I am an absolute nut when it comes to Diablo 2 and anything to do with samurai. So as you can imagine, the moment I found out about a Diablo-like game coming out based on a Japanese myth, I had to have it. And as with pretty much everything put out by Sierra, I was not disappointed. Throne of Darkness is not based on a real story, but follows a story line created by Click Entertainment. However it encompasses many of the details of larger then life hero’s as well as the danger and supernatural suspense that I have come to expect from my reading of the subject matter.
The story takes place after Kira Bennosuke becomes the Shogun (warlord) of Yamato after many great battles. He returns the land to peace and prosperity and divides the country into five castles. One he gives over to honor the dead. The remaining four in each direction are divided up amongst his greatest generals. When Bennosuke dies of old age his great grandson Kira Tsunayoshi takes his place as Shogun. He is a weak leader and turns away from the good path and delves into every indulgence of which he can conceive. The gods curse him with a slow agonizing death, which he is unable to cure.
Near the end a monk arrives with an elixir that restores him, but at a terrible cost. It leaves him possessed by the spirit of Zanshin, the Dark Warlord. Sacrificing his troops in a dark ritual, he creates an unholy army. He then attacks the four surrounding castles. Just as all appears lost and the few remaining defenders prepare a last stand in their respective shine rooms, Tsunayoshi prematurely recalls his troops thinking them already victorious. Enter you the player.
There are seven playable characters, but only four of them can be on the field at any one time. The other three remain in the shine room where they can recover from their wounds and regain their powers.
There are seven character types. The leader is strong and charismatic, as well the most versatile fighter of the group and can use almost any weapon, armor, or item. The brick, towering over the other characters, is obviously the strongest of the group. He sweeps his foes away with his cudgel. The archer has mastered kyudo, traditional Japanese archery. With his quick skill, his arrows rarely miss. The swordman is the closest to the traditional image of the samurai. A master of blade, he prefers one-to-one combat, and is considered to be the second in command. The berserker, as you can imagine, favors diving into combat against numerous foes at once using his bare fists or a pole arm. There is also the wizard, weakest of all the characters, but he makes up for it with powerful long range combat spells, curses and protective wards. And the last of the seven is the ninja. Master of stealth, he is the fastest of all the warriors, and quick with his throwing knives.
The game begins in the shine room of one of the four castles, depending on which one you pick at the start of the game. In the room are the leader, the brick, and the archer as well as the daimyo they serve. The daimio orders the three to clear the invaders from his castle. Along the way to completing this first task they will rescue the other four members of your party.
The shine room then becomes their base of operations. When the party gets injured, you can have the daimyo magically transport them to the shine room, where they can recover from their wounds and restore their magical energies. The daimyo will also offer advice and hand out quests as the game progresses. The last of his powers is the ability to resurrect the dead. Thus as long as one member of your party survives in the field, the game continues.
Once the castle is cleared you will be given the task of finding two important survivors that will help you in your quest. The first is the priest, and the other is the blackSmith. The great thing about these allies is that their services can be used from anywhere, saving you long treks back to the castle. Once you have found the Priest, he can offer you four services. They are potions, item identification, cursed item purification and the ability to make offerings to the gods. The first three options are pretty much straight forward. The fourth, making offerings, basically means that once you have donated enough to one of the deities, he or she will grant your character new spells or character spell points.
The blackSmith is the guy who can fix your characters damaged gear, naturally for a minimal fee. Also when you give him the extra gear that you find, he can start to make new items for your party. He can also customize your gear to make it more powerful. Spread throughout the castle and the countryside are all sorts of extra gear including melee and ranged weapons, armor for the head, body, legs and arms. There are also items you can wear like masks as well as minerals and other items of legend that can be used to improve your characters.
The character stats are pretty straight forward as well: strength, dexterity, vitality, ki and charisma make up your persona. Strength influences the weapons that can be used as well as the damage dealt out to enemies. Dexterity influences skill and armor class. Vitality is just another word for health or hitpoints. Ki is used to influence the number of points available for casting spells. And charisma relates to how well you can persuade non-player characters to do what you want or in the case of the Priest and the BlackSmith, discounts.
The graphics of ToD are small but very smooth and detailed, which allows the characters to slide seamlessly across the landscape. For someone with not so great vision, such as myself, it is very easy to miss things lying on the ground with some games, but here they glisten in the light, so you can spot them easily enough.
Controlling the characters is done through an easy to use point and click system. You only have to control the lead character, while the computer controls the other three active characters based on one of twelve preset tactical maneuvers, ranging from conservative defense to aggressive assaults. These maneuvers are named after martial arts styles such as the frog and the tiger. My only problem with this system is that I found it very difficult to control the main character and get him to attack the guy that I wanted. I often found it easier to control the weaker characters and to let the other three do all of the fighting or to control the fast ninja and run around exploring and dodging combat.
There is a multiplayer aspect to this game, which I was not that impressed with. Each player picks a side and tries to defeat the dark warlord and fend off everyone else. The winner becomes the dark warlord and tries to defeat the other players. There is a lot of room in the multiplayer arenas provided by Sierra for people to become gods and it is very hard to build up a good rival, when they can crush you in a heart beat and send you back to square one.
The sound effects in this one are great. When you open a sliding door you hear the swish, when you smash a barrel you hear it breaking. They even included flies buzzing around the dead. I was very impressed. The detail even goes as far as to have Japanese accented English in the dialogue and Asian influenced flutes and strings playing in the background.
There are three things in this game that I would like to see improved. The first is the control of the player-controlled character. The second is the multiplayer options. The final thing is the AI used to govern both the hero’s and the enemies needs work. As soon as they see one another, they dive into melee. The archer and wizard stand their ground, not withdrawing to a safe position to continue the attack. Neither the editor or the 12 preset tactical maneuvers overcome this problem. There is a recall button that is supposed to bring the other three characters back to the one you control, but I found that they ignore the order.
In the end, I only found the three or four things I mentioned above to be problems and I feel that in weighing the pluses and minuses, the negative aspects of the game only merit a 1/2 GiN Gem loss and I am happy to give 4 and 1/2 GiN gems to a game that I consider to be one of the best games I have played all year.