It’s been twenty long, long years since this Gamecube classic thrilled us all with its quasi top-down hack-and-slash dungeon crawling action. And time has not been kind… to us. This game is really hard! Have we been spoiled by much friendlier, less aggressive takes on the genre that have proliferated in the intervening years? Are we just rubbish? Or is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance a genuinely difficult game?
All we know is that if we got surrounded by three enemies or more, we were dead. And that’s a very unusual feeling coming from something like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 (no relation) which offers a far comfier take on similar gameplay. Here, though, you pick your class (Human Archer, Dwarven Fighter or Elven Sorceress), wade into combat, and die a lot. Unless you put the game down to Easy mode, which makes things a lot more manageable while — quite frankly — still not really being all that easy.
It helps mitigate the frustration somewhat that this port is as clean as you like. Yes, it’s a PS2-era game which ought not to tax the Switch too much, but this plays like a dream even in handheld mode, with extremely good image quality and a rock-solid smooth 60fps framerate, meaning that even when kobolds are handing you your ass, they’ll be doing it in a rather aesthetically pleasing way. The lighting remains attractive to this day, and the water is very good.
Unfortunately the sound doesn’t quite match the graphics. Music is sparse and rather uninteresting, and the crucial clangs and cleaves of combat don’t evoke much in the way of visceral thrills. They’re competent, but if the sound popped a little more the experience would certainly be more appealing. Voice acting, however, is very good, with all NPCs fully-voiced and delivering their florid narration as well as could be asked for.
For veterans of the original, gameplay is just as you remember, and just as you’d expect. Rather like a light Diablo, you make your way through a series of Dungeons & Dragons worlds linked by small hubs, with the story/narrative distinctly out of focus compared to, well, braining things with a big hammer. You’re limited in your basic controls to move, jump, block and attack, but this is all you need and the complexity comes from the game’s high difficulty. Naturally finding and equipping new armour and weapons can afford you a brief but welcome advantage, though more likely a simple levelling of the playing field.
Speaking of levelling, that’s here too, with the customary skill points to assign as you obtain more and more XP. Pleasantly (and unlike other games of its genre), none of the upgrades are really “gated” behind others, so you can hold off and purchase the more devastating spells and abilities if you want to. This adds some semblance of replay value to the game, but knockabout fun is what kept us coming back.
The presentation of the world is a little impersonal, in that you feel very detached from it. NPCs are limited, and while well-performed they don’t really stick in the memory. Still, they’re not the focus of the game as this is very decisively not an RPG, just leaning enough into the stats to make things a smidge more interesting rather than bogging the gameplay down in technicalities, strengths and weaknesses. It’s to Dark Alliance’s credit that the game is very much one of skill rather than attrition, as no matter how powerful you are it’s still best to kite enemies and play tactically rather than rely on anything particularly overpowered.
You can bring a friend, too, which makes things a little less arduous and is probably the most appealing way to play the game. It may struggle to hold your interest for its duration — a chunky ten to twelve hours — but the game’s rougher-than-you’d-expect difficulty may be to its benefit here as the whole enterprise takes on a compelling Souls-like feel. Yes, even we rolled our eyes at our evocation of “Souls-like” to describe a game that came out eight years prior, but until gaming discourse creates a more effective term to instantly communicate exacting, unforgiving difficulty, it’s going to remain omnipresent. Make as many game journo jokes as you please, but this writer has beaten the entire Mega Man Zero series with a 100pt average (not a humblebrag!) and he genuinely struggled to get past Dark Alliance’s first dungeon on the normal difficulty setting.
We’d also argue (and believe us, it’s an argument) that the asking price for a PS2-era port is perhaps a bit much, regardless of how well-done it is; Dark Alliance 2 would certainly have sweetened the pot had it been included. Still, all negatives aside, this feels like the perfect aperitif for the upcoming (sadly, not currently Switch-bound) new take on Dark Alliance from Tuque Games.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is a formidable challenge, particularly by modern games’ standards, but one that’s been ported rather brilliantly and is certainly a lot of fun to play. It may outstay its welcome to some extent with gameplay that’s not quite complex enough to warrant its lengthy campaign, but the port is one of the very best we’ve seen, improving the visuals of the original and maintaining a flawless framerate along with a UI perfectly suited to handheld play. However, this is the game exactly as you remember it from 2001. If that’s enough for you, you’ll have fun with this version. If you’re on the fence — or if you’re not ready to get kicked on your ass a lot — we’d recommend waiting for a sale.