The first in a new wave of official Dungeons & Dragons games revives the Dark Alliance name for a modern take on the co-op brawler.
There are certain outside media without which the modern video game landscape would look very different. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Aliens have all had a huge influence on the evolution of gaming but not so much as Dungeons & Dragons. So many early video games were attempts to recreate the iconic tabletop experience that by the early 80s there were already multiple officially licensed games. However, that’s something that has become less common in recent years and Dark Alliance is meant as the vanguard of a new wave of tie-ins.
Dungeons & Dragons owners Wizards of the Coast are publishing the new video games themselves, with plans for many beyond this and the already-in-early-access Baldur’s Gate 3. The reliance on previously popular video game franchises is perfectly sensible, with Dark Alliance being a spiritual sequel to the PlayStation 2 era titles which were themselves spin-offs from Baldur’s Gate – and which were remastered for current and last gen formats back in May.
Although the original games did use the rules of the tabletop game, they were, at heart, simple hack ‘n’ slash co-op games, whose resemblance to coin-op classic Gauntlet were obvious to all at the time. That’s a reference younger gamers are less likely to get now and so this reboot has been reimagined as a modern third person action game. Conceptually it all makes sense, but for one little problem: the game is incredibly repetitive and mind-numbingly boring.
The more action-orientated a game is the less difference it makes having its use of stats stick to the official Dungeons & Dragons rules, so Dark Alliance also attempts to promote its authenticity via its story. As such, novelist R. A. Salvatore has been brought on board to work on the game and you play as well-known Forgotten Realms characters such as Drizzt Do’Urden and Catti-brie. That won’t mean anything to anyone that’s not already a fan though and authentic or not the plot amounts to little more than a quest to kill a shopping list of bad guys that are after a magic crystal.
For all the name dropping of existing characters and places the story isn’t any more complex or engaging than Golden Axe and the game gives absolutely no reason to care about anything or anyone. That’s more of a problem than it might have been, given not only the banality of the combat but the fact that these are some of the most important characters in the Forgotten Realms pantheon and yet in Dark Alliance they just come across as generic nobodies.
Games like Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide have already proven major hits using a similar co-op formula, although Dark Alliance has fewer parallels to Left 4 Dead, with generally less enemies on screen at once and an attempt at more complex combat. It’s a failed attempt though, with too much reliance on mindless button-mashing. Each character has their own special abilities, with more to unlock as you progress, but they’re fiddly to pull off and rarely worth the effort.
That’s not the half of it though, as there’s no sense of weight or feedback to any of your attacks and the characters themselves glide around as if they’re not even attached to the ground. The hit detection, in both directions, is awful and the unreliable lock-on system keeps everything feeling uncoordinated and clumsy. Even the camera is bad, in a way you wouldn’t have thought possible from a modern, high budget game.
The enemies you fight are just as bad, since they have to rely simply on being bullet (well, arrow) sponges to offer any kind of challenge. The game is still very easy though and there’s so little variety in enemy types it means that even if the combat was better the game would still be a painful slog, where even boss battles reuse the same opponents and nothing ever seems to change except the backdrops.
The one bright side to Dark Alliance is that the graphics are surprisingly good. Although they’re such a contrast to the terrible action that you begin to hate the game even more for putting so much priority on visuals over gameplay. The level design isn’t bad either. It’s not exactly Dark Souls but there are lots of hidden pathways and caches of loot. Although, predictably, even that is undermined by the fact that the loot itself is uninteresting and unhelpful.
Dark Alliance feels like an early access title but it’s not. The game is clearly unfinished but officially speaking it’s the final product, with only the mid-range price tag giving any indication that the publisher knows this is not a triple-A title. Although whether the lower-than-usual price is meant to be compensating for the banal combat, the lack of enemy variety, or the unending series of bugs we’re not sure.
From not being able to pick up loot or use ladders to moves that suddenly stop working and actual crash bugs, Dark Alliance is verging on Cyberpunk 2077 levels of brokenness at a times, except in this case the underlying game isn’t worth salvaging. It’s clearly going to take months of patches to get Dark Alliance working properly and no one sensible is going to wait around until that happens.
A co-op brawler with ties to older games makes complete sense when trying to reenergise the Dungeons & Dragons brand for video games but this is an almost complete failure on every level. Even if it had been completely bug free it’s slow, repetitive, boring, and doesn’t even get its fan service right. Rather than being the triumphant return of an iconic franchise this makes the official Dungeons & Dragons licence seem more like a curse than a benefit.
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance review summary
In Short: A tragically awful attempt to revive the Dark Alliance name, with horribly repetitive combat, empty storytelling, and a dragon horde’s worth of bugs.
Pros: Like any co-op game there’s fun to be had with friends and the graphics are pretty good.
Cons: Appallingly simplistic combat and almost surreally repetitive action, with far too few enemy types. Boilerplate story and poor use of iconic characters.
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