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SummaryProves that “derivative” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
The GoodDarkstone makes the case for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, game design. And it does it very well—better than almost any other game I can recall playing. There are very few changes here from the Diablo formula, but that’s a good thing. By sticking to the template of an uber-classic, Darkstone’s designers guaranteed that they’d have a solid final product.
Darkstone has good music and sound, including some surprisingly high-quality voiceover work. Nothing ruins an RPG experience more than bad voice actors yammering away for hours on end, so this is a big plus in my book. As for the graphics, well, they’re merely ok…but I’ll save my complaints for later.
Randomized quests, items, and enemies give the game extensive replayability. I don’t think this game is quite as replayable as Diablo—the dungeon layouts don’t change much from game to game, if they even change at all—but the sheer volume of stuff helps compensate for any shortcomings in this area. There is a nice mix of classes to choose from as well. Darkstone lets you play as a warrior, thief, wizard, or monk. Each class has its own specialty to focus on (strength, dexterity, magic, and vitality). You can choose between male and female versions of each class, but the difference between genders is almost entirely cosmetic.
The main improvement over Diablo is the ability to travel through the game with an AI-controlled companion. Now your wizard character doesn’t have to be a sitting duck while casting his spells, since you can bring a fighter or ranger bodyguard in tow to ward off your many foes. You can switch between characters at any time, too. The system works fairly well, although I do have a few misgivings (see below).
Darkstone also builds on Diablo in the area of user-friendliness. The game automates some things that were annoying in Diablo, like travel between key locations in the overworld and within dungeon levels. No more wondering if you should have turned left at Albuquerque! Of course, many RPG veterans will frown on such modern conveniences as automaps, but if you’re that hardcore, then I suppose a Diablo clone isn’t going to appeal to you in any case. The home town is also more compact this time around. Whereas Diablo made navigating Tristram seem like work, Darkstone’s town is easily navigable, with very little distance between vendors and other locations.
The BadDarkstone improves on Diablo incrementally, while adding very little baggage in the process. Most changes are good, but I guess it was inevitable that not every change would be an unambiguous success.
The 3D camera control takes some getting used to. Yes, I certainly adapted to it by the time I reached the final battle with Draak, but I still have bad feelings about this aspect of modern games. So much time spent adjusting camera angles instead of actually playing…surely there must be a better way? (I know, I know, the ravings of a bitter old-timer. But if I can’t rant on MobyGames, then where else can I go?)
The graphics are unimpressive. Characters are very jagged and polygonal, never rising above PS-One console quality. Playing Darkstone after Diablo reminds us that the transition from 2D was not an easy one.
For a game that throws tons of quests at you, Darkstone has the worst quest log I’ve ever seen. You can’t view and select individual entries from a list; instead, you have to scroll back through the narration text and voiceover of EVERY quest-giving character you’ve encountered until you hit the one you are looking for. It is, to put it bluntly, very inconvenient.
As much as I like the AI-companion scheme, it isn’t perfect. Your escort can be rock-stupid at times, showing no judgment about when to wade into battle and which opponent to take on first. The AI can’t handle magic at all, so there is little point in picking a monk or a wizard character for your party unless you plan to control him manually during the whole game. Rangers will usually retreat to a safe distance before attacking, and fighters are buff enough to take a pounding in melee, so the AI handles those character types much better.
It’s sad that wizard characters aren’t very good, even when you do control them yourself. One of the quirks of the action-combat system in Darkstone is that you can’t hit enemies with offensive spells unless you have a clear shot at them. It sounds reasonable, but when you’re teamed with a fighter or monk escort, they will invariably rush headlong into the fray and block whichever opponent you want to attack with your wizard. I can’t tell you how much mana I’ve wasted shooting my own bodyguard in the back! My advice is to bring a ranger along, or just dump the wizard entirely and approach Darkstone as a straight-up, hand-to-hand combat game.
The final battle with supervillain Draak is a bit of a letdown. Based on my encounter with him, I’d say that the secret to his tyrannical success was simply having a boatload of hit points. There just isn’t much strategy to beating him. If you bring along a ton of health potions, and then flail him with your weapon while repeatedly hitting the function keys to keep restoring your health, then it’s pretty hard NOT to beat him. This is one of the few areas where I really would have like to have seen a little more innovation.
Finally, I must report that Darkstone lacks the immersive, distinctive environment of Diablo. Diablo is a classic largely because it brought a refreshingly DOOM-like atmosphere to a swords-and-sorcery dominated genre. Suffice it to say that Darkstone jettisons that hellfire-and-brimstone aesthetic and returns to an almost completely medieval setting. It’s traditional and feels ok, but it still seems like a step backwards from Diablo.
Don’t misunderstand my complaints, though. I truly enjoyed playing this game. Yes, Darkstone is undeniably derivative; it did nothing to revolutionize the genre. Labels like “Diablo 3D” and “Dark-clone” fit this game quite well. However, in this case, I think those nicknames should be taken as a compliment. If you are going to rip off a game, there’s no point in ripping off anything but the best.