Carrying out quests and slaughtering monsters will earn you experience points, which you can periodically spend on different character attributes and abilities. Many of these character advancements are pretty subtle, incrementally increasing statistics like attack rate and magic regeneration rate, though there are plenty that will grant you all-new abilities, such as new magic spells, or the ability to equip specific classes of weapons or armor. The customization isn't incredibly deep, but two players who use the same character class yet choose to use their experience points differently will, by the end of the game, have two fairly divergent characters. The game does a pretty good job of ramping up the difficulty of your opponents at roughly the same speed that you're gaining experience, which generally keeps things from being too easy or too difficult most of the time.
The workshop adds some surprising depth to the weapon system in Dark Alliance II.
You'll also pick up large quantities of booty while dungeon crawling, including a variety of rings, amulets, jewels, potions, armor, weapons, and, of course, gold coins. You can keep what you like, but you have a limited carrying capacity, and you'll regularly have to unload unneeded gear to Baldur's Gate's resident shopkeeper (fortunately, recall potions let you instantly teleport back to town). You can also buy some basic weapons and armor there using the coins you've collected at the shop, which is good when you're just starting off, though better equipment usually awaits you in the dungeons. The best stuff, however, you'll have to build yourself.
New to the shopping portion of Dark Alliance II is the workshop, where you can take existing pieces of weaponry and armor and equip them with special rune stones and jewels, which will imbue them with special properties. With nearly a dozen different types of gems available in the game, and space for rune stones and two different types of gems on any piece of gear, the customization options here are simply staggering. It can be quite intimidating, as every different combination of gems yields different results, but if you spend time figuring out the effects of the different gems, you'll be able to craft weapons and armor of unparalleled power. The workshop is a great addition to the Dark Alliance formula, removing some of the random chance in which weapons you'll get and putting the onus squarely on the player.
As mentioned earlier, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance was a great-looking PlayStation 2 game when it was released in December of 2001. A little more than two years later, Dark Alliance II hasn't done much to improve the overall fidelity of the graphics, which leaves it looking a little bit dated. The water effects, which were some of the best we'd seen in 2001, look more like mercury in 2004. The game tones down the shiny reflective effects that Dark Alliance bandied about with gleeful abandon, which is really to the game's advantage. The one thing that still looks really good is the lighting, which is mostly static, save for the soft glow that your character gives off, but it's effective in creating atmosphere. The game also lifts many environment tilesets and creatures from its predecessor. It's just enough to give the game a sense of familiarity, though, as there are also plenty of all-new monsters to fight and dungeons to explore. It doesn't amaze like its predecessor did, but Dark Alliance II still has a pretty clean look, and the different tilesets that make up the many environments you'll traverse are admirably sharp. Technical aptitude aside, the art direction in Dark Alliance II doesn't seem quite as focused as in the first game, and there are some dungeons and creatures that are inspired by some of the more obscure corners of the Forgotten Realms. The differences between the graphics in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions are noticeable, with the Xbox version sporting cleaner special effects and slightly sharper textures, but they're also pretty nominal. Still, if you have the option, the Xbox version is definitely the way to go.
Many creatures from Dark Alliance appear in its sequel, though the gelatinous cubes are sorely absent.
Dark Alliance II features sound design befitting of a Dungeons & Dragons game. There's plenty of spoken dialogue littered with quasi-medieval language, all of which is delivered in an appropriately serious tone by a skilled cast of voice actors, a few of whom have returned from the first game to reprise certain roles. The orchestrated score is grand and sweeping, and though it'll often drop out for minutes at a time when you're just poking around a dungeon, it always makes a point to swell up to a big crescendo whenever you come to a big boss encounter. It's not perfect though, and sometimes the music will start picking up some steam for no real apparent reason. The effects that accompany your magic and melee attacks are satisfying, and your character will regularly shout out a little battle cry in the heat of the moment. And, in a nice little touch, the voices of certain characters will begin to change as their experience level increases.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance was an RPG for people who didn't like RPGs, and its sequel does a fine job of maintaining that design philosophy. Though the ending is a little unsatisfying, and the actual adventure is a little short, the game offers plenty of replay value with five appreciably different character classes and a really satisfying cooperative mode. The future of Black Isle Studios is uncertain, so it's hard to say if there will be a Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance III. If this is the final stand for the Dark Alliance name, it's not a perfect ending, but it's still pretty good.