Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance


   For almost as long as there have been computers, there have been roguelikes. Dungeon crawls. Nethack isotopes. Diablo clones. Call them what you will, their premise has always been the same: put the player in the middle of a large dungeon; populate the dungeon with deadly traps and enemies, then sprinkle liberally with mysterious weapons, armor, and items. Though a narrative sometimes intrudes, the player's goal is always fundamentally the same: survive. Kill everything that moves, pick up everything you can use, and improve your character enough to survive the mounting challenges. It's a well-worn formula that continues to entertain even today. Though the best console implementation of the genre yet, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is ultimately held back by the genre's inherently repetitive nature.

 We don't need no water!
Burn, don't freeze

   The Dungeons and Dragons-based Baldur's Gate series is widely considered to be the premiere modern implementation of the PC-style RPG. Of course, history has shown that PC and console RPGs are as different as chalk and kumquats. Instead of porting a PC title directly, series producer Black Isle chose developer Snowblind Studios to rework their flagship franchise for the PS2. "Reworking" is too weak a word - "rebuilt from scratch" is closer to the truth. Aside from the shared setting of the Forgotten Realms and the port town of Baldur's Gate, the PC games and the console one share almost nothing in common. The PS2 version of the Baldur's Gate franchise stands alone.

   Dark Alliance puts the players in the well-worn boots of one of three adventurers: Vahn, the Arcane Archer, who dispatches foes with magically imbued arrows; Kromlech, the Dwarven Fighter, who excels at hand-to-hand combat; and Adrianna, the Elven Sorceress, who has a number of elemental spells at her fingertips. Each character has a number of available "Feats," or abilities. Some Feats, like increased strength, dexterity, and mana regeneration, are available to all characters. Other Feats, like fire-imbued arrows, a whirlwind attack, or a magic missile spell, are unique to each character.

George Lucas is rolling over in his grave.
Those markings look ... familiar.

   Each character takes on quests, adventuring forth through the numerous, varied dungeons, slaughtering hundreds of enemies, and picking up all the loot their heart - well, constitution stat - can stand. Along the way, they uncover a great threat to the city of Baldur's Gate and all the Realms. The story of Dark Alliance is embarassing nonsense; even by the low standards of hack fantasy novels, it manages to underwhelm and embarass. From the Darth Maul-inspired thief of the prologue to the adventure-nullifying, sequel-baiting backstab of an ending, the story never finds its legs. Fortunately, in a game like Dark Alliance, plot is an afterthought for the player. It's just unfortunate that it was an afterthought for the developers, too.

 Really! It's water.

   Graphically, Dark Alliance is one of the most impressive titles on the PlayStation 2. Special care has been lavished on the environments; though your quest takes you to any number of caves, sewers, and mines, the careful attention to detail keeps them from becoming overly repetitive. Reflections, lighting, and multiple shadows are all realistically rendered in warm, radiant detail. Pots and barrels shatter dynamically, making every smashed container a miniature joy. Enemies also break apart dynamically, shedding limbs and body parts as the player hacks away. Equipment changes are reflected on the player's character model. Animation is smooth and fluid. And the water! After the fluid dynamics of Dark Alliance and ICO, "real" water has lost some of its fluid lustre. Wrap it all up with a silky smooth anti-aliased bow, and you have a graphical high-watermark. Snowblind Studios clearly has some serious coders on their team; as some of the staff is ex-Lobotomy, the creators of technically-impressive Saturn versions of Quake and Powerslave, this is hardly a surprising revelation.

   The music, though sparsely distributed throughout the game, is uniformly excellent. Composer Jeremy Soule weaves several key motifs in and out of the orchestral score, providing a thematic coherency to the story's far-reaching environs. Sound effects are also excellent; with music appearing only sporadically, the ambient soundscape is often left to shoulder the audio burden; it handles this handily. Voice acting is also top-notch across the board, bolstered by expressive facial animation and uncannily good lip-synching. It's just unfortunate that the dialogue itself is so wooden.

Hint: his initials are "Drizzt Do'Urthen"
Who izz the secret character?

   Dark Alliance offers three initial difficulty levels: Easy, Normal, Hard. Completing the game at various difficulty levels unlocks an additional brief gameplay mode ("The Gauntlet"), the "Extreme" difficulty level, and a secret playable character sure to send Drow fans into a tizzy. Characters can be imported from one game to another, allowing a single character to progress through the game multiple times on varying - or even the same - difficulty levels. Even better, the game lets two players go through the game cooperatively at the same time. In today's deathmatch-focused world, the joy of actually helping another human player is often overlooked. Snowblind deserves accolades for including such a welcome feature.

   Despite all of these excellent qualities, however, Dark Alliance suffers from some serious gameplay limitations that knock it down a peg. The most glaring is the repetitive nature of the gameplay. A large degree of repetition is to be expected in any dungeon hack, of course; most of the genre's games solve this by bombarding the player with a constant barrage of new environments, enemies, and equipment. Dark Alliance has fantastic environments and some of the best enemies from the D&D bestiary; it is on the final point, equipment, that the game is woefully lacking - and even more woefully unbalanced.

 I want the rukin sord!!
Putting the "ridiculous" back in "ridiculously powerful."

   Support items are curiously small in number; no effect items are to be found outside of various powers of health and mana potions. Rings and amulets offer nothign more than small numerical boosts to statistics. Armor, too, adheres strictly to a simple "bigger [number] is better" formula. One- and two-handed weapons are a bit more varied, offering possible elemental affiliations and a handful of effects, but ultimately boil down to the same statistical warfare. More variety in the items and weapons would be extremely welcome; given the rich heritage of twenty years of pen-and-paper dungeon masters the game had to draw on, this oversight is nearly criminal.

   Even more glaring is the game's predisposition towards melee combat. Near the beginning of the game, each of the three character classes requires a unique playing style geared towards their statistics and available feats. Each of the three classes, however, can equip any piece of armor, and any one-handed weapon. With just a few extra points of strength, even the frail Elven sorceress can don the heaviest piece of armor. Moreover, the best weapon in the game is a one-handed sword and is almost unavoidable; the story dialogue directs you to its location and informs you of its importance, meaning that nearly every player will pick it up.

HCI, people. Look it up.
At least it's in a window?

    With the game's heaviest armor and strongest sword equipped, the three distinct classes become nigh indistinguishable. Oh, sure, you can continue to use the Archer's arrows and the Sorceress' spells - if you like death! Otherwise, the mana pool is almost entirely ignored as all three characters degenerate into pure hack-and-slash gameplay. In the game's defense, the three characters retain distinct play styles for almost the entirety of their first ten-to-twelve-hour playthough; nevertheless, this prediliction for melee combat all but robs replays of their joy and purpose. Why continue developing your character if the end result is always the same? The interface also feels slightly unpolished, with mishandled button remappings, occasionally awkward menu commands, and the lack of a proper "Game Over" screen. Hopefully, the absolutely inevitable sequel will improve these gameplay elements.

   Yet despite these drawbacks, Dark Alliance is surprisingly fun to play and will give one or two players hours of enjoyment. It may not hold up to repeated playthroughs as much as the genre's masters, but it's entertaining enough for quite a while. Players looking for a beautiful, mindless, and fun diversion would do well to pick it up.

Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
Developer Snowblind Studios
Publisher Interplay
Genre RPG
Medium DVD
Platform PlayStation 2
Release Date  Unknown
180 screenshots
Full game credits