“Dungeons and Dragons: Dark Alliance” by Tuque Games

Companions Catti-Brie, Wulfgar, Breunor, and Drizzt. Photo courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Intro

Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel were well-received dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash games, so the series being soft rebooted—or at least acknowledged via the name similarity—filled me with an unearned ounce of hype. It helped that the trailer was at least engaging and showed characters that a much younger me cared about look really awesome in combat. This reboot as a 1-4 player Action RPG showed promise.

Unfortunately, this is one of the worst games I’ve played this year.

Presentation

An early level, at the entrance to some underground halls. Screenshot by Morgan L’Fey on PS5.

To start with the good, the presentation of the game’s world is solid. The environmental design in particular was at times properly impressive. None of the locations were doing things I had never seen in fantasy but the detail, pops of color from clusters of crystals, the usages of space between rock formations to allow the mists and voids to outline the playable area, even just the glow of lava in the dwarven forge areas were done impeccably. It’s definitely a PS4 game as opposed to a PS5, but it’s a very good-looking PS4 game in screenshots. The voice acting is also well delivered—the jokes didn’t always land but the voice actors’ delivery and direction were on the good side of competent, and running into clusters of enemies badgering each other was a welcome change of pace from the gameplay itself.

Even so, the presentation has some large flaws. The text for the game is far too small—with no way to increase the font sizes. This meant that sitting on my couch maybe twelve feet away from my 40+ inch 4K TV, I couldn’t read with any sort of ease either the subtitles (for what of the dialogue the subtitles appeared for) nor any of the collectible story chunks delivered via tomes and scrolls. I have not had this issue to this extent since attempting to play the original Mass Effect on a CRT. It’s such a clear accessibility issue and not the only one, as the game has nearly no options for rebinding controls.

Similarly, each of the four playable characters, Drizzt Do’Urden the drow ranger, Bruenor Battlehammer the dwarf fighter, Wulfgar the human barbarian, and Catti-Brie the human fighter, who are heroes of multiple series of fantasy novels, have shaky designs. While the baseline outfits are serviceable, every piece of gear you equip changes that appearance. Most of the equipment allows you to change the colors of that new appearance, but the equipment can drastically change your general silhouette. I don’t see Catti-Brie as someone wearing a weird tentacular turban for instance, but if that’s what is best for my stats, that’s what I’ll end up doing. It leads to the sort of mismatched, absurd visual appearances that MMOs can be known for—but MMOs will allow you to have armor flat-out appear to have a different appearance, giving you more visual control. In the end, the appearance-altering armor felt like the wrong thing for the team to spend time on.

Gameplay

An enemy floating in the air, not the only time this happened. Screenshot by Morgan L’Fey on PS5.

Dark Alliance is divided into 21 levels and one hub area, with each level taking your hero (alone or with others) from point A to point B, where you slay a boss and get to go home and claim your loot and experience. There are moments where the basic combat can feel fun and the levels have plenty of nooks and crannies to search through, often rewarding the player for straying off the path. There are also small touches like fire burning away poison that also make the levels engaging.

The four playable characters each fill distinct roles, familiar to tabletop gamers or fans of modern MMOs. Drizzt is a sneaky damage dealer, Wulfgar is slower but more powerful, intended to trade blows toe-to-toe. Bruenor is a tank, able to take hits and direct enemies away from his friends, and Catti-Brie is a ranged damage dealer and the sole character with healing moves. Unfortunately, only Drizzt and Catti-Brie felt fully viable in solo play, with Wulfgar’s slow speed and Bruenor’s team-focused abilities being more of a hindrance. Both did seem to function fine in the multiplayer matches I played.

However, the gameplay is where most of my frustrations came to bear. The game is strongly designed with multiplayer in mind—it’s easy for certain enemies to stun-lock you if they hit you at the wrong time—leaving you to helplessly watch as you go from full health to downed without any of your inputs mattering. You can recover from it in multiplayer, but when running solo there are no computer-controlled allies to interrupt the enemy or pick you back up.  Bosses are prone to this kind of behavior, though the run-of-the-mill enemies are hardly safe. It doesn’t help that enemies often spawn from behind you, or teleport around the map, or most frustratingly, have attacks whose hitboxes don’t match the visuals. This led to situations where the shockwave from an enemy attack terminated several feet away from my character, but still downed me.

It forces you to try to play overly cautiously, which leads to either frustrating conflicts of mainly blocking and dodging, or exploiting the fact the AI won’t attack enemies more than a certain distance away and shooting them from afar with the archer character. Of course, even that method is fraught as the damage you do decreases with your distance from the enemy (with no indicator that this will happen until the arrow connects). Sometimes the character just…doesn’t actually fire the bow, either holding the bow out, refusing to nock an arrow, or simply kicking out in front of them. I tried out multiple controllers, including using them in other games, and there were no issues on anything except Dark Alliance, so that’s another glitch for the pile. 

The bosses, something that can and perhaps should be a large draw of this kind of game, are largely disappointing. Of the 39 bosses, only three are NOT essentially just stronger versions of the enemies you’ve been fighting. Credit where it’s due, those three fights are far more memorable than any other fights in the game—even if they are nearly impossibly difficult in solo play at higher difficulties due to the sheer amount of damage they deal per hit.

A glitch in the upgrade materials tab of the shop lets you, sometimes, upgrade crystals you don’t actually own. Screenshot by Morgan L’Fey on PS5.

This game is also generally glitchy. Characters jittering across the screen, enemies taking damage without dying, ragdoll physics-enabled corpses flying through the sky from a gentle poke, smaller issues such as prompts for using objects not appearing—all of these are present in spades. The worst one I encountered had my character, upon selecting a portal that would zip me across the map to the next area, instead turn invisible except for her bow. General motion and actions didn’t work, and if I jumped, I fell through the floor and died…and then respawned still in that state. I lost a good twenty minutes of a level on that one—and it wasn’t the only time I was soft-locked in that way.

Narrative

The loading screen for a level, promising a much more interesting experience than what is there. Screenshot by Morgan L’Fey on PS5.

The game barely has a narrative. There is an overarching idea of the villain from the Icewind Dale books, Akar Kessel, being reanimated into a lich, but he doesn’t actually act upon the story until his boss fight and defeat. Icingdeath, the mate of the dragon that Drizzt and Wulfgar slew in the books, also makes an appearance…as the final boss, again, having had no discernable impact on any of the levels that came before. It’s a narrative constructed as if someone just plucked a handful of character models from a box and called it a day. 

Conclusion

This game needed more time. Time to fix the glitches, build more interesting bosses, forge a reason to keep playing the levels through their increasing difficulty levels, maybe even enough time to radically change the structure of the game. As it is, it isn’t worth your time, your money, or the frustration that can come from playing, feeling like an unfinished live-service game, which will likely fail to make a real impact in that space.

Scores:

Presentation: 3/10

Gameplay: 2/10

Narrative: 0/10

Overall: 1.5/10

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