Dungeons and Dragons: Dark AllianceJune 22nd, 2021
PlatformPlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, and PC
PublisherWizards of the Coast
There aren’t many video games with Beholders in them. These nightmarish aberrations with their big eyes and tentacles are one of the most famous monsters of Dungeons and Dragons, even appearing as the monster on the cover of the 5th Edition Monster Manual, but few other games have taken a liking to them, and where they have, they largely failed to capture the unmistaken madness of them quite as effectively. Dark Alliance is a game with a Beholder in it, full of the terror and darkness such a creature should possess, much like the game itself.
It is near impossible to bridge the gap between Dungeons and Dragons (or any other tabletop RPG, for that matter) and video games. What makes the dice rolling and papercuts worth playing is the sheer bewildering amount of options. While each game is filled with rules, those of the pen and paper D&D can be bent, exploited, and even argued about. On the other hand, video games have an unbreakable philosophy, a certain limited amount of ways to play.
Dark Alliance doesn’t try to imitate that. It doesn’t give you limitless options and possibilities. It doesn’t give you the chance to talk your way in and out of trouble. It doesn’t give you countless hours of debate about whether or not Banishment would also work on a creature swallowed by the target. Instead, it brings the world of Dungeons and Dragons, filled with the decades of lore and worldbuilding, to a hack and slash game.
When you choose your first character in Dark Alliance (because you can’t build your own), you are told their class, race, and alignment. It bears next to no relevance to the game: there isn’t actually any roleplaying to be done, but it is there. And as you venture into the Dwarven barrows on your first adventure, you’ll encounter Ice Dragons, goblins, Stygian demons, Duergar, and more. It is more than just a Tolkien-esque adventure or another reimagining of the Norse or Greek mythologies. Dark Alliance is the collective pool of hundreds of iterations of storytelling and creature craft, which makes it so much fun to explore. There are so many collectible pieces of lore to expand on the region, characters, and creatures of the land, and it feels unapologetically high fantasy.
Beyond this is the combat. There isn’t anything else to do in Dark Alliance but explore and fight, so you’ll be getting used to that quickly. In the beginning, you’ll have access to light and heavy attacks, a handful of abilities, and an ultimate too. New moves can be bought and unlocked between missions as you level up, although the game could be a bit more instructive on how to do that. Despite this, there is a great deal of variety in the combat from the very beginning. And it is all perfectly weighted. The barbarian swings his hammer slow, with long and deliberate animations before the weapon connects, making you plan your assault carefully. On the other hand, the fleet-footed drow cuts through the air like butter and can deliver a flurry in a heartbeat but has to be aware of the other attacks coming. Each of the four characters feels different, and their tools of the trade match that.
Unfortunately, while it can be great at times, the combat in Dark Alliance is too often just frustrating. The game's controls feel argumentative, sometimes rebellious as you try to save Icewind Dale from the forces of evil. Sometimes attacks just don’t trigger; other times, they trigger several seconds later than expected. Combos can be broken by counter-attacks, but your character will keep attacking the air. Blocking and dodging sometimes fail for reasons you cannot begin to understand in the middle of the fight, and even the lock-on system can be mischievous.
This trouble also spreads to the enemies too, as the enemies can home in on you in impossible ways, broken shields are instantly restored mid combination, and AI can be difficult to understand in general. This becomes most apparent during boss battles, where damage sponges unleash pretty but incomprehensible attacks that leave you reeling. One such example is the Garnn and Murdunn boss battle at the end of the Companions of Icewind Dale arc. One of these Duergar is a caster, while the other is a shield wall. The caster has many abilities, and while most difficult boss battles in hack and slash games can be overcome by learning attack patterns, this one feels purposefully obtuse. The caster can launch a volley of magical orbs at you, but the number of attacks before he has to recast is seemingly random, with a variety of between one and six by my count. Likewise, he can teleport behind you, inflicting massive damage, and repeat the move as many times as he wants.
Other bosses are harder to get to grips with, but these two are the first times you will really notice the challenge. The best way to overcome this, and all the other combat issues, is to play with friends. On your own, the combat becomes tiresome and annoying when mobs rush you, and your controller decides to side with them. With friends, you don’t notice so much because they can take some of the damage for you and save you from tight spots. Dark Alliance was a game made to be played with friends, and it feels like the single player option was left almost more by accident than design.
Outside of combat, you're free to explore the levels in Dark Alliance. The entire game is built around a hub, with you selecting and mission and jumping in. In that way, it is a lot like Vermintide since you’ll also only be able to equip new items and upgrade yourself and your gear while at the hub. And like Vermintide, there is a fair amount of exploration in Dark Alliance despite it looking like a pretty linear game at a glance.
The world design is fantastic. Most levels start with a nice vista or another scenic viewpoint for you to gaze from. Odds are you’ll be able to see most of the level this way and possibly catch a few glimpses of treasure to be found on the way. None of the exploration and secrets are particularly surprising: you’ve got the hidden portals, breakable walls, platforming sections, and some trap puzzles to overcome. But there are more than you would think, and they really give the impression there is a lot to explore, replay, and discover. On top of that, the short rest system is fantastic, asking you whether you want to rest at a checkpoint, or improve the loot you’ll find going forward. It adds a lovely piece of risk/reward to the game and even gives you a chance to argue with your party, just like a real game of D&D.
Dark Alliance is a flawed game set in an incredible world. The combat has grains of brilliance layered under issues and frustrations. Most can be overlooked with friends, but it doesn’t actually improve the experience; it merely makes it less of an ordeal.
Reviewed on PC.
With some friends, you can have a lot of fun exploring Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance without needing to roll any dice, but inconsistent combat and frustrating bosses make the experience more of an ordeal than it should be, not to mention unenjoyable by yourself.
- Perfectly weighted combat, with loads of variety
- Nice world to explore, with lots of different enemies and locations
- Short rest system demands you choose between risk and reward
- Sometimes combat just doesn't work right
- Awkward menus to master
- Not at all enjoyable on your own
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