Almost every fan of the Forgotten Realms or Dungeons & Dragons has heard the legend of Drizzt Do’Urden, the renegade drow elf ranger, and his traveling companions, Wulfgar, Catti-brie, and Bruener Battlehammer. It’s always been my fantasy to play as Drizzt in an epic hack and slash Action-RPG game, slicing foes with dual scimitars alongside the panther spirit Guenhwyvar. With Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, I thought my dreams would finally become a reality. Unfortunately, reality can be disappointing.
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance by Tuque Games sees Drizzt as a playable character for the first time in a video game. He’s had cameos in the past, like Baldur’s Gate 2 and the MMORPG Neverwinter, but this is a first for actually controlling him. Alongside him are his closest allies from the novels, which are all also playable characters. Dark Alliance lets four players team up to tackle over 20 missions, fighting against goblins and duergar, collecting loot, and stopping the evil races from acquiring the Crystal Shard.
The story of Dark Alliance takes place after the events of the fourth novel by R.A. Salvatore, “The Crystal Shard.” The mage Akar Kessel has been defeated by Drizzt and his stalwart companions, losing the Crystal Shard and setting into motion a race between several different evil factions to be the next wielders of its power. Thus, Drizzt must systematically put down each of these factions’ leaders and finally bring an end to the evil powers of the Crystal Shard once and for all. Joined on his quest is the barbarian Wulfgar, the dwarf king Bruenor Battlehammer, and Bruenor’s adopted human daughter Catti-brie.
Which all sounds lovely for a Dungeons & Dragons game, doesn’t it? It’s a shame then that Dark Alliance barely conveys its story, mostly told via cutscenes before missions, and falls short of exploring the Icewind Dale setting that these missions take place in. Missions are broken up into groupings of three, divided by which of the seven factions it corresponds with. Like in a Monster Hunter game, you can join someone’s lobby - or go in solo - and select which mission you want to do. Missions are entirely linear, with the occasional side hallway or hidden nook that usually contain treasures, and they are set up on an encounter-by-encounter basis with optional checkpoints that the group can rest at and recover their health and potions.
The missions eventually start to feel repetitive after only a couple of hours in. Most of the environments are either old, dwarven ruins or, if not dwarven, then some other kind of ruin. Although, I am grateful that Tuque Games didn’t appear to just straight-up copy the same maps for multiple levels (I’m looking at you Dragon Age). Some maps feel clever in their design, with splitting paths and platforming areas, but they’re few and far between. The linear nature of each mission means that you could easily choose the critical-path for the fastest completion time. Exploring every nook and cranny could take as long as 45 minutes in some missions, whereas that same mission can be beaten in under 10 minutes without those side distractions.
But the missions aren’t even the most tedious aspect of Dark Alliance; it’s the combat. For a hacking and slashing action game, you would expect it to feel fluid and satisfying. Rarely was playing as any of the four characters an enjoyable experience, since each one feels like you’re fighting in mud. Attack animations are locked in, which means that you can’t dodge out of the way or even block an attack. With a parry system that’s supposed to assist with the combat, it was something I was rarely able to pull off because I would be stuck in an attack animation. This meant that getting surrounded - especially at higher difficulty missions - meant certain death.
The dodge roll mechanic especially irked me, as I am a huge fan of dash mechanics in my action games. In Dark Alliance, you can only dodge in the four cardinal directions. This often meant that I would try to dodge at an angle, only to move in an unintended direction instead where I would typically get hit by something else. You just can’t build a modern action game and keep movement locked to four directions. Speaking of being locked in, attack direction is locked into which way the camera is facing, not where you aim the left analog stick. This just feels wrong to me, and nearly caused me to get motion sickness because of how much the camera moves.
And speaking of bad camera designs, when locked onto an enemy the camera zooms in and up towards whatever is targeted. This actually makes it harder to fight because you completely lose your situational awareness. I take a lot of umbrage with the camera in general, not just when locking onto targets. Even when aiming ranged attacks, it’s like the camera is stuck at the lowest sensitivity possible. In the options, I maxed both the vertical and horizontal rotation speeds to 100 but it still felt as slow as the default setting at 50. Obviously, ranged attacks are meant to be used few and far between
Dark Alliance’s combat, and its shortcomings, are much more evident when playing solo. It is glaringly obvious that Dark Alliance was optimized towards party play and not the solo adventurer. Unlike other ARPGs, such as Diablo, the enemies do not get stronger when more players join. It doesn’t spawn more enemies or change the enemy behaviour AI either. What Dark Alliance does offer is an increase in mission challenge levels, which determines the difficulty of a mission. This makes the enemies’ health larger and hit much harder, but increases both the number and the quality of rewards when successfully completed.
I played Dark Alliance almost completely solo, and I would always choose the lowest difficulty challenge levels for missions. When I did try to tackle higher level missions, I would usually end up regretting it after the first encounter. Even when my combat score - an estimate of overall strength based on gear - was well above the recommended amount for a higher mission challenge level, it still never felt like I was growing in power. The only times I felt as powerful as the legendary drow I was playing were when I was grouped with other people.
One thing that I appreciate about Dark Alliance is that you can switch which of the four characters you’re playing as anytime in-between missions, and that the story progression is shared between them. You don’t have to restart the entire game just to switch from Drizzt to Wulfgar, or Catti-brie to Bruenor, but none of the gear is shared between characters. Each hero will have their own level, gear, and skill trees to customize them. I do like this since I’m sure that most people are going to choose Drizzt as their first character, so it’s seamless to just swap to another character when playing with a group.
In-between missions is a hub where everyone can gear up and prepare for the next mission. This is also where you can collect the loot after each mission. This aspect reminds me of Anthem, in that loot you find while on missions can’t be immediately identified and equipped. You do have to wait until after a mission, and then you have to interact with a chest in the middle of the hub and identify each piece of loot. This aspect is tedious and unnecessary - why not just automatically do it after the mission? Why do we have to go to this chest first? It’s a backwards concept that confuses the daylights out of me, and is almost designed in such a way as to emulate the feeling of opening a loot box. Unlike opening crates in Overwatch, there is no joy when I get new gear. Most of it is trash that just goes to recycling i.e. sold to the merchant for gold.
The one thing I’ll say about gear is, although there are only a handful of different sets, the gear does look good on these characters. I love seeing Drizzt wearing a helm that looks to be on fire, with an ember cape, a smoldering chest piece, and glowing red scimitars. Higher tier loot also has a different look; so an Uncommon or Rare tier chestguard may be scratched up and dirty whereas the Epic version will be cleaned up and have added armor coverings. But as cool as that may seem, the graphics of Dark Alliance really hold it back from being a wow factor.
In fact, nothing graphically wowed me at all. The character models are a cut above Neverwinter, but that’s not saying much given that it launched in 2013, and the amount of texture and geometric pop ins are so bad that, at times, they’re detrimental. In areas with hazardous fire traps, for example, the fire won’t render. So you may be trudging along, then walk over a patch of ground that suddenly starts burning and catches you on fire! What’s even more confusing are the graphical settings. For PC players, there is no Low setting for any of the graphical options - so you have Medium, High, and Very High. Besides that, there is no ultrawide-monitor support, which is just a personal pet peeve of mine.
The missing hazard animations like fire wasn’t the only bug I encountered in Dark Alliance. My journey through the Dale was full of little mishaps and problems that would get me stuck or force me to restart the mission. Even with the sizable Day 1 patch, there are a ton of issues that still need to get ironed out. I’ve gotten caught behind geometry, I’ve had monsters render in and out of existence, I’ve had monsters clip through the wall to where I couldn’t attack them, and so much more. Which doesn’t even begin to cover the issues I’ve had with the matchmaking experience.
At first, matchmaking was fla-tout broken and it wouldn’t let me quick-join into a game or even host my own session. Since then, it looks like the matchmaking has been fixed. Thankfully, Dark Alliance does have dedicated servers, meaning that your connection isn’t dictated by the host player. Even still, I experienced several rough instances of rubberbanding and high latency that would persist when connected to certain lobbies. The matchmaking system prioritizes geographic location, according to a Q&A session from the developers on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be on a nearby server with low latency. Regardless, even with heavy issues, I think Dark Alliance shines brightest when playing co-op.
The shortcomings in Dark Alliance shine all the brighter when playing solo, but they can be glossed over in a full four-player party during missions. With so many players acting as decoys for other enemies, it helps to mitigate getting swarmed or attacked from behind as often which would otherwise highlight the issues with combat. I did not enjoy my time in Dark Alliance until I started playing online, but even then it just never engrossed me in the world of the Forgotten Realms. Missions progress more quickly, and more smoothly, with more players. It also means there are more eyes to look out for the tedious side objectives in missions, such as collecting 10 dwarven steins or smashing 20 goblin weapon racks. This all equates to getting more loot, more quickly. More players also means it’s easier to tackle higher challenge levels on missions - which equals more powerful loot.
But all the loot and gold in Mithral Hall couldn’t turn Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance into a gem. The gameplay is littered with bugs, the story is barely existent, the loot mechanics feel out of place and outdated, and the matchmaking is inconsistent and unreliable. There’s just too many aspects of Dark Alliance that feel half-baked. The only good parts are that Drizzt Do’Urden is finally a playable character in something, and that you can co-op with your friends. For full price, even at a budget $40, I wouldn’t recommend Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance. But catch it on sale or via Xbox Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate for PC, then I would say it’s worth at least a week-long jaunt.
I wanted to love Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance so badly. I grew up reading R.A. Salvatore’s novels about Drizzt and his companions. Baldur’s Gate was my first CRPG that I ever played. The original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Dark Alliance II are probably my favorite games from the PS2 era. But sadly, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance just misses the mark in so many categories. It was a slog to get through, and there is almost no reason for me to ever pick it up again. The only reason that I might be enticed to play Dark Alliance is later this summer when there will be free DLC that will, hopefully, include splitscreen for couch co-op play on Xbox Series S|X, PlayStation 5, and PC.