(Xbox 360 Review) Dungeon Siege III

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

The Dungeon Siege series is one of my longest ‘almosts’ in gaming. Each release, whether on PC or handheld, has come close to being a great game but yet somehow just missed the mark. It’s like all of the pieces have been there, but they’ve never been fitted together properly. With series creators Gas Powered Games busy handling the Supreme Commander series and Age of Empires Online, another developer—Fallout: New Vegas’ Obsidian—has stepped in to deliver the third major installment in the long-running action-RPG series. While the adventure is slow to get going, it ends up being a fast and fun though somewhat flawed ride.

The first hour or two of Dungeon Siege III is surprisingly slow. With a fairly robust combat system masked by simple combo sets, and with the low-level abilities creating sudden difficulty spikes, there isn’t much to get excited about as you make your way to reunite with the lineage of the fabled 10th Legion. But once you’ve climbed a few levels and gained some abilities, the game picks up and continues at such a brisk pace that you’ll forget the initial slog. As one of the four main members—archon/sorceress Anjali, ranger Katarina, warrior Lucas, or mage Reinhart—you will be tasked with rebuilding the 10th Legion as well as gaining support for an upcoming war against the legion’s nemesis, Jeyne Kassynder.

By the end of the story, the tale of the 10th is reminiscent of that of the Templars. Both were organizations that became powerful and wealthy through their service as protectors, and both earned the ire of a king and a harsh lesson in royal power. While the Templars were accused of heresy and stamped out, the 10th were accused of regicide and faced an equally harsh reaction. In the case of the legion, the accusations came from a young girl who appeared in the streets, screaming that the king had died at the hand of the legion’s troops. The young girl was Jeyne Kassynder, and it was her allegations that tore apart the Kingdom of Ehb and led to a mass uprising against the legion, which was eventually defeated. After 30 years, many have come to refer to her as a living saint as she holds court over an army of zealots and followers as head of the Azunite Church. Kassynder’s rise brought about the downfall of the royal family, whose young head, Queen Roslyn, now leads a small royalist force. With a recent attack on the descendants of the legion renewing the war with Kassynder, those loyal to the crown and those in independent cities who wish to remain free of the Azunite yoke are making preparations for the coming war. Your journey will see these disparate forces united in order to unseat the “living saint.”

Each character can best Kassynder in about 12 hours, which includes most if not all of the side quests. While there are branching conversation paths that can lead to a change in the non-playable characters’ perception of the player, the main reason to replay the game isn’t for plot shifts but because of the fast and varied combat system. Despite the conversational pretenses to dynamic character progression, the game doesn’t take the role of your character in the world too far. Games like Mass Effect and Fallout have shown a new generation of gamers what kind of responses a game can have to their actions, while Dungeon Siege III instead opts to use interactions to highlight plot points and service the stat side of the characters. This is actually keeping more in line with the previous releases in the series, which have always had the veneer of a more in-depth experience while actually being much more action oriented than the average genre release. Some decisions do affect plot points, and all storylines (and your actions’ consequences) are resolved in one of the longest endings in recent memory, but the focus is on physical rather than character development.

For those who like the action in their action-RPGs to dominate the equation, you’re in luck. Dungeon Siege III has a surprisingly simple yet layered leveling system which keeps combat fresh. Each character has three stances—one for defense and two for combat. The defensive stance allows characters to heal themselves and perform the very few buffs there are. As there are no potions in the game, only health and focus (mana) orbs from busted crates and defeated enemies, effective use of the healing spells, block, and evade  is essential. Fortunately, if you do fall, your AI teammate will do a good job of resurrecting you in order to continue the fight; similarly, if the AI falls, and they will occasionally as they can be quite aggressive, then you can return the favor by offering a quick prayer for their resurrection. The two combat stances largely fall into two general attack types: single and group. For instance, Lucas has a one-handed stance that allows him to wield a shield and sword (which he uses in conjunction with one another to smash and slash) effectively against one opponent, and a two-handed stance that can cut down an advancing horde.

The characters’ capabilities are broken down by abilities, talents, and proficiencies. Abilities are manually activated special moves that are upgraded through a branching proficiency system. The system allows proficiency points earned through leveling to be allocated to a five-segment bar in one of two ways, with the paths offering a chance to focus on offensive or defensive capabilities; for example, an attack might have the option to either cause additional damage for three percent per level or the chance to transfer damage dealt as life to the character. The ability to mix the paths allows for a nice degree of customization. A new ability will be unlocked after every few levels, with all nine eventually becoming unlocked, though the level limit does mean that only some can be maxed out. Abilities can also be mastered by extensive use, which will then unlock a stronger ”empowered” version. There is a trade-off, however, in that defensive spells, blocking, and empowered moves all use power spheres, and although more are unlocked throughout the game, they are always limited in number. Situations will arise when you can either drain the last two spheres to launch an empowered attack in an attempt to down the enemy, or opt to heal yourself to continue the struggle. Using the spheres wisely becomes an easy way to kill some otherwise time-consuming bosses. Talents are a bit different as they are character enhancements that increase overall capabilities—faster healing, additional damage, increase potency of certain moves, etc. Lastly, there are “deeds.” These are acquired through influence with party members, quest choices made, and completing certain tasks (reading so many pieces of lore, selling 100,000 worth of loot to vendors, and so on) which offer permanent stat boosts. Even though fighting largely consists of an eight-attack move list, a fair bit goes into how strong those attacks are and when it is best to unleash them.

While so many moves can tax the controller (and your hands), they do make for varied experiences for each character. What also helps is that each hero’s move list and repertoire is so different that the adventure takes on a slightly different feel depending on which one was selected. Reinhart has the ability to shoot powerful balls of electricity, lay devastating traps, and teleport for short distances, while Katarina can dual wield pistols with a quick three-attack combo and snipe from afar with a rifle. It’s this shift in combat dynamics that makes the duration of the adventure so tolerable, as the game often feels more like an action game with a more involved story rather than an epic role-playing game. That focus on combat is a good thing, too, because it’s definitely the highlight of the game. Much of where the fighting takes place isn’t as interesting, though, with serviceable but bland locations, such as swamps, caves, and sewers, dampening the mood somewhat.

While a bigger world is hinted at, largely through the use of tight walkways surrounded by large expanses, most of the journey takes place on winding, monotonous paths. There are a few welcomed flourishes of inspiration sprinkled throughout, with the city of Stonebridge standing out in particular. The isolated city is a haven for wealthy humans and goblins who live in comparative opulence, experimenting with technology and refining the art of business. When you arrive, you discover that the people are being terrorized by “The Dapper Old Gent” while being policed by grumpy automaton constables and facing a debilitating strike at the foundry by the Cyclops workers. It’s also here that some of the more interesting quests come about that harken back to the 10th Legion’s past as arbiters, including deciding whether to free an imprisoned Krug and on who owns a tract of land under dispute between a temporally challenged goblin and human entrepreneur. If the game had five more Stonebridges, much less more fully realized versions, I don’t think this review would’ve ever been written.

These are the times when Obsidian’s reputation for their writing really shines through, and it’s what I would have loved more of. The bits of conversation and lore are well written, and even with a lot of the great old-school-style descriptions for items, much of the text lacks the imaginative spark of their past offerings. Dialog transitions can also be stilted as conversations take sharp turns in tone and topic, not helped by the similar and seemingly oblivious and uninterested non-playable characters. The voice-over work is fairly well done, especially with the Krug and goblins, which helps to give the world a bit of much-needed personality. When Obsidian is on top of their game, they are one of the best out there, and that’s what Dungeon Siege III needs more of.

I think what will go unappreciated, or at least underappreciated, are the many innovative measures that Obsidian made in streamlining the menu system, display, and controls. In addition to the small touches, like being able to transmute any inventory item for coin in the field, there are on-screen indicators that quickly inform what categories have new items, which items in them are new, and how equipping an item will affect the character’s stats. This cuts down on a tremendous amount of needless menu wading and fits perfectly with the game’s emphasis on speed. Other developers: please copy this. The directional pad is also used to good effect as a set of hotkeys: left brings up the journal and quest log, right brings up the inventory, down controls the zoom for the mini-map, and up, which is also one of my favorite features, creates a path towards the current quest’s next objective. Given the game’s many winding areas, it can be easy to become turned around, and being able to simply press up and know exactly where to go is fantastic. Granted, sometimes the current quest line defaults to the first on the list, which is a pain when what’s been completed was just one in a multi-step questline, but it is by and large a great addition that shows respect for my time and sanity. Enemy health and abilities are also condensed down to a circle underneath them, with auras indicating dangerous buffs and the circle’s color—green to red—their health. With so much going on at one time, not having the screen cluttered with a half-dozen health bars goes a long way in keeping some order amongst the chaos. As a nice added touch, AI teammates will snap up gold whenever they’re near, leaving the items for you to pick up or ignore. All of these thoughtful and considered decisions are wonderful and stand in stark contrast to the incredibly awkward, and nearly as disappointing, multiplayer.

For an action-RPG with four characters, the ability to have friends join in is a no-brainer. Aside from local multiplayer, which works well, I initially thought that there were only two real options: a character that can jump between single player and multi or, more likely, a persistent multiplayer-only character that can be taken from game to game. It turns out, Obsidian went with neither. Instead, as someone who joins a game, you are very much tagging along for someone else’s ride. Once the host quits, you’re booted out. You don’t save the game; the host does. You don’t keep your character; it’s on the host’s system. There are many problems with this approach, but the biggest is that, if you want to beat the game online with a specific character (and build), you will need a very patient and accommodating friend.

If you want to just enjoy the general mayhem of four-player combat or want friends to drop in on your games, then there isn’t a problem; for anything else, you’re out of luck. And while getting together with friends is quite fun, the twitchy camera, which can zoom in too close during single player, will constantly swivel and jerk about trying to keep all of the characters on-screen at the same time. This is not only distracting but also disorienting, and it’s made worse whenever a character uses a leaping move, which causes the screen to twitch about. The core multiplayer experience is nonetheless enjoyable, and the emphasis on story makes some restrictions understandable, but still, other titles have managed similar setups and it remains a restriction that limits the game’s appeal and longevity.

Dungeon Siege III
is one part fast-paced, action-packed single-player campaign and one part strangely self-limiting and disappointing multiplayer component. Few games can scratch an itch like a good action-RPG, and Obsidian has delivered not only one of the few for the current generation but also an enjoyable one to boot. The four characters each offer their own style of combat that compliments the fast-paced design that is constantly doling out points, loot, and experience. Some of the locations might be a bit dull, the conversations slightly stilted, and the multiplayer overly limited, but the single-player adventure is exciting, engaging, and offers a sound setup for local co-op. Give it an hour or so to find its legs, and enjoy the ride.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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