Retro Review: Dungeon Siege II

I have a lot of love for the Dungeon Siege games. The original was the first RPG I well and truly enjoyed, and the third was one of the best games I’ve ever played.

Battling scorpions in the desert in Dungeon Siege IIThe second passed me by, though. It came out during the time when Real Life prevented me from gaming. Once I did take up gaming again, I tried the demo but found it oddly underwhelming, so another few years went by without my playing Dungeon Siege II.

But come the most recent Steam sale, I was able to buy it for pocket change, so I decided to finally play through it from beginning to end.

I don’t regret the decision, but this game definitely isn’t on par with the other entries in the franchise.

An unhappy medium:

In many ways, Dungeon Siege II plays much the same as the original. It’s an action RPG more or less in the “Diablo clone” mould. It allows you to recruit a large party, and rather than having preset classes, your character levels skills naturally as you play — though you’re still encouraged to pick one style of fighting and stick with it.

As with the original, DS2 spends most of its time treading a fine line between mindless and relaxing, though the puzzles and boss fights are a bit more intense this time.

The siege of Snowbrook Haven in Dungeon Siege IIHowever, there are some ways in which DS2 is a departure from the first game. It attempts to be a bit less mindless and a bit more of a traditional RPG, but not all of these changes are for the better, and those that are crippled by some seriously poor design decisions.

DS2 sees the addition of skill trees for each “class,” as well as activated powers, but both of these fail to enrich the game.

Much of the appeal of the original Dungeon Siege came from the fact that it was an RPG where you built your character by playing the game, rather than playing the game by building your character. The addition of skill trees kills this, and it brings back a lot of the problems of traditional RPGs — having to grind forever to start to feel powerful, and having to force yourself into one incredibly narrow style of play.

For example, in the original, a fighter could swap between a one-hand weapon and shield and a two-hand weapon readily, depending on the needs of the party. In DS2, those are completely different specs.

DS2 has a much greater variety of weapon and spell types than any other game in the series, but it’s a complete waste when the skill trees force you to focus on only one play style.

A scenic vista in Vai'lutra Forest in Dungeon Siege IIArmour is now strictly segregated based on “class” as well, which I find sucks some of the fun out. I enjoyed having mages in chain mail.

And none of this adds any real depth. Dungeon Siege II is still far more basic than most RPGs. It’s a “worst of both worlds” scenario.

The powers aren’t much help, either. They’re very powerful and fun to use, but you can only equip one per character, and they have fairly lengthy cooldowns, so they don’t so much spice up the simplistic gameplay as call attention to it — especially in the early game.

There are some things I like better about DS2 than the original — at least in theory — but other elements of the game sabotage them.

Each party member is a fully fleshed out character now, with dialogue throughout the game and quests unique to them. Some of the characters are pretty interesting, so I enjoyed this.

Fighting in Windstone Fortress in Dungeon Siege IIOr at least I tried to. Dialogue is interrupted by combat, and there’s no way I can see to restart a cancelled conversation in the field. This is a game where it’s pretty much impossible to ever not be fighting, so I missed a huge amount of the character dialogue.

DS2 also has much stricter party size limits, based on difficulty setting. On the easiest setting, you can only have a maximum of four party members. Since the game is designed such that you need at least one of all four “classes,” that renders choice of party members largely moot.

Oh, and you can’t play the higher difficulties until you beat the easiest one.

I hate, hate, hate this. It’s everything I loathe about the RPG genre: arbitrary restrictions and grind for grind’s sake. It also goes completely against the effort to make each party member more meaningful, and it strips away more of the Dungeon Siege identity — another core selling feature of the first game was the huge party size you could potentially have.

DS2 also features a new pet system that allows you to raise various minions by feeding them gear. I really liked this system — who wouldn’t want a baby mule following them around?

But again, this is sabotaged by the party size limitations. Since you can only have four party members and you need one of each class, the pet system basically doesn’t exist on your first play through of the game. I had to give up my beloved mule, Daisy, in order to have an archer. That’s just criminal.

My beloved pack mule, Daisy, in Dungeon Siege IIWe’re not in Ehb anymore:

My other big gripe about Dungeon Siege II is the story.

The story in the original Dungeon Siege was fairly simplistic, but a strong setting in the form of the Kingdom of Ehb and a great sense of history made it compelling. The third game in the franchise capitalized on the rich history of Ehb, further expanding the setting while also revisiting old favourites.

DS2, on the other hand, is set in a completely different part of the world and has almost no connection whatsoever to the stories of the first and third games. In terms of plot and setting, DS2 might as well be from a completely different franchise. Only the presence of Azunai makes it at all recognizable as a Dungeon Siege game.

As for the new story, it somehow manages to be even more generic and cliche than the original’s. There are a few interesting revelations about the history of the world here or there, but mostly it could be any other fantasy game on the market, and there’s not nearly the same sense of place and history that made me care about Ehb so fiercely.

There are some other annoyances here and there, too. Unlike in the original, enemies in DS2 will respawn, and they do so incredibly quickly — even very powerful enemies.

A cutscene of Azunai battling Zaramoth in Dungeon Siege IIThis makes backtracking a rather tedious process, and boy, does this game require a lot of backtracking.

It’s not all bad news:

For all my griping, I don’t want to give the impression that Dungeon Siege II is terrible. I did finish it, after all, and I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t having some fun.

The core gameplay remains enjoyable, if a bit simplistic and repetitive. I did enjoy interacting with my party members on the occasions when we weren’t interrupted by combat.

It’s an incredibly detailed game, too, with enormous potential for exploration and secret areas everywhere.

Probably the best thing about DS2 is how meaty it is. It’s an incredibly long game, and the various secrets and side quests will keep you busy for a few dozen hours at least — though some quests are a little unnecessarily tedious. Considering how cheaply you can pick this game up nowadays, you definitely get your money’s worth.

Exploring a cave in Dungeon Siege III still wouldn’t recommend Dungeon Siege II, though, unless you’re a huge fan of old school RPGs or a rabid completionist who enjoyed one or more of the other Dungeon Siege games.

DS2 isn’t a bad game per se, but it’s totally lacking in identity. It gave up virtually everything that made the original special and failed to establish a compelling identity of its own. By comparison, Dungeon Siege III was even more of a departure from the original, but it managed to be a strong and enjoyable game in its own right, and it was at least a true sequel to the original in terms of story.

Overall rating: 5.8/10 I highly recommend the first and third Dungeon Siege games, but you can safely skip this one.

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One thought on “Retro Review: Dungeon Siege II

  1. I disagree with some of what you say in this review. First of all I think the skill trees are a great addition which allows you to specialize your character, this is something that was not possible except for the choosing of class/multiclass in the first installment. You say that this is too limiting but that is only on low levels. Once you hit high levels, putting skill points into skills in which your character is already accomplished will give you very small benefits. It is then perfectly viable to prefer flexibility to specialisation and instead put your skill points into new areas of specialization.

    I think the powers are perhaps the greatest addition as compared to the previous installment. I really liked the first dungeon siege but its combat could be awfully boring and automated at times. Powers is a great way to spice things up. As your character levels up you will soon notice that your powers are recharging a lot faster as well. Especially using gear that is enhancing power regeneration and putting skill points into such skills.

    You also say that the game is designed such that you need one character of each class. This is very untrue. I have played through the game many times with many different parties. Mixed parties have their strengths as well but overall I think that specialized parties are by far the strongest. All mage, all melee or all ranger are all VERY powerful combinations.

    You say that you hate the lock on higher difficulties. I guess this is highly individual. Just to give you my view which is the polar opposite, I hate when games allow me to choose the difficulty. I like the feeling of beating a game. Beating a game is done by completing it while following the rules of the game, but if I’m allowed to set the rules there doesn’t feel like there is any point to it. The difficulties as they currently are, are in a sense to protect the player as well. No lvl 2-3 character would have any chance starting out in veteran difficulty. If you argue that the difficulty difference between the difficulties could be reduced then that would mean that the actual time needed to complete the game on all difficulties would be drastically reduced. That means less game for your money.

    Disappointing aspects of the game:
    You are completely right that the story of the game is hopelessly cliche and boring and is one of its weakest points. The feeling is just not the same as in the first installment.
    Secondly, after completing the campain un DS1 there was no real incentive to keep playing the game, at least for a single player character like me. The one thing which kept things interesting was the ever increasing list of imaginative spells out of which the more powerful ones did not become available until high levels. That this was not carried over to DS2 is the second biggest disappointment for me. The game advertices itself as having tons of spells but they are really just higher level versions of the basic spells which are all found in the first playthrough on the lowest difficulty.
    The third biggest disappointment is the music which was stunningly good in DS1 and which just cannot compare in DS2.

    This game is far from perfect but I think it does deserve a bit more credit than what you are giving it =)

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