STAFF REVIEW of Dark Alliance (Xbox One)

Sunday, July 4, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Dark Alliance Box art Dungeons & Dragons has no shortage of followers or games. While I’ve dabbled in the tabletop RPG in the past, I’ve never dove into its lore or games very heavily, so I would be classified as a casual fan. The latest game in the dynasty is Dark Alliance, which I believe is canon and takes place somewhere within the official lore and timeline, but a much more knowledgeable D&D fan will have to research exactly when. So gather three of your friends and gear up for an adventure that you’d expect to find within the world of Dungeons & Dragons, fighting against spirits, goblins, giants, trolls and massive bosses as you take on your enemies and find loot. Oh, and it’s available on Game Pass, so there’s little to no barrier of entry to check it out.

While I’m not versed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons’ lore at all, I do recognize many of the characters and settings, which should be quite a treat for the devoted fan base. While there is an overarching narrative, it’s a very brief jaunt, as you instead focus on the smaller chapters’ stories as you make your way to the final area and battle. Without spoiling much, you will get to explore the world of Icewind Dale as you fight your way through each increasingly difficult area.

Join your friends for four player online co-op, and while you can play solo and alone offline, it’s a far better experience alongside others. First you’re going to have to choose one of the four characters you want to play as, each with their own distinct weapons, abilities and playstyle. For those D&D fans, you’ll be happy to see some familiar names of the characters you can play as. Choose from Drizzt, Wulfgar, Cattie-Brie or Bruenor.

Drizzt is your fast paced rogue DPS, wielding two weapons to take down his enemies when sneaking from behind. Wulfgar is your big brute that wields a massive two-handed hammer that can slam an area and take out enemies. Cattie-Brie is your typical archer, staying in the back line plucking away at enemies from afar. Lastly, and my choice, is Bruenor, the short and stout Dwarf that may be small in stature, but wields an axe and shield as he protects his allies from harm in the heat of battle.

Each character plays differently from one another, has their own set of unique abilities, skills and ultimate move. As you earn experience and level up you’ll be able to spend your hard earned gold on unlocking new moves and abilities, allowing for more varied combos and team move setups. There’s one major issue currently with the team setups, as only one player can play as any character at a certain time, meaning you can’t have two Cattie-Brie’s or Drizzt’s in a group together, so you’re going to have to organize beforehand who’s going to play whom. Apparently this is going to be changed and fixed in a future update, but in its current state it’s a bit frustrating that I was forced to play a character I initially didn’t want to because another friend already chose the one I initially wanted to first.

Missions, or as I like to call them, Chapters, are given to you a handful at a time. From the map in the hub town you and your friends will meet in you can choose which mission to play. Initially you’ll only have access to a few chapters, each of which are broken into three separate acts that need to be completed. Once you complete all the chapters you currently have access to a whole new set of missions will open up, eventually unlocking the final chapter in the story once completed on any difficulty.

As you pick an Act to play, you’ll then choose the difficulty you want to challenge your party with. There’s a gear score suggestion on each of the six difficulty ratings, and I highly suggest following the recommended gear scores when choosing, as the difficulty really starts to ramp up after level 4 if you don’t have a full set of Legendary gear. Higher levels of difficulty offer better rewards and loot, so there’s always some risk versus reward when deciding what difficulty to take on an Act with your party.

Each mission will generally play out in the same way; you begin with your main goal of getting to the end of a level after beating its boss, but there are plenty of enemies in the way with branching paths, hidden chests and secondary optional objectives. These optional objectives generally vary from finding ten specific collectables, destroy objects and defeat a secret boss. You’ll always have a marker guiding you to the main objectives and levels you’ll need to pull to progress, but you’ll constantly find optional paths that usually pay off with secrets, loot and more.

Combat is basic and allows anyone to jump in and smash some buttons, but when you start taking on the harder difficulties you’re going to have to know specific moves and how to block, parry and dodge if you want any chance of surviving. You begin with Light Attack with the Right Bumper and Heavy with the Trigger. There’s a few moves you get by combining other buttons or directions as well. For example, I can hold Left Bumper to utilize my shield and combo right into a forward rolling attack from that stance. There’s a number of new moves you can purchase with gold as you level up, of which some are level locked, but I’m not sure why these are optional, as you’re going to want the most versatility possible, especially when you take on the level 6 difficulty Acts, as enemies turn into massive sponges of damage.

While there is a lock on, it’s terribly implemented and I stopped using it quite early on. Locking onto one of the larger enemies will have the camera facing near the top of enemy, meaning the camera angle is all wonky, blocking you from seeing any incoming attacks and will generally get you killed. Even on smaller enemies, the lock on system just didn’t work as well as it should have, so I don’t suggest even bothering with it.

Combat itself does feel a little floaty at times. It can be hard to actually hit the enemy you intend, sometimes missing completely which will obviously get you killed a few times before you start to get the hang of it. The same goes for blocking and parrying, as it’s meant to be a way to stay in battle and retaliate, but sometimes the timing just seems ‘off’. When parrying does work it feels great to stun all your surrounding enemies, but when it fails and you get more than half your life taken from an attack, it can also be frustrating. Many of the larger enemies and boss attacks can’t be fully blocked, so I just started to rely on dodging primarily instead. The biggest issue with combat though comes with the team moves. Certain abilities will allow your and your friends to perform a special move by pressing Y+B, but 99% of the time when I try to trigger these attacks I either end up wasting one of my regular abilities tied to pressing 'Y' or dodging since it's the 'B' button. I have a little more luck if I don't press anything else, but I simply stopped trying to do it after failing almost every time.

You’ll be able to equip two abilities of your choice, activated by pressing ‘Y’ or holding it for a moment. Like blocking, when it works it’s great, but when you get interrupted or roll mid-animation and the timer gets used but the ability doesn’t take effect, it’s frustrating once again. You’ll unlock a handful of different abilities, so you can tailor each character to suit your playstyle. Now that I’ve been grinding the hardest difficulty mission, my group heal with Bruenor when he takes a swig of ale has been a necessity, though you could equip a taunt or other damaging moves if you decide. Each character also has a preset Ultimate move that can be used when fully charged, and when your whole team saves their abilities and Ultimate’s for a boss fight, they can be defeated in seconds if stacked correctly.

In each mission you’ll progress through the level, eventually defeating a big horde of enemies. At these designated spots you’ll be offered to rest at a camp, refilling your health and consumable potions, or you could risk it and boost your loot. These are essentially checkpoints, but you’ll need to decide as a party which to choose, as the first person to decide makes the decision for everyone in the party. Once you get proficient at combat, you’ll most likely always choose the loot increase, but can always fall back on a rest in a pinch when things go terribly wrong.

Loot will primarily drop from mini-bosses, bosses and chests, but there are the few random pieces that will drop here and there, varying in quality and tier. One design decision that I enjoyed was that you can’t actually check your loot until the mission ends and you’re all back in town, preventing party members form slowing down the mission progress every time they get a new piece of gear they want to check out. Sure, this means each trip to town takes a little longer, but everyone does it at the same time so it’s usually not too long of a wait.

Where the issues arise in loot gain though is that it seems completely random. Playing on the hardest difficultly, I’ll still get grey, green or blue gear. Obviously at my level only purples and legendary will suffice, so doing a run and getting no upgrades and useless grey's can be a bit disheartening. Gear also has up to 5 ranks, so a purple tier 5 of gear is generally going to be better than a legendary tier 4. Each piece of gear can also be upgraded with crystals you accumulate along the way, but with how often you’ll upgrade, there’s not much use until you start getting that legendary tier 5 gear. So what do you do with gear you’ve outgrown or don’t want anymore? Sell to the merchant for gold. That’s it; no deconstructing for crystal materials or anything useful, as gold becomes a moot point after you’ve bought all the consumables, upgrades and moves aside from the negligible amount to reskin gear you have with different color palettes.

There’s a few issues with this looting system though, as you don’t obtain it until you get back into town and open the chest. Firstly, if you don’t finish the mission for whatever reason, you get absolutely no rewards. There’s no partial progress; you either complete the mission or you get nothing. More than once my party and I had to quit out of a mission because an enemy or boss wouldn’t trigger and spawn, so we had no way to progress. Another time a friend lost connection and dropped from the game without any way to rejoin. This meant he had to wait until we completed the mission without him and he got nothing because of it.

This brings me to a laundry list of issues that I ran across throughout my time with Dark Alliance. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate a section to negatives like this, but many did detract from my overall experience. Yes, the game just launched and will no doubt get patched to be a better experience overall, but as of the time of this writing there were simply a bunch of minor issues that weren’t game breaking, but frustrated beyond measure. After every mission the game will disconnect you and your party, forcing you to reform all your friends together before taking on another mission and repeating the process.

Enemy AI is dumb at the best of times, even to the point of allowing you to shoot them from afar with the archer without them triggering and agroing anyone. This means if you wanted and didn’t care about how long it took, you can almost cheat every encounter and just pick them off from afar. I’ve also found my character has an interesting combo that can basically stun lock enemies, even bosses sometimes if I push them into a wall or corner. When things do go wrong and you get one-shot from a boss or go down, teammates can revive you, but the timer for doing so is much too long, making it very difficult to actually do so when there’s still a bunch of enemies about.

Visually, Dark Alliance absolutely looks as though it’s part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, something you visualized many times while playing the tabletop or reading the novels. The level design is great, feeling as though you really are exploring a long lost dungeon or corner of some world that hasn’t been written about yet. The four main characters themselves animate well with their movesets and the armor you wear changes their visuals which is a great touch. Enemies do looks quite good, but there’s very few enemy types, so expect to fight the same trolls, goblins and more numerous times, though some will be elemental based with poison or electricity. Cutscenes are top notch and have a far better quality to them than I was expecting. Audio is about on the same level with enemies having some banter between them before you interrupt them with your onslaught and can be quite hilarious when you hear two goblins talking about their toenail collection.

While Dark Alliance doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre and has a long list of flaws and issues, I did enjoy my time with it, powering through some missions hoping to earn an upgrade to my gear along the way. While I’m unsure about its longevity once you do obtain all the gear you want, it’s a fun ride until you hit that point. Case in point, now that we've grinded all the levels on the hardest difficulties and have our sets of gear, there's little reason to go back in for more. For what it is, the $39.99 asking price is about right for the content you receive, though it is available on Game Pass for subscribers, so there’s no reason to not check it out.

I can’t give a full recommendation if you plan on playing solo, but with a few friends Dark Alliance is a much richer and better experience, even with its current shortcomings. D&D fans should have enough here that will appease while casuals can still enjoy an entertaining dungeon crawler with some buddies, a perfect fit to try out with Game Pass as long as your group can agree which characters to play as beforehand.

**Dark Alliance was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.2 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.8 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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