What there isn’t enough of at the moment, in my humble opinion, are games that were big on previous generations of consoles getting a tarted-up release on today’s modern hardware. Now, you may have detected a slight hint of sarcasm in my previous sentence, as at the moment we seem to be drowning in them, however, the game I’m reviewing today first came around 20 years ago so it may be that enough time has passed in order for this to be considered a new experience. In the interests of full disclosure, I never played Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance when it first launched back in 2001, gracing the OG Xbox in the process, so this has been something of a voyage of discovery. So come with me to the city of Baldur’s Gate and the Dark Alliance.
Now, what sort of game is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, I hear you cry? Well, I’m glad you asked, as the answer is a real-time hack and slash action role player; one that is played from a third person overhead/isometric viewpoint. When you start the game, the first thing you have to decide is which character you are going to be. You can forget your fancy character generator programs though as here you have a choice of three pre-set folk – Kromlech, a Dwarven fighter; Vahn, a human archer; and Adrianna, an Elven Sorceress.
With that out of the way, the adventure begins, and upon arriving in Baldur’s Gate we find ourselves attacked and robbed by the new Thieves’ Guild, only escaping with our lives due to the city watch arriving. From there, it’s the Elfsong Tavern that needs taking in, and after a brief chat with the bartender Alyth, we soon find ourselves sent into the cellars to clear out an infestation of rats, before heading out to uncover clues about the Thieves’ Guild, pursuing them to the logical conclusion – that of fighting a massive floating eyeball below a temple.
It is then in which the Dark Alliance story opens out, never really straying from the very linear, as we find ourselves in different areas as the story progresses. I’m not going to say anything more about the narrative, except that it is compelling and keeps you playing, as you’d expect given the Dungeons and Dragons source material.
So, we’ve seen that the story and the reasons for us going to fight are all present and correct, but how about the rest of the gameplay experience? Well, if I had my “Glass half full” persona in place, I’d say that it stays true to the original game in all aspects, not just the narrative.
What this means from a graphical standpoint is that the game here doesn’t look like it would make an Xbox 360 sweat, let alone an Xbox Series X uber console. In fact, the graphics have an almost muddy look – there’s no sign of 4K shininess – and the cutscenes, rendered in the game engine, look almost like a trip back to the year 2000 and the kind of stuff that was shown on my trusty old PS2. The lip syncing in particular is pretty poor, and while the voice overs are decent enough and work, as a whole they do tend to float towards the “hammy” end of the spectrum, with much declaiming and grandiose threats being spoken. Other audio found in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is pretty good, with rats expiring with a heartbreaking “squeak” and plenty of swishing swords, clanging blows, whizzing spells and sad little groans present.
You should expect to die in Baldur’s Gate, over and over again. In large part this is down to the visuals, even if each character has the ability to equip a melee weapon and a shield, unless of course it’s a two-handed weapon, which my sorceress can’t lift. Anyway, blocking damage is always the best policy, and while it can be done, the animations on the enemy attacks seem to be missing a few vital frames, so it isn’t as easy as it should be. This is no Dark Souls-style brawler, with careful management of stamina and split second reactions required. This is no more true than with the boss fights that tend to turn into toe-to-toe slugfests, during which the winner is usually decided by how many healing and/or mana potions have been brought to the party.
Another issue is that the enemy attacks don’t seem to have any real weight to them, so the rat nibbling your toe feels the same as the big guy with the broadsword who is capable of almost cutting you in half; the only difference is the amount of health it takes off your HP bar. Indeed, you soon learn to watch the bars in the top left of the screen like a hawk, making the most of a potion as soon as required. This doesn’t allow you to feel fully invested in the fight, which is a shame. There’s also a good amount of cheesing that can be done, with enemies stuck in narrow doorways while you batter them with special attacks, or in the case of my sorceress, set them on fire while they are unable to get at you. This works very well on the giant spiders in the Thieves’ Guild.
Combat is a bit hit and miss, if you’ll pardon the pun, all round in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The A button is your general attack button, Y jumps, X interacts and B uses your currently selected special power. As you go through the game and gain levels, more special attacks become available, with each one costing a varying amount of mana; the blue bar in the top left. These can be the difference between life and death, especially in the boss fights, and so unlocking as many as you can will allow you to use a loadout you are happy with. For my sorceress, the magic missile attack, which launches tracking balls at any foe, was a godsend, allowing the chance to almost snipe enemies from afar. With each character having a different set of skills to choose from, it’s worth trying them all before deciding who is your main.
In conclusion and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is a good game; one that is enjoyable almost despite itself. The visuals are very old-skool – and that’s being kind – the animation is ropey and fights don’t ever feel balanced, but it still provides a decent amount of fun; all helped along by the story that unfolds – no matter whether you are playing alone or cooperatively. It certainly hasn’t managed to move on from its roots, and so if you played it the first time around, you’ll be hit with a strong feeling of deja vu. However, judging it by today’s standards, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is not as good as it could have been.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance has dropped onto Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One via the Xbox Store