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Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes

Review By:  Siou Choy

Developer:  Atari
Publisher:  Atari
# of Players:  1-4
Genre:  Action RPG
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Unit, Dolby Digital
Date Posted: 

3-4-04

While most hardcore fantasy gamers are likely holding out for the next installments of Final Fantasy or even Baldur’s Gate, impatient types looking for a good hack and slash need set their sights no further than Atari’s Dungeons & Dragons Heroes.  D&D Heroes has you playing as one of four “heroes” (if anyone out there is so naďve as to still believe such a term holds merit, in these days when any shmuck in a uniform seems to merit that once lofty designation in print) that have been raised from the dead.   While zombie fans are doubtless licking their lips in nervous anticipation, this, like the majority of what constitutes the vague outlines of a “plot”, turns out to be wholly irrelevant to the game per se.  Here’s the scoop: these four “heroes” had previously given their lives in a battle against the evil wizard Kaedin (think David Bowie in Legend, but even more lame) 150 years ago.  Thanks to the foolish machinations of some greedy industrialists…I mean, occult types who thought they could use his powers to their own meager ends, Kaedin has returned.  Some silly looking dwarves decide that nobody else can do the job, and harass our heroes back from their eternal slumber to put the lame bastard down once again.  Luckily for the short-pants community, you (as the befuddled revivified “hero” in question) are of a more forgiving and genial temperament than ol’ Special K.  One other nigh-insignificant plot point: the Big K somehow managed to knock most of your powers out of you last time around, so part of your journey involves gathering some special gems (“soul shards”) to restore your “ancient weapon” to its former glory.  Whatever.

In D&D Heroes you can play as one of four characters; a “human” fighter, an elven female wizard, a dwarf “cleric”, or a “halfling” rogue of indeterminate gender (at least, I couldn’t figure it out).  Each character is unique and has his/her own strengths and weaknesses.  The human is ostensibly the strongest of the group (how racist), but this really isn’t true – all this clown can do is hack and slash well, carry a lot of stuff, and run at a reasonable speed.  Only the boring need apply.   The elf wizard is ostensibly weaker but has a load of nasty spells, and if you do things the easy way (like I did), she gets to be pretty damn strong pretty damn fast, giving you speed, strength, reasonable carrying capacity, powerful spells, and something nice to look at all in one computer generated package.  The dwarf is a decent fighter and magic caster, but lopes around extremely slowly (Kreplach the dwarf from Baldur’s Gate looks like Jesse Owens by comparison), and that includes during fight situations (you might get one swing in to 2-3 of the elven wizard’s).   The rogue is pretty weak.  The only pluses are that he/she/it has the use of both blades and bows and is quicker than other characters; you also won’t need to worry about running out of skeleton keys to open all those chests like you will with the other characters (they can be bought at the store every time you warp back there at save points, so it’s not a big advantage).

Regardless of your choice and despite all the geeky and wholly irrelevant D&D style “level up” point allocations [hint to the non-obsessive: stick with strength, spells, and hit points, and forget all that “wisdom/constitution/intelligence” crap], what you don’t get is character development of any sort.  You never get to hear your character speak (no, not even once) outside of grunts during battle.  Nothing whatsoever is revealed about your character along the way, outside of what’s in the manual.   You really don’t meet anyone along the way, despite your myriad travels to different realms – all you get is 2 shopkeepers and a small “band of rogues” (who become shopkeepers late in the game).  Ooh, what depth and dramatic tension!

Graphically, D&D Heroes is respectable, if a bit of a disappointment.  While far from bad (in fact, some areas look rather nice), overall, it doesn’t even look as nice as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (which, for those who didn’t know, was released a few years back.  You’d think they’d have improved things by now, not degenerated).  The real problem is in the close-up sequences and FMVs, where flaws in character models become dreadfully apparent.  Faces have a greasy, waxy look to them, some unholy cross between N64 gaming and those creepy kewpie dolls and puppet show marionettes they used to make in the 50s.  As far as motion per se, a not wholly insignificant portion of the animation comes off looking rather choppy, with the framerate tending to jump around a great deal.  In areas where you find yourself surrounded by several enemies, their sheer bulk tends to cause a noticeable slowdown.  Worse, if wholly perplexing, sometimes even a simple action such as breaking a crate can cause the framerate to break down considerably.

OK, let’s get another marketing myth out of the way right now: D&D Heroes allows for you to play the game along with three friends (they even go so far as to specifically say “best played together” on the box cover).  While this idea may seem great in theory, it’s actually not something that complements your game in any way (nor do I advise trying it for any extended period).   Having tried it both ways, I found the game infinitely preferable when played solo.  Here’s the scoop: extra players cause a lot of problems.  First off, nobody really thinks the same way (which is a good thing, unless you’re a fascist, communist, or in the army, all of which are virtual synonyms anyway).  Therefore, no two people will move in the same direction at the same time.  What tends to happen is, one player will be at one end of the screen while the other will be at the opposite end, causing the camera to pull to an extreme far view; so far, in fact, that you wouldn’t even be able to tell what’s going on or where you were if you didn’t have a colored circle designating your position.   Secondly, other players will steal your booty.  (In the pirate sense, that is; let’s keep this clean, boys).   Needless to say, this severely depletes your cash, level up, and item resources.  Thirdly, there appears to be no difference in the number of enemies you have to face down whether played solo or in concert – your only advantage would appear to be speed.  And finally, related to the first point, things tend to get rather chaotic, even in one player mode, when they pull the infamous Tick “night of 1000 ninjas” bit – you have to see this to believe it with 2 or more players onscreen at the same time.  Thanks, but I’ll pass.

If you’re dead set on making this a communal gaming experience, there is a plus: players can join in the game and/or leave at any point in the game.  Once again, while this sounds like a great idea, there is an obvious catch: if you join in at a more advanced stage of the game, and your character is just starting out, your chances of survival will be rather slim.

Controls are, if anything, an improvement over Baldur’s Gate, offering more end-user control.  Aside from the standard attack button, most of the other buttons can be individually mapped to specific user-chosen spells (once you’ve bought them with sufficient level up points) and items (once you’ve found them in the myriad treasure chests along the way) for easy access and usage.   In addition, the white and black buttons are pre-mapped to your health and magic potion reserves, freeing the other 3 buttons for whatever spells or items you deem most effective for a given situation.  Character revival amulets do their job automatically upon death (though in a nice touch, you get to choose whether or not to use them, should you decide to redo the game from your last save).    That said, the plethora of such amulets you receive (and the lack of a Resident Evil style “grade”, which makes do-overs generally superfluous), serves to make D&D Heroes a bit too easy and unchallenging.  While I never recall purchasing even a single amulet, I found myself with over 30 of them upon completion of the game.

The voice acting in D&D Heroes is fair, if hardly outstanding.  Cut scenes help move what amounts to the game’s “story” along as one of the aforementioned 4 or 5 characters you meet along the way goes into a brief exposition of what just happened (or what you need to do) and why.  Monster noises and sound effects are fine, if unintentionally amusing (there is a large section halfway through the game where certain bat like creatures expend all their energy belching at you).  The background music is inoffensive, but unmemorable.

While I admit to enjoying the game (much as I found myself begrudgingly enjoying the very similar Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance a year back), I found myself leaving it with no real sense of accomplishment, as I would with other console RPGs, survival horror, or adventure games such as Final Fantasy VII, Lunar, Resident Evil, or Tomb Raider.  The gamer exits D&D Heroes, even more so than its antecedent, feeling that he or she has just spent the last several hours of gameplay just going through the motions (however enjoyably).  Much like going to work, one does exactly what one needs to do to fulfill the job requirements and get a paycheck, and no more (while being lulled into a false sense of pride along the way – damn, wasn’t that impressive of me to hack and slash my way through those hundreds of skeletons surrounding me every few feet?  I feel validated as a person, now).  There really isn’t much skill or insight to be put into this, just a mere touch of the button for a huge spell or some incessant button mashing to smash your way through.  But then again, this isn’t a thinking man’s RPG.  It’s mindless hack n’ slash, with the trappings of fantasy gaming to make it look attractive to the two handed gamers among the crowd.

Highs:

  • Hours of mindless fun for the fantasy gaming addict (emphasis on the mindlessness of it)
  • A worthy contender to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance’s throne (well, a nice complement to it, anyway), if you aren’t overly particular

Lows:

  • Straight up hack and slash with little variation for the thinking gamer
  • Complete and utter lack of plot
  • Choppy framerate
  • Weird, waxy rendering in FMVs makes things look cheaper and shoddier than the unbelievably superior Baldur’s Gate versions

Final Verdict: 

Despite a few shortcomings, Dungeons & Dragons Heroes is an enjoyable game for fantasy gaming addicts looking to get away from life’s mundanities for a while.  While all this mindless hack and slashing won’t exactly challenge you mentally (just wait till you see the programmers’ idea of a big plot twist – could that nice gentleman (out of the entire, oh, FIVE other characters you meet in the course of the damn game) really be…Kaedin???  Were you surprised?  Did you care?  Did this affect the story in any way, shape or form?  There practically wasn’t a single point in the game posing any serious threat, as warping back to the store with a nearly limitless supply of cash to buy an endless amount of health and mystical will potions was so beyond “easy” as to be de rigueur, and revival amulets were perhaps the most plenteous item to be found in your travels.  It was both fun and diverting, and that’s about all you can ask of such straightforward ostensible entertainment as a video game.   I mean we’re not exactly talking the high sociopolitics of classic science fiction, here.  This is elf & troll territory, kids.  Snort.

Overall Score: 7.0

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