I want to tell you that Atari’s Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale is the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games. I want to tell you that this is the fantasy dungeon crawler we’ve been waiting for this entire generation. I want to tell you that it accurately captures the spirit of the world of Faerun, yielding an epic adventure you’ll want to replay with each of the four classes. The problem is, I can’t.
Daggerdale does embody the core mechanics of great dungeon crawlers and starts out as you would expect of any action-RPG. Players are presented with a choice of four different stock characters: a Halfling Wizard, Elf Rogue, Human Warrior and Dwarf Cleric. At the outset, you’ll be given a few points to put into a limited selection of skills before beginning on your quest. It’s important to note that there is no customization available. You cannot mix and match races and classes, which makes the presence of racial traits a bit of a red herring.
After choosing your character template, things start to get a little murky. If you read into the skills a bit, you’ll start to find terminology that is never explained anywhere. Saving throws, AC (armor class) and other terms are bandied about with the assumption that you’ve played a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game before. This is where Daggerdale departs from its predecessors. The Dark Alliance games, Champions of Norrath and the various Marvel action-RPGs all embraced their format. You could see what was going on underneath the hood by turning on damage and healing numbers or simply use the life bars.
Rather than follow that format, Bedlam Games, Daggerdale’s developers, chose to infuse enough D&D 4th edition jargon to confuse the uninitiated and irritate the pen-and-paper faithful. In no way is this game going to inspire someone to play a tabletop game of D&D. It doesn’t accurately represent the dynamics of sitting around the table with a Dungeon Master. In fact, there are enough errors (class abilities labeled as racial abilities and skills with the wrong descriptive text) to make anyone familiar with action-RPGs or D&D wonder what went wrong.
Putting the errant application of the license aside, Daggerdale doesn’t live up to the multiplayer dungeon crawlers of last generation, let alone the genre entries we’ve seen in the past five years. On the positive side, the combat will feel completely natural to anyone who has ever played an action-RPG. Left stick moves your character. Right stick rotates the camera. Face buttons handle attacks and potions with the left trigger acting as a toggle to access an additional four functions for the face buttons. The face buttons are completely customizable, as are the controls more generally. Unfortunately, the developers got lazy and, rather than create an adaptive tutorial that references custom button mapping, they included a warning message that the tutorial only reflects the default map.
Each character also has an ability mapped to the right bumper: short range teleportation for the wizard, a roll dodge for the rogue, block for the warrior and a heal spell for the cleric. I found myself using these in combat, but none were as useful as the dwarf’s “Healing Word” ability. Not only does it mend the user’s wounds, but also those of party members standing close by. With healing potions in limited supply in the early game, the dwarf is, by far, the rock star of the multiplayer party. Unlike most healers, he can also hold his own in a fight. To say that this unbalances things would be an understatement.
As mentioned earlier, the different classes have access to a variety of skills that can either target a single enemy or a large swath of charging baddies. Passive abilities are also on-hand to enhance damage or defense. These include the dwarf’s “Cast Iron Stomach” racial ability that increases protection against poison and the rogue’s “Sneak Attack” which yields extra damage against a flanked enemy.
Because the game strictly follows D&D rules, leveling is a slow process. In my first two hours, I only leveled up twice and finished the game at level 8. This requires players to be very strategic about which skills to take. So many other games in this genre provide an “I’ll grab that next time” mentality, with “next time” not that far in the future. Leveling and customizing your character is a big part of what makes these games fun. It’s a shame that the opportunities to do so are few and far between.
Of course, there is a ton of loot to find. Whether from breaking barrels, opening chests, or slaying fiends, you’ll find different kinds of potions, ranged and melee weapons and armor types. One of the most convenient aspects of the loot collecting is the ability to sell items directly from the inventory screen. I got better rates from merchants, but it’s good to know that you can dump some unwanted clutter at a moment’s notice, especially since there is no way to fast-travel back to the hub areas.
Daggerdale features standard multiplayer options, which enhance the experience. Whether you are playing with someone on the couch next to you or someone across the country, treasure hunting and goblin slaying is more fun with friends- if you can get it to work. You shouldn’t have any problems playing a local game, but online multiplayer is an exercise in frustration. The matchmaking system is practically nonexistent. When trying to find a game, a list will show up showing the host’s Gamertag and the number of players in the game. There is no information about location or player level. You could just as easily find your level 1 character in the final battle as bring your end-game character into someone’s tutorial. Should you manage to find the right game, relish every moment of it because you will more than likely find yourself disconnected from the host quickly.
There is also no trade system for loot. You have to drop items on the ground and hope that your partner is honorable. Merchants don’t even stock the same goods depending on which party member speaks to them. This eliminates the ability to be generous with your gold, which isn’t shared across the party and can’t be dropped.
Narratively, Daggerdale is full of clichés and fetch quests. The evil Rezlus is plaguing Daggerdale and you must climb his tower to confront and defeat him. Very little of the game actually takes place in the tower, though. The game begins, for some reason, in the mines of Tethyamar. The introductory cinematic doesn’t quite make it clear why this is or, for that matter, the importance of the character telepathically tasking you with saving Daggerdale. The game regularly has you visiting named places as if you should know where they are. The minimap isn’t terribly helpful and, at times, the larger map (which isn’t labeled with location names) doesn’t display your destination. You are simply left to follow the arrows to your mission objectives.
The audio and visual design also fails to hold up. I’m not typically one to complain about screen tearing, but it was so noticeable and pervasive that I can’t help but bring it up. I frequently ran into an oddity that caused fallen foes to stand upright, effectively becoming statues on the battlefield. This happened so often that it’s impossible to fathom how this bug made it through QA.
Items on the ground are difficult to see unless you are right on top of them. If you can’t use an item, it appears in a red color that is simply impossible to read. The chosen font and size are also hard on the eyes. Worse, if you complete part of a mission objective that triggers dialog, your character warps to the NPC. If any loot was on the ground before the conversation, it can be very difficult to locate it. The game makes provisions for triggering some dialog with a button press, though. It’s mystifying why this wasn’t universally applied.
The music is sparse and, other than the cutscenes, there is no voiced dialog. I think I heard the dwarfs grumbling very quietly during dialog and the player characters grunt with exertion and pain as you would expect. There are some truly head-scratching sound design decisions in this game. The worst was when I equipped an item that restored hit points on a regular interval. The item caused a low thrumming sound effect that became so annoying that I chose to remove the item, despite its extremely useful benefit. I can’t list all of the glitches, bugs, and poor design choices, but be assured these are but a few.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any fun with Daggerdale. The game’s heritage peeks through every once in a while to show a glimmer of what could have been. Overall, though, this is a sloppy and half-hearted effort that does a disservice to the Dungeons & Dragons license. For those waiting for the next great dungeon crawler, your ship hasn’t yet come in. Take heart though, the future looks bright for the genre.
Review copy provided by publisher.