Not what I was hoping for
Here’s my short and sweet fantasy RPG buying guide. If you want a rich, unique world with interesting characters and old-school but beautiful art, Pillars of Eternity is your best bet. If you’re looking for a snazzy combat, innovative mechanics, unusual ways to finish quests, and a great multiplayer experience, check out Divinity: Original Sin. But if you’re intimidated by features that make a game truly excellent, Sword Coast Legends will happily accompany you on your stroll through the elemental plane of mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong, SCL isn’t a bad game—it’s just not a particularly good one either.
First impressions: The look and feel
Character creation was pretty normal, if a bit confusing during stat-points-allocation. It was also somehow incredibly difficult to get my avatar’s face to not look… well, ugly. No amount of fiddling with the various sliders for nose length and chin depth could save my human from looking like he’d been repeatedly bashed in the face by an over-eager orc. And while SCL has the nifty feature of actually matching your character portrait to the face you make during character creation, that just meant I’d have to stare at my ugly mug all the more. Also, the selection of voices for your character is both severely limited, and severely annoying, especially given that the game’s default audio settings make your character say something literally every single time you click your mouse on screen (be sure to change that in the audio options. You’ll thank me.).
When I finally dove into the actual game, my first reaction was… confusion. Not because things didn’t make sense, but because the game graphics were so… unimpressive. They were weirdly dated, and not in the retro-revival, Obsidian Entertainment way. They were just… bad. I mean, in this day and age, I expect a higher polygon count on my PCs, at least. And the UI wasn’t too useful either. Dragging and dropping abilities into my quickbar was an exercise in patience and click-timing. And while the sewers, caves and towns that you travel through are pretty (chilling, even, when it comes to some of the spider lairs), they’re nowhere near as interesting as even those in an older game like Planescape: Torment.
Sound-wise, the game does a lot better. Okay, cut out the “a lot”, because enemies’ war cries and dying screams are just awful. A guard literally said “Ugh” as I melted his face off with a fire spell. Otherwise, the atmospheric sounds are evocative (very spooky at times), and the impressively ubiquitous voice-acting is pretty good and very emotive: your necromancer companion’s voice-acting really brings him to life as a bumbling wizard trying to prove his worth (to himself, mainly), and your sassy dwarf-rogue’s comments are always welcome.
So aesthetically, the game ranks a little above mediocre. Not what I expected from a much-hyped game in 2015.
Game mechanics: Not really D&D, and much like everything else
If you’re planning on buying Sword Coast Legends based on its Dungeons & Dragons branding, it’s important to get one thing straight: I’ve played a lot of D&D, and many of its videogame derivatives, and this game is not a D&D game. Yes, it’s set in the D&D universe, and yes, it provides opportunities to squee! with delight when your favorite (and probably obscure) D&D references pop up. But as far as game mechanics go, the designers decided to take the most basic elements of D&D, and create an entirely new system out of those. Now, innovation is something to praise if done well, but SCL takes a perfectly good turn-based D20 game system, distorts it in a wholly unoriginal, uninspired way, and then tries to market itself as a D&D RPG.
Sure, the traditional sextet that defines your character (Strength, Constitution, Intelligence etc.) is present, but that’s basically it. Abilities are now cooldown-based and use a “percent-chance” mechanic (“5% chance to trigger X effect on hit!”). Gone are the skill and feat systems. All skills, feats, and spells are part of the same web of abilities you get to pick when you level up, meaning you have to trade between being able to pick locks better, or being able to stab better. Again, it would’ve been cool if done well, but since non-combat abilities rarely helped further the story (though they did help garner some sweet loot), the choice was hardly very compelling.
And of course, there’s the spell system. Most RPGs have fairly bland magic systems. I was a big fan of D&D’s pseudo-scientific approach to classifying spells according to function rather than the overused “elements”. Spells were grouped in categories like “Abjuration” for defensive magic, “Alteration” for spells that manipulated matter, and “Evocation” for spells that created energy. SCL opted to eschew all that for the bland and boring “fire”, “frost”, “lightning”, and “healing”. A more “been there, done that” approach is harder to find.
I will say though, fights are relatively challenging even at the “normal” difficulty setting. I made frequent uses of the pause button. It’s one of few games in which I’ve found myself actually having to use a large portion of the consumable items I’d racked up, like flasks of acid, potions of strength, explosive thunderstones and the like. Yes, you have your endless mobs of mooks (a few levels in against enemies like these, your party can largely function on autopilot), but important encounters, at least, have some oomph to them.
So yeah, if you’re looking for true D&D mechanics in your RPG, go back to Neverwinter Nights. Even if you’re not, with fantasy RPGs a dime a dozen, Sword Coast Legends is fine, but does little to stand out of the crowd.
Now what really separates a tabletop RPG from a cRPG (and remember, SCL has long claimed to try and emulate the tabletop experience) is the story. In a tabletop RPG, the story can go an infinite number of ways. A clever DM can make your most insignificant actions reverberate through the world, significantly shifting the narrative. So I appreciated when SCL made your decisions in even minor side-quests have lasting consequences later on in the game. Many quests had multiple solutions: do you search for a key to the sewer entrance or do you try and bash down the door? Do you happen to have a flask of acid in your inventory to melt the metal bars? Unfortunately, this pattern didn’t seem to last. Many quests became the same-old, same-old: fetch stuff, kill the boss, clean out the den…
The beginning of Act 1 provides a perfect example. The very start is promising. You find yourself trapped in a demon-induced nightmare, where echoey, disembodied voices whisper creepy things and flickering shadows cast a pall of gloom over everything, Where might this dream take you? Well, unfortunately, it takes you to a camp where an alchemist wants you to pick mushrooms for her, and goblins holed up in a cave need dealing with. The words “agonizingly cliché” came to mind, and the only saving grace was the tough decision you need to make about killing or releasing a dangerously psychotic enemy convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
But that’s precisely what’s so disappointing about SCL. You discover these momentary glimmers that are truly lovely: finding the ghosts of the people you killed in your haunted dreams, or wrestling with your companion about duty to the world versus duty to one’s family. But those glimmers never flare into anything brighter. Getting to those haunted dreams means plodding through monotonous kill-quests, and the heated conversation with your guilt-ridden companion ends in a damp squib of a compromise. It’s almost as if SCL wants to go further and is too afraid. It’s a shame really, because Wizards of the Coast, which controls the Dungeons & Dragons IP, usually publishes excellent, story-driven content for their tabletop D&D products. Their latest plot arc, “Rage of Demons,” is actually really epic, filled with insane tribes of fish people, shady dwarf politics, corrupted sentient fungi and a looming army chasing you around the alien world of the Underdark. Though the videogame’s plot is supposedly linked to the “Rage of Demons” arc, it feels like an afterthought to the tabletop experience.
DM Mode and Custom Adventures
Finally, I came to the much-vaunted, multiplayer DM mode, where one player gets to be the “Dungeon Master”, and control the adventure for a party of four other players. “Write your own stories!” the ads screamed. “Capture the feel of your tabletop campaign on the computer,” the publishers proclaimed for months. I was super pumped to write campaigns and run them for my friends separated across the country. But what we actually ended up with is a soggy, lackluster excuse for a content creation toolset. It feels like a starter-kit with which you can barely craft the plainest of stories.
I mean, yeah, the fact that the DM can take control of monsters is cool. The threat level, the DM’s currency for adding monsters, is determined by how well the players are doing, and it is an excellent concept… but that’s about it. The game does not let DMs add triggers, customize monsters more than just lightly, or even add branching dialogue, the classic mortar that binds together RPG plotlines. You can’t even customize the map much— you must use a randomly generated layout generated for you when you begin a map. If you’re really skilled at funny voices you might be able to create some semblance of story for your players as you take on the role of every NPC they encounter, but otherwise, SCL’s DM mode lets you endlessly recreate sub-par Diablo-style dungeon crawls, which gets old fast after a few runs. If you really want a powerful toolset to create stories and also allows multiplayer, again, return to Neverwinter Nights.
In summary of the DM mode: I felt like a kindergartner who was promised the rainbow but was handed two colored pencils… that weren’t even sharpened.
Sword Coast Legends, disappointing though it may be, earns a solid “I guess I’d play that…” on the “How awesome is this?” scale. It’s pleasant enough. If you’re a hardcore fan of cRPGs or the Forgotten Realms setting, you’re probably going to enjoy it. Maybe if the developers add more to the DM mode, it’ll be worth getting. But it does nothing new, and nothing terribly moving. Move on: there are plenty more fish in the sea.