Review by Ahrezmendi

"A successful dungeon crawl that uses D&D as well as it needs"

Dungeons & Dragons games have long been rated among the best RPG's available. Anyone who has ever heard of the SSI AD&D games knows about this. Titles that come easily to mind are Pool of Radiance, or Curse of the Azure Bonds. Titles that used the license provided by TSR well, and came out with great games. Recently, we've seen such games as Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale, which have been rated as top RPG's of the year. So how does the first next-gen console AD&D game hold up? In the end, quite well. Though not for the same reasons as Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment did.
The first thing to talk about is the gameplay. This game is much more reminiscent of Diablo than it is of Baldur's Gate. It is a dungeon crawl, where the objective is really to hack and slash. This is something that many people may not take a liking to. If that is your case, then I would recommend renting this game, and giving it a shot. Yet it must be noted that this is an extremely well done dungeon crawl.
The game has four basic actions that the player may do. You can attack, jump, cast magic, and defend. This is in addition to being able to do the obvious, such as pick up items, open doors and chests, examine objects, etc. The inclusion of the ability to defend is a great asset, in my opinion. It adds a deeper level to the combat in the game, because the battles no longer can degrade to simply how much damage you can deal versus how much you can take.
I have been involved in many battles where I won without taking a single hit, simply because I chose to defend intelligently rather than rush blindly in. This makes the game much more fun, though it definitely takes a degree of practice to master.
The abilities in the game compliment the combat system well. There are three distinct classes in the game: Human Archer, Dwarf Fighter, and Elven Sorceress. Each class has its own unique abilities which can be obtained by gaining levels and spending points on them. This is not unlike the system seen in Diablo 2, except that the abilities in this do not have prerequisites. If you decide to save up the 22 points needed to learn Meteor Storm for your Sorceress, you do not first need to learn Lightning Bolt. The abilities really make each class unique, which adds a great amount of replay value to the game. The abilities granted to the Archer focus on ranged weapons, where as the abilities granted the Fighter focus on close combat. The spells in the game can do both.
The abilities also put a lot of emphasis on team play, which is great considering this is the first game in quite some time to offer two player cooperative play. This is a great addition to the game, and one that more console developers should consider for their games. The dwarf can easily take on a large group of rats single handedly, but the kobolds with spears will hurt him significantly before he ever reaches them. The archer can take out units from a distance, but can easily get swamped up close. These differences make the game a great challenge when playing together, because you can become a brutal force if you know both yours and your friends strengths and weaknesses.
Abilities can only take a character so far. Your character also needs good equipment to back up those abilities. Thankfully, this is where the AD&D 3rd Edition license really comes into play, and is used very well.
The number of weapons and armors in the game is more than enough for whatever you will need, and sometimes it can be useful to equip your character with different items based on the circumstances. And the game gives you items that are useful for most circumstances you'll run into. You will be able to notice a significant different when your fighter gets that long sword +1 to replace his fine long sword. This is another area in the game where the developers decided to add more distinctiveness to the classes. You will run into items that can only be used by the fighter, and items that are best used by the sorceress. In the single player game, this just gives you more stuff to sell. In cooperative play, this allows you to really divy up loot, and help each other improve your characters.
However, they did not make the mistake of limiting characters too much, which is where the game takes a hard left away from the traditional D&D rules. This is where some hard nosed D&D enthusiasts may have problems with the game. It does look very cool if your sorceress can wear Chain Mail +3 armor, but in this game, that armor also takes no toll on your spell casting abilities. This is good though, because it takes away an element of confusion that could have held the game back. Were this a more traditional role-playing game, it would have been necessary to leave it in. Yet given that this game is geared more towards just exploring and fighting, it was a smart move to make it simpler in this sense.
Gameplay is good, but of course this is a next-gen console system we're talking about, and though many would like to say the graphics don't matter, they cannot be ignored. Thankfully, this game stands up to the test and then some. This game lays the smack down on all those complaints about the PS2 aliasing problems, aside from having some of the best graphics to date on the system.
The game runs constantly at 60 fps, without a single jagged edge standing out. The textures are all extremely detailed and well done, and the character models are top notch. One of the best things is how the equipment your character wears, is shown on their model. This is really cool when you start to get some of the better armor in the game, and your character begins to run around in full plate that reflects every surface around it. Or some of the later weapons, such as Flaming weapons, which will burst into flame when enemies are nearby. That is a sight that will get you saying ''wow'' every time it happens. The lighting in the game is also top rate. Every light around your character casts its own shadow, so when you run through a corridor with alternating lamps, you will see multiple shadows of your character appear and disappear.
This game also sports the best water and refraction effects that have ever been seen in anything aside from tech demos. The water ripples off anything it hits, and slowly calms down. This effect is most amazing in the Sewers area of the Act 1. As well, every metal object reflects light, ice refracts the light that goes through it, and most spell effects or magical effects have their own light sourcing. Even better, is the amount of debris and detail in the game. Pieces of defeated creatures fly off and stay around, broken bits of barrel will cause their own ripples in water, weapons clatter, and blood stains the walls. That is probably the one aspect that gives this game its Teen rating. Almost everything you fight bleeds, and they bleed a lot. Hands down, these are some of the best graphics to date on the system, and even when you think you've seen it all, the developers push it up one more notch.
Unfortunately, the sound and music of the game fall a bit short compared to the visuals. The sound effects are wonderful, and very fitting within the game. Every creature has its own unique snarl, squish, squeak, or general sound.
Shields ring when weapons hit them, and bones crunch when maces crush them. The sounds are not overwhelming, they server their purpose, and they do it clearly and with precision. This works quite well in conjunction with the ambient effects of the game. Every area in the game has its own ambience, and gives a great feeling of really being in the area. The screaming winds in the Mountains really give you a feeling of being cold, and the dripping in the sewers gives it that much more feeling. However, this also puts the exclamation point on the fact that there is a distinct lack of music in the game. The music is good when it comes up, but it comes up very seldom. It will pop up in boss battles, or at key points, but otherwise it randomly pops in and out, mostly out. This is really the part of the game that holds it back from a perfect score, because it seems like a bit of indecision on the part of the developers. Having music at certain points, and ambience at others can be understood. But it holds the game back when the music will sometimes pop in randomly in the middle of a level, and never again. Don't misunderstand me, this is not a huge flaw with the game, making it unworthy of being played. It is simply a noticeable problem, one that could have been dealt with.
As with many new games, this one has voices. Every NPC in the game has full lines, which can be subtitled if you turn it on in the options, but the voice acting is top quality. The words match the mouth movements perfectly, and they got such top name people as John Rhys-Davis to do it. The only characters that do not have full voices are the main characters, aside from general statements and battle sounds. The lines of the main character are put in text, and the NPCs respond as if that is what was said to them. The voices really work to further the story.
Of course that is now what I shall talk about. The story in Dark Alliance is very much akin to the story of Baldur's Gate, only in a different way. You start the game entering the city of Baldur's Gate, where you are waylaid and robbed of every penny you have. You, being the brave adventurer who doesn't take nothing from thieves, intend to get it all back, so you begin hunting for the thieves. And thus you start your adventure, which carries you much further than just the city of Baldur's Gate. Like with the story of the PC game, this is one that unfolds as you go along, so I cannot say much about it aside from what I already have said, lest I ruin something. The story in this game is not as intense as something like Metal Gear Solid 2.
It is also not as epic or vast as something like Final Fantasy X. It's a story that holds the game together in order to give you places to go. As is common with most heroic adventure games, you already know a few things about this one when it starts. First, since you are the only character, you know there will be no plot twists such as Aeris in Final Fantasy 7. This game is really about the gameplay, and that's where it shines. The story is a good one, but the pieces of it are far apart, and even beyond that, it's really being read to you from a script.
The story will not be what you play this game again and again for, though it is great to have it there.
That begs the question: Will you play this game again and again? For some, the answer is yes. The gameplay is simple, and that's what makes it fun. Wether alone or with a friend, it's great fun to just go out and hack some Gnolls or Kobolds down. The story will still do its part to hold the game together, but after the first time through, it won't be the main attraction, much like Metal Gear Solid (1 or 2). The replay value of this game skyrockets because of the cooperative play it has. Get a single friend over for an evening, and you can have some great fun. While it's not a party game on the level of Smash Bros. Melee, or Monkey Ball on GameCube, it's a great way to spend time with a good friend. Just make sure it's only one friend, this game would not be much fun to watch from the sidelines.
So should you rent this or buy it. I would recommend both. If you are a die hard D&D fan, then you probably won't go wrong getting this. It uses the D&D license really well, even if it doesn't follow the rules (in fact, it uses them more as guidelines). If you don't care at all about the D&D aspect of it, I would rent this game first. I had the privilege of playing it on the Winter Jampack, so that was basically my rental. If you like Diablo style games, you can't go wrong with this one. If you get sick of Diablo style games fast, then just go for a rent.
In the end, Snowblind has put out an amazing game, one that displays not only what the PS2 is capable of, but what an intelligent developer with such power available to them can do. This is a game that no PS2 owner should pass up, even if it just for a try. It's a well designed, well executed game that stands above many games in what was an incredible year of gaming.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/10/02, Updated 01/10/02

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