Developer: Tuque Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Windows (Reviewed)
Release Date: 21 June 2021
Price: $39.99 USD/$59.95 AUD – Available Here
Traditionally, Dungeons & Dragons video games have stuck to the tabletop RPG’s roots, leaning heavily on turn based combat. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is the latest title to join the small group of D&D branded games to offer a new take on the long running franchise. This action RPG combines elements of Dark Souls and D&D inspired progression.
The game uses the ever popular Icewind Dale setting, previously explored by other video games like Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and several novels. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is set after the events of R.A. Salvatore’s novel The Crystal Shard, the first book in The Icewind Dale Trilogy. Players do not need to read The Crystal Shard or the other novels in Salvatore’s extensive bibliography to appreciate Dark Alliance’s plot, but it will help significantly. Without the background, the game’s plot feels a bit on the shallow side.
First 30 Minutes of Gameplay Video
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a Dark Souls lite action RPG. The game offers four characters from Salvatore’s novels, each representing one of four D&D classes. Combat mechanics emphasizes stamina management, effective combo usage, and avoiding damage. The RPG mechanics in the game have elements of the pen and paper version of D&D, but it is not a 1:1 match.
The combat in Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is just barely passable. The combat isn’t nearly as difficult as Dark Souls type games, but it isn’t as easy as a mass market hack ‘n slash either. There is a large range of difficulty levels so everyone can find something that provides the desired degree of challenge.
The offensive flow is good. Stamina management is a big part of the game, so players can’t just spam attacks without consequence. Not only do players burn stamina in the short term, their soft cap lowers over time too. The combo system feels solid. Each character has a good number of purchasable moves and abilities to expand their arsenal. I like that many moves have specific purposes in mind, such as disengaging a target or dealing massive damage to a single large enemy. Yet at the same time, there isn’t an overwhelming number of moves to learn.
Defense, on the other hand, is poorly executed. The dodge mechanic feels like it has either no invincibility frames, or the frames are poorly timed. Several large enemies have unblockable hits with short telegraph animations that are impossible to dodge unless the player is willing tank the shot or make one hit, then retreat to see what the enemy does and finally dive in for another hit. The parrying isn’t great either. It is supposed to be a high risk, high reward action that raises the stamina soft cap. The refunded stamina soft cap is simply not enough to be meaningful considering how risky parrying can be.
The biggest problem with Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance’s combat is how easy it is for players to cheese their way through the game. As the difficulty rises, the enemies hit harder and elemental protection becomes more important, but it doesn’t address the fact the AI is dumber than a sack of bricks. There is a large area where the enemy AI will not respond to repeated ranged attacks. The AI will also stare at a player who has retreated across a gap instead of hurling rocks, chasing after the player, or doing anything beyond spewing hurtful insults. The fact each group is limited to only to one archer is probably the game’s only saving grace.
Stamina management is completely broken. The stamina soft cap, especially for the archer, is supposed to force players to close the gap with the enemy so the soft cap can be recovered with parries. Because the soft cap refund is so pathetic, it’s exponentially more efficient to only carry health and fully upgraded stamina potions to ensure there is at least a 50% chance for every chest to drop stamina potions. Then take the talents to gain more potions from small chests and higher potion capacity. As long as players remember to top up their health and stamina before opening every small chest, players can maintain a high soft cap for most of the run.
The RPG mechanics are enjoyable, although nothing stands out. While several elements use similar terminology as Dungeons & Dragons, the mechanics are more in line with the instant gratification offered by video games. Instead of the more varied level up rewards of the tabletop RPG, level ups simply provide points to unlock feats and upgrade attributes. Magical gear drops regularly in dungeons, similar to isometric action RPGs, so players will usually haul back a pile of rares and the odd epic or legendary equipment each run.
The level design is good. Players are free to explore the expansive levels or push through efficiently to the end. Completionists will be able to explore the many back alleys littered with loot and gold. Most of the optional areas are marked with red cloth or paint, but really keen-eyed players can find secret areas that simply look out of place. There’s also a number of optional side quests and puzzles for extra rewards, including bonus feat or points.
One of the glaring issues plaguing Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is the utter lack of quality-of-life features. It appears little thought has gone into making the experience accessible and efficient. Mouse and keyboard users will discover the extremely limited key bind options. There’s no mark as junk and mass sell function, which is desperately needed considering how slow it is to sell items to begin with. Small chests that drop gold and potions are automatically distributed to the whole party, but each party member is required to visit the larger equipment chest to retrieve their gear. Gold bags sitting on the ground needs to be picked up manually. Games have ditched this mechanic en masse in the last decade, and this mechanic has not aged well at all.
The end of levels is unnecessarily slow and clunky. I am not sure if the game is hiding a load screen by making the process involve a 10 second timer to the score screen, followed by the unskippable score screen, then an option to return to town, followed by a return to the game level, where the player must wait until they suddenly get pushed to the loading screen for town. If the game is loading things behind the scenes during this extended process, the developers need to be more up front about it by putting the loading logo in the corner of the screen to let players know what’s the hold up.
The graphics are solid. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance sticks to the standard high fantasy aesthetic commonly associated with the tabletop franchise. The architecture and environments are an enjoyable walk through different racial styles, from the Dwarves towering stone structures to the rickety goblin huts. I really like how the artists use bright colours to signal points of interest in contrast to the darker and earthen tones in the game.
The audio experience is a hit and miss. The voice acting is iffy. Some voice actors are solid, including those providing idle enemy chatter. There are a few who are a step or two behind, such as Cattie-Brie’s actor. The sound effects are enjoyable, but the real gem is the soundtrack. It’s an excellent mix of traditional video game scores, choral music, and some Tuvan throat singing. It’s a soundtrack I’ve happily added to my streaming library.
Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a nice change from the other D&D video games that almost exclusively are pure RPGs, but that doesn’t mean the game itself is good. It needs serious fixes. It’s too easy to cheese the game. The defense mechanisms are poorly balanced. The AI is impressively stupid. The quality-of-life features is almost non-existent. With some major polishing, the game might become a diamond in the rough, but I’m not sure if the public can wait that long.
Capsule Computers review guidelines can be found here.