Sword Coast Legends Review

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:n-Space
Release Date:2015-10-20
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Sword Coast Legends is the debut role-playing game from n-Space, a Florida-based developer with ties to Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age: Origins (including Dan Tudge, who was the executive producer of DAO).  The game uses the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition rules (or at least a variation on them), so anyone who has played any of the titles listed in this paragraph, or any of BioWare's games from the last twenty years, should feel right at home.

In the campaign that comes with Sword Coast Legends, you play a new recruit in a guild called the Order of the Burning Dawn.  You're tasked with guarding a caravan traveling from Neverwinter to Luskan, but then bandits spring out and attack -- only they're not simple bandits; they're actually mercenaries bent on eradicating your guild.  Between this attack and others, your guild leadership is gone (along with most of your guildmates), and that leaves it up to you to figure out what's going on and why, and of course to put a stop to it.

Along with the campaign, Sword Coast Legends also includes a toolkit that allows you to create your own modules (including interacting with the players as an actual Dungeon Master), much like Neverwinter Nights did previously.  However, I did not spend any time with the toolkit.  This review is for the campaign and engine only.

Characters

In order to play Sword Coast Legends, you have to create a character.  You're given lots of options for this.  There are five races (plus sub-races) to choose from, including human, elf, and dwarf.  There are six classes, including cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard.  There are a dozen backgrounds (that give you a small passive bonus), including criminal, hermit, and spy.  You also get to pick your gender, appearance, name, alignment, and patron deity, but surprisingly, all of these options are cosmetic.  In one game I played a drow, and a drow-hating companion didn't notice.  In another I played a paladin, and the game didn't care what my alignment was.  But I suppose extra flavor is never a bad thing.

Characters are defined by their attributes and abilities.  The attributes are the standard six: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma.  You're allowed to spend points to set your attributes at the start of the game (where you're likely to end up with values in the 10-15 range), and then every four levels you receive two attribute points so you can advance them further.  This system is a little too friendly to me.  You can easily raise your primary attributes to 18 using points (18 is the point cap), and then raise them all the way to 30 using equipment (since all equipment bonuses stack).  30 is just wrong for a D&D game.

For abilities, characters get to choose from eight different trees depending on their class.  For example, fighters get trees for dual-wielding, two-handed weapons, shields, archery and more.  Characters also get a general tree where they can learn weapon and armor proficiencies.  So nothing in the game prevents you from playing a heavy-armor, dual-wielding wizard if that's what you want.  Characters start out with a handful of abilities already learned, and then they receive 3 ability points per level to learn more.  The first rank of an ability costs the most (two or three points), but then ranks after that only cost one point.  The ability trees work much better than the attributes, as characters can't learn even half of the abilities they have available, and so you have to make choices.

Along with your main character, you can also travel with up to three companions.  There are eight companions available in the game, and since there are only six classes, it's easy to find three who complement how you want to play.  Companions start out at your level when you meet them, but they don't earn any experience if they're not in your party.  Luckily, the game employs a "magic walkie-talkie" system, so any companion you're not using can comment on what's going on, and you don't need to have a particular companion in your party at any time, even to do their side quest.  Companions advance in exactly the same way as the main character.


Interface

Sword Coast Legends is played using an isometric view of your surroundings.  You left-click where you want your currently selected character to move, you right-click to rotate the camera, you use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, you use the spacebar to pause, and you use a variety of hotkeys to bring up information screens or to activate an ability or consumable.  If you have party AI turned on, then the rest of your party follows along behind your selected character.  Otherwise, you have to move everybody individually, or select them all to move them in a group.  There aren't any formations, and you can't rotate the way your party is facing.

Other than the basic control scheme detailed above, n-Space didn't do a very good job in creating the interface for their game, which is strange given all of the good examples they could have looked at.  For starters, the text is tough to read.  The font is small and bold, so the letters tend to be blobs that look alike.  I often had to sit close to my monitor and squint to read what was going on, and annoyingly, lots of information appears only briefly on the right side of the screen, and there isn't any way to scroll it back.  And while there is a text window on the left side of the screen (complete with scrollbars), you can't re-size it or change its opacity, and opening it up also opens up the chat interface, which sometimes causes the game to think you're chatting rather than pressing hotkeys.  So I left that window closed 99% of the time.

Or consider shopping.  When you visit a vendor, you have to buy or sell items one at a time (even if you have a stack of them), and to do so, you either have to drag the item between inventories, or right-click the item and then select buy or sell, or double click the item.  None of these options is quick or convenient, and sort of dopily, the game employs a "junk" system, where you can designate an item as junk and then sell all of your junk items at once, but it takes just as much effort to junk something as it does to sell it, and so the system doesn't actually help you.  Meanwhile, all of the "miscellaneous" items you find (including a myriad of gems and statues) aren't used for anything, but they don't get a "sell all" button.

Or how about the save interface -- or lack thereof?  Regardless of whether you're playing the campaign solo or online with friends, you only get one save slot.  That's just lame for a 50-hour campaign, especially if you're like me and you like to see what happens when you make different choices.  Early on I didn't realize how the save system worked -- because along with everything else, n-Space didn't bother to write a manual -- and I killed a guy to see if he dropped anything interesting.  Well, the game auto-saved after his death, and I was stuck with a choice I didn't really want.  Luckily, there's an option where you can turn off auto-saves, and that mitigates some of the problems, but I hated only having one save available.

Or how about exploring?  The game world has a bunch of hidden objects, secret doors and traps, which is great, but there isn't a party search option.  Instead, only a character with points in the search skill can hunt for hidden things, which means you're pretty much required to play as your rogue when you're exploring a new area.  That's fine if your main character happens to be a rogue, but it's annoying otherwise.  If I decide to make a paladin, the last thing I want to do is spend 90% of my time controlling my rogue companion.

The interface has some other issues as well -- like the tooltip for mimics saying "mimic" rather than "chest," just slightly giving away the surprise -- but it's all stuff you can deal with or work around or, sadly, get used to as you play the game.  But it's unfortunate.  Sword Coast Legends feels like a game where the cool programmers got to do the fun stuff, and the interns had to create the interface.  The disparity is evident, and it's a huge negative for interface snobs like me.

Combat

Sword Coast Legends focuses on the city of Luskan, but even so there are a bunch of caves, forests, secret labs, sewers and more where you fight things.  Combat takes place in real time, and it's much faster than I was expecting.  I started out trying to micromanage my party, but even with the ability to pause the game at any time (not to mention several auto-pause options), I couldn't keep up, and I eventually let the party AI take charge.

The AI is pretty decent, but it has some quirks.  Characters make sensible use of their skills and spells -- a caster invoking a buff always moves to include as many allies as possible, for example -- and since all skills and spells are attached to cooldowns (there isn't any resting or memorization), characters freely choose between all of their abilities, and there isn't any need to restrict them.  The only problem I had with the AI is that my cleric kept waiting too long to heal (giving me flashbacks of my MMO days), and so I frequently had to take charge of her in battles to keep my party alive.

When your characters take too much damage, they get knocked out rather than killed, but you can revive them to get them fighting again.  Reviving is easy.  All characters get a "stabilize" skill, and there are also healing kits and spells that can do the job.  But you still have to be careful.  Characters knocked unconscious seem to earn less experience than their peers at the end of a battle -- even if you revive them while it's still going on -- and the only way to lose the game is if your entire party is knocked out.

After every battle, along with experience, you also usually pick up some equipment.  The equipment in the game isn't very exciting.  Most of it is random with one or two basic bonuses, and other items are of the Longsword +1 variety.  There aren't any set items, but there are a few unique pieces that are worth tracking down.  The most notable thing about the equipment is that all of the bonuses on your worn items stack together, so if you have five items giving bonuses to strength, then you apply them all to your character (instead of just the best one, which is normally the case for D&D games).  Because of this, it's easy to advance primary attributes to 30 or reduce spell cooldowns by 50%, and it's tough to tell if this system was intentional or if it's simply a "feature" of the game.

I started out playing Sword Coast Legends on the "hard" difficulty setting, but my characters kept getting knocked out, and I kept having to use cheesy tactics to win battles (like running around in circles so my cooldowns would expire), and so I eventually switched over to "normal" just so I could get through the game in a more timely fashion.  Unfortunately, "normal" was so easy that it was boring.  Only one fight (against a mindflayer) was even halfway difficult, and maps are filled with trash battles devoid of interest.


Campaign

The campaign that comes with Sword Coast Legends revolves around your investigation into why somebody would want to exterminate your guild.  Interesting questions like "Are your enemies right?" are largely ignored, and the storyline relies too much on magical characters who for no particular reason know just where you should travel to next so you can learn something new.  And of course, their directions always lead you to places where you have to fight a bunch of things.

The side quests are limited as well.  Most are of the basic variety where you're asked to kill something or fetch something and then come back.  You rarely get to make any meaningful decisions, other than to accept a quest or not, and what decisions you do make don't change the arc of the storyline one iota.  At best, after finding a bad guy you sometimes get to choose between letting him go (perhaps after accepting some bribe money) or killing him.  But either way, the guy doesn't play any role in the remainder of the game, and so it doesn't make any difference what your judgment is.

Luckily, your companions are better developed.  During each of the game's three acts, you're allowed to have a conversation with them, where you learn more about their backgrounds and motivations.  This isn't up to the standards of the Shadowrun games, but it's not bad, and when you have to make an important decision late in the game, it's clear why your companions lean one way or the other.  Your companions also give you a side quest based on their storyline, and they make some funny comments while you're exploring.

Sound and Graphics

Sword Coast Legends contains both music and voice acting.  The music is competent without being memorable.  The voice actors do a nice job bringing the important NPCs (including all of your companions) to life.  Minor NPCs don't get voice acting at all.

The graphics are less impressive than the sound.  Since casters only get a small palette of spells to work with, you don't see a lot of impressive spell effects during battles.  Numerous items don't get unique icons.  Capes cause all sorts of clipping issues.  And the locations are all drab and boxy (let's call them Neverwinter-like), and they don't do anything to make you want to explore them.  The only place where I saw something nice with the graphics was during character creation.  Instead of selecting a portrait that might not look anything like your character, the game takes a handful of "pictures" of your character using different backgrounds, and then you get to pick the one you like the best.  It's a nice system, and I hope it gets emulated elsewhere.

Technical Issues

I spent roughly 50 hours playing Sword Coast Legends, and I didn't experience any crash bugs or notice anything severely broken during that time.  Normally this would be an excellent thing for a game, but for Sword Coast Legends it means that I didn't like it even while everything was working as intended.  That means I can't hold out much hope for a patch or anything.  This might be as good as the game gets.  Bleah.

Conclusion

Sword Coast Legends was a major disappointment for me.  Developer n-Space completely massacred the Dungeon & Dragons fifth edition ruleset to make their game more action-oriented -- or perhaps more "appealing to the masses" -- but their strategy backfired terribly.  They also built a campaign that could have come out of an RPG 101 factory, which is a waste of time for anybody like me who has graduated on to more advanced coursework.  Their campaign also does little to advertise what their module toolkit might be capable of, or to encourage anybody to explore it further.

That said, Sword Coast Legends is a budget title, and you'll probably notice it on sale a lot in the future.  If I've done my job properly and set your expectations extremely low, then maybe it won't seem horrible if you pick it up for around $5.  But there are better games out there.  All over the place.