Reviewed: October 9, 2007
Released: August 14, 2007
Itís been more than a year since Iíve seen Dungeons & Dragons: Tactics and that was a very early version at GenCon 2006. Originally scheduled for release this past February, for whatever reasons the game has been delayed until exactly one year to the very day of my original preview.
When I first saw D&D Tactics I was quite impressed, not only with the sheer scale and scope of the project, but just how much role-playing Kuju could fit onto the PSP. After all, this game is bigger than the original Neverwinter Nights. Plus, I was interested to see how this turn-based tabletop inspired version of D&D would stack up with other tactical games like Lord of the Rings: Tactics and the Metal Gear Acid games.
D&D is huge, not only in its number of faithful followers, but also in its own growth as a game franchise. When I first started playing D&D, modules were photocopied and sold in zip-lock bags in the back room at the hobby store. A few years later miniatures made the scene and I must have dropped at least a thousand dollars and spent countless hours in the basement meticulously painting heroes and monsters.
I stopped playing D&D after college. The whole role-playing fad had subsided, likely replaced by video games of all things, so I sold my entire trunk load of D&D and Judges Guild paraphernalia to one of my players and never looked back, but whenever a new D&D titles arrives for PC, console, or even handhelds, I am quick to revisit several years of my misspent youth.
D&D Tactics is a game targeted toward newcomers and veterans alike. Kuju has done a fantastic job of assimilating all the knowledge and 3.5 rules from numerous players and DM guides and condensed it all down to a handy glossary easily accessible on your PSP. So even if you donít know the difference between a saving throw and your armor class, you can at least find out. But better still, D&D Tactics doesnít really require you to know all this stuff. Details like dice roles, attack modifiers, and flanking bonuses are all handled automatically.
One thing that might turn off the casual gamer is just how much detail has gone into this game. Normally, that would be a good thing, but in this case is does convolute the game process, turning Tactics into something more resembling an epic game of Battle Chess, than a fantasy-action romp. After all, there have been other D&D games out there (like Heroes) that have been far more action oriented.
Like any good RPG you start by building your character, or characters if you will. I assumed the game would support four player parties so my first game session I spent creating four characters of various genders, race, and classes. I tried to balance things out for ranged and melee as well as magic and clerical abilities. I also made sure to have a race with night vision so I wouldnít have to mess around with equipping torches.
D&D Tactics offers a nice selection of pre-rolled characters; a fact I quickly learned when one of my early adventures required six party members and I only had four. These characters merged seamlessly with my party and have now become regular additions to nearly all my adventures throughout the entire game. Creating your characters can take a lot of time; nearly two full hours to create a party of four, but then again, there were some new classes, races, and skills I had to familiarize myself with. Veterans of NWN2 or the 3.5 rule set can probably fly through this creation process.
The game starts off fairly linear with a tutorial mission, but as you complete missions and talk to new NPCís you will start to unlock more missions and diverging paths across the world map. The missions come complete with recommended party size and character levels, so you donít get yourself into trouble, at least accidentally.
On the map screen you will be able to travel to cities, villages, and temples where you have access to merchants to buy new items and sell off your loot from previous missions, or visit the temple to resurrect a fallen party member, or hire new help from the guilds. There are also icons that represent adventures that take place in a variety of stereotypical locations like an evil crypt or the treetop village of the elves. These adventures are where you will spend most of your game time.
D&D Tactics is bound by some very strict rules that sort of sap the fun from the gameplay. Moving your characters, strategically positioning them for battle, and actually engaging in combat is a painstaking process. Each character gets a ďturnĒ that is broken down into two phases indicated by a pair of rings at each characterís feet. Some actions require one phase, like moving or attacking, while others will take your entire turn, like equipping a new weapon. During exploration mode you are free to move your characters in any order you choose, but during an encounter a initiative list will appear dictating the turn order of both your party and the monsters involved.
But even before you get into your first fight youíll find the exploration phase of the game awkward. There is no uniform party movement, or even a option to move everyone at the same time. This means that for a party of six you will have to move each character twice per turn. While this does lend itself to spreading out and covering more ground per turn, it can also get you into trouble when your cleric with 8 HP gets ambushed by three skeletons.
Wandering monsters are frequent enough that itís best to keep everybody within a one-turn regrouping range. It would have been so much nicer to arrange a party formation with fighters in the front, bowman and magic users in the back and move as a group, spreading out only for combat. When you do engage in combat things get a bit more intense, but no more exciting than a good game of chess.
During movement and attacks each character can move X-many squares where X is calculated from their stats minus their encumbrance (weight of items carried). You can move twice per turn, either move and attack or attack then move or you can use an item, prepare a spell or try a special action like Intimidate. Melee fighters must be in an adjoining square to the enemy while ranged attacks and spellcasters can be further away.
D&D Tactics introduces two new character classes, Psions and Psychic Warriors that make use of psionics or mental attacks. Psionics is nothing new to D&D players, even though it was a part of the game I never explored during my career as DM. I decided to give it a try in Tactics and found these characters were simply not that useful, at least in the first few hours of gameplay. They would hang out in the back and toss out their assorted mental attacks, most of them would fail, but they would still collect a share of the XP when my paladin and barbarian would win the encounter. Only when they hit level 6 did they actually start to carry their weight in battle.
Speaking of carrying weight, I havenít seen an inventory management system this convoluted since the original Dungeon Siege. Whenever you crack open a chest you have the option to select individual items or grab all the contents at once. These items start to add up and if you arenít careful your movement will get reduced to 3-4 squares per phase. Then you have the awkward job of spreading out the loot at the end of each mission and selling off the rest. These item screens are extremely unruly since you can only have two characters on the screen at any time. Sometimes it would take me longer to distribute and equip the loot than it would to actually do the adventure. You can Quick Sell an item from this screen, but you actually have to go to a second system to equip that item.
Ultimately, I had my strongest character act as a pack mule during the adventure, opening all chests and carrying all loot, making it far easier after the mission. Sadly, there is no way to exchange items, especially healing items, during combat and one person canít use a potion on somebody else, so if your dwarf is about to die and your cleric is out of healing and your bard has the last healing potion heíll have to drop it on the ground and your dwarf will have to pick it up.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with Tactics is the abrupt ending of each mission, which usually happens with the defeat of a major boss in that level. While monsters typically donít cough up much treasure, they usually have numerous chests around their lair, and if you kill the level-ending boss before you ransack those chests youíll get snatched back to the map and lose out on all that treasure. You canít revisit the level, so you end up having part of your attack force trying to loot chests while your strongest guys beat down on the boss.
At the end of the day, D&D Tactics is an authentic recreation of the tabletop game, but it follows those concepts so rigidly that it doesnít feel like a videogame. Micromanaging each character can really take its toll. Iím sure the game might play out better in cooperative mode using Ad Hoc Wi-Fi, but I was extremely disappointed to find you cannot take your own characters into multiplayer. Instead, you are forced to use the pre-rolled characters when you want to check out the five modes of multiplayer like Exploration and Deathmatch.
Tactics is visually impressive both in design and details. Character creation is a bit limited, at least on the visual side, so you get stock portraits and only a few variations in body design and clothing. Your in-game models never change to reflect new items or equipped armor, but they are also so small on the game screen they are nothing more than mere icons.
You have moderate camera control for rotating and zooming in and out, but you can never zoom out to something as large as say, a map view. This can cause problems, especially if you spread your party out too far or need to backtrack. It would have been nice to leave a marker or at least have icons along the border of the screen pointing to off-screen party members. The only way to pan the camera is to change to a new character that is in that direction or actually move in that direction. Youíll also find plenty of blind spots forcing you to rotate the camera to see the tiles indicating where you can move. I was surprised at how disorienting the game got simply spinning the game 90-180 degrees.
A lot of the levels, especially interior ones like dungeons, caves, and crypts are dark, which really showcases the amazing real-time lighting and shadows. Whether you are carrying a torch or relying on your Dwarf or Elfís night vision, the light will follow that character creating real-time moving shadows that stretch and bend as you move through the levels. This is the best lighting and shadow system I have seen on the PSP to date.
Special effects really stand out, especially in the areas of spells and their resulting effects. Glowing auras and sparkling particles make for an impressive light show during combat. The map screen is visually pleasing and easy to navigate, but the same canít be said for the horrible character menus and inventory management system that will have you swapping left to right and scrolling through pages of text and getting lost in sub-menu after sub-menu.
D&D Tactics has a soundtrack that reminded me of the Lord of the Rings movies. You hear it only during the maps and menus but it is this amazing piece of epic orchestration that gives Tactics a much grander appeal than it probably deserves. You really miss it when it goes away.
Once in the dungeons you are left with the sounds of footsteps, assorted combat noises, spell effects and grunts and growls from a variety of monsters. None of these sounds are particularly impressive on their own but they combine to create a realistic, and somewhat boring audio experience. Youíll learn to hate certain sounds like the ďgrowlĒ of a zombie or skeleton as they are triggered by your invasion. And why do my archers all sound like they are already getting attacked when they are simply readying their bow.
There is no voice work, so you can expect to do a lot reading during the NPC conversations on the map screen. There is hardly any party or NPC interaction during the missions, but occasionally a character portrait will appear with some update or hint about what you need to do.
D&D Tactics is huge, with more than 30 levels and side quests and should take most gamers upwards of 40 hours to finish. The potential for replay is there but also limited. Sure, you can replay the game using new characters and various party compositions, but youíll still be playing the same levels with the same monsters and the same treasure.
I also found the lack of any real cohesive story made it hard to motivate me through this extremely long PSP game. There are minor plot points for each adventure but the just seem thrown in and nothing really comes together. Youíll find you are merely level grinding and finishing each mission only to unlock more missions.
The multiplayer might add some additional life to the game assuming you can find anybody (or three anybodies) with their own copy. After two months I still havenít met anybody with this game or even seen this game in any major store.
Ironically enough, the people who would probably enjoy Dungeons & Dragons: Tactics the most are the same people who would rather sit down and play the tabletop version with real dice and real miniatures. After all, D&D was created as a socializing event, and when you reduce that to some gamer sitting in a room or on a bus playing alone on their PSP itís a bit sad.
Nonetheless, Kuju should be commended for packing as much authentic content as they did on this UMD. They really stuck to the 3.5 rules and offer a whole new turn-based style to the D&D franchise. Sadly, there are a few key features missing and some seriously convoluted menus and inventory management youíll have to deal with if you want to experience this game in its entirety.