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GBA Review - 'Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance'

by The Cookie Snatcher on Feb. 10, 2004 @ 1:40 a.m. PST

Thieves and brigands have driven you and your family from your farmland home. Desperately seeking safety within the walls of Baldur's Gate, your family is ambushed and your sister has been abducted... YOU... are all that stands in the way of one of the greatest threats ever to strike Baldur's Gate and the Sword Coast. From the streets of Baldur's Gate, to the windtorn peaks of the Sunset Mountains, your quest to rescue your sister escalates into staving off a war that will drown the Sword Coast in blood.

Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: Destination Soft.
Developer: Magic Pockets
Release Date: February 10, 2004

Buy 'BALDUR'S GATE: Dark Alliance': Game Boy Advance

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance was an exceptional action/RPG experience on all three major console systems when it was released a couple years ago. It featured visceral hack-and-slash action, a truly memorable storyline, and a fine-tuned character growth system -- not to mention some jaw-dropping visuals and haunting musical orchestrations. When Dark Alliance on the Game Boy Advance was announced I had more than my fair share of doubts that it would retain any of that magic. After all, It is assumed that some sacrifices would have to be made in the transition from 128 to 16-bit (or 32, if you believe Nintendo's claims). But I'm happy to say that the fundamentally entertaining aspects of the console game that made it such a joy to play have made the jump to the small-screen entirely intact.

The storyline in the GBA version of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance follows the same template as the original PS2, GameCube, and Xbox games. It begins as you are mugged by a gang of thieves who take all your supplies and possessions and leave you unconscious in the street. Once you come to you learn that the same bandits who mugged you are also responsible for a series of murders in and around the otherwise peaceful town of Baldur's Gate. You decide to talk to the townsfolk and set out to find and capture the murderous thieves, which in turn leads you on a long and twisting quest to ultimately save the world. You'll explore three unique lands and over 28 various environments throughout the game, and while it's evident that some corners have been cut due to cartridge limitations, those who have played and enjoyed the console version will find quite a lot of similarities here.

Initially, you are able to choose from three character classes to play as: wizard, fighter, and archer. Completing the game with any of these characters opens up a fourth option; the elven fighter. Each character class (save for the elven fighter) has their own unique style of combat, abilities, and attributes. For example, the wizard relies mainly on spellcasting to dispose of baddies, while the fighter prefers to get up close and personal with powerful strike attacks. The archer is able to shoot arrows from a great distance but does not deal as much damage as the wizard. The elven fighter basically combines all the positive aspects from the aforementioned character classes, but the only way to choose this character is to first beat the game with any of the standard classes.

There have been plenty of action and RPG games for the GBA, and even a few that combined both genres (such as the Lord of the Rings movie games), but none have come together so seamlessly as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. The combat is smooth and fast-paced, and the enemies that you face actually give you the impression that they don't want to die. Groups of baddies will take advantage of you by attempting to strike from the rear where you are unprotected, and enemy archers will constantly reposition themselves in locations where they can damage you from a distance.

The experience system in BG:DA is every bit as satisfying and in depth as that of its console brethren. Each enemy you take out will net you a certain amount of experience points, resulting in attribute enhancements and points with which you can spend on skills of your choosing. You can also purchase equipment like weapons, armor, and health and magic potions, which help to make you a force to be reckoned with when going up against some of the more powerful baddies in the game. But like the 128-bit versions, spending money on weapons and armor seems almost unnecessary since you'll also come across most everything you'll find in the shop by destroying nearby barrels, pots, and vases. Occasionally, dispatched foes will leave behind items as well.

As you equip weapons and armor, the appearance of your character will alter to reflect the changes. This is a surprising inclusion due to the wealth of weapons and armor that are included in the game. But since the main character's model is recycled in so many NPCs it's evident that memory constraints were an issue. Nevertheless, buying that expensive new sword or enchanted armor and actually seeing a physical difference in your on-screen character goes a long way to make you feel like you're investment of time in building up your character is justified.

But what this all boils down to is simply a deep and entertaining hack-and-slash RPG that any fan of the genre should have no problem jumping right into. The real time combat is simplistic and straightforward, yet the ability to reposition your character on the fly infuses the combat system with a healthy dose of strategy. A few enhancements have even been made to the fundamental gameplay mechanics, such as the ability to effortlessly switch between melee, archer, and magic attacks simply by hitting the R button. You can also use health and magic potions by holding the block button and hitting either L or R, so while your health can be regenerated almost instantly, at least holding block will ensure minimal damage while you are momentarily vulnerable.

Visually, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is definitely one of the better looking GBA games out there. The slightly slanted isometric viewpoint of the console games has been faithfully recreated here, though admittedly without the ability to freely rotate your perspective. The environments throughout are meticulously detailed right down to the cracks in the walls and cobwebs in the corners. Small lamps and torches are strewn about most corridor-like areas, emitting realistic (for the GBA) luminosity on the surroundings. Special effects are present for magic attacks and enchanted weapons, such as fire and ice explosions, and there is a wide assortment of different enemies to contend with that keep the game looking consistently unique.

In terms of the sound presentation there isn't a whole lot to say. Most of the time the on-screen action will not be accompanied by any sort of musical orchestrations. But in the rare instance where the game does utilize a soundtrack the results are often quite impressive, such as the vocally backed Elf Song Tavern ditty. There are quite a bit of sound effects to keep your ears entertained, including unique aural bits for enemy death screams, running through puddles, and picking up items. The limitations of static memory storage have rarely allowed for such a rich and immersive technical presentation as this, and for that the game's development team, Magic Pockets, should be proud.

Unfortunately, the game is over much too quickly (around 10 hours). With the deep character growth system in place here I could have been content with twice that amount of game time. There is quite a bit here that may be a little too familiar to fans of the console versions, and knowing the outcome of the story before you even begin admittedly does have its downsides, but on the whole, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on the GBA is probably the most fun an action/RPG enthusiast could hope to have on the go.

Score: 8.7/10

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