The History of Dungeons & Dragons in Video Games, Part Two

D&D Games Pt 2 3x3

Last week we took a sprint through the early history of Dungeons & Dragons in video games, following the franchise from its earliest digital adaptations up through the years it spent under the watchful eyes of Strategic Simulations, Inc. This week, we pick up where left off, pressing onward through the remainder of the 1990s and into the modern age.

This, of course, brings us into proximity with what could arguably be named as the most influential period of D&D games: the era of the Infinity Engine. Baldur’s Gate, PlaneScape: Torment, Icewind Dale; while perhaps not as formative as some the Gold Box games, the fingerprints of these franchises are apparent on RPGs even today.

So with no further exposition, I invite you to gather your party and venture forth into the history of Dungeons & Dragons in the modern era of video games.

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Blood & Magic
Original Release:1996, Platform(s): DOS, Windows 95, Developer: Tachyon Studios, Publisher: Interplay

One of the first games released after SSI lost the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, Blood & Magic was a real-time strategy title possessing both hefty ambitions and considerable flaws. Taking place in the Forgotten Realms setting, it cast players as a series of wizards using blood magic to create armies of D&D monsters they could then command across a series of increasingly difficult campaigns. Each campaign was, in turn, guided by a storyline where players would be able to choose which side they supported. Unfortunately, while the ame had some solid mechanics, it suffered from a cumbersome mana system that frequently slowed its action to a snail’s pace. When you compared it to contemporaries like Warcraft 2, there just weren’t many reasons to play it.
Image Source: Moby Games

Shadows Over Mystara
Original Release: 1996, Platform(s): Arcade, Sega Saturn Developer: Capcom, Publisher: Capcom

Capcom’s follow-up to Dungeon & Dragons: Tower of Doom, Shadow of Mystara took its predecessor’s renowned gameplay and expanded on it with new playable characters and new special abilities. It also impressed gamers with RPG-inspired mechanics that were rare for arcade games. For instance, players could find and earn new equipment and spells by collecting experience points. These options were limited depending on which character (Dwarf, Elf, Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Mage) you selected, but it was still an impressive inclusion for a game of this style.
Image Source: Fantasy Anime

Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance
Original Release: 1997, Platform(s): DOS, Windows 95, Developer: Synergestic Software, Publisher: Sierra

Based in the Birthright setting, Gorgon’s Alliance was another strategy title that tasked players with taking over the world via a combination of magic, diplomacy, trade, religious manipulation and, of course, the application of good old fashioned steel. The bulk of the game was a turn-based strategy experience where players had to maneuver their way through a web of dueling lords and nations trying to claw their way to dominance. That said, the game also gave players the option of recruiting adventurers they could guide directly through dungeon delves to procure artifacts to bolster their nation’s efforts. Unfortunately, it suffered from execution problems. Progress through the turn-based sections could be exorbitantly slow and bored many players. The adventure portions, in turn, were criticized for being equally dull and unoriginal.
Image Source: Moby Games

Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft
Original Release: 1996, Platform(s): PlayStation, DOS Developer: Take-Two Interactive, Publisher: Acclaim

A Dungeon & Dragons fighting game? Granted, the two aren’t exactly a match made in heaven, but the world has certainly given birth to stranger combinations. Sadly, Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft did nothing to overcome the obvious genre discrepancies. Presenting players with lousy controls, a bad camera and ugly graphics, it’s a game that most who played it would likely prefer to forget.
Image Source: Moby Games

Descent to Undermountain
Original Release: 1997, Platform(s): DOS, Developer: Interplay, Publisher: Interplay

Think of the things that make a bad game. Ugly graphics? Bugs? Stupid AI? Descent to Undermountain possessed these in such abundance that is still widely remembered as one of the worst D&D games ever made. Mired in technical issues thanks to complications with modifying the Descent graphics engine, you’d be hard pressed to find a single reviewer who didn’t blast it or a player who liked it.
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Baldur’s Gate
Original Release: 1998, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Bioware, Publisher: Interplay

The period immediately following the end of SSI’s long stewardship of D&D in video games saw the release of several significant duds that could have been enough to convince any fan of the brand that its best electronic days were behind it. And then came Baldur’s Gate. Hotly anticipated by gamers, BioWare’s first foray into the realm of RPGs blew people away with its dynamic gameplay and storytelling, the latter of which implemented choice and player alignment in ways that are still influencing games today. The first game to use the Infinity Engine, it received a substantial expansion in 1999 and remains one of the most beloved role-playing games of all time.
Image Source: GOG

PlaneScape: Torment
Original Release: 1999, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Black Isle Studios, Publisher: Interplay Entertainment

Building off of what Bioware did with Baldur’s Gate, Black Isle Studios took the Infinity Engine in a darker direction with PlaneScape: Torment dropped players in the weathered shoes of The Nameless One, a scarred and tattooed immortal on a quest to rediscover his history and bring a close to his endless existence. Taking place in the oft-repulsive setting of PlaneScape, the game earned heaps of praise from critics and players alike for its grim tone, unconventional protagonist and deep, multi-layered writing (headlined by Chris Avellone). While some felt the combat was a bit simplistic, most left PlaneScape feeling like it belonged in a class all its own.
Image Source: GOG

Icewind Dale
Original Release: 2000, Platform(s): Windows, Macintosh, Developer: Black Isle Studios, Publisher: Interplay Entertainment

While PlaneScape: Torment impressed the people who played it, its strange setting and dark tone failed to attract audiences on the same scale as the more conventional fantasy of Baldur’s Gate. Hoping to recapture some of that wider success Black Isle Studios and Interplay released Icewind Dale. Based in the region of Icewind Dale (created by author R.A. Salvatore), the game sent players to frozen snowscapes and pit them against an ancient evil. While it possessed a solid storyline, it didn’t win as many points with players on the narrative frontas its predecessors. It made up for it, however, with combat-centric gameplay which struck a chord with RPG fans looking for a bit more action from the Infinity Engine. Icewind Dale would receive several expansions and would go on to be remembered as one of the era’s RPG classics.
Image Source: GOG

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn
Original Release: 2000, Platform(s): Windows, Macintosh, Developer: Bioware, Publisher: Interplay Entertainment

Continuing shortly after the events of the original Baldur’s Gate, Shadows of Amn took everything that original game did and improved on it in pretty much every way possible. Following the protagonist of the first game as they embarked on a new quest against the enigmatic Jon Irenicus, its story content alone could take more than 100 hours to complete. Couple this with a myriad of brilliantly devised side quests and the equally excellent Throne of Bhaal expansion and you had yourself an RPG that you could probably sink a year of your life into and still not see everything that it had to offer. While the world has seen many RPGs since Shadows of Amn, you’d probably have a hard time finding another game quite as adored as this one.
Image Source: GOG

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth
Original Release: 2001, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Stormfront Studios, Publisher: Ubisoft

In 2001, Dungeons & Dragons fans saw the return of the original Gold Box classic Pool of Radiance with Stormfront Studios’ Myth of Drannor. Ditching the original Gold Box formula for an isometric experience similar to the Infinity Engine games, Drannor gave little limelight to any sort of storytelling and instead focused on straight-up combat and dungeon crawling. This¸ unfortunately, did little to impress fans of the original or RPG newcomers, many of whom returned the game after playing it. While it did take the notable step of adopting Dungeons & Dragons‘ 3rd edition rules, it was a marked disappointment for a brand that had recently reached new heights of impressiveness.
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Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance
Original Release: 2001, Platform(s): PS2, Xbox, GameCube, GameBoy Advance, Developer(s): Snowblind Studios, High Voltage Software, Magic Pockets, Publisher: Interplay

Ditching the depth of the previous Baldur’s Gate games for a much more linear action experience, Dark Alliance shared little with its forebear save for its setting and name. That being the case, it made up for its lighter-fare experience with fun hack-and-slash gameplay and entertaining cooperative modes that left many gamers hooked.
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Neverwinter Nights
Original Release: 2002, Platform(s): Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Developer: BioWare, Publisher: Atari

BioWare’s first post-Infinity Engine D&D game, Neverwinter Nights abandoned the gameplay and isometric perspective of Baldur’s Gate for polygonal visuals and mechanics rooted in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rule set. Unfortunately, whereas BioWare’s previous efforts impressed with their deep and well-written stories, Neverwinter Nights‘s main campaign was, by most player’s reckoning, merely adequate. Making up for that deficit were a stable of eventual expansions and, more so, the inclusion of an interactive toolset that allowed ambitious players to construct their own adventures. The tools were a tad complex for some people’s taste, but others enthusiastically embraced them and the years since have seen the release of numerous player made works of depth and complexity rivaling what the BioWare created itself.
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Eye of the Beholder
Original Release: 2002, Platform(s): Game Boy Advance, Developer: Pronto Games, Publisher: Infogrames

Despite sharing the name of the RPG classic, Eye of the Beholder, wasn’t a port of the original Westwood game. Using a simplified version of the 3rd edition rule set, it gave players a mere four character classes to form their party with and otherwise did little to distinguish itself among the other RPGs available at the time.
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Icewind Dale II
Original Release: 2002, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Black Isle Studios, Publisher: Interplay

The last of the Infinity Engine games, many had their doubts that the aging engine could produce another standout title in an age where 3D graphics were now the standard. To some extent they were right. Icewind Dale II is not remembered as any sort of revolutionary title and its legacy isn’t nearly as large as the games that came before it. That said, it still delivered an action-packed experience that many counted as one of the most entertaining RPGs of 2002. As swan songs go, Icewind Dale II was more than decent and is still well-regarded today.
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Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes
Original Release: 2003, Platform(s):, Xbox Developer: Atari, Publisher: Atari

Another arcade style hack-and-slash game, Heroes put players in charge of one of four resurrected heroes tasked with defeating the evil wizard Kaedin. Similar in style to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, Heroes suffered somewhat in comparison thanks to its markedly more simple gameplay. Even so, you’d be hard pressed to find many gamers who would claim to have had a bad time with it. Shallow as it was, its core experience was still a lot of fun and if you were a D&D fan looking for a breezy dungeon dive it was more than up to the task of scratching that itch.
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The Temple of Elemental Evil
Original Release: 2003, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Troika Games, Publisher: Atari

Based on the classic D&D adventure of the same name, The Temple of Elemental Evil was the sort of game you had to work to enjoy. The first D&D title to adopt the modified 3.5 rule set, its lackluster interface and inadequate help documents left many RPG newcomers struggling to understand the methods behind its madness. Technical issues such as persistent bugs and shoddy path finding also frustrated players understandably hoping for more from a game made by former Fallout developers. Even with its flaws, however, Temple of Elemental Evil still managed to earn a following of fans, many of whom still remember the game fondly today.
Image Source: GOG

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II
Original Release: 2004, Platform(s): PS2, Xbox, Developer: Black Isle Studios, Publisher: Interplay

While critics and gamers alike enjoyed Dark Alliance II, most left the game feeling like it did little else besides delivering more of the same. To be fair, it did expand on the first game in some substantial ways. Where the original Dark Alliance only had three playable characters, the sequel had five. Players could also take advantage of companion characters and customizable weapons, neither of which had been present in the original. Even so, it didn’t make as strong an impression on gamers and plans for a sequel were unfortunately abandoned.
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Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone
Original Release: 2004, Platform(s): Windows, PS2, Xbox, Developer: Stormfront Studios, Publisher: Atari

While the PC port had its detractors, Demon Stone on the whole was well-received by gamers who appreciated its solid combination of action-centric gameplay and cinematic presentation (propped up by a script from R.A. Salvatore). Following a trio of warriors battling a pair of warlords, the game made clever of use of its three unique protagonists. Some bosses, for instance, could only be defeated by switching between them and using their contrasting abilities strategically. In the end, it wasn’t perfect but it was still a solid D&D action title that a lot of people enjoyed.
Image Source: GOG

Original Release: 2005, Platform(s): Windows, Developer: Liquid Entertainment, Publisher: Atari

A real-time strategy title, Dragonshard focused on three competing factions fighting over the land of Ebberon. Featuring two single player campaigns and an array of multiplayer and skirmish modes, it also did unique things like giving players access to all of their units at the game’s start and experience points which could then be spent to level up certain units. While some felt that the single player campaigns were a bit on the short side, Dragonshard was a fun game and a vast improvement over some of the other earlier D&D strategy titles.
Image Source: GOG

Dungeons & Dragons Online
Original Release: 2006, Platform(s): Windows, Mac, Developer: Turbine, Publisher: Warner Bros.

Set in both the Eberron and Forgotten Realms campaign settings, Dungeon & Dragons Online utilized a real-time adaptation of the 3.5 rule set that, for the most part, was relatively well received by critics. Despite positive reviews, it nonetheless languished after its launch thanks to World of Warcraft‘s stranglehold on the market. It would find new success, however, in 2009 when its developers re-launched it as a free-to-play game, a move that saw its membership (and profit margins) explode. Still running today, it was receiving content updates as recently as June 2014.
Image Source: Dungeons & Dragons Online

Neverwinter Nights 2
Original Release: 2006, Platform(s): Windows, Mac, Developer: Obsidian, Publisher: Atari

The follow-up to BioWare’s RPG, Neverwinter Nights 2 traded out the Canadian developer for Obsidian Entertainment. Made up of former Black Isle staffers, the studio delivered on a lot of the things that many felt the original had been lacking. Its story was a point of especial praise, with some critics billing it as one of the best written games ever made. Unfortunately, its accolades were tempered by complaints about the game’s often excessive glitchyness. Obsidian would rectify most of these problems with post-release patches, but not all of them were fixed and the game remains less stable than its predecessor.
Image Source: GOG

Dungeon & Dragons Tactics
Original Release: 2007, Platform(s): PSP, Developer: Kuju Entertainment, Publisher: Atari

While not abjectly horrible, Dungeons & Dragons Tactics was the subject of more than a few negative reviews thanks to its clunky interface and uncooperative camera. It’s a shame because the rest of the game actually offered a fairly robust experience including more than 30 missions, some of which were only accessible depending on whether the player opted to play as a good or evil character. Toss in a story about dueling dragon gods and a smorgasbord of customization options based on D&D‘s 3.5 rule set and you had a game that could have been decent.
Image Source: GamesRadar

Original Release: 2011, Platform(s): Windows, Xbox 360, PS3, Developer: Bedlam Games, Publisher: Atari

A third person action game with elements of tactical combat, Daggerdale was considered mediocre at best. At worst however, it was regarded as one of the biggest wastes of the D&D video game license in years. Featuring dull combat, boring quests ands a ton of bugs, the game didn’t even have the saving grace of a decent story to motivate gamers looking for a reason to power through. Put succinctly, Daggerdale sucked.
Image Source: Strategy Informer

Original Release: 2013, Platform(s): Windows, Xbox One, Developer: Cryptic Studios, Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment

Launched in 2013, Neverwinter took D&D‘s 4th edition rules and adapted them to an action-centric gameplay style that was well received by both critics and players. Taking place in the titular city of Neverwinter, the game also won over a lot of MMO fans with its strong focus on story, especially when compared to other MMORPGs. As with most other present day MMOs, it launched as a free-to-play title and continues strong today with a sizable community of players happily fighting their way through the Forgotten Realms.
Image Source: Neverwinter

And so ends our epic trek into the history of Dungeons & Dragons! Next week Good Old Reviews returns with an actual review: PlaneScape: Torment. In the mean time, as always, feel free to PM me with comments, suggestions and ideas for future reviews/features.

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