As a lifelong game master of tabletop RPGs, there are few things more exciting than the promise of a high-quality, dungeon-delving co-op action game taking place in the iconic Forgotten Realms. After all, it’s hard to beat the storytelling, worldbuilding, or high-fantasy badassery of the original d20-rolling pastime that is Dungeons & Dragons. But in all my years, I’ve seldom seen anyone roll a critical failure quite like Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, which manages to take all that potential and turn it into a joyless labor that’s mind-numbingly repetitive, deeply lacking in storytelling, and absolutely overflowing with bugs. And that just breaks this nerd’s heart more than a group of PCs deciding to split the party.
Dark Alliance is a by-the-numbers four-player co-op action brawler that’s all about hacking, slashing, and blasting your way through all manner of beasts and monsters in typical dungeon-delving fashion… that’s about as deep as it ever gets. Once you’ve played for 10 minutes, you’ve beheld pretty much everything Dark Alliance has to offer – something I can confirm after spending a dozen hours getting to the credits of an adventure that got stale during the second level, and then a dozen more trudging through a painful solo run.
The fact that the story is a barebones “kill these guys on your naughty list” bounty-hunting premise certainly doesn’t help to draw one in. The campaign centers around a powerful evil shard that has caused the good guys’ enemies to rally together to claim it. Naturally, you’ve gotta get them to cut it out by killing them all so that virtue can reign supreme, or whatever. It’s awesome that some of the most iconic and well-known D&D characters, like Drizzt Do’Urden the dark elf, take center stage as playable characters for Dark Alliance, but it’s deflating that they aren’t used well at all. Each of the four protagonists will have short dialogue exchanges with one another as you adventure, but with almost no additional time given to fleshing out character motivations or personalities for those who don’t already know them, the story is largely a nothingburger. You just check targets off of your checklist, then call it a day and go home – that’s a pretty poor use of the Forgotten Realms’ decades-long history of worldbuilding.
The whole hack-and-slash campaign is a monotonous slog in every sense, with mindless, repetitive combat and exploration dominating the time as you loot gold, earn samey new gear, and grind for XP to unlock abilities. There aren’t any surprises or reinventions of the gameplay along the way – if you’ve played one level you’ve played them all. You fight only a handful of enemy types that appear again and again over the course of 21 levels. You’ll have optional objectives that are laughably shallow, such as having you destroy certain items throughout the level or hunting for a named enemy. Just to make the trek more irritating, a small set of mundane puzzles and environmental hazards are reused constantly – there’s one where you have to step on symbols on the ground to deactivate a barrier that’s like a puzzle designed for a first-grader or harmful ice-covered areas that require you to stand near a torch to gain the “warm” status effect before crossing that wears out its welcome after the 50th time you do it. Worse, Dark Alliance’s idea of a difficult battle is to give enemies enormous health bars that require spamming the same attacks for an upsettingly long period of time.
With extremely few exceptions, even the bosses that appear at the end of each level are just named clones of the same enemy types you’ve already been fighting throughout each level. In one series of levels focused on frost giants you fight three bosses in a row: all three are frost giants, and all three have almost identical appearances and movesets. That’d be bad in and of itself, but in order to face those final bosses you must first defeat some minibosses that are… also just identical frost giants. Some sections are so repetitive that they actually had me checking if I’d somehow replayed the same level twice by mistake.
Where the enemies and gameplay severely lack variety, though, the levels themselves shine as one of the few true highlights of Dark Alliance. Most areas have a unique appearance like fiery forges, creepy goblin lairs, and frozen wastelands, with plenty of alternate paths to explore or hidden areas with treasure chests and puzzles to find. Most importantly, each level is absolutely beautiful and serves as a testament to Dungeons & Dragons’ rich history. Enemies and allies alike are detailed, otherworldly, and have tons of combat animations that make for some satisfying moments. Music and sound effects are also high quality and perfectly fit the aesthetic of the Forgotten Realms, and voice acting across the board is a major highlight – even when the story those voices are telling is pretty dull. Of course, none of that changes that what you actually do in these locations is more often than not really boring, but at least the views are nice.
Even on the higher difficulties, Dark Alliance is rarely very challenging when playing as intended, with a full team of four. The exceptions here are unbalanced variables like a random attack from an enemy that will one-shot even the most well-protected character or a glitch that removes your skill from the equation. I’ve had my fair share of bad rolls in my day but this is just unfair and un-fun.
Speaking of which, while Dark Alliance is designed for co-op play it allows you to play alone as well. Don’t do that. Please, just don’t. Running through with a full stack of four players is a mostly unremarkable trek, but going solo is a relentless nightmare as all of Dark Alliance’s shortcomings are magnified and given an iridescent glow. The synergy that can exist between a party is replaced with a wildly unbalanced experience as you try to use the narrow strengths and weaknesses of a single character to brute-force your way through each level. Meanwhile, the story suffers just as much, as what little dialogue between party members that exists in co-op is replaced with monologuing to no one in particular. All the monotony and blandness of the campaign still applies, but without anyone to suffer along with you it’s a lot harder to bear.
Co-op play definitely helps improve things a bit because you can complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, trigger abilities synergistically, and work your way through hordes of enemies and chip away at bosses’ inflated health bars. In fleeting moments, getting through a challenging area or boss on a higher difficulty can be fairly satisfying, if for no other reason than that I was happy to be past it. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Dark Alliance brings nothing to the table that a dozen games haven’t done better and offers very few moments of genuine excitement.
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As you complete levels and overcome the challenge of higher difficulty modes, you’ll unlock new loot, items, and perks to make dungeon delving a little less soul-crushing. New weapons and armor can give you set bonuses and buffing effects, like the ability to poison foes with each attack, while new combat moves lets you mix things up with more effective ways to punish the goblins and ghouls standing in your way.
In particular, unlocking new character abilities can add some much-needed variety to the adventure. For example, when playing as the archer character, I traded in one of my offensive moves for the ability to instantly resurrect any downed allies in my immediate vicinity. Combined with my existing heal ability, this focused my character into a support role that allowed me to keep my allies in the fight and make an unanticipated team wipe much less common. However, without new enemies to change up the fights, these abilities just allowed us to cut through a crowd a little faster – they never reinvigorated the stale battles.
On top of that, some of Dark Alliance’s design choices just defy explanation. Why do so many enemy attacks knock you to the ground, and why does getting up again sometimes take almost five full seconds? Why in Tempus’ name is picking up items and interacting with objects super finicky, so you’re left dancing around a ladder until you finally get a prompt to climb it? Is it at all necessary to include the irritating mechanic of pulling other players back to the host if they stray beyond an annoyingly short leash? The levels aren’t even that big so it’s not like it needs to keep everybody close together – and worse, if the host dies, they respawn at the start of a level and the whole party is warped back with them. And do we really have to watch an unskippable rewards screen at the end of every mission that drags on for almost a full minute? There are so many small things about Dark Alliance that chip away at my patience and in aggregate just made me want to self-immolate.
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And what is the deal with this insane stamina system? Even though many enemies are massive arrow and sword sponges, you’re saddled with a rapidly-depleted stamina meter that turns your character into a sluggish, uselessly flailing wimp every couple of seconds. Worse yet, using special abilities that do the most damage reduces your stamina meter’s maximum capacity, ensuring that you spend more time waiting for the godforsaken green bar to refill while enemies hack away at you. It forces you to play conservatively at all times, which is not exactly a recipe for bold heroics or memorable moments.
This might be the nitpickiest of nitpicks in a game with lots much bigger problems, but another thing that bothers me is how awful looting chests feels. If I’m going out of my way to fight some extra enemies or solve a puzzle to get a chest, the last thing I want to see is a single grey item plop out with zero fanfare or, worse yet, just some gold. In a world where lots of adventure games have loads of loot shooting out of chests in the most exciting, dopamine-inducing manner possible, it seems insane to me that looting in D&D of all games is so terribly boring.
Even if you can handle the unrelenting tedium of Dark Alliance, the avalanche of technical problems that come with it really hit where it hurts. And when I say there are a lot of bugs, I mean there are a lot of bugs: we’re talking everything from the familiar stuff like meddlesome rubberbanding and framerate dips that happen with extreme frequency to run-ending bugs like your camera getting stuck in one direction so you can’t turn your character around, or dropping dead while your character still has health left in their health bar. In one particularly infuriating instance, my friends and I spent 30 minutes meticulously going through a level to collect every scrap of loot before we reached the boss fight… only to have the boss fail to spawn. We had to back out of the level and lost all of our progress, forcing us to run through the whole process from the top (after we took an extended swearing break, of course).
The glitches don’t stop there, of course. My team was attacked by enemies that didn’t appear in the level, flew a mile into the sky while riding an elevator, got hit by environmental hazards we were standing several feet away from, and saw enemies pop in and out of places or shoot attacks out of their backs due to animation issues and lag. And pity the person in our group who was playing on the Xbox One X (the rest of us were on Xbox Series X), for his game rendered cutscenes at about one frame per second and was at times almost unplayable. The number of technical issues our band of adventurers collectively encountered over the course of our time with Dark Alliance ranged from the amusing to the controller-smashing, and there was almost never a level where we didn’t experience something that made us raise an eyebrow or enter a full facepalm.