Dungeons and Dragons has been a critical piece of computer RPG history. In fact, one could argue that all Western video game RPGs trace their ancestry, in some way, back to Gary Gygax’s take on Tolkien mythology. It is puzzling (and somewhat depressing) then that the D&D license has gotten such awful treatment in games since the first RPG Golden Age (we are currently experiencing the second). Once the basis for legendary games like the Baldur's Gate series, it since withered on the vine, largely abandoned. The landscape has been especially barren in the single player space, where there hasn’t been a really good campaign since 2007’s Mask of the Betrayer.
Sword Coast Legends is an attempt to break the drought. It is backed by Wizards of the Coast and comes from some of the minds behind Dragon Age: Origins. Given this pedigree, does it finally bring the D&D license back to the forefront? The answer, unfortunately, is an emphatic “no”. Sword Coast Legends tries to combine a Dragon Age tactical experience, a Diablo-style skill tree, D&D character traits and classes, and a powerful module creation tool. As a result, the game gets pulled in way too many directions and fails to get just about anything right. Meanwhile, the single player campaign is horribly dull and unimaginative. You may want to check back in a couple of years to see if any good user-made content has been developed for it. Until then, Sword Coast Legends is a game that you can skip.
Somewhere in the development of this game, somebody realized that today’s RPG Renaissance would be a great opportunity to resurrect the Dungeons and Dragons license. On the surface, it appears that the game does just that. It takes place in the Forgotten Realms setting, which housed the Bioware Infinity Engine games. It starts promising enough, offering you a chance to create characters with the six traits (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma) that D&D is known for. Before long though, it becomes obvious that this is a rather poor and unfaithful recreation of the tabletop classic.
The class selection is limited to only Ranger, Paladin, Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, and Rogue. There is no Monk, Sorceror, Druid, Bard, or Barbarian. The traditional spells, feats, skills, and abilities have now been replaced by Diablo style skill trees, a move that makes no sense for Dungeons and Dragons. Rather than memorizing spells, for instance, your Wizard now learns them in skill trees and can use them an unlimited number of times. Magic Missiles, Fire Balls, and Rays of Frost are now all done MMO style – from a hotbar at the bottom where generally just spam them while managing cooldowns. Rather than learning new spells as you advance levels, most of the advancements that you make involve assigning skill points to old abilities – thus, when you gain levels, you learn Magic Missile II, Magic Missile III, etc. Feats are gone. That only thing that you are doing when you gain levels is assigning some skill points to your tree. One of the strengths of Dungeons and Dragons has always been that gaining levels was exciting and fun. New spells had a mystique about them and it was always exciting to look forward to being able to cast a powerful monster summon or a fireball for the first time. That mystique is now pretty much gone.
The game also only allows four characters in a party, instead of the traditional six on which the genre was built. This four character setup allows you to carry each one of the traditional character archetypes (Rogue, Wizard, Healer, Tank) in your party, but absolutely nothing more. If you want those archetypes in your party, then you have no flexibility in how to do it. Dragon Age: Origins may have done it this way, but that doesn’t mean that it is the right decision here. These are a couple of many examples of ways in which this game fails to provide the experience that people are looking for in Dungeons and Dragons. It is the type of license butchery usually served up by people who don’t know or don’t care what makes that license special.
In addition to the D&D audience, Sword Coast Legends also tries to capture Dragon Age: Origins lovers underwhelmed by its sequels. At a superficial level, this game resembles Dragon Age Origins. It has the same four-character party setup, the same arrangement of character icons at the left with the hotbar at the bottom, and the real-time-with-pause combat that is similar in its appearance. Its controls also operate similarly. But the game fails to capture many of Dragon Age: Origin’s gameplay strengths. For starters, there is no mana resource in this game, which means that there is almost no decision-making involved with casting spells and using special abilities in this game. Dragon Age: Origins derived a lot of value from its rather stingy allotment of mana. Just one or two buffs could substantially deplete a character’s mana and one or two powerful abilities on top of them could drain it entirely. Mana conservation was a big part of that game’s combat, but it is nonexistent here. The only cost for casting a spell is that you can’t use that spell until the cooldown is complete. With some spells, the cooldown period exceeds the length of combat, which means that you just cast it once at the beginning and then put it on the shelf. Combat tactics isn’t the only area in which Dragon Age: Origins was better. It had more interesting skill trees. When you picked up a skill point you either picked up a brand new ability or you got a substantial change to an old one. In Sword Coast Legends, many of your skill points are spent on banal upgrades to your old abilities. A skill tree where “Cure Wounds I” leads to “Cure Wounds II” is as boring as it gets.
For the most part, Sword Coast Legends fails in its conceptual design, but it is competent with its implementation. With that said, it isn’t perfect. There are a lot of small details in the game that don’t ruin the experience, but don’t necessarily do it any favors either. Clicking and dragging items and skills onto your hotbar, for instance, doesn’t work very well. It may take you five tries to successfully drag an item onto your hotbar, and you may accidentally drink a potion or too in the process. The various skill trees are arranged across separate screens, which means that you can’t compare a skill in one tree to a skill in another tree without switching back and forth. It is an issue that makes assigning skill points a more tedious process than it should be. There are a lot of little examples like this – small issues that result from a lack of attention to detail. These problems aren’t game breaking by any means, but they are yet another example of how the game comes up short compared to its recent brethren like Pillars of Eternity. Sword Coast Legends is not a highly polished experience.
It isn’t very entertaining, but at least nothing is so offensively bad that the game couldn’t have succeeded with a good story. Unfortunately, the game comes up short badly in that area too. You are a member of a mysterious guild of adventurers known as The Burning Dawn. You quickly meet up with a fanatic who wants to murder your entire outfit because he believes that the group is demonic and nature and must be cleansed from the world. The story revolves around finding out why this guy hates you so much and uncovering the history of the The Burning Dawn. The story and characters in the game are shallow and aggressively generic. The dialog is rote and uninspired. Like most RPGs of this variety, you create one character and meet adventuring companions along the way. These companions are exceedingly uninteresting. Their backgrounds and personalities are not worth exploring and their dialog consists of so many RPG clichés that it could almost function as a parody of the genre The voice acting for your NPC party mates is also flat. The quests are given to you in boring ways and most of them are simple “kill monster, get item” or “my dog went missing can you find him?” errands. The game’s loot is equally dull, repetitive, and boring to collect.
The visuals of Sword Coast Legends, despite not being cutting edge, are arguably the game’s biggest strength. Thanks to some attractive environments and full use of the color palette, the game is at least the most attractive D&D game to date. It sports a wide variety of environments, ranging from bright, lush forests to dark, foreboding dungeons. It is easy on the eyes when it is zoomed out. Zoomed in, the warts (such as the game’s lack of anti-aliasing) start to show, but the tactical nature of the game means that you will probably be zoomed out most of the time. Another strong feature of the game is its soundtrack, which was created by Dragon Age composer Inon Zur. It is still fairly generic and if you have heard his other scores then you may recognize his work pretty quickly, but it is still an asset to the game.
Like Neverwinter Nights, Sword Coast Legends also advertises itself as a creation tool kit, with the single player campaign functioning largely as a demo for a larger package. One could make the argument that the true spirit of D&D is allowing people to create their own adventures. This idea has merit, but it has a big drawback too. It requires a large, robust, community dedicated to learning the tools and creating content. Neverwinter Nights had this community because the game was hyped to the moon and the developer already had an outstanding track record. That is why years after the original game came out, talented amateurs were releasing quality modules for it. Sword Coast Legends, on the other hand, has much less hype and a substantially worse campaign than Neverwinter Nights (which is saying a lot, because the original NWN campaign wasn’t exactly great). It also is unlikely to gather an audience of hardcore D&D enthusiasts, since it recreates D&D so poorly. This game really needed to be good out of the box, and Sword Coast Legends is not good.
Sword Coast Legends is a game that probably failed back when it was a design document. The game needed perfect execution to reach the level of “okay”. It tries to appeal to the Diablo crowd, the Neverwinter Nights crowd, the Dragon Age: Origins crowd, and the Baldurs Gate crowd all at the same time. In the process, it appeals to none of them. It trashes the D&D role playing system and gets no payout from doing so. It tries to invoke memories of Bioware’s titles, but it lacks the tactical depth and quality dialog and story that those titles had. It carries the “Sword Coast” title, but has little of what made the Sword Coast games great. Perhaps five years ago, before a flood of quality RPGs hit the PC gaming market, this game could have warranted a recommendation. But since that time, so many great games have arrived in this genre that a profoundly mediocre title like Sword Coast Legends is next to impossible to recommend. In this game you won’t find a return to glory for Dungeons and Dragons. You won’t find the fast-paced action of Diablo, or the tactical challenge of Dragon Age: Origins or Pillars of Eternity. Whatever you are looking for, you will probably find it somewhere else in a better game that you already own.