Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance isn’t a very good video game. Some might even go as far as to say that it’s a bad video game, a take that I don’t know that I fully disagree with if we’re being honest, but it does paint the game in an absolute and irredeemable light, which I don’t believe is the case here. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a rough, buggy, clunky game that should have been better, but it misses the mark in so many ways, ranging from combat to its core structure that it will surely require some hefty patches to get it to a recommendable state.

Full transparency here: I was really looking forward to Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, the spiritual successor the two very good Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games from the PS2 era. This modernization is such a different product than its predecessors, that it ultimately feels like a massive injustice to the legacy of those previous titles. Whereas the originals were top-down, action-RPG games that walked the line between the dense RPG mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons proper, and some genuinely fun brawler combat. I’m sure plenty of folks out there would disagree with that statement but as a young man with no interest in the source material at the time, these games were able to keep me invested and engaged in a way that fantasy properties across all forms of media had failed to do. I was hoping that this new Dark Alliance would illicit some of those same feelings, but the D&D DNA on display in Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance seem like little more than set dressing thrown over a pretty bland cooperative action game.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance has to be the lack of a dedicated caster class. It’s kind of buck-wild to me that in a Dungeons & Dragons themed product, the use of magic is relegated to special abilities to be used in conjunction with martial fighting rather than have its own dedicated class. With so many different classes available to choose from in D&D proper, it’s a severe letdown to only be able to pick between two fighters, a ranger and a barbarian, all of which are martial combat focused. There’s an actual reason for this limited selection of classes however, because Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is an adaption of the R.A. Salvatore novel The Crystal Shard which explains why the characters and classes are what they are.

Even if you’re able to look past the limited character options, the game itself does a pretty poor job of capturing the essence of Dungeon’s & Dragons. Not having the ability to create your own character regardless of story justifications, is just a big bummer in my eyes. Not being able to access your inventory mid-game also is a big misstep especially when you look at the original Dark Alliance games where you were always able to equip the stuff you found on the fly. Even weirder is that the loot you pick up inside levels are generic placeholders that get “identified” and usable when you return to the hub area. It reminds me a lot of early Destiny where you had to get the engrams you’d find identified before they turned into real and usable loot.

But Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance actually does attempt to incorporate some more D&D and RPG elements into the experience, by putting a pretty big focus on exploration and puzzle solving while you’re in levels. None of it is particularly hard or interesting, but about half of your time spent within the levels allow for some significant loot and resource hunting, which basically just means breaking everything you can see to reveal hidden paths, mining (smashing) crystal ore (upgrade currency), platforming challenges and what I’m very generously calling “puzzle solving.” These mostly come in the form of timing your movement to avoid spike and fire traps, finding an item to help unlock a door or elevator, or just running in the opposite direction of the horribly unclear objective markers on your map to find treasure chests and optional enemies.

There are also some optional objectives to tackle within levels, all of which seem to involve collecting things, killing bosses, or destroying things. There are also several different difficulty levels to choose from when selecting missions if that’s something you’d like to do, but I don’t know if it does anything aside from just giving enemies bigger health bars or letting them hit you harder.

One of the things I am mildly enjoying in the game is its upgrade system, which is admittedly very overwhelming at first. It’s nothing crazy or revolutionary, but you can essentially upgrade every piece of gear a couple of times by utilizing both the crystal ore you find throughout levels, as well as the gold you pick up along the way. There are 5 or so different rarities of crystals that allow you to upgrade rarer gear. So legendary crystals will allow you to upgrade legendary equipment, whereas common crystals wouldn’t allow for that. You can also transform common crystals into their more rare counterparts by using gold, which helps curb the reliance on random crystal drops.

Aside from upgrading your gear you can also pick from different color options for just about every piece of gear for the paltry price of just 50 gold pieces, which for context is basically nothing. You can upgrade your core stats via attribute points which can be earned through exploring levels, but are primarily earned through leveling up where you can also unlock feats, new moves, and inventory upgrades. Unfortunately, nothing you can unlock is capable of washing away the myriad of gameplay specific issues within Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance.

Playing Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance can feel like an exercise in futility, because all manner of issues can hamper your experience at any time. One of the more notable issues I noticed was that the enemy AI just doesn’t work. I could stand right outside of an area where enemies are hanging out and just kill them from a distance without them ever reacting to being peppered with arrows. It was ridiculously easy to cheese my way through parts of this game because the enemies never really put up a fight or acknowledged my presence if I stood far enough away from them. I’m sure the game gets hard enough to the point that cheesing it or playing solo won’t be viable, but in the early goings I never felt overwhelmed or outgunned.

Even when I decided to leap into the fray and not just annoy my enemies from afar, I found that the combat was mushy and unresponsive, which led to a lot of moments where I was trying to charge up an attack but the game just straight up ignored my inputs. It was as if I was trying to play faster than the game would allow for, which seemed like a weird additional way of keeping me from spamming attacks considering there’s a stamina meter in the game that still doesn’t fully make sense to me. Some attacks I did would just lower the maximum amount of stamina I could have at any given time, without ever really providing a clear way to fix that issue. You’d think that taking a short rest would remove that cap from the stamina meter, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes it will just randomly fix itself without any explanation, which is infinitely more maddening to me.

By default both light and heavy attacks are assigned to the right bumper and trigger respectively both of which are supposed to combo together seamlessly, but the controls are just so muddy and unresponsive that combos happen more by accident than anything else. There are also some special abilities that are on a cool-down, as well as an ultimate move I could activate whenever the ultimate meter finally decided to fill up. Aside from that, the game has fairly standard brawling mechanics that include blocks, parries, launchers and so on.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a painfully buggy experience, of which my favorite bug has to be when I killed something and its lifeless body is launched into the stratosphere, never to be seen again. I hope this is never “fixed,” because there’s nothing to fix in my eyes, so we can just go ahead and hand-wave the issue away by saying that goblins naturally fly away when they die. But not all of the bugs are as funny as that one, because a lot of revolve around performance and online desynchronization issues. It’s never fun to hit an enemy and have them vanish only to appear behind me and pummel me to death, and that happens with alarming regularity when playing online. Online connectivity is a prevalent problem too, because after every chapter in a mission when my group would try to return to the hub world together we’d all be disconnected without fail.

To put it kindly, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a flawed game that’s in dire need of some patches to not just address bugs, but to smooth out some of the rougher edges of the non-gameplay experience. From connectivity issues and desynchronization issues to loot management, these things need to get sorted out before any sort of community can really develop around the game. I’m hopeful that the bigger issues like bugs and combat functionality will be fixed and adjusted as time goes on, but those little nuisances are the pain points that will eventually kill an online game if unaddressed for too long.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance didn’t turn out the way I had hoped it would but I have to believe that it can only get better from here. Like most games, it’s an infinitely more enjoyable experience with friends, but that isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance. In its current state it’s not a good game to play, but it is a great thing to laugh at with your buddies thanks to its shoddy B-movie qualities. I’d love to be able to both enjoy the campy aspects of the game in addition to a great gameplay experience, but it just isn’t there yet.

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