Dungeons & Dragons can get something of a bad rap, even among fans of tabletop adventuring. With the rise of games that primarily focus on the relationships between characters or players working together to build a world and tell a story, the many pages of rules and supreme authority of a Dungeon Master can seem stifling by comparison. But what those criticisms overlook is that those rules are just a toolbox that players and Dungeon Masters can use to give their creativity form. That’s why it’s so disappointing that Sword Coast Legends can’t do more with its license from Wizards Of The Coast to use Dungeons & Dragons’ rules and popular Forgotten Realms setting.
Sword Coast Legends’ story mode puts players in control of a member of the Burning Dawn, a guild of adventurers being hunted by a fanatical sect of holy knights who believe the guild’s members serve demons. With the help of three other adventurers, you’ll have to find the truth about the Burning Dawn while traipsing through monster-infested dungeons and helping townsfolk retrieve lost items and loved ones. While the game uses races, abilities, weapons, and monsters found in D&D’s current edition, you level up by putting points in skill trees rather than selecting feats or spells. The game rewards specialization through putting all the points you can in a few abilities to make them more powerful rather than having a numerous weaker tricks up your sleeve.
That means combats typically open with a burst of activity as you buff up your team and use all your best powers, but then you’re quickly forced to resort to basic attacks while you wait for those abilities to refresh. You’ll also need to make regular use of the pause button to issue commands—mostly to keep your party from doing stupid things, like wasting abilities on guys with swords when they’re meant to stop enemy spell-casters or attacking monsters your wizard has already put to sleep. It would be nice if computer-controlled teammates could figure out that healing the same person at the same time is a bad idea, but at least the game’s bountiful loot makes it easy to stock up on healing potions and items that will get fallen allies back in the fight.
Your character might look customizable on the surface, but the decisions you make hardly seem to matter. In an actual game of D&D, my paladin would lose all her powers for continuing to associate with the party’s necromancer once he started animating the corpses of slain foes to fight on his behalf. Here, his evil gets as much reaction as when I routinely walked into people’s homes and rifled through their armoires for jewelry I could pawn. The script is so inflexible that it has characters who you’ve left at base camp chime in at relevant times via a sending stone, a D&D item that normally acts as a sort of mystical telegraph but here seems to allow characters to spend all their time watching what the rest of the party is up to. There’s comforting familiarity in some of the D&D tropes the game does get right, from how easy it is to get ambushed by invisible gelatinous cubes to having to whip out backup weapons to pierce an enemy’s damage resistance, but the satisfying D&D flavor isn’t enough to make up for the thin substance.
The story mode is actually the best part of Sword Coast Legends, which also allows players to create their own dungeons for others to explore. This can be done either in a campaign mode, where you’ll find groups role-playing together through their microphones, or dungeon crawls reminiscent of those you’d find in an unambitious MMORPG. A space where Dungeon Masters can craft fully animated worlds for their friends to play in wherever they are would be a true boon, but the digital toolbox Sword Coast Legends provides is far more limited than what’s in the D&D Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide.
The most egregious omission is dragons. You can populate your dungeon with plenty of the game’s signature creatures like drow and illithid—though you need to buy a deluxe edition of the game to get a beholder—but dragons won’t be available for dungeon masters for an unspecified period of time. Maybe N-Space was trying to avoid unfavorable comparisons to the dragons in Skyrim or Dragon Age, but considering the game Sword Coast Legends is based on has “dragons” in the name, not being able to put one in your dungeon seems like false advertising. There are plenty of other monsters I’d like to see too, though you do have a lot of flexibility when it comes to giving creatures atypical abilities, so you can make something like a spell-slinging otyugh, if you’re so inclined.
It’s difficult to create atypical challenges for players, though. You can dump in mechanical traps that rogues will need to spot and disable—you can even create ones that can’t be conventionally seen or dealt with—but you don’t have an option to put in mystic sigils that the wizard will have to dispel. You can only increase or decrease a creature’s level by five and can equip it with some appropriate gear, which is unnecessarily restrictive. If I want to create a bandit king that’s a threat to a level 15 party, why stop me?
The developers have already shown they’re willing to listen to player complaints and have rolled out some fixes and announced a steady stream of new content, including plots that sync with recently released D&D campaigns. D&D has evolved and improved significantly since it was first released, and it’s possible that Sword Coast Legends will, too, if players are willing to stick around after its rough launch. I’m hopeful the game will because it’s probably going to be a while before Wizards is willing to lend its tools to anyone else.