Demon Stone is an upcoming third-person action game from Atari for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The game is set in the popular Forgotten Realms universe created for the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game and has been on our radar since word of it hit earlier this year. Developer Stormfront Studios, which has cut its teeth on games such as Blood Wake for the Xbox and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for all three consoles, has been hard at work crafting a game that marries action role-playing elements with D&D lore. We recently had the chance to get a look at a work-in-progress version of the PlayStation 2 game and were pleasantly wowed by what we saw.
At first blush, Demon Stone's story appears to be a classic tale of heroes out to save the world, but that's just part of the tale. There's an uncomfortable twist to the narrative that complicates matters a bit. While it is technically true that the heroes you'll play as in the game--Rannek, a fighter; Illius, a sorcerer; and Zhai, an elven rogue--are on a quest to stop a pair of feuding demons from wreaking havoc on the land as they try to kill each other, it's also true that your heroic trio is responsible for unleashing the demons in the first place. (Oops.) The game's opening cinematic shows the pair of hellions--the charmingly named Ygorl, the Slaad Lord, and Sereka, the Githyanki General--being trapped in a Demon Stone by the wizard Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun, voiced by Patrick Stewart, as their fight starts heating up.
Theoretically the pair would have stayed in the stone indefinitely, but, during the dramatic opening level, the trio of fighters accidentally releases them in one of the best "d'oh!" moments we've seen in a while. Once the gravity of the situation becomes clear, the three find themselves on an adventure to stop the feuding demons before their fighting lays waste to everything. Mint-condition Demon Stones aren't that easy to come by, however, so the trio has to trek to find a stone and then track down the surly demons and convince them to hold still for a moment while they're sucked into the stone again. As you'd expect, it's not going to be an easy task to accomplish. Add in a bit of geographical drama--the places you have to visit aren't right next to each other--and you have a mightily epic quest with a lot to do and kill.
The basic structure of the games sends you on a fairly linear course through a series of levels set throughout the Forgotten Realms. Your objectives will be logical progressions of the story and will revolve around making your way to the stone as well as finding Ygorl and Sereka. You're helped along the way by quite a few familiar faces from D&D lore, including Drizzt D'ourden, whose cameo is extra special since you'll get a chance to have him in your party and play as him for a short stretch of time.
Demon Stone's gameplay draws heavily from role-playing-style games but has a strong emphasis on action to ensure you won't be battling through menu-driven attack scenarios. The combat mechanics are pretty close to the system Stormfront used in The Two Towers--every character will have a light and heavy attack and a kick. You'll be able to block and throw projectiles, as well. Rannek and Zhai will have a limited number of ranged attacks, but Illius' magic bolt will never run out. You will perform fight combos via simple button combinations. In addition to those core moves, you'll be able to trigger super attacks for individual characters as well as a team super that uses all three members of your party, or you can call on one of them individually for a hand if you're in a bind.
These traditional brawling elements are supplemented by the ability to switch between the characters at any time. This ends up being extremely useful, as they all have strengths and weaknesses based on their classes in combat. However, the trio also has unique abilities you'll need to manage to get past certain obstacles. For example, Zhai can be temporarily invisible when she stands in shadow and can also jump to access new areas; Rannek gains a powerful punch that destroys obstacles; and Illius can use magical force balls to destroy certain obstacles or damage enemies. The role-playing elements of the game come into play at the end of a level as you come to a menu that lets you upgrade your character or items by using the experience and gold you have earned. Stormfront has included a user-friendly system that will let novice gamers who are unsure of the best purchases to make simply select "auto buy," which will sort out the most logical purchases for your crew. Anyone looking to do a more involved tuning of their crew can go in and do their own tweaking.
Demon Stone's graphics are an impressive collection of solid technology married with some sleight of hand that manages to coax a hefty bit of performance out of the aging PlayStation 2 hardware. Although the game is technically running on the next generation of the graphics engine Stormfront used in 2002's The Two Towers game, there's quite a bit more going on. The main characters in the game are intricately modeled with a generous polygon budget that allows for a high level of detail in their clothing and faces. While the characters' individual raiments are certainly pretty to look at, their expressive faces steal the show. The three heroes are an emotive bunch of speakers during the in-game cinematics that move the story along as you progress through levels.
That level of visual quality extends to the environments and backgrounds, which are gorgeous. The various locales you'll be venturing through will include dark canyons, cavernous temples, snowy mountains, gem-filled caves, and other suitably D&D-style places that show off the powerful graphics engine. Stormfront adds a heaping layer of polish in the form of interactive elements in the environments as well as animation and assorted lighting touches in the deep background to help give the environments even more depth. Of course this isn't to say you're going through beautifully modeled but sparsely populated places. The levels pack a more-than-respectable amount of enemies onscreen and all manner of effects to really add life to the action. The downside is that, sadly, most of what you see you will be trying to kill. The enemy roster will also include a crazy assortment of bosses that come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The best part of the visuals is the solid frame rate; even in its incomplete state the game never really slowed down.
While all of the above speaks highly of the technical side of Demon Stone's graphics, we have to make special note of the game's art style, which offers a fresh take on the familiar D&D world. Given that D&D is such a well-known property and the people and places in it have become so recognizable, it'd very easy for a developer to crank out a game that fits in visually with the established milieu. Fortunately Stormfront has managed to create a unique style that doesn't rely too much on convention, although there is only so much you can do with an orc. One stylistic touch lets the characters reflect the upgrades you get for them on the fly in the game, so when you buy Rannek's frost sword you'll see him wield it as you play. The fresh approach also extends to the game's cinematic presentation, which is in the same vein as the presentation in The Two Towers but is far more refined and kinetic.
The audio in the game is a strong complement to the cinematic visuals. The music in the game is a collection of original pieces that draw on a wide assortment of genres. There's even a choir thrown in for good measure. The soundtrack also makes interesting use of silence during certain parts of the game, which works well to heighten the tension. The voice acting is also excellent. Patrick Stewart's and Michael Clarke Duncan's distinctive voices are supplemented by a solid voice cast, which lends personality to everyone you meet. Speech ends up being a large part of the experience, since the three heroes will talk to each other as they go through a level. The casual banter is structured in such a way as to reduce the repetition that often crops up in games. So, while the characters will banter among themselves as you go through areas, the speech will vary depending on whom you're currently controlling.
Based on what we've seen so far, Demon Stone is shaping up to be a tasty brawler that should proudly carry the 2D pixel torch--once held by old-school classics such as Golden Axe--into 3D. The graphics are impressive, with cinematic camera angles that work surprisingly well as you play, and the gameplay seems to deftly walk the line between accessibility and pandering. The only blemish on the package is the lack of co-op play, which would have been a great extra to have. Thankfully the varied gameplay you'll experience with each of the members of your party keeps the action from getting stale. All told, we liked what we saw and are anxiously awaiting the chance to play more. Demon Stone is currently slated to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2, with an Xbox version to follow. Anyone with a hankering for a brawler should keep an eye out for it. Until then, check back for more in the coming weeks. For now, check out our exclusive interview with Stormfront and see some exclusive footage from the game in motion here.