I never got into Dungeons & Dragons, so when the call went up to review Dark Alliance I was a little unsure – would I know what was going on? Would it be a bit too heavy on the lore and light on the gameplay? I mean, I can tell a Demon from a Dwarf but that’s as far as my fantasy-knowledge goes.
Dark Alliance walks the line between satisfying fan service and accessible gameplay for newbies without pushing either faction aside. If Dungeons & Dragons is your thing, there’s plenty to get your teeth into with lore spewing from every tablet and tome you can lay your hands on.
Release Date: June 22nd, 2021
Developer: Tuque Games
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Availability: PSN, Retail – Buy on Amazon
As for me, I was happy enough to leave all that in the menus because Dark Alliance is a good time, providing you can overlook a few bugs and janky controls. Playing as one of four characters and smashing goblins heads together is a solid enough experience that I grew to really enjoy – so much so in fact, I am looking forward to jumping in and experiencing some co-op gameplay once the game releases proper. As such, the co-op side of things is the only thing I have been unable to get into for this review.
From the start you have access to four protagonists, upgrading them through experience and equipment earned through play. Each of the four character types cover the usual styles of play – there’s the human archer should you wish to strike down foes from afar, or if getting up close and personal is your thing you can play as the barbarian, swinging his hammer to smash some goblin skulls.
Each character plays differently from the start with their own stats to match, so finding the one that suits your play style is essential. I settled for the dual wielding elf, as their swiftness and speed matches up with how I like to play these sort of games. The elf quickly became my main, and with the way character progression works in Dark Alliance it is easy to get locked in.
Gear and equipment is found in chests or dropped by enemies, and it can be upgraded using gems and gold acquired as you explore. It’s a system that works, but one downside is that you can’t tweak your load out during a level. Find something you like the look of? You’ll have to wait until you return to the hub area where you can equip or upgrade your new duds.
There’s various customisation options at work in Dark Alliance, ranging from skins that can allow you to change the look of the gear your character is wearing to equipment that has various stats and resistances attached. It’s all your usual RPG fare, but it does become a bit tedious in that any gear you acquire can only be upgraded or swapped out in the hub area, meaning you can’t mix things up on the fly.
Upgrading your gear in the hub makes sense, but being unable to switch out your gear mid-level feels a but outdated. Not only that, but the gear you find on your escapades is kept a mystery until you return to the chest in the overworld and unlock it all, finally revealing what it is you have found. I have seen this work in other games but here it simply doesn’t – opening a chest in a level to then have to open another chest in a hub area before I even find out what it is just seems a bit silly in this day and age.
Gear drops are randomised, and their rarity is decided before you begin each level. Before starting up a new area you are presented with a choice of difficulty that scales depending on your gear level. Upgrading or unlocking better gear helps raise this level, and choosing a harder difficulty rewards you with better gear.
It’s a good risk vs reward system in theory, but playing solo I felt that the jumps between levels were unbalanced – just check out our opening hour on YouTube to see how much I struggled when I went with a difficulty close to my recommended level. In the end I settled for playing on a much lower difficulty at the expense of rare loot, saving me from having a tantrum and quitting before I’d even beaten the first level.
This paid out in the long run as I have since been able to gradually up the difficulty as I have levelled up my character. Each level rewards you with gold, gems to upgrade your weapons and experience. As you level up you are then able to unlock more moves and upgrades for your current character, which also boosts your power level, so deciding on a difficulty becomes a trade off, especially during the early levels. I am now at a decent power level that I can go back and attempt some of the early levels at a higher difficulty, but that’s only because I made the earlier decision to play on easy in order to get levelled up.
Besides this obvious trade off, there is one other consideration when your character levels up this way – it is easy to get locked in and main one of the possible 4 playable characters. This is something I did, trying out 3 of the total 4 but always returning to my elf who I had invested time in levelling up. Playing solo this wasn’t a problem, but I can imagine it will become an issue in co-op, particularly if another member in the party is already playing as your character.
Risk vs reward comes into the gameplay loop too. At certain sections of a level a rest point will appear once you have cleared that area of enemies. Each rest point presents you with a choice – you can either choose to rest up and restock your potions, and the rest point becomes a checkpoint, or you can gamble and choose to boost the rarity of the loot that drops. This is an interesting dynamic, and it does work to add an extra level of strategy and risk to each level.
Gameplay in Dark Alliance is satisfying if a little janky. Defeating wave after wave of goblins feels meaty enough, but there were a few times that the controls did frustrate, particularly in some of the more populated battles. The elf is sold as a swift character, all about speed and quickness which is all well and good providing they didn’t turn like that ship that blocked the Suez canal.
Enemies can come at you from all directions, so a quick turn would have been a good addition. Instead, turning in Dark Alliance becomes a battle all of its own, especially when enemies are coming at you from behind. There is a lock-on, but this felt more of a hinderance in battles where there was more than one enemy so I rarely used it.
Enemy variation is a bit of a problem too with only a few differing enemy types populating each level. Goblins form the large bulk of the cannon fodder, with the odd ogre littered here and there for good measure, but as it is they don’t really feel too different – once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
A few archers or spell casters pop up to mix things up, but they didn’t prove too difficult once I understood the mechanics at play. The argument here is I could always boost the difficulty, but as I’ve already said I found this jump too steep as it is clearly meant to cater for co-op, so playing solo my best advice is to over-level your characters before bumping up the difficulty.
During my time with Dark Alliance, I did encounter a few bugs – a few enemies vanished mid-battle; once or twice when I defeated an enemy they vanished but their health bar remained, following me around like a curse; I once climbed a ladder that wasn’t there, getting off before I reached the ground. These are just a few of the bugs I encountered during my time with Dark Alliance, and being honest I was able to look past them and enjoy the game. I did have to quit out and reset the game more than once, but there was nothing I encountered that I’m sure can’t be patched out in later updates.
I enjoyed playing Dark Alliance, and I can imagine the experience only getting better in co-op. The reward loop works, combat is satisfying (even if it struggles with balancing issues,) and the few environmental puzzles work well to mix up the gameplay. It just feels like the game is being held back from being a great game by a few clumsy shortcomings.
Dungeons and Dragons Dark Alliance PS5, PS4 Review
Overall - Good - 6.5/10
Dungeons & Dragons Dark Alliance spins a lot of plates, and while some of them quickly come crashing down, others keep right on spinning. The moment-to-moment gameplay is just about good enough to overcome the few shortcomings that hold Dark Alliance back from being a great game.
- Plenty of replayability with four playable characters to master and co-op mode to do it all again with friends
- Plenty of upgrade options for gear, moves, and abilities
- Plenty of lore to get your teeth into
- Janky controls can be frustrating
- Balancing issues mean difficulty scaling feels broken, at least when playing solo.
- More than its fair share of bugs
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Primary version tested: PS5. Reviewed using PS5.