The bargain bin has never been a publisher's sought-after display case. Typically filled with software so underwhelming that no one would buy it at full price, the bin is regularly the realm of boring movie licenses and day-old fads like the Deer Hunter clones. Strangely though, a shift in the video game market is occurring. Like Target and Wal-Mart are to Nordstrom and Macy's, budget software is to high-priced video games. In a bold move, Take 2 Interactive was one of the first major developers to willingly make the jump to the discount bargain bins, rolling out four dirt-cheap games for the PlayStation console this summer. Darkstone, a PC role-playing game and a Diablo clone of the first order, is one of these budget titles.
For those not familiar with the PC RPG, Darkstone turned out to be a well-received game in the computing community when it was released last year. Sure, it was labeled a Diablo clone by just about everyone who played it, but patterning yourself after one of the most popular PC games in recent memory isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when Darkstone did it with some style. Now Take 2 Interactive hopes that the title's original developer (Delphine, maker of the classic Flashback on the Genesis) can do for the PlayStation what it did for the PC - make some rehashed hack-and-slash role-playing action a quality experience at the fraction of the price.
Darkstone's plot centers around the schemes of an evil monk, known as Draak, who has the ability to transform himself into a powerful dragon. As nice and convenient as it would be, you cannot defeat Draak through ordinary means. You can only overcome him after you've assembled the seven broken shards of the time orb. With the orb in your possession, you can face Draak in battle, and your weapons will be capable of wiping his evil spirit from the land.
Gameplay takes place over 32 dungeon-like levels in which you'll encounter 80 different enemies and make use of dozens of spells and fighting techniques. Like in Diablo, you create your character at the outset of your quest by choosing your gender and then one of four unique classes (fighter, thief, wizard, and priest). Gender factors into Darkstone in a unique way, as each class has subdivisions depending on whether you're female or male. A character in the fighter class, for example, looks like a medieval warrior if you're male and an Amazon if you're female, and they will perform differently, making the distinctions more than just cosmetic. This gives you a total of eight original characters to work with, which adds variety and replay value.
Darkstone's developers determined which elements worked and didn't work in Diablo, and they try to give you the best in Darkstone. Just like Diablo, Darkstone offers hours of mindless hacking and slashing. Unlike Diablo, though, Darkstone uses planned dungeons, though items are randomized through a quest generator. Also unique to Darkstone is simultaneous two-player control. You design and manage the actions of both characters onscreen at the same time. An intuitive system made this fairly easy to do in the PC version, so considering that Delphine was behind both the original PC and PlayStation conversion of the title, we can expect it won't mess up a good thing.
Darkstone's graphics were good on the PC, moving silky smooth in high resolutions on the more capable machines. Darkstone's engine should essentially remain unchanged from the PC version in spite of the PlayStation's lower resolution. Characters will be rendered with simplistic but colorful polygons, and the dungeons will be a bit more varied than the endlessly dark corridors of Diablo. Though the PlayStation's Darkstone may not stack up side-by-side with its PC version, it should definitely show up Diablo's 2D sprites.
It's easy to remain skeptical about Take 2's promises of action-packed quality gaming at some seriously budget prices, but Darkstone may prove the dissenters wrong. With the game's original developers fully behind the project, and the game already an established success on the PC front, you may have something to look forward to on October 2, when Darkstone arrives at stores with a $10 MSRP.
[Editors Note: Screenshots are from the PC version]