Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was both a memorable and impressionable title for me when it first released on PlayStation 2 in 2001 (two decades ago!). As I played games on both PC and console, it was not my first introduction to the Baldur’s Gate IP, but it was my first isometric action-RPG. It played great on a gamepad, and was even better with friends on the couch. In the golden age of couch-coop, the RPG genre was severely underrepresented.
Going back to replay this recent re-release has been a fun experience, though not necessarily because the game is as good as my nostalgia had me believe. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is, sadly, not some timeless masterpiece, but it’s important as it served as the foundation for an improved sequel, the equally enjoyable Champions of Norrath games, The Bard’s Tale, and the multitude of console ARPGs that followed.
Despite the Baldur’s Gate IP typically having a strong focus on complex narrative, deep characters, player-choice, and extensive lore, Dark Alliance offers one-dimensional characters and few “choices”, other than to accept or reject quests. The story unfolds across three acts, as you investigate a conspiracy in Baldur’s Gate that aims to weaken the City and its defenders.
From there, you’ll move outwards from the city into more distant parts of Faerun chasing the conspirators but the basic structure of each act remains the same. Move out from a safe zone (which houses quest givers and merchants), fight level-by-level through 3-4 themed dungeons (completing some side quest objectives on the way), defeat the big boss at the end of the act, move onto the next. The most memorable part of the narrative experience is the voice of John H. Mayer, who returns as the narrator.
The gameplay, although perhaps simplistic by modern standards, mixes conventional hack-and-slash action with a deceptive RPG twist. On all but the easiest difficulty, wading into battle, taking hits while dishing out your own, will see you fall in seconds. Kiting enemies into chokepoints, actively blocking larger foes, or staying out of range as the archer or sorceress, all are essential to survival early on. This is especially true when it comes to tackling bosses (or sub-bosses) that can cut you down in seconds if you don’t observe and react to their attack patterns.
As far as the controls go, you can attack, use your selected spell/ability, activate switches, chug potions for health or mana, and even jump (something you’ll completely forget about between the rare platforming or trap-dodging sections). The three character classes – dwarven fighter, human archer, and elven sorceress – have class-specific spells and abilities, and a specific role in combat. The dwarf can draw aggro and cleave through enemies. The archer can whittle down tough foes from afar with elemental arrows. The sorceress excels at AoE spells against mobs of basic enemies.
The high difficulty and class system really hammer home the point that Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was designed as a couch-coop experience first and foremost. Played solo, the combat can become a grind as you constantly cycle between blocking and attacking as the dwarf, or creating space before flinging arrows and spells as the other classes. Played cooperatively, each player can best utilise their abilities, making standard mobs and bosses much easier to fell. Sure, it becomes easier as you increase in level (upping base stats and unlocking skills), and acquire new gear (which consists of both RNG drops and fixed store/boss items), but the need to play tactically is important throughout.
So far, so good, but the game is far from perfect and had many flaws that are all still present and accounted for in this release. A complete lack of detail on what weapon prefixes do – check. Poorly explained skills on the level-up screen – check. An awful opening act for the Archer and Sorceress with almost no good gear for them – check. Enemies that wade through your attacks but excel at interrupting yours – check. The need to carry quivers of arrows – check. Labyrinthine level design that brought back bad memories of the Thieves’ Maze – check. Overlong gauntlets with distant checkpoints – check.
Another potential gripe for modern gamers is that despite the Diablo-esque appearance, the gear and levelling structure is closer in design to that of a conventional RPG. Enemies never respawn, so the option to grind for gold and XP doesn’t exist. You’ll want to explore and clear out every inch of a stage to ensure you gain maximum XP for new skills and gold to buy gear (merchants stock some great high-level items). However, when you couple this structure with manual save points – which can appear with wildly inconsistent frequency – this methodical and formulaic approach feels distinctly dated.
Moving back to the good – Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance looks surprisingly good (if you can temper your expectations). Upressed to 4k, widescreen, and running flawlessly at 60fps, movement and combat feel a lot better than I remember (even if aiming spells and arrows still feels wonky at times). The environments – even those set outdoors – have a distinctly artificial layout, but they’re packed with props and lighting effects to make them feel a little more lifelike. Oh, and the water – which is used liberally throughout the game – has reactive ripples that blew my mind at the time and still look great today.
There’s no saving the crude character models that appear in dialogue sequences, but enemy models, character gear, and both the attack and death animations still look great in battle. I was also reminded of how surprisingly violent the game was (for the time). Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale had their ridiculous gibbing effect when you rolled excess damage, but Dark Alliance allows you to hack beasts in half and watch severed limbs and heads fly off the undead. My teenage self found it exceedingly cool and it remains impressive today.
Ultimately, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is a functional re-release that is going to please fans that have been holding out for decades. If you love the game, and if you have a mate to join you on the couch, it can still be a lot of fun. A blast from the past that looks a lot better on modern displays and runs better than ever. On the other hand, the high price is going to deter curious newcomers and it’s harder to recommend to someone with no nostalgic hooks.
A review code for Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was provided to Gameblur by the publisher
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance Re-Release (Xbox Series S) ReviewBaldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance Re-Release (Xbox Series S) Review
Story5/10 NeutralIn comparison to the traditional RPG, Dark Alliance offers a basic revenge plot with cliched characters and no player choice, but it's enough to push you along from act to act.
Gameplay8/10 Very GoodDespite its hack-and-slash appearance, combat remains enjoyably tactical and even better when played with a friend. The dated level design, manual saves, and lack of gear/skill information are annoying but not game-breaking.
Visuals7/10 GoodRunning at up to 4K and at a stable 60fps, Dark Alliance holds up surprisingly well on modern displays thanks to detailed environments, character models, and great animations. The blocky, artificial-looking level structure does stand out though.
Audio6/10 NormalThe narration is excellent, voice work passable, and ambient sounds add to the immersion. However, combat and spell audio, along with the in-game soundtrack are underwhelming.
- Looks as good as it can and runs great
- The tactical combat remains enjoyable
- Coop makes the experience both more forgiving and fun
- Game preservation!
- All the old flaws remain untouched
- Character models look awful during dialogue
- High price will deter curious newcomers