Dungeons & Dragons is essentially the grandaddy of most western RPGs. This pen-and-paper RPG is still going strong with expansions and spinoffs being released regularly even today. Since the dawn of video games there have been countless attempts at recreating the physical D&D experience in a digital form. The Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series of games have been good approximations of the classic D&D experience, for example. Sword Coast Legends however seeks to recreate an often unexplored facet of this pen-and-paper RPG: the dungeon master experience.

Sword Coast Legends follows the player character as part of a traveling caravan of warriors venturing north along Sword Coast. This game takes place within the Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons & Dragons so players familiar with those locations, enemies and character classes should know what to expect. On that subject, Dungeons & Dragons’ classic enemies and mechanics are both one of its greatest strengths and biggest hindrances. The enemies, tropes and rules that it established now feel generic by comparison to other high fantasy RPGs. The visuals, sound design and characters don’t particularly stand out because of this despite the mechanics and writing behind them being very solid. This is really just the fault of D&D being the foundation upon which a lot of RPGs are built however.

Wizards of the Coast

Right after the game’s quick tutorial you are thrust into the world and immediately presented with a plethora of characters and side quests. These are all entirely optional because, as is the case with most D&D campaigns, the story follows the player or players, rather than the other way around. Your moment-to-moment choices dictate the course of events in the game, although for the most part the locations you visit remain the same. This is one of the game’s stronger points--the way progression feels. Getting through the admittedly short and simple dungeons feels that much more satisfying when you have complete freedom as to how to take them on. There’s a consciousness to every decision you make and every dialogue option you pick that is much more present than in other games with similar mechanics. Even when you’re simply choosing different dialogue options to get information you feel like you’re building your character’s personality and rapport amongst your party and other NPCs.

Just like any pen-and-paper D&D campaign the choices you make shape the immediate world around you and let you play as you want rather than giving the illusion of choice. For example, early on you come across a mercenary that you can choose to spare, kill or ignore completely. If you spare him you can choose to follow up with his family and deliver an item of value. Once you have this item you can do as you please with it though, you can throw it away, sell it, trade it off or actually deliver it. All of these options feel equally valid in this game so it really feels like most play styles are welcome here.

Wizards of the Coast

The one new gameplay mode that this game introduces is Dungeon Master mode. In DM mode you can build your own D&D campaign for your friends with their own copies of the game or random players to make their way through. The level and quest editor is fully-featured but manages to be user-friendly at the same time. You can do just about anything you please in this mode and make some surprisingly complex and challenging scenarios. The trade-off here is the DM Threat meter that dictates the flow of the campaign.

The DM Threat meter fills as players complete assigned quests or kill enemies and bosses, but it gets emptier as more players die. A higher DM Threat allows the Dungeon Master to add in more enemies or additional objectives to keep up the level of challenge for skilled players. It also lets the DM remove things that may be too hard so players don’t get stuck. This mode is easily the game’s strongest point and where the game will gain a lot of its longevity. It’s possible to start an entirely new campaign just like you would with the physical game, with the only downsides being the disconnect of online-only multiplayer and the less open-ended options when tackling scenarios. Your players don’t have the option to seduce or bribe enemies if they roll for it for example, but most other options are there if the DM allows. This mode is the closest you can get to more streamlined D&D experiences without losing out on the player/DM interaction that can be crucial in some campaigns.

Wizards of the Coast

Sword Coast Legends is a solid game who’s one saving grace is its infinitely customizable DM mode. Fans of isometric RPGs or players looking for a traditional D&D experience won’t be disappointed with Sword Coast Legends. The Dungeon Master mode is especially great for groups looking to transition from pen-and-paper to something more streamlined yet still robust. Anyone looking for an RPG that offers something unique or new won’t find very much value in this game. This is a great entry point if you’re looking to jump on the D&D bandwagon as it does a good job of easing the player into this deep and dense universe.

This review is based on a download of Sword Coast Legends purchased for the PC.