(Dark AllianceUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

Image)

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 AllianceUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

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.

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 screenshot)

Dark Alliance

is set between the first and second books of R.A. Salvatore’s originalUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

Icewind Dale

trilogy, in the immediate aftermath of 1988’s

The Crystal Shard

.

Interview: How Wizards of the Coast plans to continue Dungeons & Dragons’ explosive growth

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 people standing between what’s left of civilization in Icewind Dale and half a dozen different kinds of impending doom. You’re not so much conquering heroes in this game as a guerilla insurrection force, which is a fun contrast to the typical D&D-style fantasy adventure.

That’s a lot of backstory, particularly since it relies on your familiarity with a 33-year-old

Dungeons & Dragons

novel, but

Dark AllianceUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

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

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

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

DiabloUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

, and cram them onto sixth-generation consoles like the PlayStation 2. They started a trend in the 2000s where other franchises launched spin-offs built in the same engine, such as Justice League Heroes and the Everquest-themed 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. They also each get two big moves on lengthy recharge timers, such as Catti-brie’s area-of-effect entanglement spell, and a big Ultimate attack which can clear out an entire room.

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

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.

Conversely, the actual levels inUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

Dark Alliance

have an 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.

Why is there a treasure chest hidden on a platform that’s suspended from the ceiling in an otherwise pristine ice cavern? Why, in order to reach it, do I need to kill a nearby unrelated cultist to get a lever handle with which I can lower a second platform? Because it’s a video game. No further questions.

It may sound like I’m mocking the concept, but I appreciate this.

Dark Alliance

‘s environments are well-imagined and massive, but at heart, they’re throwbacks to an earlier, simpler era. The combat and visual presentation are 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 any time throughout the game, but you only accumulate equipment, experience, 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 notUpdate: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

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 armor-breaking hits, Drizzt is a fast-moving combo fiend, and Catti-brie is an acrobatic archer with some powerful crowd control.

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, so many of his go-to moves don’t matter at all if he’s alone. Wulfgar hits like a truck but moves like a glacier, so I found I spent a lot of my time as Wulfgar being mercilessly dogpiled by enemies.

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 she’s a murder machine, only limited in that she burns her stamina meter faster than any other character.

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

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 higher-end 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.Update: Wizards of the Coast’s video game ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’ is the beta test of a better game

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, some of whom might randomly be powerful elite versions of themselves.

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.

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

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.

Teamwork (barely) makes the dream work

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

A few days later, after an assortment of multiplayer matches, I’ve come around a bit on Dark Alliance.

It still feels a lot like it’s the beta test for a better game. Rank-and-file enemies often pop in and out, shrug off hits that should’ve dizzied them, and are nearly helpless against an enemy that isn’t in their direct line of sight.

With at least one other player in the mix, however, you can tell what sort of game Dark Alliance is trying to be. It’s not a beat-’em-up, or a pseudo-traditional dungeon crawler like the previous Dark Alliances; if it reminds me of any other game, in fact, it’s running high-end mythic dungeons in World of Warcraft.

Individual enemies at even low levels of difficulty have a lot of health and hit like trucks. A Catti-brie or Drizzt will often get dropped in as little as one hit. You’re not supposed to be using your nuclear-option attacks as a last resort; instead, the sensible play is to communicate with your team and liberally rotate your skills. In a perfect scenario, you can meet each new pack of enemies with a combination of heavy-hitting skills or a big ultimate. You’re distinctly outgunned from the jump, so you need to use and abuse everything you’ve got available.

It’s really reinforced my first impression, in that Dark Alliance is not at all balanced around solo play. Everything about it becomes much easier when you’re running with a crew, whether it’s leveling up, finding better gear, tactics, or boss fights. This is meant as a group activity, which are always the hardest sorts of games to review, as their servers are typically pretty dead during the period before a game’s actual retail release.

(Dark Alliance screenshot)

That isn’t to say that multiplayer solves all of Dark Alliance‘s problems. It’s got likable characters, hateable villains, great-looking environments, tons of secrets, and some very silly-looking hats, but as a game, it just doesn’t feel done. It would need several coats of paint and a couple more versions before I could genuinely recommend it. The enemy AI’s still too dumb, the combat’s too rough around the edges, and the physics are distinctly wonky. It’s all the kinds of issues that I could readily forgive in a late alpha or early beta test, but not in a full retail release.

If you’re just looking for a cheap co-op game to play with a few buddies online, Dark Alliance will scratch that itch. There’s a certain satisfaction in coordinating your tactics, making plans, and carrying them out. There are better options out there, however. Toque and Wizards of the Coast are onto something with this general design, but Dark Alliance needed more work than this.

Wizards of the Coast provided a Steam download code for Dark Alliance to GeekWire for the sake of this review.