I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a dungeon crawl and never finished it (I’m looking at you Neverwinter Nights). I always start out well, meticulously building my character and scouring every inch of the tutorial quest for introductory treasure. Yet for some reason, I always reach a point where I’m no longer having fun, and I stop playing. Perhaps I just get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the choices that the virtual world affords me. Or maybe, the oppressive darkness of the caves and sewers that I creep through compel me to find solace in the real world. It might just be that I grow tired of attacking the same types of enemies over and over in the same types of environments.
Whatever it is, I managed to make myself quite proud by completing Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I’m fairly certain that it’s the only dungeon crawl that I’ve ever successfully made it through. Of course I only managed to do so after taking a 2 month respite before the final dungeon. And to tell the truth, I’m not sure why it was this particular game that I finished and not some other classic hack-n-slash title: let’s be honest, there isn’t anything remarkably unique about Dark Alliance.
The Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance epic is built on plot motifs that are fairly predictable. The character that you choose (a human archer, a dwarven fighter, or an elven sorceress) enters the city of Baldur’s Gate only to be beaten and robbed. Don’t worry… you’ll survive, and what begins as your quest for retribution results in the discovery of a greater evil that pits you against a seemingly endless hoard of baddies in a linear quest.
Such a reductive description of the game might make you wonder why anyone would play a game that is as generic as Dark Alliance appears to be. And while these kinds of games don’t have the mass appeal of a Final Fantasy, it really is fun to explore dungeons and find epic loot. There is treasure to be found in nearly every box or barrel that you smash, but you’ll almost never find the best weapons and armor right away. Keep swinging that sword: Dark Alliance rewards the adventurer who takes the time to seek out every enemy and treasure chest.
One added benefit of taking the time to thoroughly explore any given dungeon is that your character does acquire the experience needed to level up. The leveling in Dark Alliance is nowhere near as involved as other hack-n-slash RPGs, but the choice to simplify the complex skill trees that are present in Dark Alliance’s predecessors is not necessarily a bad thing. In these other games, you might you want to invest in, but here you can examine all of your skills and choose how you want to power up in a matter of seconds. This makes Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance a really good introduction to the classic dungeon crawl.
That might explain why I enjoyed the game enough to finish it.
Then again… after the long break I took from Dark Alliance, nothing seemed bad about the game. The last few hours of the game felt pretty epic. The last boss, while a little anti-climactic, left me feeling awesome. Completing the game opens up Extreme Difficulty, which (as the name implies) is extremely difficult. This inspired me to cheat and make myself invincible so that I could finish the game on Extreme and unlock Drizzt Do'Urden as a playable character. Drizzt fights with two swords, and since I’ve always been partial to dual-wielders, I will try to achieve his playability.
In my opinion, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance presents itself as a competently designed introduction to dungeon crawling for console owners. While Black Isle and Snowblind studios didn’t take any major risks on the formula that Diablo birthed way back in 1996, I can’t really point at anything in the game as being weak. The graphics are awesome for a PS2 game and hold up pretty well almost a decade later. The few NPCs that you interact with are voiced surprisingly well for a PlayStation 2. The difficulty balanced pretty well. And yet, I barely managed to finish it.
Maybe I’m just not cut out for this kind of game.