PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance was meant to be the spiritual successor to the 2001 classic Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance. Built as a hack n slash RPG, Dark Alliance brings to life the heroes of Icewind Dale and the epic story of the Crystal Shard. As a legendary Forgotten Realms tale starring a dark elf named Drizzt, a dwarven king named Bruenor, a barbarian named Wulfgar, and an archer named Catti-brie, this story was dying to seek digital greatness. Somehow, developer Tuque Games managed to miss the mark.
Dark Alliance takes the hack n slash blueprint and hitches it to the coop looter formula. Much like Diablo or Borderlands, Dark Alliance has a healthy loot system. There are multiple levels of rarity from normal all the way to legendary (there are 5 different levels) each with their own ranking. Toss in equipment sets that provide extra bonuses if you collect them all and you have a really robust loot system that encourages replaying levels on higher difficulty levels. Here the mantra is “higher difficulty, better loot.”
Dark Alliance even adds in a half-hearted crafting system to further enhance all of your gear. As you adventure about, there are gems or shards of various colors that can be collected in mission. Along with gold, you can use these shards to upgrade your gear up to 3 times. Each level upgrade improves the base stats of the gear. All of this loot is certainly needed though because this game can go from way too hard to laughably simple.
Dark Alliance is without a doubt built to be played co-op. Attempting to play this game solo will certainly test your brawler skill level. Each of the four heroes you can play with have a number of special moves or abilities along with an ultimate ability. The ultimate ability builds up with successful attacks and combos as you play. Each of the heroes play slightly different based upon the abilities they have. Still, the fact is you have two burly fighters, an archer, and an agility based fighter. Spell casters need not apply in Dark Alliance.
Drizzt, the damage dealing assassin, excels at critical hits from behind. He has special moves and abilities like invisibility that allow him to flank his foes with his speed and deliver a lot of hits. There’s also Catti-brie, the archer/healer. Her skills allow her to invoke a healing area of affect as well as a radius of resurrection. Her ultimate skill is a rain of arrows. Bruenor is basically the tank of the crew. His abilities taunt nearby enemies and regenerates health over time to the party. His ultimate ability provides an elemental and physical resistance to all allies within a certain radius. Wulfgar is basically the damage dealer. His abilities and ultimate either does damage or boosts the amount of damage you can do and the armor you have.
While the party composition is accurate according to the story, one has to wonder whether or not taking this approach to the game is the best. Essentially every character is a fighter or a fighter sub-class. The only character in the storyline that is missing from this time-period of the story is the halfling thief Regis. I seriously doubt a hack n slash game will make an additional character a halfling thief. While there has been talk of a new character and more story to be released in 2021, very little has been revealed over the summer.
From a distance, this all probably sounds promising. Of course, as with any other game that requires you to grind for loot, the devil is always in that little detail called execution. If grinding for loot is not fun, then you have a problem. Unfortunately, that is where Dark Alliance has a bit of a problem.
Again, since this game is built for you to play co-op, Dark Alliance is oddly difficult when trying to play solo. Granted, if you play through the entire game on the easiest difficulty all the way through the story (without increasing difficulty due to getting better gear and XP), you probably won’t have too much of an issue. Still, if you play solo and advance through the story according to your gear score, then you are in for quite the fight. Bosses and sub-bosses in this game can go from easy to one-hit kill status without warning! Of course if you are grinding to get better gear, playing that easy difficulty is just a waste of time.
Instead, the game is built for you to match make online. This throws your character into a mission with friends or strangers allowing you to work together as the brawling intended. Unfortunately, this seriously dampens the difficulty. Even the boss battles tend to become a breeze when three or more players are wailing away.
Speaking of getting better loot, there is even an in-mission incentive to play all the way through a level without saving at a respawn point. As you play and encounter sub bosses or battles, you are given a choice to either set camp (respawn point) or push forward and increase your chance at better loot when the mission is over. While this seems like an exciting gamble, the execution of this doesn’t seem to really produce once the mission ends. Most of the time the gear acquired at the end of the mission is of the same quality as if no camps were set. Hopefully this changes with an update in the future.
This feature is important because quitting a mission or not completing a mission means that you don’t get any gear. You are meant to complete each mission to gain XP, gold, and gear so anything that makes you feel like time is wasted really detracts from the fun factor.
The fun factor is also in question when it comes to the level design. Each of the maps for the levels in the story are fairly linear. They feel relatively long as well so there isn’t any benefit or desire to backtrack. This makes the issue of dying without a respawn point somewhere in the level more of a pain than an incentive to keep playing. Of course, some impatient players take the stance of running past ALL enemies in a level until they reach the boss battle. This basically throws the whole premise of level design out the window if that is allowed to happen by the developer. Dark Alliance clearly has a bit of a balancing act to work on when it comes to fun and level functionality.
As you play each level for the hundredth time, each chest is in the same place. Each ore reserve, each special secret area, and each puzzle is pretty much the same regardless of the difficulty level played. Instead, enemies deal more damage or there are a few more of them. Arguably, this is the tactic used in most games that are grindy looters, but since Dark Alliance levels are linear almost like a platformer, the exploration becomes a chore after a while.
Oh, and just so you know. Once you level up and perfect one character, you are expected to start at ground zero and do the same for the other 3 characters as well. There is no bonus or benefit or reward for perfecting one character. Instead it means you have a lot more grinding to do…if you have the patience to do so.
To make things one step harder, the combat system throws a few unnecessary hurdles your way. Each character has a number of combos that activate helpful abilities or strikes that are key to defeating bosses quickly. Unfortunately, you are expected to memorize them from the move list provided as you upgrade your character. Once you are on a mission, you are unable to see the combo list. While this may seem like a minor gripe, it is a simple quality of life menu item that needs to be included.
Once you figure out the combos, you better have your desired foe in front of you if you didn’t remember to lock on to one. Once you begin your string of button presses you are locked into one particular direction. As a result, you may unleash the greatest looking thrust in the world into nothingness while your enemies either laugh or strike you from behind. Since there are a lot of enemies thrown at you at any given moment, wasting strikes can mean the difference between them taking you down or you taking them down. This direction lock issue becomes a hindrance when tackling bosses however. One-hit kills from a giant or ogre can lead to controller throwing rage sessions if you forget to lock on to your foe.
Dark Alliance is a pretty good brawler that has potential. While it isn’t quite like the Diablo-style action RPG of the early 2000’s, Dark Alliance does provide good co-op action. Developer Toque Games promised to add local co-op as well. As the game ages and updates and DLC are added, Dark Alliance could be a more forgiving solo experience as well as a more balanced co-op brawler. Until then, those that do not like to grind need not apply!