Think of Dark Alliance in gaming terms and your mind probably drops back to the recently re-released local-lite-looter Baldur’s Gate: (yes!) Dark Alliance. You’d be forgiven for assuming that Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance – effectively Dark Alliance 3, we suppose – would retain its knockabout and accessible focus on couch multiplayer. Bizarrely, though, the game has shipped without it. Online-only is the order of the day here, though two-player split-screen is apparently to be patched in alongside the game’s first major update. Even more unfortunately, we found the Quickplay option – allowing us to jump right into a quest – is either functionless or the game’s population is simply barren. Neither of which are really ideal, especially as we began playing Dark Alliance for review on launch day. We were able to somewhat tediously create a custom lobby for playing with friends, but experienced several disconnects and lag issues.
So, taking into account our troubles with the online matchmaking and the fact we’re only getting split-screen on a promise, our first impressions of Dark Alliance were a little underwhelming. Thankfully, though, it turns out that even playing solo, the game is a good deal of good old-fashioned fun. Our first realisation was that it rather reminded us of the classic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King tie-in for PS2, with its third-person hack-and-slash gameplay, combo system, and timed parrying. Choosing between four different D&D heroes – drow elf Drizzt, human archer Catti-brie, barbarian Wulfgar, and surprisingly nimble dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer – you’ll get to work making mincemeat of all sorts of goblins and a bestiary full of D&D critters. Characters feel distinctly different even initially, but it'll take a few levels' worth of new skills until they really begin to stand apart.
The controls are simple: light and heavy attacks are on R1 and R2 respectively, with the X button letting you jump and Circle engaging a quick, responsive dodge that’s very satisfying to work into your approach once you figure out the foibles of each character. You're also able to block and parry with a last second tap of L1, which adds depth and skill to the proceedings. The lion's share of the gameplay is, of course, the hack-and-slash combat, but there's a touch of platforming and verticality to the maps to offer some acrobatics-based variety. There's a pleasing focus on secrets, too – refreshingly so, with breakable walls and exploration rewarding the player with deviously-hidden loot.
Of course, the loot is the main draw here, but we found this was where the game fell down a little – it just isn't that interesting. It gets the job done – your stats will incrementally raise – but as a draw to keep you playing and replaying we feel like it's a touch underwhelming. Selling your unwanted trash loot is also a bit of a chore at present, with no way to mark loot as "junk" then auto sell it meaning you'll need to go through each piece individually. Much more interesting are the skills you'll spend your Feat points on, acquired through traditional levelling – these allow you to tailor your characters to your playstyle, unlocking new moves and abilities that open the game up rather nicely. You'll also get traditional Attribute points for more incremental improvement to damage, defense and HP.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is plenty of fun, with the wide-ranging choice of difficulty settings making the game as challenging or viable as you want it to be; even solo play is entertaining, though it's clearly not the intended way to enjoy Dark Alliance. The 21 levels range in length from around 15 to 60 minutes in length, so a session is never going to monopolise your time too badly. The combat is enjoyable, though some may find its seeming rigidity a little perplexing. Characters are committed to attack animations ala Monster Hunter, but the quick step and evasion techniques mean you won't feel immobile. Something we found a little difficult to adjust to is the lack of a "snap to" enemies – if you're being attacked from behind, you won't be able to simply hold the stick towards the enemy and attack them, you'll need to turn around and face them. Sounds obvious, yes, but in practice you'll be surprised how strange it feels not to have that option.
Visually it's all rather nice on the PlayStation 5, running at what feels like a locked 60 frames-per-second. The locations all look very convincingly high fantasy and the creatures you'll encounter are suitably horrible. We enjoyed the scale of some of the combat arenas, but overall it's essentially only as good as it needs to look. It's no showpiece but it's not bad-looking either. Effectively it's an attractive PS4 game that runs well, and we personally found the experience not to be noticeably "buggy" – we only mention this as we've seen coverage elsewhere noting that Dark Alliance is bug-ridden, but that simply wasn't our experience. Either we got lucky or it's already been patched!
Dark Alliance is a game that seems destined to be forgotten, which is a shame because there's a lot of old-school PS2-style fun to be had. Once split screen is patched in we can see ourselves going back to it regularly in order to relive those couch co-op days of yore, though the game is enjoyable solo as well if you choose your difficulty setting wisely. It's nothing to set the world on fire but it's a perfectly enjoyable throwback to dungeon crawling hack-and-slash classics that'll work for you all the more if you've got a group of friends who yearn to go back in time to a simpler experience. Future content updates will only improve Dark Alliance and we'd urge you to give it a try for yourself.