So far, most critics haven't been kind to Take 2's budget lineup of Playstation software, but if you actually spend time with the games, you'll find that you get more than your moneys' worth than with some more expensive PS titles. The latest game, Darkstone is definitely one you don't want to miss, especially if you're a fan of the PS port of Diablo or any Dungeons and Dragons type of action-based RPG. Developed by Delphine Software, the folks behind the Moto Racer series and the classic 16-bit titles Out of This World and Flashback, this is another winner, in my opinion. The game owes a lot to Diablo in many aspects, but it adds some really nice touches that make it stand out on its own and make it a better game than Blizzard's classic.
The main plot is a pretty generic one- the evil wizard Draak is terrorizing the land, and it's up to you to stop him. Yeah, it's no Final Fantasy VII (and doesn't claim to be), but the story is such a throwaway because the game is designed to pull you into its world and keep you there with some really addictive gameplay and mostly gorgeous visuals. Players can choose from 4 different character classes, with male and female versions of each class. You can create and save up to 9 heroes and two separate quests on a memory card, and you can save your game at any time, in case you decide to be the reckless sort and rush into battle. As you increase in level and strength, your character will learn some helpful magic skills that make surviving the more difficult dungeons a bit easier. Fighters and Amazons are good for jumping into most scraps, but nothing beats a good bow and projectile magic combo. Not only will you keep most of the monsters at bay, you'll be able to fend off the archers and magic user you'll meet later on without taking too much damage yourself.
Combat in the game is real-time, and handled excellently, courtesy of some really smart auto targeting- once you get a ranged weapon, you're nearly unstoppable. Like Gauntlet, you have an unlimited supply of ammo, so you can fire at will. However, your weapons and armor have limited durability and will break at some point, so you'll have to make sure that you carry a backup. As you make your way through the dungeons killing monsters, you'll acquire loads of equipment, weapons, and items which you can equip, if they're better (and not cursed) or sell in town for gold. Just like in Diablo, all you need to do is conjure a town portal in a quiet section of the dungeon and truck on back to town to get rid of your excess stuff. You won't have to worry about finding your place when you return either, thanks to the easy to read automap.
One of the neat things about the game is the way it randomizes pretty much everything, from the map layouts; to the enemies you'll face in the game. If you're one of those diehard D&D fans, you'll probably be weirded out by the Giant Wasps casting Magic Missile (!), but for the most part the game structure sort of follows a familiar, well-worn path. You'll go on loads of mini-quests in your search for the seven magical stones, and although a few of them are simply item hunts that do little to advance the plot, they're loads of fun. Starting at the novice level, you have to play through the game a number of times to collect all the stones and build your characters' levels up. There's no clock running to let you know how many hours are flying away (and fly away they will), but your character does age throughout the game, another great touch.
Graphically, the character models in the game are a bit angular and stylized, but they animate pretty well and cast actual shadows rather than the usual circular blobs found in most action games. The assorted monsters are nicely designed, and there's an endless supply of them in the overland areas. It's a real hoot to see a bunch of Lizardmen appear out of a cloud of smoke as just you think you've killed the last one (unless you're low on health, that is). The randomized environments in Darkstone are the real stars of the game, with their wonderful and atmospheric lighting effects. Most of the dungeon areas are pretty dark and you'll be either using torches or a Light spell so that you can see what's coming to kill you. With the exception of the town you start the game from and a few smaller areas, every map is randomly generated when you fire up a new game. This is really a welcome feature, and adds to the replay factor a great deal. The fighting engine is pretty solid, despite an odd glitch that has some enemies disappear a step or two before they reach you, only to reappear a few steps back- good for you though, if you're on the attack. The game camera is quite flexible, with the ability to zoom way in or high up, for those hard to see areas. There are three standard viewpoints to choose from, and with the exception of the Gauntlet-style top down view, which makes the game too hard to play, they work fine.
Musically, the game has a few menacing tunes that add some ambiance to your dungeon crawling, and there's a bit of a surprise waiting for you, should you decide to give some coins to the musicians in the town square. Let's just say that you'll either like or hate what you hear a lot, depending on your musical tastes. There's a small amount of voice work in the game, and it's also hit or miss. The game really has nothing working against it other than the lack of a two-player feature (the PC version had one), and only the most discriminating gamer will pass this one up. Even if you hate RPGs, the low price and action-based gameplay of Darkstone will grab your attention, and test your skill almost as much as any other title out there.
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