Review: Dungeon Siege
It’s amazing to me that the classic Dungeon Siege didn’t inspire more imitators. Situated squarely between the likes of Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, Dungeon Siege gave the world a more tactical, party-based take on the hack-and-slash looting sprees of the budding ARPG genre. It’s steeped in low fantasy and spread across a rustic world of ancient secrets, making it the perfect compliment to darker or more fantastical titles. Of course, there are reasons why it might not have caught on as powerfully as its precursors, and those flaws are more evident now than ever before.
Hundreds of years ago, the Empire of Stars collapsed to evil in the land of Aranna, leaving one of its guardian legions to flee westward in search of a new home. They found it in a place called Ehb, and their descendants lived in peace for centuries. But now, evil is afoot once more and it brings death and destruction to your very doorstep, the doorstep of a simple farmer. Taking up your sharpest tool and the words of a dying friend, you set out for the town of Stonebridge on an adventure that will eventually decide the fate of civilization. Along the way you’ll discover untold secrets of your homeland, battle nightmarish creatures, and collect plenty of weapons, armor, magics, and companions to wield them alongside you.
There’s nothing remarkable about the setup for Dungeon Siege, but I appreciate the efforts made within the game to help it stand out. The Empire of Stars and the evil threatening your lands have long and storied histories, told through tomes that can be found in your journey. Your foes are not the bog-standard orcs and trolls of yore but exotic variants like the krug and droog with their own backgrounds. Even more common enemies like spiders rate unique tales, in their case an unwilling relocation from their ancestral homes. This is all in the background of the looting and raiding you’re going to be doing but it is there, and it does its part in making Dungeon Siege stand out a bit more from other fantasy hack-and-slash joints.
It’s particularly important here, because the combat isn’t going to be what sets it apart. The game runs on familiar mouse controls, clicking to move or attack or loot. Enemies will home in on you once you draw close enough and you’ll need to cut or shoot or burn them down to proceed. In lieu of character classes Dungeon Siege uses a less commonly tapped progression system, wherein you grow your stats and skills by using specific weapons. Everything is broken down into melee, ranged, destruction magic, and nature magic, and using your chosen weapon builds both the associated skill and the stat that governs it, Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence. There are no skills outside of these passive ones, so combat comes down to a lot of wild swinging and plinking away with arrows or basic fireballs.
You’ll start off on your own, and through those early forests and crypts the game is bound to feel a lot like Diablo. Once you start tying on party members, though, everything gets more hands-off. You’ll still be telling your party to focus down specific enemies but setting their formations and AI outside of battle does most of the work, and you’ll spend plenty of battles with your finger on the party health potion button. You can pause to issue new orders which helps when one character is getting beaten down, but don’t expect any complex tactics or even game-changing magics. The loot you find is extremely straight-forward, with just some minor stat boosts usually, and a few secrets to turn up here and there along your path.
The combat doesn’t really drag the game down, but the length does. Dungeon Siege is a loooooooong game, and most of that time is spent trekking through very similar environments for far too long. I appreciate any game that feels like a complete journey and this one certainly does, but it’s also possible to go too far with it and this one certainly does. The truth is that I’ve never beaten Dungeon Siege, in fact I’ve never gotten past the ice caves which is about a third of the way through. I always burn out on it, because character progression is glacial and you spend hours hacking your way through a single dungeon. I’d say this one didn’t age well due to the rough 90s 3D graphics and lack of options but really it’s always been a bit of a drag, tuned a little too long (or a lot) and a little too basic. You’ll still get some fun out of this classic, but beating it might be a tall order considering its limitations.