I think it’s safe to say that Dungeons & Dragons has greatly influenced roleplaying videogames since the very beginning. From text adventures to JRPGs; to genuine D&D games such as Baldur’s Gate; and a few based on similar mechanics, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins; today’s RPG would be very different without D&D.
There’s a special place in many players’ hearts for the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, which spawned a whole new style of RPG with its intelligent mix of real-time and turn-based combat, using an ‘active pause’ function that even the most recent AAA games like Dragon Age Inquisition use. This fondness has led to a resurgence in similar games, with Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, Divinity: Original Sin and Torment: Tides of Numenera all having great success on PC, with Divinity even finding some popularity on console too.
With Sword Coast Legends, developer n-Space brings a new Dungeons & Dragons experience to the mix, in a game that has nods to classics both old and new. Released to a mixed reception on PC in October 2015, it now makes its way to PS4 and Xbox One with a new control scheme, with n-Space having learned a few things from its PC community’s feedback.
Viewed from an almost top-down perspective, the game immediately reminded me of the old PS2 classic, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, a game I still maintain is one of the best dungeon crawlers around. Its gameplay feels quite similar at first too, with you taking direct control of a character and attempting to battle enemies in a hack ‘n’ slash style, but it soon becomes apparent that although it is possible to play that way, the fact that you have a party of up to four characters means that you really need to take advantage of the pause function, to give orders to your team in order for them all to survive each encounter.
I mentioned Dragon Age Inquisition earlier, and the combat feels most like Bioware’s recent epic, even suffering from the same flaws. The AI characters tend to act like tanks no matter which class they are, with even mages and ranged combatants having a tendency to wade into battle like a bloodthirsty barbarian berserker. Even when you pause the action and attempt to order them away, they inevitably end up back in close quarters, which becomes especially frustrating during boss battles. On more than one occasion I found myself running laps around an arena, reviving downed AI friends while being chased by a boss creature – all it needed was the Benny Hill music and the picture would be complete. This is probably painting a bleak picture of Sword Coast Legends, but this problem is confined mostly to boss battles, the rest of the time it’s a fairly robust system.
Controls are surprisingly good too, despite their clumsy (at first) nature. All attacks and abilities are mapped to the four face buttons on the Dualshock 4, but holding L2 or R2 will enable an extra eight abilities’ use, totalling twelve at one time. Holding both L2 and R2 together brings up an item wheel too, for quick access to important (and sometimes life saving) potions and scrolls. Pressing down the trackpad will pause the action, so you can safely plan out movements, attacks and spells for all your team members, but they will generally look after themselves outside of boss fights. A good mixture of character classes is definitely the best way to survive though, and a healer is well worth adding to any party.
Characters are a definite strong point in Sword Coast Legends, bringing with them a healthy dose of humour at times, and voiced well, to my surprise. The quality of the voice acting is generally high, with Hommet Shaw being a particular highlight with his sarcastic wit. Conversations have plenty of choice and are often funny, and your character stats can affect your ability make certain choices, adding an extra layer of depth to proceedings. The story is well told too, traditionally told through various encounters, but also via very atmospheric loading screen text. Something you will be seeing a lot of, thanks to some particularly lengthy load times throughout the game. This sorely needs rectifying by n-Space, as they’re regularly well over a minute long, sometimes twice or three times longer, and even the title screen requires a good thirty seconds’ wait before dropping you into the main menu.
Once the game finally loads up, you’re able to create your own character with the in-depth creation tools, even going as far as being able to write your own backstory. This is nothing new to PC gamers, but on consoles it’s a rarity. It also ties in very nicely to the nature of Dungeons & Dragons, allowing players to connect with their own character in a much deeper way than usual, as it really is their character. There are plenty of races and classes to choose from, and you can even choose your starting armour and weapons, meaning that you don’t have to start with a broken sword or a plank of wood, as with most RPGs. It’s an approach that many games could benefit from taking in the future.
Another new feature in the game is the Dungeon Master mode, in which you can actually create an adventure for up to four other players. You create the story, choose which enemy types will appear and where, and even choose which tile set to use to customise how the adventure will look. This is perfect for fans of pen and paper D&D as it allows five friends to come together, playing their own adventures much like they normally would, but with the ability to actually see their characters – all the while having the fifth player running the adventure! Unfortunately there’s no single player version of this, but then that would defeat the purpose of recreating the pen and paper DM experience.
Atmosphere plays a part in everything Sword Coast Legends does, from the DM mode to traditional story modes, including the additional DLC campaign that was free on PC (complete with a fan-favourite character’s appearance), and the visuals take this into account. They’re not spectacularly pretty or detailed, they actually look quite washed out at times, but they do combine with the ambient sound to create believable environments – well, as believable as they can be in a fantasy game. Sure, some of them are cliched but isn’t that part of the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing? In all seriousness though, the game does look decent enough but it’s closer to PS3 quality than PS4, which is a shame considering the fairly low requirements for the PC version. The lower visual quality also doesn’t account for the chugging framerate and the constant skips and judders during gameplay either, with optimisation not exactly being the game’s biggest success.
Despite the many problems with the game’s optimisation and AI, Sword Coast Legends is actually a very enjoyable game. It’s almost stubbornly retro in its approach, perhaps to appeal to an older audience of pen and paper players, and that only adds to its charm. There are certainly better games out there, better RPGs for sure, but few on PS4 have quite the same mix of quality storytelling and fun characters, as well as four player co-op – and not one of them has the ability to be a digital dungeon master for up to four of your friends.
Sword Coast Legends may not be a classic, but it sure is fun to play.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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