by: Lys Seidl
; edited by: Michael Hartman
; updated: 4/17/2012
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Love that old school, over the shoulder, dungeon crawler style game, but wish it wasn't so bogged down in skills, feats, and algebra? Daggerdale might be right up your alley, but read before you buy, it wasn't quite ready for the spotlight on release.
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Hark! A D&D Game!
I'll admit to a having an abnormal affection for anything Dungeons and Dragons related. I've been playing the pen and paper game since my dad ran a third edition campaign for me and my little brother when I was twelve. I still play once a week. I've tried just about every video game out there based on D&D rules. I have a two pound solid brass D20 that could probably kill a man. I love Dungeons and Dragons. So when I booted up my 360 and saw Daggerdale staring back at me, I knew I had to try it. I downloaded the trial version immediately, and, my D&D lust completely unsatiated, dropped the 1,200 points to unlock the full version. The bugs I encountered even in the ten minute trial version probably should have been a red flag, but I pressed on to provide you with this review and recoup my losses!
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Faithfulness to D&D
I played through the entirety of Daggerdale in local co-op with an equally D&D obsessed friend. If you're not familiar with D&D, or Dungeons and Dragons, every few years a new edition of the rules is released to freshen the game up. It's currently up to fourth edition, which is what Daggerdale claims to be based on. My friend is an old school first edition player, and I came of age in the years of third edition, so neither of us knew exactly what to expect, but what I saw of the rules seemed somewhat watered down.
Your powers boil down to a small set of special attacks, all of which will be unlocked in the course of one playthrough. There are four characters to choose from: an elven rogue, a human fighter, a dwarven cleric and a halfling wizard, but they are only customizable through their equipment. You can't choose their gender, their race, what color their hair is, or any of those little things that make the character yours, making the game more reminiscent of Gauntlet than Neverwinter Nights. Customization really only takes place through equipment and ability scores. There's a ton of equipment to try out, but it's easy to buy the best available stuff with so much loot laying around in barrels, and unfortunately the game's too short and too shallow to really require most of your ability scores. While in a game with a lot of role playing options you might want to balance your different scores, Daggerdale only seems to need points in whatever ability is connected to your particular flavor of combat or spells.
The story is classic Forgotten Realms: there's Zhentarim followers of Bane and Cyric, dwarven mines, dragons, and a bad guy with funny colored lipstick. (Actually that last one is probably more like the D&D movies.) When delivered via verbose text with a bunch of less than charming Zelda style grunts, however, the dialogue really falls flat. I personally have no recollection of what my motivation was through half this game, I just knew I had to follow the poorly implemented way point arrow to the next part of whatever FedEx quest I was on at the time. When half the characters I met in the game got ingested by the final boss, I really didn't even care. Combine all this with the fact that you never actually even see Daggerdale and I personally start to feel a little cheated.
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That being said, Daggerdale really is pretty enjoyable, especially if you have somebody to play with. The minute to minute gameplay is nice and visceral, with almost constant ability usage and tactical adjustment. As the elven rogue, I'd be popping off a stunning arrow one second, tumbling away from an incoming enemy, and backstabbing somebody the next.
Combat is where this game really shines. Because you're unlocking and upgrading your abilities progressively throughout a game that lasts less than ten hours, nothing gets especially repetitive, and the simplicity of the controls make the experience uncomplicated and easy to pick up. You can map just about everything you'll need to your four face buttons, and then hold down a trigger to get four more slots. Figuring out how to get things into the slots can be a little puzzling at times, (Abilities are assigned from the equipment screen, not the abilities screen?) but in general the menu interface is practical and easy to figure out, as long as you don't hit the bug where it unassigns all your slots and equipment. (I did three times.) Even with multiple players, the camera is generally smooth and works well, though it has an annoying habit of getting stuck inside rocky overhangs and blocking your view of the action.
Overall, it was extremely reminiscent of the old Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series, maybe with a little Sacred tossed in. You talk to somebody, you go on a quest, you fight some bad guys, you yell at your buddy for picking up that longbow you wanted and you smash tons and tons of barrels. For the price though, you can probably track down a copy of Dark Alliance II and get a lot more bang for your buck!
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Graphics and Sound
Daggeredale's graphics are up to the level of polish you typically find in XBLA games. It's not triple A budget quality, but it's perfectly decent looking, and the stylization is what you'd expect from a D&D game. The environments especially have a nice atmosphere to them, and the intermittent use of concept art as cut scenes actually warmed my heart a little bit due to the similarity to the illustrations in the D&D rule books. Characters seem a little lower on the polish scale, but unless you're speaking to them at the time you don't see them up close, so it's not terribly noticeable.
What really drags it down is the number of graphical bugs. About half the suits of armor me and my friend equipped in the game had huge random chunks of solid black on them. When you're expected to stare at a character for hours on end, that's totally not cool. Textures and props often took a long time to pop in, to the point where sometimes they literally never loaded at all. At that point the only choice was to reload. Dwarves should not be seen without their normal maps!
Similarly, sound is decent and about what you'd expect. There's epic, mysterious dungeon music, lots of clanging and twanging sound effects as you do battle, and your characters make lots of inappropriate sounding noises when they get hurt. As I mentioned before, what really could have been done better is the dialogue. There's no voice acting, just a little bit of repetitive grunting and a whole lot of text that doesn't keep the reader engaged.
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Like real D&D, Daggerdale is best played with friends. While I only played two player co-op myself, I imagine the four player online multiplayer must be something to behold, and the way the game is really meant to be played. Unfortunately my research of the online multiplayer makes it seems as though it's even more riddled with bugs and issues than the other modes.
I can say from the local co-op perspective, having another player to smash barrels with definitely helps break up the monotony. At the very least it'll get you talking about who gets what loot. It's also just rare to find a decent game that supports couch co-op these days, so I have to give Daggerdale points for that. Unfortunately, the additional bugs and quirks bring down what would have been a good rating to just average.
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I really, really want to like Daggerdale. I have an undeniable bias for all things Dungeons and Dragons, but because of that, I just can't help but be a little offended by this game. It takes the name of my beloved D&D and doesn't do it the honor it deserves.
Is it decent? Yes. Is it mind blowing? No. Does it have more bugs than fly strip at a Waffle House? Oh yes. My suggestion? Wait for them to patch it. Wait for them to patch it twice even. Maybe even wait for the sequel. Then try it out. I really feel deep down that this is a good game, but it got rushed, and if you get it now, you're likely to be frustrated with it, whether you're in love with D&D or not.
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All references and screenshots from Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale Xbox 360 version.