We’ll have some thoughts on the multiplayer portion of just-released, latter-day Dungeons & Dragons RPG Sword Coast Legends [official site] – including the all-important DM mode – very soon, but while RPS gathers its party to sally forth, I thought I’d share some initial impressions on singleplayer.
Top-ish down, party-based roleplaying game Sword Coast Legends might just be a textbook example of how to make RPG purists very, very happy and at the same time very, very angry. On the one hand, it’s resolutely traditional: yer archetypal ragtag band of fantasy heroes roaming the land in order to defeat some great evil, in an almost perpetual state of jollity. (So far, at least – it’s possible everyone gets their legs cut off halfway through or something).
There’s none of the hand-wringing or love-wrangling of a latter-day BioWare game, and not even a whiff of vogueish proc-gen or permadeath. And while it regularly tries for in-world jokes, its tongue never goes anywhere near its cheek: this is straight-up, unreconstructed adventuring.
Which is very much the point: Sword Coast Legends seeks to be the heir apparent to Neverwinter Nights, that straight-down-the-line Forgotten Realms noughties RPG which eschewed the comparative complexity and darkness of its predecessor Baldur’s Gate II, in favour of being more of a Choose Your Own Adventure toolset. That side of things we’ll be getting to later, but right now – what if you prefer solo dungeoneering?
Sword Coast Legends is, so far as I can tell, the first new singleplayer D&D PC game since 2011’s poorly-received Atari offering, Daggerdale. There’s a full campaign in here, which can be played either solo or with chums; fully-voiced, prefab AI characters fill out the party if you’re doing the former.
Where Sword Coast Legends breaks with proud 90s tradition is in how it actually plays. You can do the whole pause-time ordering thing, while characters are meticulously built from a host of skills and abilities, but in goblin-twatting practice it leans more towards the Diablo side of things than Pillars of Eternity. It’s not a click-frenzy, particularly as you get a party of four to control, but it is primarily about repeatedly using a small handful of abilities and piling on until everyone falls over.
In my experience so far I’ve been favouring my own character, which I got to custom-create (although the hair options are woefully limited, I’m sad to report), leaving the rest of my party to auto-assist me, which they’re reasonably handy at.
I’m only using pause-time occasionally, and the entire pharmacy’s worth of potions I’m hauling about not at all. At higher difficulties (medium here) I’d probably depend on these things, but for now I’m very much hacking and slashing. It’s not the most thrilling hacking and slashing – there’s a mechanical quality to it in addition to the arguable lack of tactical complexity – but it’s serviceable. Things fall over quickly and the friendly AI seems to go town on using party members’ abilities. I’m not sure it feels particularly like D&D, though: the pace is too fast, and it feels more like hitpoint attrition than praying you get the result you need. Dungeon Siege is perhaps a better comparison than Diablo.
Something feels a bit off technically, too. For one thing, while I’m getting the hallowed 60 frames without issue, it’s making my PC run hotter than a Codex thread about Fallout 4, and my PC gets into a right old state if I dare to alt-tab. I’m also regularly finding that movement orders don’t always take immediately, but other than that I’ve not run into anything disastrous.
There’s a slightly perfunctory air to it all told, in both combat/movement mechanics and presentation, but it’s perhaps hard to ascertain how much of that is down to Sword Coast Legends itself and how much to the rather vanilla fantasy of the Forgotten Realms setting. The same, for instance, was true of the first Neverwinter Nights’ campaign. It was the later add-ons and the player-made stuff which made it sing.
Writing and voice-acting, meanwhile, is uneven but very much tries to have some fun. There have been a few deliberately silly quests – although only really in terms of text, with the actual structure sticking to routine go here/get that thus far – and there’s a playful sequence wherein a fight-loving halfling in your party runs ahead and slaughters all the baddies before you get there. Basically, if you thought Gimli was funny you’ll probably be happy here. Many of the main quests offer a murder/mercy option, which in turn leads to some branching consequence, but it’s straightforward stuff and at least some of the time you end up at the same essential outcome regardless. It’s nice to have the option to choose a general attitude, at least.
Sword Coast Legends’ singleplayer is unreconstructed fantasy, and extremely immediate with it, but you probably don’t want to be wearing your Planescape: Torment t-shirt while you play. In a way I’d rather be playing this than Pillars of Eternity, which I found to be far too ponderous, long and finicikity for my current time-starved parental existence, but at the same time I suspect I’ll bounce off its slightly rickety appearance and general air of beigeness before too long. That may chance if the Dungeon Master mode manages to be all it’s cracked up to be – and we’ll have more on that very soon.