Although it won't hit store shelves until early 2001, Throne of Darkness from Click Entertainment and Sierra Studios is one title that action-RPG fans will want to watch closely. Throne of Darkness combines the hack-and-slash gameplay of Diablo with the rich historical texture of feudal Japan and some tactical elements as well. Throne of Darkness will introduce a few new twists in both single- and multiplayer action, as well as a slick system for acquiring spells and magic items. To top things off, the game boasts crisp, highly detailed graphics and animation that are impressive even at this early stage. Although the press build we played is extremely early and incomplete, it's not hard to see the tremendous potential of this game.
The story of Throne of Darkness centers on the shogun Kira Tsunayoshi, an inept ruler who had forsaken the four gods in favor of cold, hard cash. Punished by the gods for straying, Tsunayoshi found himself on death's door. His only chance for survival was a strange monk bearing a supposed elixir of immortality. But while the strange potion saved the shogun's life, one of its hidden side effects changed him into a vile demon. Altered by this newfound power, the shogun, now the demon Zanshin, had his armies drink the elixir as well. Then, commanding a legion of undead warriors and demons, he assaulted the four daimyo who jointly ruled the land. But Zanshin reined in his forces too early, mistakenly thinking that he had already wiped out all of the daimyo. The one left alive marshaled his remaining samurai - all seven of them - to send against the countless minions of Zanshin.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, it is. The gameplay in Throne of Darkness is very much like Diablo except that you generally control more than one character at a time. And the "few against many" theme is alive and well in this game. With only seven samurai at your disposal - each of which has different abilities and strengths - you must fight your way through countless evil samurai and demons. The ultimate goal, of course, is to defeat Zanshin, the Dark Warlord. To be successful, you will have to not only survive in battle but also give thanks to your gods and carefully organize the few heroes left to command.
It's not surprising that Throne of Darkness resembles Diablo in many ways. After all, the game's development company was founded by ex-Blizzard employees Doron Gartner and Ben Haas, both of whom worked on the original Diablo. The basic action-RPG elements established by Diablo are in place. You maneuver your way around a world viewed from a three-quarters isometric angle, clicking on destinations and enemies to attack. Each character under your control has an inventory bar that provides access to spell scrolls and potions, and each character has a health and mana - or in this case, ki - meter at opposite sides of the screen. Even loot uncovered in your adventure spins happily, and familiarly, into the gameworld when discovered in a chest or barrel.
What makes Throne of Darkness so intriguing, however, is the variety of ways in which it stands apart from Diablo. For one thing, you can control up to four characters in this game. This is accomplished much the same way that it was in Darkstone, where you controlled a lead character and a second one followed your movements. The same is true for Throne of Darkness, except that now up to three people can follow you at a time. Also, you can issue tactical commands to your party, a process referred to in-game as "play calling." Currently, these options are retreat, attack one-on-one, and attack all-on-one. Eventually, the play calling will permit attacking at long-range so that players equipped with bows can pick off distant enemies.
Key to the use of tactics is the makeup of your party. The seven samurai in the game essentially represent seven character types. They are:
- Leader: A warrior who has more tactical commands at his disposal than the others.
- Berserker: A samurai who can wield two swords at once.
- Swordsman: The most well-rounded character in the game, with skills in combat, leadership, and magic.
- Archer: A master of the bow and all similar ranged weapons.
- Mage: Well versed in the mystic arts, the mage uses spells and curses to support party members in combat.
- Brick: An immensely big fellow who favors club-like weapons and has the ability to smash through some obstacles in the game.
- Ninja: A quick and stealthy assassin who also possesses impressive magic skills.
Combat and Multiplay
Although the combat in the press demo we played was very preliminary (one hit killed everything we attacked), it showed off some other interesting aspects of the game that help set it apart from other action RPGs. The magic system, for example, is extremely impressive. Though a few of the spells are directly pulled out of Diablo - the chain-lightning spell in particular - others are unique and amazingly powerful. The Earth Kanji spell was among our favorites, as it caused a huge pointed gray spike to thrust up from the earth under each of our adversaries in the nearby area. Presumably, this spell and many others will be toned down a bit in the final version or at least will be very difficult to come by and cast.
The way in which you accumulate spells is pretty slick. By giving gold and treasure to the four elemental gods, you will receive favors in the form of spells. And if the party equally appeases two different gods, the party may even be favored with special combo spells that pack the power of both fire and water, for example.
Weapons and armor have their own unique acquisition and creation system. Weapons taken from fallen foes may have to be purified before they can be used so as to remove the taint of the Dark Warlord from the items. Also, if the party gathers enough "monster parts," it can have the daimyo's blacksmith create special magic weapons. This system will most likely work along the same lines as the forge-weapon/armor-creation ability in the PlayStation RPG Chrono Cross, although it was completely offline in the press version.
Commanding four characters in the single-player game figures to be fun, but the designers are also building in the ability to support five-way battles between 35 total characters for even better multiplayer mayhem. One of Throne of Darkness' tantalizing multiplayer modes features an all-out war between four daimyos and the Dark Warlord, each of whom has seven champions. As the development plans stand today, 35 players should be able to log in and take part in this style of game, making for some interesting team dynamics.
The goal in multiplayer is always to defeat the Dark Warlord, so even in game where two daimyos team up, only one can take part in the final battle. And when the Warlord is defeated, the winning team then becomes the Dark Warlord team, and the game starts over from the beginning. Of course, with any multiplayer game these details are highly subject to change, pending gameplay balance issues and performance testing.
Throne of Darkness is an impressive game even now in its early pre-beta stage. It offers interesting action-RPG twists and looks good as well. The visuals are incredibly crisp and nicely detailed, at the same time evoking thoughts of Diablo and Red Storm's hand-painted Shadow Watch. The array of creatures to fight should be rather staggering, as even in the press preview we played there were over a dozen different monster types in the limited play area. Most are exceptionally well animated (especially in death) and range from half-sized samurai pikemen to skeletal warriors and floating mystic priestesses. Spectral samurai and hulking armored turtles called kappa (which look like they emerged from a Mario Bros. nightmare) were some of the more spectacular enemies in the preview.
There's no doubt that the game has a long way to go. We were unable to test out even a quarter of the game's many planned features - for example, all of our characters were hard-coded with the name Martin and had the exact same abilities, regardless of character type. The combat system will of course need balancing, and the entire pray-to-the-gods system was absent from this build. No multiplayer features were enabled, the game crashed a lot, and so on. Sure, it's not ready for ship, but it's not due out for several months yet. Clearly the framework of the game is solidly in place. But a lot of work still needs to be done, not only with wholesale feature implementation but with fine-tuning as well. The basic feature set needs to be fleshed out, the overall gameplay needs balancing, and there is still lots of testing and optimization to be done.
Let's hope these tasks will be accomplished with as much polish as this initial press preview was assembled. If Click Entertainment can stay on course with Throne of Darkness for the next four or five months, action-RPG fans could soon be playing a unique and fun entrant in the genre.