Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance Review: Dungeons & Dragons Fans Deserve Better
I’ve enjoyed role-playing games for most of my life, but my knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons could fit in a thimble. Okay, maybe a few of them, but it’s limited. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. A few of the books have found their way onto my bookshelf over the years but never gotten around to reading them. I’ve dipped my toe into a few video games but only briefly. The one exception is Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes on the original Xbox back in 2003, which I reviewed. I think I thought it was fine, but forgettable. That would make sense, because I’ve forgotten everything else about it. Some internet sleuthing via the Wayback Machine revealed I gave it a 7.5/10, but the review itself wasn’t archived. The reviews I wrote both before and after it were, but that one seems lost to time. They say the internet never forgets, but apparently, even the internet didn’t care to remember that one.
This is all to say that I entered Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance as a relative neophyte. I knew Drizzt Do’Urden by name but couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup. Perhaps this game will work a bit better for fans of the series and the characters. The story here is so lacking that I have to imagine fans of the material will have a stronger connection to it. I have a hard time imagining even they’ll stick around for long. While Dark Alliance can be mild fun for short stretches, it’s a deeply flawed game.
A Tale Best Forgotten
You play as Drizzt, along with three other characters who’ve made such an impression that even I’ve heard of them. Bruenor is a gruff dwarf. His daughter Cattie-Brie seems to have an upbeat personality, and she fights with a bow. Wulfgar is a barbarian who likes to hit things. Dark Alliance sends them on a series of mind-numbingly dull adventures. Oh no, this enemy is attacking Icewind Dale (I know that name!). Fight them off, save the day. Rinse, repeat. It’s a complete bore. I have to believe there’s more to these characters and world if they’ve won so many fans over the years, but Dark Alliance certainly never sold me on them.
The only time the storytelling in Dark Alliance becomes remotely interesting is while traversing its levels. Little bits of dialogue traded among the party can be fun. I enjoyed how often enemies would be talking and going about their day before I stumbled upon them. Sometimes I didn’t want to interrupt their conversations because I enjoyed listening in on what they were saying. Voice acting is mostly strong, too, allowing these moments to connect. I just wish this applied to the larger narrative and not only those small moments.
A Game Without Impact
Playing Dark Alliance is where things really fall apart. A series of confounding choices, combined with poor balance and awful AI, make for a game that is a complete slog from the very start. While each character feels a bit unique, the only one whose play feels genuinely interesting is Cattie-Brie with her bow. Yet playing from range seems to leave most of the AI completely confounded. Many enemies simply won’t react to arrows continually being fired at them. They’ll keep going about their business until they drop dead. When the difficulty is turned up, things get a bit better, but then the only strategy enemies have is to swarm you. It grows incredibly repetitive very quickly.
While repetition is the norm in a loot-based game, the problem is a lot worse when the combat is so rarely fun. There’s no real sense of impact behind any of the attacks. They feel light, like they simply bounce off enemies, with damage disconnected from the actual moves you choose. I craved a sense of impact. This goes to area damage as well. A few environmental hazards can hurt you throughout, and I would often not even realize I was taking damage until I looked at my health bar. Dark Alliance does a terrible job explaining what’s causing that damage too. A lot of this disconnect comes from the terrible, stiff animations. It’s a shame because the world is actually well designed, with vibrant colors and real style. It all falls apart when you start playing. The character models aren’t as strong, but I could have lived with that if things just moved well.
Speaking of loot, it’s terribly implemented here. When you pick up loot during a mission, the game doesn’t even tell you what it is. You must finish the mission and unlock it back in the game’s boring hub area. It takes away any of the excitement of finding a great new weapon or piece of armor. I want to see that thing right away and slap it right on. Instead, I’ll effectively get to play a slot machine after the fact. Upgrading existing gear feels boring because you’ll likely find better equipment soon enough. Meanwhile, every mission ends with an absurdly long rewards screen where it goes over the stats from your last mission. Why do these have to come up one stat at a time? Just display them and let me move on. The more characters you have, the longer this will take.
It’s Dangerous To Go Alone
You’re going to still want as many characters as possible, though. If you try to play solo, you’re in for an especially bad time. Turning the difficulty up and you’ll be swarmed quickly. You almost have to pick one of the melee-based characters unless you want to play on a low difficulty. The entire thing feels balanced around a group which makes sense, but this is the sort of thing that should scale. If you don’t want players going it alone, don’t let them.
At least with a party, you get to hear the enjoyable banter between your characters, and you can support each other and set up a real battle strategy. It’s easier to stomach the game’s issues when you have friends to help you do it. Even the multiplayer doesn’t escape Dark Alliance’s poor design choices, however.
Dark Alliance wants to keep all the characters close. If you get too far apart, everyone will be warped to the party leader. Games have done that for a long time, but the need to do so slips away by the year. Dark Alliance feels like an online experience from a decade ago. Even worse, whenever a character dies, they respawn at the start of the level. That means if a party member dies, they respawn alone, far away from the rest of the group. Then about fifteen seconds later, they’ll warp to the party leader, likely right where they died. It’s a colossal waste of time. It also means that if the party leader dies, they’ll respawn at the start, and after a moment, everyone else will be ripped back there too. None of this feels good.
There’s room on the market for mindless action, especially when it can be played with friends. I’m glad a game like Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is on Game Pass because that’s the perfect way to get a group of friends playing together. I just wish that once they gathered, they had something better to play. Unfortunately, despite some parts of the game looking and sounding nice, there’s little else to recommend it. With awful AI, weightless combat, an unengaging story, and loot that feels inessential, the entire game is a slog. The biggest fans of Dungeons & Dragons may find a bit of fun with friends, but they deserve better than this.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: Xbox One(Reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, PC; Publisher: Wizards of the Coast; Developer: Tuque Games; Players: 1 (up to 4 online); Released: June 22nd, 2021; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance.