Historically, dungeon crawls, be it from a three-quarter isometric or directly overhead view, have been popular with the gaming community. Diablo and Diablo II both struck gold by incorporating a handful of RPG elements into an action packed hack-and-slash adventure. Now, however, the genre seems almost spent. The post- Diablo era has seen many a game attempt to claim the same brass ring with little success. Throne of Darkness is no exception. Despite a new locale and seven characters, this Diablo clone does little to rise above its progenitor.
The game centers on the struggle of four clans against a Dark Warlord in ancient Japan. After choosing which clan to join, gamers must search for other missing samurai. After reuniting the seven warriors, the team takes on minor quests, obtains magic items, and ventures to new lands before seeking the Dark Warlord.
There are few new ideas incorporated in Throne of Darkness, though setting the game in feudal Japan offers many mystical weapons, monsters, and characters from the Far East. Additionally, having a group that can range from one to four of the seven samurai at any given time makes for interesting mixing and matching. The group formations are customizable and characteristic of the animal they're named after, and provide a unique way to manage the party.
Unfortunately, the differences between the clans are negligible and the characters are mostly stock fighters, with a few range specialists thrown in for good measure. Sadly, these few flashes of inspiration give way to the abandonment of the original idea and relegates the game to the stale Diablo formula.
The similarities between Throne of Darkness and the Diablo series are painfully noticeable from the start. Both games use a basic series of mouse clicks to guide the group, administer attacks, or cast spells. Barrels and chests can be kicked open to reveal items. There is even a series of portals in Throne of Darkness styled after the Diablo II transport system. Quests and shopkeepers also play a large roll in both titles and the character level up and spell screens are nearly identical. Overall, it's more of the same, but not nearly as well executed.
Graphically, Throne of Darkness is singularly sharp. The character animations are especially well done, with all the slicing and dicing expected in a society dominated by swords. Spell effects are decent, but not terribly original. At times, the piles of dismembered body parts from intense battles make hunting for small items tough. The gore, although slightly cartoon-like at times, pushes the ESRB rating to Mature.
Sounds, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Music is sometimes brooding, sometimes exciting, but always atmospheric, while sound effects aren't fully realized. Swords swish with grandiose bravado, but there are neither the clang of parries nor yelps of fury or pain when the blow lands. Voice characterizations are also hit or miss -- the Daimyo sounds royal and commanding, while the Brick character speaks like a crude Japanese stereotype.
The culling of Diablo's finer points would have been more acceptable if Throne of Darkness was fun to play. Sadly, the game is lacking a quality not easily explained, but a quality that separates the average game from the truly great. The game just doesn't "feel" right, helped in part by environmental exclusions, such as the silent sword blows or lack of visible resistance or reaction to bow shots. Weapon strikes should be instantly followed with a deadly riposte, but, instead, the characters just continue in their preset animations.
Throne of Darkness is far from atrocious, but oddly enough its mere mediocrity seems worse. The brilliant introduction and exotic setting promise more than the title delivers. For a game to dethrone the King of the Dungeon Crawl, it's going to have to work much harder. The concept, location, execution, and all around quality will have to be fresh and nearly perfect. Even Diablo II wears a bit thin with little but repetitious gameplay to support it, and this game doesn't accomplish that much.
At most, the game might provide a mild distraction for the most dedicated Diablo fan, but not for long. Diehard enthusiasts of the genre will be better off reloading the classics and waiting for a worthier contender for the throne to come along.
Graphics: Buildings are nicely laid out and detailed. Character animations are sharp. Gore is excessive, but usually cartoon-like.
Sound: The music infuses a feudal Japanese flavor through and through. Voice acting runs from well done to silly. Missing clangs, crashes and yells detract from battle scenes.
Enjoyment: It has all been seen before and executed better. The Japanese setting does provide a touch of mystique, but wears off quickly due to shallow gameplay.
Replay Value: Loads of characters and four houses make for different party configurations.
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