Game Review - by Jeremiah Pratt
How many years has it been now since Diablo shipped? I think… yep, I'm pretty sure I'm right… just two, maybe two and a half years or so. It was a land game; Blizzard's break away from Warcraft has told the world they had NOT lucked out with their genre-forging RTS work. It also convinced the PC world that the RPG was not dead. The fact that it wasn't really an RPG has very little to do with it - Diablo was swords and sorcery, armies of the undead, and neo-gothic design. To a CEO reading sales charts and caring very little about actual games, Diablo was an RPG and so we've been blessed with more RPG's since.
In its storyline, DSI did diverge from Diablo - there are no demons or a gateway to hell lying in wait. Instead, you represent heroes who are charged with stopping the villainous Necromancer and Dragon Lord Draak, a former monk of the goddess of Life gone badly. The world you live in has no-good or evil, as we know them - instead, the personified forces of Life and Death (Kaliba and the Grim "You Sunk My Battleship!" Reaper) battle. Life, of course, wants to wipe out Death, and the Grim "I'm sorry, they Melvined me" Reaper wants to extinguish Life and go on tour with Wyld Stallions. Wait, wrong story, strikes that last bit, would ya? Anyway, one of the monks of Kaliba has turned bad, and learned from the Grim "Bill 'n' Ted" Reaper the dark arts of Necromancy. After being defeated in a battle against Kaliba, Draak has returned to the world of Uma armed with the Astral Hand, and has learned how to transform himself into the eldest and greatest of all dragons - the Dragon Lord. Towns are turned to stone, Horns of Plenty are looted, and other really bad stuff happens until you (in the form of two heroes) take the job of stopping it.
Here's one of the few gems of innovation in Darkstone's crown: the Quest Generator. Diablo touted its 'dungeon generator' capabilities as one of the game's biggest selling points (and Darkstone has this as well), but no matter how the dungeons changed each time you went in, the quests were always identical. Darkstone has its 'specific' quests, ones that will always occur, but others will randomly show up during gameplay. It's a shame the quests are usually not that interesting and often predictable in the 'sword and sorcery' way, but at least someone was trying for originality.
Take Diablo - every last bit of Diablo - and then add the ability to control two characters at once. Make it 3D, give the player the control of the camera, and you've got Darkstone. How does the second character work? Poorly, The idea is a good one - Diablo was often difficult to finish by yourself if you'd selected the Sorcerer class, and the game was a lot more fun with more than one character Dungeon Hacking with you. However, it fails in execution. It's not that it's difficult to command both characters; you can switch between them with a quick key press, and when you're not doing that you can either command them separately or have one follow the other. Generally, you'll have your other character follow your preferred character (since experience only goes to the killer of the creature), and woe unto you if you brought a spell caster as backup to your Assassin/Thief or Warrior/Amazon. While the character under your control will do what it's good at as you command, the Wizard or Monk will charge straight into the fray, never selecting or using a magic spell. So, inevitably, if you want to combine a spellcaster and a fighter, I can only advise you to take constant control of that spellcaster. You'll end up doing strange things, like opening a door and then dashing back so your AI controlled warrior can get in the mix, but otherwise you're better off combining two fighting classes. So what are the classes? Basically the same as Diablo with its expansion packs, with male and female variants. You've got the steadfast close-combat Warrior/Amazon, the range-weapon fighting Assassin/Thief, the tome-reading spell-blasting Wizard/Sorceress, and the fighting' casting' Monk/Priestess. They're all fundamentally identical to their Diablo lookalikes, and no one who's played Diablo should have much problem learning to use them. Yes, there's only one town, just like Diablo, and yes, there is a large divided field area where you enter one dungeon section at time, completing the various quests handed out to you. In fact, as far as gameplay goes, there is very little that separates Darkstone from Diablo. The exceptions are that your characters now must tote food around with them, can run, can learn an array of skills to choose from, and in single player you have two characters to work with. How's multiplayer? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. The game doesn't come with its own server-finding utility other than Heat.net and as of this writing Heat hasn't completed its support for the game. I must assume that, like almost everything else, it's identical to Diablo. The saddest part of Darkstone is that even though its gameplay sits firmly on the negative innovation scale, it's still a lot of fun. Diablo's gameplay rocked, and a straight copy of it is just as good, especially with a new 3D engine. If you liked Diablo, you're going to love the way Darkstone plays, especially if you can't wait until Diablo II ships.
Darkstone has the graphical goods - let no one, least of all me, deny that. Its engine is fast, capable, and does a great job of rendering the characters, creatures, and spell effects. Its framerate is usually extremely high, even on current low-end systems, and as such the 3D nature of Darkstone compliments what is essentially Diablo's gameplay rather than distracting from it. Models are well done, environmental effects and textures are top notch, and the ability to rapidly spin the camera into any position you'd like is a welcome advantage. It's hard not to admit that at least in the gameplay graphics, Darkstone might exceed Diablo II. Cinematic, menus, and the other portions of what make a game aren't quite up to the par we've become used to. Oh, the format of the videos isn't that bad and they play smoothly, but the CGI rendering is only good - not the knock-your-jaw-on-the-ground wonder that Blizzard has given us again and again. The menus are lackluster, plainly drawn screens, and the feel of the interface (both menu and gameplay) is not near as polished as Diablo's was. Though the fundaments of the graphic engine are superior to Diablo's, it stumbles over itself with odd technical moments of failed translucency, artifacts that appear for random reasons, and an overall lack of polish that almost undoes what the technology is attempting. Graphically, Darkstone held all technical advantages over Diablo - but somewhere the ball was dropped, and what could have been extended to fantastic whole ends up a shining piece of an overall failure.
The sound effects could have been exported directly from Diablo - the way a chest opens, the way gold hits the floor, the sounds of the various monsters and of combat are all almost identical to Diablo. The voice acting, while okay, could have used some work, and we hear too often from too many of the same people as different characters. The music is the shocker of the game: it's simply fantastic. Christopher Rime has produced a classical soundtrack that fits every nuance of what the developers were going for, and it's one of the few pieces of the Darkstone pile that really gleams. Now if only he had been brought into everything else.
Darkstone is a semi-success, a game that almost clones what it is so obviously based on but fails to really improve the whole, only duplicate and mildly enhance sections. Diablo, even lacking a true 3D engine, is still graphically impressive enough for most, and since Darkstone never uses its 3D engine to change surface of the levels (adding in-level stairs, rises, pits, etc), wholly capable of displaying the exact same terrain. It's a filler game, a pause between Diablo and Diablo II for those who waited these past two years for a true sequel to arrive. It is still fun, but fun is the best Darkstone will ever achieve until Diablo II arrives to bury it in the haze of clone memory.