Publisher: Interplay Entertainmant
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
Following some harsh financial results in 1999, Interplay began to switch its focus to the new generation of consoles. In November of 2000, a spokesperson for the publish stated that the recently-released and critically acclaimed PC RPG Baldur’s Gate II was headed for the PlayStation 2, though rather than being a straightforward port of the game, it was explained that this version would probably be tailored towards the console market and the original game adjusted accordingly. At some point during development, though, the idea of porting Baldur’s Gate II at all was jettisoned in favour of something that would only retain the franchise name, and in February of 2001 the all-new Dark Alliance was announced.
The intention was to base the gameplay on the third iteration of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset (although the finished product had only a loose relationship with it). Interplay’s RPG specialist Black Isle would collaborate on this new title with Snowblind Studios, the aim being to develop a game that fans of both roleplaying and action games could enjoy, with spells never before seen in the series incorporated to ramp up the action of the eventual product. The released game would sell over 500,000 copies on PS2 alone, a surprise hit in an extremely busy year for console releases – ports for the Xbox and GameCube came much later down the line, paving the way for a sequel in 2004.
By the time the PS2 was launched onto the market, Japanese RPGs were a dominant force on consoles, with the Western equivalent games tending to find a home mainly on PCs. With that in mind, Dark Alliance felt like a reactionary game to that trend – a way to attract not necessarily a casual audience, but one that perhaps wouldn’t have found its way to a Western-styled adventure game otherwise. It retained the spirit and tone of the PC Baldur’s Gate titles, but crafted everything else, including combat, environments and menu screens, around the idea of couch-friendly burst play, foregoing turn-based point-and-click play for battering the face off of giants in real-time with a +3 sword.
With a choice of three different classes – an elven witch, a warrior dwarf and a long-range human archer – Dark Alliance fostered genuine strategy, with each character having to tackle groups of enemies at a varying pace depending on their advantages in battle. Despite being fashioned for a more mainstream player, Dark Alliance wasn’t dumbed down, challenging players to master its rich customisation options in order to progress through extremely tough levels and powerful boss encounters. This micro-management guaranteed that some trappings of the roleplaying genre had successfully made the leap to consoles.
The presentation of Dark Alliance remains astounding, with varied, full 3D environments that advanced far beyond the relatively low-fi look of the PC titles. The realistic animations on the game’s spider creatures are particularly creepy, but coupled with the highly detailed enemy designs, Dark Alliance didn’t suffer from the same level of repetition as some hack-and-slash titles. This made the most of Dungeons & Dragons’ vast mythology, with a real sense of a journey as you charged through dungeons, ice caves and dark towers, often with unexpected foes around the corner (Dark Alliance’s epic-sized and deadly Ice Dragon is particularly memorable). The heavy bloodshed in the game, too, is oddly enjoyable, another touch that adds to the suitably mature take on this dark fantasy universe.
Today, we see even the most traditional RPG developers shaping their games to suit console players, and Dark Alliance was in many ways a prelude to that – understanding how some of the complexity of a PC game can make its way to a console, while also keeping the presentation fresh and exciting, this was a blockbuster take on Baldur’s Gate that turned out be as valid as that of its computer-based cousin. With two players, of course, the game peaks as a gloriously-rendered update of the co-op dungeon crawler, and the balancing of the three classes in Dark Alliance resulted in a compulsive and replayable adventure.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Dark Alliance represented a rare, forward-thinking method of pleasing Dungeons & Dragons fans who perhaps didn’t think PC games based on the property could translate effectively to the home console; it was something different to anything the series was renowned for, but an experience equally as rich in its own terms.
On top of that, this is still a purely satisfying hack-and-slash adventure, capturing the breadth of the licence’s fictional universe, which offers an atmospheric backdrop to this updated take on well-worn gameplay mechanics. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance didn’t exactly do anything new, then, yet it refined a timeless genre using the D&D property, as well as drawing on the Black Isle team’s experience with RPGs to make it a distinctive companion piece to the PC titles.
We’re now seeing more PC-style RPGs transferring, as is, to modern consoles, and while this is occasionally very effective with games like Skyrim, the way that Dark Alliance was specifically created to fill the void between the action genre and RPG meant that it absolutely worked as the kind of game you’d play in front of the telly.