Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance Is A Tragic Mess

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance Is A Tragic Mess
Sorry about this, old friends. (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance takes four of my favourite characters from R.A. Salvatore’s D&D novels and drops them into a co-op action game that is rough at best, completely broken at worst. I’ve not been this disappointed by a video game in a long time, and I played Balan Wonderworld.

Some of that disappointment is my own fault. I grew up a voracious reader with a strong affinity for tabletop fantasy role-playing games, so I devoured the tales of Drizzt the dark elven ranger and his companions/adopted family. Gruff but loveable dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer, his adopted daughter Cattie-brie, and towering barbarian Wulfgar — these characters mean a lot to me. Their adventures in the frozen wilderness of Icewind Dale and beyond are a part of my childhood, so I had high hopes for Tuque Games’ new Dark Alliance game.

I was also a huge fan of the Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance games that serve as this new title’s spiritual predecessors, but as Ethan Gach pointed out earlier this year, that’s more a name thing than anything else. The original games were Diablo-style action role-playing games. This new game is more a third-person brawler along the lines of Fatshark’s Warhammer: Vermintide series, only not nearly as proficient or entertaining.

I recommend headphones. I mean earplugs.  (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku) I recommend headphones. I mean earplugs. (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

This new Dark Alliance begins by loading you into a hub, a home base from which you can set off on adventures, manage and upgrade your equipment, or simply hang out with friends between multiplayer missions. My first issue with the game is the chatty merchant who resides here. He is a quip machine, armed with a rotating script of repeating inane voice lines that never stop. The developers have helpfully made it so you can hear him while in your base no matter how far away you are from him. Switching the spoken language to French helps, but only for a moment. The only way to turn him off is to turn the “Dialogue Volume” option down all the way, which also silences the game’s narrator and player character comments during adventures, but is probably for the best.

Is that too minor an issue? How about the enemy AI being completely oblivious to ranged attacks, despite one of the four playable characters specializing in them? Observe as Cattie-brie fires off arrow burst after arrow burst into a group of enemies whose only reaction is to slowly die.

This is just fucking sad.  (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku) This is just fucking sad. (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

Enemies in Dark Alliance are slow to react in general, standing still for several seconds after spawning, even in the middle of an active battle. Several of the earlier adventures involve battling evil dwarves. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve confused stationary evil dwarves with whichever player in my party was playing Bruenor, everybody’s favourite non-evil dwarf.

Even if the enemies didn’t act like computer-controlled cannon fodder, the game’s combat wouldn’t be particularly satisfying. The controls feel slow and sluggish, especially when using the default control scheme, which maps light and fierce attacks to your right trigger and bumper. Locking onto a target is a hit-or-miss prospect, sometimes working and other times refusing to switch to a new enemy. Each character has an “Ultimate” ability, performed by pressing in both analogue sticks when a metre fills. I’ve had some trouble getting the Ultimate action to register playing on the PlayStation 5 with the DualSense. Plus the hero shooter mechanic feels out of place in this D&D setting, despite Dark Alliance’s character-driven storyline.

The loot screen is slightly more entertaining with other players (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku) The loot screen is slightly more entertaining with other players (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

My least favourite aspect of Dark Alliance is collecting loot, which is incredibly sad considering the nature and origin of the game. One of the greatest joys in Dungeons & Dragons is getting new gear for your characters. Dark Alliance makes it more of a chore. Instead of collecting special glowing weapons and armour during adventures, you amass placeholders. Opening a treasure chest while running through a goblin fortress might reward you with a generic rare chest piece, a common warhammer, or an epic ring. Finding out what the items are exactly doesn’t happen until the adventure is complete.

In your base there is a “Reward Chest,” which should be your destination at the conclusion of each adventure. It’s there that you can reveal which items you collected during your mission. Is the pelt you picked up playing as Wulfgar something useful or complete garbage? Here is where you find out.

Hooray it's not good!  (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku) Hooray it’s not good! (Screenshot: Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

Garbage it is! Sure glad we went through this whole process to find out instead of having a real inventory and being able to switch equipment in the middle of an adventure. This is the least-fun way to do loot in a dungeon crawler. You know the excitement of killing a bunch of evil monsters and finding yourself suddenly blessed with a powerful new weapon or piece of gear? Completely absent here.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance launched earlier this week for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and Steam, where it currently enjoys an overall “Mixed” score. If you’d like to see more reasons why this game is disappointing, be sure to check out the Steam user reviews. I can’t. They just make me sad. The positive reviews I am seeing often mention playing with friends to make the game better, which is good advice. Suffering is often easier to handle in small groups.

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