Combat in a tabletop RPG isn’t exactly what you’d call “high-octane.” There are thrilling moments to be had, of course – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been at a D&D table that erupts into cheers or anguished cries after a particularly important dice roll – but it ultimately boils down to moving around an inch at a time, hemming and hawing over tactical decisions, and then maybe doing some light math. With D&D: Dark Alliance, developer Tuque Studios means to flesh out what those six-second rounds really look like after a DM says, “Roll Initiative” – and, based on a recent hands-on demo, it seems to be shaping up into a familiar and fun take on the co-op action-RPG, with a couple of unique twists to boot.
Starring the Companions of the Hall from the ‘80s/’90s D&D novels and taking place after the events of what may be author R.A. Salvatore’s best-known D&D book, The Crystal Shard, Dark Alliance sees hordes upon hordes of power-hungry monsters invade the northern region of Icewind Dale to form a [looks directly into camera] Dark Alliance in search of that dangerous relic. Our demo had us facing off against Goblins, Gnolls (demonic, canine-esque humanoids), and a handful of Verbeeg – the smallest (and maybe grossest) of this D&D setting’s Giant folk – though we know other classic D&D monsters like Beholders and Dragons will make appearances as well.
Combat makes up the bulk of Dark Alliance’s gameplay, and will be recognizable to anyone familiar with third-person brawlers, with or without co-op. Each of the four playable Companions – the famed Rogue Drizzt Do’urden¹, Warrior king Bruenor Battlehammer, and his adoptive children, the Barbarian Wulfgar and the Ranger Cattie Brie – each have a strong attack, light attack, dodge, a couple of special abilities that run on cooldown timers, and a powerful Ultimate that you charge up with each kill. It’s not entirely simplistic, though – each character also has unique combos and strikes they can perform by, say, holding the Light Attack button or attacking while moving in a specific direction. “I call it the ‘Emergent Combat System,’” says Jeff Hattem, Tuque’s founder and Creative Director on Dark Alliance. “You don’t necessarily need to memorize button presses – you just go with the flow and it’s gonna feel cool.”
Hattem and I played through one of Dark Alliance’s 21 missions, and I got the sense that while each fight is by no means the same as the one before, I’d seen a pretty good sampling of what to expect from combat in the full game. Fights typically consisted of a small group of average enemies – Goblins, in our case – joined by one or two more powerful foes. These might be larger monsters (like the Gnolls or Verbeeg), or an “elite” variant – maybe a Goblin that knows a life-leeching spell or has a special attack that deals extra damage.
Playing as Wulfgar, a DPS/Tank build who lumbers across the battlefield with a massive war hammer, I spent most of my time running into the middle of a mob of Goblins while Jeff rained arrows from a distance as Cattie Brie and I thwacked them into oblivion – often literally, as the ragdoll physics that kick in after a kill can have hilarious results. “We kind of overdid it with the physics and I don’t mind at all,” Hattem laughs. Drizzt, on the other hand, was far more nimble – and, if I’m being honest, felt decidedly overpowered against the relatively low-level enemies we were fighting. His ultimate summons his pet panther Guenhwyvar, and this – when coupled with his Thousand Stings combo and the auto-crits on every attack that comes with activating a character’s Ult – let me take down nearly ⅔ of our final boss’ health bar in one go.
Take an exclusive look behind the scenes of D&D Dark Alliance in this making-of video!
Admittedly, we were playing on the lowest of six CRs – a.k.a. Challenge Ratings (an idea adapted from the tabletop), which increase both enemy difficulty and the quality of loot rewards, similar to World Tiers in Outriders or The Division 2 – but that doesn’t mean we just traipsed through unimpeded. While CR1 definitely provides the “badass hero” fantasy that one would expect from a game about D&D’s most famous adventurers, it’s easier than you might think to find yourself overwhelmed by a mob, even if a moment before you considered yourself invincible. “The monsters, they hit hard – I like games that are volatile,” Hattem says, “what that means is if you make a mistake – or if the monsters make a mistake – there’s consequences. Everyone is super squishy, basically.”
Thankfully you’ve got a number of potential buffs to mitigate all that squishiness. Cattie Brie has a healing ability and each player can equip up to four types of potion that can restore HP, remove debuffs, or increase to their Ultimate charge rate. The most interesting option, however, was a blend of ideas from the tabletop version of D&D and Souls-like games: the Short Rest. Taking a Short Rest in tabletop D&D advances time by an hour and allows you to expend resources to regain some HP. In Dark Alliance, you can take a Short Rest after certain fights to refill your consumable items and create a checkpoint – though if you do take a Short Rest, you’ll respawn all the monsters you’ve slain so far. Conversely, if you opt to skip a Short Rest when it’s offered, you can increase your odds of finding better loot as you explore the level and defeat enemies. It’s an interesting tradeoff, providing an overarching layer of strategy that I can easily see varying wildly between groups of players.
The loot itself seems like somewhat standard fare – +10 Lightning Resistance with Chestguard A or +5 Critical Damage from Ring B – and you can receive additional bonuses for equipping multiple Artifacts (the in-game term for gear) as well. Three items offer a stat bonus, five items increase it, and a full set of eight offers an additional passive bonus, like a chance to blind or curse enemies after a hit, or the ability to perform a more powerful strike after dodging. The look of each set changes as you find rarer versions of it, as well – meaning the Legendary version of a particular helmet will be more intricate than the common or uncommon variant.
After our run, we were awarded several new Artifacts, though, according to Hattem, “The RNG gods did not favor us,” and we only received Uncommon items. Though the drops at the end of a mission will be randomized, however, it seems you won’t be completely at the whim of those fickle deities. While you can’t craft new items with specific traits or bonuses yourself, you are able to upgrade your gear using resources you collect in each run, meaning if you’ve already got an armor set with buffs you like, you can just keep upgrading it to match your current level rather than endlessly grinding for a random drop.
Our mission took roughly 25 minutes to get through, and while some of that was definitely spent getting my bearings, we didn’t really stray too far from the main path – though there were clearly a variety of collectible trinkets to find (immediately piquing the interest of my subconscious completionist/dice hoarder), and even a few environmental puzzles we could have solved for additional bonuses and loot. According to Hattem, all the levels are unique, hand-designed maps – as opposed to the procedurally-generated dungeons of, say Remnant: From Ashes, or the barely-differentiated HARM bases of Marvel’s Avengers. “Each of the 21 missions are unique layouts, unique encounters to do individually,” Hattem says. “There’s a lot of content in the game; I’m proud of that.”
D&D: Dark Alliance – First Gameplay Screenshots
What I didn’t get a direct look at was how story and character progression works, though it sounds like you’ll be able to customize your builds for each character pretty heavily. Each character runs through a series of tutorial missions, then players are free to jump into any of the other levels as they please. “We wanted to keep it open-ended for players to play in any order that they wanted,” says Hattem. “I could have played a few missions on my side, and you could have played a couple of other missions, and we’re at different places in our progression – but we didn’t want to limit players to being able to play with one another [just] based on which missions they played.”
Earning XP and unlocking new gear helps level each character up to the cap of 20, and along the way they’ll unlock up to six moves or abilities that can be assigned to either of their two skill slots. Then there are the actual Dungeons of D&D Dark Alliance – high-challenge missions that unlock at levels 10, 15, and 20. “There are three end bosses, basically,” Hattem says. “Once you’ve unlocked those last Dungeons, then that’s the endgame.”
He says there are essentially three pillars to playing Dark Alliance. “I call it the three Gs,” he says: “Gather your party, Gear up and Get good. You can get really proficient with the combat system, that’ll take you to a certain point. You can also progress your character and gear up. But you’re going to also want to gather your party to be able to tackle the content.”
He explains it like a version of the Fast/Cheap/Good rule – you only really need two of the three, though the full set is best. For example, you can solo everything straight through the end, but it’s going to take a lot of skill and the best possible gear. Or, if you’ve got a group of friends with a mind for party tactics, you can probably get by without the most powerful weapons. “You should be able to complete all the content with two of those three,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll be able to do it with just one, but I think any of the two, you’ll be okay.”What Dark Alliance looks like beyond Level 20 is still up in the air. Hattem says he and the team are waiting to see how players respond to what they’ve got so far, and will go from there. “If they like the four characters… and they want more, that’s one avenue we can take,” he says. “If they like the characters the way they are now and they want more content, they want more missions, we can do that as well. If they want to just progress their characters beyond level 20 and kind of grow the end game of their individual characters with new systems, we have tons of ideas there too. So while we do have ideas on what we want to do, I really want to see how the game is played by players and where they want us to take it after we launch.”
I’m still not entirely sure how Dark Alliance will come together when it launches later this year. That said, its arcadey combat mechanics and action-focused take on D&D lore have me eager to see if its loot grind and nonlinear story structure can deliver a wholly satisfying digital D&D experience. However it ultimately shakes out, at the very least I know I’ll be glad that I can get my D&D fix without having to do any math.
¹Yes, Drizzt fans may argue that he’s traditionally been a Ranger/Fighter in novels and previous tabletop editions, but Dark Alliance is opting to lean into the stealthier/stabbier side of his abilities.
JR is a Senior Editor at IGN who really can’t wait to actually stab a Beholder in the eyestalk. You can find him on Twitter talking about games and other nonsense.