Despite the popular tabletop game’s deep influence on video games — even Japanese RPGs trace their origins to Gary Gygax, with the formative Dragon Quest inspired by both Wizardy and Ultima, which owe a debt to D&D — actual games with the D&D name have been, on average, a mixed bag. There have been many, with most of them feeling like B-tier experiences. But as gamers of all stripes often realize, D&D means getting away from controllers, not spending more time with them.
Dark Alliance is the newest game to carry the Dungeons & Dragons license, and it continues an unfortunate tradition of a lackluster delivery.
A repetitive, ill-refined dungeon crawler even without the maddening bugs (which can be patched), Dark Alliance is just barely fun to play and outright maddening at times. Even prompting the menu with my PlayStation 4 controller’s touchpad is a battle of attrition. In my hours spent traversing the ho-hum lands of Icewind Dale, I was victorious not because of my skill, but due to luck and spite. Though Dark Alliance can be played single-player, it is ridiculously unbalanced to the point that a full four-person party feels like an unspoken requirement.
I don’t want to be so negative. I would love a healthy franchise of Dungeons & Dragons video games to feed my hunger for when my real friends can’t get together and play the tabletop game due to our adult schedules. Dark Alliance’s inclusion of the popular Drizzt Do’Urden, a roguish dark elf and basically the Wolverine of D&D lore, makes me believe an actual triple-A game starring Drizzt is primo soil that D&D owners Wizards of the Coast ought to invest.
But Dark Alliance is a tragically misguided and woefully executed production that is a harmless dud at best and a discouragement to try again (with something potentially amazing) at worst.
Set in the land of Icewind Dale, an artic continent in the official Dungeons & Dragons canon, Dark Alliance takes chief inspiration from author R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt books. Players take control of one of four characters: The aforementioned Drizzt, the archer Catti-brie, the hammer-wielding Wulfgar, and dwarf warrior Bruenor Battlehammer. There is a story, I guess. The official word from Wizards of the Coast is that Dark Alliance takes place prior to the recently published horror module Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. But I suspect even devoted enthusiasts won’t make that distinction with the game’s unengaging presentation.
There’s little distinction between the four playable characters. While Cattie-brie functions as a long-distance sniper with inscrutable hitboxes, both Wulfgar and Bruenor are similar brutish frontline warriors. Drizzt is best at clearing out weaker enemies that pad out the battlefield. But playing them all feels the same, with a combination of button-mashing your top bumper buttons and unleashing powerful special attacks when you’ve killed enough to fill the bars at capacity.
While some semblance of balance is achieved with a full party, Dark Alliance’s uneven difficult scaling makes it almost unplayable as a single or even two-player game. Even at medium difficulties, surviving past the first act of the first dungeon is tremendously difficult because of the sheer number of enemies. It doesn’t help that each individual character has shortcomings that can only be compensated for with other players.
After I invited Inverse colleague Corey Plante to play in a two-person group as Cattie-brie, we succumbed to boss fights not because of our inexperience or lack of skill, but because of outrageously wide hitboxes (I dodged attacks clean and still got chunks of health depleted) and our still “unbalanced” party. We didn’t have other friends with review codes to play as heavy-hitters like Bruenor and Wulfgar. When we finally beat the missions after several wipes, we immediately left the game.
Whatever fun I anticipated booting up Dark Alliance — by the way, expect long load times for a game that looks hardly better than an iPad title — it wore out fast.
Know Your Role
Of all its sins, it’s the fact that Dark Alliance is a far cry from living up to its legacy brand name, even as an arcade brawler, that really does it in. While Dark Alliance’s genre as a dungeon crawler naturally means there is no interactivity with its world, which is barren anyway, it is truly a bizarre use of the D&D name when a chunk of what makes the tabletop D&D experience special — character creation and interactivity — is not a part of Dark Alliance.
Know what does appear in Dark Alliance? A clunky checkpoint feature that makes use of the “short rest” feature in tabletop. Throughout the dungeons there are camp fires where players are allowed “rest,” to replenish health and item inventories like health potions. You can also forgo the rest at the risk of better loot drops, like higher leveled armor, weapons, and more.
As I said, it’s artificial. Not once did my party care how we rested. The game is simply not fun enough to pursue higher gear, and replenishing potions can be found in scattered chests and barrels. In the end, it doesn’t matter, and when choices in a game doesn’t matter, it’s a problem.
Axe and Smash
In D&D circles there is a term for players who swing their axes at everything without care. It’s called “murder hobos.” Dark Alliance is a murder hobo game, where a party of four martial class characters run amok a plain environment and whack at everything in sight ad nauseum. Dark Alliance is less fun than playing a real murder hobo session of D&D. At least in real D&D, your characters are yours and the mechanics of paper-and-pencil D&D have been tested and refined that it’s fun. What isn’t fun is suffering the glitched, stiff movements that plague Dark Alliance.
In theory, a mid-priced dungeon crawler with the D&D name sounds like fun, and a way for existing D&D players to spend time with each other but maybe not endure a full tabletop session. Dark Alliance could have been that game. It should have been that game. But it’s not. It’s a pitiful attempt to translate the action of tabletop as a video game, and it’s unfortunate this release may discourage further experimentation that could have a lot of potential.
Dungeons & Dragons is practically responsible for RPGs as we know them, and it deserves better. But for now, Dark Alliance is a hard sell at $40 when the Player’s Handbook is only $30.
Dark Alliance is available now on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox systems.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)