Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale, released this week, provides a fun (if somewhat predictable) dose of RPG action based on D&D 4th edition rules. Team up with friends to save the Dalelands from the Zhentarim threat, and see how many times you laugh out loud at the stilted dialogue.
Daggerdale is a straightforward hack and slash action RPG in the tradition of Torchlight, Gauntlet: Dark Legacy, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and other darkly colonial games. You traipse through dungeons, fight monsters, collect loot and level up. Daggerdale doesn't mess with this successful formula. You'll spend a fair amount of time managing your inventory, and your primary foes throughout the game are storage barrels, which must be destroyed on sight. Seriously, why does every action RPG seem to think people just absolutely love smashing barrels to find six gold pieces? It's torture if you're even a little OCD.
So Daggerdale is heavy on the hacking, slashing and smashing, and very light on the story. The intro devotes all of 20 seconds to the backstory. There's a pasty-faced Zhentarim guy who declares, "In the name of Bane, I will conquer Daggerdale!" Which, frankly, seems like he's setting his sights pretty low. As my brother put it, "So… he wants to be mayor?" Then a lady appears before the four generic heroes, tells them they have to defeat pale guy in his Tower of the Void, and disappears mumbling some excuse for not staying to help. The best part is that the tower is in a mine for some reason. Who builds a tower in a mine? How does that even work?
The story lurches along from there, dropping you immediately into a dwarven labour dispute (something to do with the kickbacks you're getting from the barrelmakers' union, I suspect). The dialogue and quest hooks are so horribly written that they verge on "so bad it's good." Games that only cost $US15 get a lot of slack – I can excuse the sparse animated cutscenes and lack of voiceover, for example. But this game could have been immensely improved by hiring a decent writer, and I know (being a writer) that this would not have broken the budget.
Once you gloss over the story, the action is solid. Developer Bedlam put a lot of work into incorporating 4th edition D&D mechanics into the game (and yes, go ahead and make your dryly sarcastic comment about how Wizards of the Coast designed 4E to be like a video game so this is all very ironic). Character creation is somewhat limited; you get a choice of four preset race/gender/class combinations, a human fighter, a dwarven cleric, an elf rogue and a halfling wizard. Only the rogue is female.
Your ability scores are predetermined, but you can allocate points into your powers. Powers are special abilities more impressive than your usual melee and ranged attacks. Each power has three ranks of awesomeness (a change from pen and paper 4E rules), so you can choose whether to take new powers or buy more ranks in your old powers each time you level up. You also get to choose your feats, special abilities that help you customise your character. I made my fighter, Hargrimm Hammerfall, a blunt weapons specialist, while my wife's halfling was focused on firey area of effect attacks.
Enemies (and barrels) drop gold and items, and the game makes it easy to see which items will work for your character and which ones have prerequisites you haven't met yet. You can carry something like 70 items, and there's always a merchant nearby who can instantly convert all those random battleaxes to gold.
The combat controls are easy to grasp and the visuals are solid. Your powers set off nice magical effects or crazy, spinning attack combos. Some of the monsters are pretty awesome, too, like blazing skeletons that chuck fire at you and a weird demonic race that looks very alien and creepy. New items have an immediate visual impact on your character, and the various armour resistances add a bit of flash. Fire resistance gives your armour a shimmering candy shell, for instance.
You can play solo, but it gets a bit boring and is pretty difficult. D&D is all about a party of characters who make up for each other's weaknesses, and your weaknesses will be come glaringly obvious if you set out alone. Two players can play cooperatively on the same machine (i.e. "couch co-op"), and up to four can join a party via Xbox Live, Playstation Network, or Steam, depending on which system you bought the game for. Local multiplayer only suffered from an odd problem where 3D constructs in the dungeon (such as huge archways or beams sticking out of the walls) can temporarily obscure your view until you rotate the camera or move past the obstacle. Otherwise it was a lot of fun mowing through skeletons and goblins in the early levels. Be aware that it's still pretty challenging. You'll need a decent grasp of tactics to come out alive.
D&D: Daggerdale is reportedly the first of a trilogy that will eventually let you play all the way to level 30. Wherever the series goes, we can trust it will allow us a full range of RPG gaming options, from hacking to slashing and everything in between. With no puzzles to solve or complicated plot lines and character interactions to suss out, this is a perfect game to kick back with friends for a few hours until your purses are bulging with gold and every square inch of your character is dripping in magic items.