Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II Review (Switch)
Release Date: July 20, 2022
File Size: 4.3GB
Developer: Square One Games
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Prior to the Switch, RPG fans with an inclination towards the loot-based affair found themselves hard-pressed for options on Nintendo hardware. Sure, you did have a gear grind RPG in the form of Monster Hunter, but endless boss rushes might not suit the Western-minded player. What I’m trying to say is, Nintendo consoles have never been the place for Diablo-like experiences- until now. You’ve got your Diablo 2 Remaster and Diablo 3, Borderlands games, Torchlight sequels, and even some indie offerings that lean into roguelike design for a similar effect. It might be surprising, then, to see a game like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 making its way to the Nintendo Switch.
Originally released in 2004 and skipping the GameCube, Dark Alliance 2 is a trial run at what a console-style Diablo title would look like. At the time, these sorts of games didn’t really exist on consoles, and isometric titles were better known for possessing real-time-with-pause rather than action- or skill-selection-oriented combat. In a way, the Dark Alliance games are a time capsule of video game design, and it is worth appreciating for that reason. The more pressing question, then, is this: does Dark Alliance 2 deserve my time as a loot-based RPG when I already have a plethora of options available to me? If you’re looking for industry-standard graphics and a more forward-thinking script, then your time might be better spent elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean Dark Alliance is bereft of entertainment value.
Players may take on the role of a particular race and class archetype that will inform their style of play throughout the entirety of the campaign. As a Barbarian, for example, you’ll focus heavily on your ability to deal and soak up damage through skill and weapon usage. This contrasts heavily with the necromancer, who explores the use of the mystic arts instead. The unique control mapping of these skills is one of Dark Alliance’s strengths, though you’ll need to do a bit of menu diving in order to uncover its secrets. Players use the D-Pad to cycle through a vertical list of their learned skills, which they can then access through via the B Button. If a player wishes to further expand their arsenal of easily accessed skills, they can map them using the L trigger in combination with the face buttons. Healing and mana potions are also mapped to the ZL and ZR buttons respectively, allowing for ease of play without too much menu-diving.
“Too much” is a huge qualifier, however, because one will need to do a certain amount of inventory management in a loot-based RPG. As you pick up equipment from felled enemies and in treasure chests, you’ll invariably hit your weight limit and need to start prioritizing which weapons and equipment you’ll keep and those that offer you little monetary gain. There’s no quick-sell option like more modern Diablo titles, so the loot that you carry truly has some weight to it, resulting in some tough choices to be made.
Fast travel options to return to Baldur’s Gate do present themselves at the end of quests, so you won’t have to do tons of back-and-forth trekking, but this is one area in which Dark Alliance 2 shows its age. Although all loot is more or less created equal, its potential is not completely limited. You can upgrade equipment and weapons in Baldur’s Gate through services within the town, though you’ll need the proper runestones and gems in the right proportions in order to take advantage of the system. The benefits can range from merely enhancing attributes to adding new traits to items, so exploring this system is an essential boon that only this sequel features, in contrast with the original.
You’ll be diving into a series of dungeons in order to complete quests from a tiered, semi-linear progression. While this does mean you can choose to prioritize certain quests over one another, the list never becomes so expansive- or exhaustive, as some contemporary Diablo-likes can be- that it feels overwhelming. The camera view is isometric, but you actually have a fair degree of control over the viewing angle and distance from the character. This helps the sometimes-limited variations in terrain feel a bit more organic and less-predictable. Despite there being a number of environmental hazards and biome types, you’ll more or less trek through a number of combat-focused labyrinths.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Where Dark Alliance 2 shows its age most is in its aesthetics. It is by no means a visual feast, featuring a darker fantasy setting that doesn’t mute its colors, but rather indulges in deeper hues. The level design does its best to bring topographic variation and natural design to the mix, but it still comes across more deliberate in its design than more recent titles. However, areas are still plenty expanse and feature a good mix of textures that communicate their intended setting, albeit in an early 2000’s realm of expectations. Screenshots tell you all that you need to know: there’s definitely a tileset being used, but an effort was made to try to bring some naturalism to the entire affair. However, lighting and particle effects are about what one might expect from a sixth generation title- maybe even worse. Still, they communicate their intended effects well-enough.
Similarly dusty are the animations for some characters, whose running cycles and facial animations are charmingly dated. I suppose you really had to be there in order to appreciate some of the unintended hilarity that exists in these animations, but don’t go in expecting anything highly detailed or grandiose. Baldur’s Gate is a series that roots its magic and character archetypes in a not-entirely-removed realm of fantasy, so while there are some spectacular abilities, creatures, and the like, they don’t always opt for visual flourish. This might also be a result of the limitations of the era, but the overall effect is quirky, yet serviceable.
You’ll get your dungeons, dragons, and other fantastic creatures, but they’re still presented with visual fidelity and animated complexity that undercuts their gravitas. This extends to the soundtrack, which embraces the words “generic fantasy” with such gusto that it’s hard not to give the composer points for effort. However, these tracks do loop frequently, though not without briefs periods of silence in between, which kind of adds to the awkward plodding of the overall product. Forgettable is a harsh label, but it was grating enough to cause me to lower the music to a minimum during my playthrough.
If you are here to see whether or not Dark Alliance 2 manages to deepen the narrative of its predecessor, well… I can’t necessarily answer that. As someone entering into Dark Alliance without having played the first title, it manages to summarize the events of the previous game succinctly in its opening cutscene, while still hinting at an uncertain and dangerous plotline for playthrough. As a title set in the terminology, realms, and mythos of Dungeons and Dragons, there are some deep references and jargon tossed around, but for an average fantasy enthusiast, its narrative won’t prove all that challenging or complex. Much of this is a result of the nature of quests, rigid progression of events, and relatively brief campaign length, which clocks in under twenty hours.
You’ll get some variations of the impressively fully-voiced dialogue based on the hero you choose to play as, but once again leaning heavily into its time period and target audience, the writing here leans heavy on tropes and the expectations of an adolescent male audience. You’ll flirt- and be flirted with- by almost any member of the opposite sex, and the nature of your conversations will mostly comprise of fluffy, high-stakes and low-interpretation objectives and world-building. Again, your mileage may vary regarding what you appreciate about Dark Alliance 2, but for the most part, loot-based games tend to scale back on their plot in order to let players get to the “good stuff,” which is the hacking and slashing. Dark Alliance offers pulpy fantasy fare, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more complex isometric titles of its era.
Impressions and Conclusions
With such aesthetic and narrative limitations in place, you might wonder what merit Dark Alliance 2 offers in this day and age. If you are wondering whether or not it manages to run as well as it did on older consoles, I’m happy to report clear resolution, speedy load times, and no performance hitches… personally. This is a well-running version of a classic, co-op experience, and although nothing has been done to move that gameplay off of the couch and onto the internet, the original integration into the visual display and overall experience is too essential to be changed substantially. I suppose the question I need to ask you, the reader, is this: is there merit to having a co-op loot-based RPG in your household?
If you’re looking for something narratively deep, you could likely find meatier RPGs on the Switch. Similarly, if you want to delve into the eternal, season-based punishment that exists in Diablo, you have a number of options that will also allow you to play with others far away. But if you want to see what a console co-op ARPG looked like in the days before seamless online functionality, Dark Alliance 2 is your chance. I’d argue that it’s a little bit more active than many modern titles, as a player can easily become overwhelmed if they don’t scope out a situation properly and plan their approach to particular skirmishes.
Mind you, this only happens every now and then, but it is a refreshing change of pace. It has the depth of customization and randomization one might expect from more contemporary entries, and a wealth of character types- some of which require completion of the main campaign to unlock, with one of those two requiring taking on the game’s most extreme difficulty. In short, there’s plenty to do in Dark Alliance 2 despite its relatively brief campaign length, and those options only increase in complexity once you add another player to the mix. If you can add another player, of course.
So who does Dark Alliance 2 work for? The gamer of the 2000’s who, now a father, wants to share what couch co-op looked like with their child? A pair of estranged siblings looking to reconnect over a game they used to play together as kids? Someone who just loves Baldur’s Gate content, and is willing to scour the digital landscape looking for tales that exist in this iconic locale? A loot-based fanatic who wants a different kind of experience? Maybe all of them. Sure, it’s dated, rough around the edges, and reflects a particular era of lesser, licensed games. But I think Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is also just a fun game, which is good enough for me. If that sounds good to you, then you definitely won’t regret it.