Darkstone is Diablo’s Happier Twin

So I wanted to play Darkstone again to reacquaint myself with the game after all the time I’ve spent on Ever Quest lately. Sure, spend maybe an hour or two romping through the dungeons, busting a few monster heads and generally remembering all the ins and outs.

Problem: those couple of hours turned into a couple of days and I thought to myself, "Hey…didn’t I have a review to write?" Aw, nuts…

I remember back when I first started playing Darkstone that I was slightly disappointed. "Great," I thought, "a Diablo clone." Sure, Darkstone plays a helluva lot like Diablo, but this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Darkstone takes the elements that made Diablo into a smash hit and runs with them.

You explore a multitude of outside areas, dungeons and tunnels that change every time you run a new game–I’m not saying that there’s a set series of maps the game chooses from, but that the levels themselves are always different. You’re given a wide series of quests to complete aside from the game’s main quests [these side quests also change with each new game] chests and barrels to loot and, of course, there’s the prerequisite baddies you have to hack, slash, pierce, crush or vaporize, depending on your characters’ classes.

I say "characters’ classes" because, unlike Diablo, Darkstone allows you to control two characters in your dungeon romping. While you control one adventurer, the game’s AI takes command of the other. If you prefer a bit more of a challenge, you can choose to go it alone and take on the multitude of really ugly critters solo. In either case, at character creation you’re presented with a choice of eight characters to play among four basic classes: Warrior and Amazon, Assassin and Thief, Wizard and Sorceress, and Monk and Priestess. Essentially, there’s really no difference between the male characters and their female counterparts, except in the case of the Sorceress who gets the Lycanthrope skill-which is a fairly cool little skill that turns you into a werewolf, converting mana points into strength for combat purposes. Each has the same attributes and abilities, hit points and mana bases.

Naturally, the mighty warriors and amazons are the front line fighters. The stealthy assassins and thieves cover ranged attacks with bows and throwing daggers. The wizard and sorceress are masters of all things magical, with access to all 32 spells. Rounding out the classes, the monk and priestess are warrior/wizard hybrids. They can hold their own in melee combat (not to mention, it’s moderately entertaining to see the priestess–who looks like she just stepped out of a Sailor Moon episode–go to town on a goblin with her club…) and also have access to a decent amount of spells for backup.

The combination of characters you choose will determine your strategy and style of play. For instance, the computer can send the warrior off to engage in a hack and slash bloodbath, while you can sit back as a sorceress and lob fireballs into the enemy ranks. Or you can have your monk wade into battle alongside your amazon, then fall back to heal her if things get tricky.

So, now you’ve made your character(s) and are ready to find the nearest dungeon to earn your fortune, gather the seven crystals that make up the Time Orb and do battle with the evil Draak. Each of the game’s main quests covers four dungeon levels, with a couple of side quests thrown in for good measure (i.e., recovering lost or stolen artifacts, killing monsters, and generally be a helpful little adventurer.) You’ll have to fight your way through all four levels to complete them and move on, sometimes having to double back once or twice. Don’t worry though, you only have to clear out the monsters on each level once.

One of the first things that really caught my attention was the changeable viewing angle. With a quick press of the arrow keys, you can move the camera angle to whatever position offers you the clearest view of the area you’re exploring or the battle you’re fighting. In Diablo, the best you could hope for was peering through semi-transparent walls. Movement and combat controls are so easy and intuitive that by the end of the first dungeon level, you’ll be feeling like you’ve been playing Darkstone for weeks.

The graphics and music are very much unlike the gritty, moody Diablo, lending to a more fun, comic-book impression. The sound effects and character voices are also very clear and clean and the cutscenes, though few and far between, are very well done–including the opening scene where you’re introduced to Draak. Mmm smell the barbecue.

Then there’s the game’s theme song. During your jaunts through town, you’ll undoubtedly notice two bards standing in the shade of a lonely tree. Toss a couple gold pieces in their bowl and they’ll start singing this catchy little tune which had me wondering how a guy with a lute can play a drum riff. What I found interesting though, is that on the game’s main menu, there’s an option "Video Clip." By clicking this, you pull up a music video of the theme song. It’s a combination of the band performing the song and game cutscenes, which actually mesh fairly well together. This is definitely something you don’t see in many games (indeed, I can’t think of another game off the top of my head that’s done this.)

Call me peculiar, but I hope to see more of this sort of thing in future games.

As for the multiplayer, I have nothing but good things to say about it. I experienced very little lag (on a 56k) and no hacked characters. [ahem] There’s no in-game server finder however, so you have to either know who you’re connecting to or go to an online gaming site like Heat.net or MSN’s the Zone to hook up with other players. Controlling your character (you’re only allowed to play one in multiplayer mode) is exactly the same as in single mode. You’re given two options to play in multi: solo and ally play. In ally mode you can’t harm the people you’re playing with. In solo mode…well, watch your fire. People generally don’t like having a fireball crammed where the sun don’t shine.

One thing I think Darkstone could have used is an autosave. I can’t tell you how many times I was caught up in the momentum of battling through the different maps, only to get mauled by a plethora of critters and discover the last time I’d saved the game was two floors up (even given the option of a quicksave.) Another downside (at least, in my view) is that when you die and reload, the automap stays updated, making it difficult to tell where you’ve already been the second time around, especially if you get turned around due to shifting camera angles. This can be moderately annoying if you need to pick up a quest item but can’t quite remember where it was the first time around.

At any rate, Darkstone gets high marks because it’s immensely enjoyable and can be replayed over and over without becoming stagnant, which makes it highly addictive. It may not be terribly inventive in concept–indeed merely a lighter, happier copy of Diablo–but who cares when you’re having this much fun? I give it four and a half GiN Gems out of five and hope to be this thoroughly entertained by RPGs in the future.

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