Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance ($9.99) has spent its entire digital life being the back-up prom date. Originally developed for Sony’s PlayStation 2 all the way back in December of 2001 by Snowblind Studios, it’s an action-RPG set in the popular Forgotten Realms setting of the Dungeons & Dragons brand. Twenty years later it was revived for modern consoles by Square One Games and Interplay, and now it has made its way to mobile. Quite the journey, but is it still worth playing a couple of decades on? Hm.
Way back around the turn of the millennium, console gamers were suffering from a rare (at the time) bit of PC gaming envy. Sure, we had our fancy new PlayStation 2 consoles. They could launch missiles and make Toy Story graphics, which was all well and good if you were looking to take out Woody before Toy Story 4 could happen. But over on the PC side of the line, our gaming counterparts were not only enjoying their sweet first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, but also some really awesome role-playing games. For those who liked the thinkier sort, the Baldur’s Gate games were knocking off chainmail socks. Meanwhile, those who craved a bit more of an active experience with a healthy side dish of multiplayer fun had the incredibly fancy dining of Diablo II. What did we have? Summoner? Yeesh.
But what if… a publisher were to make a console Diablo-style game and disguise it as a Baldur’s Gate? Oh ho ho ho ho! Delightfully devilish, Interplay. With one well-aimed game, Interplay could pull in both the people who wanted Diablo on their PlayStation 2 and those pining for a console version of Baldur’s Gate. And yes, by all accounts the game was extremely successful. It reviewed well, it got ported everywhere it could be (and even some places it couldn’t be, what’s up, surprisingly decent Game Boy Advance version), and it sold over a million copies in an era where that meant you made money instead of losing it. It got a direct sequel by another developer that didn’t sell as well. It got a spiritual follow-up by the same developer and that didn’t go well either. That first game was just in the right place at the right time, it seems.
And now here we are in 2023. Is this once again the right place at the right time? You know, it just might be. Mobile gamers finally got Diablo in the form of Diablo Immortal, and I have to believe most of us have had enough time with it now for the honeymoon to be well and truly over. Dungeon Hunter 5 is still around and continues the series tradition of being a decent discount Diablo, but it is also free-to-play’d up the wazoo. Torchlight: Infinite? Buddy, I don’t want to worry about Gems, Orbs, Primocryst, or Season Passes. I just want to smack some skeletons with my Club +1 of Bonking and maybe find a new hat. I want a freaking ending. Why is this so much to ask for?
So here is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, coming from the past to save us from the future present. It has no IAP or season passes. It’s just a simple, no-nonsense action-RPG where things explode into piles of gold. It has a story, one that won’t string you along for five years or whatever until the game gets the axe and everything has to be buttoned up in a single update. It has water that looks really great for 2001. Seriously! Look at that water! That was what set hearts a-flutter back in the day, I tell you. We were really into water for a bit there. Ask Nintendo.
One of the other cool things about the game back in the day was that you could play it in multiplayer, but you’re going to live without that here. That has one unintended outcome, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The game is certainly playable and enjoyable solo. Pick your favorite character from the three available, and venture forth. Don’t sweat too much about who to pick, you can pretty much flatten their differences if you’re not happy with their natural tendencies. You also get to pick your difficulty. You can choose from four; I recommend Easy to start but you can do what you like. Fair warning, this game is pretty tough. Tougher with touch controls. If you have an external controller, you’ll probably have a better time with that.
You’ll find yourself in the scenic town of Baldur’s Gate, and things go well right off the hop. You’re given a fantastic investment opportunity that you simply can’t refuse, and like all those NFT purchases you made last year, I’m sure you’ll see that money again someday. But for now, you’re not exactly liquid. You head to a tavern for some assistance, get roped into a bit of pest disposal, and your grand adventure begins. You can talk with some NPCs and make the odd conversation choice, but don’t expect this to be like those other Baldur’s Gate games. It’s not. Action all the way up and down those sewers. The story ramps up in a hurry, though it mostly consists of narratively pointing at the next mess of enemies you’ll have to slice and/or fry your way out of.
There are a few things to know about this quest. First, it does in places feel tuned for multiplayer. That doesn’t mean you can’t win alone, but you’ll have to be smart. Second, you’re not going to be able to grind your way out of messes. There was a bit of chicanery you could pull in the console versions with other players to allow you to grind, but when you’re flying solo there are set amounts of enemies, treasures, and other objects. Once they’re gone, they aren’t coming back. As long as you kill everything, you won’t ever be underleveled, but you’re never going to be overleveled either. And the other thing I have to mention is that this game has some platforming. It’s dreadful, and it’s even worse with touch controls than it is on a controller. And pal, it’s pretty bad on a controller.
In a lot of ways, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is going to scratch your itch for a Diablo-like game on mobile. It has the random loot with colorful names. Lots of baddies and barrels to bash. You can quaff those health and mana potions like you chugged Big Slam Pepsis back in high school. It’s fun. Really, really fun most of the time. The times when that slips, it can be absolutely miserable. I really can’t stress enough how annoying the platforming can be, and there are a couple of bosses that be can really nasty too. Even on Easy. Be persistent, you’ll get there. The last boss is worth it.
It’s not quite Diablo though, and it never was. It was Diablo-lite; sitting somewhere between its obvious source of inspiration and the arcade-style affairs like Gauntlet. There’s a reason this series and its spawn petered out so quickly. Once you have the real thing, this just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. I’ve mentioned my misgivings with Diablo Immortal before, but I also did so while admitting it was a very enjoyable, slick game. That big oomph effort from veterans of the trade, throwing all their money and modern game design knowledge into a release designed to soak up money like a gelatinous cube soaks up treasure, is a very strong game. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is a good port of a decent game from an era before we knew the blessings of even Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. It can’t compete in most little ways and even a lot of big ways.
But there is a purity to it, being from that era. It isn’t trying to sell you gems at every turn. It has no DLC or any intentions of such. No unlockable skins or guest characters. You can log in every day and you will have nothing extra to show for it. Here is the game. Here is the adventure. Here is the ending. Thank you for your ten dollars (Er, um, five dollars if you happen to catch its very-soon-after-release sale price–Ed). That’s kind of lovely, even if there are a lot of parts of it that aren’t. It might be the tonic you’re looking for right now, because we frankly don’t see a lot of things like this on mobile anymore. I hope it is followed up with its sequel, as I tend to think of that as a more well-rounded game, but if this be it? I’m glad it’s here.