From tabletop to teraflop, Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance wants to capture some of the magic of the pen and paper game. It’s a solid premise in the same way that Marvel’s Avengers was. You’ll team up as one of four memorable heroes, each with different skill-sets, and combine forces with friends to topple countless foes in search of loot and experience points.
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I had the chance to check out Dark Alliance in a four-player co-op preview session ahead of the game’s launch on June 22, and I came away pretty impressed. I don’t think it’s breaking new ground in the saturated co-op looter space, but it has some smart ideas and one hell of a licence up its sleeve.
You see, Dark Alliance features characters from R. A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt novel series, which will be a big deal for folks who are familiar with characters like Drizzt Do’Urden and Catti-Brie (like the cheese!).
Unfortunately, I am not, and I was the only member in our co-op posse who knew nothing about the so-called Companions of the Hall. Call it fate or call it karma, but I ended up playing Wulfgar, the burly bonehead barbarian of the troupe. So when I died by trying to rush through the first set of traps, I said I was just method acting, which acted as a great cover.
Dark Alliance has been created by the folks at Tuque Games, responsible for the solid but unremarkable top-down shooter Livelock, which came out in 2016. Their sophomore project is certainly more ambitious, and you can feel it in the combat, which is desperate to impress.
Pretty much every button on the Xbox controller is responsible for a new move, and you can activate abilities, combine inputs and pull on the sticks to give your blows momentum or add a spot of flair. Fainting chairs at the ready, as the combat of the ever-influential Dark Souls games is a clear point of inspiration. Wulfgar and co lock on, dodge and dance with enemies, whittling away at their health bars with careful strikes and projectiles.
Being a barbarian, my attacks charged a rage meter, resulting in a whirling ultimate move that came in handy when we were collectively trying to stagger nasty trolls. The only problem I found was that the camera can’t quite keep up with the action at times, which hurt my immersion quite a bit as I lost sight of Wulfgar in a mess of inputs or geometry.
We were let loose on just one level to get a feel for the game, but we played it through twice, thankfully bumping the difficulty on the second run. The first run was trivial, and when co-op games are too easy, they betray the most exciting part of co-op games, which is communication. As we waited to pass traps and wailed on spongy enemies, the voice chat fell deathly silent. The in-game signposting was good enough that nobody had any questions, and the rep swaddled us with a thorough explanation of the mechanics. The stabilizers were on.
We picked up key items, slotted them in holes, opened doors, cracked chests and jumped gaps. I missed a jump (again, just getting into the role) and ended up below the map in some kind of spiky liminal purgatory, which was fun to explore until the game’s built-in distance tracker pulled me back to my pals. It was all standard fare for a modern, in development co-op action game. Nothing too exciting!
Apparently, as you scale the difficulty, missions will start to feature optional content, little sideshows to engage with away from the main path so it isn’t repetitive to run the gauntlet. Enemies also gain new effects that you’ll have to adapt to, which we found out the hard way on our second run. A horrible little ‘cursed’ goblin squad wiped us, which broke the ice quickly. We realised we couldn’t just spam buttons, we needed to work together. With some focus and careful revives we got past what was ailing us and felt better for it. One thing to note is that the revival mechanic feels hamfisted and frustrating at the moment, with a tricky-to-land input and a long timer that locks the player in position. I am told they’re working on it, though.
Our second run culminated in a genuinely exhilarating re-run of the level’s boss battle. It kicks off with a gnarly pre-rendered cutscene, where a rank troll is making stew with human heads. “Surely he’s not going to do that to me,” my brain said, growing more in tune with Wulfgar’s bullish persona by the minute.
On our first try, one glowing red lunge (red for ‘get the fuck out of the way or you’re dead’) took us all out in one try. But we licked our wounds and came back, and this is when the team really started talking. Healing abilities were used at critical points, the tanks drew aggro and the ranged heroes chipped at the troll from a distance while I got personal with the stew master. It was heart in your mouth stuff by the end, and a Wizards of the Coast rep had told us mid-scrap that this would be our last try, dialling up the pressure. It was ropey, but after a few team combo attacks we pulled through, and we all congratulated each other as we were spat back into the lobby. This really finessed the second run, leaving a great impression after such a sleepy intro to the game.
Back in the post-mission lobby I also made the most important discovery of the session — modular loot! If you get a new hat from a mission, it’s an actual hat, and you can see the aesthetic change on Wulfgar’s head when you equip it. This is another promising step employed by only the best co-op games. It really adds a lot to the experience of making a character yours, even if it is just a cosmetic nicety.
Our characters had top-level builds so we couldn’t unlock anything more ourselves, but I also found small Moves and Feats trees to develop in the pause menu. I enquired and it doesn’t seem like there are ways to meaningfully specialise your characters beyond the few stat buffs and moves to pick from, which is a shame. Hopefully, this is expanded post-launch, but it explains why you can’t double up on characters in co-op, as the gameplay would be too similar if you were rolling deep with four Warhammer Wulfgars. Ultimately, the main thing to aspire to is better loot and bigger numbers, which is of course always tantalising, but it might not be enough to entice co-op players who aren’t here for the cool licence.
With that in mind, it seems that beyond the scaling difficulty of the missions, there may be some replayability concerns once players wrap the story. However, in the twilight of the session, I asked about endgame content, and it seems there will be separate expeditions called ‘Dungeons’ which I got the impression were this game’s raids.
There’s also another character, a magic-user, coming as post-launch content, which is great news for combat variety. It’s on PC and PlayStation too, but if you’ve got Xbox Game Pass, Dark Alliance is launching on day one. I’d say you should check it out if you’re a subscriber interested in the tales of Drizzt or loot-based co-op games in general.
Games like Dark Alliance don’t really find their feet until after launch anyway, and this one has a good WOTC pedigree and a solid head on its shoulders. I’m hopeful it can stick the landing and expand into something even greater.
Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance will launch on June 22 for PC, PlayStation and Xbox.