Sword Coast Legends is a RPG taking place in D&D's famous Forgotten Realms setting. The game features a full length single player campaign as well as Dungeon Master tools for creating your own custom modules, the ability to play custom campaigns with up to 5 players, with 1 person taking the role of DM who is able to change and tweak aspects of the module on the fly and even take control of enemies and NPCs. There is also a dungeon crawl mode that puts 1-4 players quickly into a randomly generated dungeon according to a few simple parameters.
For the purposes of this review I will be concentrating fully on the single player campaign. I did have a quick peek at the DM tools but found them lacking for creating anything other than simple dungeon crawls or completely linear adventures. Some features are expected to be added in future free upgrades that should expand the DM tools and allow for making true story-driven modules, namely branching dialogue and the option to add static level enemies (currently all enemies level scale in user created modules). Once those features are added, I will consider getting my hands dirty and creating my own story-driven adventures.
First off, let's talk about the big, highly divisive aspect of the game that has put a lot of people off, the skill system. This game uses an interpretation of D&D 5th Edition rules. Now, I'm not an expert on D&D 5E, my own pencil & paper D&D days happened long ago during the time of AD&D 2nd Edition, but I'm familiar enough with D&D to confidently say that the developers took great liberties with the ruleset when adapting it to video game form. For some, this is a betrayal of the D&D name and a deal-breaker, as well as a major source of a significant portion of the negative reviews this game has gotten. I'm not going to tell you that these people are wrong, because they're not, that is a perfectly legitimate gripe to have with the game. If strict adherence to D&D rules is important to you then stay away from this game, because you will be disappointed.
Personally, I have no problem with the developers making major modifications to D&D rules, I'm all for it. I feel that adhering strictly to D&D rules can be a hindrance and that classics like the Baldur's Gate games, which did adhere fairly strictly to D&D rules, were great games in spite of adhering strictly to the rules, not because of it. That is, of course, my own personal opinion and no more correct than anyone else's.
The system this game uses puts all skills, abilities, and spells into skill trees. Active abilities, consumable items, and spells function on cooldowns. If you've played Dragon Age: Origins then this system will be familiar to you, as it's very similar to the system used in that game. I have only one major issue with the system in place, I feel the cooldowns are much too long. The majority of the battles, at least on normal difficulty, which is the difficulty I played on, take about 20 seconds. There are exceptions, namely boss battles, that take much longer. Let's divide active abilities into 3 categories: short cooldown, medium cooldown, and long cooldown, or just short, medium, and long for brevity's sake. Short abilities tend to have 30-40 second cooldowns, medium 60-90 seconds, and long 2 minutes and up. There are items in the game that reduce cooldowns, this gives you a strategic choice of wearing an item that reduces cooldowns or an item that may give better stat bonuses or immunities instead. However, even if you stack multiple cooldown items on one character (bonuses and effects do stack in this game), you're still likely to get a 25%-35% cooldown reduction at best, which knocks short abilities down to around 20 seconds, medium to around 45 seconds, and long to 85+ seconds. Even with stacking cooldown items you're going to have very few, if any, abilities that you can use even twice in a battle. So, what happens is that characters use all their active abilities during the first 5 or 6 seconds of a battle then end up just auto-attacking for the rest of the battle. In my opinion, cutting cooldowns in half, across the board for both players and enemies, would allow you to use a lot more abilities multiple times during a battle and make for far more engaging combat.
One thing I will very much praise this game for is companion AI. You can absolutely control just one character in the vast majority of battles (basically non-boss battles) and let the AI control all your companions and they will act in intelligent ways and be productive in battle. This is very important to me because this game, like so many CRPGs, is filled to the brim with filler battles against trash mobs. For a comparison with another recent CRPG, Pillars of Eternity was also filled to the brim with filler battles against trash mobs. Unfortunately, that game did not have companion AI of any sort (I believe companion AI has since been added in a patch, but there wasn't any at the time I played) so I had to micromanage every party member every second of every battle. As you can imagine, this got really tedious over the length of an epic scale game and was a primary factor in me eventually getting burnt out and growing to hate that game. Given that previous experience, I was extremely happy to be able to blast through filler battles in Sword Coast Legends quickly and with virtually zero micromanagement required, which kept me from getting burnt out during the just over 41 hours it took me to finish the campaign and did wonders for my sanity.
The story is very paint-by-numbers. It's not bad, but it's not really good or in any way creative either. The story takes no risks and tries it's darndest to tick off every trope on the fantasy trope checklist. It's basically Fantasy RPG: The Fantasy RPG. The characters are all fairly forgettable. Again, they're not bad, but there's really nothing special about any of them. If I had to pick favorites I would choose Izhkin, because he's completely delusional and insane, and Hommet, because he's a doofus, but there's really no truly memorable character like Minsc or Morte.
Visually, I think the game looks quite good. I'm not a huge fan of the particular cartoonish aesthetic they went for with the characters, but it doesn't bother me either. The areas, both outdoors, in caverns, and inside buildings look quite good to me. The game isn't going to win any awards for graphical fidelity, but I think it's one of the best looking Unity games yet. The game has pretty lighting and particle effects, the animations and are nice and smooth, and everything goes together well and with consistency. The hand drawn art used for cutscenes between acts is also really nice.
From an audio standpoint I'd say the game is average to slightly above average. The musical tracks are all appropriate and pleasant enough, though nothing truly special. Ambient sounds and sound effects are all solid and the voice acting ranges from average to pretty good. Really, overall the audio is solid, not special, but very much respectable.
Stability wise, I was quite impressed with the game. It shines a bad light on the state of the industry where a game releasing rock solid is something to be praised rather than the norm and something to be expected, but so many games release in such poor, broken states these days that a rock solid release like this seems like an aberration. In the over 41 hours that I played the campaign I never had the game crash to desktop a single time. I had the game freeze up while trying to exit it once and had to alt+tab out and kill -9 the process and I had the game play all audio at about half speed (which was hilarious) once, but those 2 instances are the only major issues I encountered during the entire time and they only happened once each. I did encounter a little bit of clipping with character models, particularly with dwarven characters and cloaks. You can see what I'm talking about in this picture:
There were also a couple instances where I was waylaid (a random encounter when travelling to a new area) and the colors were all wrong in the scene, like I was looking at a negative of a photograph. I'm not completely sure if that was intentional, to represent some weird lighting effects in the Underdark, or a game bug, probably a game bug, but I only encountered it twice and things were back to normal as soon as I got to another area.
The performance was fine on my machine playing at 1440p and all settings at maximum and v-sync on, but it's hard for me to judge how well optimized the game is because I'm on a high-end machine with a Haswell i7-4790K and a Nvidia GeFroce Titan X, so my rig can generally brute force a good framerate out of even poorly optimized games. I did notice a little bit of stutter when I would pan the camera very quickly in multiple directions at once (diagonally), though I'm not sure how much of that was due to the overhead tax of recording via SSR while playing. During my playing time a couple patches released and even that little bit of stutter when panning rapidly almost completely disappeared after the patches, so they may have optimized the game further. When keeping the screen still or panning slowly, I never experienced any stutters or problems, even during battles with large amounts of enemies on the screen at the same time, the game ran super smooth for me.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game, but I'm not going to tell you that this is a great game, it's not. It's a decent game so long as you can get past the fact that it's D&D in setting and the absolute loosest interpretation of the rules only. It's a lot more akin to Dragon Age: Origins with a D&D coat of paint over it. I think there is a base there to build off of and I hope n-Space continue putting out free updates to expand upon the toolset and address some of the issues. With any luck we could get a really great expansion with a much more interesting story in the future, much like what happened with Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 when they got expansions that had much better stories than the original campaigns (Hordes of the Underdark and Mask of the Betrayer respectively). For now, what we have is a pretty average game with as of yet unfulfilled potential.
Shameless plug: If you're interested in seeing the game in action, this is part one of my let's play of the game, it's just character creation and the beginning tutorial, so it's fairly spoiler-free:
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