While it's not uncommon to see console game franchises trickle down to the handheld market, it rarely works the other way. Sony Online Entertainment's Untold Legends series has seen two entries appear on the PlayStation Portable already, and now it makes its full-fledged console debut at the launch of the PlayStation 3 with Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom. The role-playing elements are lightweight, and while the combat can be flashy, it's also pretty uncomplicated. It can be fun for a while, but monotony eventually sets in, and you find yourself wondering why this technically modest game is on the PlayStation 3 in the first place.
The titular Dark Kingdom is that of Dureth, a fairly traditional high-fantasy realm filled with might, magic, swords, sorcery, and so on. You serve Halaskar, the king of Dureth, as a member of the Dragon's Shade, an elite military squad whose forces have been outside the kingdom's realm for some time now. You're told of rumors that treachery is afoot in Dureth, and upon your return you find the kingdom in ruins and your king corrupted by malevolent forces that must be fed by the suffering of humans. And so, the gauntlet is laid--you must uncover the source of the corruption, figure out where it draws its power from, and destroy it. You'll meet a few interesting characters along the way, including the kingdom's wicked archmage and a powerful and oddly sassy interdimensional spirit. Mostly, though, the cutscenes concern themselves with scenes of the citizens of Dureth being slaughtered and tortured by the king's demonic army. That these scenes of carnage are rendered rather mechanically takes some of the edge off, but there's definitely a persistently dark tone at work.
Before you start your quest to save what remains of Dureth, you have to choose from three possible heroes to play as. The warrior, the scout, and the mage are pretty standard fantasy archetypes, though in practice, their abilities aren't too different. The characters have standard weak and strong attacks that can be chained together into multihit combos, and they can also block and dodge incoming attacks and throw enemies within grabbing range. All of this is executed rather traditionally on the Sixaxis and makes no use of the controller's gyroscopic capabilities. Each character also has access to a variety of powerful spells, though they can readily access only four of them at a time. There are a few sequences where you'll have to solve puzzles or accompany other non-player characters, but these moments can be counted on one hand, and the game's overall progression is predictable. You'll both hack and slash your way through demons, fish monsters, golems, zombies, and more demons in some pretty unsurprisingly dungeon-esque environments, including caves, abandoned villages, ancient tombs, city sewers, and, of course, actual dungeons. Though there are some occasional treasure chests to seek out, there are no branching paths, so your path to the end credits is a straight shot.
The game does away with a few action RPG conventions and streamlines others, though the basic progression is still familiar. Besting enemies will earn you experience points, and experience points earn your character levels. With each level you're given two points that you can put toward health, mana, attack power, magic power, melee defense, and spell defense, as well as a star that you can put toward one of your magic spells. Defeated enemies will typically drop different-colored orbs that will replenish your health and your mana, as well as "essence," which serves as the Dark Kingdom's form of money. Enemies will also drop an occasional piece of armor, though with much less frequency than they drop the orbs. What you won't find is any weaponry--your character will use the same basic weapon, as well as most of the same combo attacks, from beginning to end. Your weapons are slotted, though, and you'll pick up a variety of gems that can imbue you with additional powers. As a nice touch, most of the slots on your weapon can only accept gems of a certain shape, requiring you to make a few tough choices along the way.
Gear lust is one of the more prominent driving forces in dungeon crawlers, and it's here that Dark Kingdom comes up short. In some ways this keeps things moving--if you find a piece of armor or a gem that you don't need, you can instantly disenchant it, which transforms it directly into essence and frees up your limited inventory space. In fact, the only places you'll ever need to stop at are the regular checkpoints that seem to appear every few hundred yards, where you can buy new gear and replenish all of your health and mana for a price. You can also pick up new armor here, though you'll never find more than two pieces of armor in a particular category at any one time, and the stock changes so slowly that you'll likely get your best pieces of armor from felled enemies anyway. It's too bad that the armor, as cool as some of it can look, is so incredibly limited. You'll regularly find that pieces of armor with different names and radically different effects look identical on your character, limiting the joy of equipping new gear and seeing how it looks on your increasingly badass adventurer.
Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom should take a good dozen hours to get through, but the basic combat becomes tiresome well before it's over. A second player on the same machine can jump in and out at will, which can add a little excitement. There's also online play, but it's implemented quite poorly. Up to four players can party up and play through the same campaign that you can play offline, but there's no apparent connection between the two, which means any progress you make on your own won't count online, and you have to use separate characters when playing online and offline. Oddly, the game features support for the usually PC-centric Xfire application, which means you can log into your existing Xfire account and send and receive messages from other Xfire users. It's an extraneous feature, and it makes you wonder why SOE was able to wedge that into the game's online component, yet there's no voice chat in the game whatsoever. There appear to be hooks in Dark Kingdom for downloadable content, so it's possible that in the future the online component will be more appealing, but as it stands it feels substandard at best.
Whether you play Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom on a regular TV or in the supported 720p HDTV resolution, it's tough to shake the feeling that it started its life as a PlayStation 2 game. Sure, the characters sport a decent amount of detail, the spell effects are pretty flashy, and there's a little bump-mapping on the environment. Still, there's something stiff and canned about how enemies move, and the environments are narrow and tightly partitioned. Despite its limited scope, the game also suffers from occasional bouts of slowdown. The game sounds a bit better than it looks, with some decent battle cries and a rousing orchestral score, but like much of the game, the sound is pretty generic.
Thus far, the Untold Legends series has been unable to ascend beyond fair-to-middling quality, and Dark Kingdom does little to break precedent. At times it's a serviceable example of what an action RPG is capable of, but it's certainly not impressive, and it makes for a poor showpiece for the new PlayStation 3 hardware.