Thursday, 7 April 2016

Sword Coast Legends (PC)

Sword Coast Legends title screen
Developer:n-Space + Digital Extremes|Release Date:2015|Systems:Windows, Mac, Linux

This week on Super Adventures I'm playing a few hours of shiny new RPG Sword Coast Legends! Well it's pretty new, as it came out in October 2015.

I'm really curious about this one as it's the first proper Baldur’s Gate-style 'Dungeons & Dragons' RPG since Obsidian's Neverwinter Nights 2 a decade ago. The thing is though, it's by n-Space, the people who brought the world games like Mary-Kate and Ashley: Crush Course and Hannah Montana: The Movie, when they weren't busy porting first person shooters to the DS. But Dragon Age: Origins director Dan Tudge joined the company to lead development on the game, and that's got to be a good sign. It also means I'll likely be typing 'Dragon Age' a lot.

Sadly it seems like n-Space may have been better off on their path they were on, as this was their last game. After 22 years of game development, the company closed down last week.

Oh I should mention that I'm only playing the single player campaign. A big deal was made about the game's innovative multiplayer Dungeon Master Mode, which lets one player guide a group of others through their home-made dungeons, so be aware that it exists and I'm just ignoring it. Because I do that.

(Remember: clicking images will display higher resolution screenshots.)



Uh… why is it asking me to sign into a single player RPG? Well okay I get why, it wants to pull a Diablo III on me, so I'll rephrase that: I don't want to have to sign in to play the single player part of this RPG. Typing in my name and e-mail is no great hardship, but if my internet goes down and this kicks me out I'll be disappointed.

Alright I'm all signed up and now I have 'PLAYER', 'DUNGEON MASTER', 'OPTIONS', 'CREDITS' and 'QUIT GAME' to pick from. I think this time I'm going to go with... credits!

Holy shit, this credits art is going to give me all of the nightmares! Mostly because the Beholder is reminding me of the Octabrain levels in Duke Nukem Forever.

Out of curiosity I checked to see if many of the people on screen right now also worked on Dragon Age and it soon became obvious to me that typing names into Mobygames is actually pretty boring. There's some definite overlap though. One name that features on both lists is composer Inon Zur, which is another good sign. He's made them a great credits theme at least.

I also checked the options menu and it looks like the video settings have all defaulted to maximum, which is nice. Okay let's see what 'Player' does now.

Sword Coast Legends character creation origin screen
Damn there's some shiny shaders on that metal plate t-shirt he's wearing.

I knew that the game would have 3D characters, even the ultra-retro Pillars of Eternity has polygonal heroes roaming its pre-rendered lands, but I somehow I expected they'd be closer to Wasteland 2's level of detail than Dragon Age's.

Speaking of details, those character creation choices on the right might seem to be missing a description, but it appears in a tooltip popup if I hover the mouse over them.

First is gender. I can pick to be male or female, with zero effect on my stats.
Second is class. I can choose to be a Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Rogue, Ranger or Paladin. Twice the classes as Dragon Age, but far less than recent D&D RPGs. Classes affect things like weapon and armour proficiencies and what abilities are available.
Third option is race. I can select to be a Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling or Half-Elf. Again it seems a bit restrictive but I can also pick a subrace, like... uh, 'Human Variant'.
And finally I can choose my background, which grants various bonuses. Nobles start off with three bottles of brandy in their bag for instance.

Sword Coast Legends character creation appearance screen
I decided to go with a male Moon Elf Wizard Sage, to hopefully maximise my wizardry. I've also given him pointy hair to fit into his pointy hat.

There isn't all that many hair styles to choose from really and they're all made out of plastic, like the rest of his head. As face editors go I've seen better, but considering how big he’s going to be on screen I’m not going to be complaining about the lack of ‘mouth width’, ‘nose height’ or ‘eyebrow curve’. It's a a bit like Skyrim, in which you can spend forever making a character you'll never actually see in game.

Seems that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons still gives characters the same six familiar attributes. It seems a bit old fashioned now to set stats up front rather than developing the character during gameplay, but hey at least I don't have to roll a dice for them!

There's a box below telling me exactly where I should stick my points, so I'll just follow the instructions

This is interesting though. Despite the D&D rules, the skill system is very Dragon Age.

I've got three attribute points to spend and I can flip through pages full of icons like this to invest them in any school of magic or fighting style suitable for a respectable wizard like myself. I actually start off with a lot of level 1 elemental spells, so I'll buy myself a couple of ranks of Magic Missile.

With my character created I can choose between STORY, a user created MODULE/CAMPAIGN, or a randomly generated DUNGEON CRAWL. If I want to I can also jump into another person's game in progress for a bit of co-op, which would earn me character progress but not story progress.

I'm all about the story progress though so I'm playing single player alone.

Like with Neverwinter Nights I'm playing as a hero travelling the Frozen North of Faerûn in a story introduced with narration and illustrations. I'll be part of the guard escorting a caravan along the Sword Coast from Neverwinter (red dot left of the mountains) up to the city of Luskan (red dot to the north).

I love it when games show me maps, they let me see each area as part of a larger world instead of a just a patch of ground with some caves attached if I'm lucky. I feel sorry for the artist who had to draw all those individual hills though. Those lines don't look copied and pasted to me.

Uh, this doesn't look much like a coastal road.

Turns out that I've started off trapped in an RPG hero's worst nightmare: a tutorial level. It's not mandatory, but I left it on because I think I'll need the instruction (seeing as I'm not reading the instructions).

So far we can already tick 'game starts with hero waking up', 'game starts with hero's home under attack' and 'silent protagonist' off the checklist of RPG clichés. Well I'm an unvoiced protagonist anyway, as these two can clearly hear the dialogue choices I'm making.

'Hero's first task is getting his clothes out of a chest to learn how to operate chests', that seems like it should be on the cliché list as well. If you're curious, the process involved clicking on the floor to walk into the room and then clicking on the chest to open it; there's no direct character control. We're definitely in Baldur's Gate territory here, which also means that I can't touch any of the weapons decorating the walls.

This is a guildhall by the way. I'm part of the Order of the Burning Dawn, an adventurers' guild formed to hunt for a relic called the Moontear in order to bring light to the world. It's been around for a hundred years at this point though and only players who've watched the game intro know of its origin and true purpose. These days they do general fighters guild type work instead, like escorting caravans up the Sword Coast for instance.

I walked downstairs to chat with the others and suddenly there were enemies everywhere! I hit space to pause and everything went all sepia.

The game's got a 'real time with pause' combat system like the classic Infinity Engine RPGs, so I can make my moves while the world's frozen. But unlike the ancient BioWare games of olde, the skills in my quickbar all have cooldown timers, so I don't have to camp out in a dungeon to refresh my arsenal. Probably for the best really, as if I went to sleep here I'd probably only end up inside an even worse tutorial nightmare and then I'd have to think up an 'Inception' joke. I've no mana or stamina either, so I have infinite use magic.

Right, I've got a full party of four to command here, so I think I'll tell my three associates to keep wailing on that wounded knight they're standing next to, while my wizard shoots magic missiles at the archer over in the doorway. When I've got my character selected the others work off their AI scripts, firing off skills when appropriate, so I'll leave them to do that for now.

With the battle won, my victorious party made a run for the front door only for it to blow up in our faces. 

Fortunately there's a secret dungeon in the basement, but the path is trapped so our rogue has to walk ahead with his search skill active. Slowly.

The game has been giving me helpful hints boxes along the way, telling me how to use things like cantrips, but there's still something I'm a bit unclear on: what even is a cantrip? I'm sure I'll figure it out later if it's important.

Right now I'm more interested in figuring out why the group keeps outrunning my camera. It only happens occasionally, but it's so annoying I've started steering the screen manually with the WASD keys as they go.


A SHORT WALK LATER.


Oh, this doesn't look good. This has a definite 'end of the line' feel to it, and not just because I've ran out of cave.

The demon here is simultaneously mocking my guild for dying all over the place during the attack, threatening us and trying to convince us we're on the same side. I've no idea what its deal actually is but I get the feeling we won't be friends. Fortunately it doesn't matter as I've woken up!

There you go, a proper coastal road! I can tell I've reached the waking world as it's letting me quicksave now. The scenery doesn't look all that impressive in a tiny screenshot unfortunately but I reckon it looks great in action (even if the camera angle makes it seem like a scale model).

The caravan has been camping here for the night, and it turns out that basically everyone with a wagon has some kind of problem they want resolving. I just want to go around and chat, but I'm surrounded by side quest dispensers in NPC form. Someone wants me to find mushrooms, someone’s lost their brother, someone’s lost 'Sarah', someone’s worried that their dog’s going to be put down etc.

Sword Coast Legends inventory screen
I also found my character's personal stash, containing some cool looking Order of the Burning Dawn gear. It's nice to play an RPG modern enough to let me compare the stats of what I've found with what I’ve already equipped. In fact this inventory screen is almost exactly the same as the one in Dragon Age, complete with an option to dump items into the 'junk' tab.

I'm glad the game has a party inventory, instead of separate backpacks for each character. No potion organisation, no making sure the strongest character is carrying all the heavy war hammers, and no bloody inventory Tetris. Well, actually I kind of miss shuffling items around a grid to make room, but that's only because my nostalgia is misfiring.

I struggled on through the hail of optional sidequests flying in from both sides of the road and found the main plot waiting just ahead.

Seems that mercenaries have set a trap for us, blocking the road. They're not after the caravan though, they're after us guards. Whoever hired them has taken a real dislike to the Order of the Burning Dawn, or at least that's what these two strangers have come to tell me. The game's just throwing characters on top of characters at this point.

Okay in this shot we've got:
  • Illydia: The illest healer and a crack shot with a bow. She came with Larethar to warn my group about the mercs.
  • Larethar: Illydia's friend, a rogue who fills the role of snarky deadpan dwarf.
  • Belamy: A halfling with a crappy attitude. He's also from the Burning Dawn and shared my tutorial nightmare last night. Not a good sign.
  • Jarhild: Another Burning Dawn member who died in my nightmare last night. An even worse sign.
  • Me: Dashing protagonist, level 1 wizard, dressed head to toe in Burning Dawn brand clothing with a huge 'I'm in the Burning Dawn' logo on his back.
Those bastard mercs interrupted our conversation with a fireball and then poured in from the woods!

This fight started badly for me and soon went all the way to disastrous. We were getting pummelled with fireballs in the open so I took Larethar's advice and ran right for their elite mercenary mage. Suddenly more of them came crawling out to surround me and I lost most my health in half a second. I forgot I was playing a D&D game where wizards start out with like half a hit point.

The health's up here by the way in case you didn't notice it. Those character portraits are so tiny you could fit about 6 of them into one Baldur's Gate portrait, scaled up to the same resolution.

Fortunately running around in panic kept the enemies distracted from my warriors, who sorted out the situation for me. The 'raining destruction down from a safe distance' scheme they had was good though, maybe I should try that next time.

With the immediate threat resolved I decided to head back to camp to brag and discovered this cook I missed first time around. He's trying to get me to try his mystery drink, but his shifty demeanour is setting off the alarm bells.

Turns out that my attributes can come into play during dialogue, leading to a 'remember which stat you put your points into' minigame! I correctly remembered I have high [INT] so I was able to deduce what it was and blackmail him into giving me a weapon. Weirdly I don't even have the option to refuse his gift and tell the whole caravan what he's up to.

I also tried solving the case of an alleged dog attack the same way, by picking the conversation choice that matches my best stat. Sadly it only gave me a choice of [WIS] [STR] and [CHA] this time and I suck at all of them, so it looks like there's nothing I can do to save the dog from being put down. Unless I find a potion of charisma or something. Or buy one I suppose.

Sword Coast Legends shop screen
Hmmm, nah I think I'll just sell the crap I've accumulated so far. Merchants don't have a money limit so there's no danger of ever finding something too expensive to sell. On the other hand there's no theft in this so I can't give myself a five finger discount.

No speed stat on the weapons huh. But then how do I know if this +1 razor I can't afford or use would put out more damage per second than my quarterstaff?

Anyway, I'm heading off into the woods to find adventure, the mercenary camp, and all those things the NPCs asked me to collect for them. I've got a long 'to do' list running down the right side of my screen.

And of course I immediately get half my team killed by the first pack of wolves I run into. To be fair it is a dire wolf I'm fighting.

I actually managed to win this fight in the end though, thanks to luck and most of my health potions, but my wizard protagonist got no XP for it on account of being dead at the time. Now I need to figure out how to resurrect fallen party members. Maybe my cleric has a spell for it...

Wait, where is my cleric?

Oh, she's stuck behind a horse back in camp. Well that explains why I was getting my ass handed to me, I had no healer!

Turns out that resurrecting someone is as simple as picking someone with the 'stabilize' skill and clicking on the body. The selected hero runs over, a progress bar fills up and the fallen warrior is back on their feet. No resurrection potions are required, no injuries are accumulated and it doesn't cost a thing! That's a fair bit different to the ordeal I went through to resurrect heroes back in Baldur's Gate. We've came a long way in 17 years.

Speaking of earlier games and years, have a picture showing all the 'real time with pause' Infinity Engine-style RPGs that take place in the Forgotten Realms D&D setting.

2000 and 2002 were good years for fans of pointing and clicking on goblins, 2007-2015 not so much. The subgenre in general had almost disappeared entirely until the recent Kickstarter-driven renaissance. In fact I've gotten so used to these RPGs being announced at the start of their crowdfunding campaign that I was totally blindsided when Sword Coast Legends was revealed out of nowhere as a traditional publisher-funded product.

Anyway, I should be clicking on mercenaries.


SOME ARBOREAL MERCENARY SLAYING LATER.


Sword Coast Legends The High Road map
There, I've cleared out the entire forest of mercenaries and wolves and I'm ready to go inside a cave to raid the merc base. Fights are going far better for me now that I have someone on healing duty.

I'm not 100% won over by this game's map though as it doesn't let me label anything and it barely zooms out. Sure it's letting me see the entire forest at once, but it's a really small forest and I have to drag it around to see the full level. Though on the plus side, at least it has a map!

Lots of mercs down here in this merc hideout and they're not a pushover. Not for me anyway, I'm rubbish.

On the plus side I have finally learned what a cantrip is! They're basically low level spells I can fire off repeatedly with next to no cooldown, much like Illydia is doing with her infinite arrows. Now that I've selected for my wizard to default to cantrips instead of walking over to hit everything with his staff his life expectancy has skyrocketed. So I got Belamy and Larethar killed instead.


TIME PASSES, MERCS ARE KILLED.


Aww crap, D&D has Mimics in it? I hate it when treasures chests come alive and try to lick me to death. Especially when they actually manage it. It's fine though, as long as one person's still standing I can get everyone back to their feet.

Plus I got me a level up at last! It brought my wizard's hit points up from 8 to 14 (double digits!) and gave me three more ability points to distribute. Seems to me that with magic running on cooldowns the smartest thing to do would be to fill my quickbar with as many different kinds of attacks as possible, so I can fire the next one off while I'm waiting for the others to recharge. But then I went with 'Conjure Animal' and 'Sleep' instead, because knocking out a whole group and then sending a magic bear out to eat them sounds like a laugh.

Seems I've stumbled across another cutscene.

I've got no issue with voiced dialogue in classic style RPGs like this, I think it adds a lot of personality to the characters. Especially when they chat between themselves while walking around, which these guys do. But unskippable text boxes I'm less keen on. If the characters were acting out the scene that'd be one thing, but they're just standing there while I wait for them to read out lines I've already read. It's bloody irritating!

Anyway, we've ran into the man behind the mercenaries, and he's holding Gill and Neddy prisoner! They're two of the Order of the Burning Dawn folks who were in my nightmare earlier. Seems like it's my turn to be a big damn hero and come to someone's rescue.

Oh shit!

He hit Neddy so hard her clothes disintegrated and her body exploded into a cloud of limbs and blood! That's just nasty. Nice cape physics though; mine's always clipping into my robes, but Javen's got this cape thing figured out.

In fact I'd go over and kill him for it, but sadly the loot system doesn't work like that. I'll get a potion or a magic pair of boots or something from a slain malefactor and that's about the limit of it. I'm still gonna kill him for this though, and nothing's going to stand in my way.

GELATINOUS CUBE!! There's a gelatinous cube in my way!

It took out my wizard before I even realised what I was looking at and then got all my other characters into a corner and utterly destroyed them. Cubes are scary.

I loaded my save and killed him in the end though; got myself a statue and some quips for my trouble. The characters have been so talkative so far they've practically been giving me a running commentary, and I really appreciate that. If I bring three sidekicks into a dungeon I want to hear banter dammit! Even if the voice acting isn't entirely top tier.

Oh, speaking of characters, Belamy the grumpy halfling ran off on a one man mission of revenge, so we've replaced him with Hommet the nervous necromancer and it's actually been working out great. Especially now I can cast sleep twice and make damn sure the entire enemy group is out of action before I pull my swords and bears out. The trick to winning fights in this seems to be outnumbering the people capable of fighting back.


EVENTUALLY.


Another good thing about having two wizards around is that I can shoot fireballs and lightning at once!

The target of my current onslaught is High Commander Javen Tarmikos, the Neddy slayer himself, who I've finally ran into after several floors of carnage. I guess this is a boss fight, but I approached it the same way I've handled the last few battles: by poking my head into the room and luring out his troops one at a time, casting sleep if I caught the attention of a whole group.

Now it's just him on his own, and he's no match for every spell on my quickbar at once! But just in case he is I threw a flask of oil over at him as well, to make him more vulnerable to fire.

See how my cape clips into my robe? It's so bad.

Well I defeated Javen on my first try without much effort, making him technically less fearsome than a dire wolf. But now I have to choose what to do with him and my choices aren't great. If I let him live he'll likely keep hunting down my guildmates, but I don't much want to kill someone who believes he's doing the right thing. He claims the Order of the Burning Dawn are in league with demons... just like the demon did in my nightmare.

Do I choose practical revenge or idealistic mercy? I'm thinking... I'll go with #2. Sparing his life won't convince him of our noble intentions, he's far too much of a zealot for that, but sometimes confusion is the best revenge.

Well that's done, now I can unblock the road and carry on to Luskan!

Meanwhile, on Diablo II's character select screen... actually we're just taking a break at our adventurer's camp to chat about the plot for a bit and learn each other's backstories, just like in Dragon Age! Only without the NPC trying to sell me a DLC side quest.

Wow I can nearly see my face from this angle; all that time I spent in the character editor wasn't wasted after all! Plus I like how everyone's standing around the campfire with their weapons ready, because that's the only way they know how to stand. So retro.

This seems like a reasonable place to turn the game off, but I feel like I should really be getting this poor caravan to Luskan first.

Ah, I have beautifully illustrated world map, just like in Dragon Age! It won’t let me go to Neverwinter though, and I can't scroll down down the coast far enough to see Baldur’s Gate or Athkatla. Maybe it'll open up later, but right now it seems my only options are Luskan or nothing.

The game let me select my party members and then in a loading screen we were there. But the city gates are shut! There's a camp outside full of people waiting to get in, so I guess this is my new hub for now. But screw that, I'm finding a way inside this bloody city so I can turn the game off.

I used my Melf's Acid Arrow to burn through a gate (it was an option, not ingenious thinking outside the box on my part), and entered a secret underground tunnel.

Hang on, this tunnel looks a whole lot like... a sewer. Eww.

Wait, I forgot to go visit the caravan leader to collect my payment. Escorting them all the way from Neverwinter should earn me some cash, especially as poor Belamy won't be claiming his share.

100 gold? Wow, I can finally go buy that 1/6th of a pair of magic boots I was after!

Right I'm going back to the sewers then. Screw the lot of 'em.


SOME SEWER CRAWLING AND QUESTING LATER.


There, I'm in Luskan! I can finally turn this off... in a bit. I just want to look around a bit first, seems like a nice town.

You can see at the bottom that characters who aren't in the party can still join in conversations using sending stones, which seems like a great idea to me. It might cut down on the replay value a little if there's less variation of dialogue, but it makes choosing who to leave behind less painful.

Here's a screenshot of the blacksmith just to show off what interiors look like outside of distorted tutorial nightmares.

"Make it so"? What, am I Captain Picard now? Great, now I’m imagining a Star Trek/Forgotten Realms crossover. There’s a thing that’ll never happen. Mostly because only BioWare is allowed to make good sci-fi RPGs and they’re already busy with Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This is basically how the crafting in the game works: I find bits of weapons around in the world, then I bring them here and pay this guy to put them together. It's all shrouded in mystery though, so I've no idea what the stats on this super expensive scimitar will turn out to be. I’d try it but I’m scared the game will autosave on me afterwards and take my 3000 gold permanently. It'd take me 30 trips as a caravan guard to earn that much back!

I am tempted to continue with the plot, but I think writing any more about the game would be overkill. Though I could mention that this city map reminds me of the one in Dragon Age, plus I risk getting waylaid by enemies when I travel to places.

Wait, I haven't mentioned anything about the dungeon creator yet!

The editor let me fill a room with canoes and change my zombie's pants colour. Okay I'm done now.


CONCLUSION

Sword Coast Legends is a proper RPG with a story and sidequests and everything! I'm not sure why I'm surprised by that, but I kind of am. It doesn't seem to be a particular open RPG, it's been plenty linear so far, and it's fairly unspectacular when it comes to story and... spectacle, but if you want to hack through through dungeons and complete quests it's got you covered.

Plus it's a beautiful looking RPG in my opinion, though that's due to decent art design rather than cutting edge visuals. Stick it next to Dragon Age: Origins from 2009 and this looks like the older game, but that actually adds to the charm of it. It almost feels like someone at BioWare discovered their own abandoned attempt at Neverwinter Nights 2 sitting forgotten on their hard drives for a decade or so and decided to release it. Sure I couldn't tell what the tiny enemies looked like half the time, but I solved that problem by setting them on fire and blowing them up.

It's also rendered in real time 3D, meaning that it can swoop down into people's faces every time they talk! It doesn't though and I'm glad, as silent protagonists and static characters work much better at a distance. Though I do appreciate being able to turn the camera around to see where they'd hidden the doors; it's got that over Baldur’s Gate at least.

I haven't found it to be overly inventive or engrossing so far, but it's a Forgotten Realms game so it's likely going more for 'comfortable' and 'nostalgic'. It's nice to pay the Sword Coast another visit, fire off some magic missiles, get a +1 sword, and see all the familiar names on the map. I guess the trouble with it is that the gameplay is closer to Dragon Age than an Infinity Engine game, and they've streamlined away some of the tactical depth. So there's no resting, you only get the four characters, and the magic system is based on cooldowns instead of using the Vancian system of limited memorised spells.

The fact is though that it's an RPG and that means that the half a dozen hours I've put into so far aren't enough for me to form a proper opinion about it. I can't say if it's a decent game or not (reviews seem to lean towards 'not really'), but I do know that I liked it and I'd be happy enough to keep playing, so it gets a shiny star of adequacy.


That's the end of the article I'm afraid, I've got nothing else to say about the game. You can go do something else now, move on with your life. Actually wait, before you do that, why not leave some opinions, thoughts and feedback in the message box? You might as well, everyone else is doing it!

2 comments:

  1. The streamlining you've noticed is at least in part due to the game being based on fifth edition D&D; some of the basic mechanics, such as healing and spellcasting, have been changed in the latest version of the tabletop game.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Whenever i read 'Burning Dawn', i remember an organization of evil yet rebelous ninja with same name in Tenchu 2.
    Another not good sign?

    ReplyDelete

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