I’ve been a gamer for twenty-seven years, so imagine how intimidated I felt when asked to consider which game it was that changed my life. The first thing that crossed my mind was how do I narrow down almost three decades of play experiences to select a single game that meant more to me than the countless others I’ve played? That’s an impossible task, right? Almost but not quite turned out to be the answer. After a surprising amount of soul-searching for something as innocuous as the most important game in my life, I arrived at an inescapable conclusion. This isn’t my favorite game of all time and it’s definitely not the best game I’ve played but it is the title that has had the the biggest impact on my gaming habits. That game is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance.
What!? Of all the games I could have chosen, this is the one I settled on? It could have been Final Fantasy VII, the game that got me hooked on RPGs in first place. Or The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, my first ever experience with open world games. Or even one of the original Super Mario Bros games for Bowser’s sake! It could have been any number of far more seminal games that are much more important to gaming history as a whole. However, as crucial as such titles are the truth is that none of them come close to having the same meaning for me as this humble little hack and slash dungeon crawler.
Developed by Snowblind Studios and published by Black Isle in 2001, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was set in the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms, arguably the most popular campaign setting in Dungeons and Dragons history. The game challenged players with three acts of questing as they attempted to unravel a conspiracy involving the local thieves guild and their potential allegiance to the arcane masters of a mysterious magical tower.
Tasked with preventing this latest threat to all life on the planet, or at least in the general vicinity, players were given the option to be one of three characters. There was Kromlech, the dwarf warrior with a taste for charging head first (literally) into his enemies. Then there was Adrianna, the elven sorceress, capable of unleashing devastating arcane and elemental blasts. Lastly was Vahn, the human archer who had all manner of feather-fletched tricks in his quiver, best-suited for felling foes from afar. There was also a fourth playable character in the form of R.A. Salvatore’s legendary Drizzt Do’Urden who was unlocked after completing the game on the hardest difficulty setting. Either alone or with a friend, players encountered all manner of dungeon denizens and trustworthy townsfolk who either needed to be slain or assisted respectively. Quests were as simple as they come with none of them amounting to more than killing a certain enemy or finding a particular object. The main plot was entirely linear and each act had to be completed in sequence to reach the endgame with the side quests only being available for completion in the acts they were accepted in.
In terms of gameplay Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance did nothing that hadn’t been seen in prior hack and slash titles, such as Blizzard’s Diablo games. Players took their characters through a series of levels filled with ever-increasing amounts and varieties of enemies and traps. Around each location would be main story objectives as well as various side quests designed to pose an extra challenge to players in exchange for optional rewards and experience. From the streets and sewers of the titular city itself, to foreboding mountain caverns and dismal swamps, and into the bowels of a magical tower carved entirely out of onyx the game offered a surprising amount of environmental variety that indicated recognizable progress throughout multiple completions.
It may not have redefined its respective genre in the way that titles like Grand Theft Auto III did, but it was one of the best western RPG games available on consoles at the time. Prior to that, such games had largely been reserved for the PC market, which even such a short time ago was beyond the budget of most gamers. Using a fairly standard 3D isometric viewpoint, the game made use of an impressive bespoke engine to update and enhance the 2D environments standardized by Bioware’s renowned Baldur’s Gate PC games. While in its day the Infinity Engine did a more than sufficient job of rendering beautifully crafted locales it struggled heavily with poor character models and limited depth. The jump to a fully rotatable camera above a 3D space meant that the game world and its inhabitants were presented at a level of fidelity that hadn’t really been achieved before.
There was a certain rustic charm to its art style that still finds favor to this day in games such as Path of Exile and n-Space’s tragically underrated Sword Coast Legends – a game which could have done wonders for the top-down dungeon crawler if hardcore D&D fans hadn’t assassinated it in its crib. The combat was also much more immediate and visceral than the experience provided by the largely point, click and wait system that was a genre standard at the time.
While that style does have an intrinsic tactical appeal, as well as a nostalgic one (as exemplified by Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity), it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to how it feels to actually play the game. Being able to directly control how your character engaged in combat by having to *gasp* press a button to swing their weapon or to aim and cast a spell made the combat frenetic, hectic and an inordinate amount of fun. Being able to move spontaneously with the analog sticks, rather than having to disengage and click on where you wanted to go with a mouse, added a degree of immediacy to encounters without really sacrificing any of the strategic flexibility offered by more the pensive systems of similar PC games.
Like Destiny 2, Monster Hunter World and any other loot-oriented game, the core appeal of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance wasn’t based on its layered narrative but rather on the basic gameplay loop itself which consisted of quest, fight, loot/upgrade and repeat. This game was the epitome of the Monty Haul Campaign, with characters able to find and utilize an enormous amount of increasingly over-powered weapons, some of which were impossible as far as official Dungeons and Dragons rule sets go. There was no economy and no way to trade between characters except for dropping things, which in my experience playing with friends saw desirable items being swapped for absurd amounts of precious gems. A process that was as hilarious and ridiculous as it sounds. As you progressed through the levels your character also gained in power, with various feats and perks unlocked as well as the ability to use more powerful weapons, armor and accessories.
Each character had their own skill tree which further enhanced their basic abilities, as well as offering more advanced spells and combat moves, which allowed you to counter more dangerous enemies (such as beholders and dragons). The game included a form of new game plus in which characters could be imported from previous save files to go through the game again on higher difficulties in order to gain even more loot. As a couch co-op experience it really couldn’t be beaten at the time by anything other than games like Mario Kart. With no distracting screen divisions, both characters were forced to stay together rather than go their separate ways in any given location. Although that might sound restrictive by today’s standards, as we’ve become accustomed to online games allowing us to go where ever we want whenever we want, it encouraged players to stick close together and help each other overcome the challenges before them in a manner that truly captured the co-operative and group-focused mindset of the tabletop game.
If you’ve never played Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance then from reading the above I’d forgive you for wondering why in the Nine Hells did such a basic game have such a profound impact on me as a gamer. Well, it certainly wasn’t for its deep philosophical message, engrossing narrative or innovative game mechanics. Rather it was because it was essentially my entry point to western RPG games. Before this game I’d only ever played JRPGs like the Final Fantasy or Saga Frontier series, which meant that my perspective on what such a game could be like was entirely skewed in favor of that particular paradigm.
After Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, however, I went on to devour the original Baldur’s Gate games and became hopelessly hooked on Neverwinter Nights. It opened my eyes to an entirely different framework for what an RPG could be. Beyond that though this game inspired me to pore over the Dungeons and Dragons rule books and source material during any downtime I had from my school studies. The passion I developed for these games, whether on the computer or pencil and paper based, also eventually led me to play Dungeons and Dragons Online, which was my first MMORPG game, which, in turn, caused me to fall in love with an entirely different type of gaming, through which I met people that I still play a wide variety of games with. To put it simply if I hadn’t played this game way back in the halcyon days of my youth, then I wouldn’t be the gamer that I am today.