by Steve Smith : September 24, 2000
Ho-hum. “Diablo in a Sarong”. That was my first reaction to booting up the alpha build of Sierra’s upcoming action RPG. While the game is set in Ancient Japan, so much of the basic gameplay of Throne of Darkness mimics the Diablo engine with embarrassing precision. The viewpoint is isomorphic. You command your Samurai leader and a party of up to four variously skilled assistants with the same series of mouse and keyboard buttons. The action is pure hack, slash and cast through an ever-uglier bestiary. The inventory panel is identical. There are oversized slots for all the Samurai regalia. There are scroll spells and even the health potions have that Christmas balls look of the world’s best-selling RPG/action title. In fact, some levels take place in familiar underground dungeons (Samurai in dungeons?) and even the treasure chests behave similarly. Open one and a found object does a quick flip and whoosh onto the ground.
But just as I was about to decide that Throne of Darkness was shaping up to be an enormously unimaginative clone, some of its uniqueness began to surface. Most important may be the setting itself, the magical realm of ancient Japanese myth, which the designers are striving to recreate in painstaking detail. A dense back story tells of the rise of a Dark Warlord among the five great castles and clans of Japan. I won’t even try to summarize the intricate tale in the first pages of the instruction book. It involves the multiple houses of feudal Japan, the Gods taking revenge on their lazy decadence and the Warlord retreating when on the brink of total conquest because he believes mistakenly he has killed all his opponents. Of course, you control the small band of freedom fighters he overlooked, and your job is to “clear the land of the Dark Warlord’s influence.” In other words, as in too many games, it looks like the pages of gnarled back story still come down to, well, Diablo. Hack and slash your way through the levels.
You can assemble a team of four Samurai from a pool of seven. Character types include the Leader (capable of executing complex group tactics), Berserker (strong vs. multiple foes), Swordsman (balanced warrior), Archer (best at distance weaponry), Mage (strong spell caster), Brick (enormously strong) and Ninja (good stealth skills). Replacements teleport in and out. Don’t ask me how teleporting became part of the Samurai history, I’m still working on how magic spells got into this mythos. You have direct control over the lead character and use Plays to give the rest standing orders to attack separate foes, guard locations, gang up on a single enemy, etc. The AI is pretty underdeveloped in this early version, so it is unfair to judge how well the computer controls your mates. They did seem to change formations eagerly enough when commanded and generally followed their standing orders. Best of all, they didn’t seem to die any faster than the character under my own control, so that is a good sign that the designers are putting some energy into the ally AI. It is difficult to tell from the four-level alpha I played, but it looks as if the designers will let you deploy your team to do more intricate tasks than simply attack or defend. If this is the case, then tactical nuance could prove to be the title’s main innovation on the Diablo conventions.