Dark Alliance is back, many years after the originals made Dungeons & Dragons work as a co-op action RPG on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and many months after this spiritual successor was first announced. But after an AWOL 2020, we now have a final and firm release date of 22nd June 2021.
So what does a new Dark Alliance game look like? Because we haven't actually seen it before now, except for an in-engine teaser that didn't give a lot away.
Now, though, I've played it.
The biggest and most immediate difference is the camera angle, which is now over-the-shoulder, rather than zoomed out and looking down, as in a game like Diablo. This makes Dark Alliance more cinematic and better shows off the new setting of Icewind Dale. The old games were set in Baldur's Gate, if you recall. In the new game, it's wide open mountain ranges with snow, and forested areas, and there's a sense of space and grandeur that comes with them. A sense of big adventure.
The perspective also brings more impact to combat as you dash around a battlefield, slamming attacks into enemies, chaining combos together more akin to an experience like God of War. It's not all the way God of War, it's not quite that physical, but it's certainly much more than a hotbar experience. Holding your light attack or heavy attack button unfurls dramatic, animated combos, which I think differ with directional input. And each character has more than 60 moves, game director Jeff Hattem tells me while we play.
I play as Drizzt Do'Urden, the famed drow hero of Dark Alliance, who's all hood up, long hair and smolder. Technically, he's a kind of high damage rogue, dual-wielding and backstabbing and stealthing. And playing him involves flanking enemies for critical hits, dodging (with the dodge button) their attacks, and watching your stamina consumption so you don't get exhausted in dangerous areas. Invisibility is a temporary active ability with a short cooldown, and there's a kind of storm of swords ability with a longer cooldown that whirls around you.
My light-attack combo is a flurry of lunging, thrusting stabs, which feels satisfyingly murderous to perform; and my heavy-attack combo deals a meaty double-slash before charging up to summon a magical circle on the ground which deals lots of damage to things inside. I can also perform a kind of lunging riposte, by attacking immediately after a dodge. And I have an Ultimate, which fills in a gauge as I fight.
Movement and positioning are vital, not just for dealing damage but avoiding it. Bigger enemies and bosses - like giants - have special, fairly well sign-posted abilities that can immobilise you and leave you open to their mega charged-attacks, like a literal elbow drop. There are pools of poison and clouds of ice to avoid, and the whole process feels like an encounter in an action game rather than an RPG. You'll have to keep an eye out for friendly abilities too, like healing circles you need to stand inside to make use of. And there are some light platforming elements to the game, such as ledges to climb up to, gaps to leap across, and traps to deal with.
It's energetic and it's fun. But it's hard to get a deeper appreciation of how challenging it can be - and how tactical and group-focused - in one 20-minute mission, especially on the mission's easiest Challenge Rating: one of a possible six. My companion nearly died a couple of times (which was probably my fault) but generally it was a breeze. Of course, it helped that Drizzt had been buffed to high heaven for the demo and had all his abilities unlocked. Usually everyone begins at level one and progresses to 20, unlocking abilities as they go.
Presumably as the difficulty increases, so will the need for a full group of heroes coordinating effectively together. In addition to Drizzt and Cattie-Brie (a kind of ranger with healing), there's Bruenor Battlehammer (a tank), and Wulfgar the barbarian (fairly self explanatory). But to fill a group, you will need other players as there are no AI companions in the game. And this means going online, as local co-op/couch co-op has sadly been dropped.
"We wanted to do local co-op but it's not on the cards any more for the game," Jeff Hattem says. "We led out with the intent but we got ahead of ourselves [...] and it got away from us."
The idea had been to quarter the screen for each player, and I understand why, with the zoomed-in perspective, that might have been undesirable. But it's a shame not to have anything at all, even two-player split-screen. Multiplayer means going on online, then, either with friends or matchmaking in Quick Play, but you are also able to play the game offline on your own. It'll be a more tentative, edging forwards experience, though.
Between missions, you return to a hub area, a camp in the mountains surrounded by forest. It's here you do all of your upgrading and equipping because this isn't allowed during missions. There are a variety of tents and NPCs, and a central chest where you receive the loot assigned to you (and tailored for you) during the mission. You have the option of improving the quality of that loot during the mission, but it's a risk-reward gamble. Campfire stops offer you the choice of either taking a Short Rest and recuperating, or carrying on but improving the rarity of loot you'll receive. And note, there is no trading between players.
I've only seen a brief slice of Dark Alliance, and playing it remotely wasn't ideal because it added latency to the input and dropped the resolution of the image on occasion - not great for a type of game that relies on bombastic action and a feeling of responsiveness. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable, and I'm encouraged by what I've seen.
I didn't really see elements like the story and the wider world. There was a cheery introduction to my mission where a bunch of giants played instruments around a campfire and sang a bawdy song, suggesting a playful nature, but beyond that, I have no idea. I do know there will be seven quests in total, each with three missions each.
Dark Alliance will be slightly cheaper than other games when it comes out. The Digital Edition will cost £33.50/€40/$40 when ordered online at DarkAlliance.com, and that's for all versions of the game, even pricey PS5. Shop-bought Standard and Steelbook editions, meanwhile, will be a more regular £50/€60/$60. That's the same price as the Digital Deluxe Edition, by the way, which bags you an upcoming expansion called Echoes of the Blood War, and a Lich weapon set. All pre-orders, whichever version of the game, will get a Beholder weapon set at launch. And no, there won't be any extra-monetisation beyond buying the game.
There's a generous upgrade option offered, too. On Xbox, you'll be able to move from old-gen to new-gen for free via Smart Delivery; and on PlayStation, you'll be able to move from PS4 to PS5 via a free digital code. Incidentally, there will be some "noticeable" visual differences between the two generation versions of the game, according to Hattem, but smooth performance is a priority, as is providing a like-for-like experience. And I'm afraid there won't be cross-platform multiplayer.
All in all a positive showing. Roll on June.