Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance

Review by Skinny Minnie
February 2002

Come in; come in from the frigid cold, stranger! Rest your weary bones by the fireplace at the Elfsong Tavern, and I will impart to you the tale of Eldrith of the Westering Sun. Barkeep! Bring us a pint of your finest ale, for the night is young and this legend long ...

Known in death as Eldrith the Betrayer, she was in life a great general of the Sword Coast and a sworn defender of Baldur's Gate. Her loyal comrades of the Company of the Bladed Crescent followed her unquestioningly into countless battles, in which she was always victorious. In her final battle, Eldrith's company took the field and scattered their vicious enemies, the Black Horde. The Dukes of Baldur's Gate thus decreed that war was over; too many lives had already been lost. Was it not obvious that the Horde would never return?

Eldrith was outraged! How could a final victory be denied her? Against all odds, she led her weakened troops until they cornered the Horde in a small valley. To her horror, the Company of the Bladed Crescent was almost completely overrun. Eldrith sent back to Baldur's Gate for reinforcements, which never came. A few meager survivors, along with a bloodied and battered Eldrith, finally returned home but were reviled by the Dukes. Fueled by Eldrith's fury, the Crescent charged the walls of Baldur's Gate in a suicide run. Eldrith herself was finally struck down from a distance by crossbow bolts, as Baldur's soldiers so feared her skill with a sword that none would dare approach within striking distance of her. As Eldrith fell she cursed Baldur's Gate, and upon her death the Dark Alliance was born ...

As you first enter the story, this new threat to Baldur's Gate erupts from beyond the grave in three different vast lands, represented in the game by three separate Acts. You are challenged through simple but steadily escalating battles and quests to end both Eldrith's siege on Baldur's Gate and her hold upon the spiritual afterworld. The twisted cliffhanger ending will also leave an opening for even greater dangers in a possible sequel ...

It is not only Eldrith's haunting tale that will engage you, but also the stellar graphic scenery and stunning nonplayable character close-ups that will draw you in to become part of this fable of old. There are many long narratives given to you by various characters in the game's cutscenes. These become new quests for your character to accomplish and very much serve to accelerate the plot. You may cut to the chase through the conversation trees, but said graphics are of such warmth and richness and the facial articulation so impressive that you may forgive such long-windedness or even welcome it! The visually uplifting and vibrant color schemes of each different Act make this otherwise tainted story less depressing and dark than many medieval RPGs. It is also entertaining to see the close-ups of each playable character whenever you change armor or weaponry; their renderings are highly detailed and colorful!

You fight Eldrith's otherworldly minions in real time, alone for single player or side by side in two-player cooperative mode. The amount of baddies does not seem to increase in two-player mode during any of the three Acts of this game. A great feature of this co-op mode is that if one character dies in combat against Eldrith's forces, the other character can instantly bring the deceased back to life by merely approaching a save pedestal. All character traits and inventory still remain intact with this resurrection, too! These save pedestals are located liberally throughout the game and are effectively placed for saving games with a minimum of backtracking. Another nice feature is that you can import characters from another saved game to make a one-player game into a two-player game, or you may delete a second player and carry on alone.

You are given a choice of three characters to play as and build up powers for: Vahn, the Arcane Archer, Adrianna, the Elven Sorceress, or Kromlech, the Dwarven Fighter. If your venture is in two-player mode, one of you may want to focus on melee and one on long-range weaponry or attack spells, because certain big bosses cannot be extinguished with close combat alone. The long range and quick reaction time of the Sorceress's Chain Lightening spell can prove invaluable, as can the Burning Hands spell, which acts as a massive, long-range flamethrower. Besides the stunning visual effects of these spells, many enemies are slowed or cannot attack at all for brief periods while under these spells, leaving a second character free to inflict additional damage with melee or archer's weapons. If you are a loner, you may want to play as Kromlech, the Dwarven Fighter, with his higher strength, faster health recuperation, and larger carrying capacity for carting around all the gold, weapons and armor you'll find as you go along. He is also capable of wielding the heaviest and most damaging two-handed melee weapons. As in any RPG, some weapons and spells are character-specific, so you will be limited somewhat in those choices depending upon which character you decide to inhabit, but you will be able to finish this game no matter who you play as.

Eldrith's demonic legions are represented by packs of voracious grey wolves, as well as by upright, sword-wielding, charging rams. They also run the gamut from giant, vividly blue, mobile ice cube-like creatures spurting deadly ice daggers (not kidding!) to swarms of abominable snow monsters. There are, too, the more stereotypical skeletons and headless undead, as well as packs of murderous archers and flocks of clawing vultures. The bosses reporting to Eldrith range from Frost Giants and a massive flying ice dragon to a regenerating armor-clad hulk and a huge spinning demon head.

There are various adventure elements to this game. Your adventuring will include opening secret passageways from remote areas, finding hidden portals to other lands, and completing a pedestal placement puzzle to advance the storyline. You must also collect inventory items and information for various NPCs. You are hired by a young lady to find out what has become of her lost love. You are presented with the mystery of the ghostly elf who sings her eerie song of sadness every night at the local tavern. You will even wind up saving the life of one of the first friends you make as you enter the story. There are actually many side quests that you can undertake to help others, and you will always receive financial rewards and assistance in your own quests as payment for your efforts.

Deadly traps also await you! Early on, fire bolt-spewing mechanisms blocking your way must be strategically avoided. Later, disturbing spinning eyeballs hover over pedestals, shooting out death rays as you try to pass them in lever-pulling adventure sequences. In one Act, you will encounter sets of jumping puzzles where vibrating pedestals that link you to your next destination will begin to fall away, plunging you to your doom as soon as you jump on to them. It is your job to quickly notice the one "nonvibrating" pedestal and jump on to it, after which you must repeat the whole procedure multiple times to finish out each jumping puzzle.

The voice acting here is usually believable, and it is lip-synched well. The musical score is neither extremely medieval nor overly intrusive, sounding ageless if not a bit industrial. Settling nicely into the background, the music swells only at appropriate moments of danger. The sound effects embellish the story well, be it whistling winds, enemies' grunts and howls, or the metallic clanging of steel swords.

Control-wise, the PS2 gamepad button commands for attack, block, inventory, and speech are simple to remember and fade quickly into the background. The only snafu you may find is not being able to scroll through your attack spells quickly enough with the directional pad during battle. You may be forced to seek shelter behind a pillar or tree while you attempt to change spells in the middle of a heated fight. Weapons-wise, you can wield either a ranged weapon or a one-handed melee weapon with shield, switching between them with one directional pad click—nice!

You can utilize "recall" potions that you find as you go along. As in other RPGs, these potions will, from certain predesignated locales, transport you back to a safe zone like a friendly tavern, mining camp or town if the fighting gets too rough. You may also elect to recall if you need to buy better armor, weapons, health potions, or more mana potions to fuel spell casting. There are many gold-filled chests and hidden stashes for you to find throughout the lands that will assist you with your purchases in town shops. You may also sell to those shops any unwanted weaponry or armor that you have picked up from slain foes.

The inventory and character buildup systems are simpler and more streamlined here than in most RPGs, proving less burdensome for newer RPG players but not offering the level of detail and character trait options that more experienced gamers may clamor for. The earning of experience points to apply toward traits like better aiming, faster health rejuvenation, or stronger spells is much speedier than in many RPGs as well. Once an area has been cleared, subsequent treks back through that area yield no additional enemies or inventory items, but the quick buildup of experience points makes this unnecessary anyway.

Subsequent levels are opened up as you take on and complete various quests, and the scenery ranges from dank underground sewers and boggy brown marshes to sunny, whitened mountain peaks. Snow realistically crunches underfoot, and aqua-blue ice glimmers both on the mountaintops and in beautiful underground ice caves. You will cover much ground, be it over the beiges and greens of lush forests and hills or the bricks, stones and granites of intricately carved medieval courtyards and structures. In the midst of your travels, the gorgeous rippling water effects through clear azure pools and swampy bronze marshlands will never cease to amaze you.

All in all, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a fine RPG, very loosely based upon a simplified Dungeons & Dragons motif. The game mechanics are easy, leaving you to focus on the puzzles, the high-adrenaline battles, and the lustful visuals. The story is straightforward, except for an eye-opening plot twist delivered via some wild cutscenes after the final battle with the beautiful Eldrith (who slings her sword in ways that would make Sir Isaac Newton roll over in his grave, I assure you). The replay value of this title is somewhat limited unless memory fades, as maps and enemies do not vary with each new game started. However, playing through the game several times as each separate character in turn or replaying with friends in co-op mode may offer enough variance for some players. The adventuring in the second Act with all of the jumping could well have been made shorter, but this is the only gameplay shortcoming besides somewhat simplistic brevity. Even so, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a great introduction to role-playing games for a novice, as its difficulty level and its inventory and character skill systems are much less overwhelming than in many other RPGs. It is also a fun, albeit somewhat brief, romp for an experienced gamer. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Black Isle/Interplay
Release Date: December 2001

Available for: PlayStation 2

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Screenshots

Arachnophobia Has No Place in Baldur´s Gate (click to enlarge) Aw Rats! I Can´t Get My Burning Hands Spell Under Control (click to enlarge)
Can You Spell Healthy? (click to enlarge) Double Trouble! Sorceress and Fighter Rock the House Together (click to enlarge)
Get to Know Ethon—You´ll Be Saving His Butt Later (click to enlarge) Have Fire Bolt-Spewing Mechanisms; Will Travel (click to enlarge)
Sorceress Versus Frost Giant—You Go Girl! (click to enlarge) The Infamous Upright Charging Rams with Swords and Shields (click to enlarge)

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