Review: Sword Coast Legends

Two video studies have teamed up to make Sword Coast Legends, the latest Dungeons & Dragons video game and first video game for the 5th Edition of the game.

Video game design studio n-Space  has a catalogue of 50+ games. In the past they have mostly ported existing games to other systems, particularly to handheld devices or older platforms, but have also worked on licensed games for Hannah Montana or Mary-Kate and Ashley (you need to start somewhere). Digital Extremes is the similar, having ported a few big name titles, but they also created and published Warframe.

What Is Itscl1

Sword Coast Legends is an isometric (or top down) video game where you control a party of adventurers in a hack-and-slash adventure along the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms. It was hyped as resembling older Dungeons & Dragons video games such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and a staff connection to Dragon Age: Origins is also name dropped. The official video emphasises that this game returns you to the “classic” era of D&D cRPGs.

You build your primary character, choosing from the fighter, ranger, cleric, wizard, rogue, or paladin as your class, while available races are the elf, dwarf, human, halfling, or half-elf. The remainder of your party is a number of NPCs. However, there is also a strong multiplayer element, and you can introduce a second player at any time, even to the single-player game. In addition to the “single-player” campaign there is a Dungeon Master toolset that lets a player create an adventure for their friends. You can download these modules and play them independent of the creator, or you can get someone to DM in real time, adding hazards or controlling NPCs.

Sword Coast Legends is available on Steam for PC, but apparently also available on OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

The Good

The game has decent graphics. They’re not amazing, but I don’t expect fantastic close-up detail from a game primarily played from above. Detail would be lost. Similarly, fancy effects like flowing hair would be wasted.

The game follows the Baldur’s Gate method of gameplay where you can play in real time or pause the game at any time to issue commands. The standard BioWare approach. I was happy to see the pause command was mapped to the traditional Space Bar.

The action bar UI is rather nice. I appreciate the ease of switching between weapons and alternating between cantrips. It’s very visible and easy to tell what weapons and spells you’re using to auto-attack. When I fought monsters resistant to my default weapon, it was a simple matter to just switch to something more appropriate in real time. The action bar also nice and long, mapped to buttons but going from 1 to =, rather than just the 1 to 0 as is more common.

Character advancement is handled through ability trees. They’re really more ability paths, as I didn’t see much branching or the Dragon Age: Inquisition un-branching. Some are tied to classes while others overlap, so both the rogue and ranger can choose two-weapon fighting powers. You get three ability points each time you level, which is nice. You can pick a few low-level options or save your points for big, higher tier powers that require more points.

The NPC AI seemed decent. It wasn’t perfect, but I’ve seen sooooo much worse. For the most part my companions could be left alone in combat for short periods without doing something likely to get them killed. I have no idea how the game handles threat/aggro but it seems to work reasonably well: I never had to have the wizard run around from an enemy because they hit it first while the rest of the party chased the creature unloading spells yet being ignored.

1The monsters look good. Or rather, they look like their 5th Edition counterparts from the Monster Manual. Most of the game looks like 5e, from the menu flourishes, trade dress, and art, much of which were pulled right from the book. To my knowledge, it’s the most a D&D video game has emulated the books.

In general the monsters feel fairly close to D&D, with some being resistant or vulnerable to different types of damage (fire, slashing) or immune to certain effects and conditions. The monsters even act familiar in play, with the gelatinous cube being invisible, the mimic hiding as a chest, and the ochre jelly splitting into smaller oozes. It’s great that the monsters are not just identical bags of hit points or are limited to replicate class abilities with different visual effects.

Most of the NPCs are unremarkable, but I found the dwarf rogue Larethar pretty fun. Something about his attitude just made me smile.

The DM tools. These have a bit of a learning curve and not all the tools and options are readily apparent. It’s very easy to miss aspects of the tools. You can do a surprising amount such as creating NPCs that give out quests then send you to locations you can mark on the map and unlock new areas as you progress. You can add monsters and unique creatures to the map. I didn’t spend nearly enough time to really feel I had mastered this system. I honestly want to play with it a little more, just to see what I can do.

There is a lot of NPC and even map customization. You can add details and items to a map, add enemies and some treasure chests, and make a personalized an enemy set: palette swapping some colours and giving some alternate powers. While you can’t move enemies from one set to another, you can just add a few where you want on the map. You can place a boss for your quest, choosing from a list of a half-dozen potential bosses or a custom monster you created earlier. There are some neat features here.

The Bad

4I’ll start with the obvious complaint: there’s not a lot of D&D in the player characters. It’s a generic RPG really. And the little bits of D&D that are included aren’t always well handled. When you make a character, you pick familiar classes and ability scores, but those are in everything. The skill trees are filled with names that come from 5e, but what the ability does is often different. It takes more than naming to make something D&D, and just calling something a D&D fighter doesn’t make it feel like a D&D fighter. There are also plenty of powers with no counterpart in D&D, especially for the martial characters. And most abilities have a higher level variant; taking firebolt III feels odd.

While the ability scores are the classic 6, there’s no explanation of what ability scores are needed for which class or weapons. You can easily make a fighter that picks Strength as a dump stat and throws all their point-buy points into Charisma and Intelligence. There’s no walkthrough of D&D-isms, such as explaining that a Dex ranger with a bow needs to take finesse weapons to hit. Damage for weapons is visible when equipping weapons, but the attack numbers are hidden in mouseover text. There are hints and similar text but this is surprisingly useless. I almost wonder if there was some sort of downloadable manual I skipped. (Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever downloaded a manual from a Steam game. Is that even possible?)

There’s no multiclassing in the game, but that’s not really missed. The skill trees make the classes seem small, as there is a lot of overlap and all your abilities come from skill choices. It would be easy to make a fighter and paladin or ranger and rogue that are identical in play. There are exclusive powers but these are still choices. A few free powers, even just at level one, to emphasise a class would have been nice.

All abilities are learned by these skill trees and there is no way to gain additional powers. There’s no scribing scrolls for wizards, although scrolls still exist in the game.

There’s also no easy way to specialize, and you can’t go “all in” down one tree. Most of the skills in a tree are locked until you hit a set level, so you have to branch out into a couple different trees. Early in the game you meet a Necromancer wizard companion (in a terrible way I’ll describe later) but he can only really learn a single necromancy spell beyond his cantrip for the next few levels, so he’s just as likely to play like an evoker and use fire magic as be a necromancer.

Abilities also have cooldowns, which is not particularly Vancian. This isn’t close to a deal breaker, as this is standard in D&D video games. I’d prefer actually replicating the rules, like Baldur’s Gate and many of the earlier SSI video games did (especially since they suggested that was what this game was and didn’t bother to correct anyone), but cooldowns can work. However, there’s no real at-will equivalents beyond the auto-attack, making combat static and boring, as you hit a few key powers, cycle between characters, and then wait. And wait. Watching the computer play. Neverwinter did this better, and I liked how they managed “daily” powers.

There’s also no skills in the game, just ability checks. Which feels rather 5e but isn’t explained. Dialogue choices are typically tied to Charisma (for Diplomacy) or Strength (for Intimidation). So you really have to always pick option with your highest stat rather than the one that fits your character. Playing the nice guy fighter? Sorry, you’ll have to Intimidate everyone you meet or have no real chance for success. I didn’t see a “Persuasive” style choice that lets you get better at talking. Or any real out-of-combat abilities really. Which might be a good thing because…

Monsters auto-level to match you. You need to optimize for combat, as selecting too many sub-optimal choices means you lag behind in the power curve and the game becomes harder. This also makes the balance of the game super important: if game is unbalanced it either gets easier and easier as you gain levels or harder and harder. However, if you are stuck it also becomes impossible to grind to get more powerful and brute force past the opposition. And it also results in oddities where low level monsters become unnaturally potent when facing a tough party, such as goblins and rats with more hit points than Tiamat.6

Non-present companions talk to you via sending stones. Which is kinda neat but means you lose the replay value of different conversation pieces from different combinations of companions. If the dialogue or interaction of an NPC was essential to a mission, they should be mandatory. Really, it just felt like the game didn’t want to bother with alternate dialogue from different voice actors.

The game features some voice acting for key quests, but not all dialogue is acted. There are lots of quiet conversations, including all the sub-quests and side interactions/backstory of the NPCs. And your character is also silent. Partial voice acting isn’t that unusual, and it was the case with Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity. But unlike those game, Sword Coast Legends wasn’t paid for by Kickstarter, and DOS is doing an enhanced version will full voice acting.

The game is filled with small nuisances. Riddled. Some design flaws and some quality-of-life issues. These include:

There’s no penalty for death, i.e. losing 1-¾ of your party in a fight. It’s just time tax where you wait to heal, which is the most annoying tax as it just makes you bored with an activity you’re explicitly doing for enjoyment during limited free time. But it’s often still faster then doing the fight again, so the pain is not enough to warrant a reload. I also didn’t see a “rest” option like is standard for D&D games (no Hit Dice or even Healing Surges). You either need to quaff one of the multitude of potions you gather or have a cleric spam Cure Wounds or other healing spells. Which are on a set recharge, even out of combat.  

You can’t leave or change maps except on the world map. If you travel to a dungeon, you need to walk to the exit and then walk across the outside map to find the world exit travel point. Slow and a pain in the butt.

When making a character there is no variation in body types. You are unable to make your hero a fat or skinny, tall or short, slim or athletic. You can only vary the face.

It’s harder to tell characters apart from above and gear only has minimal effect on appearance.

The game is very quick to hand out magic items, but most are super boring. Bonus elemental damage or resistances. The standard hack-and-slash magic items. The game lacks the unique and fun magic items that really define 5th Edition.

There’s no crafting system in the game. This is problematic as loot is random, so your combat effectiveness is dependant on random drops. I’ve seen a few reviews deride some of the special starting gear and how it was quickly replaced by items pulled from the bodies of rats and goblins, but I continued to use my starter gear for well into the game.

It took far, far too long to figure out how to move items on my hotbar (you hold for a second then move). Yes, accidental moving of iconics is a pain, but I prefer a lock/unlock button. Or a freakin’ hint advising you how to rearrange that interface you continually use for the entire game. The action bar also defaults to slotting recently picked-up consumables and all learned powers including cantrips, despite a toggle area to the side for the latter. I had a hotbar crowded with scrolls and unwanted potions for far too long.

The game has the standard giant sprawling Diablo-esque dungeons. Not a fan of the illogical design, but I’ll manage. However, in the map you can’t scroll to see if you missed an area. You have to move in the main screen and then look at the map. It made navigating annoying.

The story is linear. I never felt like my choices were making a real difference or had anything but a cosmetic effect. This even seemed to be lampshaded in the game. At one point you’re confronted by goblins. You can attack, bribe them, or try and turn them against the bandits by revealing betrayal. Regardless, they attack and you end up fighting the goblins. One of your companions remarks “I don’t know why I expected a different reaction.” Yeah… me either.

I don’t want to comment too much on the story, since I haven’t completed it yet, and thus there’s still time for a surprise twist or dramatic revelation, a Darth Revan was really Keyser Soze moment (I’m doubtful). However, so far it is unimpressive. You could win a game of Computer-RPG-Plot BINGO in the first hour: a legendary item fallen into myth, dream sequences complete with meaningless combat and reminders of “failures” (and since when do D&D elves dream?), a caravan with missing travellers, bandit ambush, and quests to collect mushrooms or recover lost cargo. You even reach a city and, of course, find the gate is sealed and access to the city is restricted.

I don’t see an alignment or reputation system in the game. Kill and steal as you will and remain that saintly Lawful Good…

Early on I missed a puzzle. Or rather, a “puzzle” as the solution was pretty obvious. A locked door that was “mechanically sealed” but the objects you needed to interact with didn’t show up via the Search skill and holding the object highlighting Alt button did nothing. So I assumed the door just opened elsewhere or need a key drooped from a named NPC. I eventually realized my error when I finished the dungeon and the quest remained unfinished. However, returning late created a bug, so the quest was uncompletable. Even half-assed QA should have revealed this problem, and a better game designer would have had party NPCs comment something to draw attention to the puzzle nature of the situation. A “Hrm. Maybe we should look around for a lever or something” dialogue window.

The Ugly

3Moving is like Baldur’s Gate where you click a destination. There’s no walking a controlled character via WASD or holding a mouse button. When you move a character, they say one of 3-5 phrases every goddamn time. Ever. God. Damn. Time. As there’s no movement button you can hold down, so you hear the same phrases again and again and again.

The screen does not scroll with the mouse. It stops when you hit the edge. You need to use the WASD keys to move and Q & E to spin, which is awkward and unintuitive. Honestly, combining the WASD screen movement with mouse scroll would have been just fine.  

Character have a Search skill toggle, where you’re surrounded by a bubble representing the area you’re “searching” for traps or hidden items. Okay, this is neat and the FX is kinda cool. However, it’s slow. Really slow. There are higher levels of the skill that speed up this movement, but this is coming at the expense of more combat powers (see above). As this is how you find traps, it’s needed a lot when moving through the dungeon. But this makes actually playing the game drag painfully as you inch from place to place. However, as death doesn’t matter and healing is on a cooldown timer, traps don’t really matter. But, again, out of combat healing is slow.

Further frustrating the trap issue is the fact it’s easy to just walk right into a trap even while searching. The game doesn’t auto-pause when a trap is spotted and characters don’t stop moving. It also takes a second for a trap to spawn but characters walk faster than this delay, so I’d often have a character standing inside a trapped square as it’s becoming visible rather than the trap being at the edge of the bubble.

Loot in multiplayer is handled horribly. The game returns to a Diablo 2 style of whoever picks it up gets the loot. There’s also no way to trade loot between characters. Given the auto-levelling of monsters, getting necessary gear is essential. Losing a rare and essential drop to an ally who didn’t stop and check is painful.

Between stretches of quests you retire to your camp in the woods (rather than, I dunno, a convenient inn or small keep). There your companions all stand around one side of the campfire, swaying slightly but generally being motionless while conversing for long stretches of dialogue. It’s very weird and awkward.5

Like most party games, there is a “follow” and “hold” option. However, turning on “hold” also curiously turns off tactics. So if you tell your party to wait while you lure a foe into a choke point, the party won’t defend themselves or use powers. So be sure to turn “follow” back on after queueing the attacks, or the cleric will fail to heal injured allies.

While somewhat standard, cut scenes reset the position of your party. This is always a dirty trick for difficulty in this type of game, so rather than be positioned in the obvious choke point you’re all clustered in fireball-receiving arrangement and surrounded. The only difficult fights I had in the game followed a conversation.

You meet many of your companions in an extremely haphazard way. Oh well, I met two companions in Baldur’s Gate on the road. But you meet the party wizard, Hommet, in a particularly terrible way: the middle of an enemy dungeon, during a chase, and shortly before facing the first boss of the game. And he admits to being a necromancer. There’s really no reason to trust him and not reject him, save the most metagamey of reasons: he’s the requisite 4th member of the party. In any other game I might have hesitated and wondered if this was about to lead to a sudden betrayal in the coming fight. But, of course, he didn’t.

The game is filled with glitches, both large and small. It often displaces the mouse cursor, so where the mouse is on the screen and where it is highlighting are two very different places. To click on a menu option the mouse arrow needs to be a couple inches higher.

The game is also not well optimized. It made my computer run very hot and I was worried for my brand new video card. I have a box powerful enough to tear through most nextgen games, and SCL did unkind things to my machine. It wasn’t even able to hit my desktop resolution.

I’m ending this section discussing the much-hyped Dungeon Master toolset. Or, as the director of the game said:

“One of the things I put to the designers when we framed this all up for them was, I want you to take this campaign, and I actually gave them the 5th edition starter set and I said I want you to take this campaign and I want you to reproduce it, I want you to reproduce it, and I want anybody to be able to reproduce it. And if they can’t, the tools aren’t done. And so uh, I think we got to a place where you can create that content real quickly and real easy and uh and just recreate your favorite homebrew or your favorite module or whatever your heart desires.”

So, by that definition, by the bar they set, are the tools done?

Big old nope.

First, the DM mode only has random dungeons. You can choose complexity and size but you’re stuck with what the game generates. That’s problematic. If you have a particular vision, be prepared to load and reload. And there are only a handful of tile sets available (eight) and creature sets (fourteen). This means you lose a lot of the flavour of a set dungeon, like the river and flooded chamber in Lost Mine of Phandelver or abandoned manor that becomes the Red Brand’s hideout. When looking at the map, there’s no overhead map to get a clear view of the area, so you need to scroll and explore to get a feel, which is annoying. And the “small” maps are not particularly small; there’s no tiny filler dungeons for short sidequests, like the game itself used (see the wolf cave and the slime cave outside Luskan).

There are limited number quests to work with: collecting dropped items, killing an enemy, or killing a boss. (So much for the “rescue” quest from Lost Mine of Phandelver or finding a clue). There is a wealth of absent monsters, and not just weird obscure creatures, but common ones like orcs and gnolls. I don’t entirely certain there’s all the options from the main story. (So no green dragon or orcs from Lost Mine of Phandelver). I expect microtransactions will cover these, as they add their own modules and content packs. I understand that microtransactions are the new standard pricing model, but these are annoying when you paid $30+ for the game itself; if the DM tools were free but required transactions, that’d be different.

There is no option for branching dialogue trees for the Dungeon Master. You can apparently have NPCs say something with character limit comparable to a couple tweets, but I could never find where this was or add any dialogue.

When making characters in DM mode, you can pick individual equipment from a giant scroll down list, which is extremely long. There’s no way to sort or limit to just boots or heavy armour.

I also couldn’t really find an adequate way to test my module to see if it worked. All I could do was load it in a solo game, but doing this didn’t work as I was one PC versus monsters meant to challenge a party, and wiped constantly. There was no way to bring my party, and testing with friends seems… well, silly, since you’d want them to play the finished version. I’d love a “god mode” for testing.

I know other games that allow some customization (Super Mario Maker comes to mind) require you to play through your level to prove it can be done. I’d love to see a similar validation requirement for these modules, preferably with a generic party of baseline adventurers.

The Awesome

2The NPC/character maker in the DM tools is actually rather interesting and has some potential. You can give monsters powers from most skill trees, allowing some fun variety. It’s easy to make a goblin fighter or vampire wizard. You can shift the colour of items to a limited degree, and palette swap monsters to make very different variants.

Being able to watch players go through your game as an invisible Dungeon Master, possessing creatures and adding threats, seems like a lot of fun. And it looks easy to do. Hosting a game seems pretty simple.

The game has random dungeon crawls for quick play. You can play these solo (online still, and expect to die) or with a group of friends. Just want some quick time killing action? Here you go!

Because you have access to so much of the art assets, the NPC creator works as a pretty functional character visualizer. Handy for people who are terrible at drawing but want an image of their character. (I do wish there was more miscellaneous weapons beyond the rolling pin though, and more generic clothing. The ability to add scabbards and gear would be nice.)

I love the flexibility of multiplayer, and how you can bring someone else into your game at any time, even if partway through the playthrough. Each time you start playing you can opt to invite a friend or continue solo.

There’s a secret room in the first dungeon. While slightly obvious when consulting the map, I still like these small touches.

Final Thoughts

I feel misled and lied to regarding Sword Coast Legends. And needlessly so.

The game is a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl game. Which is fine. They could have pushed the game in that direction and sold it as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I played the heck out of that game and its sequel. And Diablo created an entire genre that still does well. But don’t suggest it’s a callback to earlier more tactical games when it’s really not.

But putting aside the poor hype aside and tenebrous D&D connections, is the game good? I’d still say no.

The story is weak. Nothing special. Maybe the promised Rage of Demons module (offered free to anyone who pre-ordered in response to the delay in release) will be better, but so far that’s absent.

While the game seems like more of an action hack-and-slash Diablo clone, the gameplay is often slow: healing is slow, searching is slow, waiting for cooldowns are slow. Attacking is aimed and passive and less the active clickfest of modern games. To say nothing of the awkward camera movement. It doesn’t compare well, especially to modern iterations like Diablo 3 or Torchlight.

Two or three years ago Sword Coast Legends could at *least* claim to be one of the few isometric RPGs on the market, with that style of game having fallen to the wayside in favour of more 3rd Person views. But recently other high profile games of that format have been released, including Divinity: Original Sin in 2014 and Pillars of Eternity earlier this year. Both of which received a great response from the community.

The big selling feature is the adventure designer. But this is not only inferior to the version included in Neverwinter Nights but to the one included in the Neverwinter MMO. At this point Neverwinter has been out for a couple year of bug fixes, improvements, and content increases to its adventure designer and is a Free-2-play game making it significantly cheaper than Sword Coast Legends as an online adventure tool.

As such, I cannot recommend this game. Maybe on a 75% off Steam sale. After some serious patching. And expansion of the DM Tools. Maybe.

Instead, go check out some of the older D&D games on Good Old Games (which *just* released a bunch of “new” ones) or the remastered version of Baldur’s Gate. Maybe check out Planescape: Torment or the Eye of the Beholder series. Or try Neverwinter. It’s free. Or check out the newly released Enhanced Edition of Divinity: Original Sin, which is reportedly free to anyone who already bought the PC version.



Shameless Plug


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