While I always seem to have way too many games to play for review, I always allow myself time for replaying favorites or classics even if it means delaying completing a game review. Generally the choices make sense – my annual trek through the Star Wars ‘Kyle Katarn’ games, for example, or another play through on Gothic 2 Gold. But just after Thanksgiving I found myself with my PSP-3000 in hand, not playing any of the games on my PSP Go awaiting my attention, but instead replaying the 2007 RPG Dungeons & Dragons Tactics (D&D Tactics). Am I nuts?
Dungeon Crawling Meets Tactical Strategy in an adventure that sets out to appeal to fans of both console tactics games and Dungeons and Dragons veterans. Featuring a deep implementation of the AD&D 3.5 rules for the first time on a handheld, the game sets a pretty daunting task of being accessible for new players and challenging for experienced role players. Does it succeed? Read on and see!
It is seldom a good sign when I become ‘of two minds’ about a game. It usually means that there is simultaneously something terrifically compelling and also something terribly wrong with the game. It means that while I have found that singular nugget that developer hope will hook gamers into the experience, I have found it at the expense of walking through the minefield of issues that were left lying around somewhere during the design or implementation phases of the project. Such is my plight with Dungeons & Dragons Tactics.
I know it really doesn’t matter what the game is called or what the box art looks like or if there are any spelling or grammatical errors on the back cover … it only matters if the product inside is good. However, just starting this review I have already typed Dungeons & Dragons Tactics twice … errm … three times, and it really rolls poorly off the tongue, whereas D&D Tactics is a wonderful sounding title that instantly communicates the same thing to anyone who has been involved with gaming of any type for any time period. So from here on out the game is simply D&D Tactics.
Perhaps the greatest and most immediately apparent strength of D&D Tactics is the brand itself – the game sets out to bring a pure AD&D experience to the PSP that is as close to the tabletop game as possible, with the PSP as DM and you as the adventurers. The game makes the interesting choice of not adopting any of the classic lands already established in AD&D lore but instead opens a new area to explore and define as their own. Your story takes place in a border region between the feudal peoples of the Lendesi and the tribal clans of the Vinsaxi. The region contains all of the usual terrain types, towns and dungeons of any classic fantasy tale, and as the story unfolds you will either be tasked or find opportunities to explore all of the possible areas. The use of a new area allows the developers to carve out their own method for telling the story without feeling beholden to existing terrain boundaries or clan borders, and it works pretty well. You will not be so smitten that you will be clambering for new tales in this land, but neither will you have issues with choices made that clash with years of established history for the other regions.
D&D Tactics claims to have depth enough for tabletop veterans yet simplicity enough to be enjoyable for those who neither know nor care about poring over massive manuals and tables of statistics and rules. That is a pretty ambitious task, and one that the game does a merely adequate job of meeting. The entire documentation for the game consists of about 35 pages (in a 50 page manual with 15 pages of PSP info and credits) including explanation of game modes, multiplayer, controls and so on. That really doesn’t leave much room to explain the underpinnings of what is going on during a battle for either the novice or expert. For example, an experienced player doesn’t get adequate explanations of how some of the passive skills such as intimidation actually work in battle, and a novice to D&D will likely be left wondering why they see that little word ‘Miss’ so often.
There are two things that save the game in this regard – tutorials and a glossary. The glossary section of the manual will never replace an actual rule book, but it works well enough to answer most of the questions that will come up while preparing for adventure – things like Saving Throws and Hit Dice and so on. Combined with the in-game text it provides just enough information to help new players make headway with some of the daunting D&D jargon, but I would still recommend choosing from the selection of existing characters the game offers for the first few missions at least. The actual gameplay is explained much better through a series of tutorials that address the implications of some key D&D features without getting into details – Attacks of Opportunity, Flanking, Area of Effect spells, and so on. In fact, I would recommend the tutorials for everyone as an introduction to the game’s view of the D&D world.
Let me just say that I unabashedly loved the character creation process … I was tingling thinking about the possibilities as I went page by page through the creation of each character I planned to include in my party. Of course, you don’t need to spend the ludicrous amount of time I did toiling over each and every detail of every character stat, feat and skill. The game offers two quick-start possibilities: you can just grab a bunch of pre-made characters and start adventuring, or if you want some control there is a ‘recommended’ option for each step in the character creation screen. Want to control everything but the skill point distribution for your rogue? Choose ‘recommended’ for that and make your selections for the rest. It is a very flexible system that will feel make those familiar with PC games such as Neverwinter Nights or Baldur’s Gate feel right at home. You choose a gender and race, your character class and alignment, then begin assigning attributes – you start with statistics, then skills, and then feats and whatever spells might be appropriate to your character class. Then you choose portraits and appearances, a name and you’re done.
However, the character creation system is not without flaws – while the in-game comments on everything you do will be somewhat helpful, they are too technical to really guide someone new to D&D, and provide too little detail to provide the necessary nuance to an experienced player attempting to understand how skills and feats will play out in a ‘tactics’ game setting. For example, if you are new to D&D you will approach the main menu and wonder about creating your own party. You will first find that the manual is no help in this regard – there is no ‘simple guide to setting up a party’. The only way to learn about building characters is to just jump right in and do it!
At the same time, as an experienced D&D player you would expect to be able to choose a human fighter or Paladin and take Power Attack and Cleave as your first level feats. You can’t do that since the feat menu doesn’t auto-update to reflect what is chosen – Cleave becomes available at 2nd level, but that isn’t explained anywhere. Also, while alignment is important to the game in terms of choices and ultimately the ending, it is apparently only the alignment of the main character that matters. You can have a Paladin team up with five chaotic evil characters without any issue I could find. The developers have stated that no one will leave your party if you choose against their alignment, nor can Paladin’s ‘fall’ based on choices.
So you have created a group of adventurers and gone through the tutorials, now what to do? You start a new adventure and you’re off! You will choose your ‘main character’ and then a set of five ‘additional characters’. The main character is the one who speaks to everyone, appears in all cutscenes and is the leader of the group. The main character is also the only one whose death will end the adventure.
Having selected your party you are dumped unceremoniously on to the world map at the town of Arion. There are a number of things you can do here, most of which will become core activities throughout the non-adventure parts of your game time. These include using the ‘Party Management’ screen to fiddle around with your party member’s inventory or view their characteristics or swap items between them or level them up; make a stop in at the ‘Adventurer’s Guild’ (or Temple or Wizard’s Tower or whatever that locale features) to buy or sell items or potentially hire new adventurers to accompany you on your quest (since six is still the maximum, anyone you replace will have to wait for you to possibly re-hire them). You can also view information about the location, and finally you can start the quest for the area by choosing the ‘Adventure’ option. While you wait (about a minute or so) for the adventure to load you can read the details on the screen along with whatever hints are offered.
The first thing that happens in any adventure is that you place your characters on contiguous squares on the grid. This is a familiar enough start for anyone who has played strategy-RPG’s before, but is somewhat different than what most RPG gamers would be used to doing. But it is central to everything you do throughout the game – each adventure map is a large grid, and every bit of the action is turn based. (I will explain more about the game world in a later section on maps) Each turn consists of two actions – movement and a ‘standard action’ such as attack, magic or using an item. In addition, each character has a movement range based on their race, size and encumbrance. So once you’ve placed your characters (you only get to choose two for the first quest), you will get some dialogue between the characters and then you start the game in earnest.
In many turn-based games in the cRPG and jRPG sub-genres, you move around the map in real-time and only drop into turn-based mode for battles. And as in PC D&D games such as Temple of Elemental Evil, you move as a group while not in combat and don’t have to deal with movement ranges and the like until combat begins. Not so here: from the very beginning you will see that you need to control every action for every character whether you are in ‘Adventure Mode’ or ‘Combat Mode’. You select one of your characters, choose move from the menu, step around the grid and press X to choose your final location. Then if you are in adventure mode you can select your other character or continue making actions with the first character. However, even in adventure mode the game treats everything as both turn and round based. The turn consists of two actions per character as mentioned, and the round consists of all allies and enemies using up their turns. This means that every ‘standard action’ you want to perform costs a round. So you are in Adventure Mode it will take at least two or three rounds to have your cleric buff your party with Bless and your fighters with Bull’s Strength and … huh, did I lose you there?
Unfortunately the manual doesn’t describe in any way one of the most critical elements of D&D – buffing and debuffing. Most RPG’s have some branches of magic for defense as well as offense, but D&D is somewhat unique in the extent to which those other magical areas matter and are used. In some games you can go the whole way through and the only non-attack magic you’ll touch is ‘Heal’. In a D&D game your ability to actually hit something is much lower than in most other games, leading to the word ‘miss’ appearing too often in D&D Tactics. Therefore a critical tactic is to get some nice juicy red numbers to appear rather than ‘miss’. On the larger scale this happens by leveling up and buying better equipment, but within an adventure you need to cast spells to increase the likelihood of hitting something – and decrease their likelihood of hitting you! Because you will want to raise the Charisma of your Sorcerers and Clerics and Paladins, the Strength of your Fighters, the Dexterity of anyone using a bow, and the overall to-hit percentage of everyone in your party, you will find yourself casting a number of buffing spells at the beginning of each adventure. This will mean casting a spell with each mage or cleric or paladin until they are used up, then choosing end round and repeating until you are done, which gets old rather fast. The solution seems obvious – allow unlimited actions per character in ‘Adventure Mode’. It is too bad that no one saw the problem in time.
You have started an adventure, positioned your character, read the party banter adding context to your quest or perhaps even watched the slide-show style cutscenes with text balloons and no voice acting, and gotten your character loaded with weapons, ammo and buffed with stat-enhancing spells. Now what? Well, select a character and start moving! Which way? I dunno, just pick a direction and go! At the start of the adventure you’ll likely be using both actions to move, then switching characters and moving the next character and so on until you either ambush an enemy or they ambush you. Once that happens an ‘initiative list’ will appear on the right side of the screen showing the turn order for combat. Initiative is explained very well in the manual and turn order is determined at the start of combat. If you were ambushed, the character you were moving gets a standard non-combat action as the ‘surprise’ costs them half of their turn.
During combat, your first action can be a movement or combat action, or a free action such as pulling a quiver of arrows from your backpack. Some combat actions require a full-turn, a do some non-combat actions such as reloading a large crossbow. Other potential actions include using items like health potions or scrolls or wands, casting spells, attacking, and manually choosing to end your turn without using all actions. There are a few special actions available in D&D Tactics that you won’t find in most D&D games – you can ‘charge’, ‘bull rush’ or ‘step’. Charging allows you to rush up to and perform a full-round attack on a character without suffering an attack of opportunity; Bull Rush is similar except that you gain an attack bonus but suffer a defensive penalty; and a step allows you to move within an enemies zone of influence without suffering an attack of opportunity. When your character ends their turn, the next character in the initiative list takes their turn and so on until all turns in the round are complete and then the next round begins. All of your party is automatically on the initiative list regardless of location, but enemies outside of the combat area will be added to the bottom of the initiative list when they come into view. The only other modification to the initiative list is when a character dies.
Death in D&D Tactics comes in three stages – dead, really dead, and resurrected. When your HP (hit points) reach 0 you are ‘unconscious’, bleeding to death, cannot move and will lose 1 HP per round until you reach -10 and die for real. But don’t despair, this isn’t Fire Emblem where dead characters are gone forever – just cart them to the local temple and have them resurrected for free, the only penalty being the loss of whatever experience the party gained after their death. Every character has a special skill called ‘heal’ that will attempt to stabilize a character who has become unconscious – this will stop the bleeding and keep them from dying, but only a paladin or cleric healing spell will be enough to resuscitate them. Every other character in your party can die so long as your main character survives – I know I already mentioned this, but given how simple it is to resurrect a character, it really makes little sense that your main character can’t be brought to the temple and resurrected by your surviving party members. It definitely impacts your strategy as you work through adventures!
When you have defeated all of the enemies in a given area, you return to ‘Adventure Mode’ and can continue exploring – unless you have beaten the last enemy of the quest. When the last enemy dies you immediately get the ‘Results’ screen which summarizes your performance. This is another thing you will quickly learn and that will alter how you progress through an adventure. Rather than having your entire party engage in combat and later return for the spoils, you will be taking routine detours to open every chest along the way, occasionally putting your rogue into peril to do so. Oh, and a final note on adventuring – you will encounter traps but they behave differently than in most games. They must be triggered by a character stepping on to a square next to the trap. Generally this means that the character will set off the trap – but it doesn’t disappear after being set off! Every other character who steps over it will also trigger it. You need to position a rogue right next to it and take an action to disarm. Of course, you get experience for it so it is worthwhile, but it is a hassle and feels a bit odd.
I would love it if I never had to complain about another RPG inventory systems as long as I lived, and that is from someone who has come to RPG’s relatively late in life. Given how I have lambasted various PSP RPG’s over the years, it is surprising that most of them have reasonably simple and accessible inventory systems. D&D Tactics, however, has a terrible system that makes the simple task of trading items between party members cumbersome and confusing.
The bottom line is that your inventory is a scrolling list of items on your person. The list is separated by what is equipped and what is not, and identical items and categories are grouped. While in an adventure, the only way to transfer that nifty new Masterwork Dwarven Warhammer +1 to your Dwarf Fighter is to drop it, move, have the Dwarf move on top of it and then use an action to pick it up. The sad thing is that is easier and more direct than moving items around in the party management system. When you are on the world map, you can select the Party Management option and choose to transfer items between characters. This is another odd system you will get used to – when you select a character and choose to trade items, that character is on the left side of the screen (the sender) and the next character on your list is on the right side (the receiver). Trading items is one-directional – if you want to swap weapons between two characters, you will need to do it in two steps. Early in the game when gold is scarce you will have no choice but to endure the process, but later in the game you may choose as I did to simply sell and buy back everything but the most precious and expensive items.
The system extends to selling and buying, but that is where it works best since you would generally have a fixed person on the other side of the transaction anyway. You can easily switch the party member who is doing the trading, and simply scroll through each list to buy or sell items. It could certainly be easier with an icon based system as is used in many other games for the PSP, or even a categorized list, but it works acceptably well. The final element of the system is equipping weapons and armor. This is more than a bit messy – the basic system looks very archaic in that you have a check-list and you can see items on the right that are selected, but to remove anything you have to go to a separate ‘unequip’ mode and remove items before switching back and equipping new items. It is every bit as cumbersome in practice as it sounds in writing.
Do you hate unintuitive check-point save systems and games that seem to have some mystical sense about when and where you should be able to save? Imagine how annoying those scenarios are on a handheld where you might want to alternate games or use your PSP for something else like music or movies. Now imagine the best possible solution – a true save anywhere system that will record every detail of your adventure and return you to exactly where you left off, even if that was in the middle of a turn. There are no limits to the number of saves, either, so it is advisable to keep a pre-adventure save and a working ‘quick-save’ from within the adventure.
The PSP is fraught with examples of games with crappy save systems, but fortunately D&D Tactics has one of the best save game implementations on the PSP. It is the most comprehensive example on a handheld of a ‘save anywhere’ system I have seen. You can be anywhere, doing anything (except, perhaps, mid-transaction in a shop) and press the Start button to access the system menu and create a new save game. There are no limits to the number of save games you can create except for the size of your memory stick – and at a few hundred kilobytes each, you’ll be hard pressed to fill even the smallest memory card. Some implications of this will be obvious to long-time D&D players – when you level-up you roll for HP (i.e. you take a dice roll to determine how many additional hit points – how much more health – you will get). If you don’t like the roll, simply save before leveling and then reload and try again. Of course, since the load-times are balanced for ‘adventure-to-load ratio’ and not for ‘HP manipulation’, this sort of thing is more of a test of patience than anything else.
Do you recall how I previously praised the need to self-draw maps in Etrian Odyssey? Well, in D&D Tactics there *are* no maps! This is actually fairly common in a ‘tactics’ game such as the Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics games – but in those games the entire region is easily scrolled through once you have uncovered the ‘fog of war’. Also, even the largest map in those games requires little scrolling to see in its’ entirety. That is because those games are focused on being strategy games; they are much more like computer analogues to classic board games and miniature battle games. D&D Tactics is very different in this regard – while it is presented as a tactics game and has a grid structure and enforces turns throughout, the map layout is much more like a traditional RPG juxtaposed with some ‘tactics’ game sensibilities … with very mixed results. You are placed on a grid, but typically in a dungeon or a field or even on an elevated pathway. You cannot see the entire area that the adventure will encompass when you start, although you could scroll through and try to guess the limits in one direction or another.
In some adventures this really doesn’t matter, particularly ones that take place in open areas where you can pretty well see around the entire landscape. But in dungeons and temples and other interior areas it is completely different. The bottom line is that these areas are too dark and your field of view is hindered by the top-down 3D view. The lack of a map or compass or other indicators of just where the heck you are at any point combines with the lack of locked rotational controls to make it very easy to miss areas in a map and to march your whole party back through territory you’ve already explored. When the areas are well lit then you can become familiar, but when you are straining to see details in low-light situations then any hope of recognizing one tunnel from another is lost. The effect of this is making a game that is large and slow-paced feel like it is wasting your time through bad design.
While I am in this darkened quagmire I suppose I should discuss the other technical aspects of the game. There is only one part of the game that I can stamp with unqualified positive acclaim, and that is the soundtrack. From the very start the music is excellent, and there is tons of it. It is moody, sweeping, atmospheric, and all of the other meaningless buzzwords used to describe game soundtrack music – but most importantly it is darn good. Not only is it good, it is completely fitting for a D&D game, immersing you into a world that feels like the many D&D games of the past. Everything comes together in this respect – the ambient sounds, the graphics, the combat animations and the music create a world that looks much like a grid-based Neverwinter Nights. And while this music isn’t going to replace the Baldur’s Gate 2 soundtrack on my iPod any time soon, it is one of the better original soundtracks I’ve heard on the PSP.
But while the graphics might be reminiscent of NWN, squishing that onto a small screen doesn’t work all that well. The dungeons range from dark to muddy, the exteriors look adequate but hazy, and the characters look nondescript and generic. None of it is terrible, but even the launch title Untold Legends looked better more than two and a half years ago! The animations are appropriate but fairly slow – but this is something you can change with an option. Fortunately since there is so much text the font is highly readable throughout, making navigation easier. The interface – aside from the inventory system I mentioned – works fairly well. In combat you select your actions from a menu for each character, and can seek help on any option at any time.
Load times are always an issue on the PSP, and from the beginning reports on this game have mentioned that load-times were long. The developers have focused on “load-to-play-time ratio”, which I took as code, meaning “we have long load times, but the adventures are really long so it is okay.” Therefore I had fairly low expectations regarding load times – but I was pleasantly surprised. Most loads, including character creation right through full adventures, were in the 10 – 15 second range, with nothing ever exceeding 30 seconds. For gamers who tend to play one game at a time this will be trivial – most adventures will take more than an hour, and even if you quit D&D Tactics to do other things it is only a couple of minutes to get fully back into the game again. This was a pleasant and unexpected surprise – the developers clearly focused on the right things and created an experience that flows rather nicely without sitting waiting for incessant loads as seems to happen with too many PSP RPG’s.
The controls are fairly simple but merely adequate as implemented. Action select and cancel buttons are standard, and the triangle button is reserved for help explanations. In fact, most actions are mapped to reserved buttons, meaning that in any given context there are unused buttons. That wouldn’t be so bad except for one thing. The whole camera system is a major pain in the butt. It is unfortunate that this game was released at nearly the same time as Jeanne D’Arc, as that game provides a textbook example of doing the camera system in a Tactics game correctly – give the user a free camera with rotational and angular control, and also provided options to jump to fixed angles. Many games would do this by overloading one of the controls with the L and R shoulder buttons, or find some other way to provide that flexibility. Part of this is the directional control I’ve already mentioned; the other part is that the pathfinding is pretty finicky. If you want to get from A to B, you need to set a route that is straight and only uses squares you can move across. That sounds fine, but since the ability to draw a straight line is directly impacted by the view angle controlled by the analog stick camera control. Also, you are completely constrained by legal steps while building a path – in most tactics games so long as the final destination is legitimate you can step across illegal move points and the game would reconfigure the path. The result is extra time fiddling with the analog stick getting the angle and view correct to move characters on an all-too-frequent basis.
Much is made about the fact that your alignment matters throughout the game and that your choices will lead you to different endings. To an extent this is true, but in reality it is just the matter of a few mission choices that turn on a decision much like a prototypical D&D dialogue choice (Of course I’ll help / How much gold? / I’ll kill you instead!). Take the obvious good path and end up with the obvious good ending, and take the evil path for the evil ending. It is nice to have the flexibility to alter the game and get at a few different missions or different takes on the same missions, but it isn’t the major event that some had expected. Of course, this is a dungeon crawler first and foremost – more experienced D&D gamers will not be surprised at the flow of events, and it does add some nice additional personality.
Speaking of ‘Roads Not Taken’ … multiplayer. Early on, there was to be full infrastructure support with a map editor and downloadable content and so on. That had been whittled down considerably so that by the time I wrote my preview there was no infrastructure mode support, no downloads, and no editor. Since then, co-operative play for the main campaign has also been eliminated, leaving essentially four ‘deathmatch’ modes and a pseudo co-op mode. Dungeon Bash allows you and up to three friends to explore one of three (yes, three!) maps from end to end, collecting loot as you progress. The other modes – Deathmatch Battle, Last Man Standing, Dragon Kill, and Gladiator – are all variations on typical FPS deathmatch modes that have you competing against other players in five different maps. They are all adequate and add to the overall experience – if you have a cadre of local PSP gamers to join you. If you are like me and do most multiplayer over the internet, you will be lucky to get a couple of two player matches together over lunch at work.
At the beginning of the review I mentioned being of two minds about the game, yet it would be easy to pull a singular view from the review – that I hate the game. Yet I don’t hate it; in fact I truly enjoy the game. For over a month I had two excellent games – Valkyria Chronicles 2 and Ys: The Oath in Felghana – alternating in my PSP Go … then I loaded up D&D Tactics into my PSP-3000 (since there is no PSN version)and neither game got touched again for two weeks!
The bottom line is this – the game is full of issues and quirks, but it is like so many PC RPG’s in that regard. It reminds me of Temple of Elemental Evil when it first came out – there were plenty of problems, but it was fun and the combat was solid. And that is ultimately what it is all about. I worked around the camera issues because exploration was fun. I adapted to finding all chests before killing the last monster because I wanted all of the loot. I figured out how to deal with the game not telling you about encumbrance issues so I wouldn’t have to leave anything behind. And more than anything, I dealt with whatever inconvenience the game threw at me because I found the application of the D&D world to a tactics style game to be an absolute blast. Combat was fun, pure and simple. I wanted more in each dungeon, was always pleased when I killed what I suspected was the last monster and I didn’t exit to the menu – because that meant there were more battles ahead.
This game is at once like and unlike any other tactics-style game you’ve played, and also like and unlike many of the classic turn-based RPG’s you might have played long ago. It is this combination that is the game’s greatest strength and weakness. And I think that this combination comes across as a ‘style clash’ in many ways, and that has caused a wide variety of opinions. While I haven’t spoken to anyone who thinks it is perfect, there are many who, like me, are willing to grumble their way through the flaws to reach the meat of the adventure mode and dig in to some excellent D&D combat. Those are typically D&D fans with PC gaming roots used to dealing with game ‘issues’. Console gamers experienced with more traditional Tactics games find this game to be an unplayable and unfathomable mess. In that regard it is perhaps the ‘Dungeon Lords’ of tactics games, though I am hesitant to use that description since this game is better than that. Suffice it to say that you will be telling Mr Owl of the many, many licks it took to get to the solid D&D core of this game, working your way through the messy candy shell.
The game is pure D&D, with all of the good and bad connotations that carries. I had spent well over a year anticipating this game, and had hoped until I had played a couple of hours back in 2007 that this would be a game that I could tell people “buy a PSP and this game – you won’t be sorry”. Unfortunately, if you do that you probably WILL be sorry … that was true three years ago, and is still true today.
Review: Dungeons & Dragons Tactics
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
What I Like: D&D tactical combat is an absolute blast; Authentic D&D feel with full v3.5 rules; Long adventure with branching and optional missions; Quick loads for hour+ adventures; Excellent soundtrack.
What Needs Improvement: Crappy camera control.; Dark and murky graphics obscure view; Finicky path-finding; Weak multiplayer; Too little info and feedback
Source: Personal copy