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Darkstone

Saturday, January 01, 2000 by TheDoc || [0 Comments]

Overall: 4
Graphics: 4
Interface: 4
The game development community is a genuine melting pot of creativity. Each genre has its own flame over which a seething cauldron boils with artistry and innovation; sometimes, a design studio will surprise everyone and conceive something fresh that captivates our imaginations. After relishing the accolades, the designers step away and permit others to toss in their own ingredients. In January 1997, Blizzard Entertainment released the notoriously habit-forming Diablo, an action-oriented role-playing title that gripped us in a huge way and defined a genre rich with potential. Or so we thought. As Blizzard quietly labored on the sequel, we were left with a gaping void no one else seemed capable of filling. That is, until Delphine Software and the Gathering of Developers stepped forth with their current action-RPG offering, Darkstone.

Their endeavor is not as bold as some might imagine, as the title bows deeply toward its spiritual ancestor. But it would be too simple and misleading, actually, to write this off as a mere clone. True, the core gameplay tightly embraces Blizzard’s criterion and there are countless nuances that recall adventures through Tristram, right down to the mouse-clutching battles and the colors of the magic potions, but there are also numerous subtle improvements that smooth out experience, the sort that raise our expectations and send other designers scrambling. What this boils down to is, Delphine has done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of this genre and imbuing it with a heaping pile of fun.

The fantasy-based conventions on which the title is grounded emerge as the opening cinematic splashes across the screen. The plot entails a crusade to end the loathsome existence of an evil dragon, or in fact, an evil priest who has the capacity to turn into a dragon. Borrowing a page from the Manual for Mighty Ne’er Do Wells, he has employed an army of miscreants to do his bidding, forcing gamers to slash a bloodied path through dungeons and wastelands to locate seven crystals -- the pieces of a time orb needed to bring the dragon to a writhing end. There are no surprises here, and once the adventure is set in motion with this singular goal, the story is essentially self-propelling. The strength of this offering and the conduit for our motivation is not its meager plot letting, but rather a well-crafted system of quests that engage us on a deeper level than Diablo.

The game predictably greets us with a well-rounded selection of characters, including a warrior, thief, priest and wizard. Male and female incarnations of each are available, and as one would expect, the Warrior is a memorial of physical strength while the Wizard prefers the more refined art of spellcasting. The others fall somewhere in between these extremes, but all share the same four attributes, including strength, magic, dexterity and vitality. There are also 21 abilities that can be acquired to better one’s chances in battle, such as learning to increase the rate at which one gains experience or theft to better relieve merchants of their goods. Building up one characteristic, such as strength or magic, is a sound strategy, but there is a slice of genius here that deepens the gameplay -- the ability to select up to two characters for the solo adventure.

Controlling a dynamic duo comes at the price of gaining roughly half the experience points, but it is well worth the investment. The ability to team up diverse characters bestows upon action-RPG’ers the essence of a party-based adventure, enabling us to forge into battle with a broad range of abilities. Since the game is easily defeated using one character, there is no strategic advantage to using two, but it is a genuine thrill. The first time I strode into battle using a warrior and the sorceress, I shouted in celebration to have one casting spells in tandem with the other’s swordplay. Switching between the two is simple, so what some might assume would be a complicated process is actually fluid and accessible. The implementation is not faultless since the spell system is more oriented to serving a single character rather than aiding an accomplice, but the fun factor is present in spades.

After selecting one’s vanguards of war, a trip to the village is in order. Once again, Diablo fans are going to feel right at home, but it is here that the differences really begin to shine. The village is a small square with all the right people in all the right places, a direct contrast to Tristram’s endless, wandering acres. There is a weapons shop, a healer, a trainer, a tavern and a wizard, all there for the purchasing and selling of armor, weapons, spells, foodstuff, potions and more. Because the village will be frequented to upgrade and repair the implements of battle, Delphine has made it tight and functional, the way it should be. In other words, no more stultifying boring tramps through the wilderness to find an enchantress. The residents of the town even approach the gamer with quests and advice, giving the settlement a feeling of warm interaction and facilitating the most important part of the experience.

Another of the astonishingly addictive elements derived from Diablo is the process of character development, essentially a trimmed down version of the more elaborate schemes found in hardcore RPGs. As the avatars gather gold and sell goods found in the dungeons, their riches increase, enabling them to acquire training and purchase an increasingly expensive cache of arms, spells and shielding. There is deep satisfaction in purging every niche of a dungeon to level up and gather enough spoils to purchase that sturdy new sword. Through this lucid process, Delphine has accomplished one of the main goals of an RPG: to enable us to mold a worthy hero that embodies a specifically defined set of attributes according to our own preferences. As the Amazon, I concentrated on becoming a master of arms, trade and repair; nonetheless, developing a carefully balanced persona is a sage move as both might and magic are required to overcome the combined challenges.

The dungeons themselves, 37 in all, are small and efficient battlegrounds. Spread across four main lands, the arenas of death are randomly generated and rendered using an attractive polygonal engine with smooth dynamic lighting. Do not anticipate rooms-above-rooms or multi-level environments, though, as the maps are stretched across a single plane. Still, Delphine has arranged some eye-catching moments through the use of atmospheric lighting and clever architectural touches. I often paused for a moment to gaze down at the Amazon as she stood facing a silent corridor lit at the hand of glimmering torches. Invariably, a creature would emerge from the shadows, ruining the moment and earning a good butchering. To be sure, the dungeons are infested with rogues of all sorts, more than 100 total, as well as various traps and other perils.

Delphine cleverly slimmed down the size of the dungeons and provided an overlay map to guide confused travelers. And in a second slice of genius, the team furnished a means for automatically returning to previous locations. This means never getting lost again nor spending precious time wandering aimlessly through bowling alley precise corridors searching for the exit. The process is so refined, a person can literally go from four dungeons deep to the surface in eight taps of the mouse, or rush from merchant to merchant in the village, then return to the dungeon. This, combined with the Magic Door spell and the fast loading times, has effectively removed all the frustration of navigation.

Plus it leaves more time for slaughtering creatures. The combat uses the instantly familiar point-and-tap process, leaving a second hand to diligently summon health, mana and other cures. And it is here that the designers dish up a final slice of genius. How many of us loathed the incessant mouse-mashing in Blizzard’s offering? Here, a single tap will set the hero to slicing, dicing and casting spells until the target is effectively eliminated. This alone is reason to celebrate, and I cannot return to the way things were. There are imperfections. Sometimes selecting an enemy for execution prompts nothing and the hero obliviously stands there while getting pounded, so cursor detection definitely needs fine-tuning. Additionally, while the combat is addictive, it is also disappointingly easy. I cannot recall a single pulse-pounding battle throughout, up to and including the final confrontation.

But the most impressive aspect of the game is the assortment of quests. As usual, these are randomly generated; the main ones entail gathering the seven crystals, but there are countless sub-quests that send our heroes plundering after a magical bauble or some other valuable commodity. These diversions are conferred through the townspeople, who offer 10,000 pieces of gold in addition to their gratitude upon completion, so attempting them is a good idea. But what truly impressed me were the main quests. For starters, they are a little more intricate than the simple hunt-and-gather process. Although we are still hounding after an object, and in the process are guaranteed to fight one of the tougher opponents to get it, there is a welcome cerebral edge to them due to the integration of adventure-style puzzles.

Although I do not recall any genuine head-scratchers, a personal favorite was restoring the sight and faith of a blind priest to obtain a crystal from a forgotten god. Completing this quest was a multi-step process that involved numerous character interactions and the solving of manifold puzzles. The one blemish here is that the quests and sub-quests are laid on a bit heavily, which leads to some disconcerting moments later in the game as one struggles to cognitively coordinate numerous conversations and clues. I was also thrilled when I launched a second game and the randomized maps and quests gave birth to an entirely fresh adventure. Imagine my pleasure as I wandered through new-sprung territory and found characters I had never met and quests I had never attempted. The replayability here is considerable. Throughout the commonplace dungeon romps, the game applies a constant balance of journey and success, something that will have me in its caged grip right up until Blizzard unleashes its sequel this Christmas.

Graphics/Display:

3D graphics acceleration brings a certain clarity to the visuals. The dungeons are suitably dismal, and the carefully placed torches and other light sources add to the atmosphere. Additionally, the use of 3D characters refines the animation with smooth movements and enables a modeling style unique to these creatures. The spell effects only complement the razzle-dazzle; watching a glowing blue orb illuminate the deep passages and erupt upon hitting its target is pure optic pleasure. It also bears mentioning that this internally developed engine features one of the most effective uses of transparency I have seen. It does more than add visual appeal to the spell effects; it serves an intrinsic purpose in navigation since the walls fade to reveal upcoming passages.

Alas, there are shortcomings. The resolution is nailed down at 640x480, meaning gaming configurations with more graphical muscle are going to go soft running this offering. Believe me, with my 21" monitor, there were times when I grieved for a higher resolution. Furthermore, the outside terrain textures have a tiled effect that detracts significantly from the suspension of disbelief, and some of the animations, such as the splitting of barrels, seem to consist of two scant frames. Then there are the woefully inadequate CGI rendered cutscenes, which have a curiously low-budget movie feel to them, and the impossible to read menu fonts. That said, the one questionable aspect on which I side with Delphine is the 3D models. Up close, there is not much detail and the sharp edges betray low polygon counts. But the game is not meant to be consistently viewed up close; rather, the camera should be held at a moderate distance, so one can see creatures assailing from all directions. The close-ups are more intended for zooming in to in-game cutscenes and combing for riches on the ground. Overall, Darkstone is an attractive title with some visual lapses.

Interface/Controls:

As I have discussed, the interface contains some welcome innovations, including the single-tap combat and the ability to travel to select locations on autopilot. Also earning high points are the customizable camera views, which rotate 360 degrees around the selected character and can zoom in for a close-up or zoom out to grab more of the surroundings. Add to this isometric and overhead perspectives, and Diablo seems stiff by comparison. The inventory screens are nearly identical to Blizzard’s already strong setup, so much so they should have been licensed. Despite this polish, the interface falls slightly short of intuitive. Essentially, the status bar is too cluttered and suffers from poor use of space, leading me to frustrations such as continually hitting the wrong selection -- e.g. conversations instead of abilities -- wasting mana when I intended to bring up the inventory, or right- and left- tapping all over the screen to determine how to repair a weapon. These were odd anomalies for a game so intent on providing simple, clear-sighted controls. Fortunately, experience was the best teacher.

Multiplayer (if any):

x

Summary:

Delphine begins with an already solid war plan and adds their own strategies to pull us in. At its core, this title is about adventuring through dungeons, gaining experience, gathering gold, completing quests and slashing monsters. The emphasis on action is strong, and though this might cause hardcore critics to scorn the RPG appellation, Delphine ties the action into quests, the true litmus test of an RPG. The intricate quests presented here are the means through which the narrative is told, the mechanism through which our characters interact with the game world, and the foundation for gaining experience. Although Darkstone is too heavily based on combat to be a hardcore RPG, for these reasons, it is more of one than Diablo. Given the accent on action, requiring people to eat and rest are pointless inclusions, but as a whole, the gameplay is very gratifying and fun, and has more depth than its predecessor.

Which brings me to the online experience, a terrifically fun experience. Up to four people with access to a LAN or the Internet can grab their existing characters and plunge into the adventure as a team, bringing a comprehensive range of weapons and abilities to the table. I am glad to report the process is all but lag free, even with participants in diverse locations. We a four-person game with computers spread across the U.S. using everything from a 56K dial-up connection to a cable modem, and there was no difference in speed -- this is efficient online code. Users can set up a dedicated server, or one person can operate as the server and have the others connect to him or her. Additionally, Delphine has provided a mode for turning off damage, though the default is on, so our tests, without fail, started with people unintentionally slaughtering each other. The audio is quite good, though some will lament the absence of Aureal 3D or EAX support. Certainly, these APIs would have added a rich aural realism to the underground environments. Nonetheless, the sound cues perform admirably, alerting us when a monster approaches or drawing our attention to a sword as it clangs to the ground after an opponent dies. The voice acting is also persuasive, with just the right touch of the Old World, though I suspect a couple of the actors might have been related to the designers. Still, the blind priest who had lost his faith was so good, he almost made me weep. The highest praise is reserved for the urgent counsel the characters provide as they approach death. Help! the Amazon would plead during battle, signaling health was needed, and fast. This was a nice touch that enabled me to watch the action and not the status bars.

If I had lived in medieval times, I would have had to be in a band. Sometimes urgent and other times heart-tuggingly mournful, the score here is a constant but subtle conveyor of mood. In tone, it is appropriately similar to other action-oriented fantasy games such as Diablo and Heretic. Though none of the ballads or upbeat melodies are all that memorable, each fittingly serves the overall theme. The first time I played Diablo, I slammed into an impassable stone wall of monsters on level 11. Although I had carefully molded the Barbarian to be all he could be, it was not enough, and I was forced to restart at level one to gain more experience. Not so with Darkstone. Although I can appreciate an uncomplicated jaunt to ease the tensions of real life, the combat in this game is too temperate, even when forging through with one character. It has nothing to do with the AI; to be sure, the enemies are not the most intelligent creatures to populate a dungeon, but are able to surround heroes when given the chance. Yet I never felt the cold hand of death passing over me, even after reaching level 20 and restarting under a higher difficulty. With a good stash of mana and the healing spell, even the Warrior can face down the toughest rogues. Indeed, the only way to wrest a decent challenge out of the game is to play as a wizard with feeble combat abilities. Fortunately, Delphine is addressing this by adding another difficulty level in an upcoming patch, though this does not affect the score here. There is a welcome challenge in the quests, given the investment is puzzle solving, and for this, I was grateful. Darkstone is more than an addictive time drain, it is an accessible and entertaining title no action-RPG fan should pass up without considering its strengths. In essence, Delphine has recaptured the magic of an old friend and transformed it to the degree that their title stands on its own. Although not innovative in the sense that Diablo came first nor cerebral enough to attract hardcore RPG’ers, it doesn’t have to be. The improved interface alone is reason to celebrate, but the design team has also fashioned such an engaging set of quests and invested the game with so much replayability, the resemblance to Blizzard’s classic is soon forgotten. The absence of a decent challenge is going to turn some people away, but in the end, this is great fun and that’s what counts. Should Delphine improve the niggling interface and difficulty anomalies, it will have a minor classic on its hands. Nevertheless, I’ll be adventuring through these lands for months to come.

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