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July 2022

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Online Multiplayer
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Developer: Tuque Games
Release Date: June 22, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance'

by Cody Medellin on June 21, 2021 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance brings the Forgotten Realms to life in an explosive action RPG filled with real-time combat and dynamic co-op.

Buy Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

There are countless Dungeons & Dragons video games, most in the various branches of the RPG. Of those games, a staggering number of them are set in the Forgotten Realms, making it one of the more well-trodden settings for the series and one that birthed a few classic titles, including Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights. The other popular series was Baldur's Gate, and while the PC got the expected hardcore RPG, owners of the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and original Xbox got the spin-off, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, which was more in line with Diablo; you hacked and slashed at foes from an isometric perspective while managing character gear and stats. While the PC-only game will be coming with a familiar name, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance arrives on multiple platforms with more than just a name change.

Dark Alliance is set in the Icewind Dale, and it has players taking on the roles of Bruenor Battlehammer; Catti-Brie; Drizzt Do'Urden; and Wulfgar, Son of Beornegar. Long ago, these four heroes saved the inhabitants of the Dale from the forces of Akar Kessel, an apprentice wizard who heard the call of the crystal shard Crenshinibon and vowed to take over the kingdoms. That peace didn't last for long, as the shard, buried deep in Icewind Dale, now calls out to those corrupted enough to hear it. To prevent another possible calamity, the four heroes band together once more to protect the land.

For those expecting a tale that takes full advantage of the characters penned by R. A. Salvatore, you'll be disappointed. The heroes get nothing beyond what you may know about them from the books, and every major creature's motivation begins and ends with the recovery of Crenshinibon. This is expected, since the developers have said that the focus of the game was action over narrative and, to be fair, what they delivered works well enough to keep things moving forward. For those who haven't been keeping up with the game, the lack of a prominent narrative is something to be aware of.

The game is billed as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and the core gameplay also reflects this. The 21 levels are essentially dungeon crawls, especially since about half of them take place underground. You encounter enemies in bunches, and your attacks consist of light and heavy ones, with special abilities thrown in for good measure, such as the ability to become a whirling dervish of hammer attacks. There are also ultimate moves, such as Bruenor's energy shield for all players or Drizzt's panther companion wreaking havoc for a limited time. On the defensive side, you can perform dodge rolls and blocks, but you can also initiate a parry that works well in opening up others for counterattacks — if you can master the precise timing.

The main difference between this game and its predecessors comes from its perspective. Instead of going isometric like the older games, Dark Alliance brings down the camera to a classic third-person perspective. It places the player closer to the action, but it also brings with it some new issues, such as the camera getting obstructed by scenery during essential fights. The camera gives the player a lock-on mechanic to better track enemies during a fight, but with a lower camera angle and frantic fights, the camera lock-on is more detrimental than helpful.

The lack of an effective lock-on system also means that there are times when you feel like you lose control for a bit. For example, use a quick character like Drizzt, and his barrage of moves in a combo sometimes has to play out to completion before you can finally stop and turn to your opponent. Even if you dodge, you still deal with sometimes facing the wrong way in a fight. Another quirk in the combat system is the presence of a stamina meter. While you might get the impression that you need to play more methodically due to its presence, the truth is that you drain a minuscule amount of stamina per move and dodge. Recovery is quick, and your stamina never gets to the point where you face death because you can no longer dodge or hit. The stamina meter doesn't transform the game in a meaningful way.

Aside from these issues, the level design is well thought-out. It isn't too difficult to leap across a large chasm. For the few times that you fall due to bad leaping or initiating a combo that keeps pushing you forward, you'll instantly recover with minimal health loss and a clear direction. The game does a great job of signposting where to go, but there are a few times when markers refuse to leave, despite achieving the task. More importantly, while the level flow is linear, there are many points where it branches to either uncover an alternate path to the goal or take you on a detour to grab more gold and loot and take you to optional objectives.

The game also uses a Short Rest mechanic that pops up after clearing certain areas of enemies. It is a risk/reward mechanic, as taking it means refilling all of your meters and consumables. Using it also means that you create a checkpoint, which is helpful since the levels can take at least 30 minutes to complete. On the other hand, forgoing it gives you a loot bonus to make future loot drops in the level more valuable; you lose this once you take a Short Rest. It is an interesting mechanic to play with, but a drawback is that the prompt to take the Short Rest is so large and the radius is so large that it blocks you from seeing if there's loot or triggers.

Dark Alliance falls into a loop where you set up the level you want to travel to, hit the warp gate to get there, finish a level, and check your stats before returning to camp to get your XP and check your spoils. The inability to actually get XP during a level makes the title tougher since most RPGs players rely on that XP gain in the middle of a fight or journey to get an automatic refill in depleted stats. Leveling up is a slow process overall, especially with the cap set at 20, but the number of stats you can modify and the different moves and abilities you can learn make this feel like a proper RPG, despite its action game leanings. The gear and weapons you get are randomized and only uncovered when you reach camp, and while this means that you aren't spending time on the field swapping gear, it also means that you have no idea if you got anything good. This is also the only way to get gear, as the merchant never sells anything; he's simply there to take all of your junk and upgrade your stuff if you have enough gems and coins. The game features the ability to convert gems between the different rarities, so it reduces the need to go on another quest for currency, but this also points out the superfluous nature of the camp, since you're only using half of it and there's only one person there who isn't in your party.

If you're planning to play Dark Alliance solo, prepare to get pummeled since it was designed first and foremost with multiplayer in mind. Every enemy area you encounter has the odds against you, with enemies hitting hard and no invincibility frames to save you. Due to your inability to quickly recover from a fall, things quickly get worse if a goblin throws down an area-of-effect spell while a troll smashes you with a hammer or vomits on you, almost guaranteeing that half of your health is gone before you have a chance to dodge or counter. This might be viewed as a challenge, but others will be dismayed due to the lack of XP and loot if they don't finish a level.

It also doesn't help that the game still does things like you're in a multiplayer game, so death comes with a timer, so you're staring at your corpse for 10 seconds in the hope that someone revives you. Since that won't happen, you'll hit a loading screen before returning to your last checkpoint, so every death becomes more infuriating than the last. The only respite comes from playing at a lower difficulty level, which makes things easy until you reach the last third of the game, where you'll do more dodging than fighting. Playing at a lower difficulty level also results in lower XP gains and lower-quality loot drops, but it gives you a better base to work from if you want to tackle the levels again at a higher difficulty with a more Dark Souls-esque hit-and-run attack pattern.

At the moment, multiplayer comes with a few caveats. For starters, local multiplayer is coming, and it will enable two people to play on the same console, but there is no word about whether those two people can join others online to form a party. That patch isn't scheduled to hit until the first major update. The game also doesn't allow players to have two or more of the same character in a party, so you can't make a team of two Drizzts and two Catti-Bries, but that will be fixed in one of the patch updates. Cross-play isn't possible between PlayStation and Xbox and PC players, but there is cross-play between Xbox and Windows 10 players, and Steam and Epic Games Store players can join in via an update patch soon. What's worse is that the cross-generation play between PS4 and PS5 players isn't in yet, with that functionality also scheduled to arrive in a future patch. There's also a bug where there's no way to get out of the chosen multiplayer mode, so if you decide to do Quick Play and change your mind to go offline or host a game, you'll need to quit to the main menu to do so.

If you can get over that, then you'll find the multiplayer experience to be quite nice. The online performance is stable whether you're hosting or joining, as there were no bouts of lag when I gave it a shot over the review period. The experience worked well, and the game handles the action of people going astray rather well, so everyone respawns into the same place when you hit major milestones, such as during the start of a boss encounter or when Short Rest is activated. Combat shines brighter, as you now unlock team moves that can be executed between certain players, and the lower difficulty levels are much more manageable. One thing that might put a damper on things is that the post-game is just you and the party taking on the same missions at higher difficulties, getting more XP and better loot in preparation for the upcoming free and paid DLC packs that will hit throughout the year. That might not seem like much for some, but it's perfectly fine when you consider that the game isn't trying to be a "service" title but just a classic multiplayer dungeon-crawling brawler.

The presentation is somewhat scattershot. For the audio, the voice work is excellent for all of the characters, from the major ones to the incidental ones. The script does a good job of balancing out the seriousness of most of the characters, with humor providing some genuine laughs. The only issue is that these bits get repeated quite often, so it doesn't take too long before the impact is diminished. Elsewhere, the musical score fits the high fantasy setting nicely, but it is sparse, so much of your journey is accompanied by ambient sound, with the score serving as punctuations for important events.

The graphics are the one area where the game makes a bad first impression. I reviewed the game on a 1080p TV set; I don't own a 4K set, so I can't confirm that the game will run at 4K 60fps. The title screen shows your camp running in-game, and while you'll notice that the foliage is running at 60fps, the flags flapping in the wind are doing so at single-digit frame rates. Get into the game, and the flags and their related shadows still chug away at a single-digit frame rate, while the flames run at 30fps and the gameplay moves along at 60fps. That frame rate drops when the screen gets crowded with enemies and particle effects, and while the drop doesn't last too long, the game stutters.

Elsewhere, there is apparent texture detail pop-up as you move through the world. There are basic reflections for metallic surfaces, and while the textures of the world are clean, the color scheme will give people flashbacks to the Xbox 360/PS3 era, but it can't be helped considering the setting. For those that are curious, we did check out the PS4 build on the PS5, and those issues are also present there.

Speaking of which, the only tangible benefit to playing the game on the PS5 aside from the resolution bump is in the load times, which are snappy compared to the PS4 game. In fact, the longest load time on the PS5 has been roughly five seconds, so navigating between your camp to a mission and back is rather painless. For those planning to get the game on the PS4, know that the upgrade to the PS5 iteration is free, and although you get two different Trophy sets, your progress doesn't move between versions.

Your perception of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is going to heavily depend on how you want to play. If you want to go solo, prepare to toil away at the easiest difficulty level before taking on anything else. If you're planning to go with a team and don't mind the current restrictions, then you'll find this to be an enjoyable romp despite some occasional quirks. Considering its $39.99 price tag, Dark Alliance is worth a shot for those looking for an online co-op fix that isn't another shooter.

Score: 7.5/10

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