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by Sierra

fullsize036-01.jpg (6688 bytes)As anyone in the gaming industry will tell you, it’s 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 II—not too hard, just deep enough, nice balance of all-out clickfest action and RPG-lite exercises in stats and equipment management. Sierra’s Throne of Darkness has many of the same elements as Diablo—hell, its development team is made up in part by members of the original Diablo team—but 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, let’s make a game just like Diablo, but with, like, seven characters under the player’s control! That means it’ll be, like, seven times better!" this sort of calculus just doesn’t 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 isn’t that much character in any of these characters, partly because rabid friendly AI frustrates any attempt to implement the sophisticated group tactics the game’s 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.

fullsize041-01.jpg (7218 bytes)The biggest perk ToD has is its mythological/samurai Japanese setting. There’s 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 himself—wait, where have I heard this one before? While you putatively play the role of the Daimyo, that really means you control seven different samuari—the leader, who has high charisma and gets great deals from the game’s 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 up—often 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 you’ll probably end up using the same 4 or 5 samurai for most of the game, and the others will become increasingly superfluous as the game proceeds.

fullsize049-01.jpg (7733 bytes)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. There’s 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. That’s because the computer does a pretty poor job of controlling the others.

fullsize048-01.jpg (7934 bytes)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 animals—stuff like centipede and snake and tiger—however, there’s not really any intuitive way of knowing what the hell these formations do, and there seems to be no real correlation between the formation’s name and its function, which is just silly. Adding to the general level of bafflement surrounding these tactics, formations don’t 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, you’re good so long as you continue to move from left to right on your screen—however, 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 inexplicable—could auto-facing have been so difficult to program? Of course, if you’re really ambitious, you can avail yourself of the game’s 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 editor’s usefulness, and setting a character’s level of aggression doesn’t usually seem to have much effect on his actual gameplay behavior. One of ToD’s big problems is that characters not under your control have all the self-discipline of your average Tribes 2 player, so they’ll often run off the screen and into combat—no matter how preposterously outnumbered—and then they’ll die.

fullsize046-01.jpg (7995 bytes)This isn’t actually the gamebreaker it could be, since you can immediately "teleport" dead samurai back to the Daimyo where they’ll 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 stringers—though enthusiastically sharing their penchant for suicidal attacks—they’ll seldom last long themselves. In other words, for all the time that the development team put into the tactics and tactics editor, they’re pretty much useless, and most players will soon abandon them. That’s the down side. The up side is that it doesn’t really make any difference, and once you just relax and get into the game’s frantic and unpremeditated hack and slash spirit, you can do just fine letting your guys run around like rabid dogs..

fullsize001-01.jpg (9383 bytes)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 there’s no elegant way to exchange items, and even the game’s limited supply of gold must be shunted between players in order to make purchases. Items also wear out very quickly, and you’ll 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 priest—which, 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.

fullsize056-01.jpg (9130 bytes)The game’s graphics are OK, but nothing special, and the monsters you’ll face are pretty predictable and, as in Diablo, often the same with minor changes in color or appearance. Spells look nice, but they’re much the same for each character, and the spellcasting system is very clumsy and limited next to, say, Diablo’s—especially since you can only access one at a time.

I’ve been tough on Throne of Darkness, but it’s not a terrible game—just an average one, and one that falls conspicuously short of its own ambitions. 

Rick Fehrenbacher   (11/01/2001)


Ups: Japanese setting; hack n' slash action will remind some of an oriental Diablo.

Downs: Bad AI; useless features; too much item-shuffling.

Platform: PC