Just like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, the new video game Dark Alliance isn’t a lot of fun when you’re playing by yourself.
Dark Alliance is the first video game published by Wizards of the Coast, headquartered in Renton, Wash., and was developed by the Wizards-owned Tuque Games in Montreal.
It puts you and up to three friends into the roles of four of D&D‘s most popular signature characters, including Drizzt Do’Urden, as you fight to keep Icewind Dale safe from a new wave of threats.
Dark Alliance provides a solid update to the traditional “dungeon crawler” video game formula, with a modernized combat system that rewards both skill and patience. However, it’s also designed from the ground up as a multiplayer game, where each character has been built around teamwork and support. While you can play it alone, it’s an uneven and often frustrating experience.
That means this is a review in progress. I was able to put a good deal of time into Dark Alliance, and it’s got a few things going for it even as a solo game, but I can tell it’d really come alive with a group. I wasn’t able to find a crew for a multiplayer match during my early access period, and local split-screen play has yet to be patched into Dark Alliance. Once I can run a few dungeons with a crew, I’ll be revisiting this piece.
The game is part of multiple new D&D-related projects in the works from Wizards of the Coast as the franchise comes off its best sales year ever. It’s also the first game to debut following the decision from Wizards’ parent company Hasbro to reorganize itself to further support of both D&D and Magic: The Gathering. Both franchises had their highest-grossing year to date in 2020.
Welcome back to Icewind Dale
Dark Alliance is set between the first and second books of R.A. Salvatore’s original Icewind Dale trilogy, where Drizzt and his friends first appeared, in the immediate aftermath of 1988’s The Crystal Shard.
The Companions of the Hall — Drizzt, Wulfgar the barbarian, the dwarven king Bruenor Battlehammer, and his adopted human daughter Catti-brie (who isn’t speaking with her adopted-dwarf not-Scottish accent and it bothers me) — have just helped the people of Icewind Dale survive an attack by the assembled forces of the wizard Akar Kessel.
While Kessel came out second best in a fight with Drizzt, his forces are now leaderless, and have splintered into a number of occupying warbands scattered across dwarven territory. At the same time, several new threats have arrived to search for the now-lost Crystal Shard, the power of which is what let Kessel have an army in the first place.
That leaves the Companions as the only thing standing between what’s left of civilization in Icewind Dale and something like half a dozen types of impending doom. You’re not so much conquering heroes in this game as a small insurrection force.
That’s a lot of backstory, particularly since it depends to some extent on your familiarity with a 33-year-old Dungeons & Dragons novel, but Dark Alliance doesn’t spend that much time on it. From the start, the game keeps things light, providing you with just enough motivation for each mission without bogging you down with decades of lore. Those are goblins; they’re visibly jerks. Go hit them with a hammer until they stop moving.
Dungeon crawling, 2021 style
The name Dark Alliance is a callback to 2001’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its 2004 sequel. They were designed by the Seattle studio Snowblind, which has since been merged with Monolith Productions in Kirkland, Wash.
The earlier Dark Alliances were successful attempts to grab most of the addictive elements of PC smash-and-grab dungeon crawlers, most notably Diablo, and cram them onto sixth-generation consoles like the PlayStation 2. They actually led to the creation of a number of other games in the 2000s that were built in the same engine, such as Justice League Heroes and the Everquest spin-off Champions of Norrath.
If you played those earlier games, particularly since the original Dark Alliance got an HD rerelease earlier this year, you might be expecting Dark Alliance 2021 to be in the same general ballpark. Instead, it’s a peculiar hybrid. Specifically, its combat feels a lot more like stylish “character action” games like Devil May Cry.
From the start of the game, each of the four playable characters have their own unique assortment of skills, which you can chain together into a variety of combination attacks with varying effects. They also each get two big moves on lengthy recharge timers, such as Catti-brie’s area-of-effect entangle or Drizzt turning invisible, and a big Ultimate attack which can clear out an entire room.
Defensively, you’ve got a dodge button with a healthy amount of invincibility frames. You can also block, and if you time it correctly, you can turn that block into a parry which knocks an opponent off-balance. The system rewards experimentation, skill, and patience, and every character has a few cool go-to moves right from the start of the game.
The actual levels in Dark Alliance, have a certain old-school feel to them. Every map is big, sprawling, a little linear, and honeycombed with secrets, many of which feel like they’re there just for the sake of being there. It’s got some of that lovable lack of logic that you got from classic D&D adventure modules (or hidden areas in Doom), where every stage has a bunch of hidden caches of gold and potions that have no narratively satisfying reason to exist.
It’s an odd blend of old and new design. Dark Alliance‘s environments are well-imagined and massive, but at heart, they’re throwbacks to an earlier, simpler era. The combat’s from 2021, while the levels are straight out of 1993 to 2004, and I do not mean that as an insult.
All alone and an easy target
You can pick any of the Companions to play at a time, but you only accumulate equipment and resources for each one of them individually. As such, you’re encouraged to pick one and stick with them, although you get enough gold and gear from a single easy run through an early level that it’s not that hard to pick up a new character for experimentation. (Still, a shared loot cache would be a big help here.)
The Companions are unusual among D&D signature characters in that they don’t have a primary spellcaster in their group. (That’s slated to change with one of the upcoming DLC campaigns, however.) The current team is all fighters; Bruenor is the heavily-armored tank, Wolfgar provides big slow hits, Drizzt is a fast-moving combo fiend, and Catti-brie is an archer.
Of the four, only Drizzt and Catti-brie are really feasible for solo play. Bruenor has a couple of good tricks but is designed to keep enemies’ attention away from his less durable companions, while Wulfgar hits like a truck but moves like a glacier.
Meanwhile, Catti-brie’s bow works weirdly like a shotgun; a fully-charged, aimed shot from her bow fires three arrows in a wide spread and can knock down entire packs of oncoming enemies. Her range is strangely terrible, but her crowd control and raw damage are second to none.
Drizzt isn’t that far behind her, as he can go invisible any time he likes and open any fight by suddenly backstabbing the biggest enemy to death. He can also call up his panther buddy as his Ultimate, so once you reach the point where you can slam back Potions of Heroism on a fairly regular basis, you can feed almost everything in your path to an angry cat.
That’s the general theme of Dark Alliance as a solo game, though. You’re trying to cheat as hard as you can before it takes you out.
Each combat encounter in the game is easy to spot from a long way off. It’s three to six enemies standing in an obvious arena with no other entrances or exits. Once they lose a couple of guys, they’ll summon another wave of reinforcements from thin air, some of whom might randomly be empowered somehow.
It’s repetitive, and if you’re playing solo, it’s often lethal. The enemies have a lot of personality, with some freaky designs and great dialogue, but they’re mostly programmed to pose a challenge through sheer numbers and brute force. I’ve actually broken quite a few encounters with Catti-brie by backpedaling until a pack of enemies “leashes,” returning back to their original location, then shooting them in the back while they’re leaving.
There’s a certain seesaw effect here. Either I’m winning, which means I’m mowing the enemies down by the half-dozen with no perceptible threat to myself, or they’re winning, which means I dodged a fraction of a second too late and got blasted into next week. It’s not particularly satisfying either way.
My hope is that multiplayer, plus whatever day-one patches are waiting for the game, will address this. Playing on my own, Dark Alliance has real potential, but it’s rough around the edges. It’s got all the ingredients for a solid game — likable characters, hateable villains, great-looking environments, tons of secrets, some very silly-looking hats — but as a solo experience, it’s not getting the job done.