The singular, guiding logic behind Darkstone seemed to be “Let’s copy Diablo… and place it in a 3D world”. To this end, it contains everything action role-playing has to offer â€” fantasy clichÃ©s, role-playing stereotypes, a home town where you buy and sell crap, simple fetch quests, and a hack ‘n’ slash experience so similar to Diablo that you’ll even recognize some of the sound effects. But somehow it manages to achieve something unattained by any dungeon-crawl since Diablo itself – it’s strangely addictive.
Let’s start with the apparent kinship to Blizzard’s own derivative masterpiece, since most of Darkstone’s appeal stems from its Rogueish ancestry. The game allows players to choose pre-generated characters in one of four classes â€” warrior, thief, priest, or wizard â€” with a set number of points in the four major attributes of strength, dexterity, vitality, and magic. They then pursue a variety of semi-randomly generated main and incidental quests through a series of 30+ semi-randomly generated dungeon levels. Successful battles and completed objectives award experience points, which players can use to improve their heroes’ basic attributes.
Needless to say, these good-guy characters will accumulate plenty of loot in the process. Some of it, such as spell books and upgraded armor, can be used to improve their fighting chances. The rest can be sold back in town (yep, just one town, called “town”) for extra cash. Shopkeepers, in their usurious manner, will often have items that are slightly more advanced than characters can find at their current level, and charge exorbitant rates for these goodies. The town also promises a free healer, although mana regeneration and item identification will cost hard-earned gold.
The dungeons are appropriately dark and spooky, the ambient sound is equally effective, and the music does an excellent job of conveying the feel of any given area. Each new block of dungeon levels offers a new collection of monsters, and pre-generated special rooms lend a “planned” feel to the random levels. A transparent overhead map can be called up at any time to help players get their bearings. And a multiplayer feature, of course, allows gregarious players to take on the world of Darkstone together.
At this point, however, the similarity to Blizzard’s flagship RPG ends. Although Darkstone isn’t as much of an evolutionary step over Diablo, it does bring a variety of significant improvements to the genre. Foremost among these is the move to full 3D for both landscapes and characters. The perspective is still overhead and slightly angled, but the camera can be freely rotated and zoomed to the player’s cinematic whim. Colored, directional lighting adds a real sense of eerie tension to the beleaguered gameworld, and the 3D spell effects are often quite dramatic.
The other major improvement is the addition of a second player-controlled character. This built-in adventuring partner follows the primary character around like a loyal guard dog (or, when directly selected, leads while the other character follows) and attacks any monsters which get within a certain proximity. This is important to note for two reasons. First, from a gameplay perspective, it’s nice that a mage character will have the option to send in a “tank” and just heal him while he fights. Second, from the technology side, this is some of the finest pathfinding we’ve ever seen in a game. Not only does the secondary character never seem to get stuck on walls, corners, or objects, but he or she does a darned fine job of getting out of the way if the primary character needs to backtrack.
Darkstone also features at least one interesting throwback to early Rogue-like titles â€” characters need to eat periodically in order to maintain their strength. Food can be found in dungeon chests, or purchased from a provisioner in town. Running out of food in the middle of a quest can have dire consequences, and characters without the magic door spell will be wise to keep a selection of comestibles on hand at all times. In addition, all characters age over the course of the game, although this effect can be partially reversed with the help of youth potions.
Finally, a skill system has been included in this title, allowing characters to improve their chances of survival by forking over practically all the gold they acquire to a know-it-all with excellent practical knowledge in fields such as exorcism, arms mastery, and perception. Each character class has a list of skills they can learn, and each skill can be trained to eight incrementally higher levels. Some of these abilities are active, such as the Repair skill that allows players to fix damaged equipment as needed, while others – like the thief’s trap detection – are passive.
When all is said and done, Darkstone may just be Diablo in 3D with a spare character, but one thing seems certain â€” it’s good Diablo in 3D with a spare character. So good, in fact, that you’ll likely come back to it until the very end once you seriously get into it.
System Requirements: Pentium 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95