Retro Review: Dungeons and Dragons Tactics (Sony PSP)

Dungeons and Dragons Tactics
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Kuju Entertainment
Genre: Tactical RPG
Release Date: 08/14/2007


D&D Tactics came out nearly a year ago and it was a game I had been looking forward to since it was first announced. I was never a D&D table topper, but I always loved the video games, going as far back as SSI’s Eye of the Beholder. Hell, I think I’ve played every D&D licensed game made by this point in my life. This was going to be the game that was going to finally make me buy a PSP.

Then came the reviews. And my oh my, were they not flattering. There were complaints about the animation, graphics, and the camera angles. I was like “How can you screw up a camera angle of a tactics game? It’s not possible.” So I put off purchasing a PSP for a few months until Konami sent me the god awful Silent Hill Origins and the awesome Dracula X Chronicles to review. I kind of needed one then.

For months though a little voice inside me kept saying, “You should pick it up. Pick it up. SRPG’s are your favorite type of RPG. You love D&D games. Remember how fun Dark Alliance 2 was? Get it. Get it!”

And so I eventually did. What I discovered is that the old adage of “Most US based reviewers don’t get SRPG’s” is true. Operation Darkness has been dragged through the mud, but pretty much everyone who is a true connoisseur of these types of games adores it. What I discovered is that most of the negative claims made by reviewers turned out to be completely false. Or simply that they hadn’t actually played the game enough (or at all) to discover something. Go take a look at Gameranking’s list for this game and you’ll notice the RPG specialist sites like RPGFan praising D&D Tactics, while the sites that cater more to the FPS/Action crowd and are woefully ignorant of RPG’s as a whole (Gamespot, GameSpy, IGN) hated the game because they simply didn’t understand it, and god forbid a reviewer should EVER step outside the one or two genres they consider their comfort zone.

Bottom line, Dungeons and Dragons Tactics is easily the best SRPG I’ve played since Disgaea and the best D&D themed game since Bioware’s remake of Neverwinter Nights. Let’s take a look at why this game is so good, shall we?

Let’s Review

1. Story

At first glance, the story of D&D Tactics is nothing truly fancy. Your character slowly but surely forms a team of adventurers that you can either create from scratch or you can use pre-made characters. I suggest the former, as it is far more rewarding to make your own guys and to see them grow.

The tale of D&D Tactics revolves around saving an empire from a prophecy involving dragons and genocide and your character’s quest to uncover the origins of this prophecy and who is behind it. It sounds very generic, but the game offers multiple paths for you to follow that can radically affect your alignment. Do you side with the humans or elves in a specific conflict? Do you join up with the evil Dwarven Necromancer or the Shield Dwarves in their battle for supremacy of the undermountains? Most tactics games generally don’t give you multiple moral paths to choose from, or events that end up dictating your future actions. Occasionally they give you a hidden subquest (ala finding Cloud Strife in Final Fantasy Tactics) or multiple endings like Disgaea. When it comes to branching stories, D&D Tactics is reminiscent of Ogre Tactics: The Knight of Lodis, albeit it nowhere at deep or with the level of intrigue in that game.

The characters in D&D Tactics aren’t that deep, but that’s because you’re designing characters from scratch. Considering you can have twelve characters on your team at once, it is impossible to come up with characterizations for all the characters. However the game does check your character’s alignment, and will have a character with a certain alignment say things that befit said alignment. For example, my main character was a human Paladin. The comments she said were always what you would expect from a Lawful Good character and she would stick mainly to the branching paths that benefited that alignment. However, when a path choice did come up, my more chaotic or neutral characters would speak up regarding the less savory paths as a potential option. I really enjoyed the fact that the game took all the alignments and interaction of said alignments into consideration. Considering they could have just gone the generic character text route, this was a great compromise to the fact you are making your own characters.

If you’re looking for an in-depth plot that really focuses on all aspects of each of your armies’ characters, I suggest the GBA remake of Shining Force. If you’re looking for a nice little tactical story that plays out like it’s coming from behind an old Dungeon Master’s Screen, then you’re in the right place. The options and awareness of the story limitations and Kuju’s alignment orientations more than balance things out in my opinion.

Story Rating: Enjoyable

2. Graphics

I’m surprised that there are complaints about how this game looks. SRPG’s generally aren’t that pretty to begin with, because the bulk of the game is about gameplay and trying to manage the plethora of characters on the map. With that said, D&D Tactics blows most SRPG’s out of the water with its visuals. Where most SRPG’s look a generation or so behind the current console’s graphics, D&D Tactics is a very well done 3-D game that I could easily see on the PS2. Hell, it’s above and beyond the visuals of Disgaea and it has at times 50 characters on the screen at once. Without slowdown. I’m sorry, but the fact any game can manage that many characters at once, each with their own specific AI and abilities is damn impressive. As well, you can change the animation style of the game to play more like a chess board instead of watching the characters walk across the screen, swing their weapon, cast their spell, and so on.

Character design is the only place where the game is lacking. The actual character models are fairly generic and nondescript, but I love the character portraits you can choose from. It harkens back to a Camelot made RPG and the different portraits are realistic and stunning.

Monster design is very well done, and you can tell what each monster is just by looking at it. There’s also many variation of monsters. I counted over half a dozen types of skeletons alone as a great example. One would just be bones, while another would still be wearing tattered armour.

Background and level designs are amazing as well. The levels in D&D Tactics are larger than anything I’ve ever seen in a Tactical RPG before. Many of them can take over an hour just to look around and find the traps, hidden doors, and branching pathways. Every new level in the game is an adventure in and of itself, and when my characters got strong enough to one hit KO bosses (I know how to manipulate 3.5 rules pretty easily), I kept at least one monster alive just so I could navigate through the levels to see what, if anything, I missed.

I said it earlier, but this is easily the best, and most realistic looking tactics game I’ve ever played. Is it going to be on par with say Crisis Core? Of course not. But for those that know this genre, I can’t imagine how anyone couldn’t be impressed by the visuals in this game.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound

There is no voice acting in the game, but there are a lot of sound effects, ranging from a zombie’s angry moan to the electrical statics coming off a Chain Lightning spell. Characters do occasionally make noises, such as a grunt when they swing a weapon, or cry out when hit. Every action has its own specific sound effect, and it’s all the more impressive when you realize a fire arrow sounds different from a frost arrow or even a flaming crossbow bolt. VERY cool. Again, this is something the other reviewers seemed to have missed. Maybe it was just too subtle a trait for them, but a discerning gamer will pick it up right away and be amazed at the quality of this game.
The music is nicely done too. Each level has its own track, and they all sound exactly like one would expect from a high fantasy game. I would say my least favorite piece of music in the game is the track you hear the most often, as it is on the main map screen, but I can live with it.

I’ll admit I played the game with the sound off more often than not, but that’s usually because I was playing while listening to music, or had a movie on in the background, or was travelling and thus it would be rude to blare the sound of a troll being set ablaze through the metro. I can respect that all the tracks were well done, but they weren’t my thing, as they were a little too slow and melodic for my tastes. I realize they were going for somber and epic, but I like my battle music to be a little more fast paced.

Sound is probably the weakest quality in the game, but what’s here is still decent.

Sound Rating: Decent

4. Control and Gameplay

Hands down this is the best re-creation of a table top D&D game I have ever played. Hell, it’s also the most realistic tactical game I’ve ever played as well. Let’s take a look why &D Tactics earns a perfect score in this category.

A) Customization.

This was my primary team in the game: Re-L the Human Paladin, Archon the Elvish Warrior, Raag the Half-Orc Barbarian, Kheldon the Dwarven Thief, Marianne the Elven Cleric and Darque, the Human Wizard. All were made by the ground up from me, and that doesn’t include the dozen other characters like Psionists, Druids, Rangers, Monks and the like that I fiddled around with and had as backup characters.

Making a character was exactly like the pen and paper process, where you allocate your stats, then choose your skills, feats and so on. The game even has the same exploits regarding why an Elf Warrior taking every bow feat possible becomes one of the most powerful characters in the game. Remember, that talk about one hit KO’s? It wasn’t my Orc with the 20 strength doing it. It was my Elf with the 25 Dex and a crap load of arrows launched per round.

There are some changes, such as the Druid being unable to shape shift, but these changes are pretty minor for the most part, and which each level gained, it feels like a D&D game.

B) Combat

Again, the game feels exactly like a D&D game. This of course means at early levels you (and the bad guys) will be missing a lot more than you hit. This is a huge change from most SRPG’s where if you have a 75% or less chance to hit, you generally don’t take it. Here a 75% is a good shot until you get higher up and you’ll take it. Again, this accurately reflects the dice rolling when you’re a Level 1 character trying to hit an AC of 14, and then later on when you’re a Paladin with a 40 AC and you’re laughing at the feeble attempts to do damage at you while you swing your good aligned sentient longsword of doom.

C) Realism

This is one of my favorite parts of the game. Each race sees and hears things different. A human going underground without a light spell or a torch? You can barely see your arms in front of you. A dwarf or orc sees just fine due to their racial vision abilities. Even when you have light spells and torches on all your characters, the game only lets you see up to a realistic range. Sure you can take your cursor off your character and try to investigate the map, but all you’ll get is a vague layout. You won’t be able to see monsters, traps, and the like until they are is actual visual range of your characters…or if you’re unlikely, when your team is in range of THEIR sight.

I also love that one character will see things differently than another. If one character is in a room surrounded by zombies, it can see them just fine. But a character outside the room won’t be able to get the full picture. As well, you can only tell what type of monster it is and how many hit points it has, if you have a character with the appropriate knowledge skill. Thus a Cleric will probably be able to identify a wounded vampire, but wouldn’t have any idea how that Werewolf behind it is feeling. Again, I love this aspect and it just made enjoy the game all the more.

D) The Usual

Like all tactical games, it’s all about the gameplay and how precise and easy things are to use here. D&D Tactics is no different. It’s character by character combat, based on highest to lowest initiative. Moving characters and the menu selections are easy to navigate, and in exploration mode, you can move any character you want whenever you want as much as you want. It’s only when you encounter unfriendlies that the usual D&D style combat gameplay plays out.

Now for that camera that seems to vex so many reviewers. I’ll just say this – those reviewers have to be complete morons to have made that comment, because the camera is amazingly easy to control. You can use the D pad or analog stick and I’ve never had a problem. The only issue I can see people having isn’t really an issue and that’s the when you change the angle, your movement changes as well. If you shift the camera 90 degrees to the left, what was right is now up and you have to press up to enter that square instead of right. It’s perfect common sense and it was instinctual for me. God knows how people had problems with this.

In a nutshell, this game is exactly what I would want out of a D&D video game. It plays exactly like one would see a tabletop session if you were using miniatures, so dicechuckers will love it. Gamers might have a problem that the game doesn’t hold your hand and give you a huge advantage by seeing the whole map and every enemy on it like all the other SRPG’s out there, but boo hoo. I’ll take the more realistic approach any day.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

Well, considering you can have up to 12 playable characters on your team at any time and you can make them from scratch out of seven different races and over a dozen character classes, that alone raises the replay value considerably. Every time you play, you can have an entirely different team of characters!

The story is mostly linear and you’ll play the same battles for the most part, but then there are alignment based branching storylines, which means you’ll have to play the game multiple times to see all the different choices and outcomes. This makes the creatable characters all the better, don’t you think?

Finally, you’ve got the multiplayer bits of the game. Yes indeed gamers, MULTIPLAYER TACTICAL RPG GOODNESS. There are five different multiplayer modes, each of which has several options within them. Right now I only know fellow DHGF staffer Aaron Sirois that has this game (who bought it because of how I wouldn’t shut up about it) but hopefully I can get Mark and Bowen (the other two PSP owning tactical RPG zealots on staff) to pick up copies so we can go kill dragons or legions of monsters together.

This game has the most replay value I’ve seen out of a PSP title save for the Disgaea port. And truthfully, I’d rather play this for the multiplayer modes and the customizable characters.

Replayability: Unparalleled

6. Balance

Again, this is like D&D tabletop where the game is a lot harder at the beginning then towards the end. This is due to your low stats at level one compared to say, your ability to let loose with Power Word Kill at level 17. Of course the game is only easier if you are smart about how you build your characters and what you choose for your skills and your class/racial combo. Again, a great example is my Elven Warrior. Most people with a basic knowledge of D&D, would go for an Elven Ranger, but in 3.5, which this game is based on, a properly built Elf Warrior can do everything an Elven Ranger can, and more thanks to the extra feats a Warrior has access to.

What it comes down to is playing the game SMART rather than reckless. If you just assign stats, skills, and feats without any real rhyme or reason, the game will kick your ass. If you study your options and plan out long term growth, it will be you too who can send your Cleric with a 30 AC into a room filled with twenty undead and turn them all without any real worry of reprisal. Same with making a Dwarven Thief, as their natural resistance to poisons, ability to detect traps and Constitution bonus makes them as good a choice as those annoying Halflings.

My team succeeded as well as it did (only my mage every died and that’s due to his shockingly low HP) was because I’ve played a LOT of tactics games and a lot of D&D games so I had an idea of what was in store. You’ll need a Cleric and a Thief for sure, and you’ll want a Wizard or Sorcerer for huge damage. I prefer Wizard as their main stat is Intelligence which gives you more spells and extra skill points unlike Charisma for the Sorcerer. I chose the Paladin for my main character as she is both a Warrior and a Cleric with extra abilities on top . When I replay the game on the evil path, I know this option won’t be available to me, so alas, I’ll have a much harder time.

The battles are long and exceptionally well done. The game rewards you for using caution and intelligence and often punishes you for running into things or splitting your team up. Some levels have hidden areas containing much harder foes that the recommended level for the mission are ready for, while others feature some fairly weak monsters if you have built your guys properly.

In the end the game’s missions and enemies are great and provide a nice amount of challenge. It just depends on how well you can manipulate D&D stats that determines how your team will fare.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality

It’s the first truly tactical D&D RPG. It’s the first multiplayer tactical RPG. It’s the first online tactical RPG. It’s the first true recreation of a tabletop RPG game in video game form (even if I do feel the Sega Genesis Shadowrun game is the best tabletop to video game ever).

Yes tactical RPG’s are nothing new and sure, there have been a plethora or D&D games over the years, but the two combined along with all the nifty innovations thrown in? That’s something to take notice of and appreciate.

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

I really enjoyed this game, but it was hard to play more than two missions in a row, especially towards the end as the maps got so pick and they were littered with enemies. Each battle is going to be 30 minutes to an hour, with variation depending on how you play and what characters you bring in. It’s not that I didn’t want to keep playing, it’s that the PSP has a short battery life or that I had other things to do and more recent games to review. If I was reviewing this in August of 2007, you better believe I’d have played this nonstop. I’ve waited years for a tactical game this good, and I’m shocked to have found it on the PSP. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG that drew my attention like this, so hurrah to Kuju.

If you’re a strategic RPG fan, and you can get your head around the tabletop feel, you’ll be sucked in rather quickly. Other gamers will probably have problems with how long each battle is or the fact that by the time you’re done the game, you’ll only be level 20 rather than say, level 50-100 like in a lot of RPG’s. Again, welcome to D&D pre horrible 4th edition MMORPHG aping crapola.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

This is the game’s Achillies heel. Tactical RPG’s have always been the least popular branch of this genre stateside. Too bad, as it’s easily my favorite. Give me Shining Force II over Final Fantasy X-2 any day.

This is definitely a niche game. Hardcore D&D fans who strongly prefer tabletop will be upset it’s not a PERFECT transfer of the rules. Most video gamers will be annoyed by how long the missions are and the attitudes like “Why can’t I see the enemy even though he’s on the other side of a wall?” or “Why can’t humans seem underground in perfect darkness?” The game is long, it can be hard, and you have to micromanage your characters to get the best possible usage out of them.

People like myself who can appreciate a well made SRPG will enjoy this. Too bad the SRPG audience is about the size of Adventure and Shoot ‘Em Up fans these days…

Appeal Factor Rating: Bad

10. Miscellaneous

There’s so much thrown into this game in terms of innovation and creativity, it is hard not to love it. Multiplayer mode can use a bit of work, but it’s also the first time something like this has been tried, so off course there is room for improvement. The thing is for $29.99 you get a portable high quality SRPG that I’ve yet to find on the DS, and at a fraction of the cost Nippon Ichi puts its SRPG titles out at, and man, are those at the point of beating a dead horse. Do I really need a DS, PSP, and PS2 version of Disgaea?

What I want in an RPG are customizable characters and a good story. You rarely get the former with an SRPG, as the stats are pretty solidified throughout the game, but you almost always get the latter. Here you get the high quality character control, but at the expense of some story quality. I’ll happily take it simply because it’s such a change of pace/breath of fresh air for the genre. It’s too bad the game was so critically panned and sold so poorly because of it, as a sequel would have been amazing.

If there is anything to be learned from this, it’s to remember to take EVERY review with a grain of salt (even mine) and that a lot of reviewers open their mouth and only dispense erroneous information. Be careful who you choose to read and trust, especially in this industry.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Bad
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

If you own a PSP and you’re a fan of tactical RPG’s, you need to own this game. Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness is the only other real quality option, and an upgraded version of that is hitting the DS in a few months, so with D&D Tactics being system exclusive, snag a copy of this as soon as you can find it. Fans of 3.5 edition D&D – this game should leave you happier than you can imagine unless you really wanted a team of shape shifting druids. For me, this was a harkening back to why I love tactical RPG’s far more than turn based games. It has a few flaws, but this is the best original SRPG released in five years. Come see why.

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