Dark Alliance is Dungeons & Dragons without the dice rolls. It’s an intense, combat-focused action RPG where you slay monsters, collect loot, and fight alongside a party of powerful heroes—but without the usual trappings of a traditional RPG. There are no walls of dialogue or deep, lengthy quests to be found here. Just a lot of goblins and other foul beasts to kill, and some very impressive looking locations to do it in.
In Dark Alliance we follow the Companions of the Hall, a legendary band of adventurers led by D&D favourite Drizzt Do’urden, as they search for a magical MacGuffin called the Shard. Armies of villains and monsters from all corners of Faerûn—the titular dark alliance—are lusting after the Shard and the power it holds, and you have to stop them. It’s a pretty standard fantasy plot, but given weight and authenticity by the involvement of veteran D&D scribe, and teller of some of Icewind Dale’s most memorable tales, R.A. Salvatore. The story takes place just after The Crystal Shard, the first novel in the author’s Icewind Dale trilogy, meaning there’s plenty of crossover with the books.
Icewind Dale is a chilly, frozen tundra, and one of the most storied and evocative regions of Faerûn. Fans of Black Isle’s classic Infinity Engine RPG of the same name will get an extra kick out of returning to this frosty realm of ice dragons, snowbound mountain passes, and deep dwarven halls. It’s Dungeons & Dragons at its best, and an enjoyably dramatic backdrop for an action RPG. The world is immense in scale and layered with history, and it’s one of the most vibrant, vivid depictions of the Forgotten Realms I’ve seen in a game. Dark Alliance is a linear action game, so you don’t get to explore the world as thoroughly as you would in an RPG. But what’s there is stunning to look at.
The art is magnificent throughout—particularly the cavernous, atmospheric environments, which are like the covers of vintage fantasy novels come to life. Standout locations include a crystal fortress hidden in the mountains, crawling with creepy Shard-worshipping cultists and glowing eerily in the pale moonlight. You also visit the shattered remains of an ancient city, a massive dwarven forge criss-crossed with rivers of molten metal, and a twisting valley that’s become a ramshackle, makeshift city for a horde of bickering goblins. Everything is exaggerated, colourful, and larger than life, which is refreshing to see in this era of darker, more muted medieval fantasy.
The monsters look superb too. By the time you reach the end of Dark Alliance’s story you’ll have slain an entire bestiary of classic D&D monsters, including dragons, beholders, duergar, giants, trolls, wraiths, and thousands upon thousands of stinky, butt-slapping goblins. These familiar creatures have all been brought vividly to life, with expressive animation, amusing voice acting, and a spread of unique abilities that make them a joy to fight. They’re wonderfully hateful too, which makes running a sword through their guts extra delicious. This is the most I’ve enjoyed battling a bunch of monsters since Shadow of Mordor’s similarly characterful, loathsome orcs.
The giant, flesh-eating verbeeg grab you with their chains and yank you towards them. Trolls are thick-skinned and have regenerating health. Duergar mages knock you off your feet with blasts of ice magic. Cultists teleport around the battlefield and shoot beams of arcane energy at you. It’s a really fun, varied selection of enemies—and you frequently fight several types at once, forcing you to mix your tactics up on the fly. It’s a relentlessly fast-paced game, rarely giving you more than a few seconds to catch your breath before the next scrap, which is exhilarating and, occasionally, slightly exhausting.
There are four playable characters, each bringing a unique flavour to the combat. Drow ranger Drizzt is fast and athletic, carving enemies up with twin scimitars and siccing his spirit panther Guenhwyvar on them. Axe-swinging dwarf king Bruenor is the tank of the party, able to soak up huge amounts of damage and draw aggro by taunting. Wulfgar is a barbarian who can whip himself up into a berserker rage and deal extra damage with a giant hammer. And Catti-brie is a bouncy, nimble archer who can attack from a distance. The flow and feel of the combat differs greatly between characters—and I love how levels unlocked with one character are unlocked for the others, meaning you can experiment with each hero without having to redo parts of the game.
The enemy variety, combined with the ability to block, dodge, and parry, gives Dark Alliance surprising depth. It feels fantastic too. The combat is chunky and tactile, and carving through enemies with a big, heavy weapon is as satisfying as it should be. You can bash through crowds of weaker enemies without much thought, but stronger foes demand a degree of patience: locking on, rolling away from attacks, blocking just as they strike to parry. It’s a heady mix of crowd control and more considered, methodical one-on-one duels, and it works brilliantly—if you can keep up with the frenetic pace.
Dark Alliance has been designed with co-op in mind. The four heroes have MMO-style abilities that complement each other, including stat-boosting buffs and healing spells. You can also trigger team attacks on a single enemy. However, it’s entirely possible to play and enjoy the game solo. I played through a good chunk of the story on my own, and I had a great time with it. You can choose from a number of difficulty settings, the lowest of which makes playing solo a breeze. Nudge it up a notch and you have to think a little more tactically in battles. Higher still and the game becomes genuinely difficult, especially in the late-game dungeon levels where the enemies are stronger and more numerous.
I struggled with a few of these battles—particularly one where I had to fight a large group of regenerating trolls simultaneously. But I always managed to make it to the end of the level, even if it meant dying and respawning a dozen times. Clear an arena of enemies and you’ll be given the opportunity to make camp, restore your HP, and trigger a checkpoint. Or you can bypass the checkpoint entirely and increase your loot rarity level instead. This adds a nice element of risk and reward to the game—especially for a lone player. Some enemies will even make sneering comments about you daring to face them alone, which is a nice touch. It’s a great co-op game, and the 30-60 minute levels mean you don’t have to set hours aside to play it with time-starved buddies. But I’m delighted the developer made solo play just as valid. I just wish there was an option to fight alongside an AI party in singleplayer.
Dark Alliance is a fighting game first and foremost, and the level design reflects this. Each map is a series of combat arenas linked by corridors, with the occasional secret passage or chamber marked by a telltale splash of red paint. Most secrets are pretty conspicuous, which seems like a mindful effort by the developer to keep players moving, and keep the action flowing. There are some optional bosses too, but for the most part you’re just moving forward in a linear fashion, slaying monsters until you reach the end of the level. Along the way there are traps, the odd simple environmental puzzle to solve, piles of gold, and treasure chests. The world is really just a place to have a fight, and rightly pushes the combat to the forefront.
A few things did annoy me, though. If you’re fighting an enemy next to a ledge, they’ll be magically prevented from falling off by an invisible wall. But you’ll just keep edging forward as you swing your weapon—and eventually fall through them and off the ledge yourself. Falling doesn’t kill you, but it’s still frustrating. The readability of the bigger, more chaotic battles can be poor too, with so much going on, and so much clutter on the screen, that you can lose track of who you’re fighting, or miss otherwise clearly telegraphed attacks.
I also had some UI issues, including enemy health bars disappearing. In one level a portal stopped working, leaving me stranded on a floating island with no way to kill myself and warp back to the last checkpoint. I had to restart the whole level and repeat around 50 minutes of gruelling battles to get back to where I was. And once I was permanently silenced for no reason, leaving me magic-less for a whole act. My co-op partner also encountered some bugs of his own, so who knows what you might run into when you play. It’s a shame, because these issues are a blight on what is otherwise a solid-feeling game. With an RTX 2080 Super and an i7-9700K, I was able to play in 4K at max settings at a stable 60fps, which really added to the crunchy feel of the combat.
But bugs aside, Dark Alliance is a blast. It brings the world of Dungeons & Dragons to life brilliantly, with meaty combat, a gorgeous world, and some truly despicable monsters to carve up. It’s a reminder of what makes the Forgotten Realms such a great fantasy setting, and a welcome chance to return to Icewind Dale, a place a lot of PC gamers, myself included, love. If you’re more of an RPG fan, you might find the non-stop combat a bit much. This is a game about killing monsters above all—and it’s some of the most joyously brutal monster-killin’ on PC, even if you don’t have anyone else to slay with.