Publisher: Black Isle Studios/Interplay
Release Date: 12/03/2001
Many games have come out over the past years whose claim to fame is the utilization of the popular pen-and-paper RPG Dungeons & Dragons dynamics, but few have made such spectacular use of them as the Baldur’s Gate series. Fortunately, Dark Alliance does not disappoint in this regard, despite its splintering off into a new and different gameplay atmosphere, it not only lives up to the legacy-in-the-making that is the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but also adequately innovates and improves upon it’s already-excellent foundation. Dark Alliance is Baldur’s Gate first foray onto the console platform and unlike the PC game this version only allows you to control one character at a time, though simultaneous 2-player co-op play is supported. This game is more fast-paced and action oriented than that of it’s predecessor but do not think that this trade-off of action over strategy takes away from the age-old RPG dynamics, you’ll still be able to deck your character out with cool duds and level-up based on the amount of experience you’ve earned. Dark Alliance is, at it’s core, combat focused and every slice and swipe you take at the opposition is very satisfying and consistently entertaining.
As previously mentioned Dark Alliance borrows from the Dungeons & Dragons rules, but is not 100% true to it’s source and makes use of the D&D rules only when convenient. You can however expect to experience a fabricated world that D&D fans should be all too familiar with, replete with dwarves, Elvin-archers, trolls, dragons, and lush organic environments that are brimming with fantasy lore elements. From the on-set of the game you’ll have the option of controlling one of three character classes ranging from a melee-based dwarf fighter, to a magic-wielding chick, and a male ranger-archer. This adds to the lasting-appeal of the game considerably since controlling each character feels like a completely new experience. While each personality in the game has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, they can still be considerably buffed up thanks to all the equipment that can be found by taking out enemies and plundering treasures. In fact, at times you’ll find yourself sourrounded by so much booty that you’ll need to make frequents stops at the town’s storekeeper and sell off unneeded inventory before you reach your maximum weight capacity, which differs depending on character class.
Dark Alliance boasts three separate areas in which you will need to fend off hordes of attacking enemies and complete objectives. Each area will have it’s own unique set of items, enemies, bosses, and characters. Aside from the main objectives of each area you’ll have a chance to take on sub-quests that are comprised mainly of retrieving a particular item to be given to a particular character, these sub-quests aren’t too involving and require around an hour apiece to complete.
The gameplay of Dark Alliance is smooth as butta, with nearly every button on the dual shock being intuitively utilized. This coupled with the straight-forward hack-n-slash mechanics make playing the game a real treat. Attacking is relegated to the X button and repeatedly pressing the attack button will perform various combos depending on your equipped weapon. Jumping is performed by hitting the triangle button and the addition of being able to leap around gives the game a somewhat platformer-type feel. The character can be maneuvered with the L-analog stick and the analog sensitivity of the controller is used to it’s full potential allowing you to slowly creep around or run full-board depending on the amount of pressure you apply to the stick.
Every hostile area will be littered with breakable objects that you can bash and usually contain all sorts of goodies, though you will need to keep an eye out for powder-kegs which look suspiciously like item-barrels and explode on contact if slashed at. The D-pad allows you to switch between weapons on the fly and is particularly useful for circumstances where you want to take out some far-off archers in the distance followed by a quick melee takedown of a close-by opponent. The trigger buttons are by default mapped to initiate healing items that you’ll need when your energy or mana is low. The simplicity of navigation is further heightened by the fact that you can usually rotate your surroundings at any desired angle with the R-analog stick. The push-in-the-direction-you-wanna-go gameplay is also a welcomed addition.
Visually Dark Alliance is a masterpiece, the artistic direction and technological superiority that it sports graphically is astonishing. Animation is extremely smooth and the various character’s model renderings are drop-dead gorgeous. No two dialogue-driver characters in the game look identical and the way they move, their body gestures and lip-syncing gives each one a unique and believable personality. The sheer variety of enemies in the game also propel Dark Alliance above nearly every other PS2 offerings and range from run-of-the-mill goblins to huge ice-monsters and towering evil metal soldiers. The environments throughout the game are equally impressive, especially the ice stage, which boasts the most amazing looking atmospheres I have ever seen in an RPG. Its been said before but the water effects in this game are some of the best aquatic dynamics to be digitally employed, moving through water creates realistic ripples in the water that affect the surrounding water or other rippling waves, basically it has to be seen to be believed. The developers really went the extra mile with the visuals in this game, there are all sorts of subtle nuances and details that make this game shine like no other, and the fact that all this is achieved on PS2 hardware is a testament to developer ingeniousness. Simply put, I cannot say enough good things about the visuals in Dark Alliance, they absolutely defy all expectations and then some.
Aurally Dark Alliance is no slouch either. The voice acting is incredibly believable and entertaining to listen to, creating a world that is immediately easy to get lost in. Every piece of dialogue in the game is audibly purported and the incredible job of the voice talent is much appreciated in instances when a lengthy story is told. Jeremy Soule did the honors on the game’s soundtrack and created many melodic, stirring orchestrations in the vein of fantasy lore. Gamers may recognize his striking and inspiring melodies from the PC game Icewind Dale. Every audio-based facet of the game is beautifully executed and you will be hard-pressed to find a single issue with the many aural niceties of Dark Alliance.
If I have anything to say about this game that isn’t favorable its that the boss battles tend to be a tad too simplistic, though less experienced action-based gamers might not think it so. Suffice to say that if adequate attention is paid to leveling up and decking out your character with powerful equipment you shouldn’t have any trouble completing the game on normal mode. The game can be completed in under ten hours however, but considering that there are three playable characters this can be easily forgiven. There is an extra unlockable character that can be acquired by completing the Gauntlet-esque bonus mode on the hardest difficulty. Overall you can expect to invest well over 30 hours to fully explore all that the game has to offer. Anyone who digs the old-school atmospheres of fantasy lore will at-once adopt this game on all levels. The amount of attention that was paid to every detail throughout the experience should be appreciated by any gamer regardless of genre preference. I give Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance my full recommendation, this game is a jewel and I hope only the beginning of a long-running series on the PS2.