Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (Xbox Series) Review

Bring a friend…
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Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II first arrived on consoles in 2004, a little over two years after the first game, and Black Isle Studios put that time to good use. You could have argued – at least by 2004 standards – that Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II felt more like a chunky expansion, sharing the same engine and basic gameplay loop, but there was way more content to tackle and some new mechanics to spice up the experience.

It may not have been as influential as its predecessor – which lay the foundations for action-RPGs on consoles that were more than just awkward PC ports – but this sequel was a lot closer to a loot-driven, action-oriented Diablo-style experience and marked the start of a proliferation of similar games on consoles. Snowblind Studio’s Champions of Norrath and Raven’s X-men Legends would release the same year, with Champions of Norrath: Return to Arms and X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse released in 2005. By the start of the seventh generation in late 2005, the ARPG genre would be well-established on consoles, with intuitive gamepad controls and reliable support for couch-coop.

Fast-forward to 2022 and, just like its predecessor, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II has received a perfunctory remaster – really more of a port – for consoles and PC.

A spanner in the works

In addition to sharing the same engine and gameplay, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II doesn’t stray far from the plot of the first game. The heroes of Dark Alliance, in their quest to defeat the vengeful Eldrith the Betrayer, walk into a trap and discover their actions have unwittingly allowed a new evil force to occupy and reconstruct the Onyx Tower – threatening the city of Baldur’s Gate yet again. Enter a new band of heroes – each with an actual backstory this time that warrants a personal mission in the third act – that once again work as errand boys or girls for other factions. Most of the factions you encounter – friend or foe – return from the first game, with the notable exception of the new villain and their minions.

Of course, a new roster of heroes and the threadbare plot of the first game ensure Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II is still an easy starting point. Just don’t expect the Baldur’s Gate connection means you’re getting a complex plot and fantastic characterisation. Dialogue responses – which only ever progress questlines or provide exposition  – are tailored to each hero and there is one unique NPC to interact with. However, for 99% of the experience, you’re only going to hear generic combat grunts and complaints about being overburdened. The heroes are nothing more than a tool for the forces of good, tasked with throwing a spanner in the works of the forces of evil. It’s a plot good enough to push you forward but there are few memorable moments.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II combat

It’s an old game through and through…

There are plenty of classic and iconic titles that remain beloved for their pioneering or timeless gameplay loop but Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II is not one of those games. It was released 18-years-ago and plays like it. Of course, the upscaled visuals and a consistent framerate go a long way to making traversal and combat feel more fluid and responsive, but that’s all you’re getting in this “remaster”. However, after two decades of increasingly-refined console ARPGs, it feels like a crude template for what was to come. Now, that may sound brutal, but I’m not implying it’s without any entertainment value.

The core gameplay loop of trudging around from an isometric viewpoint, slaying hordes of enemies with a mixture of blades, projectile, or magic, remains compelling – even if it feels sedate by modern standards. Thanks to fleshy sound effects and surprisingly detailed gore – think flying limbs, death animations, and pools of blood – combat feels visceral. Gold, potions, and gear spew from fallen foes and chests, triggering that classic Diablo-esque thrill that’ll send you into the inventory frequently. The major problem – and one shared by many ARPGs before Diablo III – is pacing. Every overworld area or dungeon you battle through drags on for far too long. When you combine labyrinthine level design – which means backtracking if you missed a side path or optional mini-dungeon – with bland quest design – kill X of this or collect Y of that – tedium quickly sets in.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II treasure chests

…but it’s way better than the first game

Now that said, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II is still a much better game than its predecessor. In contrast to the bland fighter/archer/mage roster in the first game, there are five diverse hero classes with expanded skill trees, offering a more interesting range of basic attacks, offensive skills, and passive buffs. As the games are grounded in the Dungeons & Dragon’s universe, you’re not going to find any truly weird, gameplay-altering gear drops but there are over 200 gear pieces in the sequel and the new ability to forge or enchant magical weapons and armour. There are over 80 locations to explore across a world map, more diverse biomes, plenty of secrets (don’t immediately destroy all barrels!), and more side quests – even if they’re little more than busywork.

The problem is that more is not always better. It takes about 6-ish hours – the entire prologue and first act – to hit its stride, pick up the pace, and hook you. To get to that point, you need to endure arduous button-mashing slogs through overlong dungeons, with only basic gear and few unlocked skills to spice up the combat. Too much time is spent kiting enemies into doorways or endlessly circling bosses while doling out minimal damage. It doesn’t help that the game seems designed to force you into melee-range combat, with enemies suddenly able to dash up to you the moment you turn your back to make space. For magic users and ranged characters this enemy behaviour, coupled with an auto-aim system happy to prioritise barrels over monsters, make the opening hours even more frustrating.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II skills

…and it’s much, much better with a friend

I’ll admit, this review has come across more negative than intended and I think that’s down to playing through it solo – with my reliable couch-coop partners now scattered across the globe. It’s an overused excuse to find value in middling multiplayer games, but the “it’s better with friends” argument holds up here. As a solo experience in 2004, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II was good, possibly even great for a console ARPG. In 2022, it’s only likely to satisfy a solo player with a strong nostalgic hook and plenty of patience.

I’m always a fan of game preservation and efforts made to keep older titles playable but, ultimately, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II was and is still at its best when you have two players picking complementary classes or synergising builds; when you have a comrade-in-arms to aggro bosses while you pile on the damage; or just someone to talk shit to during lengthy slogs through overlong dungeons. If you’ve got a couch-coop partner at the ready, add a point to the score and take the plunge; if not, knock a point off and maybe wait on a sale.

A review code for Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (Xbox Series) Review

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (Xbox Series) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    6/10 Normal
  • Gameplay
    8/10 Very Good
  • Visuals
    6/10 Normal
  • Audio
    7/10 Good

The Good

  • It’s much better than its predecessor
  • Five classes, new mechanics, dozens of locations, hundreds of weapons and armour pieces
  • Still perfect for couch-coop sessions
  • Game preservation!

The Bad

  • It still plays like an 18-year-old game
  • It starts slow and loses steam when playing solo
  • Priced too high for what is more of a port than a remaster
Total
6
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