Every once in a while, a game comes along that reminds us of a great game that came before it. In many cases, the new game is branded a clone and may even be condemned for its unoriginal design or gameplay. On the other hand, sometimes the new game is great in its own right, with new features and unique twists that make it different. Such is the case with Darkstone, an action-oriented role-playing game heavily influenced by Diablo, but with enough original content and gameplay to stand apart from the Blizzard classic.
It would be easy to label Darkstone a Diablo rip-off. After all, the basic gameplay is virtually identical, and numerous subtleties, from the background music and sound effects to the color of the health and mana potions, appear to be lifted directly from Blizzard's game. Still, Darkstone shakes things up quite a bit with a number of key features. For starters, you get to control two characters at once. This takes some getting used to and can be awkward at times, but it also adds some depth to the gameplay. And although you can opt for only one character in the game, controlling two is actually crucial for success against the game's antagonist, Draak.
But the most obvious difference between Diablo and Darkstone is that the newer game uses an all-3D graphics engine with user-controlled camera angles. Though the graphics aren't the greatest you'll ever see on a 3D-accelerated PC, they are very impressive. Apart from the occasional sharp, dangling polygons and the unusually pervasive blocky textures, Darkstone has very slick graphics. The characters are nicely detailed, with a graphic novel sort of look to them that translates well from the illustrations in the game's manual. Also, the lighting and other special effects in the game are excellent. Darkstone's 100 monster types are well animated and most of them die dramatic and memorable deaths.
Gameplay is similar to Diablo, except that you will have to fight through more dungeon levels, complete more quests, and traverse hostile outdoor regions to succeed. Darkstone essentially takes Diablo a few steps further, which can only be a good thing, right?
Your goal is to defeat the aforementioned Draak, an evil monk with the ability to turn into a dragon. In order to smite this nasty villain, you must first acquire seven crystals that can then be combined into a powerful artifact called the Time Orb. With this orb in hand (it looks more like a pointy rock, actually), you can defeat Draak in the game's final showdown. Getting to that showdown won't be a cakewalk, however. The game throws 32 dungeon levels in your path, along with an array of side quests that pop up at random moments during each new game. Also, the seven core crystal quests are randomly selected (from a total of 22) every time you start a new game. This greatly enhances Darkstone's replay value.
Another factor in the game's excellent replay value is the ability to create four primary character types, with two variations of each for a total of eight character classes. You have your basic fighter, thief, wizard, and priest classes, each of which is available as a male or female character. For example, the male fighter is the warrior, while the female fighter is the amazon. So if you want to mix it up as you play and replay Darkstone, you can experiment with different combinations to keep the gameplay fresh. But truth be told, the game seems tailor-made for a fighter-thief combo. With the fighter hacking away at bad guys up close, the thief can pick them off with missile weapons. While wizards do wield powerful magic, you can easily get through the entire game with only a handful of basic spells that any character can use.
A few elements of Darkstone deserve criticism, such as its awkward healing spell system. Characters with the ability to cast healing can only do so on themselves and can only help the second character if they also possess the medicine skill. This just seems pointless, since it is conventional in most RPGs to cast a healing spell and then target the intended character. Leaving it out just creates more work for you and doesn't add anything worthwhile to the experience. In addition, requiring you to feed your characters in such an action-oriented game seems pointless as well, but it's a lot easier to work around than the healing spell quirk.
Darkstone could have also benefited from a more intuitive quest list, possibly something similar to the one found in the most recent Might and Magic games. As it stands, you must navigate through every piece of NPC dialogue you have heard thus far to figure out who asked you to do what, and that gets to be a bit much towards the end of the game. Other nits to pick include an occasionally clumsy targeting system, which often leaves your one character unintentionally idle while the other is beaten to a pulp. The mouse hot spot is often flaky and off-center on most objects, actually, and this is definitely the culprit behind the targeting woes.
Some hard-core Diablo fans will no doubt criticize the game's difficulty level since it appears to be negligible throughout most of the first dozen or so dungeon levels. In fact, Darkstone is downright easy through the first eight and then becomes only marginally challenging until you reach the final stages of the game. This is because you can only play the game at novice level until you have characters of level 20 or higher - similar to Diablo's multiplayer restrictions on accessing certain skill levels. Once you complete the game at novice, however, the subsequent two difficulty levels become much more challenging. They also let you continue building up your characters, which is key because you can use your single-player characters in multiplayer games.
Multiplayer support is one of the game's strengths, since it lets you team up with another player without having to readjust your playing style. In other words, since you play the single-player game with two characters, it's easy to adapt to multiplayer Darkstone. Multiplayer Diablo, on the other hand, had a tendency to get frustrating when you realized that you weren't gaining experience as quickly as you did in the single-player game. Darkstone has no Battle.net equivalent, but you can play multiplayer games over IPX and TCP/IP.
Some other elements of the game that deserve mention include the ability to offer gold to a pair of musicians in the game's central town. If you drop a few coins in their collection plate, they'll favor you with a song, and a pretty good one at that. Later, you may get to hear the song played again, but in a slightly different tune. Also, Darkstone is one of the most amazingly stable and bug-free games I've played in a very long time. The game did not crash once and, aside from the niggling AI issues, seems to be extremely well designed and rock-solid.
So if you're a Diablo fan who's tired of waiting for the oft-delayed sequel, or better yet just looking for an enjoyable, action-packed RPG with good graphics, highly addictive gameplay, and great replay value, do yourself a favor and check out Darkstone.