Here's a sword and shield. Go hit stuff.
Dungeon Siege III will likely make you question your expectations of a fantasy action RPG, and more specifically, whether you believe a single-player lootfest is worth sixty dollars today. It's usually uncommon for me to begin a review with the price tag, since it always drops with time and I look at the design first and foremost. But I only realized that the game was primarily a single-player experience after completing the 12-hour campaign when I tried, well, the multiplayer. Consider this a fair warning.
The backstory for Dungeon Siege III doesn't go far beyond the standard fare. Thirty years ago, the 10th Legion, the knightly protectors of the kingdom of Ehb, was accused of assassinating the king and was expunged by the mobs led by Jeyne Kassyndre. As one of the last remaining sons and daughters of the Legion, it is your charge to reclaim the Legion's honor and uncover the truth behind the conspiracy. While every line of text and exposition is technically adequate, it does not stretch enough past the trappings of cliché. The timeline of events and the various peoples and monsters living in their appropriate environments - the primitive jungle, the bustling city, or the everyday township - all fit in their respective holes.
This borderline creativity extends to the dialogue and the choice of words, which you may have already gathered by the awkward spellings of Ehb and Jeyne Kassyndre. Certainly, Dungeon Siege III is not the first fantasy universe to invent unusual proper nouns, but it's disheartening when the most original parts of the story rests on the pronunciations of the dakkenweyr, Vaclav, Lescanzi, and Rukkenvahl. Conversations employ the same radial system as Mass Effect's with the player allowed to ask various questions in no specific order, but except for the humorous responses of the guardians automatons in the city, answers are rarely interesting or have any personality.
It isn't from a lack of trying, though. Each of the four protagonists - the sword-wielding Lucas, the gun-toting Katarina, the fiery archon Anjali, and the logic-minded Reinhart - all make witty comments at times and choosing the right dialogue option can help you gain influence with them. Accomplishing certain feats earns your character Deeds that award permanent stat bonuses as well. But compared to the dialogue trees and the quest branching of Dragon Age: Origins, the attempt here is at best a passing grade. Up close, NPCs look like they belong in an early PS2 title and any conversation with more than one NPC feels like you're talking to a throng of quest-giving scarecrows whose heads and bodies are held by an invisible stick in the ground. It's just a case of a game rushing to keep up with modern video game storytelling.
In its defense, Dungeon Siege III's hack-'n'-slash combat is solid and satisfying, using a cascading system that encourages players to have a balanced approach. Melee attacks build focus, which is used for special attacks that build power orbs, which is then used for empowered special attacks and healing defensive spells. It takes a while to understand how best to work the system, between the different battle stances and evasive maneuvers, but in the end it all makes sense. If you learn to be deliberate with blocking, rolling, and performing each type of attack in a cyclical fashion, not even the bosses on the hardest difficulty setting will give you too much trouble.
Though the number of abilities and becomes slightly narrow by the time you reach about level 20 (the cap is level 30), the progression gives you enough choices that you feel invested in your character. Collecting loot does the same as well, though the statistical emphasis almost flashes headlights on attack, armor, will (for ability DPS), and stamina which gives 10 HP per point. In fact, this makes items with a high amount of stamina so much more important that it's difficult to care about any other stat; not that dying is that much of a concern, since your AI companion not only provides cover fire, but can also revive you if you're down.
To ensure your survival even further, you can have a friend take over your companion AI in local or online play, but note that your friends won't be bringing in their own character to your group. Though your friends will have some control over the weapons and ability assignment of their chosen character, the host player still has primary control and none of the weapons or experience they earn in your game carries over to their playthrough. If that's not what you expected, you're not the only one.
The incentive for multiplayer, beyond some Achievements/Trophies, is hard to place other than being a good friend. It can even be constricting since the viewing area only expands so far to accommodate more than one person and equipping new weapons and armor can take twice as long. Maybe the developers wanted to make sure that no two players would be under-leveled or over-leveled, but they could have rethought the concept of multiplayer by enforcing a matchmaking system that restricts the level gap between players. As it stands, players can't even trade or gift each other gold.
Without a robust multiplayer, Dungeon Siege III puts itself into the category of solid single-player fantasy action RPG titles, which puts it in competition with the likes of Torchlight and DeathSpank, which are both strong downloadable titles for $15. So what you're essentially paying for in the difference is the graphical polish of the environments, a satisfactory storyline, and clean craftsmanship. If that sounds like a fine deal, then Dungeon Siege III is the right dungeon crawler for you.