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Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance is the Worst Game of 2021

by Hunter Wilson 8 months ago in product review
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This one's really more of a rant than a review, I don't blame you for moving on quick.

Last year, we saw two of the most disappointing video game launches in history. And sine then, Cyberpunk 2077 has mostly been fixed, to the poit where I would recommend it as a good 30-40 dollar game. Marvel’s Avengers, on the other hand, is still a massive pile of dogshit.

But this year, 2021, has seen an even worse release, at least in my opinion. And that is Dungeons and Dragons:Dark Alliance. And that sucks; I was really looking forward to it. Just like I looked forward to both Avengers and Cyberpunk. I guess the lesson for me is to not look forward to things.

I first saw the trailer for Dark Alliance in 2019. THe one that was just a snowy landscape, and then a figure with two swords sprints in and kicks a giant’s ass, revealing himself as Drizzt Do’Urden, the famous Dark Elf Ranger from RA Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms books. I grew up on those books, so I was hyped as hell to see him and the other Companions of the Hall as the main focus of a DnD game. And then, when it came out in 2021, it sucked. So let’s get into it.

Icewind Dale is a region of the Forgotten Realms located in the far north, I’d say it’s most similar to real-world Siberia, but in general it’s basically the Realms’ Arctic Circle. So a lot of tundra, snow, and ice. Within the Dale is Ten-Towns, a loose confederation of settlements that mostly tolerate each other's existence through trade agreements. At the time of the game, Ten-Towns has just united against the threat of Akar Kessel and the Crystal Shard, which was the subject of the novel The Crystal Shard. Basically, Akar KEssel is a dumbass wizard wannabe who can’t even cast the simplest of spells, is left for dead after killing his master, and lucks into finding a super-powerful, super-evil, totally-not-The-One-Ring artifact called the Crystal Shard, or Crenshinibon(Crunchy Cinnabon, as one of my friends called it). Under the influence of this sentient rock, Akar Kessel suddenly becomes like a 15th level Wizard and gathers an army of goblins, wargs, giants, verbeeg(which are giants but called verbeeg instead), barbarians, and a Balrog Balor Demon named Erttu to achieve his goal of conquering a backwater collection of infighting towns that has no economic importance or sentimental value to the rest of the world.

Yeah, the stakes in this one are mostly personal and about our heroes. So the Companions of the Hall(who are not known as such yet) have to somehow unite Ten-Towns against this threat. These heroes are Drizzt the Dark Elf Ranger with honestly way more patience and compassion for the people of Ten-Towns than they deserve; Wulfgar, a young Human Barbarian who was taken prisoner and trained as a blacksmith by the Dwarves of the region after his people’s last raid went tits-up; Bruenor Battlehammer, the leader of the Battlehammer Dwarves and a defensive Fighter; Catti-Brie, Bruenor’s adopted human daughter with training in swords and bows(I’ll come back to this later); and Regis, the Halfling Rogue spokesperson for one of the Ten Towns, known for being extremely persuasive.

Anyway, they save the day by Wulfgar killing the Barbarian King and bringing the barbarians to the side of the good guys, Bruenor, Catti-Brie, and the Dwarves absolutely embarrassing Kessel’s armies, Drizzt soloing the Balor, and Regis and Drizzt teaming up to personally kick Kessel’s ass with a bag of flour while the people of Ten-Towns mostly just argue with each other and get the only sympathetic leader among them killed. It’s a pretty good book, I really enjoy it. Dark Alliance picks up immediately after(as far as I can tell, there’s no indication that it takes place any later than between The Crystal Shard and Streams of Silver), with the remnants of Kessel’s armies, and some newcomers, trying to find the Crystal Shard and use it for themselves. Other than that, the plot is conveyed through voice overs at the beginning and end of each campaign.

Dark Alliance is set up more or less like Warhammer: Vermintide, in that your hub level is a base camp where you can shop, view trophies, hear dialogue, visit the practice range, and collect your loot. You can choose from four different characters to play, and here’s where the first problem comes up.

The characters are:

Drizzt: Rogue

Catti-Brie: Ranger

Wulfgar: Barbarian

Bruenor: Fighter

There is no magic class, there is no Regis. Even though Drizzt is a Ranger and Regis is a Rogue and Catti-Brie is a Wizard/Fighter in her first life and a Cleric/Sorcerer in her second. That’s a massive waste, considering there are enemy magic users, so spells are in the game. But no, Dark Alliance is “Oops! All melee!”(Catti-Brie uses a bow for her strong attack and specials, but it’s not fast, accurate, or mobile enough to really rely on).

All four of our characters have pretty decent movesets, but the way the gameplay works, you could be forgiven for not knowing this. When I played with my friends on Game Pass, the general consensus was that the hardest part of the game wasn’t the enemies or the bosses, but the physical act of playing. The controls are ridiculously non-responsive. For example, pressing the interact button for ladders or collectibles barely functions, needing several presses to work and making me doubt my controller’s condition(it’s fine, I went to play Hades and it was perfect). The prompt to interact, even, seems to have trouble showing up. When I run up to a ladder or a tome or what-have-you, the prompt never appears. I have to run up, run away, and run back before it shows up. Every time.

Combat itself is… not great. Actions are tied to stamina, because everyone wants to get on the Dark Souls bandwagon, but in this case it’s different, because some actions permanently lower your maximum stamina. Because that’s a great mechanic to include in your action-looter hack and slash video game. Stamina loss appears to be capped at 50%, but this loss affects some characters more than others. Notably, my main(Catti-Brie) can do her basic combo and her basic arrow shot without losing max stamina. Nothing else. One of her unlockable moves even has the gall to lower her maximum by about 25%, which I might understand if that move was actually worth the cost. But in my opinion, the stamina-loss mechanic is useless and counterproductive to giving your players a fun experience.

Individual attacks and combos look pretty cool. The game queues attacks, though, so if you button mash(a common tactic in hack and slash and action games) get ready to have about five to ten moves buffered after the last button press. Combat is mobile, sort of, in that attacking brings you forward in a straight line, even when you’re locked on to an enemy. So when you combine that with the attack buffers, you end up attacking empty air way more than any actual enemies, while said enemies are free to hit your back, doing bonus damage for it. While locked on to an enemy, the lock on indicator is supposed to only move when you tell it to with the right stick. It would be nice if that were the reality, but unfortunately, the lock on likes to randomly switch between enemies and explosives during combat, except when it’s locked on to corpses, in which case you’ll be forced to have your camera(and therefore your character) facing a despawned dead body for a few seconds. Can I turn the lock-on controls off? Probably, but I’ll get to menu issues later.

Enemies come in packs, and there’s some pretty decent variety. Goblins, Verbeeg, Giants, Trolls, Gnolls, Duergar(dark dwarves but slightly less racist names), Stygians(which I’m not totally familiar with but they have a creepy design so I dig it), some totally-not-ringwraiths… No Orcs, though, which seems a wasted opportunity. Fights are… rough. Honestly, the bosses are pretty much universally easier than the mobs. I don’t think my group ever spent more than maybe fifteen seconds on a boss fight, but we would lose semi-frequently to the basic enemies, in no small part because of the issues I talked about above.

Enemy mobs are not the only danger in the game; there are environmental hazards too! Mostly spike traps and flame vents. Either will kill you almost instantly if you get stuck in them, and the spikes are worse. The thing is, they’re not badly implemented or anything, I’m just bad at avoiding the spikes for some reason. And they also damage enemies, so if you have the patience you can lure a troll or verbeeg or even a boss into the fire or spikes, and they’ll die just as fast as you do. So that’s pretty nice.

There is one thing about the day-to-day level play that I absolutely, unironically, respect the hell out of. Remember Dark Souls? Remember those bosses? Every boss in the first game is at least three times as big as your player character. It’s the same in a lot of games, like MMOs, Souls-likes, and other action-RPGs. But not Dark Alliance. In Dark Alliance, if the boss is a dwarf, that boss is going to be tiny. No artificial height added to make the fight easier or more obvious to the players. I love that.

As you progress your character, you can unlock more attacks and specials. Maybe I’m not advanced enough, but it’s odd to me that there are eight spaces in the equip screen for specials, but you start with two, and then can unlock two more. Weird. For other moves, you get a few to unlock at levels 3, 7, and 15. There are not enough moves in this game, and the ones you do have… well, with Catti-Brie, I have a few moves that are tied to teh exact same input. So when I try to do a roundhouse kick, which takes off about 5% of my maximum stamina, sometimes I do a big arrow shot that takes 25%. I know the subtle difference in inputs(one move is supposed to require you to be moving forward, the other is stationary) but the game does not distinguish those conditions. It’s just sloppy.

In addition, the ranged options suck, except for Catti-Brie, whose ranged options also kind of suck. Drizzt, the Ranger, throws a circle of darkness that I think is supposed to probably be something from the tabletop game, but honestly, it’s just a disk that has a curved flight path. Wulfgar throws his hammer. Bruenor can throw an axe, I guess. Catti-Brie’s arrows are the only viable ranged attack, but they don’t even work. I will shoot a goblin from a medium distance. The goblin’s health will go down by half, maybe two-thirds. Then it will immediately go back up to full and take chip damage. There’s no point to ranged attacks at all except to hit the hard to reach crystal resources.

Each character has an Ultimate Ability, which honestly is the best part of the combat. Drizzt’s is to summon Guenhwyvar, a ghost panther, even though Guen is supposed to be his physical animal companion, a flesh and blood panther with no special magic skills, to leap out of the ground and kill enemies in a wide radius. It’s lore-breaking, but it’s a video game so who gives a crap(I do, let Guen be more than just a weapon, she deserves it)? Catti-Brie’s Ultimate is my favorite, she just gets massive arrows to melt enemies with, and it’s pretty close to her book abilities with the magic bow Taulmaril. Wulfgar swings his hammer. Bruenor buffs his allies.

Multiplayer! This game was marketed mostly on the multiplayer aspect, right? So it must work pretty well, right? Right? Well… One of the key aspects of multiplayer gameplay that was advertised were team attacks, wherein a player could trigger a cool team-up attack with the others, unique to each character combination. In my, I think twenty-something hours playing this game, I have triggered countless numbers of these attacks according to end-of-level stats. I have never actually seen them happen. And while the prompt for them appears on screen from time to time, pressing the buttons hasn’t worked for me yet. It’s worked for my friend who mains Wulfgar, allegedly, but the only thing I ever see her do with those is swing the hammer a little more, which is… you know… a pretty normal attack for a hammer-wielding barbarian, and as a team attack has no input from the rest of the team. Can you tell I don’t care about Wulfgar? Never liked him in the books, never liked him in this game. Regis should have been the fourth companion, provide some nice party balance.

The other cool thing about the multiplayer is that there’s no local co-op, just online. I assume this is because couch co-op brings in less money, since you don’t need as many copies of the game. From a business perspective, I get it. But if you’re not going to have local multiplayer, the least you can do is have your online multiplayer actually function. There’s no in-game multiplayer invite system or anything, we had to do it through the X-Box Game overlay, and even then, it wouldn’t let us invite or join each others games until some random and as-yet unknown conditions were met. If you use Discord or Skype to talk to your friends, there is an option in Dark Alliance to turn off your in-game mic. This option does not actually work. Our mics would get turned back on either at random, or across loading screens. In addition, joining a game has a chance to just mute you completely.

Speaking of options, the menus definitely exist, but the control customization is just woefully simple. You can choose between a couple different controller layouts and that’s about it. Camera sensitivity is not under the gameplay tab, by the way. That was annoying because the camera isn’t great. Sound levels don’t correspond well to the displayed volume. Look, the game’s bad, okay? It’s just bad. It had so much potential and they beefed it.

I haven’t talked about the loot and experience aspects of the game yet. So as you play through a level, you can collect loot. You don’t know what the loot is when you collect it, only what rarity and what equipment slot it will go to. So, a Rare Chestplate, for example. When you get back to Kelvin’s Cairn(I would roast this name but it’s been a feature of Icewind Dale since the eighties) you can use the treasure chest to reveal the loot’s name and stats. Then you can get rid of it at the merchant(who won’t shut up about literally anything) because it won’t be as good as whatever you already have, even though you’ve outlevelled your current gear by about seven levels now.

And within the levels, loot is entirely RNG based. This lead to situations in my group where I would be getting 12-15 pieces of loot, with 3-5 being gold rarity(the highest), while our Wulfgar would get 7-9 pieces of loot, nothing above green(the second-lowest). And as funny as that is, it’s ridiculously unfair because, frankly, our Wulfgar did way more work in the fights than I did.

That brings me to the experience system. Each mission you do has a set amount of experience you can earn based on what difficulty level you select. So, difficulty 1 might get you 80 experience, or 120 at difficulty 2, and so on. That’s it. That’s what you get. Doesn’t matter what you do, that’s how much experience you get for finishing the mission. You can get a little bonus EXP by doing optional objectives, but the amount is negligible. No matter how many enemies you kill(or don’t kill, some fights you can just skip and I’m pretty sure you can just run through to the boss of most levels), no matter how much exploring you do, you get the same reward at the end. The only condition is that you beat the boss.

After you beat the boss, the screen freezes for a bit while the mission summary loads. You can skip the mission summary by holding down a button. Once you hold that button down, the rest of the mission summary plays out like normal instead of just sending you back to Kelvin’s Cairn. You get to see how much damage you dealt, how many enemies killed, etc, and then Wulfgar will get the MVP label with 250,000 damage dealt, but only get 5 pieces of all grey loot while Catti-Brie will have done a grand total of maybe 15,000 damage and come away with 14 purple and gold loot. Absolutely wild.

The level design is consistently engaging and the visuals are amazing. Another aspect I really enjoyed was the voice acting. With the caveat of, the heroes party banter is not so great, I think in part due to how little there is of it. Most party interactions are basically just Legolas’ and Gimli’s lines from the Battles of Helm’s Deep and Pellenor Fields(“I’ve got this many kills!”, “Put another on the board for me!”, etc.) However, when the heroes aren’t just swinging dick at each other about how many sentient creatures they’ve murdered, their shit-talking game is incredible. Especially Catti-Brie, who will frequently yell at her in a very angry Scottish brogue.

But the shit-talk isn’t the only great thing about the voicing of Dark Alliance. The enemies are also fully-voiced, and they’re a treat to listen to, whether eavesdropping before you fight or as they die. Special mention to the frequent goblin line of “Am I gonna die?”, as their body flies through the air thanks to the weird physics engine. But in general, the bad guy dialogue is really entertaining and well done.

All in all, Dark Alliance is an embarrassment to Dungeons and Dragons in general, The Forgotten Realms specifically, and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance in particular. It’s free on Game Pass, but why would you even waste the disk space?

This has been an unhinged rant about a video game I didn’t like very much. Thank you.

product review

About the author

Hunter Wilson

Actor, writer, occasional dumbass.

Twitter: @melhwarin

Instagram: @myslyvi

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