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by Gathering of Developers

Snapshot
Ups: New skills, and it's something to hold you over until Diablo II.
Downs:A lot like Diablo two years later, but still not as good.
System Reqs:
System Requirements: Min. P233, 4MB 3D accelerator, 170MB Free disk space, 32MB Ram, 8X CD-ROM.
Until now, I thought there was nothing better than spending and afternoon in front of the computer screen, slapping around bad guys and saving the world. I never imagined I’d come across a game where my time would be better spent watching reruns of Jerry Springer, or gazing in abject wonder at my navel. The unimaginable has happened. One game has put forth the minimal effort and disdain for ingenuity to make me consider a rerun of Friends a more entertaining way to spend a half-hour. That game is Darkstone, brought to you Take Two Productions, Gathering of Developers, and Delphinie Software.

Darkstone takes you to the land of Uma, not the land of Uma Thurman, though my hopes were up for a little while. In Uma, there’s a showdown between good and evil sputtering. You are the Good: AKA The Chosen One. The Evil is Draak: AKA the generic Evil Genius looking to take over and set up mini-malls. Uma must be saved! You, the Chosen One, must plunge into Uma’s depths, retrieve the seven crystals necessary to reassemble the Time Orb, and use it to beat a little Draak butt before he can utilize the magic of the Astral Hand against you. If you’re uninspired at this point, you’ve only read the first three pages of the instruction manual.

The largest problem with this game is its suspicious resemblance to Diablo. I get the impression that Delphinie wanted to capitalize on the buzz around Diablo II, which should be released sometime in the third quarter of this year. Darkstone takes place over five out door maps, each containing two dungeons (I checked some previews for Diablo II, and guess what, it takes place over five outdoor maps as well). To explore these areas, you can play the role of a warrior, monk, thief, or wizard. Unlike Diablo, you can be either a male or female in any of the classes. Game control is of the super-mouse style, again like Diablo. Items, magic, experience, combat, all straight from Blizzard laboratories. Missed those potions of mana, that town-portal spell and a ground littered with loot? The only thing missing is a crippled boy slinging black-market items outside the village. A few of the weapons have been improved, such as the addition of throwing knives, and swords that cause damage via poison, but nothing that really blew my hair back.

Darkstone boasts a complex quest structure, but all of them are of the step-and-fetch-it variety. Some well-intentioned citizen approaches you and says, "Golly, it sure would be nice if you could snag the Holy Grail. It has been lost for a long time. Boy, you might even get some money for a thing like that." Luckily for you, that Holy Grail has been left on the ground in the dungeon you were just about to enter (all of the dungeons, though separate, are leveled so that you go through them in order). Again like Diablo, each new game shuffles the quests you get to perform, supposedly upping the replay value. To me, getting the Shield of Light was almost exactly like getting the Holy Grail, which was very similar to finding the Path Book. The maps may change, but the game remains the same.

As for sound, there was nothing special. I found the sound track a little too insistent and turned it off. Characters have good voices, and sound effects for various weapons are interesting, but this isn’t an immersive sonic experience such as in Thief: The Dark Project. Granted these games are different, but a little ambient sound, the far off twittering of enraged trolls and the click of spider legs on stone, would have improved things greatly.

To this point, I have been pretty hard on Darkstone, and there are few improvements to what amounts to a Diablo engine. The first is the addition of skills. Characters can learn a variety of non-magic abilities such as orientation, reveals the entire map, and lycanthropy, turns you into a werewolf. The skills available depend on your sex and class, which gives you something else to spend your hard-won gold on, and provides an added roll-playing dimension. Also, the graphics are, well, bigger than in Diablo. The camera view has a 360 rotation and zoom, but once combat starts, you’re don’t want to mess around with it. I get the impression that this is supposed to be the big draw for Darkstone, but I found the graphics less than impressive. They’re just bigger, and that bigness presents a set of problems. Zoom in to the point where the larger graphic can be appreciated, and you can’t see enough of the map to effectively navigate, while monsters with ranged attacks have an easier time jumping you. Zoom out to effectively see the action, and items on the ground are difficult to find with monsters more difficult to track with the mouse. Either way, it’s annoying.

The most impressive piece of the game is the ability to play with two characters. Combine a warrior’s muscle with the wizard’s firepower, or set up a monk and thief for utility and death at a distance. You control one character, the computer the other. As is to be expected, the character not currently under your direct control behaves erratically, but the added versatility and ability set more then makes up for the irritation. This, really, is the only addition to the Diablo design that makes Darkstone worth picking up off the consignment rack.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m left deeply dissatisfied with this gaming experience. I expected a great deal more from the Gathering of Developers. The Diabloish design isn’t what angers me, either. I liked Diablo. I bought the expansion pack. I’ll be in line when Diablo II goes gold. That’s the point. Diablo is a great game, but that doesn’t mean its imitators are. I don’t think it too much to ask for at least some pretense to originality. If you’re a desperate Diablo fanatic, slaughter him a couple more times. Save your shekels for a few weeks, and the game you really want will hit the shelves. You don’t need, and after an hour or two won’t want, to play Darkstone.

   

--Matt Blackburn