Sometimes it seems like we’re going in circles. Thirteen years ago, I was playing Neverwinter Nights, a game set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons that sought to capture the spirit of the tabletop experience. But the design choices made to ensure the multiplayer worked had somewhat compromised the single-player experience.
So it goes. Sword Coast Legends is ostensibly a replica of the single-player storytelling of those Infinity Engine and Neverwinter Nights days, that also gives a Dungeon Master tools to create and manage a campaign just like on your dining room table. But the game struggles to live up to its predecessors on both fronts.
In the story campaign, you take the part of a generated mercenary, a member of the Burning Dawn guild, who must guide a caravan to the pirate city of Luskan. Your party comes under attack from another band of mercenaries, led by a Knight of Helm, who believe your guild is composed of demon worshippers (with, as it turns out, some justification). By the end of the starting sequence there are just three of your guild left. Possessed with wanting to uncover the true reason behind your attack, you search for answers in Luskan and around the Sword Coast.
"During my entire playtime, I think I only had a party wipe twice, and the generous autosave meant that both times I was past the problem section within ten minutes."
Despite that intriguing premise, the long opening sequence is far from compelling. It opens on a generic caravan defence scenario where you’re fighting rats, goblins, and a small army of mercenaries whilst having some mild nightmares about demons, just like Pillars of Eternity’s beginning, though without the panache. Its most stirring moment came when a single party member died early on, and that was mostly because I’d equipped him with my best gear and it was permanently lost.
After that, the game hits its stride, bouncing you between disparate areas of Luskan and the wider Sword Coast. It effectively replicates the early 2000s Bioware model, where you traipse around the landscape, killing a large variety of creatures and humanoids in all the usual settings: sewers, woodlands, abandoned castles, dungeons, and so on. You’ll uncover nefarious side-quests wherever you go, whether it’s cultists under the flower shop or a necromancer’s tomb hidden--predictably--in a graveyard.
As usual for this genre, exploration involves killing an array of enemies. You do this in party-based tactical combat, where you can pause at any time to get more fine control over each individual’s abilities. When not under direct control, your party members will auto-attack, using any special abilities or spells they’ve accrued.
Yet pausing was often unnecessary. I found myself defeating every combat situation with ease--perhaps due to the tight levelling of the various enemies, perhaps because magic item effects stack, allowing characters to become crazily overpowered. And the AI for your teammates is so capable that I would often swap to my tank to ensure that the AI did all the work with the more complex cleric and mage classes.
During my entire playtime, I think I only had a party wipe twice, and the generous autosave meant that both times I was past the problem section within ten minutes. Although that was on the middling difficulty level, changing difficulty did not seem to offer much distinction.
Beyond the overachieving AI, the ease of collecting large stores of magic and healing items made life almost too easy. My capacious knapsacks were bulging by the end of Act I with some outrageous-sounding weaponry and armour, most of which only ever seemed to have a mild effect on combat. The excess of healing items meant that when someone died in combat, a teammate could run over and revive them. It was a plausible tactic to tank a tough enemy just by having two melee fighters resurrecting each other every time they died, with the AI cleric popping out healing spells occasionally and the wizard doing all the damage. As every AI character auto-heals from your stash at every opportunity, I lived in dread of running out of healing kits during a tough battle, but the generosity of drops meant that it never happened.
That said, I enjoyed exploring the character classes, especially through the lens of the handful of named characters recruitable to your party. The levelling system guides players through a tight skill tree system, which is easier to understand than the traditional Dungeons & Dragons system of having a giant list of skills. Each character has access to a class-based array of skill trees, meaning you can heavily customise them to your playstyle. In my playthroughs, the supposed necromancer Hommet became a handy fire mage, while my homemade rogue was good for little other than picking locks and running away.
The party characters themselves are staid in terms of design and writing, albeit with universally good voice acting. You have a dwarf rogue, a dwarf warrior, an elven cleric, and a human wizard. Hommet is the stand-out; a nervous student Necromancer who has all the best lines and conveys endless surprise at his own lethality and/or clumsiness. You do start to hear the same lines over and over fairly soon, but I didn’t tire of his. Nicely, if you’re on a quest and the relevant character isn’t present, they can magically communicate from camp. That means every character is with you all the time, so you can finish every personal story in one playthrough.
"The party characters are staid in terms of design and writing, albeit with universally good voice acting."
It's easy to play through the campaign with your friends online thanks to Steam multiplayer support and the game's solid netcode, even if the would-be-convenient in-game invite button didn't work at the time of writing. Beyond the campaign lies other exciting opportunities for networked adventurers, such as the opportunity to play with a Dungeon Master.
The Dungeon Master toolset allows players to build their own dungeons and then play through them, actively managing combat by creating traps and monsters. Yet, at the time of writing, the dungeon-creation toolset is much simpler and smaller than other games that have done this, and there’s no support for coding or complex logic. (For those who’ve played The Magic Circle, it’s not much more powerful than the throwaway DM parody included late in that game.)
Once you’ve built a dungeon or downloaded a premade one, you can take your friends or internet randoms on a Dungeon Crawl. Dungeons Masters can directly manage a party of players through a dungeon, making progression more challenging and unpredictable without necessarily trying to make them fail. The DM places new traps and creatures by spending a resource called Threat, which recharges as players progress.
Now, the best tabletop RPG experiences I’ve played hinged on the flexibility of the DM and his or her ability to shift the story and player path in response to player actio. For example, allowing the story to change or a key NPC to die because players deviated from his planned route. Sword Coast’s toolset limitations mean the DM can’t deal with player action in that sense. He has to stick to the path in the level he’s built, as do the players, meaning he’s changing the dungeon, not the wider story.
Finally, considering how much processing oomph it seems to need, Sword Coast Legends looks muddy and unremarkable. The world is easily forgotten. Sewers, woods, tumbledown buildings, castles and keeps--perhaps the game’s beauty is limited by the necessity to stick to reusable tilesets, or perhaps the lack of clarity is down to that 3D style.
Despite its lack of beauty and bite, Sword Coast Legends nevertheless has things going for it. The familiar combat system works, the humour of Hommet helped me survive the quests, there’s a huge amount of loot, and the critical path is solid. It may take too long to get into its stride, but it’s a useful morsel to tide us over until an actual tabletop roleplay simulator arrives.