Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale review: Critical miss

Dungeons & Dragons: 4th Edition represents one of the most drastic facelifts the long-running tabletop RPG franchise has ever undergone. The game's once ethereal elements have been turned tangible, its mechanics made far less punishing for new players, and its every component finely tuned to a state of balance that few other tabletop developers can match. It is as accessible as the game has ever been -- and, as a result, as adaptable as the game has ever been.

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale has been promoted as an opportunity for Bedlam Games and Atari to bring "an accessible version of Dungeons & Dragons: 4th Edition to life," a task at which they have failed in a huge, huge way. Some of the tabletop game's terminology and a few superficial concepts show up in Daggerdale, but the rest has been sacrificed to create a monotonous, hideously buggy hack-and-slash RPG.

Players are tasked with ending the tyrannical reign of Daggerdale's best-dressed archvillain, Rezlus, by raiding his tower as one of four pre-rolled heroes: The Human Fighter, Elven Rogue, Dwarven Cleric or Halfling Wizard. This quest for justice takes players across four different areas, each peppered with a handful of brief, 15-minute primary and secondary quests. It does not make for a lengthy campaign -- the game is good for about six hours of playtime; a nice sum for a downloadable offering, if not a tad slim for the action-RPG genre.

Each class has a selection of six or so special attacks which can be unlocked and strengthened as your character levels up. These abilities can be mapped to face buttons and, once their higher ranks have been purchased, can be charged by holding and releasing said button. Of course, the more you charge, the longer you have to wait for that ability to become available again, oftentimes making this whole process a complete wash.

Between these special abilities and basic attacks, combat actually manages to be enjoyable for Daggerdale's first and largest chapter. Around the halfway point, however, the game loses its well-tuned pacing. Even if your character's leveled prodigiously and suited with the finest armaments that the game's deep loot catalog has to offer, most enemy encounters after the midpoint -- especially boss fights -- start to feel like wars of attrition.

Daggerdale starts out as a competent hack-and-slasher, and ends as an unmitigated disaster. That kind of downward-sloping quality curve is usually indicative of rushed development -- as are bugs, which Daggerdale has in spades. Characters, players and enemies frequently walk through pieces of the environment. Entire groups of enemies sometimes disappear from the screen mid-fight. Occasionally, after dying, loading a new chapter or joining a multiplayer game, your character will have all of his equipment and abilities removed and un-mapped.

The most unforgivable bug is one which only occurs during Daggerdale's online multiplayer mode, which once sounded so promising. Sadly, that promise is tough to realize when non-host players are occasionally kicked to a loading screen while the game goes on around their paralyzed hero. More often than not, this snafu crops up during large scale fights, almost ensuring your character will be dead as doornails once the game catches up to you.

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Daggerdale also features some of the worst pop-in and texture loading problems seen this console generation, with environmental objects sometimes appearing mere feet in front of the player. Cutscenes -- of which there are only a handful -- aren't exempt from these graphical issues, with character and object textures refreshing four or five times right in front of your eyes. It's a shame, as Daggerdale's handful of environments are massive and lovingly designed; but its inability to load these environments wrecks the whole experience.

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale does a big thing bad. Bedlam Games has shown no lack of ambition in creating a $15 downloadable title with all the constituent elements of a traditional action-RPG. Unfortunately, most of those elements are half-baked, and become even less baked as the game goes on, culminating in a completely uncooked, laughably ill-conceived final boss battle. (That is not hyperbole. You will laugh at the final boss battle.)

It's not just a bad game, it's a terrible use of Wizards of the Coast's timeless license. Even when boiled down to its core combat mechanics, D&D is cerebral, challenging, intense, and infinitely rewarding. Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale is just a game about hitting monsters until treasure falls out of them.

This review is based on retail Xbox Live Arcade code provided by Atari.