There was a time when arcade-style hack-and-slash games ruled the day. These games featured simple stories and accessible gameplay that kept the action tight and fast. While game design has become much more refined in the ensuing years, the genre has stuck around in one form or another thanks to the timeless appeal of beating people up and smashing things. The latest game to channel that era of gaming is Black Stone: Magic and Steel from Xicat Entertainment. The game was released earlier this year in Japan under the name Ex-Chaser. We recently had a chance to check out a previewable version of the upcoming US release, which features solid graphics and accessible gameplay..
Black Stone's structure is pleasantly linear. You'll pick one of five character classes--warrior, archer, pirate, thief, or warlock--and make your way through 26 levels on a quest to defeat the forces of evil. Black Stone's thin but functional story revolves around the return of an underworld lord named Madul who was once the scourge of a land called Zedan. It's apparently been so long since the evil one was taken out that his dark legacy is now the thing of myth. Unfortunately, a pack of warlocks are eager for some retro evil and go about summoning the dark one to once again wreak havoc on the land, thus providing your motivation in the game.
Black Stone's gameplay is rooted firmly in the arcade style of old-school games such as Gauntlet and Golden Axe. The game is played from a top-down perspective, and it simply asks you to hack up everything you come across, collect keys to open chests, and find the exit. The game is very similar to Gauntlet Legends in terms of its presentation and gameplay mechanics. You'll attack with a variety of melee and long-range moves and occasionally use magic scrolls that unleash hefty doses of damage. You'll also find a dash of Golden Axe thrown in via the ability to ride assorted dinosaurs through levels, which comes in handy when dealing with the hordes of enemies the game throws at you. Each of the five character classes has its own self-evident set of unique strengths and weaknesses that will affect how you play through the game. When playing a multiplayer game, which supports up to three other players, the characters' individual abilities complement each other well and encourage cooperative gameplay.
The game's control is solid and easy to pick up. You move around with the left analog stick, and you have four basic attacks: A triggers a normal attack, B uses magic if you have some handy, X shoots projectiles, and Y performs a team attack. The white button will call up a level map that you can leave onscreen to help you find your way around.
Graphically, Black Stone is solid but a bit derivative and workmanlike. The game features a standard selection of indoor and outdoor levels that boast a solid amount of detail. The character models are fairly detailed but move a bit stiffly thanks to a rather conservative animation routine that skimps on frames. The foes you'll face are suitably menacing and plentiful, emerging from generators that you'll have to destroy as you make your way through each level.
The game's audio is sparse at the moment. You'll hear the requisite cries from your players and the death grunts of enemies. In addition, you'll hear explosions from bombs and the roars of your dinosaur. The audio is overshadowed by the soundtrack, which is a rather unique mix of techno and atmospheric tunes.
Judging from what we've played so far, Black Stone is coming together well enough. The game looks solid and is playable, and the four-player multiplayer mode definitely gives the game some appeal. At the moment, though, the game lacks polish and as such doesn't really stand out from the pack. Black Stone is slated to ship this February for the Xbox.