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Developer:
Click Entertainment
Publisher: Sierra Studios
Platform: PC
Release Date: September 25, 2001

by Nimish Dubey




Take some members of the team that gave us the amazing Diablo. Make them develop a game on similar lines, only this time based in the East (medieval Japan). Chuck in lots of team action, options to develop characters, exotic weapons and spells, and villains by the sackful. Add a dash of decent graphics and music. And top it all off with gameplay that is utterly simple. All of this should give you an absolutely phenomenal game, right?


Wrong! Throne of Darkness is all about how a dish can go terribly wrong, even if it is cooked using the finest ingredients.


Developed by Click Entertainment, which includes members of the team at Blizzard that brought out Diablo, Throne of Darkness comes on two CDs and installed smoothly on my PC. Mind you, I could not fathom why one of the CDs was labeled “Play CD” and the other “Install CD,” when I could play the game with either of them in the CD drive after doing a maximum install. System requirements for the game were considered a bit high when it was released but the game should play on most machines today without a hitch.


For some reason, the Orient has never been that popular a setting with game developers. India, China, Japan, and Indonesia may have some stunning locales and a huge reservoir of mythology, but developers in the West have generally steered clear of basing their games on them. Even when they have moved their canvas to the East, the results have generally been far from impressive. Throne of Darkness is no exception to this.


This is more than a bit unfortunate, because, as I said earlier, the game does have a lot going for it. The storyline is promising. Kira Tsunayoshi, a decadent Japanese ruler, tries to avoid death by drinking a potion proffered by a strange monk. The potion revives him but at a terrible cost – he starts turning into the devil, Zanshin (a dark warlord). He makes his army drink the potion, too, turning them into undead warriors. He then declares war on the four major castles in the vicinity. His army overruns a nearby castle but stops short of capturing and/or killing its head (the Daimyo) because Tsunayoshi calls them back, mistakenly thinking that all the castle's occupants have been massacred. The Daimyo decides to make the most of this opportunity and launch a counterattack against Tsunayoshi. To do this, he calls on his seven remaining Samurai (the number, no doubt, having been inspired by Kurosawa's epic film, featuring the same number of Samurai).


And this is where you step in, after having chosen one of the four castles at the beginning of the game. Your job is to control these seven gents as they bash, bedazzle, and batter their way through the enemy lines before finally putting an end to Tsunayoshi (or Zanshin, which he has now become). Predictably, each of them belongs to a special category with its own special skill and powers, giving you a total of seven categories to muck around with - leader, warrior, brick, berserker, ninja, archer, and magician. All of these are rather self-explanatory, except perhaps for “brick,” who is a behemoth and swings a merry cudgel – strength is very much his forte. Although you will always have seven warriors at your disposal (provided they are all alive), you can only take a maximum of four at one time. The remainder cool their heels in the castle with the Daimyo. You can summon them if you wish, provided the number in your party does not exceed four at any stage. You can also send members of your party back to the Daimyo for healing and rest. Mind you, you can never send all of them back at the same time. At least one of them should remain in the “field” following the quest given to him or the party. You would do well to get familiar with your party, because each has his own strength and weakness - the archer and wizard are great at ranged combat but pretty useless at close quarters; the berserker is awesome when facing overwhelming numbers but is frankly wasted against weak adversaries; the ninja has a terrific turn of speed but has very little armour; and so on.


As the game advances, so does your party. Depending on their success, they will move up levels and in best RPG tradition, you will play a major role in developing their characters by allotting points to different aspects of their personality – strength, dexterity, vitality, ki, and charisma. Ki, incidentally, is the trait that allows you to chuck spells at your adversary – a sort of Eastern manna! And there's more you can do for you warriors – you can arrange in different tactical formations (named after animals, in best Eastern tradition – the fox, the snake... you name it!), adjust their attitude (aggressive/defensive), and play around with their inventory as well. And speaking of inventory, there are potions, weapons (some of which can be studded with gems to give them additional powers), clothing, and other items of value littered around liberally, often spoiling one for choice. All of this adds a nice touch of strategy to what is really a hack-and-slash RPG.


So much for the heroes. Now for the villains of the piece. They are, for most part, quite similar to those seen in most action RPGs – skeletons, monsters, the odd wizard, etc. The only problem most of them are likely to pose to your band of warriors is numerical – there are generally hordes of them. The “bosses” are not too tough either (although they do come in huge sizes), and the right combination of warriors generally bumps them off without too much sweat. There are also a number of non-playing characters (NPCs) who pop up to hand out your party missions or help out with the shopping and repairs!


The graphics might appear a bit dated for those who have been spoiled by the 3D grandeur of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, but for most part, they are more than adequate, even though they are in 2D. The music has an eastern lilt to it and blends in well with the game, although the voice acting could have been better. The gameplay is rather simple and, not surprisingly, is largely similar to that of Diablo. The left mouse button allows you to interact with NPCs and battle enemies, while the right mouse button deals with spells. If you wish, you can play the entire game without having to touch the keyboard, although the keyboard commands can be handy when one is using the mouse for combat!


Undoing all the good, however, are a sackful of glitches. The game unfortunately never really does any justice to its storyline, treating it merely as an excuse to indulge in some hack-and-slash action. In fact, unless you read the manual, you are not even likely to have an idea of what is happening (and has happened), as you are simply pitched into battle the moment the game gets underway, with the Daimyo telling you to cleanse the castle of the remaining invaders. Yes, there is a cinematic at the very beginning of the game, but it manages to convey nothing whatsoever, comprising as it does of strange illustrations and a rather garbled voice in the background. Unlike Diablo, which was, for all its violence, extremely story-driven, Throne of Darkness seems loath to let the gamer into the plot.


And if the story gets bunged into the background, the main characters are not accorded too much respect either. No matter which castle you choose to begin the game from, your warriors will always begin with the same attributes, although they do look different in terms of facial fungus and dress-sense. To make things worse, they hardly ever speak. So all one really knows about them is that each has a special skill and loves bashing villains. A few witty exchanges would have gone miles in endearing them to gamers (most of the main characters in RPGs do speak a fair bit) but the developers clearly thought otherwise. The result – one does not feel too attached to one's own party.


The gameplay, while simple, comes with its share of headaches. The tactical formations may sound innovative but are honestly not much good, as one inevitably ends up getting swamped from all directions, leading to an utter free-for-all. In such cases, the main playing area gets horribly messy with your warriors battling hordes of enemies who keep dropping items as they die. The items and treasure are another problem – there are simply too many of them going around. At the initial stages of the game, you cannot kill an enemy or open a box without a suit of clothes or a fancy weapon appearing. And while one does appreciate the developers' attempts to build an Eastern ambience by giving Japanese names to these items, this more often than not ends up disrupting the flow of the game as one knows next to nothing about them. So, after a bloody fight, one ends up spending almost 3-4 minutes collecting items dropped by the departed, finding out what they are and what they do, and then moving it to the appropriate person's inventory before moving on.


All of this ensures that Throne of Darkness emerges with less than flying colours. In the list of Diablo clones – which includes the likes of Dungeon Siege, Revenant, and Nox – it ends up near the bottom for the simple reason that it lacks soul. A good story and compelling characters are the hallmarks of any good RPG and Throne of Darkness fails to deliver on both fronts. The game's developers seem to have assumed that all the gamer is looking for is lots of enemies to kill and different ways in which to do the same.


Well, if that was indeed what I was looking for, I would have been playing Unreal Tournament.


Final Grade: 60%




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