The adventures of the rogue drow Drizzt Do’Urden started back in 1988. The dark elf has gone on to become one of the most beloved Dungeons & Dragons characters, featured in more than 30 novels, but he and the iconic Companions of the Hall have never starred in a video game of their own.
At the Game Awards in Los Angeles tonight, Tuque Games is announcing its first project since D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast acquired the studio this fall. Called Dark Alliance, it’s a “spiritual successor” to the PlayStation 2-era Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games. A four-player co-op action-RPG for PC and consoles coming in fall 2020, it stars Drizzt, Bruenor Battlehammer, Catti-brie, and Wulfgar — the Companions of the Hall. It takes place after the events of R.A Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard (the characters’ debut), and is set in Icewind Dale. Tuque sets out to capture the incredible action from Salvatore’s novels, in which Drizzt and the Companions dispatch legions of foes with brutal efficiency and pinpoint precision — while strengthening the bond between longtime friends who trust each other with their lives.
Dark Alliance joins Baldur’s Gate III as triple-A game projects Wizards of the Coast has announced this year. Dark Alliance also fills a space we haven’t seen in years on console and PC — couch co-op action-RPGs with a splitscreen. It also fills a gaping hole in D&D‘s game catalog, which hasn’t had a real action-RPG since the broken Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale in 2011. And it offers online co-op play. With D&D more popular now than it’s ever been, putting out well-crafted games is a good way for Wizards of the Coast to not just capitalize on what it has built but also bring that momentum into other markets and expand its audience, both for video games and pen-and-paper products.
“I feel like there’s a great need for games that offer that local co-op aspect, that couch co-op,” Tuque founder and head Jeff Hattem said in a video call with GamesBeat last week. “That was one of the things that was really cool about the original Dark Alliance games. They introduced a lot of people to Dungeons & Dragons. The co-op aspect was part of the reason why those games were successful.”
Drizzt has appeared in games such as Menzoberranzan (1994, his first video game appearance), the Baldur’s Gate RPGs, 2004’s Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, and the D&D MMORPG Neverwinter. But this is the first time the icon of the Realms has his own game.
“He needs to [have his own video game], right,” Hattem said. “That’s why I wanted to make this game. I’m ecstatic to have the opportunity to do this for the first time.”
Hattem said he started talking with Wizards of the Coast about making the game in 2013. “It’s always been about Drizzt. I like to make high-action, visceral games where I feel the intensity. For me, those two things just work together so well. I would’ve been open to doing other stuff, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice, that’s for sure.”
Tuque’s lone previous game is Lifelock, an action-RPG it made for Perfect World in 2016. Over his 20 years in the business, Hattem has also held roles at Behavior Interactive and Ubisoft, where he worked on Assassin’s Creed.
Hattem said Tuque had talked early on with Salvatore about the project, saying that the author was “happy to see Drizzt and his other characters come to life.”
Draw your blades
In the PlayStation 2 days, the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games were two of the best co-op action-RPGs on the console. Hattem says Dark Alliance is a spiritual successor to those games, though it changes the story and setting.
You play as either Drizzt, Bruenor, Catti-brie, or Wulfgar. Each has iconic weapons in Salvatore’s novels:
- Drizzt wields the scimitars Icingdeath and Twinkle
- Bruenor has a notched axe
- Catti-brie favors magic bow Taulmaril
- Wulfgar has the mighty warhammer that Bruenor crafted for him, Aegis-fang
“The [ways] that Salvatore reveals those weapons in the books are some of the best bits of those books, at least for me. When Bruenor’s crafting Aegis-Fang, when Drizzt acquires Icingdeath and Twinkle, as well, later on,” Hattem said. “We’re definitely going to showcase them.”
Dark Alliance has the characters using weapon types, not just these iconic arms: Bruenor has axes, Wulfgar wields warhammers, and so on.
“We thought it was important to give them an identity based on the weapon they wield. Especially in the books, I know Drizzt is a weapons master, and he can wield many weapons. But through the course of a lot of R.A. Salvatore’s books, he’s wielding scimitars, Catti-brie’s got her bow, and Wulfgar has his warhammer. We added a lot of depth in the way you wield those weapons, as opposed to going with having many different weapon types without much depth.”
“Each of the [characters] plays in his or her own way,” Hattem said. “Drizzt is wielding scimitars. Wulfgar’s wielding a warhammer. It’s not only Aegie-fang or Icingdeath. There are other weapons with different properties. We’re letting [players] explore the playspace of those characters so they can [tinker with] their builds in their own way. The way I build Drizzt may be different than the way you build him. Depending on which weapons you equip and what skills you unlock and how you decide to progress the combo system, those are all ways you can tailor the experience to your playstyle.”
The Companions have other powerful items and abilities, as well. Drizzt carries a Figurine of Wondrous Power that summons his loyal panther friend, Guenhwyvar. They’re an iconic duo, and when he was on his own surviving in the Underdark before arriving in Icewind Dale, the panther was about the only touchstone Drizzt had to who he was, to his soul. Guenhwyvar isn’t just a magic item to him; she’s a trusted friend.
“Guenhwyvar is a very interesting aspect of Drizzt. He usually summons her from a figurine in times of need, and I think we’re going to approach it in that way for Drizzt,” he said. “But she’s not going to be a character.”
Getting into character
Readers love Drizzt not just for his bravery and willingness to risk his life and soul for his friends, but also for his introspection. Every book has interludes in which Drizzt ponders his place in existence, the events around him, and the nature of good and evil, as when he battles against The Hunter, the part of himself that focuses on pure survival with savage efficiency. Is that introspection something Tuque is looking to bring to Dark Alliance?
“His inner drama always tries to find a way out. He keeps that at bay. Those kinds of inner struggles are absolutely best captured in R.A. [Salvatore]’s books,” Hattem said. “There are certain advantages and disadvantages of each medium, and there’s nothing like a book to be able to go inside the head of a character like that. So we wouldn’t be doing it justice if we tried to bring that experience to the game, because we’d just fall short.”
But this doesn’t mean Tuque isn’t finding some way to bring out the characters’, well, character beyond their iconic weapons and fighting styles.
“There are a lot of ways the personality for Drizzt and the Companions is going to come through. If you play with your friends and you have more than one character playing in the game, they are constantly talking to each other, expressing how they feel about the events that are going on in the game. And that’s a way for us to get insight into their personality.”
This fits with the characters in the books, who often banter as they’re taking on challenges and fighting foes.
Why Icewind Dale
The Icewind Dale trilogy wraps up in 1356 Dale Reckoning (the calendar of the Forgotten Realms), but as of this fall’s Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus campaign, the official Realms timeline is in 1494 DR. Dark Alliance is an original story taking place after The Crystal Shard, as the group is still in Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale is a cold, dangerous land in the far northern reaches of Faerûn, with imposing mountains, blistering gales, and snow and glaciers. Many of the hardy folk who live there are clustered in Ten Towns, a group of small burgs. Barbarian tribes also roam the frozen landscape, and dwarves live under Kelvin’s Cairn, supplying Ten Towns with metal goods and weapons.
It’s also home to monsters: White dragons, goblinoids, frost giants, and ogres are just some of the malevolent threats in Icewind Dale. And plenty of beasts can ruin your day, as well.
“We are definitely showcasing Drizzt and his friends, and the time frame takes place quite a few years before the current events happening in the books right now, so we’re going back [in time some],” said Hattem in a video interview. “A little bit after the events of The Crystal Shard.”
In that story, a wizard finds the evil artifact Crenshinibon, a crystal shard with incredible powers and malevolence. He uses it to try to conquer Icewind Dale, controlling the minds of goblinoids, giants, and more and recruiting the powerful balor demon Ertu as his general.
In Salvatore’s latest novel, Boundless, Drizzt found himself in a desperate flight against demons and abyssal constructs as his friends once again face danger at the hands of those seeking power and the death of the renegade drow to appease the evil god Lloth.
I wondered if Wizards of the Coast’s decision to set this game so far in the past signified a newfound interest in telling stories set in any period of the Forgotten Realms, not just the current timeline.
“Dark Alliance is intended to appeal to existing D&D fans who already know and love Drizzt and the companions, but it’s also meant to attract new D&D fans through a different platform and style of gameplay. It made more sense to start earlier in the Legend of Drizzt as an entry point for the newer fans,” said Nathan Stewart, vice president of Dungeons & Dragons for Wizards of the Coast, in an email. “For people who know and love R.A. Salvatore’s work, it gives a new adventure for the Companions set in between his novels.”
“As for whether or not Wizards is open to telling stories outside the current Realms timeline, we want to work with the most passionate developers on amazing D&D stories, and if expanding that beyond the current TRPG makes sense for the fans, we will gladly craft that adventure.”
A couple of years ago, Stewart told me he would love to see a D&D open-world RPG. Considering that we’re now seeing Wizards forge ahead with Baldur’s Gate III and this action-RPG revisiting an older timeline, I asked whether the openness was a step in that direction.
“We have a long-term vision for Dungeons & Dragons, and a big part of that future is digital gaming and entertainment. This game, the acquisition of Tuque and the game development, [represent] a major investment in the future of D&D, and everything we are doing is with purpose and a passion for the brand,” he said. “So, while I can’t speak to this being a stepping stone or a test, I will say that Jeff and his team in Montreal are a very talented group of game developers and they are now part of the D&D and Wizards family. I don’t see us taking any steps backward, and this game is a huge step forward … just imagine what we can create together in the future.”
“The reasons for me are quite straightforward because we wanted to make a really visceral, harsh game that had an environment, a setting, that is … some of most dangerous places in all of the Realms are in Icewind Dale, and for me, that was the setting that I really like,” Hattem said. “I grew up reading R.A. Salvatore’s books with Drizzt Do’Urden, and a lot of the earlier books took place around Icewind Dale, and it’s just very fertile for my imagination.”
Icewind Dale may also be a familiar setting for D&D video game players. The Icewind Dale isometric RPGs have a good reputation, and Beamdog’s Enhanced version of the first is now on just about every platform out there. It’s also an adventuring zone in the MMO Neverwinter.
So far, we’ve talked about all the Companions of the Hall except one — Regis, the halfling rogue.
“Regis is not there,” Hattem said. “He’s definitely part of the group, but he’s not the character that’s the most athletic or … how can I say — he’s not the guy who’s going to stick his neck out in the middle of things. He usually comes in at opportune times, so he’s not there right now.”
I asked if he would appear as a merchant nonplayer character, someone the Companions sell loot to.
“You know, that could be a good idea for him, where he can go,” Hattem said. “I’m not ready to commit to where he takes place in the game or not. Still, it’s up for debate whether he’s going to be there.”
‘Putting action back in action-RPG’
A straight translation of the turn-based 5th Edition D&D system wouldn’t be practical for an action-RPG. So like the old Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games, this affair will be an adaptation of the rules. “It’s our own system that we’ve built,” Hattem said, noting that Tuque is trying to be faithful to D&D and Salvatore’s characters, but that “we need to be true to the experience that we’re making, which is a high-octane, dangerous action game. I think our game stands in a unique place and hits all those checkmarks.”
“From a progression standpoint, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on the momentum of an action,” he said. When I asked whether the progression would resemble either Diablo II or Diablo III, Hattem replied “those games put more emphasis on your stats and your progression in terms of the way you’re built out from a stat standpoint. We’re putting as much emphasis on the moment-to-moment action. We’re asking players to pay attention to the action aspects of the game. I’d say we’re putting action back [into] action-RPG.”
I wondered whether you’d have abilities such as Wulfgar throwing his warhammer in a whirlwind-like attack, as he’s done countless times in the novels. “That is exactly one of the abilities that Wulfgar has,” he said, reiterating that each character has their own set of abilities and role. “Wulfgar is a basher. He’s the guy that does a lot of crowd control, smashes monsters. Drizzt is more dexterous, and it’s a higher skill cap to play Drizzt to the level in which he can be effective. But he is devastating, quick and nasty, pokey with this two scimitars.”
As you build your characters, you unlock new combat moves and can upgrade them. They also have what Hattem calls “kits” that are based around their skills. The kits’ scope is more limited — they confer “special abilities that you use contextually to deal with challenges thrown at you.” The final part of progression is in the choice of the weapons you wield.
The other way Tuque wants to bring out the action is by removing the top-downish isometric perspective and using a third-person presentation instead. “I want to make people be a part of Icewind Dale and really witness firsthand how harsh the world is, how bad-ass the monsters are, and [that] it’s not an easy place to survive,” Hattem said.
Since this takes place after The Crystal Shard, I was curious whether Crenshinibon would factor into Dark Alliance.
“I won’t get into that part today because that relates more to the narrative aspects of the game. And it’s a really good, astute, precise question that I wouldn’t want to reveal at this point because I don’t want to spoil anything for people,” he said.
Likewise, since Artemis Entreri is still Drizzt’s mortal enemy at this point, I asked if he would show up. “Same answer,” Hattem said. Ditto for Errtu the Balor, one of Drizzt’s deadliest foes at this time in the drow’s history.
As for the monsters, Hattem wouldn’t get into specifics, saying that they’d have their own areas as they showcase them. “We’re treating the monsters as importantly as the companions. We get a glimpse at more than just combat, more than just them bashing heroes. We see them in a way as, ‘How do goblins get their power from Maglubiyet [their god]? How do the gnolls get their power from Yeenoghu [a demon lord]?’ We’re going a bit more into the lore of these monsters. I think that’s interesting.”
He wouldn’t confirm whether my favorite monster from the icy reaches of Faerûn, the remorhaz, would be in Dark Alliance (though with its powerful jaws, huge size, and scorching back, it feels like a fitting challenge for the heroes in this game).
Friends until the end
Drizzt Do’Urden and his allies have survived dragons, drow, demons, and vengeful gods through the years. And Tuque is going to showcase their fighting spirit in Dark Alliance. But the studio also wants to show the importance of the friendships, the bonds between these brilliant warriors.
“Drizzt wouldn’t have survived any of this if it weren’t for his friends and his allies,” Hattem said. “One of the main themes I got out of the books was that no matter how awesome you are, if you can get together with other people who share the same bonds and value system, there’s nothing that can stop you.”
Not even Lloth.