Review: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II

by Tom Ingram

2001’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was an underappreciated little game. Built on the Dungeons and Dragons RPG system and connected tenuously to the earlier Baldur’s Gate games, it was a short, self-contained little fantasy adventure that avoided most of the pitfalls of the genre. Hubs and NPCs were few and the vast space between them was filled with some serious dungeon crawling. The gameplay was straightforward hacking and slashing with very little to complicate it. The inane fantasy dialogue was rare and mostly not spoken aloud—and the voice acting wasn’t half bad. It was short enough that you could complete it in a day, and the sense of continuity of gesture that this provided greatly enhanced the game. The plot made continual ill-fated attempts to shock you with twists, but this just added to its charm. It was like a daytime soap meets Tolkien meets Half-Life 2.

The sequel came out in 2004 and became instantly scarce. It is almost impossible to find at used game stores—and has been for nearly a decade now—and even online it has held steady at an exorbitant markup for the past few years. The upshot of this is that I, no doubt like many others in my situation, matured or at least grew significantly older during the time between playing the two games. I know now that Dark Alliance‘s story-telling is nothing to write home about, and that the game’s strengths lie in the overall experience it offers, not its literary quality. So some of the disappointment of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II could be due to the loss of youthful enthusiasm.

The game offers you more choice from the beginning: instead of three choices of class you are given five. This seems like an advantage—certainly it seemed that way to twelve-year-old me, reading the FAQ for a game I had no hope of ever playing. But the appeal of DA I was not in its broad array of choices. You proceeded on a predetermined path, the only real option being how thorough you wished to be in exploring side areas. The three classes hardly offered a choice at all, since in a two-player game you would only miss out on one, and the playing style did not vary significantly between the classes. Every playthrough of DA I was essentially the same, and this very consistency brought with it a sense of serenity that DA II lacks.

The other striking thing about the beginning is that you’re travelling around a lot more. The first game was divided into three parts, each in a different location. These were split up into different stages to make loading easier, but the game was essentially played in three continuous levels. There are only two strong discontinuities in location, and these make good bathroom breaks. The new characters in DA II, though, are world travellers, and you constantly have to schlep your ass across the map to locations that you visit once and never again. Paradoxically this makes the world seem smaller, even cramped.

Story mode quests are broken up by cutscenes of bathetic villains in ridiculous getups musing on their evil plans. The voice acting is noticeably worse in this game, and this is compounded by dialogue that occasionally beggars belief. They come up with some truly hilarious fantasy villain names (Mordoc SeLanmere, Luvia Bloodmire, Habdazar Doomwing), but this just underscores the fact that the game is almost impossible to take seriously. The long stretches of silence were integral to DA I, and these are lost in the frequent cutscenes and level changes.

The game is also a good deal easier. DA I was not very difficult, but it had the right amount of challenge at all the right points, and when you finished a quest you really felt like you had accomplished something. The scarcity in the game’s economy probably had something to do with this. Most of the bosses in DA II are total glass-jaws. As an extreme example, the aforementioned Habdazar Doomwing was dead five minutes after we had started his level. Like any good fantasy series, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is built around fetch quests. But where the first game will order you to get a single artifact that could take an hour to find, the second will send you after three. Each level has only the bare minimum of planning, but there are lots of them. This is where the extra length comes from. The result is that at the end there is a sense of progress but not of achievement.

On the technical side very little has changed. I played the first game on Gamecube and this one on PS2, but the difference is hardly noticeable. The weapon system has been expanded somewhat, but you will probably settle into a groove early on and only change weapons when you find something identical but with higher stats. The graphics are a notable disappointment. The first game had graphics that were impressive for its time and still hold up reasonably well, but in this one they look at least six years behind the curve and always about to break.

If you liked Dark Alliance and are looking for a little more of the same, this sequel will give you a quick but weak fix. But otherwise it has not much to recommend it. The first game is excellent and its replay value is practically endless. But I have no urge to replay Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II.