As a computer RPG junkie, I tend to haunt my local stores often (gives my wife far too much time to shop around the mall) and have even been known to wait for them to unpack shipments received on any particular day. Normally the daily fare is predictable but once in awhile something memorable sneaks in the back door, courtesy of the UPS driver. Darkstone is one such case in point and has kept me occupied for a much longer time than the software store owner might like.
Imminently playable in the grand tradition of the best role-playing games, Darkstone deserves a niche high above the normal run-of-the-mill castoffs and shelf-filled fodder, so often the result of an encounter of the worst kind. Delphine Software has taken a tried and true formula of what makes RPGs good and added enough innovation to noticeably improve on the final product. Nothing groundbreaking mind you, but enough to draw and keep interest in the game at a very high level.
Comparisons with Diablo are inevitable so I'll get that out of the way first. Although gameplay is reminiscent of that in Diablo and many other games of like ilk, Darkstone goes it one better -- in quite a few areas, actually. On the surface, literally, since both games do involve underground adventuring, is the mandatory town with its varied merchants, innkeeper and training grounds. The layout is superb, and in this game, the tedious searches for a particular merchant or service are a thing of the past.
In a nod toward sensibility, Darkstone's designers devised a system of transport that neatly gets you from just about anywhere back to the town with very little effort -- all the more shocking because of its simplicity and lack of need to cast spells of dizzying strengths to accomplish the movement (for those who feel the need for magic-like transport, the Magic Door spell should suffice as an adjunct to the built in slick method).
But, perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. Not to give it short shrift, the storyline in Darkstone is certainly more developed than its formidable counterparts. Although the ultimate objective is less than complicated or surprising (find the seven crystals of the Time Orb), the means of accomplishing it are well designed indeed. An evil priest who has mastered the ability to turn himself into a fierce and fearsome dragon (as borne out all too well in the opening cinematic sequence) is the end-all target and only with the help of the reconstructed orb can you hope to defeat him and bring tranquillity to the land once again.
There are about three dozen or so dungeons spread across four main areas of adventuring. Unlike Daggerfall for instance, these dungeons are all designed as single level affairs, although you do move up or down to reach different dungeons. The overlaid auto-map (easy toggle on/off) is enormously helpful for those whose sense of direction may be lacking but is definitely a convenience for all. Movement in the game is extremely smooth and fluid and the unlimited camera angles and zoom function is about the best I've seen. Learning to spin the camera to get the best possible look at what your character sees while moving becomes second nature, as does the capability to zoom in or out. All one keyboard tap away.
Delphine has incorporated other enhancements as well. Townsfolk and villagers actually seek you out to implore you to help them with what seem to be randomly generated sub-quests (and lots of them!) -- no more searching the population to gather gold-earning opportunities. As a wonderful tie-in to story development, many of these sub-quests help to flesh out the real story of what's happening in the realm and why, rather than being non-sensible activities as a means for making money. As the dungeons aren't overly daunting in size, the urge to purge every nook and cranny in order to gather items, scrolls, spells and equipment for resale in town or to use for upgrading is overpowering.
Like any good RPG, the characters in Darkstone are fashionable and always want to have the best upgrades possible in armor, weaponry and spell casting. For that, of course, they need gold and are well-paid for the sub-quests, although gold gathering in dungeons can also be lucrative. In a stroke of genius, gameplay is enormously enhanced by the simple allowance of co-adventurers from the very start. During gameplay, you can only control one of the two at any given moment but switching back and forth requires no more than one key press! And, as incredible as it may seem, while you are controlling one, the other is always there to watch your back, take the load off when fighting multiple enemies (over 100 types can be found) and share the burden of carrying inventory.
The choice of using only one character in your game is an option, too, and will not necessarily make completion of the quests appreciably more difficult as experience is gained at twice the rate than with two. There is a solid selection of four types of characters (warrior, wizard, thief, priest) with both male and female forms of each (for example: male warrior, female amazon; male monk, female priestess). All of the characters can operate at some level of both physical and spell casting strength, although using two characters to complement each other is truly an engaging approach and makes for some very nifty situations.
Each character has four basic attributes. Strength defines damage meted out, dexterity defines accuracy and maneuverability, vitality translates to life points and magic levels control severity and usage of certain spells. Additionally, there are resistance ratings for magic, fire and poison as well as 21 other learnable skills ranging from lycanthropy to prayer. For those magically inclined souls, there are 32 distinct spells available.
Darkstone contains a veritable treasure-trove of other features such as generously creepy sound effects, heart-rending cries for help when your co-companion needs help, a haunting and effective music track (be sure to give the balladeers in town a few gold pieces, then just sit back, close you eyes and enjoy), supremely enjoyable multi-player action, incredibly deep quests and integrated puzzle-solving (such as stringing events and knowledge together to complete a sub-quest). I don't throw recommendations around lightly -- but if you're a big RPG fan like me, you owe it to yourself to grab this one.
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