The desire that something is good doesn’t make it so. I have a deep passion for the D&D tabletop game, fond memories of the novels written by RA Salvatore that introduced these characters, and I was even excited about the revival of the cooperative Dark Alliance title from 20 years ago – me am the target audience for this fantasy action / roleplaying game. These requirements are enough to make Dark Alliance a passable adventure in the wee hours of the morning, especially when enjoyed with friends. But the deeper I played, the more the level design, character development, cooperative elements, story, and combat mechanics began to fall apart, leaving the outline of a compelling adventure but with few of the required functions to be filled in the middle.
The original Dark Alliance featured a Diablo-style isometric adventure, but this new incarnation shifts to a more engaging third-person perspective, with a huge focus on stringing combat moves, evading danger, and even jumping and traversing elements . I like the new approach to attacks that encourages players to combine light, heavy, and special moves to create their own favorite attacks. Unfortunately, the basics of close hand-to-hand combat are absent. Hit detection is tricky, and bad physics leads to strange moments and even instant death for you and enemy minions and bosses. Characters feel unwieldy and sluggish, refuse to break out of certain animations, and take too long to drink life-saving potions. Staggering mechanics regularly take control, leading to a feeling of frustration and powerlessness when the baddies rant about your unresponsive hero.
The levels are big with lots of optional paths full of additional treasure, and I enjoy the variety of environments to discover as the game progresses. But some sequences are meandering, with more than a little backtracking. And some are just too long, especially since the game doesn’t allow drop-in play during missions. The burden of these longer quests contrasts with the c asual hack-and-slash feel of the broader game. The fun of the levels is also slowed down by the lackluster visual fidelity of most of the characters, environments, and monsters. everything lacks the necessary polish to compete in the current landscape of remarkably beautiful games.
Several selectable levels of difficulty before each mission allow proportionally higher rewards in gold and equipment. And I like the “Push Your Luck” mechanic during a mission where you can skip short breaks to increase the rarity of the equipment. However, all but the lowest challenge levels are virtually inaccessible to solo players as the game is clearly geared towards cooperative play. It’s all well and good if you have a group of two or three friends on hand at all times, but you’ll be in trouble if you don’t. The online matchmaking is a mess, often it fails on a technical level to establish a connection. When it fits, there are almost no ways to tailor the group to the challenge or level that each player needs. Hence, potential teammates often rightly stand out in order to find a group that fits their goals.
The matchmaking problems and the lack of balance for playing solo cascade negatively affect progress. The quality of your gear will eventually plateau as higher gear levels only show up in higher difficulties, and those difficulties provide constant one-hit kills from enemies, especially since your gear is too low to fight them. You can wait until you find a team that happens to be doing a mission of the appropriate difficulty level, or you can create a custom game at that level and hope that players of an appropriate level will join from the random queue, but it’s all just a headache that instead encourages you to just move on to a new game.
Developer Tuque Games has a clear affection for both the D&D setting of Forgotten Realms and the legendary characters like Drizzt and Wulfgar, who are the main characters in the game. This affection manifests as an abundance of lore for loyal fans, and the developer has gone to great lengths to place this narrative in a convenient location within the Companions’ previously recorded journeys. But the stories at hand all feel disjointed and lacking cohesion, they combine into a vague chain of barely interconnected adventures that never really lead nowhere. From viewer to dragon, I’ve had fun seeing some iconic creatures from the tabletop RPG emerge, but the potential for real storytelling or character development is lost in the incessant waving of scimitar and hammers.
With multiple sets of gear to collect, magic infused battles, and characters of varying powers, it’s possible to build a fun pace of the game, especially if you approach the entire game with a consistent group of players who keep up with each other’s progress. But even then, the cracks in the core experience are evident. I wanted to have fun with Dark Alliance’s airy adventures through a familiar fantasy world, but too many elements left me disappointed, and even the flashing weapons of the hall’s companions were insufficient to blind me to what was missing.