I’m a Dungeons and Dragons fan, although I never get the chance to play. It saddens me because it’s an incredible social experience and with the right (or wrong) group, you can have hours, months or even years of fun. It’s creative, intelligent, funny and exhibits the best examples of role play with the randomness of dice rolling to add drama and peril. If you don’t know what I mean or just think I’m a nerd, check out the Aquisitions Inc. D&D games by Penny Arcade in podcast form and the live shows from PAX. Yet, I’ve never been a great fan of the D&D video games and I’ve never known why, until now.
Sword Coast Legends is, on paper, an interesting prospect. Combining the adventure and party feel of the much lauded Baldur’s Gate/Icewind Dale style RPG’s with an online party should be brilliant, except there are some things that haven’t really worked here. This is due in no small part to the technical problems the PS4 version has, which is what we tested.
There are some awfully long load times. The camera, whilst functional, could do with getting closer or further out with a zoom. There are some frame problems and the created character’s walking animation looks like someone figure skating rather than walking. But admittedly these are all things that can be forgiven or even worked with as long as the overall core experience is fun, but alas this is confusing.
Maybe because it is a very by the numbers D&D adventure, it is very wordy. This leads to one of my continued hatreds of game development this year (2016) and that’s unadjustable text. For how much there is, it is a bit small. When you can control screen resolutions on PC the text automatically becomes bigger but on a console it does not and there needs to be some kind of text size adjustment. Then there is the issue that some of your characters are voiced and at some times are not. If you’re going for a static cast then they need to be there the entire time, much like a Dragon Age. But there are big points where voices go and it’s only the main cast following the script. Even if that cast member isn’t in your current party by some communication crystal. It sounds weird that I’d rather have one or the other, but once the game starts with a full voice line up and it gradually disappears, it takes me out of that experience.
The experience itself isn’t that interesting because it is an aforementioned by the numbers D&D adventure. The story has a lot of lore included and gives you a lot of information that is either hard to assimilate or hard to find. The quest system lets you overload on quests but has no on-screen way of expanding the tasks apart from the always expanded main quest. I could not find a single button that let me expand the quest titles in the game and in the journal, you can’t deselect the main quest or make quest markers on the map more apparent. The graphics are very nice for the surrounding areas but very similar and uninteresting after the third long cave, with the most interesting elements being the towns where you can just walk around and get lost just enjoying the area, like finding an amusing quest with a peg-legged sailor in Luskan’s Market District. Really the game has a rather large, unwieldily and obtuse UI which makes the actually adventure element feel tertiary. But the biggest problem with the game is combat.
Combat is in real time and that was quite possibly the worst decision here, in my opinion. The game level boxes aren’t particularly big when in the combat areas like graveyards, mines, caves and dungeons. There is an incredibly large upgrade tree for every character (there’s no auto-level) and there’s a four buttons. Your abilities can be either passive like searching, healing or stealth for example, or aggressive like attacks. But this isn’t even the Dragon Age style button spammer. You just press the button and it attacks, your party surrounding an enemy and just automatically attacking the folly. It is dull and repressive given the type of adventure and universe the game is in.
Saying that though, the online element is pretty good. If you’ve got friends who enjoy this and you have a party of people, you have a very customisable character creation in back story, traits and classes, and everything works with very little technical issue. You could get very much in to the real time combat with calling for heals and buffs, as well as splitting the loot across inventories rather than the solo play of manually doing it. Although, if you do have those kind of machinations, you probably play actual D&D in person or something similar anyway, which makes me wonder who this is for. Fans? Yes. New comers? Possibly but if it is for new players, who are incredibly spoilt with solo adventures, or you have the luck of five people who really are interested in playing the game, it’s gameplay elements are so lacking that it doesn’t advertise the franchise that well.
Which leads me to the main problem I have with this D&D adventure. Even with the Dungeon Master mode where you can make a bespoke (parameters only, mostly procedural generation) adventure for your friends, even with the pointless large inventory with Oblivion levels of loot (useless tat), or even the dry exchanges between NPC’s and your party that allow you to blur the line between good and a pathological nuisance, there are no dice.
There’s no randomness, no real use of your stats for adventure except for charisma in NPC conversations and strength in every combat. There isn’t anything that adds peril or drama to the experience of playing when, having gone very deep in to a D&D style with story, location, online party and creation. It would have been a more exciting, or truer experience to be a turn based battle where you use the four selectable options for combat (which there are in real time) and roll a D20 to define its success. It sounds like I’m missing the point of the flow of the game maybe, but it is so stop start in conversations that there is no flow and a dice/turn based system would have made party battles much more exciting.
But the thing with Sword Coast Legends is that it sets out to do some good, bring some of that D&D experience to consoles whilst also expanding it with some of the best mechanics of its video game peers. But those peers learned what they know from the real D&D and maybe, even though it would be a brave move, it’d be more entertaining to go back to that style and create a different experience that the universe would excel at, rather than poorly mimicking others.