The release of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the PlayStation 2—a high-profile PC franchise appearing on a console—is something unusual. This is not entirely new, as the Ultima series made appearances on consoles in addition to its original PC releases. But Dark Alliance differs from the console versions of Ultima in that its gameplay deviates heavily from its franchise-mates on the PC. The other Baldur's Gate games were an excellent example of the PC style of role-playing games—open-ended strategic games based heavily on rules from pencil-and-paper RPGs. Instead, Dark Alliance is a fast-paced, real-time action game where one player controls one character; any attached rules are mainly flavoring for the main course of arcade-style action. Given the incredible difference in gameplay, it's no surprise that rather than attempt to build Dark Alliance itself, franchise studio Black Isle contracted Snowblind Studios to develop it.
Console gamers familiar with the gameplay of the various versions of Gauntlet will be instantly comfortable with the feel of Dark Alliance. The same can be said for PC gamers familiar with Diablo and its sequels. The similarities between these games and Dark Alliance are many: the control is from a top-down perspective, time is spent running through areas (most usually dungeons) filled with hordes of monsters, and the primary goal is basically never anything more than killing said monsters and grabbing whatever loot is lying around. Character advancement is achieved through the level system, where killing monsters generates experience points for the character. Upon reaching certain levels of experience, the character becomes stronger.
The similarities between Dark Alliance and Diablo are perhaps the most striking. Seemingly endless maze-like dungeons full of monsters who can drop practically anything when they die? Check. Poison-breathing monsters that turn the character green? Check. Barrels that can be smashed apart to find items, including some that explode? Check. Three basic character types, based on melee attacks, ranged attacks and magic? Check. One difference with the characters is that they have a 'race' as well as a profession, but as you cannot choose the race, you're stuck with the default selections of dwarven fighter, human archer and elven sorceress. However, if you've played Diablo, you've essentially played Dark Alliance, and your enjoyment of the former will most likely determine your enjoyment of the latter.
But there are a number of areas where Dark Alliance deviates from Diablo, and most of them are changes for the better. First of all, Dark Alliance is 3D, and impressively so. In most areas, one can use the right analog stick to smoothly rotate the camera, which allows the designers to create much more interactive terrain seen in an isometric game. The lack of an isometric grid also means that character movement looks and feels much smoother than in any previous game of this genre.
The graphics of Dark Alliance are truly what sets this game apart. This game has been praised almost across the board for its fantastic visuals, and rightfully so. This is easily the most visually impressive game on the PlayStation 2, and that includes Final Fantasy X. The environments and characters are all well detailed and are animated superbly. The lighting and water effects are incredible, with the water being particularly breathtaking, not to mention handy at times. At one point, although I never saw the monster itself, I could tell from the ripples moving across a pool where it had been moving and what direction it was going, which quite impressed me. Even saving the game is a 'wow' experience, and the excellence of the art design throughout the game is remarkable.
The left analog stick controls the movement of the character; the d-pad switches between weapons, feats and spells; and the face buttons on the right are used for the standard mix of attack, jump, special move and contextual actions. The combination of controls works very well in terms of not requiring too much shifting of the hands, although using the d-pad, the left analog stick and all the left shoulder buttons can be confusing at first. The menu screens are well designed and easy to understand and navigate. The game also includes a simple but well thought out map that can be brought up either over the entire screen or relegated to the corner of the screen. Controlling the character is smooth and becomes second nature pretty quickly. At times, it becomes difficult to orient the character in order to direct your attacks in the appropriate direction, but this becomes less of a problem once the analog controls become more familiar. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the controls is the ability to jump, which is not something that is typically seen in the dungeon-crawl genre of games, and one that feels somewhat out of place given the game design. Only in a couple specific areas that are early in the game is jumping required and the command is basically useless in the rest of the game. It feels very strange to have the game teach you how to use the jumping controls, then never require you to use that skill again.
Although the game is fun and addictive to play due to the excellent controls and graphics, it fails to do anything astonishingly new or clever. The plot is linear to a fault, and none of the various quests are anything likely to have never been seen before by any experienced gamer. The characters and non-player characters are all depressingly familiar, from the stereotypical player characters to the obviously derivative enemies. Dark Alliance also unfortunately falls into the common fantasy trap of making every female character unrealistically voluptuous and under-dressed. Most disturbing is that when you de-equip the basic clothes the character starts with, the two male characters are wearing undergarments about as appealing as a strap of burlap, whereas the female elf is wearing a racy purple thong and push-up bra. Is it too much to ask to have a dark elven priest that isn't hopelessly over endowed and trying to hide that fact with what amounts to some fancy suspenders? Even the script for the voice acting is trite and clichéd, never really creating gripping drama or providing proper motivations, wasting some excellent voice talent in the process.
The gameplay also falls too easily into a hack-and-slash melee fest, especially at the end of the game where the plot itself conspires to drive the character in that direction. The nature of melee means endlessly mashing the X-button rather than showcasing skill or variety. For the dwarven fighter, the same strategies are effective throughout the entire game, which can quickly get tiring. The human archer, although a bit more varied than the fighter, is still a little frustrating to use due to the targeting system, which is a little too difficult to use effectively. The elven sorceress is a bit more interesting, as her lack of health and differing magic attacks add a great deal more strategy in terms of how to approach enemies. It's a pity that even for this versatile character, the game turns to hack-and-slash eventually. The enemy AI is a main reason for the melee-heavy nature of the game—even the bosses go down fairly easily to a flurry of hand-to-hand attacks.
The equipment used by the character is also far too unvaried. Rarely is there ever a conundrum over which piece of armor or which weapon to wear—almost everything is easily ranked, with no real trade-offs. When every character winds up looking exactly the same in terms of equipment at the end of the game, it greatly reduces the fun of having different character types.
The length of the game is also a concern. Hacking through endless dungeon corridors will eventually feel mind-numbing, yet it is possible to blaze through this game at a breakneck 10 to 12 hours of gameplay. The replay value is a tradeoff—despite the highly linear plot and the eventual degeneration of gameplay into all-out melee, the character classes play very differently for a substantial portion of the game and the difficulty levels are varying enough to provide a challenge for most gamers. Most people who would enjoy playing through the game all the way once are likely to want to see what else can be done with the other characters, and with an unlockable difficulty level and special character, the reward seems substantial enough to do so.
Dark Alliance also features the option to play along with a friend, each choosing a different character and then moving through the single-player game with both on a single screen. It's a great amount of fun at times, made a bit annoying by the fact that some of the jumping sequences are not easily handled without the character being centered in the screen.
Dark Alliance is a great looking game with incredible controls that is held back by the essential shallowness of the gameplay and the plot. It's nice to see that developers are still interested in making games like this. If the developers had put as much thought into the complexities of gameplay and creating a compelling story, this would be easily be one of the best PlayStation 2 games so far. Instead, you get a game boasting incredible graphics, excellent controls and addictive gameplay, but also a game that falls short of greatness because of shallow game design and a lack of innovation within the genre.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.