When the original Dark Alliance came out, it was a very impressive game in all aspects. The graphics were incredible for the PS2, the voice acting was spot-on, and the level design, story, and pacing were enough to make a truly enjoyable romp. There were a few minor issues, such as some control difficulty with using ranged weapons, but by in large it was a wonderful undertaking. Fast forward a few years and the sequel is…pretty much exactly the same as the first game. Same graphics, same voice quality and sound effects, same overall “feel” of the gameplay. In fact, other than a little bit of tweaking here and there, and the introduction of a new set of characters, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is just a rehash of the first. It’s still a quite a bit of fun, but there’s also an overwhelming sense that this has all been done before.
Set in the Forgotten Realms world of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd-ish Edition, our story opens right where the original left off. The three adventures from the first Dark Alliance escape the destruction of the Onyx Tower by leaping through a portal leading right into the waiting clutches of the enemy. It seems that the original heroes were unwittingly helping the current Big Baddie in everything they did in the previous game, so it’s now up to a completely new band of adventurers to solve the problems once again assaulting the rather unfortunate city of Baldur’s Gate. What follows is the usual dungeon-delving, monster-hacking, and treasure-grabbing that makes action-RPGs so addictive.
This time around, there are five characters to choose from to help defend Baldur’s Gate from Unspeakable Evil. Each plays quite uniquely, avoiding the problem of different characters being nothing more than different graphics. The Barbarian is the melee powerhouse of the group, as would be expected, with the ability to efficiently wield two 2-handed weapons to devastating effect. The Cleric is also something of a combat monster, with her ability to cast some fairly powerful combat-boosting spells, in addition to her ability to cast healing magic. The Dark Elf Monk is a complete blast to play, with her unarmed combat and some pretty impressive knife-throwing abilities. Rounding out the group is the archery-centric Dwarven Rogue and the Elven Necromancer/spellcaster. These final two play a bit more slowly, at least initially, but come into their own at higher levels.
Like all good RPGs, there is a steady system of advancement for the characters. In a quasi-Dungeons and Dragons approach, killing monsters generates experience points, which leads to increase in levels, which garners points to be spent learning various skills and powers. There is some room for customization here, as not all the skills can be purchased in just one play-through. Therefore, one could play the rogue as a hit-and-run crossbow character, or possibly as a more close-combat kind of guy.
As with most action-RPGs, players are treated to a “carrot-and-stick” approach for moving the game along. Here, the carrot is better and more impressive powers, loads of money, and tons of cool toys. DA2 has made a change in the magical item system, allowing for customization of magical objects to form some formidable weapons, armor, and trinkets. A crafting system has been integrated, allowing players to create magic objects from any equipable item of high enough quality. The craft system works by placing magical jewels into the item, with each of the 20 or so jewel types imparting a different effect. Each item can hold 2 different effects, and different items manifest a particular jewel’s enhancement in different ways, so there are tons of options for creating custom equipment. More powerful items are made by simply dumping more jewels into an item. Magic items can also be found intact, and it is possible to “break down” these items for their precious jewels, allowing for a sort of cannibalization of magic items for ones better suited to a particular character.
Thankfully, guiding these characters is just as easy as it was in the first game, perhaps even a bit more so, with improvements to ranged weapon use and the addition of 4 “quick-cast” slots for the abilities. I found ranged combat almost painful in the first Dark Alliance. In addition, characters in the original were limited to using only 1 spell or special ability during the heat of battle, since one had to run through a rather unwieldy system to change the ability set to the “special” button. In DA2, however, characters are much better at “locking on” to their ranged targets, making firing bows or throwing knives a lot more efficient. And the addition of the 4 “quick-cast” slots brings the total special abilities easily accessible to 5, making it much simpler to perform a wide range of impressive feats (and making the caster much more than a one trick pony).
Level design is pretty decent, although the game seems to run out of steam a bit toward the end. The first 3 chapters are very good, the last two are quite a bit shorter (and could actually be one chapter) and not all that interesting. Adding a huge boost to replayability, each of the characters has their own sub-quest available to them toward the middle of the game. For this reason alone it would be worthwhile to try each of the characters, just to be able to see all the levels the game has to offer. Also, the rewards for these character-specific quests are very much worth the effort. In addition to the optional character quests, there are a few “side dungeon” levels in each of the first 3 chapters, attempting to remove a bit of the linear feel of the game. Still, even with these extra choices, Dark Alliance 2 tends to move in a very straightforward manner of “clear dungeon, defeat boss, move to next dungeon”.
The graphics in Dark Alliance 2 are almost identical to those in the original—quite good a few years ago, still good now, but not nearly as impressive as they were the first time around. The characters are all animated very nicely, and the monsters (some of which are very familiar) are likewise well done. The voice acting is very good, and the dialogue is well-above-average. The musical score is also very good, and all the top-notch sound effects from the original make their way here intact. Overall, a still-good-looking game, although one would have expected a bit more advancement in the past few years.
A single play-through of DA2 will take about 10-15 hours, depending on the character and the player’s thoroughness. The beginning difficulty levels are actually quite easy for most characters, so those looking for a tough run will need a bit of patience. Once the game is completed, an “extreme” mode opens up, offering a much more difficult (and entertaining) run, as well as allowing the characters to gain all of their abilities. There are also 2 unlockable special characters, ones that will be quite familiar to fans of the Forgotten Realms setting. Given the bonus difficulty levels, character specific dungeons, and extra characters, there really is a lot of replay value here. Completists can expect to sink a lot of play time here. A 2-player mode is also available, for those who enjoy some social gaming. This dual mode is pretty much the same as the solo, but there are some characters whose abilities play nicely with others. Unfortunately, there is no online capability, so those without nearby gaming buddies will have to conquer this one alone.
Although Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 often seems more like a redo of the original game with new characters and dungeons, it’s still quite a lot of fun. There are enough fresh ideas, and enough comfortable familiarities, for fans of the original Dark Alliance to while away many enjoyable hours. Even for those new to the series, Dark Alliance 2 offers up a bevy of dungeon-romping fun.
More action-RPG goodness in the world of Baldurâ€™s Gate. There are no surprises hereâ€”just good-quality hack-n-slash play in a fun and familiar setting.