Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance review: Epic story, so-so combat

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One of the charms of author R.A. Salvatore‘s books about the Companions of the Hall are the vivid descriptions of combat.

As he works his blades, the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden engages in a ballet, twisting, leaping, blocking and parrying, and thrusting his way through battle after battle. The erstwhile dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer and his adopted son, the barbarian Wulfgar, smash and bash foes, true, but they can also strike with care and precision; Wulfgar’s warhammer blows land like timpani strikes yet still find the proper tone, and Bruenor’s slashes can have the care and precision of a violin virtuoso. Cattie-brie can pluck her bowstring with the gentleness and accuracy to shoot an apple off a lad’s head at 50 paces … or she can send arrows home with enough violence to piece a goblin’s skull.

Tuque Games does an able job of capturing the Companions’ brutal and subtle approaches to combat in Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, the co-op action-RPG that launches June 22 for PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. Playing on PS5 as Drizzt, I could feel the flow of his moves as I carved up goblins, giants, and more. But I could also feel the starkness of his other persona, the Hunter (how Drizzt refers to himself during his years living mostly alone in the Underdark), sneaking up and stalking foes, taking them out one-by-one as you creep up on a stronger enemy.

Tuque and Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast have used heavy metal to promote Dark Alliance, but a rousing symphony feels like a better fit for me. Tuque has captured the fast-paced and artistry of Salvatore’s prose, building to a crescendo of during each chapter’s boss fight at the end of an act. It has some fascinating story choices that both fit the past and present of the established Forgotten Realms.

But while its nails the themes of the Companions in combat, Tuque’s execution feels imprecise, like a goblin trying to force the wrong piece of a puzzle to fit.

Getting into the flow

Combat is one of the games misshaped puzzle pieces. The idea of Dark Alliance’s combat shines (I’ll get into its execution later). It features a cacophony of combos, attacks that can boost a player’s lethality, weaken an enemy, and so on. Playing as Drizzt, I could summon a darkness attack that curses and frightens opponents and spawn a swipe from Guenhwyvar (the dark elf’s panther companion). As you attack, you can perform a variety of combos. Even using just the basic light and heavy attacks result in a satisfying flourish of swipes, lunges, and leaps.

Defense is important, too, especially when playing solo. You can block and parry. With Drizzt, I was even able to make blocks against attacks coming from behind me, even after making a flurry of strikes ahead of me. When you parry, you don’t just block an attack, but you also create an opening for launching a strike.

And even on its easier setting, some encounters can be challenging. Before you start an act, you can choose from six difficulty levels. The harder you pick, the better the loot. Most encounters feature a mix of foes: a tank, a caster or ranged enemy, and a damage-dealer. Some have bigger brutes that they support, such as trolls, verbeegs, or frost giants. That’s when I found the combat to be sometimes difficult — when you have a big foe like a verbeeg on the field with a bunch of goblins, some of whom are tanks, others who are archers and firing area-of-effect arrow attacks. Meanwhile you’re avoiding the verbeeg, who may either be throwing his harpoon-like spear at you to drag you into melee range, throwing out bear traps, or spewing poisonous puke around him and making melee attacks risky.

Building upon a shard

Dark Alliance takes place shortly after The Crystal Shard, Salvatore and Drizzt’s debut novel. The Companions of the Hall have defeated Akar Kessel and Crenshinibon, a wicked artifact of great power that can give its user amazing abilities and draw a horde of evil creatures to serve them. But we learn the threat of the crystal, while diminished by the heroes’ earlier actions, pulses in the Dale. A new horde of monsters have come, hearing Crenshinibon’s call — and desiring to master it.

Three factions are battling and, at times, working together to capture the Shard. A frost giant jarl seeks to take up the mantle of the great king Kelvin and bring back the realm of Astoria (the ancient empire of giantkind that ruled the world long before elves and humans came to Faerûn). A beholder lusts over the shard as a way to extend its power. And the third surprised me more than three kobolds in a trenchcoat: Levitus, the archdevil of Stygia. He’s never been in a D&D game before, and he seeks the Shard to help advance his schemes from his icy prison (Asmodeus, the ruler of the Nine Hells, imprisoned Levistus in a whole damn iceberg for his past crimes).

The motivations of the frost giant and the beholder are fairly standard, but I applaud Tuque for its Levistus plot thread (and he appears in the recent Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign as well). It’s fascinating to think how an imprisoned fiend is using his agents to track down one the most wicked artifacts in the Realms.

Factions feel true to the world

Above: Verbeeg enjoy fighting dwarves like Bruenor. They like eating them even more.

Image Credit: Tuque Games

The factions have clear agendas that fit their cultures.

As you creep up on goblins, you get bits of their personality. They want respect and power, and the call of the Shard is their avenue for this. But they’re also goblins, unable to work together without squabbling, incapable of creating anything that isn’t a mockery of their grand plans.

Verbeeg just want to eat, raid, and reave. They talk about how they want to chow down on the party, and they crack wise in combat. They don’t want to build, nor do they want the Shard for its power. They just want the fun and full bellies the Shard can provide.

The duergar are wary of coming up from the Underdark. These wicked dwarves want the valuable minerals of Clan Battlehammer’s mines. They want the secrets the beholder holds. But they also respect their foes’ power and understand this could be a mistake. Other nice touches include the cannoneers smoking pipes and the mind mages bringing down walls shaped as gauntlets

The only enemy group that feels off are the cultists of the Shard. They’re fairly generic, storywise. They do have a mix of magic and Drizzt-like blade combos that make for a challenge. But they don’t add much to the story or Dark Alliance’s flavor.

Systemic flaws

Above: These shrieker-like fungi spew poison when you touch them. Sometimes, you roll or land in them during combat.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Dark Alliance does have two glaring flaws. The enjoyment I got out of the characters, the story, and the lore more than makes up for these issues for me, but others will no doubt hate some of the Tuque’s decisions and oversights.

First of all, some of your combat flourishes will leave you open to attack or even carry you into dangerous situations. A number of times, Drizzt would dash, slash and stab, then leap up, his momentum carrying further than I anticipated. And sometimes, this left me in a patch of poison or dangerous cold. Other times, I fell off a ledge or platform and into the dark below. Now, the game would bring you back to a safe area when you plummet from such heights, with a small ding of health. But a showy flourish should never put me at risk of such a fall in a well-executed action-RPG.

Loot is Tuque’s other main miss. One of the draws of action-RPGs is gaining a cool sword after a tough combat, equipping that reward, and then slaying the next batch of monsters with your new weapon. Not in Dark Alliance. When you find loot, you don’t get it until the chapter is over. I think I see what Tuque is going for here — either it wants you have to pass the test to earn your rewards, or it doesn’t want you spending time equipping gear when you could be slaying monsters. But years of games like Diablo have conditioned action-RPG players to expect loot and to switch out weapons while playing, not resting at your home base.

Above: The Tundra set looks cool. But where’s Icingdeath?

Image Credit: GamesBeat

The other problem with the loot is that you get sets of items. Drizzt wields scimitars, and you may find an Epic scimitar that’s part of the Tundra set (which improves your stamina and resistance to cold, among other things). Its stats come from what set it belongs to, its rarity, and upgrading with crystals you find. I don’t mind improving equipment, nor do I mind being stuck with one sort of weapon. What I do mind is that you have iconic weapons to go along with these characters, such as Drizzt’s Icingdeath and Wulfgar’s Aegis Fang, and they’re absent. Most fans would agree that this is not a proper treatment of these iconic characters. I certainly feel this way.

That missing element

Above: I miss Drizzt’s introspection. It’s not in Dark Alliance.

Image Credit: Tuque Games

One thing is missing from Dark Alliance and the Companions’ story — Drizzt’s trademark introspection. It’s nowhere to be found, and considering how his introspective interludes are a staple of any of his books, I missed this.

Before the beginning of every chapter, Drizzt does recount the Companions’ exploits and what happened in this part of the story, but other than this, you don’t get much insight from him. And that’s a bit disappointing.

The right package?

The more I think about my 20-or-so hours with Dark Alliance, the more I wonder if Tuque picked the right package for its good story about these characters. I get it wants to capture the flow-and-rush of combat that comes with Salvatore’s books, but do games both heavy in story and combat combos work? In this case, they don’t, because the combat doesn’t live to the story’s ambitions.

But what if this was a top-down action-RPG in the vein of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or even Diablo? Would that work better, focusing more on the interlocking systems of combat than the rush? Tuque looks like it has the chops to do a good RPG well — maybe something along the lines of a third-person RPG would’ve worked better? It’s interesting to consider.

Tuque has a series of DLC updates planned that will add new levels and a new character, along with two-player couch co-op. I’m interested in seeing if any of these planned updates or other patches will tune up combat, preventing characters from carrying themselves into chasms.

For now, Dark Alliance feels like many D&D adventures: Sometimes, you gotta slog through some combat in order to learn more about the world and enjoy a good story.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance launches June 22 for PC, PlayStation, and Xbox. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a digital PlayStation code for the purposes of this review.


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