My favorite thing about Dungeons and Dragons has always been the third level Magic User Fireball spell. I'd cast it with no concern for area of effect or for my comrades' locale. Those were the days: frying red dragons, tallying experience points into the six-digits range, looting hoards of treasure, and using rings of unlimited wishes to get more rings of unlimited wishes.
Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance, while low on rings of unlimited wishes, is a strategy game with an RPG twist, using the second edition rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as its foundation and providing many rewarding hours of gameplay in the process. You assume the role of regent of one of the realms of Anuire. The object is to earn enough regency points to accede to the Iron Throne before any of your opponents. The final opponent, the Gorgon spoken of in the title, assembles an evil horde by the end of the game making this task quite difficult. You earn regency points by forming relations with or subjugating your neighbors. Once you earn a predetermined amount of points, you are given the power to unite the land of Anuire under your flag, restoring the glory at the end of an eon of over-dramatized chaos. Regency points add to the strength of your realm, as do cash, standing army, holdings in other realms, and magic resources. Each turn is divided into three actions, and each action takes one game-month to accomplish - collecting taxes from your subjects, casting ultra-powerful realm spells on your rivals, hiring lieutenants (NPCs) to muster your troops, and conducting diplomacy.
Should your regent become restless, you can enhance abilities and realm strength by questing for artifacts in adventure mode. During adventure mode, you and your lieutenants gallivant through statically mapped dungeons, usually slaughtering everything in sight. Adventure mode is true to the D&D system, where each regent's class governs his modes of action. If your mage knows the spell Fireball, he can cast it, but if some of your party is wandering into its area of effect, then say goodbye. There aren't any negative hit point rules: you go to zero hit points, game over.
Once alliances and hatreds have been established in each game, there will be a lot of inter-realm skirmishes. You can opt to let the computer run (and usually ruin) your armies. Or you can march onto the field of glory, risking your regent's, lieutenants' and army's lives. Battles are fought in turns on terrain represented by a 3 x 5 grid. Sometimes the battles are slightly reminiscent of the classic Archon, since you can win a battle by attrition or occupation of a certain area on the board. There are also multiple moves per turn, and racial and terrain bonuses - imagine elves in wooded terrain. The game has several skill levels, and each skill level presents you with more control over your realm (A tip for first-timers: Playing a few games in basic mode is a far more educational introduction to the game than the slow and confusing tutorial.)
At times, Birthright looks like Cacadius Maximus during his tour of the Roman Sewer. Doom-era brown and gray texture maps with looming two-dimensional cartoonish villains litter adventure mode. Paired with the sound, the unappealing visuals of the game may prohibit first-timers from giving it a chance. Fake-sounding warnings like, "Hey you, you're not supposed to be here," are about as intimidating as a rent-a-cop chowing down at the mall snack hut. And the game has the annoying habit of placing henchmen in the way of treasure and opponents. Sometimes it takes several minutes to trick the machine into letting you move around your companions simply to pick up the Gauntlets of Ogre Power. The faux heavy metal music during adventure mode harks of an adult movie soundtrack both in quality and composition. Sierra and Synergistic ought to have paid more attention to presenting an environment more in tune, conceptually, with Dungeons and Dragons. Listening to Geddy Lee is great while tallying up XP's at the end of a 12-hour gaming session, but not when the DM is telling you how much damage that wraith just did to you.
But these aesthetic drawbacks don't have much of an impact on Birthright's strong point: the playability. There are many ways to arrive at an endgame and there are many different endgames, a tribute to the gaming system's statistical complexity. The mixture of first- and third-person activities and the similarity to classic Dungeons and Dragons are to be appreciated. Birthright: The Gorgon's alliance is an excellent buy for RPG fans, especially for the socially and geographically estranged who must play solo. It may also appeal to the impatient strategy gamer looking for an occasion to take a break from tactical planning and satisfy his bloodlust with an occasional stomp through a dungeon.