Throne of Darkness
Japanese mythology and history are experiencing a resurgence on the PC. Not since the days of Shinobi and Sword Of The Samurai have PC game developers taken such a vested interest in the subject. With recent titles such as Shogun: Total War and the Final Fantasy series setting the trend, we could soon be seeing a curiosity in Eastern culture not seen since Mr Miyagi inspired a generation of youngsters to wax their fathers' cars free of charge.
Sierra Studios' Throne Of Darkness, due out in the summer, will be set during Japan's feudal period. Although its name sounds more like the title of a Megadeth B-side than an action RPG, it looks as if it's going to be one to watch. We're being so presumptuous because several members of the ToD development team were involved in producing Diablo, one of the best a ction RPGs of its time, and one that still boasts a massive online gaming community.
But back to Throne Of Darkness. The aim of the game is to take control of a group of samurai, leading them in a quest to overthrow an evil warlord and seizing power from him in the process. Once in the hot seat, you'll be given new powers to help you defend yourself against any would-be assassins. With a game-world full of corrupt warriors and evil creatures, you're going to have to battle your way to the top, completing sub-quests as you go. This can either be done alone, or as the leader of a party. There'll be seven different warriors for you to choose from, who will each have individual personalities, attributes and weapons. Every one of the seven samurai will have their own personal quests, and as these are completed you'll find out about each character's past. With a strong emphasis on Japanese history and mythology, the atmosphere, plot and gameplay should be highly authentic and immersive. Even if we do say so ourselves.
One of the most exciting features is the combat, which enables you to execute simultaneous attacks with your samurai, with formations and special manoeuvres all being possible. These options should help it gain an edge over the rather linear turn-based fighting systems of many other action RPGs, such as Final Fantasy VIII.
Developer Click Entertainment is putting a good deal of work into the online side of the game, claiming its ultimate goal is to combine multiplayer and single player action into one gaming experience. You'll be able to group together with your mates over the Net and form your own party. Your goal will be to overthrow the existing warlord, assume power and give any pretenders to the throne (also human controlled) a right royal beating.
We haven't seen it running yet, but we're already applauding the fact that it's both single-player and online play. The multiplayer team work and the struggle for power with other human controlled characters, will surely be its greatest selling point, and if executed well it might just make Throne of Darkness one of the best online/single-player action RPGs to date.
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I'll admit I've never wholeheartedly embraced Japanese culture. The films perplex me and if I wanted to eat raw fish I'd run through the penguin pen at London Zoo with my mouth open. Besides, it tastes like eating your own tongue. But before you could say 'konnichiwa', Throne Of Darkness converted me. With its bloody and beautiful depiction of Japanese mythology and a unique take on the isometric hack 'n' slash, it's in some ways - and this is me saying this here - even better than Diablo II. (Although its resemblance to Diablo is not just cosmetic, as it was created in part by members of the original Diablo team.)
The setting of the game revolves around the country's ruling Warlord, who has turned to evil in a most blood-curdling manner, which could only have been dreamt up during those sake-filled nights of old. Now seven samurai from one of the four remaining clans, must unite to destroy the Warlord and his armies of the exceptionally bad-tempered.
Although you can play with all seven characters, you can only use four at a time. The remaining three rest their tootsies and regain health and ki (the equivalent of mana) with the Damiyo, your leader and regenerative ki powerhouse. Swapping between samurai is just a quick point-and-click operation, and your Damiyo has the power not only to heal but also resurrects any fallen samurai, at a ki cost.
The Way Of The Sword
This makes for a rather unique style of gameplay, as you juggle your characters to meet the needs of a particular battle. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the 12 pre-set strategical patterns which can be adapted to meet your gaming style. The patterns will define the combat nature of each character: defensive, neutral or aggressive, their preferred weapon and spell usage. You control one samurai, while the computer AI follows your pattern instructions and takes care of the rest - and for the most part does a pretty good job.
This isn't one of those RPG parties where you find romance among the elves, or one that gives a damn about your inner turmoils. It's all about getting in there and getting the job done. Devising strategies may seem like a bit of a headache to start with, but once you get the knack it's lots of fun as well as being incredibly effective, especially when you devise a strategy that effortlessly takes down a load of previously troublesome beasties.
Graphically ToD looks pretty sharp, the inside settings are of the period and the outside ones are at times so beautiful you just want to sit down beneath a cherry tree and compose a postcard. 'Dear Mum and Dad. Greetings from feudal Japan. Killed a naked spiderwoman today. Saw someone flayed alive. Wish you were here.' Well, it seems pretty, until you notice that everywhere you go there are impaled bodies, rotting corpses and a healthy amount of painting with entrails. Combat is broken up by Japanese anime-style FMVs, which are incredibly slick, as is the depiction and movement of your samurai. It's like watching your own mini-martial arts film.
Zen And The Art Of Recycling
Thankfully there are no perpetual returns to town to get healing and sell your weapons as you have a permanent telepathic link to the priest and blacksmith. In the spirit of eco-friendliness you don't sell your weapons, you recycle them, by donating your junk to the blacksmith who will turn them into something you might actually need. The priest does the usual identifying and selling of potions, and also provides a link to the ruling four elemental gods who distribute spell points to those who donate the most stuff to them.
ToD creates an intense single-player experience and the multiplayer component within the game (which I doubt will be quite as popular online as Diablo II although it may achieve some sort of 'cult' status) is based on a king-of-the-hill-style gameplay. Eight people assume the roles of the Dark Warlord and the four clans and fight it out. When the Dark Warlord is knocked off his throne the victorious player becomes the Dark Warlord and it begins again.
The marketing spiel of it being 'Diablo with samurai' doesn't really do ToD justice. It may have Diablo parenting, but the initial learning curve is much steeper. You need a more strategical outlook towards combat and in part a Baldur's Gate mentality to cope with the amount of inventory shuffling involved. If you're a Diablo devotee then ToD will offer you more of an opportunity to think about the kind of carnage you wish to bestow before you bestow it, while more traditional RPGers will relish the beautifully played-out Japanese mythology. There's something for everyone and now I'm off to deprive some penguins of their dinner.