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Dark Alliance is a D&D-themed brawler that feels a bit like Gears of War

Hands-on with the new cooperative brawler, launching June 22

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dark Alliance, a reboot of the classic Dungeons & Dragons action role-playing game, launches June 22, publisher Wizards of the Coast announced Tuesday.

Where the original from 2001 was a very top-down experience, the new Dark Alliance gets players right into the action with an over-the-shoulder perspective that feels more like Gears of War — just without the cover mechanics.

Polygon had the opportunity to experience an early version of Dark Alliance in a hands-on demo led by Tuque Games creative director and co-founder Jeff Hattem. The level we played — titled “The Verbeeg Jamboree” — showed off many of its key features. What was immediately apparent during our demo is how much energy Wizards has devoted to the game’s environments and cutscenes. Dark Alliance is set in the Icewind Dale region, the same location as the most recent pen-and-paper campaign module. It’s a harsh, northern climate filled with snow, wind, and mountains.

In the lead up to our battle, we got to see a short vignette of a group of Verbeeg — the troll-like creatures featured prominently in Dark Alliance’s original source material, R. A. Salvatore’s 1988 novel The Crystal Shard — gathered around a campfire. The Verbeeg were singing and chanting, plucking away at monstrous dobros. Their revelry became a sonic landmark, one that I was able to track by ear as I made my way through the level.

Roused to action, the Verbeeg leave the jam band behind and bring weapons to bear on the player character. Image: Tuque Games/Wizards of the Coast

Playing as the barbarian Wulfgar, I was able to wade into combat by wailing away at the right bumper and trigger, chaining together weak and strong attacks in multiple directions. I had access to a subset of special melee attacks, each one keyed to timed presses of the sticks and attack buttons. It was all very intuitive and snappy — even when demoed remotely, through game streaming software Parsec.

At lower difficulty levels, Hattem said players should expect rely on button mashing to make their way. Even at medium difficulty, though, you’ll need to depend more on your block and a collection of potions that sit on the directional pad. Perform well and you’ll quickly fill up a meter to power your ultimate, which can tear through bosses in short order.

Hattem said that, like Gears, Dark Alliance is built from the ground up to be a cooperative experience. Show up with more players and the game will throw more powerful enemies at you and in greater numbers. Players can take short rests between encounters to patch themselves up, pitching a tent right there on the map at certain points and saving their progress in the level. Experienced players can opt out of those short rests altogether for an improved roll on randomized loot.

Four characters will be available: the dual-wielding Drizzt Do’Urden, the ranger Catti-brie, tanky barbarian Wulfgar, or the defense-focused dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer.

Each of Dark Alliance’s 21 missions should take groups about 20 to 25 minutes each, Hattem said, or twice that long if players explore every side quest on their way to the main objective. Similarly, solo players can expect to spend upward of 40 minutes on each level. The game is built with replayability in mind, and encourages players to dive back in at increased difficulty levels for better loot. Gear sets encourage collectibility, with perks granted after collecting three, five, and all eight items in a set.

The final game will not feature cross-platform play, unfortunately, nor will it include couch co-op (although Hattem said that could be added at a later date). Hattem said players will get access to 10 character slots on each platform, however. Those 10 character slots each progress individually, allowing players to build each of the four characters along different skill trees.

Bruenor faces down a troll, the bodies of his kinsmen lying dead in the foreground. Image: Tuque Games/Wizards of the Coast

Lots of downloadable content is on the drawing board, including content expansions and additional gameplay modes outside of the game’s fairly linear dungeon crawls.

“If players want more maps, we’ll make more maps,” Hattem said. “If they want more characters, we’ll make more characters. If they want more gear sets, we’ll make more gear sets. If they want all of it, we’ll make all of it.”

Could that DLC take players elsewhere in the Forgotten Realms? Hattem was coy.

“From a lore standpoint it’s set about 100 years earlier than the events unfolding in the tabletop experience,” he said, “so it’s sort of a prequel in a certain way. [...] So we’re not necessarily directly tied to what’s happening in the tabletop but, as you can see, their Rime of the Frostmaiden is in Icewind Dale and there’s a lot of like overlap between the two products.”

Dark Alliance will be released June 22 for current generation consoles — PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — as well a PlayStation 4, Windows PC via Steam, and Xbox One for $39.99. Pre-orders are available now, including a Steelbook version for $59.99. That version of the game comes with access to the first piece of DLC, titled Echoes of the Blood War.