In the eye of the Beholder.
Veteran readers of GameRevolution may remember our review for LittleBigPlanet 2, for which writer Josh Laddin provided three separated report cards dependent on what type of player the reader subscribed to the most. Granted, this method of “different strokes for different folks” approach goes against the common conventions of reviewing—readers are mainly looking for one grade from one person, not three. The Sword Coast Legends by n-Space and Digital Extremes begs for the same treatment, as it can be either massively disappointing or surprisingly appealing depending on which parts of the game you care about. I'm tempted to give multiple grades here, but I won't out of principle.
Much of your opinion on Sword Coast Legends will rely on how literal you believe the game should translate the rules of the traditional pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons (namely 5th Edition rules) into the equally traditional mechanics of a fantasy-based video game. However, since the game boasts in its official description that it attempts to recapture “the time-tested magic of playing Dungeons & Dragons as a shared storytelling experience,” it somewhat shoots itself in the foot when it comes to expectations. But before we delve into the number of ways it differs from classic D&D, let's get our bearings straight first.
As a fantasy RPG with active round-based combat, Sword Coast Legends actually fits somewhere in the spectrum between Dragon Age: Origins and Neverwinter Nights. You control a party of four class-based adventurers of various familiar races, alignment, and deity of choice who must spelunk through dungeons, defeat bandits, goblins, and the undead, and do pretty much what you expect out of a standard D&D campaign set in world of Forgotten Realms. Clicking on an enemy will have your chosen character launch attacks continuously, interrupted only by activating spells and special attacks hotkeyed on your quickbar.
By that definition, Sword Coast Legends won't be the direct D&D adaptation you might be expecting. Unless you have a DM (more on that later), all skill checks are made in the background. Standard classes like the Druid, Monk, and Barbarian (just to name a few) and standard races like half-orcs and gnomes are absent, and characters you create can't multi-class, though they can sometimes acquire skills typical of another class. Abilities are arranged in a set of rather short skill trees and regenerate by cooldowns instead of the usual resting mechanic. The spellbook for the wizard is woefully lacking, and dying has no penalty apart from having to respawn at the beginning of the dungeon floor. For some reason, you can't navigate the map either when you open it up either. The game doesn't even have dragons, so theoretically, half of its apparent inspiration is nowhere to be found.
The vast majority of battles are won simply by clicking on enemies and hacking them to death. All it takes is some careful management of health by using skills and potions, and you'll be fine. Strategic thought does occur on occasion, particularly if you're in a group of three other non-AI players in a challenging dungeon. Your party will need to communicate about who should pull enemies, how fighters should arrange themselves for threat, and where the wizard might use a sleep spell to knock some enemies unconscious. Enemy mobs are leveled to your group's overall level, which keeps battles challenging but at the cost of being yet another aspect that isn't Dungeons & Dragons. Overall, combat is more tactical than the likes of Diablo and much faster than classic Baldur's Gate.
But if you can move past the marketed description of Sword Coast Legends, the story-based campaign is serviceable with solid voice-acting, satisfactory dialogue, and an adequate amount of lore. The plot follows you as a member of the Order of the Burning Dawn who is mysteriously attacked by another group of knights who believe that you're in league with demons. Since you've been having dark nightmares for days, this could well be true.
The campaign has a fairly simple dialogue tree system without any morality system and the variety of quests are adequate, though many side quests have you wandering around for hours trying to find the proper trigger. As for character progression, if you gather the right kind of equipment with elemental damage, cooldown reduction, and status effects, you can be a powerhouse by Level 20. In my experience, though, loot drops from epic boss battles are pitiful and you're far better off grinding quests. As a traditional fantasy video game, Sword Coast Legends doesn't offer a lot of frills or any intense memorable moments, but it gets the job done more or less.
Otherwise, the main campaign is really a technical demo of what you can ostensibly create using the dungeon creation tools or, better put, what that toolset hopes it could create. From among a handful of tileset options, you can create NPCs, custom enemy sets, simple questlines, plop down particular enemy groups, and overall dungeon difficulty. If you choose to be a dungeon master for your own campaign, you can create more specialized scenarios where you ask players to roll dice (in the chat window), perform checks, and spawn enemies using “threat” as a currency (there's an option for infinite threat if you dare).
By a certain measure, your only limitation is your imagination and execution. With several hours of work, I created a simple grinding dungeon in a network of lost caves as well as more complex underdark area with deranged cultists named “I Believe I Can Kill You” who can cast irritating charm spells and resurrect their fallen allies. Or you can create a dungeon with an obscene amount of traps, hidden doors, and locked chests with ridiculously high perception checks.
On the flipside, the creation tools at the moment are the quick dungeon creator of what could have been a far more robust toolset. Dungeons are randomly generated once you finalize the details, so there's no way to lay dungeons down tile by tile or even room by room. Minute details like these make or break map creation It's difficult to create complex questlines as well without the ability to create branching dialogue trees, in-game skill checks, and scripting options. You have the freedom to create whatever you want, so long as you do it in a limited sandbox.
That said, Sword Coast Legends works best as a co-operative multiplayer experience with a knowledgeable and patient dungeon master either in dungeon crawls, user-created modules, or the story campaign. Its overall graphics and presentation are rough around the corners, but it's an enjoyable experience if you can convince friends to join your party. But if you're a lifelong Dungeons & Dragons fan and expect Sword Coast Legends to be the classical D&D experience it claims to be, you'll need to look elsewhere. This is one skill check it does not pass.