It's a crazy world we live in. For the past two years the only tactical role-playing game on the PSP was a disappointing Lord of the Rings RPG put out by Electronic Arts. Yet here we are two years later and all of a sudden we're swamped with nothing but big budget tactical RPGs. In the second half of 2007 we have and Dungeons & Dragons Tactics, the amazing Jeanne D'Arc and a remake of the original Final Fantasy Tactics ... not to mention the Japan-only R-Type Tactics. It's as if tactical role-playing games was to the PSP what first-person shooters is to the next generation console, that one genre of games that everybody is dying to have.
Unfortunately because of how many high quality RPGs are hitting the PSP at the same time it's almost impossible to talk about one without comparing it to the others. That's the biggest problem with Dungeons & Dragons Tactics, Atari's newest portable role-playing game. It's extremely difficult for me to simply erase all of my memories of Jeanne D'Arc, especially since I just recently finished going through that 30 hour epic. Yet I'm going to do my best to not taint this review with too many unfair comparisons, because this tactical Dungeons and Dragons game deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.
Right from the very start you'll notice that Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is a dark and gloomy adventure game. Instead of giving you a fantastical world full of amazing vistas and exciting battlefields, you get boring corridors and depressing dungeons. While other PSP tactical role-playing games are going for a cartoon-style look, Dungeons & Dragons Tactics wants to be as realistic as it can; a bold style choice that continues to come back to haunt this game.
The story of Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is right out of the pen and paper game; it's all generic adventure plotting, featuring huge monsters, towns under attack and a world that needs you to rescue it. It's also extremely convoluted and full of boring characters chatting your ear off about all of the things that need to change and how the world needs a new hero. You play that hero, a figure that is up to the task of leading a small group of warriors on a quest to defeat all sorts of fantasy nonsense.
You do that by taking part in a turn-based role-playing game; essentially you move your character and then the enemy moves. Back and forth the two of you go until one of the sides has been defeated. Here's hoping that it was the bad guys that perished, because otherwise you're going to have to load your game again and try a second time. Either way, expect to do a lot of waiting and planning as you take your small team to victory.
Dungeon & Dragons games have a reputation for being insufferably difficult for new fans to pick up. Often these games will expect you to know what kind magic defeats what kind of monster, who the best warriors are and how to take advantage of that installment's rules (and loopholes). Thankfully Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is a little easier to manage. Based on the recently created 3.5 edition rule set, Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is a fairly easy game to get into. Once you've picked and customized your hero it's off to take part in one small skirmish after another. Eventually you'll run into massive battles, but for the most part the game's missions are bite-sized pieces of entertainment that fit perfectly on a handheld console. Thankfully most of these missions don't require you to have the rules memorized, at its core Dungeons & Dragons Tactics tries to be an accessible adventure that can stand on its own legs.
The operative word there is "tries." Dungeons & Dragons Tactics can try all it wants, but this game is definitely not the poster child for accessible RPGs. Navigating this game is much more difficult than it needs to be, often giving me the impression that the developers went out of their way to make this as difficult as humanly possible. And it's not just working through the various pause menus, it's also frustratingly difficult to pick up dropped treasure and customize your characters. To make everything worse the whole process is extremely slow, which makes doing any actual role-playing feel like a thankless job.
Sadly it's not just the menus that will get on your nerves. It's also worth mentioning that even the simplest items are often marred by questionable design decisions. For example, who knew that picking up treasure would be such a monumental pain in the butt? Like a lot of modern role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons Tactics keeps track of how many items you are carrying and has that affect your overall stats (such as your speed, etc.). But in this game you'll never actually know how much something weighs until you've picked it up ... and even then you actually have to go looking to figure out how it's going to affect your character. I'm not saying that everything needs to be spelled out for the game playing audience, but the developers certainly could have thrown us a bone and given us the information we actually need to play in this world. This is but one of the numerous oversights that plague this Kuju Entertainment developed game.
At least the game controls well. Then again, that's the one thing you can say when talking about any contemporary tactical RPGs. After setting down your party you will have the opportunity to move around in just about any direction (just as long as it's not obstructed in some way). Once you've moved you will be able to attack, use and item, open doors, and an assortment of other useful tasks. Like most tactical RPGs you can control the camera angle, which is accomplished by moving the analog nub around. In truth this game controls about as well as you would hope for, there are no glaring flaws associated with the control set-up. Sadly the same cannot be said about the menu system (which you will use more than just about anything else in the game), but we've already been over this subject already.
The most frustrating thing about Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is how much potential the project had. Despite a few control issues, this is a good playing game that has the makings for a solid adventure game. I would even go as far as to say that there are genuinely good ideas found in this PSP game, including a deep character creator and how ethics work in this fantastical world of dragons and gnomes. The problem is that most gamers won't get far enough into the game to see how great these ideas are. Instead most gamers will give up shortly after they start the project, frustrated by all of the terrible design choices that were made along the way. While there's not one thing that ultimate breaks the game, the combination of literally dozens of design flaws start to take their toll on you.
What's more, the gloomy graphics never make you want to continue on your quest. I understand that not everybody likes the anime-inspired visuals in Jeanne D'Arc, but Dungeons & Dragons Tactics swings the pendulum a little too far in the other direction. This is a "realistic" looking game, which is to say that everything is grittier and looks a little more like what you would see in the real world. But there's no reason for the graphics to be so depressing, it's as if the developers went in with the specific goal to bum us all out with sad rocks and boring caverns. Movies like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy prove that you can make an exciting fantasy world that looks realistic without turning everything dark and dreary.
Of course, it's not unrealistic to believe that there may be some gamers who are looking for this king of Dungeons & Dragons game. While the game didn't do much for me, I'm sure there are fans of the series that will be able to overlook some of the negatives and find a worthwhile game here. If that describes you then you're in luck, because Dungeons & Dragons Tactics offers a lengthy single-player campaign. It isn't nearly as interesting as the campaigns found in other recent PSP tactics RPGs, but it's still long and full of diverse missions.
And if that's not enough, Dungeons & Dragons Tactics also comes with a multiplayer mode. Unfortunately you can't team up with other players and play cooperatively. Instead you're forced to play competitive games, such as monster bash and deathmatch. Sadly neither of these modes are much fun, so most people will probably just ignore the multiplayer option altogether.
Dungeons & Dragons Tactics is a game that had a lot of potential. There are some interesting ideas, along with a deep role-playing engine that allows you to build a lot of unique characters. Unfortunately the game is brought down by a number of gameplay flaws, depressing graphics and slow-paced action. With so many better role-playing choices out there I see no reason for anybody to pick this up, it's just another example of a good idea gone wrong.
This is a dark, depressing and boring role-playing game with complicated rules and major design flaws. With games like Jeanne D'Arc and Final Fantasy Tactics on store shelves there's no reason to play Dungeons & Dragons Tactics.