It could be easily argued that every game in the RPG pantheon owes something to Dungeons & Dragons. The basics of the pen and paper game form part of just about every RPG video game there is: classes, player statistics (dexterity, health, etc.), skills, chance to hit percentages and rolls… the list goes on. Somehow, although there have been other games that used the D&D ruleset, we haven’t seen a lot of games bearing the Dungeons & Dragons name over the years, and Tactics is the first for the PSP.
When you first begin D&D Tactics, you will need to create a party. You can create as many characters you wish (including 0) from scratch, and you’ll have to choose one of them as your main character. You even have the option of choosing to “quickstart” and have the game generate your entire party of six for you. In my experiments with that option, the game seemed to create a well-rounded party, so if you’re not interested in going through the time-consuming task of creating your own characters, feel free to let the game do the work for you. If you’re not familiar with D&D but want to create your own characters anyway, the game does a pretty decent job of explaining what each of your choices grants you, but it does so using D&D terminology, so keep the game’s manual (and maybe a D&D rules website) handy during the process. If you are a long-time D&D player, you will want to know that characters are restricted to one class, and that the Ranger class has been stripped of some of its abilities in a way that may leave some fans very unhappy. I actually dropped my Ranger after a while because there were only a few maps early on where using ranged weapons was very important. I swapped her for a Rogue and was almost immediately sad that I hadn’t included a Rogue from the beginning.
After your first mission, you’ll be able to add more characters to the party and drop old ones, but be warned that anyone who doesn’t participate in a mission doesn’t get any of the experience for killing enemies on the mission, so if you leave someone out for too long, they can get dangerously far behind. This wouldn’t be an issue in some games, but the level cap in D&D Tactics is 20, and with only one exception, you can’t go back and repeat missions to grind your way to higher levels. I added several characters to my party early on, and then dropped people who I didn’t like as much until I was down to just six. I repeated the one mission I had the option to repeat three or four times, and all six of my characters were up to level 20 before the final mission.
Anyone who has played a tactical RPG will be instantly familiar with the basic gameplay of D&D Tactics. You field a party of up to six characters, who walk around grid-based terrain, taking turns attacking and being attacked. Tactics characters take individual turns (rather than one side taking a turn for all characters, followed by the other side’s turn), and various factors play into how far they can travel and what they can do during their turn. During battles, you can find money and new equipment in chests, and between battles you can buy and sell things to improve what you have or get rid of old equipment that’s just weighing you down.
Unlike many tactical RPGs, D&D Tactics features maps where you can’t see the whole level (or all of your enemies) at once. You’ll start out at one end of a map and work your way to your goal, fighting enemies as they become visible to you. When you can’t see any more enemies, you’ll switch automatically to “exploration mode,” where you can move your characters in any order you wish. Exploration mode is crucial to your success, because you can’t level up your characters during combat and because you can take the opportunity to Rest to heal up your characters and replenish your magic-users’ stores of spells or power points (in the case of psychics and psions). Missions can be fairly lengthy, and with the default options, you may get frustrated quickly. In the options menu, you can turn on Chess Mode, which speeds things up considerably, but means you need to be more vigilant of your characters’ health. The good news is that you can save at any point in the game: between missions, during combat, or while in exploration mode, and you can have any number of saved games, which is nice in case you make a choice you regret and want to back up to your last save. Frequent saving also means that you don’t have to worry about running out of juice and losing a lot of progress. In my opinion, every game should save the way D&D Tactics does.
D&D Tactics is mostly linear, although there are a few occasions where you get the chance to make a choice between a good or an evil mission, and your choice will affect your characters’ alignment, which in turn affects which of the two endings you get. Things are pretty black and white, so you won’t have to worry about choosing wrong; and in the few cases where you have multiple missions open at the same time and the choice isn’t clear, it means you get to do both. There are even a few optional missions to net some nice experience and loot. One of these missions provided the game’s biggest challenge for me and I ended up retrying it a few times.
In terms of difficulty level, D&D Tactics isn’t much of a challenge. I was particularly disappointed with the final boss, who I took down in just a few rounds (the recommended party level for the mission was 14, and remember, mine was at 20). On forums for the game, many players actually report that they increase the difficulty level by only using three or four of the six characters they bring to each mission (they leave the extras just standing at their starting points and skip their turns). If a character on your team is reduced to anywhere between -1 and -9 hit points, they become incapacitated, and lose one hit point per turn unless stabilized by a teammate. If they are reduced to -10 hit points, they are Dead, and I did not run across any way to resurrect them from within a mission. Between missions, though, you can head to a temple and have them brought back to life without cost or penalty. The end result of this system is that it doesn’t really matter much if someone dies, with the exception of the main character. If he/she dies, the game is over and it’s time to load up your most recent save. There’s no explanation as to why the team couldn’t carry on without the main character and just resurrect him/her after the mission’s over. However, the plot can’t go on without the leading man or lady, so the game can’t really leave it up to you to choose whether to bring him or her back to life or not.
Although the game runs fairly smoothly, there are a couple of bugs I thought worthy of note. First, one of my summons would attack with “text not found,” and as a result, couldn’t seem to hit anything (but it did make a nice doorstop!). Second, there was one level where the end-of-mission boss showed up outside of the map, so we couldn’t get to him, and he couldn’t get to us. Since he was basically immune to spells, I had to restart the level and hope he showed up inside the map the second time (he did). There are also reports online of a bug that allows you to level characters up over and over without gaining any experience, but I didn’t go to the trouble of making it happen.
Finally, D&D Tactics does offer multi-player, but just ad-hoc. Since I didn’t have any friends with a copy of the game, I could not try out multiplayer for myself, and can only report that there are both co-op and deathmatch options available.
There’s really not much to complain about in D&D Tactics’ graphics, but there’s nothing to really praise either. The map between missions is a basic world map with icons for the locations you can go to. All of the cutscenes show nice big versions of your chosen characters’ headshots with text dialogue. In battles, the map is in 3D and there is a respectable amount of detail, considering the fact that you can zoom out pretty far. Light and shadows are in full effect, but there was only one spot where I said “now that is cool” — looking at a mystical gateway late in the game. If you looked from the back or sides, you saw just the level you were on, but if you looked through the gate while in front of it, you could see the level you would go to if you entered the gate.
Your characters are also 3D and it’s pretty easy to tell who’s who, unless you’re zoomed all the way out, in which case you’ll still be able to make it out with just a little trouble. They show the proper hand equipment (although one mace looks just like every other one), but any other equipment changes have no effect on their appearance. Icons appear over their heads to show any special statuses or bonuses they currently have, and most are self-explanatory, but a few will have you pulling out the manual again or just shaking your head and saying “well, he’s not dead, so who cares what it means?” When you attack an enemy or cast a spell, there are nice animations, although as in most turn-based RPGs, they’re the same every time. Using the aforementioned Chess Mode will eliminate much of the walking animations, as well as the normal attack and spell-casting animations, but spell effect animations will still happen. Given the fact that you’re already onto the next person’s turn at that point, this can be a bit confusing at times.
Finally, with just one exception, the game moved along nicely, without any framerate problems. The one exception was a late-game battle with several very large enemies and fairly complex lighting; it appeared to me that the slowdown had to do with the decision-making process for the enemies rather than any graphical intensity.
There is no voice-acting in D&D Tactics, although your characters will grunt when they take swings at enemies. Your enemies also make some noise and different kinds of enemies make different noises, but you’ll probably wish fairly quickly that they didn’t. Their noises tend to amount to little more than taunting grunts, and any time there are a number of enemies present, you’ll be hearing those grunts nearly non-stop.
The music is actually pretty good and, with the exception of the world map music, you won’t mind the fact that it loops around fairly often. I kept the sound turned off for much of the game (as I do in many handheld games), and when I plugged in my headphones to see what I was missing, I actually regretted having waited so long to check.
In general, sound is not that crucial to D&D Tactics, so players who are deaf or who don’t feel like listening to the sound won’t find their gaming experience affected at all.
Control is a crucial element to just about any game, and D&D Tactics does a fine job of it. You’ll very seldom (if ever) wonder what button to use and you’ll never run into a situation where things are too complicated to follow or where you’re trying to remember a complex sequence of buttons to press.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the buttons is somewhat offset by the complexity of the menu structure. Perhaps due in part simply to the complexity of D&D itself, you’ll find yourself digging far deeper into menus than you’d like for some things. The interface for trading and equipping items is particularly cumbersome, and the fact that my Psion couldn’t turn off spells I didn’t plan to use made things more difficult than they had to be.
Many tactical RPGs only let you choose between four or eight camera angles rotating around the battlefield. In D&D Tactics, you have a much greater degree of freedom. You can move the camera at any time during battle using the analog stick. Left and right move the camera around, and up and down change the angle from behind-the-shoulder to overhead. You will find yourself moving the camera around frequently, because you’ll find a wall or pillar blocking your view, so you’ll be very happy that they made it easy.
D&D Tactics goes with cliché RPG plotline #22a: main character starts out trying to do something relatively small and simple, but finds out that he/she is a part of something far bigger, and that he/she has a previously unsuspected heritage. The story gets plus points for a somewhat nifty plot twist that occurs about 3/4 of the way through the game, but minus points for doing the same plot twist twice (really — they told me the same twist twice, as if it hadn’t happened the first time). Regardless, the overall nature of the game means that the standard plotline doesn’t really matter.
Regardless of the few knocks against it, D&D Tactics is a fun game that kept me picking up my PSP to play; sometimes even though I should have been doing something else. One playthrough will take between 40-45 hours (assuming you turn on Chess Mode — otherwise, the animations will add many more hours), but if you’re interested in seeing the other plotline, you can always play again. With 6 characters in your party and 13 character classes, you could play through twice with completely different parties and still leave a class out. Some hardcore D&D fans will be disappointed by the things left out of the 3.5 ruleset, but any tactical RPG fan who doesn’t know about what’s been left out or doesn’t care will enjoy Dungeons & Dragons Tactics.