Two years ago, Interplay and little-known developer Snowblind Studios surprised just about everyone when they delivered an action RPG to the PS2 under the banner of Black Isle's venerable Baldur's Gate series, and it was good--great, even. Striking a middle ground between the likes of Diablo and Gauntlet, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance combined hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling gameplay with a moderate amount of character customization options, and it showcased the whole package with some of the best-looking graphics to be seen on the PS2 at the time. Snowblind may not be at the helm anymore, but the new Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II delivers a similar experience. Though not as impressive as the original game, Dark Alliance II will surely satisfy players looking for a well-crafted, accessible action RPG experience.
Dark Alliance II does a decent job of picking up where the first game's cliff-hanger left off.
The first Dark Alliance ended with a rather wicked cliff-hanger, and Dark Alliance II dutifully picks things up from there. The human archer, elven sorceress, and dwarven fighter from Dark Alliance appear in the opening cinematic, having just defeated that game's final boss, and are swiftly captured by the wicked vampire king, Mordoc, who plans to use the fallen onyx tower of Eldritch the Betrayer for his own nefarious purposes. If you didn't play the first Dark Alliance, this probably doesn't make a lick of sense, but fear not. Dark Alliance II makes plenty of references back to the events of the first game, and several familiar characters reappear, but the game is just as fun if you have no awareness of past events in the series. To be honest, though, the story is kind of convoluted whether you've played Dark Alliance before or you haven't. But this isn't too big a deal, as the story functions purely for the purpose of giving you continued motivation to engage in a series of hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling quests.
Since the original cast gets locked up in a dungeon somewhere, Dark Alliance II lets you choose from an all-new cast of five: the human barbarian, the dark elf monk, the moon elf necromancer, the dwarven rogue, and the human cleric. Each of these characters has its own innate proficiencies--the barbarian works best with melee combat, the monk with unarmed combat, the rogue with stealth and ranged attacks, and the necromancer and cleric with dark and light magic, respectively. The gameplay experience can be pretty fundamentally different depending on which character you choose, so you can choose the character that best fits your own personal style. And if you've got a friend who's willing to commit the nine or 10 hours or so it'll take you to finish the game, Dark Alliance II lets you play through the game as a two-player cooperative team, much like its predecessor. Though the ability to play with a party of four, or even the inclusion of online support, would have really upped the ante on the multiplayer game, the co-op mode still proves to be great fun, and it's a decidedly different experience from flying solo.
The action in Dark Alliance II breaks down into four basic activities: fighting, character leveling, shopping, and conversing with non-player characters. Though you can't interact with every NPC you see, the ones that you need to talk to in order to keep the game rolling are clearly marked with large "talk" icons over their heads, and a quick run through a short dialog tree will have you adventuring off on a new quest in a short time. You'll occasionally run into nonessential NPCs who, if questioned, can yield extra experience and side quests, though this isn't a terribly common occurrence.
You'll spend most of your time in Dark Alliance II hacking your way through monster-infested dungeons.
The context varies from quest to quest, but all of them basically boil down to working your way through a dungeon, or at least a dungeon-type environment, while fighting monsters and plundering all kinds of treasure, and the quests usually culminate in some kind of boss fight. The action here is pretty straightforward. You issue melee and magic attacks in real time using the controller's face buttons. You can also block, jump, use health and magic potions, bring up a translucent minimap of your immediate surroundings, and switch which magic spell you currently have equipped at any point. The options for melee weapons have been expanded a bit since the first game. You can now wield a single-handed weapon in each hand, though with a pretty fair attack penalty. You can also equip three different weapon types--single-handed, double-handed, and ranged--at the same time and cycle through them on the fly using the D pad, which is a clever addition that helps keep the pace of the game going at a nice clip. The ranged weapons also function a bit differently now. You no longer have to buy new projectiles, which effectively means you have unlimited ammo, and you have a red aiming guideline right off the bat, which was a skill you previously had to earn. Both of these additions make the ranged weapons a much more attractive option.
Though there are a few minor differences in the way certain functions are mapped, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 controllers handle the action in Dark Alliance II with an equal level of proficiency. Every single button on the controller is put to use, which can be a little daunting at first, but once you become familiar with the layout, it becomes fairly clear that any further simplification of the controls would hurt the overall experience.