are, naturally, in real-time. Pressing one button will launch an attack, pressing it several times can initiate a short combo. Pressing the R1 button will block, the R2 button quaffs potions, etc. All of the major functions have been mapped to the Dual Shock 2's buttons, and after about five minutes of gaming, they're second nature.
Dispatching enemies earns you experience, and occasionally gold or items. Gain enough experience and you can level up. Leveling up gives you a certain number of points that you can spend on feats for your character. Feats are abilities, basically-they enhance certain attributes, give you access to new attack techniques, give you more hit points, and so on. You can spend all your points at each level up, or you can save them and unlock one of the more costly feats somewhere down the line.
Aside from this, at certain levels you'll also be able to permanently increase one of your core attributes by one. This is one of the few areas where you can customize your character to suit your own particular playing style.
While exploring, you'll find an abundance of gold and items. These can be taken back to the various towns or shacks and sold. You can also do your shopping here, although you'll often find better weapons than you can buy later in the game.
Navigating the large areas of the game can be a bit challenging, but thankfully, there's an automapper included. You can have this superimposed over most of the screen, or shrink it down so that it rests only in the upper right hand corner. It's a nice touch, since it will keep you from getting lost or missing areas where valuable items might be hiding.
The rest of the menus are equally well designed. Pressing select will allow you to access the main menu system. Here, tabs are used at the top of the screen so you can switch to various sub-menus with little hassle. There are tabs for weapons, armor, items/potions, character information, and quests. It's here that you can equip and unequip all your armor/items. On the right side of the screen is a model of your character-as you add and remove items, the character model reflects the changes. It's sort of funny to remove your armor and see your hairy little Dwarven fighter standing there in nothing but his underwear…
The character models in the games also reflect the changes. Equip a sword, and your character will carry that sword. It's a nice touch, one that never fails to make me happy.
The game itself is a relatively short one, almost disappointingly so. Expect to run through this one in around 12 hours or less. However, the fact that each character is different allows for the possibility of playing through three times.
Adding to the replay value are the difficulty settings. When you begin, there's an easy, normal, and hard mode. Beating one mode will allow you to access a bonus area, a timed dungeon called The Gauntlet. Inside The Gauntlet, you're allowed to play as none other than the infamous Drow Elf Drizzt Do'Urden! Beat The Gauntlet with Drizzt and you open up the super-challenging Extreme difficulty mode. Another nice touch is the ability to import your character into a new game on a higher difficulty setting-although, on extreme, it seems as though you can only import the character, not any of their items.
Finally, the game also features a two-player cooperative mode. If you've got a friend, you can team up and hack your way through the Forgotten Realms. This feature certainly increases the replay value as well.
So, while the game is a bit too linear, and without the room for much in the way of customization, it still succeeds on the most important level of all-it's fun hacking up things like Beholders. If you've been looking for a game like Diablo for your PS2, you'll be more than pleased with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance.
Truthfully, this is the category where the game really shines.
Dark Alliance is one of the prettiest PS2 games I've seen so far, showing what the system is truly capable of, graphically speaking.
While the ¾ overhead view often keeps you at a distance from your character and the surrounding environment, the level of detail is still nothing short of astounding. Everything from the character animation and modeling, the texture work, lighting, color, and so forth is just lovely to look at.
The graphics are all rendered in real-time 3-D, and are almost always fully rotateable. Factor in the excellent lighting effects (objects often cast shadows, stones reflect light, and the glinting ice in the ice caves serve the best examples), the amazing water (which ripples like real water when you go splashing through it), and some of the best looking trees I've ever seen in a videogame, and you have one tasty piece of eye candy.
The magic doesn't stop there, though. Oh no, the character models are all richly drawn and intricately detailed, as are the enemies and the NPCs (I've a feeling that Alyth's chest will inspire much drooling amongst the fanboy crowd). Depending on the weapon equipped, your character will have several different attack animations as he or she unleashes combos.
But wait, there's more! Not only is your character well animated, but the monsters are too. The enemies you encounter are just as detailed as your character, with just as many attack animations.
Even more pleasing is that the enemies often die in different ways. Sometimes you'll hack off a limb or a head, other times, just hunks of flesh. Some ghouls even go down with their top half separated from their bottom-and the top half will continue to crawl after you and gnaw on your ankles.
Spell effects are no less impressive and are nicely rendered and fun to watch. Weapons imbued with elemental magic reflect their affinities-with flaming blades, crackling electricity, or icy snowflakes. Truthfully, the game is gorgeous.
Yet, while all of the graphical effects are fantastic, perhaps the most amazing thing is something that isn't in the game at all: the infamous jaggies. Much has been made of the PS2's aliasing problems in the past, but Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is one of the first games to completely eliminate the issue. Stare all you want-you're not going to find jaggies here.
While there is no shortage of things to gawk at in the game's visuals, there is at least one small problem that's worth mentioning. While defeated enemies remain where you left them, occasionally, when killed on an incline, the corpses will appear to almost float. It's an odd effect, and not one that occurs often, but it is noticeable from time to time-and it's really the only thing that mars the game's visual presentation.
At any rate, if you want a game with graphics that will leave your jaw on the floor, Dark Alliance is right up your alley. It's one of the prettiest games I've seen in a long time.
As my esteemed colleague Tenchi-no-Ryu pointed out in his review, action RPGs generally suffer when it comes to music. It's not that the music is bad; it's more that it's forgettable-almost giving the impression that it was an afterthought. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance continues this trend.
Unfortunately, most of the music is buried under the sound effects of the game. While there are a number of musical interludes that sound promising, particularly later in the quest, they're generally given the backseat to the sounds of steel on flesh, dying groans, and the music of battle itself. This isn't a strike against the game so much as it's a disappointing development. The music isn't bad-when you can actually hear it (the sad song in the Elfsong Tavern is a good example-it's a nice piece of music, and one of the few you can actually hear well enough to listen to).
Dark Alliance rebounds from this by having not only some incredible foley and sound effects work, but also some of the best voice acting ever to grace a console game.
The sound effects are impressive, particularly the metal-on-metal clang of swords or the sickly sweet sound of blades tearing through flesh. Monsters late in the game are mechanical in nature, and they groan rustily as they move about the various rooms and hallways. Honestly, the sound work is top notch.
Better still is the voice acting. The entire game is voice acted, with legitimate talents such as John Rhys-Davies and Cam Clarke bringing their talents to the table. There isn't a bad voice amongst the bunch, which is no small feat, and many of the actors manage to bring the characters to life and add to the game's ambiance. If games are insistent upon featuring voice acting, they'd do well to follow the example set by Dark Alliance.
Being an action RPG, control is an issue in the game. Fortunately, the controls for Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance are excellent and make playing the game a relatively simple and intuitive affair.
All the major functions have been mapped to the Dual Shock 2 controller and are mastered within minutes of playing the game. Moving your character is as simple as pressing on the left analog stick. Line him up with a bad guy, press X, and start experiencing the joy of hacking through your enemies.
Using the digital pad brings up your spell and feat menu, which allows you to cycle through your special attacks. Pressing left or right on the directional pad will allow you to shift between your equipped weapon and a bow.
Your character also has the ability to jump, which comes in handy when one of the several platforming sequences shows up in the game. Unlike many of the other action RPGs out there, the controls for these segments remains rock solid in Dark Alliance. Jumping from one platform to the next is easy thanks to the responsive controls.
Aside from that, there's not much else to say. The menu system works well and is easy to use, the controls are tight and responsive, all of which makes playing Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance a heck of a lot of fun.
It's unfortunate that Dark Alliance had to be released in the last half of 2001. It seems that the PS2 is finally hitting its stride with quality titles, and this seems like one that a lot of gamers are likely to overlook in favor of games like MGS2 and Final Fantasy X. Those titles, and their boatloads of hype, will no doubt draw attention away from this gem of a game.
However, those looking for a solid action RPG would be advised to put Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on their Christmas list. The beautiful graphics and the rock solid gameplay make this title not only one of the best PS2 titles I've played, but one of the best games I've played this year. There are some flaws, but they're minor-and they shouldn't be enough to deter serious RPG fans from picking this game up. I know I'm already looking forward to the sequel.