If this alliance was any darker…
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for the Playstation 2
For the first of my “looking back at retro game” things (yeah, at some point it’ll get a better name, I’m sure), I decided to play an old favourite of mine – but in a form I’ve never touched before. And so, with that, I loaded up Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance on the Game Boy Advance. While I’ve played the original Dark Alliance before, it was on the Playstation 2 and it was many, many… many years ago.
And so it’s with that comment that I preface this whole thing: if you can play Dark Alliance on any other console besides the Game Boy Advance, do yourself a favour and play it there. Just trust me on this one.
I’m not entirely positive, at this point, whether I want to do this series more as a game summary or as a review – so, at least for this post, it might come off somewhere in between and there may be a couple light spoilers of sorts in either the text or screenshots. I did end up playing the entire game through in a single sitting so I could get my screenshots and have a fresh memory of the game.
And, as per my standard disclaimers: I played this on Visual Boy Advance using the x4 graphical option to make the game somewhat bearable (while also able to get on the fly screenshots using a spare button on my controller). All screenshots accompanying this article are taken at the GBA’s native resolution of 240 pixels by 160 pixels.
The game begins much like its cousins on the more powerful systems by allowing you to select one of the three classes – unlike the other versions where choosing a particular class also has a different model (I seem to recall that the fighter in the PS2 version, for example, was a dwarf), in the Game Boy Advance version you’ll simply find yourself with a different colour version of the same human model.
To make life simple, I’m just picked a Fighter – and as I played through, I’m was not entirely sure whether or not this was ended up being such a great choice or not. More on that a little later.
Now, as I said before – I played through the entire game in a single sitting. There was a lot of stumbling about and I still managed to play through the entire thing in about five hours. If I was feeling a little more masochistic, I could try the game again as a Wizard or Archer – but I don’t think I’m going to be doing that, at least with the GBA version of the game (I may pop in the PS2 version of the game for a comparison post and run it the Elven Wizard).
The game starts off by dropping you right into the middle of a Baldur’s Gate suffering from a conflict between two thieves’ guilds – the old and busted one and the new hotness one (mandatory Men in Black reference, check). After getting mugged by the new thieves’ guild, you’re sent to the Elfsong Tavern by the city guard to get settled in – and you immediately demand revenge and have people making use of your desire to get work done on the cheap. The first such task is to delve into the cellar of the Elfsong Tavern to wipe out some rats…
And it’s here we find the first (and possibly most infuriating) differences from the big console versions – a lack of Recall Stones and quest tracking. There’s no way to really know if you’ve gone far enough into the cellar to trigger the end of the first quest (and so I ended up exploring the entire cellar) and, upon completing the quest, you have to hoof it all the way back out at the rather lackluster pace. This last part is a common theme – even if you know when you’ve reached the end of a particular dungeon, if you’re required to leave it, you have to hoof your way back out to safety (this was particularly frustrating during the second act during a quest where I missed the trigger and had to run through the area a couple times trying to figure out what I missed).
The game is quick to demonstrate that (at least as a Fighter – your mileage may vary with the other two classes) you will be developing an unhealthy addiction to health potions during the duration of the game. Helpfully accessible by pressing L and A at the same time (L and B will drink an energy restoring potion, something you might find yourself doing occasionally later on), potion drinking will most likely be the only thing that keeps you alive while enemies are beating on you. While there is some auto-health regeneration in the game (and it can be made better by spending points at level up and by equipping Regeneration accessories), even at its highest levels it’s insufficient to be of much use during battle.
Oh, and be prepared for attacks to miss – a lot. During the final act of the game, it felt like less than a quarter of my attacks were actually landing (though the ones that did land hit super hard due to having a killer two-handed melee weapon and a lot of points spent in making my critical hits extra effective). In some cases, it felt like even less attacks than that were hitting – and if it hadn’t been for the shortcut to chug potions, I likely would have died a lot more than I did.
I’m not sure whether this is a side-effect of me playing a melee character or if enemies just legitimately are difficult to hit for characters of all classes as part of the game’s difficulty curve. Either way, it was frustrating having regular enemies take thirty seconds to kill because ten attacks missed (though it did make the critical hits that landed so much more sweet by taking down an enemy in one or two hits).
It’s at this point that I find my memory of the console version of the game failing; while I know for a fact that it followed a couple major story beats (the beginning of the console version of Dark Alliance is still in my mind and my memory of the beginning of Dark Alliance 2 lines up with the ending for this particular game), I can’t entirely confirm that the stories are identical between the two games. It would make sense (to me, at least) if they were: Baldur’s Gate was (and frankly still is) a series known for its story and it seems to me that the developers would want to ensure a consistent experience between games.
Because of that, I’m likely to come back to the game, fairly soon, on the Playstation 2 (mostly because it’s one of the systems I have hooked up at the moment and the only system I actually own another physical copy of Dark Alliance for). I think it would be interesting to do a comparison of sorts between the various versions of the game – and I do enjoy this game enough to at least drop half a dozen hours into playing it again for such a comparison.
And, if I play it on the Playstation 2, I might be able to recommend the game a bit more. As much as I enjoy this game, I’d have to say it’s a hard pass on the Game Boy Advance if you can play it anywhere else – there’s a lot of stuff crammed into that small resolution and, frankly, I think some of the game suffers a bit for the simplification needed to make it run on a handheld console.
Or maybe I’m just remembering wrong and the game played just as poorly on a full blown console. I guess we’ll find out soon enough!