Back in the early 2000’s, the Dark Alliance subseries of the Baldur’s Gate franchise was created as a means of bringing the Baldur’s Gate experience to console players. Either due to hardware limitations or a simple lack of audience interest at the time, the computer RPG design of traditional Baldur’s Gate wouldn’t work for a console game, so Snowblind decided to go with an action RPG for Dark Alliance. It turned out to be the right decision as audiences loved it, so a sequel was soon greenlit to keep the momentum going. Now that it’s gotten a re-release on modern platforms, how does it compare? Well, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is a better game than its predecessor, yes; unfortunately, time hasn’t been too kind to this release.
The plot of Dark Alliance 2 is about as basic as it gets, centering around a villainous vampire who kidnaps the heroes of the first Dark Alliance and terrorizes the region around the city of Baldur’s Gate. You take on the role of a new hero who comes to the city in search of fame and fortune, but your hero eventually gets caught up in the effort to fight back against the vampire and bring peace to the surrounding region.
It’s not much to write home about, but the plot does a great job of setting the scene and ensuring a consistently heavy atmosphere. Plus the story unfolds in a somewhat nonlinear way across all of the various quests you pick up. These can be delightfully interesting in their own way, such as when you explore a mysterious manor and find the owner conducting horrifying experiments within. Clearly, the story isn’t the focus here, but what’s on offer manages to set a nice tone, even if none of it is very memorable or interesting.
The gameplay in Dark Alliance 2 is best described as a more simplistic take on the typical Diablo-style action RPG formula. You start out by choosing one of five character classes (plus two unlockable ones) that all specialize in different skills and abilities, and you then set out on a semi-open-world adventure viewed from an isometric angle. Things are relatively linear for the first few hours, but the scope gradually widens as more locations unlock and you can pick up more sidequests from NPCs. As you kill monsters and foes, you collect gold and experience which you can then invest into new equipment and class skills. It’s a fine example of the genre in the sense that it checks all the necessary boxes, but the execution here is disappointing, to say the least.
The main problem with this setup is that it bloody drags even in the earliest stages of the campaign. At least on normal difficulty, enemies are rarely challenging enough that they pose a real threat to your character, and you’re only attacked by a few at a time because that was all the original hardware could realistically manage. Even so, most foes are tanky enough that they take just a bit too long to go down even when you’re properly geared. This means that your typical fight consists of you simply holding down the attack button, occasionally repositioning, and just sitting there while you wait for your character to take down whatever foes are nearby.
There’s no weight to combat, and there are no dynamic elements to keep things interesting. Using special attacks or spells can help break this up a bit, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth here to allow you to set up interesting flows for higher DPS. Plus, you run out of mana for these special attacks laughably fast, which means you either have to keep burning through stamina potions to top it back up or just wait around for a while for it to creep back up.
Build variety feels rather limited too, as there aren’t a ton of ways you can tinker with creative damage mitigation or increase your own output, but the gear system helps slightly in this regard. Not long into your quest, you can start upgrading gear using runes and gems that you come by on your travels and these can imbue armor and weapons with helpful properties. Aquamarine, for example, will add cold damage or cold resistance depending on whether it’s slotted into a weapon or piece of armor. Slot two different kinds of gems into a piece of equipment, and a brand-new passive ability will emerge that’s fueled by them both. We appreciate how this system introduces a little more player agency to keep the ongoing grind interesting, but it’s hamstrung by the shallow skill pool.
Another important drawback here is that multiplayer is rather limited. There’s support for local co-op (same screen, not on two separate Switches) with two players, but there’s no online, presumably because the original 2004 release didn’t feature it. This was certainly acceptable eighteen years ago, but today it tends to make Dark Alliance 2 feel that much more aged. Playing locally is fine, of course, if you happen to have a friend on hand who wants to play, but this issue with no online is one that we strongly feel should’ve been addressed when it was decided to remaster this release.
All of this is to say that the biggest problem that lies at the heart of Dark Alliance 2 is simply that it hasn’t aged well. Things like the smaller environments and slower, less complicated gameplay aren’t outright bad, but they don’t hold up to today’s more advanced design principles for the genre. Games like those in the Diablo or Torchlight series (not to mention the ever-growing Path of Exile) have all rocketed so far in terms of gameplay design and scope beyond what Dark Alliance 2 has to offer that it’s nearly impossible to seriously recommend it to potential new players. Why bother playing a slower, jankier, and overall duller take on a genre that’s climbed to substantially higher heights? Especially when there isn’t anything distinctive to meaningfully set it apart from those newer releases?
Graphically, it’s clear that Dark Alliance 2 is a refresh of a much older title, and the result here is something a bit middling. The sharper character models, HD textures, and 60FPS performance all mean that Dark Alliance 2 looks better than it ever has, but its art style is rather hit or miss given its simplicity. This is about as utilitarian and basic as ‘high fantasy’ gets, with no room for flair or imaginative new concepts. You fight a bunch of orcs, goblins, and bats that look exactly the way you’d think they would and spend your time exploring caves, dungeons, and forests that are equally ‘safe’ in their interpretation. Even so, it’s tough to say that there isn’t some notable appeal here. On one hand, the unimaginative environmental design and drab colour palette used doesn’t inspire much excitement when you stumble into another new area. On the other, there’s something bizarrely gripping about the grittier kind of world design here that creates a shadowy atmosphere you just don’t see too often in games released these days.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is one of those games that acts as an important reference point in realizing how far a genre has come in the last couple decades. While it was likely once considered a solid and perhaps even a little daring example of an ARPG, it’s now been resolutely left in the dust by more modern releases. Sluggish combat, drab environmental design, and low build variety all hold this one back considerably, though it’s saved somewhat by its equipment upgrade system and dark atmosphere. Fans looking for nostalgia already know what they think about this release and have probably already snapped it up, but if you’re a newcomer who’s thinking about a purchase, we’d recommend you pass. This simply isn’t a good enough game to justify the $30 price tag at time of writing, and there are much better examples of the genre on the Switch that are more worth your time and money.