Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance
While Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance bears the name of the beloved series by BioWare, the PS2 classic has more in common with Diablo than anything in the infinity engine. Trading in conversations for action, Dark Alliance and its sequel have stayed in fans’ minds since the original release. With a recent port to modern platforms, the co-op remains the same as the original—just choose two players when loading up a new file, pick your character, and dive in.
Player one says: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance! Come on, some of you had to love this one back when it was released. Riding along on the back of BioWare’s popular Baldur’s Gate series, Dark Alliance took the property into a decidedly more action RPG direction. The PS2 classic was the go-to for less patient fans of Dungeons and Dragons (P2 – I feel called out right now). And while the modern port is just that—a port of a rather old game with no added features, including online multiplayer—it astonishingly stands tall as the entry on our list that feels most equitable for a second player.
Both players feel like full partners here, as each player controls their own inventory, either character can engage in dialog or switch areas, and the game often feels geared toward having two players. When I played this game co-op in the olden days, I was all about that dwarf life. But as my lovely Player Two is a crushinator by nature, they went full dwarf right away and I got the opportunity to try out the wizard. I had tried this character solo when this port first arrived and found the game too difficult to progress, but with a meat shield out front tanking hits and doling out their own, it was easy for me to just maneuver around the back and let loose with my magical flamethrower.
Unfortunately, I was reminded after a while that, when the game originally came out, it more or less required importing your character into another save file and re-running the intro content multiple times to get the necessary experience and equipment to progress past the first few brutal bosses. This time sink nature spelled the downfall of our time in Baldur’s Gate.
Player two says: Okay, I did not rage quit this one. I quit it for totally different reasons. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot and we will probably play again someday, once the healing has begun. The story was very D&D while still being a competent video game first (unlike other games I have tried recently). The story elements were classic RPG. Of course, the first enemy is giant rats, and obviously we were ending up in a sewer sooner or later. I am positive we would have ended up escaping jail at some point if we got far enough. Points all around for being exactly what was advertised. It is a shame that the whole thing came with the expected inventory management jackassery as well.
You can only make so many trips back to town to sell everything you have picked up just to buy a dozen potions that will be gone in ten seconds. Also, it turns out that you shouldn’t do that anyway. Your buddy can revive you at no cost other than wasting time walking back and forth to save points constantly. You end up wasting your money if you don’t waste your time, making better gear impossible to afford, which is what you need more than potions. We eventually hit a point where we had killed every available non-respawning, enemy and sold all of the gear in the game and still couldn’t buy better armor to survive a mob rush boss. There were no more side quests, nothing left to kill or gather, just us underequipped facing hordes of the undead with no way to gear up to survive. We had to give up (P1 – Well, technically didn’t have to, but we had other fish to fry).
All of that said, this game was extremely fun to play. I am more of an action/adventure game person, so the combat felt really good to me. I loved that we both had unique classes that complemented each other. While we had to stay on the same screen all the time, we had our own menus and inventories and could simultaneously open them. I had to do my own menu work, but it was straightforward and P1 could do theirs at the same time so it wasn’t a big time sink. It was a blast to discuss strategy when facing tough enemies and cooperate with sharing items that would best serve the party instead of only ourselves. We shared movement, conversation, combat, and menu work equally. It felt like we were playing the exact same game, to the benefit of us both. A true co-op experience with a deeply disappointing economy.
Bottom line: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance stands up as the most fully realized co-op experience we played. Both players are fully invested, and it feels right to play no matter which character you are. Still, older school difficulty curves and in-game economies can make for frustrating experiences, especially at lower levels. If you’re playing with more of a casual buddy, consider kicking the difficulty down to keep the game flowing quickly.
The World Ends With You
Cult classic The World Ends with You grew its fandom on the strength of its puzzle-box story, gorgeous audiovisual package, and stylishly intriguing cast. But the unique gameplay has always been the biggest barrier between TWEWY and mainstream success. But hidden in the Switch re-release is a co-op mode accessible from the options menu, giving your second player the ability to play as your ever-present partner character. Only available in docked mode, this co-op mode requires the Switch Joy-Cons’ pointer controls.
Player one says: Listen, I love The World Ends with You. It’s gorgeous, it’s got amazing music, and it’s got a sense of style that screams, “Hey, I miss shopping at Hot Topic!” I adored the game when it released but veered away from ports because they seemed to rely entirely on touch controls or pointer controls, two options that don’t speak to me as a player. But once I found out the Switch port had a two-player mode when docked, I was invigorated at the idea of being able to focus on my character and let the partner fall on Player Two. And you know what? It feels good a lot of the time!
Having Player Two manage my partner mitigated how much I had to deal with the frustrating pointer controls, a monotonous series of re-centering the pointer and trying to draw shapes with your wrist. I didn’t find myself accidentally tagging my partner in, and with a few more abilities at Player Two’s disposal than I’d have in single-player, the partners instantly felt more valuable. Sure, I had to manage the menus (which I find to be a bit much even for my menu-focused mind as I maneuvered a pointer around to find the best equipment in an ever-changing style rotation), but it was nice to be able to take that off of menu-hating P2’s plate (P2 – my menu hate seems to be a running theme here). Even the Fusion moves were more manageable with a partner by your side.
The problem is, it’s not good all of the time. When it’s bad, wooooooo boy, it’s real bad. The frustration of pointer controls is mitigated with multiplayer but never eliminated. Worse is how often we’d run into a boss fight that required some specific partner interaction that felt nearly impossible with the second player’s expanded controls. On the first fight, an awkward fumble in the dark with a truly uncouth bat, we actually had to switch back to solo mode. The necessary mechanic of utilizing a partner combo to reach an upper level in the stage felt like pure luck in co-op but was trivial in solo mode.
There’s still temptation to revisit the game and experience the compelling story together, but I don’t think that temptation can mitigate the unpleasant gameplay experience. Maybe we’ll just watch the anime together.
Player two says: I tried playing this game solo when it first came out on DS. It was so beautiful to look at and listen to that I actually wanted to play it on a handheld, even though that isn’t my jam. I barely got into it before I realized my total lack of coordination made it practically impossible to play. Still, I have been in love with the soundtrack (P1 – This is confirmed by a dozen playlists over the past decade) and style since then and jumped at the chance to play it co-op so I could finally see the whole game and listen to the music in context. All these years later, the music is still amazing, the art is still beautiful, and the game is still too hard! You would think tap, hold, and swipe wouldn’t be too much for someone when another player is picking up the slack, but we didn’t even make it past the first boss without having to turn off co-op so Player One could do the mechanics correctly without me getting in the way.
So much of this game is gearing up just right in menus, navigating levels, and running through dialog that I spent most of my time with my controller in my lap rocking out to the soundtrack. Occasionally I would request P1 find a fight just so my controller wouldn’t time out. I felt like my presence made a difference in regular combat. The meter for fusion attacks filled up so fast! I felt useful keeping an eye on my half of the cards and making us pump out damage like crazy: more damage than we needed for most fights. They were over incredibly fast, then it was back to running back and forth between people and swapping buttons in and out. I love The World Ends With You in theory. It is beautiful, the story is intriguing, the music lives on my playlists, but it just isn’t very fun to play.
Bottom line: TWEWY is still cool. Motion controls are not. The co-op design isn’t cohesive enough to justify the frustrating control experience, and fans should either find a handheld version to play alone or check out the anime with a friend.
Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon Every Buddy!
The Mystery Dungeon games were doing roguelike before roguelike was cool, and few series got as much attention as Chocobo’s foray into the venerated series. With turn-based tactical dungeon delving, Chocobo puts a distinct Final Fantasy twist on the formula with jobs, monsters, and music to match. But few know that the expanded version includes a co-op mode, accessible via the options menu at any time during gameplay. Second player steps into the role of the titular buddies for co-op dungeon crawling adventure.
Player one says: Despite its cute appearance, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon can be a challenging experience. Traditional roguelike mechanics like losing items when you die make every risk calculated and leaves a lot of time on the line. A poorly timed attack can leave you vulnerable to dozens of enemy attacks. You must be a master of your environment and an expert in tactics to succeed some of the game’s toughest challenges.
Or, you can just flip that bad boy over to two-player and breeze right the heck through it.
See, in co-op mode, Player Two is an omnipotent demigod and Chocobo is mostly there to move the camera and occasionally kick potions. Sure, we both got involved in boss fights, but with player two’s movement not triggering in-game turns, our little crew got the jump on every enemy we ran across. Most fell before I could even reach the melee, if not before they had a chance to act. The game works wonderfully in co-op, but it’s not without a few failings.
The freedom enjoyed by Player Two came with some drawbacks: specifically, the inability to pick up or use items, and the potential to leave the camera field. This led to an odd imbalance where Player Two stomped all the monsters while I went around picking up gear and doing small moves in between each attack so Player Two could attack again.
But those were minor. My biggest issue might be a deal-breaker many folks: the music. See, by default, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon is packed with remixes of classic FF tunes. The dungeon houses most of the intriguing tunes, evoking beloved dungeon and boss themes from throughout series history. But drop in with co-op, that dungeon music is eliminated in favor of a cacophony of circus music signifying that yes, you are playing with a friend, and that’s worthy of celebration. This music even extends to some in-dungeon cutscenes, and let me tell you, a couple dungeons in it started becoming hard to stomach. It’s a shame that such an excellent co-op mode is marred by ruining one of the best parts of the game. If you decide to dive into co-op, consider muting the TV and listening to something that’ll keep your will to live intact.
Player two says: In Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance we found the most equitable co-op experience of this whole endeavor. Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon was not that by any stretch of the imagination and it was fantastic! I was playing a totally different game than Player One and we could not stop laughing at how profoundly OP my Steel Bat was. The main challenge of the game solo is that it is turn-based, so every action Chocobo takes means an action for each enemy. Fights against large groups can quickly become overwhelming. Player two is not bound by these constraints. My movement was totally disconnected from the dungeon timer. I could flap tiny little bat circles around the biggest enemies while they futilely waited for Player One to do something so they could move. Nothing could run away because my little Steel Bat had infinite movement. Nothing ever got woken up because my movement didn’t count. I couldn’t even trigger traps! Half the time, Player One would walk to the edge of a room and randomly kick in the doorway while I took out every opponent unhindered. I have never felt that powerful as the second player. I got to carry most of the weight in dungeons and loved it. I obviously tried other buddies, but that Steel Bat delighted me more than anything else.
Outside of dungeons was a different story. I was quickly back to being “Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film.” Player One handled all the movement. All shopping and dialogue and side questing and exploration were out of my hands. There were even side dungeons where buddies were not allowed, so I was left twiddling my thumbs until the next dungeon hopefully let me back in. The two-player feature felt less like intentional co-op and more like a ‘call a friend’ emergency button for dungeons that get too hard. Playing this brings me endless delight, but the time I got to play was fairly light. While I will always be overjoyed to hop in and help Player One out, I don’t know if there is much point in sitting through the rest of the game as Player Two. I’d rather read a book.
Bottom line: Every Buddy! is a blast that keeps you laughing as your second player rips the difficulty curve to pieces. This entry felt the most like each of us was playing a different game, but both games were fun. Co-op might be the most fun way to play the game, and is certainly the solution to the game’s hardest challenges, though it fundamentally upends the balance. It’s just a shame about that music.
Player two: This has been great, Player One. What are we playing next? Something turn-based? Something indie? Oh! Something that crosses genres in an interesting way?
Player one: This is all we have on the slate for this time, because honestly, aren’t 6000+ words enough? But this isn’t the end of the couch co-op rabbit hole. If you want to see Final Fantasy VI’s co-op done more thoughtfully, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age might be up your alley. Still want to dig into a Western RPG? Divinity Original Sin 2 improves a ton of things that felt clunky in the OG. The indie scene is rife with excellent couch co-op RPGs, from Moon Hunters to Haven. And if you wanna get into some genre shifts, games like For the King bring a board game swagger to its RPG while shooters and Borderlands are synonymous with couch co-op.
Player two: Do I need to get out my connector cables for any of these? I think I might still have them packed up with my OG Gameboy.
Player one: I mean, I still think my Blastoise could take down your Charizard any day of the week.
Player two: You’re on!