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Dungeons and Dragons has been forcing itself into every facet of the modern-day nerd zeitgeist. From movie stars to apparel, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has been gaining popularity with no sign of slowing down. Naturally, it would only be a matter of time before we got a myriad of video games attempting to transition the traditional pen and paper format into an experience that provides the same sense of wonder and exploration. Despite the long-lost efforts of the past to push D&D into the game-sphere, Dark Alliance has made a return in hopes to pave the way for the franchise yet again. Did the team over at Turque Games and Wizards of the Coast create something worthwhile?
As a devoted Dungeons and Dragons player, I can respect Dark Alliance for attempting to bridge the tabletop experience and the virtual plane. Unfortunately, the game is lackluster and has more flaws than redeemable qualities. Besides the swath of glitches, Dark Alliance is wildly boring, bland, and doesn’t do much to pull you in and keep you entertained. What you experience at the start of the game remains the same through your adventure. There are barely any changes aside from confusing combat mechanics, mediocre looking loot, and imbalanced encounters.
Dark Alliance serves as the SparkNotes version of R.A. Salvatore’s written works, plucking moments from various chapters across the Icewind Dale trilogy and placing you within them. You choose from one of four party members Drizzt the Drow Ranger, Wulfgar the Human Barbarian, Cattie-Brie the Human Fighter, and Bruenor the Dwarf Cleric. Truth be told, I don’t remember if he is a cleric for sure, but he seems like it based on looks alone. Each character features their own playstyle which is unique, but will ultimately result in your own personal experience on how the rest of the game handles. If you play this game as Cattie-Brie, for example, you’re going to come out of this game with nothing but disdain. Less so if you pick any other character.
Wulfgar is a slow character that isn’t as fluid or swift as his counterparts but can deal massive cleave damage across the battlefield. He is easy to handle as he is slow and gives you time to really think about your combos and attacks, perhaps the best character to start with. Bruenor runs into the battlefield and takes all the damage as he protects his taller compatriots with his axe and shield as the team’s designated tank. Drizzt (who I stuck with most of the time during my playthrough) gives me the feeling of what it is like wearing roller skates on an ice rink slathered in melted butter, and is clearly the focus of this game as he is the most powerful out of all the characters. Finally, there is Cattie-Brie as the ranged character who strongly lacks any sort of proper ranged concepts and feels like a last-minute add-in to the title that also breaks the fluidity game in so many areas.
Combat is simple on the basic level for three of the four characters. You have light and heavy attacks, and interchanging the two attacks can unleash specific combos that you can unload on the massive number of goblins, trolls, orcs, and evil Dwarfs that are constantly reused through each level. Various actions such as dodging and heavy attacks can deplete the stamina meter, while some abilities reduce the maximum stamina you have at your disposal. At the lowest difficulty, managing your stamina is easy as you barely need to pay attention to it while in higher difficulties it becomes much more of a challenge.
The style of combat feels like a classic brawler at times, but the way it is executed leaves much to be desired. Opting for an over the shoulder camera perspective rather than the isometric style the first two Dark Alliance games had, placing you directly in the action and the frustration. You can lock-on to targets but doing so moves the camera so close to the character it removes all situational awareness. On top of that, your field of view becomes diminished, leaving you to rely on various enemy tells to help control the crowd, leaving me to forgo the lock-on feature completely. While a white circle with arrows points to enemies within your proximity, it still is not enough. This also barely works properly with Cattie, as attempting to lock onto a target makes the game seize out of control. This is accompanied by the fact that controller input lag is atrocious, and action canceling is desperately needed to help make combat feel more fluid and responsive.
Dark Alliance has you slamming light attacks so much that you can enter a combo without realizing it or perform a special move when you didn’t want to. The controls are by far some of the worst I have experienced in a game like this, making it worse than 2020’s Godfall. On lighter difficulties, it does not make much of a difference, but when you are trying to manage the battlefield, you need to be pinpoint accurate, so you don’t get mobbed by the enemies.
Additionally, the concept of direction comes into play. If I am looking forward, my attacks will execute in that forward position when not locked-on. This means that I could freely fall ledges or whiff all my attacks, leaving my side wide open. If I wish to attack someone on my left or right, I need to re-position myself, or hope I am executing a combo that might cleave into whoever is standing adjacent to me. The problem is that when I hit left or right on the joystick, instead of turning I strafe, leaving me to move my camera around but even then, the camera is too slow even at max sensitivity. When looking at the flanking rules within the 5th Edition rulebook, it makes me wonder if this type of combat style was intentional.
While Drizzt, Wulfgar, and Bruenor focus on melee abilities with ranged abilities that are as powerful as throwing a nerf dart down a hallway, Cattie-Brie turns the entire script over. Cattie unleashes a torrent of arrows but can barely kick her way out of a wet paper bag, which leads to massive problems within her character design and makes the input lag even more noticeable. Her general character build features a healing ability which you would assume goes to the cleric and not the ranged fighter. Great, here we are, talking about how none of these character classifications make any sense when I promised I would not do it. Time to digress.
While you continue to traverse through the story, in classic D&D fashion, you level up, gain attribute points, feat points, and gold. This allows you to unlock more moves and feats, enhancing the combat prowess of your chosen character. You also gain loot, which cannot be equipped while mid-mission. This might be due to the rules in the Player’s Handbook stating that it can take time to don and doff armor, spending up to ten minutes doing so. I can’t say that is the reason but since we are picking and choosing what to pull from the actual established concepts of D&D, I might as well bring it up.
Choosing how to spend points and equipping items cannot be done while in a mission at all. They must be done at a hub point, so you must look at what you have with any applicable resistances and just hope for the best. Context clues on what an environment features can only go so far. On one hand, this keeps the action going for those who like to keep up with some sense of momentum, preventing other players from constantly looking at their inventory after every single drop. This concept also presents problems when faced against some incredibly unbalanced encounters where said gear could be incredibly useful and least give a helping hand.
Level design is odd because you can just run through the levels, not fighting anything until the moments where you need to defeat enemies to progress. Since the game doesn’t outright reward experience points for dispatching enemies (at least it isn’t enough compared to completing a mission outright), fighting the small battles doesn’t make any sense. Loot barely gets rewarded when taking down enemies, so there really is no reason to fight most of them. When the glitches start rolling in, Dark Alliance becomes an even worse game to trudge through.
There have been times within Dark Alliance where I am able to get through the trash mobs and die constantly at the boss, only to quit and lose all my earned gear. Although, due to a glitch, I was able to regain all that gear by replaying and completing another mission on lower difficulty. This isn’t the only glitch in the game that leaves me with my head scratching, as Dark Alliance is plagued with weird issues such as random attacks executing without my input, some attacks not executing, and my personal favorite: corpses that slide around the battlefield.
Another glitch makes only parts of my character appear after loading. Another glitch has parts of my HUD missing, enemies not loading in at all as their shadows are the only thing present. My health will not be depleted but the game decided to kill me off anyway. Disconnection issues are rampant, sometimes a friend will use their ability and you’ll see it set off a thousand times on the battlefield. The glitches are endless. Even though they are rampant, nothing makes me madder than the number of smaller concepts that do not make sense at all. I cannot bring myself to write about each one in greater detail. So, I’ll just list them off here:
– Cattie-Brie’s hunter feat tree doesn’t have enough ranged-feats (reminder that she is a ranged character)
– You don’t get to choose how the base stats are set so you cannot build a character in any meaningful way
– When you get knocked down it takes you too long to get back up again
– The menu choice in abilities has a lot of wasted space which could be used to read abilities
– You have special abilities that can be swapped out but I haven’t unlocked any of those so I doubt you can actually do that
– The hub is quite boring as there is only one NPC there who openly states that they do not want you to be at the hub
– No move list when I pause the game or go into the menu so if I want to learn my abilities better or get clarification, I can’t get it
– Enemies directly in front of me sound like they are whispering into my left or right ear
– When playing solo there is a countdown timer when you die which makes me angry to look at, and I am sure the only purpose of it is to make you angry
– Random boxes and collectables from the previous levels remain on my UI until I fully shut down the game and restart it
– YOU CANNOT MARK LOOT TO TRASH/SELL. THIS IS A BASIC NECESSITY IN ALL LOOT-BASED GAMES. HOW IS THIS NOT PRESENT?
– Enemy composition is completely wrong and imbalanced
Dark Alliance isn’t all bad though, as playing in groups of friends is an absolute blast. Although it suffers from The Avengers ideal where you can’t have a full team of Drizzts. If you have multiple characters, you don’t share any resources, meaning if you jump into a party of 3, you might have to play the character you don’t like or have any equipment for. Also, having a four-player title with only four-characters removes any sense of choice that you might have when it comes to that situation. If there were at least two more characters, you would at least be able to negotiate with yourself instead of being forced into the role or leaving the group.
I might have spent four pages on who this game falls flat in various areas, but there are some redeeming factors. When you get used to the combat style of the character, it does start to feel great, either that or Stockholm syndrome kicked in. Loot drops are kind of balanced with an array of legendary gear that is useful and can last you for several missions while also allowing you to find something better, which seems to be something taken directly from how Diablo 3 handles loot. Although, as you progress, you don’t obtain loot in the same way that games like Destiny give you loot, where you only get high-end gear when taking on more difficult missions. You can still get a piece of common or uncommon gear that have some better stats than your legendary weapons and armor.
Additionally, when it also comes to loot, each piece has a unique physical style. When pieces that have the same name are combined, you get a set bonus in the form of buffs and resistances, which at lower levels don’t mean much but become more important at higher difficulties. If you have a couple of mis-matched looking pieces, you can change the skin of it to align with the rest of your set, so you don’t look like a clown as you take on the swaths of enemies. Not every piece gives you this ability though.
If there is a single thing that I can really put up on a pedestal it is the world and environments. As this has been forged by R.A. Salvatore, Turque really put a lot of effort into making this world immersive at least in an environmental perspective. If you stand at a distance, you can hear goblins talking about their plans, the current situation, or even discuss personal matters that are often humorous. At one point, I heard two goblins discuss what is more appealing, taking a victim’s teeth or their buttons. It has no bearing on the story itself, but it adds a sense of flavor to the world and gives the enemies a personality.
Dark Alliance also includes various hidden elements from traps to secret rooms. Each level is well thought out and exudes style. From the overtaken hills to the ice caverns, Turque really pushed the graphical fidelity of the environments to an impressive state. Any area that has fire or plumes of illuminated flora bring out some of the finer details around it. The smooth stone dwarven cravings and statues can tell you a story just by looking at its deconstructed beauty. I mentioned loot before, and even there you get a bit of the universe within each armor set or weapon. When you see something in this game, you know that there is meaning behind it.
I also need to mention the resting mechanic which makes me think about how I run my own D&D sessions. When you get to a random part of the level, typically a wide-open space with a handful of enemies, you can take a rest once said enemies are dispatched. You then have a choice: take a rest or loot boost. Taking the rest refills your consumables and create a checkpoint so if you die you respawn there instead at the beginning of the level. The cost for resting is losing a level of that loot drop boost, making you think about the choices you want to make. This design I really like but has a flaw, as the levels aren’t too long so you can always boost the loot and if you die you just run past all the mobs. The only inconvenience is the time it takes to get to where you were before pre-death.
Unfortunately, these elements make the best part of the game, which is great for people who have been involved in this universe since the inception of R.A. Salvatore’s work as well as Dungeons and Dragons. It does an okay job at telling an actual story, the combat leaves much to be desired, but the door for additional content and fixes seems to be wide open. As Turque stated, they will have post-launch content coming to this game, bringing it more in line with a games-as-a-service title. We can expect more chapters, additional characters, and hopefully, more quality-of-service updates.
For every issue Dark Alliance has, the more difficult it is to see past them. I continue to fight through each level, bargaining with myself and saying that this isn’t the worst game I have played in an effort to not besmirch the D&D franchise I have grown to love. But there are times where I need to look at this game and come to terms that it isn’t the product I wanted, especially with so many issues. Saying it needed more time is an understatement, as I don’t think time enough would be able to provide a deeper, more enriching experience. This game lacks any meaning that the tabletop game can deliver, and instead we got the equivalent of a Michael Bay movie: brainless, nonsensical, and quickly forgotten the second your eyes divert to anything even mildly interesting (which ranges from a cat-hair tumbleweed to paint drying) than this malignant tumor of a game.
The only real way to experience this game is on Xbox Game Pass, which has saved me another $40. For about $20 more, you could buy the Players Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide, and a set of dice. With all the time you would spend in this game, you could create a more interesting world that is filled with more personality, love, and care. If you are looking for a better Dungeons and Dragon’s experience, I would suggest Baldur’s Gate III currently on Steam Early Access.