As anyone in the gaming
industry will tell you, its difficult to capture lightning in a bottle, but every
once in a while someone manages to do it. Blizzard, for instance, managed to put together
a near-perfect gaming experience with Diablo and Diablo IInot too hard, just deep
enough, nice balance of all-out clickfest action and RPG-lite exercises in stats and
equipment management. Sierras Throne of Darkness has many of the same elements as
Diablohell, its development team is made up in part by members of the original
Diablo teambut it attempts to overgo Diablo by allowing you to "control"
up to seven different characters (and up to four at any one time). While this might have
seemed like a good idea at one time"Hey, lets make a game just like
Diablo, but with, like, seven characters under the players control! That means
itll be, like, seven times better!" this sort of calculus just doesnt
work out in Throne of Darkness, partly because a clumsy interface makes exchanging items
and managing characters an irritating exercise in tedium, partly because there just
isnt that much character in any of these characters, partly because rabid friendly
AI frustrates any attempt to implement the sophisticated group tactics the games
manual suggests are a large part of the game. In the end, Throne of Darkness is a
Diabloesque hack n slash punctuated by large periods of increasingly tiresome
item-shuffling and character maintenance.
The biggest perk ToD has is
its mythological/samurai Japanese setting. Theres an obligatory backstory about you
being a Daimyo tasked with ridding your country of the demon Zanshin, which will require
you to hack through his innumerable minions before facing down the demon
himselfwait, where have I heard this one before? While you putatively play the role
of the Daimyo, that really means you control seven different samuarithe leader, who
has high charisma and gets great deals from the games merchants; the brick, your
hulking tank character, the berserker, the swordsman, the wizard, the ninja, and the
archer. You can only control four of the seven samurai at any time, which becomes a
problem when you begin to level upoften your most active samurai will become
stronger and capable of fighting at levels much higher than the ones you find less useful.
What this means, of course, is that youll probably end up using the same 4 or 5
samurai for most of the game, and the others will become increasingly superfluous as the
All of the characters have different stats and attributes, but this makes
surprisingly little difference in gameplay. The tank, berserker, and swordsman are melee
troops that play pretty much the same; the ninja, wizard, and archer are ranged troops
that play pretty much the same. Theres nothing like the sort of differentiation you
get between, say, the barbarian and the paladin in Diablo II. Even worse, the ranged
characters need a lot of babysitting, often get killed, and therefore often get left on
the bench. Since you can only control one player at a time, a group with more than one of
these ranged characters can be very difficult to control. Thats because the computer
does a pretty poor job of controlling the others.
One of the oddest things about Throne of Darkness is that the designers seemed
to want to give the player some sort of control over the other characters in play, because
there are buttons that allow you to access certain "tactics" or formations in
which to deploy your band. Unfortunately, these innovations are largely useless.
Formations are named after animalsstuff like centipede and snake and
tigerhowever, theres not really any intuitive way of knowing what the hell
these formations do, and there seems to be no real correlation between the
formations name and its function, which is just silly. Adding to the general level
of bafflement surrounding these tactics, formations dont automatically adjust their
facings when you move off in a different direction. So if you have a force that has tanks
in front and ranged weapons in back, youre good so long as you continue to move from
left to right on your screenhowever, if you should begin to move top to bottom, or,
god forbid, right to left, your archers will suddenly be screening for your melee guys.
The only way out of this fix is to readjust your formation each time it changes direction,
which is tedious and annoying and inexplicablecould auto-facing have been so
difficult to program? Of course, if youre really ambitious, you can avail yourself
of the games tactics editor, which allows you to adjust the formations according to
your own whims. You can designate what sort of character fills each position in the
formation, what their weapons preferences are, and their general level of aggression.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned facing problem nullifies much of the editors
usefulness, and setting a characters level of aggression doesnt usually seem
to have much effect on his actual gameplay behavior. One of ToDs big problems is
that characters not under your control have all the self-discipline of your average Tribes
2 player, so theyll often run off the screen and into combatno matter how
preposterously outnumberedand then theyll die.
This isnt actually the gamebreaker it could be, since you can immediately
"teleport" dead samurai back to the Daimyo where theyll be reincarnated
and restored to health and replaced by one of your three reserve samurai. Unfortunately,
since the guys sitting on the bench are usually stuck at a much lower level than your
first stringersthough enthusiastically sharing their penchant for suicidal
attackstheyll seldom last long themselves. In other words, for all the time
that the development team put into the tactics and tactics editor, theyre pretty
much useless, and most players will soon abandon them. Thats the down side. The up
side is that it doesnt really make any difference, and once you just relax and get
into the games frantic and unpremeditated hack and slash spirit, you can do just
fine letting your guys run around like rabid dogs..
But the absolute worst thing about this game is item management. As in Diablo,
dead monsters leave a lot of stuff lying around on the ground. Weapons, armor, necklaces,
talismans, masks, you name it. Each character has a lot of slots to put this stuff in, and
keeping track of all this haberdashery for seven different characters can be very tedious,
especially since theres no elegant way to exchange items, and even the games
limited supply of gold must be shunted between players in order to make purchases. Items
also wear out very quickly, and youll spend an unconscionable amount of time (though
little money) getting items repaired. Which is, after all, what I play a game for. You can
also find stuff you can combine with weapons and armor by accessing the blacksmith or
priestwhich, in one of the few unwieldy conventions in the game, can be done at any
time--but it costs money to so, which is in curiously short supply.
The games graphics are OK, but nothing special, and the monsters
youll face are pretty predictable and, as in Diablo, often the same with minor
changes in color or appearance. Spells look nice, but theyre much the same for each
character, and the spellcasting system is very clumsy and limited next to, say,
Diablosespecially since you can only access one at a time.
Ive been tough on Throne of Darkness, but its not a terrible gamejust
an average one, and one that falls conspicuously short of its own ambitions.