"The first video gaming system I owned was an Atari 2600. You could play ports of a vast majority of that time period’s most beloved arcade games on that classic system. Of course, since the Atari 2600 wasn’t the most powerful thing around, those ports weren’t exactly identical to the original. Graphics and sound were simplified as much possible and a decent number of things from the arcade game would be left on Atari’s cutting-room floor. Hell, that system couldn’t even include the fruit from th..."
The first video gaming system I owned was an Atari 2600. You could play ports of a vast majority of that time period’s most beloved arcade games on that classic system. Of course, since the Atari 2600 wasn’t the most powerful thing around, those ports weren’t exactly identical to the original. Graphics and sound were simplified as much possible and a decent number of things from the arcade game would be left on Atari’s cutting-room floor. Hell, that system couldn’t even include the fruit from the original Pac-Man -- and that wasn’t exactly the most complex game out there.
Playing the Game Boy Advance version of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance really reminded me of the old days of playing all those anorexic arcade ports on my Atari. I don’t mean in the fond, “What a nice trip down memory lane!” sort of reminiscing, either. This is more of a, “What the hell did they do to this game?” kind of flashback.
The original captivated me with two-player simultaneous action, vast and beautiful areas to run around in and a wide variety of AD&D monsters to hack up with an array of weapons and spells. Everything that made the original BG:DA special to me has either been removed or lessened for its port to Nintendo’s SNES-ish handheld. I’ll give the game a bit of credit for adding a couple of neat things the original didn’t have, but those positives pale in comparison to the laundry list of flaws I unearthed. And I’m not even getting into the lack of a multiplayer mode. While they are very nice for games of this hack-and-slash action-RPG genre that Diablo popularized, a well-designed game of this sort is fun to play whether you have friends or not. Nope, the problems with the GBA Baldur’s Gate run far deeper than the fact you have to play by yourself.
Some of these flaws are merely cosmetic. Start up the game and you’ll realize that there is a bit of a difference in character selection. Just like the console original, you get to pick from a fighter, magic-user and archer. However, as opposed to choosing between three separate entities, each with their own name and appearance, you get to pick between three near-identical characters whose only apparent difference is the color of their original set of clothes.
Other flaws, on the other hand, detract from far more than just one’s aesthetic enjoyment of the game -- these problems gang up on you to make it an annoying process to move around Baldur’s Gate and the surrounding countryside. The GBA version sadly attempts to duplicate the original’s angled overhead view (used to create a sort of three-dimensional depth). However, it doesn’t duplicate the ability to rotate the camera. Bad idea. Whether you’re losing complete track of your hero amongst the trees of a vast forest or struggling to find side passages in the Drow Mines, you’ll likely be frustrated more than once by the unalterable angles this game gives you throughout the many action levels.
Making that worse, this game doesn’t include the automapping feature of the original, meaning you’ll have to blindly feel your way through this game. For the most part, that’s no big deal. Every section of this game is pretty linear, with most secondary paths eventually leading to dead ends. However, with some places (like the aforementioned mines and forest), the ability to see where you’ve been and where potentially missed paths are would be quite handy. Instead, you’ll have to go through and simply hope you find the right path without wasting too much time.
And to compound all that, the GBA version eliminates the beloved Recall Potions (items used to warp you back to each act’s shop) -- which means you’ll be doing a lot of unnecessary walking. If you want to sell all the worthless equipment you’ll pick up throughout your adventure to buy potions and better equipment, you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking. Even if you don’t want to do that, you’ll still be doing that backtracking from time to time just to advance the plot.
But all those flaws pale in comparison to this game’s worst problem -- mentally deficient foes. Once you realize that these monsters will only go so far to hunt you down, BG:DA on the GBA becomes one of the most pathetically easy games you could ever hope to play. You see, all regular monsters will chase you a short distance before stopping for a few seconds and then....turning around and heading back to their original location. It’s mere child’s play to exploit this horrible A.I. to ensure supposedly tough foes will die easily. Step one: Walk up to enemy to get it to chase you. Step two: Find where enemy stops running. Step three: Start hitting it while it stands like a big doofus (as long as you don’t cross an invisible line into its movement area, it will do nothing). Step four: After it turns around, take a couple steps toward it to attract its attention again and then repeat steps two and three until it’s dead. Suddenly, foes that should crush you in hand-to-hand combat like the frost giants, umber hulks and iron golems turn into stupid and helpless fodder with no chance of winning.
Boss fights are marginally tougher, as you’re in an enclosed area with no safe zones out of their range, but you’ll soon realize that anytime you get low on life, all you have to do is run away from the bad guy and simply dodge projectiles while quaffing heal potions until you’ve recharged your life. Since those potions are plentiful and its unlikely you’ll need them against the easily-exploited hordes of non-bosses, you’ll have a ton in your inventory for these battles. Quite a shame, too. I remember that a couple of those boss battles in the original gave me and my friend a good run for our money -- here, they just got time-consuming and boring....just like the rest of the game.
A general lack of music just adds to the boredom this game induces. In fact, the only time any actual music plays is during boss fights and while you’re encountering a select few regular monsters (usually larger ones that hold special items). For the remainder of the time, you’ll be stuck hearing little more than the enthusiastic “HYUHHH” of your hero as he chivalrously embeds his battle axe into the skull of unsuspecting kobalds and a few assorted sounds made by monsters (such as the “I’m throwing a rock!” sound and the “Oops, I do believe you just killed me.” sound).
Baldur’s Gate on the GBA isn’t all gloom and doom, as there are a few scattered positives strewn throughout this game, such as the game’s graphics. While some of those backgrounds do get pretty intrusive, they are beautifully drawn, with the ice mountain regions standing out as particularly attractive. A number of the larger monsters (with the exception of the lizardman king, who is essentially a pixilated, blown-up version of a regular lizardman) also are well done. Foes such as the frost giants and umber hulks were well-drawn, although some of their animations were somewhat choppy.
The game also throws in a few surprises, so even vets of the original console version won’t always know what to expect. While some of those surprises aren’t that pleasant, such as cutting out entire regions of the original or eliminating several species of monsters and replacing them with a few different colors of spider -- one particular alteration was quite welcome. One of my biggest complaints with the original was that after you finished the first act, you were essentially playing a completely linear game with no sidequests of any sort (other than a few tiny optional caves or rooms within a couple of the main regions). In the GBA version, throughout the game you’ll run into people in need of your help. For example, in the third act, you’ll enter a village under siege by lizardmen. Talk to the townfolk and you’ll be given little quests by two people. Complete these quests and return to get nice accessories to boost some stats. While these quests are nothing special (odds are you’ll accomplish both by just walking through the region), they add a tiny bit of depth to the game. And when you consider this game, for the most part, is nothing more than an exercise in slaughtering stupid foes, any little bit of depth is very welcome.
Those positives aren’t enough to salvage this game, though. When an adventure game’s biggest challenge is merely finding your way through the various regions without the aid of a map or the ability to warp back to town, you can rest assured that it is not really worth playing. The GBA might be a nice little handheld system, but this port of BG:DA proves that some projects are definitely too ambitious for it.
Community review by overdrive (July 28, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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