In 1998, the very young and inexperienced studio BioWare released “Baldur’s Gate,” a revolutionary role-playing game based on “Dungeons & Dragons.” Although it played out in real time and only included multiplayer features as an afterthought, it otherwise emulated the experience of playing the tabletop RPG with remarkable accuracy. It produced expansions and an excellent sequel that holds a 95/100 on Metacritic.
The “D&D” name had been attached to many games before, but none of them were even close to being so well-received. Wizards of the Coast then saw fit to license the “D&D” brand out to Snowblind Studios, which crafted “Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance,” an action RPG with straightforward fighting mechanics akin to the “Diablo” series.
Although the game and its sequel were a perfectly respectable franchise, it had almost nothing in common with its namesake, “Baldur’s Gate,” which was a smart, tactical RPG with boatloads of character development and clever plot hooks. The only thing the two franchises had in common was the setting, the Sword Coast region from D&D.
I can’t even count how many awkward conversations this led to in my youth. For minutes, I would talk circles around an acquaintance before realizing the source of the miscommunication all because Wizards of the Coast wanted to cash in on the “Baldur’s Gate” name. It was blatant, too – the box art even used the same distinct letter styling.
Because of this awkwardness, I’ve been unfairly biased against the “Dark Alliance” games for most of my life. The series went dormant after 2004 until a teaser trailer was shown for “Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance” at the 2019 Game Awards.
I wasn’t exactly hyped for the reboot, but I was glad the title was rebranded to something more accurate, especially given the fact that none of the game’s exploits take place anywhere near the fantasy city of Baldur’s Gate.
Released on Tuesday, the exploits in “Dark Alliance” instead take place in Icewind Dale, the northernmost tip of Faerûn in the “D&D” Forgotten Realms setting. The make-believe region has often been presented as a sparsely populated, wind-swept tundra where battling the elements can be just as hazardous as the monsters that inhabit it – goblins, snow trolls, yetis and all manner of mythical creatures.
Despite the supposedly desolate setting, creatures pop out of holes in the ground in seemingly endless supply, and human settlements are surprisingly common. There are no survival mechanics at play, which feels like a sorely missed opportunity given the developers’ choice of chilly locale. On the other hand, “Dark Alliance” was clearly intended to be a fairly straightforward hack-and-slash adventure to embark on with friends.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a satisfactory job of that, either. I can’t recall the last time I played a game with controls so clunky and unresponsive. Press one of the two attack buttons, and your character will swing slowly but surely to strike its target a second or two after your input.
Every battle feels like it takes place underwater. Similarly slow and methodical mechanics make sense in the notoriously difficult but calculated combat in “Dark Souls,” but “Dark Alliance” isn’t anything like that. The combat is quite easy but frustrating and tedious all the same.
The corpses of your enemies periodically soar hundreds of feet into the air for no apparent reason, while living opponents will completely ignore you as the player methodically pelts them to death with arrows.
The physics are broken, the enemy artificial intelligence is the worst I’ve seen in a video game in well over a decade, and the only redeeming quality I see in “Dark Alliance” is its use of Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions, characters from a long line of now-classic books penned by author R.A. Salvator, who assisted in the game’s development.
Given how half-baked “Dark Alliance” has turned out, I shudder to think how truly terrible it would’ve been if it had made its initially planned 2020 release window. Fortunately, it was released on Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription day one for Xbox and PC, so I was able to sink my teeth into it without plunking down cash.
I believe only the most lore-obsessed “D&D” fan can enjoy this one. If that’s you, go for it. Otherwise, I can’t recommend wasting your time or money on this sloppy game when there are so many other more worthy candidates out there.
If you’re looking for a relatively new cooperative experience, try “Outriders.” If you’re on the hunt for an action RPG, as silly as it sounds, I would recommend “Minecraft Dungeons,” which received the extensive “Hidden Depths” update just over a month ago.
And if you want to explore a far better treatment of “D&D’s” Icewind Dale, play “Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition.” You create your adventuring party from the ground up to explore undead-ridden crypts, frost giant cave dwellings and ancient elven cities. The game premiered in 2000, and, aside from some dated graphics, it already holds up better than “Dark Alliance.”
Riordan Zentler can be reached at email@example.com.
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