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Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance hands-on preview – D&D for all

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance – it doesn’t look like a PS2 game (pic: Wizards of the Coast)

PS2 era hack ‘n’ slash Dark Alliance is making a comeback with a new co-op game aimed at Dungeons & Dragons newbies.

Ever since Stranger Things made Dungeons & Dragons seem cool owners Wizards of the Coast have been trying to make the original tabletop role-playing game more accessible, and one of the obvious ways to do that is via video games. Baldur’s Gate 3 is for existing fans but Dark Alliance is intended for everyone, since it’s a co-op hack ‘n’ slash just as much as it is a role-playing game.

The author of Icewind Dale, R.A. Salvatore, has been firmly embedded in the development process since the start, giving Dark Alliance a solid narrative foundation and setting it up to be a worthy spiritual successor to the old Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games from the early 2000s. The gameplay has a clear emphasis on action, with an attempt to appeal to a more casual player base and avoid treading too heavily on Larian Studios’ role-playing toes, as they continue to work on Baldur’s Gate 3 for the PC.

The most involved role-playing mechanics are played out through character banter during lulls in the action, with a simple levelling system and customisable gear loadouts for taking on specific kinds of enemies. Compared to more traditional role-playing games it’s very simple stuff but compared to other co-op action games like Left 4 Dead, it’s actually quite involved.

We played as Barbarian Hero Wulfgar during our half hour preview and his melee style makes for a convincing tank. Including Wulfgar there’s four characters to choose from, including dwarven champion Bruenor Battlehammer, Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urdern, and his human wife Catti-Brie – each with different weapons that dictate their playstyle.

Catti-Brie has an enchanted quiver with magical arrows that can be used to spawn vines that bind enemies in combat and she also has a useful area of effect healing spell for difficult situations. This becomes especially useful when playing in co-op, especially during a trick boss fight with the poison-vomiting Gutnir Widebelly.

The attention to detail in Dark Alliance is impressive; each act starts with a cut scene showcasing the upcoming monsters you’ll face and the animation and environmental art sticks very close to the high fantasy aesthetic of the Dungeons & Dragons books.

The monsters developer Tuque Games have created for Dark Alliance definitely do the source material justice and there’s enough challenge and variety to ensure a decent level of engagement and replayability, whether you’re playing solo or co-op. Each act is a nice length of around 30 minutes, when purely concentrating on combat, or an hour or so if you want to explore for hidden treasures.

Dark Alliance is a linear game, not open world, and includes some precarious platforming, where lag saw us plunge to our deaths on more than one occasion. We didn’t have time to get too far off the beaten track in the hands-on preview but apparently levels do have the ability for players to explore and find secret paths to puzzles that unlock rare loot.

Being led down a specific path and bashing your way through doors and fences, into designated combat areas, is a lot of fun but there’s also some tactical depth to be had as well. Coloured shards are dropped during combat and work as immediate boosts to your health and abilities.

Plus, there are extra abilities if you time your special moves for maximum effect. Wufgar’s ultimate is a Warhammer Spin which deals a satisfyingly large amount of damage while still feeling controllable, although locking onto targets can sometimes restrict your range of vision.

The linear hack ‘n’ slash feel of Dark Alliance should be familiar to anyone who played the original Dark Alliance games on PlayStation 2, as well as anyone who’s ever played Diablo.

For those players without any knowledge of the Forgotten Realms, Dungeons & Dragons lore is introduced through tablets and codecs which can be picked up, explaining exactly what things like white dragons, frost giants, and ogres are and making the game a useful introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons world – which was clearly a major goal of the project.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance screenshot

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance – the monsters are authentic but intimidating (pic: Wizards of the Coast)

After battles you can make use of the short rest mechanic, which acts as a save point as you all sit around a campfire – but this is also a tactical choice. Better loot is available for the brave, so if you take the risk of not saving during an act you’ll have the chance of better rewards if you make it to the end. That’s a decision you have to make as a party though, and often the toughest tactical decision of the lot.

Dark Alliance is a completely different beast to Baldur’s Gate 3 and intended as an accessible, inclusive experience for those that might not know or care much about Dungeons & Dragons or even role-playing games in general. On that level it seems to work well and although it’s certainly not the deepest experience there’s still a lot of attention to detail and an obvious love for the universe on the part of the developers.

The full game is due to be released in June, but if you can’t wait until then for your Dungeons & Dragons fix you’re in luck, as the new book Candlekeep Mysteries releases today. It includes 17 new one-shot stories written by 20 different authors, which can be used as inspiration for playing the tabletop game – useful timing as beer gardens re-open and park meet-ups become possible again.

Candlekeep Mysteries’ stories are all focused around a different magical object, ranging from complex clockwork contraptions to untrustworthy werejackles. The Price of Beauty by Mark Hulmes is introduced by a book with a magic mirror on its cover and the 16th level adventure Xanthoria, by Toni Winslow-Brill, involves a mould-covered tome detailing a world ravaged by the plague – allowing your party to explore inclusive and contemporary themes with flexibility and creativity.

Wizards of the Coast now seem fully committed to establishing Dungeons & Dragons as a far more accessible concept than it used to be, whether that involves video games or traditional tabletop products. How successful Dark Alliance will be with a wider audience remains to be seen but given the sheer amount of content being released this year The Forgotten Realms won’t stay that way for long.

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By Lucy Orr

Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Developer: Tuque Games and Wizards Studio
Release Date: 22nd June 2021

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