Dark Alliance Review
A world not worth saving
The Dungeons & Dragons brand feels like it has been around for an eternity. From board games to books, and indeed video games, this RPG series has been quite dominant across all manner of entertainment circles. With tons of lore to dig into, players are able to experience thousands of adventures and characters, while having the flexibility to forge their own path. While the 2000s featured a steady output of games based on this property, things have slowed down somewhat in recent years. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is the newest 3rd person action RPG based on the fantasy table top series, and sadly this sophomore entry from Tuque Games leaves a lot to be desired.
Dark Alliance is considered part of the Baldur's Gate sub-series, and brings players to Forgotten Realms; specifically the Icewind Dale region. For fans of the lore, this means some familiarity in setting, enemies, and heroes, but for everyone else it's a fairly straightforward fantasy RPG setting. The story picks up after the events that saw Akar Kessell take possession of a powerful Crystal Shard, which gave him command over numerous monster armies. However, he was stopped by an alliance of noble heroes protecting their homelands, and the Shard was lost. But its call of power is too strong to be ignored, and so a number of different factions have set out to find and reclaim it. To stop them, a group of four heroes – Bruenor Battlehammer, Catti-brie, Drizzt Do'Urden, and Wulfgar – have united in their fight, to drive the enemy from the lands and destroy the leader of each invading faction.
Despite being based on Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Alliance doesn't spend a whole lot of time with its narrative or characters. There are a few cutscenes at the start and end of each area, and characters often comment on the events of the story, but for the most part you're simply fighting your way through linear areas and eventually reaching the boss to defeat them. If you're expecting a more traditional D&D experience that focuses heavily on story or lore, you won't find it here – that's largely because Dark Alliance positions itself as a cooperative multiplayer action game, which mutually excludes it from having a deep narrative focus.
And unfortunately, the game doesn't do any of those parts well. It borrows some ideas, as well as mistakes, from games such as Anthem and Outriders; by bringing up such examples, you can probably gather that it's not a great experience. The structure of the campaign is a series of replayable missions, all started from a small hub area. Each mission has up to six difficulty ratings that have a suggested Gear level (a measure of how good your equipment is). The higher difficulty that you choose, the greater the rewards and the level of gear that drops. There is a decent amount of missions here, if this were a traditional single player adventure with a bit more story, but as a game meant to replayed over and over, it feels lacking in variety.
The level design is fairly linear, however it does feature occasional side paths and hidden chests to find. You'll visit dwarven factories inside mountains, floating islands, and frozen wastelands - though the gameplay doesn't change much beyond the visual style. That's not to say the exploration is poor – again, on your first go, it can be quite entertaining to discover all the hidden goodies around a level. Things aren't particularly well hidden – there are clear red markings for any side paths – but it can still be a good time for some of the longer alternate paths. However, as nothing changes on subsequent playthroughs, it becomes almost a speedrun to simply grab all you want because you recall where everything is. The game also doesn't take any risks with its design – there are only occasional elevation changes, extremely rare optional puzzles, and not much diversity in the environment. There are hazard areas, such as those covered in ice which can only be safely crossed if you get warm at a nearby fire, or poison areas which are cleared by shooting the nearby explosive barrel – and all of these hazards get re-used over and over again.
You'll be exploring and fighting through these levels with one of the four characters, and they loosely fall into a specific role. Bruenor Battlehammer is a dwarf wielding an axe and hammer, and is meant to be a tank. Drizzt is a drow ranger who has two swords and moves/attacks rapidly. Wulfgar is also a warrior type, but he has a big hammer and is meant to be a support role for larger area-of-effect attacks. Lastly, Catti-brie is an archer. Each hero has a light and heavy attack, a button to block and to dodge, as well as two special abilities and an Ultimate attack on cooldowns.
While the four heroes may seem like they offer variety, the combat is rarely fun. The action just never feels like it carries a lot of impact. The controls are very sluggish, and the hit boxes can be wildly inaccurate. You can strike at a foe, or setup combos by chaining attacks, but most enemies won't get knocked back or even staggered. Everything is animation based, and if you chain multiple attacks together, you can't cancel out of them to perform a block, leaving you entirely exposed. Areas are always filled with enemies, so you're bound to be attacked from multiple angles. You might often get stuck on large enemies, unable to dodge or roll away. Even the simple things like picking up a collectable or reviving a fallen ally takes an agonizing few moments for the input to be recognized as you awkwardly shuffle around just to get the prompt to appear. You can perform things like overhead strikes if you jump down from above, but these often fail to land, as you instead slide off the enemy model. It's just not an enjoyable or polished combat model.
Depending on the hero you pick, other than the archer, the gameplay also remains quite the same. The three melee-based heroes feel similar and their only distinguishing features – the abilities and ultimate attack - are on such a long cooldown that they become largely worthless. Wulfgar doesn't have the sweeping range of a big hammer that you'd expect, Bruenor can't take as much damage as you'd hope, and Drizzt's ultimate ability to go invisible doesn't really make enemies lose sight of him. Catti-brie is perhaps the dullest role to play, as you simply stand back and shoot at enemies. Her arrows split into three by default, which removes the ability to pull of satisfying single precision shots – but even so, most enemies seem to lack a headshot hitbox anyway, and the arrows just go through their heads.
Speaking of enemies, Dark Alliance is quite dull in this department as well. There is a severe lack of variety – you will be fighting the same dwarves, goblins, and other monsters for the entirety of the adventure, almost regardless of the level. All of the larger type enemies, such as trolls, Verbeegs, and Frost Giants, appear throughout the game as both regular encounters and boss fights – but it's exactly the same enemy in both cases, down to their attacks. It feels cheap to fight the same enemy but somehow they've been promoted to the final boss of a mission, and this happens many times. The only unique encounters are the rare bosses at the end of a chapter, and they at least feature some unique mechanics.
No matter the enemy you're facing, the AI is extremely simplistic. The game features clear breaks between areas, such as ledges or short jumps that only our heroes can cross, and enemies cannot. This means you can easily abuse the AI, especially as the archer, by simply standing and shooting them all from a ledge, as they fail to react or reach you. The enemies won't chase you beyond a certain small threshold, so you can keep circling back as much as you need. Heck, you can even just run through most levels, ignoring foes entirely because there are very few hard stops.
You might have to do this because you're stuck on a particularly tough area, and keep dying. Dark Alliance has an interesting risk and reward system, whereas at certain points of a level players get to choose to either create a checkpoint and rest, or to increase loot rarity. If you choose to increase loot rarity, and you wipe later on, you have to start at the very beginning of a level again. If you choose to take a rest, that will be your new starting point, you will refill your potions and health, but lose your loot rarity bonus. While it may seem interesting in theory, in practice it makes the most sense to just boost your loot level each time. Further, the game is actually very stringent on loot drops, with majority of chests and enemies just dropping gold, so you'll want to boost whatever few pieces of gear you do get.
In another strange decision, borrowed from Anthem, you can't view your new loot until completing the mission. But what's worse, you can't even edit your existing gear without returning to camp; this means if you're stuck in a tough spot, there is no change of strategy that can occur. You just have to give up and return to camp, to adjust and then restart the mission.
The occasional loot that you do get is tied to the difficulty level chosen for the mission, and Dark Alliance certainly makes you feel like you're progressing at a snail's pace. You might earn enough experience to have a level 10+ character, but your gear will still be level 3 or 4. It's certainly not a game that lets you feel powerful or increases the numbers for fun. The loot management is typical – all characters have the same number of gear slots, and there are different rarity types, and gear sets that carry passive bonuses. You can also upgrade the gear up to three times by using crystals you collect in missions. Extra gear can be sold for coin.
As for the characters themselves, you will get a skill point or two to spend with each level-up, across the expected strength/dexterity/etc categories. You will also earn a point to put into between one to three very short and basic skill trees, which again offer passive boosts to your stats. Lastly, you can spend gold to unlock new moves and abilities, to help diversify the combat a little bit. These gear/character systems aren't bad in theory, but the game makes a baffling decision to treat each of the four heroes individually. That means no shared equipment, experience, crystals, or even gold. You're essentially starting from scratch, and leveling four completely separate characters. Given how many issues the game has, it's difficult to see many players opting to level more than one, maybe two, heroes.
Last but not least, we arrive at multiplayer. The reason to leave this for last is because it's essentially broken during launch week. Over the course of completing the entire campaign and leveling multiple characters, we've been unable to get into more than a handful of multiplayer missions. To clarify, matchmaking seems to work and puts you into the hub area with others, but starting a mission causes a disconnect, 9 times out of 10. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, whether the party is set to public or friends only, whether you're the host or not. The handful of levels that we did manage to play with others illustrated the expected issues of an already troubled game – players warp all over the place, gliding around as their animations don't load, and so on. Combat issues with animations and hitboxes only become worse. There is no support for drop in/out mid mission. Perhaps one nice touch about multiplayer is that just one hero needs to collect gold and shards for the group, and not everyone individually.
So if you're having issues connecting, or just want to play on your own, Dark Alliance does let you play through the entire thing solo. However, it is completely unbalanced for single player in terms of difficulty. There are numerous difficulty spikes, especially around bosses, which will put a halt to your progress unless you choose to abuse the AI/play as the ranger. And as you get deeper into the campaign, despite your gear level matching or exceeding the recommended, you won't be able to tackle higher difficulties. This means you'll hit a progression wall when playing solo, as you can only handle the lower level difficulties – which means your gear drops will be below your level. It's a situation in dire need of rebalancing.
The multiplayer connectivity issues and combat clumsiness are just a taste of the general lack of polish that Dark Alliance has. There are impacting issues throughout – from the minor problems like UI elements either disappearing or getting stuck on screen, to being unable to turn off in-game voice chat in options, to the awful feel of the mouse acceleration (this is a title best played with a controller). Enemies frequently get shot into space as their ragdoll collisions glitch out. Sometimes the glitches go in your favor – like enemy behavior just breaking, and they stand there doing nothing. Or if you force an enemy or a boss into a certain piece of geometry, they die instantly.
But some issues are less fun – there are cases when scripting fails and you're not able to progress to the next objective. One time, it happened mid-mission and required a forced death (since there is no manual checkpoint restart option). Another time, it happened after defeating the final boss of a chapter – the game simply didn't recognize it, and we were stuck in the area without a way out. This required a return to camp and a restart of the whole mission, and losing the experience and loot gains. This isn't a full-priced game, so perhaps some issues are to be expected, but Dark Alliance lacks the fun gameplay to mask its many technical troubles.
As a lower-priced title, the presentation is about what you'd expect. The texture quality, animations, and voice acting are all average at best, but at least the framerate holds very steady. Audio design and music is also a bit lacking, with many cases where you'll be running around levels in almost silence. The cutscenes are pretty nice, though.
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance makes the same mistake as many other games. It tries to take an established brand and shift it into a different genre, with poor results. In trying to create a multiplayer-focused action looter, the game lacks the loot, it lacks satisfying action, and the multiplayer barely works. It joins the ranks of its inspirations – Anthem and Outriders – by being a decidedly average, unsatisfying, unpolished and occasionally broken experience that only serves to tarnish the reputation of its brand name license.