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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2 isn't fun now but that's not the point

A merchant lady in a red top asks for our help escorting her out of a cave.

Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is old, clunky and boring, but at the same time I am entranced by it. This is history Im playing; the game is 18 years old. Theres nothing you can do short of remaking it thats going to make it feel young and exciting again – and Wizards of the Coast tried that last year with Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, and look how that turned out (clue: not well). So all those lumps and bumps I feel while playing it – all those things that have been smoothed by the many waves of action role-playing games since – I dont mind them. In fact, I love them, because theyre what revisiting Dark Alliance 2 is all about.

Quick history lesson: Dark Alliance was an experiment, really, in bringing Dungeons & Dragons to console. Interplay didnt want a slower, wordy adventure like BioWares Baldurs Gate but something more suited to a console audience – something faster, something more action-packed. So it enlisted Snowblind Studios (which would go on to make something of a spiritual successor in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North – remember that? We gave it 4/10) to make one. There was reticence but when BG Dark Alliance came out in 2001, it was surprisingly well received, so a sequel was greenlit.

This time, however, the beloved Black Isle Studios would make it. This was the house of Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and Fallout, a bonafide RPG legend, and its involvement added a layer of intrigue and excitement to the game. But Dark Alliance 2 would also be the last game Black Isle would release, with Interplay closing the studio and laying off all of the staff months before release, and cancelling a Dark Alliance 3 in the process. People from Black Isle would go on to form new studio Obsidian Entertainment thereafter. So theres all this history wrapped up in the game.

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Look at that intro – no its not the new Lord of the Rings series, its Dark Alliance 2! I hope you enjoy the part where I die because Im standing in the fire right near the beginning of the game. I didnt.

Theres also history in the way it plays and the way its put together. This, really, was one of the first attempts to bring Dungeons & Dragons over to a console audience, whereas today, its commonplace – weve got all kinds of D&D-inspired games in that space. Would BioWare have made Knights of the Old Republic if Dark Alliance hadnt worked (KOTOR was effectively a Star Wars D&D game), for example? I dont know. That was the great console crossover moment for BioWare. And you can feel this kind of exploration of how D&D could work on consoles in Dark Alliance 2.

Abilities are greatly simplified, for instance. Youve got a selection of them you can spend points on (pips, really) as you level up, making them stronger. You dont get all that dizzying choice of D&D character advancement, so it greatly simplifies it all. Its also, obviously, not turn-based, but built to be a button-mashing hack-and-slash, with some active abilities while others do sums behind the scenes. And again, this is all commonplace now, but then it wasnt, and thats what makes Dark Alliance 2 feel so elbowy and awkward at times – that unrefined feeling of one kind of game being mashed into another but theyre both running at different BPMs. But somehow it works, and thats a fascinating turning point for games like these.

Two player-characters in Dark Alliance 2 try to get into a locked door in a cave.
You can play the game either alone or with someone else, sharing the same screen. I wish more games had local co-op.

A character portrait of a dark elf monk in Dark Alliance 2. Disappointingly, she has visible knicker straps way up beyond where her trousers end, and a kind of bra top. Because all female-presenting adventurers would wear this kind of thing. Sigh. I suppose it was 2004.

An inn is taken over by goblin bully-boy Harnak the Butcher, who is a tough cookie to beat. But Bertie does, with a crossbow, after many failed attempts hand-to-hand. The inn is strewn with the bodies of people killed in the attack.
Theres nothing like visible knicker straps to show you a game is from 2004.

But Dark Alliance 2 is unlikely to entertain you in 2022 if you have no history with it or no historical interest in it. The enemies are basic and unvaried, as are the maps, as are your move-sets. It feels like exactly what it is: old. I played it with my partner for a while – local co-op works fine by the way – and she looked distinctly unimpressed and confused as to why I was making her bother with it at all. She thought the game was intentionally taking the piss when we watched the old, low-res intro at the start (which probably belongs in a museum – and I mean that in a good way!). And when she died within moments of us beginning and neither of us could work out how to resurrect her (we had to reload) she was pretty much ready to quit.

Also, I dont know whether its the remasters fault or whether its the games foundational fault, but while the action runs smoothly at 4K (Im presuming because thats why my screen is), the cut-scenes do not and theyre jerky, too. The audio mix is off for voices as well, with some nice and loud while others are hard to hear. And there are button prompts in the menus that dont seem to work at all. On top of that, theres a general feeling of sluggishness when mashing attacks and moving around.

Whether or not you should play it depends on what Dark Alliance 2 means to you, though I should say that £30 is a ridiculous amount to ask for this. If youre former Eurogamer and RPS writer Imogen Beckhelling and you remember playing Dark Alliance 2 with your nan – a piece I couldnt stop thinking about while I was playing DA2 because it warms my heart – then yes, this remaster is for you. On the other hand if youve no link to it, Id probably give it a miss.

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