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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dark Alliance is D&D for the impatient

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Dark Alliance has got the setting, the characters and the language of Dungeons & Dragons, but they’re draped over a brisk action game that will see you bouncing from fight to fight without ever worrying about dice rolls. Kill goblins, grab loot, admire your new cloak—it’s all about the simple pleasures. This is D&D for the impatient.

Though it’s the third game in the Dark Alliance series, the slate has been wiped clean for its PC debut. Previously a top-down action-RPG exclusively for consoles, Dark Alliance is now a third-person action game where clicks have been replaced by combos. This party is a bit more acrobatic.  

As celebrity drow Drizzt Do’Urden, I rush around Icewind Dale, dodging, leaping and backstabbing, with the goblin body count rapidly rising. I can block, parry, attack from the air and string together special moves, only limited by my stamina bar. While I button-bash my way through the mostly linear mission map, there’s still an RPG working away under the hood, but things like ability scores and feats have been reshaped around a game that’s mostly pure action. 

I can choose to level up my charisma attribute, for instance, but in Dark Alliance it has nothing to do with persuasion or diplomacy. Instead, it determines how quickly the ultimate ability recharges. I’ll have to wait until after the mission, though, because levelling up, unlocking feats and equipping new gear only happens back at camp. When you’re on a quest, there’s nothing to distract you from your bloodlust. 

Structurally I’m reminded of Vermintide. You’ve got a hub from which the party can gather and prepare, as well as selecting missions, and then when they’re on the job it’s all about pushing forward through the mass of enemies. No faffing around with inventories or character sheets. Developer Tuque is also a fan, but one place they differ is the kind of rewards the party gets back at camp. 

Unlike Vermintide and most action-RPGs, Dark Alliance doesn’t give you mountains of random loot. Instead, you’ll find equipment belonging to different gear sets, each with distinct attributes that will inform how you play. This way, gear is tied to builds in more obvious ways, and there’s less disposable junk. Each set also contains items with different rarities, with the rarer ones looking flashier and having bigger numbers. 

As I kill my way through Icewind Dale, more nods to its main inspiration start to appear. Though it might not evoke any tabletop adventures that I’ve been on, Dark Alliance does more than just pay lip service to D&D, adapting various staples in interesting ways. Take the rest system, for instance: you can find campfires that let you take a short rest, healing and recharging you, but now they also provide a checkpoint. You can choose to ignore them, however, and you’ll be rewarded with better loot for taking the risk. Naturally I ignore them all, hoping to impress the developer and PR person watching me. 

While Dark Alliance can be played solo, it might be a bit tricky, especially since there are no AI companions. The difficulty scales with the number of players, so solo runs are viable, but it’s really designed for co-op parties. Your abilities are meant to synergise with your mates’, and fights that will be a lot easier with teamwork. For the demo, I’m accompanied by a developer playing another member of the quartet, Catti-brie.  

Technically, Drizzt is a ranger and Catti-brie is a fighter, but the R.A. Salvatore novels that made them D&D stars are less tied to the concept of classes than the tabletop game, and Dark Alliance follows suit. Drizzt has more in common with a fighter or rogue, alternating between diving headfirst into the throng of monsters and turning invisible so he can go in for the backstab. He can also summon his panther from the astral plane to briefly attack his foes. Catti-brie, meanwhile, serves as ranged support, peppering enemies with arrows, trapping them with magical vines and healing her pals.

Catti-brie drops some healing circles when I’m looking worse for wear, and pulls me up when I’ve been knocked down, so I appreciate the help. And when enemies become trapped in her vines, they’re unable to sneak up on me while I’m busy, and they become easier targets when I can give them all my attention. Even with just two people, it’s obvious how much has been designed around cooperation, so I don’t think I’ll be playing this one on my lonesome. 

Dashing around with twin scimitars, summoning astral panthers and turning invisible makes it easier to overlook that I’m fighting goblins again. My main target, though, is a group of verbeegs, a lesser known type of giant-kin that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It turns out that they’re avid singers, and their bellowing accompanies me throughout the mission, growing louder and louder as I approach their camp. The pace of the demo doesn’t leave a lot of room for Dark Alliance to display much personality, so the inclusion of some musical giants is very welcome. It’s a shame I have to kill them. 

With the boss fight over and the verbeegs defeated—for now—it’s time to teleport back to camp and admire all my rewards. The greatest of them all, of course, is being able to unlock some new cosmetic appearances for my gear sets, purchased from my deep gnome merchant pal. I’ve decided to go for a chilly look with an icy blue hue to match my surroundings. Even with action taking centre stage, there’s always time to look nice. It’s a good way to cap a successful quest.  

Dark Alliance is coming on June 22. 

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