Console players were introduced to the majesty of Baldur's Gate through a hack and slash version of the one franchise that resurrected Dungeons and Dragons. I remember a time when Advanced Dungeons and Dragons produced great games, but then the first-person shooter came along. Many role-playing titles were caught between showing a first-person vantage point and incorporating so much action that it didn't even seem like a role-playing game anymore (unless you're role-playing Rambo or the guy from Doom). So long was this drought that many thought the genre was doomed. Then Baldur's Gate came and it put respectability into the Dungeons and Dragons franchise again.
When it came to introducing Baldur's Gate to the Game Boy Advance, it's no surprise that designers took to the Dark Alliance formula rather than the full-blown role-playing game. It seems like a fait accompli. The game is isometric, featured limited character development, not a whole lot of dialogue and plenty of action. This is the type of game that should succeed on the Game Boy Advance.
Luckily for us, this is exactly what happens. Dark Alliance transfers the entire game, verbatim, to handheld fans from start to finish. In some instances, the Game Boy Advance version is superior. For example, you don't have to worry about the maddening puzzle elements of the game: jumping or switch throwing. This lets you focus on the action instead, which arguably is what the Dark Alliance design is best at.
Dark Alliance does look slightly different in this game. There are fewer colors to visualize the forests, winter and swamp landscapes. There are also fewer character models for the monsters to assume. The original artwork wasn't particularly advanced but it did feature some neat spell effects. These have, of course, been simplified.
This Baldur's Gate game involves few conversations and will not force you to make moral decisions, a feature that dominated the original PC title. The towns or villages you come across are merely restocking areas for the journey ahead. It keeps the game focused and forces you to soldier on ahead.
While I was thrilled to find a more streamlined Dark Alliance, I was also disappointed that the game dropped the crucial automap feature. Without it, it's difficult to get your bearings. If you are playing and you return to your save game days later, you may find yourself going the wrong way completely. This would have been saved if there were some easy recall potions to let you get your bearings. Heck, if I am that lost, I might as well start from the closest town. Mysteriously, these were eliminated from the Game Boy Advance version.
Dark Alliance does feature a plot that is worth slashing five hundred orcs and thirty thousand snow giants to get to. It's a tale of past mistakes that catch up with the good guys with the passing of time. I can think of some corollary with the Shia Iraqis right now but I fear it will reveal too much about the nature of it. Suffice to say, those who have finished the game elsewhere will not find anything new under the sun.
Simple controls and plenty of weapons to collect will drive the other part of your desire to get through the game. The role-playing is not as advanced as Knights of the Old Republic but when you get to the point where one spell will lay waste to half a dozen enemies or one fell swoop will knock a giant back silly, the sense of accomplishment is well worth the time to attain. I wonder if the sequel is to show up whether we can transfer our characters here to the new game.
When it leapt on to retail shelves, Dark Alliance was a pleasant surprise. It played well, excelling at what it did. Most importantly, though, it did not harbor false dreams to become a more sophisticated title than its original design. One nice touch about it was its support for a two player co-operative mode. That sadly didn't make it to Dark Alliance on the Game Boy Advance. I wonder, however, why the developers didn't use the NPC formula adopted by Blizzard's Diablo. I could easily envision hiring a helper character from every town; a healer to complement my fighter, a muscle to complement my mage.
Still, what remains is a solid game. This Game Boy Advance title is a true reflection of the original Dark Alliance showing us how versatile the Baldur's Gate franchise can be. No longer does incorporating the rules of Dungeons and Dragons mean a compromise between fun and complexity. Dark Alliance is a testament that both can be brought to the table -- even to a smaller one that fits in your hands.