Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance places the player into the supple leather boots and ostentatious cloak of the drow assassin Drizzt and his party, tasking them with taking on an alliance of villains with a sinister plot involving the power of a Crystal Shard. You’ll proceed to completely forget the story and plight of those around you and tear your way through countless creatures straight from the D&D Monster Manual with reckless abandon – just like real D&D in all honesty.
This game fills an interesting position, being set in the Forgotten Realms universe and canonically placed within its timeline, using Drizzt and other characters and settings directly from the novels and tabletop elements of Dungeons & Dragons. This adds a lot of interesting flavour to the narrative to those who are familiar with Icewind Dale from the Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign or have read the Icewind Dale Trilogy of novels. However, the story is clear enough that those unfamiliar with this backstory elements won’t be lost in the plot in any way too.
To begin with, you choose your character, each coming with their own Character Sheet to denote their class and overall stats. You can choose from Drizzt, Catti-Brie the archer, Duergar the fighter or Wulfgar the barbarian, each of which has their own strengths and weaknesses. If you’re partying up with friends, up to four of you can pick from these four characters and roles. Then, after a little faffing with creating a game, you pick your mission and difficulty and off you go into the world.
You fight through a series of fantasy settings using a mix of light attacks, heavy attacks, special attacks and the occasional ultimate for fun. The light and heavy attacks can be strung together in a myriad of ways to create combos and bring the pain down upon your foes, but this simply highlights the first flaw in the game. The combat is just so damn slow.
This isn’t universally true, because Drizzt is as smooth as butter, but he’s the only one that feels even moderately fast. When the light-footed archer Catti-Brie has a slower light attack combo than her heavy attacks, you start to question the balancing of the movesets. This is balanced out slightly by the Feats system in the game, which can change each character incrementally using a skill tree, but the majority of the characters still feel unwieldy.
This isn’t the only problem with the combat, with glaring glitches and other fun nonsense abound in the gameplay. Our personal favourite is the lock-on, which you would think would target the next enemy once one is slain. It does, on occasion, but other times it will deselect an enemy before it is defeated, swinging the camera around wildly and leaving you open to taking a good few hits on your character for the trouble.
Coming to the end of a quest, you will be able to find out what loot you found during the level – which is odd since you would surely equip new stuff as you acquire it – and then after a slow, unskippable results screen, you return to the hub. Here you can spend ability points, change up your equipment, and use the shop. The equipment comes in sets that can be equipped together to give larger bonuses, and can be found in Common up to Legendary rarity denoted by colour (grey to gold, as is the video game standard).
The shop is another slow ordeal to go through, with each piece of gear needing to be individually selected (which of course has a delay) before it can be sold or upgraded using materials found in the missions. So this means opening the menu, then selecting the armour type, then moving to the piece in question (as it defaults to the first item, not the item equipped), then doing what you need to do, each step of which takes an atrocious amount of time.
Dark Alliance is, without any doubt, made as a multiplayer game first and foremost, with single player being entirely secondary. The characters continue chatting away as if there’s a full party regardless, the combat scenarios are clearly balanced for at least two combatants and, honestly, the game just isn’t that much fun without someone to share the burden with. Furthermore, the altogether too long results screens pit the performance of the characters against each other, resulting in a single player game where your character is constantly labelled the “Top Companion”.
Unfortunately, this game isn’t even consistent visually to balance out the gameplay. The areas and character models look decent, but it’s marred by frame rate drops and pop-in glitches throughout – we were playing on Xbox One. When loading into the menus it will often load the body without the head first, with a few moments before the rest loads in. Frame rate issues crop up everywhere in the game, even in the single player offline mode with no enemies around or in the FMV cutscenes, which at points look like slideshows.
Also, the music is largely forgettable too, falling within the boundary of what could charitably be described as generic fantasy music. Nothing stays with you after a level, which honestly could be used to describe the entire game from an aesthetic standpoint. We’re honestly forgetting most things about how this game looked or sounded as we write this, with the exception of the hub and loading screen, the latter of which is a silence that’s seared into my mind through its frequency and length.
The most frustrating thing is that Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is an enjoyable enough experience in multiplayer. Not genre-defining by any means, but a fun romp through the Forgotten Realms with your friends, trashing goblins and other monsters, and levelling up your characters. Basically, it’s just like tabletop D&D. In single player and without the distraction of friends, all of the horrid little problems with the game are considerably harder to ignore. The frame rate, the sluggishness of absolutely everything, the little finishing touches that are missing, and a whole lot more drag it down.