I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you Dark Alliance is a great game because it isn’t. Every rational bone in my body knows that. It’s the kind of game you might play for an hour and need to see no more of because you’ve made your mind up. This game, you think, is a bit rubbish. And I’d struggle to tell you otherwise because to a degree, it’s true. Dark Alliance makes a terrible first impression, stumbling in like it’s drunk and falling over and dribbling on you. ‘What happened to the series I loved?’ you’ll baulk. ‘Where’s the local co-op?! Why does it look like an Xbox 360 game?! And why does controlling it feel like my thumbsticks are clogged with Marmite?!’ But – and there is a but – it’s a grower, I promise. Hours later I’m really rather fond of it. It’s dumb, yes, but since when was that a bad thing?
Let’s rewind a bit first. Dark Alliance is the Dungeons & Dragons hack-and-slash (or action role-playing game, or beat-’em-up, or whatever you call it) series from 20 years ago that people remember because it let you play with friends on the same console. But now, in this reimagining of the series, you can’t. You have to play online. Oh. And it’s one of the major reasons why it gets off to a bad start, because yes you can play it on your own, and you will initially try to, but it feels lonely and a bit purposeless without someone else.
Alone, there’s no one to revive you when you’re downed, so you’ll be forced to respawn. Alone, there’s no chance of triggering team attacks, which are powerful. Alone, there’s simply no respite, and everything will come for you. And when enemies pile in from all angles, they’ll interrupt your attacks, mess up your block timings, and kick you while you’re down. It’s not much fun.
Exacerbating this is a kind of sludgy feeling to controlling the game. Dark Alliance lacks zip and there seems to be a delay to everything you do: opening chests, picking up collectibles, jumping, attacking, even sprinting. It’s not great for an action game. This is compounded by Dark Alliance being a bit like Monster Hunter in how it locks you into animations when you attack, and which deplete your stamina quickly. I use the Monster Hunter comparison but it’s not done as well as in that game, and this approach pulls a feeling of direct control from you.
Couple this with a generally dated looking appearance – I don’t know why they haven’t bothered with textures on the main four playable characters’ faces – a sometimes stuttering performance on Xbox Series S (in 1080p), wooden animations, and enemy behaviour so brainless they sometimes barely seem to move at all. The whole thing seems devoid of inspiration or imagination, and isn’t made terribly well.
Seems – it gets better! It gets better the moment you play with someone else. You can either host (publicly or privately, via invites) or use the matchmaking, which works OK. Sometimes it joins you to a game where you can’t play as the character you are because someone else is, and you can only have one of them per group (there are four characters); and sometimes it puts you in a group with people either much higher level or lower. But that’s only really a nuisance when you want to up the Challenge Rating and someone’s bringing your combined group power down so you can’t. Generally, though, it finds people for you to play with fairly well.
(I haven’t been able to get in-game voice chat working on Xbox Series S, though. I assume it’s there because little voice icons sometimes show up but nothing comes through. Still, I’ve enjoyed the silent understanding which comes in its place, and you can always work around it with Xbox party chat instead.)
When grouped, the game suddenly makes sense. The characters are designed as one whole, really, split into four. They all compliment each other. Big lumbering enemies which are almost impossible to beat hand-to-hand can now be kited around for people behind or at range to deal damage to, and smaller enemies that frustrate the more nimble characters can be whacked out of their way. Suddenly, there’s energy and life to the game, and all that winded silence between your attacks is filled by someone else.
The levels themselves speed up, as people collaboratively find and pick up collectibles, which are dolled out between you automatically (though you have to collect equipment from chests individually, as it spews a piece for each of you). And best of all, if you fudge something up and die, it’s no bother as you can simply be revived (and endlessly as far as I can tell). I’m even coming around to the idea of restricting all admin (levelling up and equipping and merchanting) to the village hub area, because it prevents people from faffing in menus during missions and slowing things down.
Play this way for a while and a deeper appreciation for the game will begin to take hold, and as you increase the Challenge Rating, strategy will emerge. The moves you unlock (that you buy between missions) come with various status effects, and you’ll begin to pay attention to what they do and how to use them best. You’ll begin to block and be less reckless with your assaults, and you’ll start to understand how team attacks trigger, how executions trigger, and to look out for them.
Look, none of this completely transforms the game. Dark Alliance doesn’t suddenly gain elegance and finesse because you’re playing with other people. Enemies still do dumb things, like cluster around and try to attack downed teammates who are invincible (rather helpful in the right circumstances), and there’s still a crudeness to the experience at the game’s core. But what you were once enduring now becomes quite endearing. Now that I’m used to the rhythms of combat, I enjoy it. I barrel in with a flying knee and then charge up a huge swing with my hammer that literally whacks goblins into the air like golf balls, and sends them flying over the sides of cliffs. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?
I find exhilaration in scraping through challenging battles with my newfound Cattie-Brie (ranger/healer) pal, us each reviving each other countless times. And I still get excited to return to the village hub after a mission to see what loot I will get. The missions are generally getting better, too, more impressive and grander, and there are many left to see. Factor in all the different Challenge Ratings (which I assume is what the endgame involves: rerunning them to acquire the best equipment sets) and there’s a substantial amount of game here.
Dark Alliance is not a great game, then, but I don’t think anyone was insinuating it was, hence the game’s cheaper price point, hence the game being on Game Pass. Once you settle into it, it’s comforting. It’s like comfort food: moreish. It’s not too clever, it’s not too taxing, and it’s better that way. And crucially, I want to play it more.