The fact that Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance was advertised with the slogan “A New Legacy Begins” isn’t much of a surprise as it represented a strong departure from the series’ roots. The original Baldur’s Gate was a computer role-playing game (CRPG) whose many beloved characters and sequels made it a big hit with fans of Dungeons & Dragons the world over. By comparison Dark Alliance began the franchise’s expanse into the console market with its developer Snowblind Studios simplifying the premise into a more straightforward action role-playing game (ARPG) instead.
There’s no doubt that this change in direction disappointed many diehard fans, but in the end Dark Alliance was warmly received and it inspired a slew of other console hack n’ slash RPGs just as Blizzard’s Diablo had done for PCs.
Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance was not the first Diablo clone released for a console of course, but it probably was the first to really stand out. It’s not so much the game itself that was responsible for this outcome either, but rather its game engine. The Snowblind engine was a piece of tech developed especially with Dark Alliance in mind and the results were pretty incredible for a game released in 2001.
The graphics in this game are stunning and it runs smoothly no matter how many enemies are present on-screen. The character models are lovely and even if their combat animations can look a bit stiff, the physics engine makes up for it by delivering realistic facial expressions, bright particle effects, and detailed death animations. The varied way in which slain enemies collapse and drop their weapons is really cool actually and you simply must spare a mention for the game’s jaw-dropping water effects. A lot of these things are just for decoration, but such quality has helped the game age remarkably well.
I’m going to leave the overview there (seeing as I already covered the basics during last year’s top 100 list) to instead talk about how the game is designed.
The character development system is incredibly simple compared to the likes of Diablo. There are no real “builds” to speak of here and the roster of playable characters at the start of the game consists of three figures: a Dwarven Fighter, an Elven Sorceress, and a Human Arcane Archer. Upon achieving a level-up, players will receive a preset increase to their vital statistics and a certain number of skill points with which to enhance their style of play. Each character has a list of skills that are divided into a collection of passive buffs and activated spells or talents that can be used by expending mana in the middle of a battle.
Upgrading skills is as simple as spending skill points to increase your rank (indicated by coloured dots) in that particular skill. Again, it’s incredibly simple when compared to the trees and synergy bonuses of Diablo II, but it certainly helps make the game more accessible. Another thing it did was set a trend; you’ll find many other games after this one that use the same ‘dot-based’ character progression including Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, the X-Men Legends series, and even Dungeon Siege III (a game released a whole decade later!).
The character building in Dark Alliance is not always as balanced as it could be though. The Fighter has too many dull passives for one, and the Sorceress’s magic damage doesn’t scale well either which forces players to abuse her OP Ball Lightning spell as much as Elvenly possible. Even more worrying is the game’s hard mode where an imbalanced boss fight against an insidious undead-raising orb becomes practically impossible to beat when attempted with 2 players.
If you can finish the post campaign ‘Gauntlet’ stage then you’ll unlock Extreme difficulty; a sort of new game+ affair that sees you trying to complete the game again under harder conditions. Extreme mode is good fun because of the piles of loot on offer, but it does highlight the weaknesses of the character building system. Ball Lightning is pretty much the only spell worth using at this point as there are precious few additive bonuses and abilities that scale well into the later levels. There are still plenty of one-hit-kill henchmen and other frantic encounters to tackle though so as long as you’re not looking to powergame it too much then you’ll still enjoy yourself.
Perhaps the best decision that Snowblind made was to tightly hone the XP curve. Levelling up in Dark Alliance is well paced and every new skill point earned feels satisfying as a result. The methodical pace of gaining experience means that even though the character building may be simple, it still involves interesting decisions as players won’t be able to upgrade all of their skills by the end of the game and must consider their options carefully.
Away from the actual gameplay you have a functional storyline involving a “dark alliance” of evil forces looking to usurp Baldur’s Gate. After being mugged on the streets of the titular city, your heroes wander into the Elfsong Tavern; a friendly area where the patrons will offer everything from information and items, to quests and smug remarks.
Perhaps the most famous attraction in this area is the half-elven bartender, Lady Alyth, whose voluptuous breasts – complete with jiggle physics – almost seem to jump out of the screen. Your first conversation with her is quite brief and yet the amount of hip-swaying and “leaning in” going on here is pretty rude and that’s being generous about it. Whilst the bartender’s appearance prompts a few chuckles, the pole-dance routine that a Drow Priestess seems to perform midway through Act II will have players fighting to contain their awkward laughter.
If I haven’t made it clear; it seems that a LOT of time was spent animating breasts here and by looking at the playable female Sorceress (who can be freely stripped of her clothing to reveal her supermodel bikini underneath), you’d think that the development might have had a bit of a “problem”.
The risible depictions of women are a pity, but at least the same criticism doesn’t apply to Eldrith. Eldrith is a female knight who acts as the game’s ultimate antagonist. Her revenge story isn’t handled all that well (if you ignore the instruction manual then you won’t know who she is until the very end of the game), but as a boss Eldrith is an imposing and appropriately-dressed opponent who can be pretty tough to defeat on the upper difficulty levels.
Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack is understated throughout, although I think it works nicely in this case as it keeps the game feeling fresh for longer. This is because the wider game faces problems with repetitiveness (to be expected with ARPGs) and it will get boring if played in overly long sittings.
There are areas like the snowy peak and Bulette-infested swamp which add a pinch more variety and they help form a wholesome cross section of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The final area set inside Onyx Tower is especially noteworthy in this regard. This multi-tiered coda is everything it needs to be: it’s expansive, dangerous, and brimming with powerful treasure to collect and humongous enemies to slay.
This is one of those games that gets the basics so emphatically right with plenty of nice little touches to spare. The way that defeated monsters hit the ground with a thump and curl up like dead spiders is always great to see and the slow feed of XP and violent boss battles gives more than enough incentive to keep pushing forward.
Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance was such a success that its publisher Interplay licensed the engine out to other development teams. Aside from Snowblind’s own Champions of Norrath series, the engine has been responsible for games such as The Bard’s Tale, Justice League Heroes, and the execrable Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (although we’ll try not to hold that against it).
There’s also a big comparison that needs to be made with the game’s own sequel, but as the narrator says just before the end credits; that is a story for another time!