If I were to explain the impact that Dungeons & Dragons has had on the CRPG genre over the past 30 years, I would have to move the discussion out of this tiny review and make a 20,000 word mega-editorial in order to fully do it justice. From the famed SSI Goldbox Games I cut my proverbial teeth on to the standard-setting Infinity Engine games of the late 90s/early 2000s, Dungeons & Dragons has had the same effect on the CRPG genre that Hershey has had on chocolate candy. It isn’t just the bar the hobby is measured against, it’s the material the bar is built out of as well.
Without sounding too hokey, the Dungeons & Dragons logo on a computer product meant more than it simply being about elves and +3 longswords…it meant you were getting something meatier than your average title. Even when used in streamlined action RPGs like Dark Alliance, the D&D license helped give them a certain level of depth you didn’t find within the majority of the genre. It was akin to a gold star or a mark of excellence; a near guarantee that what you were getting was something special and unique. Granted, it didn’t *always* work out that way (Descent to Undermountain and Daggerdale come to mind), but more often than not, it was true.
This brings me to n-Space’s Sword Coast Legends, the first real “classic” RPG to use Dungeons & Dragons as a ruleset since 2006’s Neverwinter Nights 2. After nine long years of enduring a half-hearted action game, two weak mobile games, and a PSP strategy title so bad that even I couldn’t be bothered to finish it, D&D fans finally had a game we could hold up as a new standard-bearer. A game that would not only reinvigorate the long-dormant D&D license, but also effectively use the new 5th edition ruleset and show other developers that it could be used to craft a solid CRPG.
Or so we hoped.
The core of any Dungeons & Dragon’s branded game is the complexity of its associated systems. Combat and character creation are almost always top-notch whenever that logo is plastered on the game’s main menu, and if anything separates a D&D game from its non-D&D kin, it would be its depth. Choosing skills, picking combat specializations, and crafting a unique build is a long process that often takes a player an hour or more…an amount of time we joyfully sacrifice to the god of min/maxing.
The problem with Sword Coast Legends is that its designers seem to not understand what having that logo on their game really means. Right from the start you are hit with, at least when compared to their contemporaries, very limiting character creation options. With one less class and race choice than what was even available in the very first pre-modded, pre-expansion Baldur’s Gate and no ability to specialize in weaponry other than picking the one, dual, ranged or two-handed skill trees, the game feels incredibly limiting for being born from Dungeons & Dragons.
Perhaps my lack of knowledge concerning 5th edition D&D is to blame (I haven’t played tabletop in five years, and even then, we ran simultaneous 2nd and 3.5 edition campaigns), but I saw no real ability to “spec” my characters beyond the simple act of ignoring all but one of those four weapon skill trees. What’s funny about this is that each of those trees lacks the kind of specialized abilities that would warrant such one-minded devotion. Increased weapon speed, extra attacks, and an improved hit chance?
Forget about that, instead you merely gain new special moves that do higher and higher damage as you put points into the tree. In a game system built around to-hit chance and dice rolls, it doesn’t make sense to have every weapon tree stocked with abilities that are nothing more advanced than simple 50-50 chances to do high damage and a status ailment to a target. The brunt of these attacks are barely more impactful in combat than a standard critical hit and have what little effectiveness they contain held back by large cooldown periods.
What’s the point in having your thief use a 50/50 chance attack against an enemy every 200 seconds that does 45 damage with another small chance to slow them when a normal sneak attack critical does more than that and has no cooldown associated with it? It feels so silly to waste skill points on abilities that you can only use once in an entire combat scenario when it would make far more sense to have the trees contain proficiency increasing slots instead. Perhaps as a joke, the one such ability that exists (Extra attack per round) is in a totally unrelated skill tree.
Why not have each weapon skill tree contain hit chance, attack rate, and damage modifiers instead? It’s essentially what 2, 3 and 3.5 did with their own systems, so why must 5th edition be any different? As I said, I have absolutely zero experience with 5th edition, but if Sword Coast Legends is faithfully using it as the guideline for its gameplay, then you’d have to tie me to a chair and hold a pistol to my head in order to get me to run a tabletop campaign that uses it. With very few of the skills actually altering the internal math of the system, it makes it feel more like a console hack-and-slash game than the in-depth strategic simulation of fantasy combat that Dungeons & Dragons has always been.
This is perhaps best explained by me asking you to find a comprehensive stat sheet somewhere in the game. What do I mean by that? Well, as hard as you may try, you’ll never find one. Sure, the game has places in the character menu that show resistances, currently held status changes and aura effects, but if you want to see what your hit chance is and how it is being affected by various external magic or equipment, you would have to go to the combat log in the lower left corner and click on one of your attacks and figure it out yourself.
Unlike every Dungeons & Dragons based CRPG ever made, Sword Coast Legends has no real comprehensive statistic sheet that lays down every single piece of math that governs your fighter’s combat ability. Instead, you just get hit points, armor class, damage range, critical range, and a “proficiency” number that is, if the game is to be believed, the 5th edition equivalent of 3rd edition’s base attack bonus.
What bothers me is that this proficiency number, which is meant to represent your bonus chance to hit, only goes up once every four levels or so. It isn’t even affected by strength or dexterity and seems to be unaffected by class either. My Mage has the same hit chance “proficiency” rating at the same experience level as my Paladin and Fighter. Anyone who has played 2nd or 3rd edition is surely well aware of the fact that melee focused classes gain more hit chance (listed as THAC0 for 2nd, and base attack bonus for 3rd/3.5) as they level up than non-melee classes do. To have your noodle-armed mage get the same attack bonus increases at the same time as your martially-trained fighter makes absolutely no sense at all. It kills any real chance at class diversity and makes the entire rule system look incredibly silly.
I think a lot of these problems could be cleared up if they simply condensed the statistic sheets they *do* have into one single window and added all of the “missing” formulas to it. Listing every single bit of info, whether you think we need to view it or not, isn’t just helpful – it’s part and parcel of what D&D is all about. Having the math displayed and allowing the player to compare it to other builds or even to other party members is a necessary element of any real playing game. Doubly so if that game is wearing the logo of the license that basically invented that level of complexity and depth.
A lot of people would read what I’ve written up to now and dismiss it as the ramblings of a 2nd edition, 1990s D&D nerd who is too much of a fanboy to leave the confines of his old player’s handbook and stop rubbing up against his copy of Temple of Elemental Evil to appreciate Sword Coast Legend’s streamlined sweetness. Perhaps there is a bit of truth to that, but I think the real problem is that those defending n-Space’s game don’t understand what having the D&D logo on a game means.
As I said at the start of this review, it’s more than just throwing in some elves and some magical swords, it’s about depth and the ability to fully inspect the formulas that create that depth. It’s about math, numbers, strategy, and fans making excel spreadsheets to explain it all. It’s about complexity and transparency. It’s about having everything at your fingertips to tinker with and examine. Sword Coast Legends’ designers don’t seem to have understood that part.
Or maybe 5th edition really is that watered down. Though from what I’ve discussed with friends of mine who have also played (and abandoned) this game, Sword Coast Legends isn’t very faithful to the new edition of the ruleset. Their words, not mine.
Instead, Sword Coast Legends feels incredibly console-esque. As much as I whine about poorly distributed base attack bonuses and skill trees being mostly useless, the actual combat in the game is incredibly easy even without these essentials. Anyone who has even an inkling of CRPG knowledge can get through any battle in the game with relative ease. Thanks in large part to the lack of perma-death and the incredibly forgiving and easy-to-use revivification techniques the system gives you, no battle will ever truly tax you. Especially when you can, in the middle of being hit by someone, immediately stop and use a healing kit on a “dead” party member to fully revive them with no penalty. Even Diablo 3 makes you wait awhile before you can respawn, which makes this supposedly “classic style hardcore CRPG” play more like a beginner’s hack-and-slash title.
Adding insult to injury would be the way the characters move in battle, which is like watching a half dozen plastic pucks hover around a 1980s arcade air hockey table. They bump and slide all around the battlefield – no associated animation firing as they do, mind you – and swing at enemies who make no reaction sound or movement upon being hit.
As you may have noticed in some of my earlier RPG reviews (Most notably Heretic Kingdoms) I criticized games that don’t show any “heft” in their combat. To me, this is a very big deal, especially in a day and age when computing power can create lifelike battles that put the CGI fights in The Lord of the Rings trilogy to shame. To have your characters bounce around and slide un-moving and un-animated into each other as they swing their weapons to the sound of near silence is blasphemous. Especially for a D&D licensed game.
Not to continually compare Sword Coast Legends to Baldur’s Gate, but at least with BioWare’s infinity engine RPGs you had constant grunts coming from enemies whenever you wounded them and screen shakes whenever you landed a critical. Though hardliners like me initially scoffed at that, I came to see why they did it.
The over-the-top reactions to getting hit and being hit helped give you feedback about the battle without actually having to hover over every single combatant and examine their condition. You knew simply by listening to and looking at the overly-dramatic action unfold that you were either getting torn up or you were doing the tearing. Sure, you could pause it and examine the conditions of everyone involved, but you didn’t need to. You had a high level of visual and auditory feedback that eloquently relayed all the pertinent information to you without you needing to manually hunt it down.
Instead, watching fights in Sword Coast Legends is like looking at a little kid play with his electric football game. Combatants just imitate a statue as they bump and slide into each other, battles being reduced to nothing more than automated affairs that are about as exhilarating to watch as a Little House on the Prairie marathon.
One of my biggest complaints with the game was the fact that you can only have four active party members, which is anemically low for an RPG and was one of the things that drove me away from Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2’s singleplayer modes. However, if the game did allow for the standard six (Or unmodded ToEE’s five, even) slot party that computer-based D&D is universally known for, the game’s broken difficulty would be even more lopsided than it is now…so I’m willing to let that slide.
After having spent all this time on critiquing the combat, you probably wonder if the rest of the game is good enough to make up for it. Sadly, that depends on what you’re expecting from it.
First off, Sword Coast Legends doesn’t really give you the chance to actually roleplay within the campaign mode. Having selected a Paladin of Helm at character creation without knowing the significance of such a decision, I was dismayed when I encountered the villain who was *also* a Paladin of Helm and he never once acknowledged our similarity. I didn’t even get the chance, within dialog, to bring the topic up.
What’s worse is, as a Paladin, I was able to engage in very unpaladin-esque behaviors like stealing people’s belongings, threatening innocent villager’s lives in dialog and even murdering people without falling from grace. It felt odd telling people I would murder their children or threaten to burn down their house in order to get them to reveal secrets in dialog and yet still be using the holy powers of my patron deity without penalty. Maybe Pillars of Eternity and its exhaustively complex dialog system and non-linear quests spoiled me this year and I need to learn to lower my standards.
Or it could be that Sword Coast Legends is just very console-ized.
For proof of that, you only need to look as far as the save game system. There is no ability to make multiple manual saves and you must instead save the game to a single file that is overwritten each time, the only other option being a quicksave that is saved separately but not accessible through the menu. Amazingly, there is no save menu *at all*, and you save by merely clicking the section in the options tab where it says to save.
Without being able to manually create or manage multiple saves, I frequently ran into a problem where I would load the “wrong” kind of save. Since you only have three (An auto save, a manually-initiated single save, and a save that is made at the start of every level), it’s very likely you may forget which was the most recent of them and accidentally load the wrong one. Since there is no menu that shows you these saves and their individual timestamps, you are left in the dark as to which one is the most current. God forbid if you load an older one and accidentally have it save over the file you actually wanted to use.
Toss in the little annoyances like female characters suddenly becoming flat-chested when wearing heavy armor, the fact that the map overlay won’t scroll, and quest markers having a tendency to either not update or even show at all, and you have a game that feels like it was rushed to meet a deadline. Either that or ex-BioWare developer Dan Tudge and his gang are hoping the folks who liked Dragon Age 2 want an equally shallow and infuriating game set in the D&D universe.
What really pains me about all of this is that the chance here for an incredibly exciting D&D game was fairly high. The story itself – which revolves around a freemason-style guild and their secret origins – is a great jumping point for an epic clash between two misunderstood forces and a puppetmaster who is manipulating them both. It had potential to be a great story set in a world with a rich history and lore that would have done justice to the D&D license. The problem is that the actual gameplay, mechanics, and depth are a middling mess of broken promises and missing necessities.
Defenders of the game are quick to chide people like myself claiming that we need to stop comparing the game to other D&D licensed CRPGs, but doing so would be sacrilegious. You cannot simply slap the D&D logo on a game and then go against nearly everything that license stands for and expect to be given a pass. I believe that not only makes D&D look bad, but also muddies the water of the genre as a whole.
There was never a time playing Sword Coast Legends where I felt I was playing a D&D game. Even if the license wasn’t a part of the title, I would consider n-Space’s RPG to be barely average. It has no real substance or depth. It plays like a slow, plodding, poorly paced user mod that doles out powerful equipment by the bucket load and forces you along a highly linear path to a predictable end. There is no real mathematical or strategical meat to the game and it suffers greatly due to this.
The only real saving grace is the DM mode, which is great if you are the kind of person who likes quick, randomly generated monster-spawning dungeon romps. Though it doesn’t have the pliability, feature list, or depth of Neverwinter Nights, the DM mode is great for pick-up-and-play sessions where you simply want you horse around with friends and kill stuff in a diablo-esque fashion while gaining loot and experience. Though n-Space has promised free DLC in the future to help flesh out the multiplayer component of the game, I highly doubt you’re ever going to see something along the lines of Dreamcatcher come out for Sword Coast Legends, although I would enjoy being wrong in this instance.
Sword Coast Legends isn’t completely worthless, but as a Dungeons & Dragons game, it is extremely flawed and forgettable. Without any real depth and no ability to actually roleplay within its highly linear and feature-thin single player story mode, I can only recommend the game to those who want a player-driven multiplayer action RPG that lets them blow off steam in a hastily constructed dungeon with their friends every weekend for an hour or two. Yet, for that, I still wouldn’t pay full price.
It’s a pity that the failings of this game will probably discourage any real development on future hardcore D&D CRPGs. Other than Trent Oster & Beamdog’s upcoming Baldur’s Gate “1.5” sequel, there isn’t likely to be much in the way of good news for fans of the license.
Sword Coast Legends was reviewed on PC using a digital copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict 5.0
- Stable, fast-running engine
- Good basis for a plot
- Voice acting/Music are top-notch
- DM mode & modding holds promise
- Shallow, boring combat
- No real chance to roleplay
- Heavily linear storyline
- console-ized feel and presentation