Dungeons & Dragons Tactics PSP Review

There are two reviewing traditions when it comes to a Dungeons and Dragons title. The first is the sheepish personal preamble in which you describe when, where, how and why you first ventured into the Forgotten Realms, what quantities of stale pizza were consumed during the quest, whence you found that mighty Mallet of Purple Vexation and whom you concussed with it. Such anecdotes serve a couple of purposes: they console those fanatical Dungeon-Masters now lamenting the plight of their hobby in the face of newfangled electronic escapism, and they warn anybody not of a D20-rolling bent to get the hell out of the review before the beardiness truly sets in.

Unfortunately/fortunately my experience of D&D is entirely second-hand- a sprinkling of Warhammer, the odd flirtation (if ‘flirtation’ is an appropriate word) with Baldur’s Gate- which means I may have to opt for Reviewing Tradition B: the polemical aside in which you lecture your audience on how little it matters that you can’t tell a Half-Orc from a Halfling, why the game should be playable in its own right rather than with reference to a bunch of thirty-year-old textbooks, fan-service being a crime against playability and so on and so forth.

Trouble is, this would be inaccurate. D&D Tactics is definitely a more enjoyable (not to mention easier) experience if you’ve done your homework. Players may recall developers Kuju Entertainment as the chaps responsible for the excellent Puzzle Quest, a game which took two gnarled old staples- the Bejewelled brand of puzzling and RPG statistical development- and combined them to fantastic effect, but nothing so funky awaits us this time round. This is a labour of nostalgic love rather than conceptual inventiveness.

Early impressions from the States put heavy emphasis on the claustrophobic rule-sets and unfriendly interface, and this coupled with what I assumed was going to be an unflattering comparison with Jeanne D’Arc (which I picked up on import a scant few hours before the review copy arrived) had me initially pinning it as a low 6/10. In fact, playing it alongside that other, wholly dissimilar SRPG proved illuminating, and nudged Kuju’s nerd-fest somewhat higher in my estimation.

The game is built around the 3.5 edition rule set, which seems to have won it a lot of brownie points from learned forum aficionados. The heart of the beast is the forty-hour campaign mode, which allows you to pick a party from a preset roster or create your own, worth doing if only in order to rebel against humourless fantasy conventions by naming your hero Jim-Bob McSpank. There’s the expected stupefying variety of character attributes: seven races including dwarves, half-elves and gnomes, thirteen classes including a few (apparent) novelties in the Barbarian and Psion, six base abilities like charisma or wisdom, a moral alignment restricted by class (Chaotic Evil Clerics need not apply) which has a bearing on the game narrative, skills such as weapon proficiencies and lock-picking, and finally- deep breath- feats, special or enhanced capabilities unique to every character.

Once you’ve wrestled six characters out of the ether you’re whisked off to the world map, which is fantastically boring fixed-route 2-D parchment stuff. Towns have the familiar array of merchant, temple and mission desk options. Pick a mission and you’ll usually be treated to a cutscene, but Peter Jackson this ain’t: the storyline is featureless fantasy fare and is told by way of a bland collage of character portraits, backgrounds and text boxes. Compare all this with the aforementioned Jeanne D’Arc, with its gnarly anime interludes, meagre but transparent customisation options and bright, primary colours, and it’s easy to feel uninspired.

But things pick up once you get your first mission, and head off to put the hurt on a band of goblins. The first thing you’ll notice is that the battle maps score quite well in the looks department, some way behind Jeanne D’Arc on the snazziness scale but some way ahead, to pick a game at random, of Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light. The three-dimensional character models are nothing much and texture detail is around average, but take the action inside or underground and the wonderful real-time lighting system comes into force. Animations, unfortunately, are of the drunken and spasmodic variety.

The basics of dungeoneering are pretty much as you’d expect from a tactical role-playing game: each active character in your party is placed on a chessboard grid, and can move and act once a turn, with certain actions- drawing weapons, using more potent attacks or quaffing potions- taking up more or less time in a commonsensical sort of way. Ditto your enemies. The difference, of course, with Jeanne D’Arc lies in the rabbit warren of variables, including the effects of fear, racial modifiers and poor light, which condition the simplest of decisions. Accordingly D&D Tactics lacks something of the spontaneity of its fellow SRPG, but those in search of greater depth will not go wanting.

I’m not going to whinge- much- about the plethora of branching menus (which are, in any case, quite effectively crafted so as not to take up too much screen space) or the way vital information has to be teased out of the party management screens with a toothpick, because frankly this is Dungeons and Dragons, and squashing anything like a workable version of it into a device marginally larger than a Weetabix is no modest feat. More thorough tutorial missions would have been welcome, not to mention a log of the calculations which occur behind the scenes, but in general Kuju has located a shaky middle ground between a game buried in its own lore and one dangerously light on specifics.

I will, however, whinge at length about the occasional spats with the camera, controllable via the analog stick, which has trouble keeping up with rapid changes of location. Fire off an arrow or spell at somebody across the map and there’s no guarantee you’ll see it connect. The PSP’s dodgy D-pad also makes it difficult to plot diagonal movement paths when the camera isn’t aligned correctly, cue a lot of swearing and acute thumb cramp.

The pulp-fantasy orchestra soundtrack deserves a mention if only because it has a nasty habit of stalling out, presumably because the game loads it from the UMD rather than storing it in the PSP’s RAM buffer. Or something like that. Tech-wizards are welcome to offer their own explanations.

While the promised downloadable content and level editor has failed to materialise, Kuju have come through with the multiplayer, which is available in deathmatch and cooperative flavours via both Ad Hoc and Infrastructure modes. Sadly you won’t be able to take your own custom-built band of misfits into the fray, which, together with the limited range of maps on offer, may explain why nobody in the entire frickin’ world appears to be playing D&D Tactics online as of the time of writing.

All of which leaves me recommending this to diehards only, a conclusion suspiciously redolent of the last game I reviewed, Monster Hunter Freedom 2, though I gave that an eight. Hmmm. I’m getting a bit of reputation here. I think I’ll dust off my DS and play something light and fluffy for a change.