|Wizards of the Coast
|PS5(reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
|June 21st, 2021
Most of my nostalgia for the world of Dungeons & Dragons comes from the original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games. Much of this appreciation stemmed from the fact that I was a “console-only child” who never had access to a Diablo game or played much of the original Baldur’s Gate games. While the original Dark Alliance video games weren’t the best dungeon crawlers out there, my brother and I had a lot of fun with them. So, when Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeon’s & Dragons: Dark Alliance in 2019, I was cautiously optimistic. I carried that state of mind from the initial gameplay reveal all the way to launch. Sadly, the game has launched in a rough form—it’ll take the highest level of a “Cure Wounds” spell to save a game that has so much potential.
Spiritual Themes: D&D: Dark Alliance takes place in a fantasy world. Players have the option of choosing characters that come from fictional races—enemies in the game consist of Goblins, Trolls, the Undead, Liches, and many more. The game’s plot is centered around a shard that multiple factions are fighting for, and the player’s party of heroes is attempting to locate so they can keep its power out of the wrong hands.
Violence: Player characters utilize swords, axes, bows, and hammers to defeat enemies. Battles consist of ranged and melee combat accompanied by cries of pain and blood-splatter effects. Throughout each area, players can discover plenty of dangerous traps such as floor spikes, shards of ice, and magical lighting blasts. In those same environments, bodies can be seen hanging from nooses or impaled by spikes. One cutscene displays a corpse getting its head cut off and added to a pot in which other heads are shown inside of a spoon.
Drugs/alcohol: Tankards can be picked up and converted to gold when done so. Players can consume various potions to recover health, stamina, and more.
Language: “Sh*t” and “a**hole” are used in the dialogue.
As I mentioned above, D&D: Dark Alliance gets its name from the original Baldur’s Gate series of the same name. However, it trades its usual isometric RPG camera angle for some up close and personal third-person action. You and up to four other friends can control four characters from the Forgotten Realms series of books—Drizzt, Wulfgar, Brueno Battlehammer, and Catti-brie. These heroes travel to the region of Icewind Dale in search of a magical crystal known as Crenshinibon in an attempt to keep it out of the wrong hands. There are plenty of ties to the books and the world that Wizards of the Coast has built that fans will appreciate, though the experience of actually playing the game is the bigger story here.
All of the characters are fun to play, though I played most of the game as Drizzt. However, it feels odd that two melee-focused characters were included instead of adding a wizard or mage. Fans of D&D will be happy to see that in-game attributes are pulled right from an actual character sheet like you would see in a tabletop experience. Feats are another system carried over from D&D, except that in Dark Alliance, you spend specific points to gain one of the bonuses. New combat moves can also be unlocked, but I find it odd that these must be purchased with the gold that you pick up in the game. Character growth seems to work solely to fit the style of game that the devs wanted to make and bear little resemblance to a typical RPG format.
Dark Alliance takes inspiration from multiple games that have come before it, with one of the major influences being Dark Souls. For example, after beginning the game, you’ll notice that your primary attacks are mapped to the shoulder buttons and the use of consumables is mapped to the D-pad. The one unique mechanic is that you can permanently lose stamina from executing too many special attacks. It doesn’t work exactly like a bonfire, but there is a “Short Rest” campfire that you have the option of spawning. That decision to take a short rest refills your consumables and regenerates the stamina you might have lost on the current mission. On the flip side, choosing not to take that rest raises the potential loot rarity and doesn’t give you a respawn point. The game also attempts to bring that Souls-like challenge with enemies that can take you down in one hit. However, some features that I’ll mention soon make it highly unbalanced and don’t bring a thrilling challenge like the games it has taken notes from.
Next, it pulls ideas from service games like Destiny and Vermintide. You have a gear score, and choosing the difficulty offers a recommended score you should have before jumping in. You’d want to try those more significant difficulties for better loot and more experience, right? Wrong. That is the point where any fun you might have goes out the window. Many of the enemies will eliminate you in one to two shots, and hazardous obstacles are nigh-impossible to cross. Unfortunately, all of that occurs even at your recommended gear score level. Also, what might be the real nail in the coffin for some players is that you can’t equip your loot when you pick it up. You’ll need to wait until the mission is complete to claim it, something Warhammer: Vermintide already does, and games like Anthem received some flack for. Waiting to claim my loot isn’t a problem for me, but it’s the unfair spikes in difficulty that led to me playing missions on the lowest setting and having a much more entertaining time.
Another element that has made its way from various shared-world experiences is a hub area. In the hub, you pick up your gear from a chest, choose your next mission from a map, and visit the merchant. However, the merchant doesn’t sell you anything. You won’t be purchasing any gear from the store but instead upgrading your gear with crystals of varying rarities and purchasing skins for your gear. Like how the leveling works, everything in this section was built to serve the kind of game that Dark Alliance is. It feels like the devs made the game in such a roundabout way for no apparent reason, with many standard practices thrown out the window.
When writing this review, many issues were patched, and the experience is slightly more tolerable. At first, I could not get into a game with friends, but I had a good time when I was finally able to. You can play Dark Alliance single-player, but it is much more fun with a group. Opening chests is a little odd, as it’ll grant the whole party any resources it gives, but everyone will need to go and pick up the gear it drops. Equipment is particular to each character, so I can see how automatically getting the dropped loot to everyone might not work well from a development perspective. Many quality-of-life improvements need to be made in this area, as I imagine that a group could get lost in the adventure for a few hours once that happens.
Lastly, Dark Alliance has some glaring bugs and issues that take away from what could potentially be a fun experience. Enemy behavior can be pretty odd; sometimes, you’ll see them sliding around, or they might stand there like your personal punching bag. Animations were also a significant offender because every time I would be knocked down, it took an eternity for my character to get up, which led to me taking massive amounts of damage. Moments such as these took me out of the game, making it hard for me to find any redemptive qualities in the experience.
Though I had low expectations to begin with, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance should have been a hit. Instead, it suffers from a massive identity crisis. The concept of blending the traits from multiple subgenres is quite admirable, but the end result is quite a mess. There is much here that fans of The Forgotten Realms and Dungeons & Dragons should be pleased with, but they may find themselves turning the game off and returning to their 20-side dice and character sheets. Xbox owners can try it for themselves on Gamepass, but I currently can’t recommend that anyone pay full price for such a hit or miss experience.
Review copy kindly provided by Wizards of the Coast.
The Bottom Line
Dark Alliance has great potential for success, but missed the mark on what could have been a great time with your fellow party members.