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Throne of Darkness

Publisher: Sierra Studios Developer: Click Entertainment
Reviewer: Brian Cavner Released: 09/25/01
Gameplay: 82% Control: 93%
Graphics: 78% Sound/Music: 88%
Story: 86% Overall: 85%


It is ancient Japan. The winds of fate are blowing, and the scent of approaching doom is becoming more and more potent.

The great and powerful Shogun Tsunayoshi is being punished by the Gods. He knows that death is on the horizon. Before the breath of life is sucked from his lungs, however, a strange and mysterious monk appears to offer the great warrior an elixir capable of granting Tsunayoshi immortality, and thus saving him from the Gods' wrath. Desperate, the shogun drinks the potion and awaits the results. To his great joy, his health almost instantly recovers, and his life is saved from an early, divine revocation.

But something is different. Anger and evil begin to boil within the new body of Tsuanyoshi. He began to transform into something distinctly inhuman; he started to become the evil demon warlord, Zanshin. With an army of conjured undead by his side, the Dark Warlord begins his campaign across Japan, lusting only for total conquest and ultimate power. His crusade of terror must be stopped, and the only ones capable of doing so are the ones who can match the power of the Darkness…

The Daimyo and his lackeys save the world

Throne of Darkness opens with Zanshin already having invaded the castle. The Daimyo calls forth a band of his most trusted warriors for a final movement to repel the attackers. The initial troupe of four begins their assault. Very shortly thereafter, however, they will be joined by three other warriors to create your full team. As a group, they must fend off the invaders, kill the offending general, and free the castle. Then, they may begin a campaign of their own to aid Japan in the fight against evil.

Cast in the role of the Daimyo, you send your clan of seven, of which only four can fight at a time, that consists of the leader, the charismatic one, Brick, the powerhouse, the archer, the swordsman, the wizard, the ninja, and berserker, master of the polearms and of unarmed combat. These seven will be your fighting force throughout the entire game, and you will find that careful switching between them is key to keeping your fighting force at full strength and effectiveness.

,P>The game unfolds in a unique way. Every time you have a new quest to be carried out, a "Q" will appear on the left side of your screen. Upon pressing "Q" on the keyboard, your quest screen will appear which outlines your current quest. When you complete it, another is assigned to you. And so the chain continues. It is very difficult to get lost or sidetracked. Some will find this as a blessing; others, a curse. Throne of Darkness is extremely linear, and will often take you in a direct route through hordes of enemies to your destination.

While simplistic, the game does offer a fun story that is bound to keep your interest. Though you cannot call it an epic storyline by any means, it gets the job done, and fits the role quite well.

Tedious, frustrating, useless, and…fun?

Equipment

Throne of Darkness features a system known as item durability, where the effectiveness of an item will slowly (and, at times, very quickly) degrade. By looking at the status of your item, you can see how many durability points you have remaining, but constantly checking each items' statistics becomes incredibly cumbersome and annoying. To combat this, the game features a durability warning which will alert you when an item of yours is approaching its breaking point via a red "D" on the right side of the screen. Upon clicking this key, the inventory menu will pop up and point out which item is in danger. You can then quickly substitute it out, or repair it at the blacksmith (more on this later).

In addition to his ability to repair items, the blacksmith can also create magic items for your use. By combining one of several magic artifacts found throughout the game with a weapon or a piece of armor, you can create an item that will upgrade your equipment, increase its effectiveness, enhance your magical prowess, and even boost your characteristics. Sadly, the creation of said items does take quite a while and does cost quite a bit of money, both factors which slaughter the feature in terms of usefulness.

In addition, gold is quite sparse in all parts of the game. Since the only source of wealth is from slain opponents, there is not nearly enough gold to experiment with magical equipment creation. Perhaps if the simple feature of being able to sell extraneous equipment was implemented, gold would be much more attainable. But with this oversight, it is nearly impossible to accumulate the wealth it takes to create the armada of magic weapons and armor that you would hope.

To make things worse, each samurai has his own individual inventory menu, including their own individual gold. If it seems that you are pausing every five minutes in order to shuffle around your inventory, or give gold to another party member so that he can repair his broken blade, it is because you are. Fortunately, items in the inventory automatically move to make it easier to drag-and-drop new ones in. If it were not for this system, inventory management would be even more of a hassle than it already is.

Daimyo

The Daimyo feature is something new, and something that made the game quite a bit more enjoyable. Via the Daimyo menu, you can do a number of things from switching and healing party members to accessing the priest and the blacksmith.

The Daimyo has a set amount of "ki", which will refresh as time passes. Teleporting party members to and from the shrine takes a little bit of this ki. When in the shrine, however, your samurai will regenerate their health, in addition to their ki that they use for casting spells.

In addition to its regenerative capabilities, the Daimyo can also resurrect fallen party members, but at a huge ki cost. If your group takes a major hit and most of the party dies, you need only flee and wait for the Daimyo to accumulate the ki necessary to revive, recover, and re-teleport your wounded party.

Once you get the hang of the Daimyo menu, you will be able to quickly and easily teleport samurai back and forth in the heat of battle in order to have the most effective group possible at any given time. While this may drain a lot of ki to engage in constantly teleportation, it is quite a bit cheaper than having to revive a fallen member who was not teleported away quickly enough.

You can also access the blacksmith and the priest from the Daimyo menu. Both these are accessible at any time, making it possible to use their abilities without having to return physically to the shrine. The blacksmith, as has already been stated, can repair items and create magical ones for you to use. The priest can identify unknown artifacts, purify cursed goods, and act as a medium, trading items to the Gods in exchange for spell knowledge.

The Daimyo interface is incredibly valuable and will be vital for you to employ. Constant, creative, and smart use of this menu will often be the difference between suffering a bloody defeat, and being able to escape to crush your enemies at a later date.

Combat

While you may have four combatants in your party at any one time, you can only control one of them while the AI controls the rest. Fortunately, Throne of Darkness allows you to customize the AI of each of you warriors so that they do what you want them to do. This ability is somewhat limited, however, and it does not seem like the CPU really ever follows the tactics you set for it. It may often be best to let the AI decide what is best to do, even though that often ends with each samurai running off in his own direction and taking on a large group of enemies by himself, leaving the hassle of escaping and reviving on your shoulders.

In addition to tactical assigning, you can also set up your party in one of twelve different formations, all named after various animals. Since you are bound to be switching your specific characters out constantly, formations are not tied to individual characters. Instead, they are tied to the four fighting types, melee, ranged, and spell. If you send away your wizard for healing and recovery of his ki, the ninja will take his spot in the formation.

While formations seem like a great idea, their implementation leaves a lot to be desired. If you change direction, the formation will not change with you. This means that your warriors will be, essentially, moving backwards with the weaker characters leading the charge instead of relying on your stronger ones for support. Thus, if you want to use formations, you will have to reassign one every time your group changes their moving direction. This makes the use of them incredibly unpractical and ruins the entire implementation. You are likely to cease use after your first few times experimenting with them.

Hopefully, as a human, you will be more adept in combat tactics that your formation-deficient AI comrades. In order to engage an opponent, you need only click on them. The samurai that you are currently controlling will then approach the enemy and swing his weapon (or fire his bow from a distance if you are using ranged combat). Your character will then continue to swing or fire for every time you click your mouse on your opponent. To cast spells, you simply right-click instead of left-click. If you would like to stay stationary and swing your blade, simply hold shift and click in the direction of your choice. Battles are simple to learn, and only take about one or two fights before you pretty much master the system.

Magic

Spells fall into two broad categories: elemental magic, and ability-based magic. The former category contains your basic attack and defense spells, each of a different element. The later simply add points to your statistics, or remove points from your opponents.

Like the Daimyo, each character has a limited amount of ki for which to cast their spells. Once they run out, they can no longer use their magical abilities. Ki, like health, is recovered when resting in the shrine.

Unfortunate for those who thrive on a rich and deep spell system, myself included, Throne of Darkness is quite simplistic when it comes to magic. First of all, each character has access to essentially the same list of spells, so that your wizard is not really all that much more diverse than the leader. Secondly, you can only choice a single spell for a computer-controlled character to cast. And since diversity is often the key to proper spell weaving, this puts quite a damper on the effectiveness of magic in Throne of Darkness.

Given the disadvantages magic already has, imagine how much worse it gets when you discover that, based on the way Throne of Darkness allocates experience, your weaker magic casters will gain levels much more slowly than your powerhouses. You really have to spend time leveling up your magical characters in order to keep them equal with the others. And even though the physically strong characters have access to the same spells as your spellcasters, it is simply not effective to rely on a core group of four powerhouses for your magical needs as well. Your party can only be effective if your seven characters are constantly rotated, which puts quite a big need on those three that are difficult to level.

It's hard to get by living in a shadowed world

Throne of Darkness utilization of pre-rendered 2D characters was a good choice, as they fit the overall theme quite well. The characters animate beautifully, and move with quite a grace across the screen. Unlike many other games, the characters do not change their appearance with every piece of equipment they are wearing. Instead, their skin texture is determined by the overall armor class of their equipment. This allows for weak characters to appear weak and powerfully-equipped characters to appear strong, but limits the look a bit in customizability. Overall, however, they are quite pleasing to the eye.

Scenery is very reminiscent of what one would expect ancient Japan to look like. However, for the most part, your surroundings are a little drab and monotone. It gets incredibly difficult to differentiate items on the ground with random trash. In addition, walls or other obscurities tend to completely hide both items and enemies, and often leave you unsure about what you are actually looking at. It is difficult, at times, to tell which objects with which you can interact, and which you cannot, as they blend into the scenery far too much. A simple method of subtle highlighting of important, controllable objects would have made for far less random clicking and frustrated exploring for something that is too difficult to see.

I would have liked to see a lot more detail put into certain textures. Many things, at times, seem too fake and boring and really lack life. At other times, something is too bright to fit with the rest of the drab detail. Things tend to get repetitive, as the color scheme is somewhat simplistic, and unless things look radically different, they look, for the most part, the same. In addition, many objects seem far too shadowy contributing even more to the same, generic, monotone look persistent through much of the game.

Harmony in a dissonant world

The overall quality of the audio is pretty decent. There were no significant lapses in sound quality that I could detect, and nothing was particularly distracting during play. Unlike many other games, the music and sound effects seemed pretty much in tune, and neither was ever considerably louder than the other. Japanese voiceovers were nice, and were well done. All sounds, ambient or otherwise, harmonized quite well and made for quite a nice auditory experience.

The only real problem was the fact that sound was somewhat repetitious. Battle cries and grunts will begin to show their age as the game progresses, and the sound of clashing steal and summons of magical power will quickly become tired. A little more variety in terms of these sound effects would have been quite a welcome addition.

A quick index finger does not a warrior make

Movement, combat, and item-manipulation are made easy with the simple, intuitive system of control. Left-clicks will move your character (thus causing the other three to follow), or make him interact with an object. Right clicks will cast spells in a given direction or at a given target. The fast paced battles will be made easier once you become accustomed to quickly locating the enemy and clicking away.

And while some may like having to repeatedly click on enemies to deliver blows, I personally did not. I like a little bit of tactic in my combat, and when battles are won based on how fast you can move your index finger up and down, I begin to get a bit resentful. A fast clicker will be able to defeat difficult opponents on relatively low levels without much strategy, whereas the slower clicker will have to be a lot more tactful and raise his or her levels more than the speedier player. And often times, the slow-clicker will have to simply learn how to be faster, as there is no substitute for delivering fast blows. While a hybrid RPG/Action game should probably have a battle system with action as Throne of Darkness does, I cannot see how correlating attack speed with clicking speed and not with anything else (including encumbrance, weapon-proficiency, weight of weapon, etc.) is good.

Menus are quick and easy to navigate. While some of these windows may be difficult to grasp at first, once the player becomes proficient in the usage of hotkeys and learns which menus do what, it should be relatively easy to breeze through the windows.

Overall, control is pretty easy to learn, and really takes no time to master. While I find there are some inherent flaws in a system that requires a fast clicking speed, I cannot complain about any other significant lapses in the control scheme.

The bottom line

If you are in the market for a solid hack-and-slash RPG, Throne of Darkness may very well be what you are looking for. However, if it is a deep storyline, captivating gameplay, expansive worlds, breathtaking visuals, and a constant barrage of plot twists that you want, you should probably look elsewhere.

Every once in a while, I will tire of thinking and planning and strategizing and will want to simply sit and have some mindless fun. This is the game that was able to give that to me. While the simple routine of go kill, come back, then be instructed to kill some more may get incredibly tedious for some after a while, it will provide for a nice break between other games. The more hardcore, epic-loving gamer may enjoy this game for a quick romp through a different world away from the deep and thought-filled ones that they are accustomed to. If, however, you have your sights set on a straight up, first-rate hack-and-slash adventure, you have found your perfect fit in Throne of Darkness.

Brian Cavner

Spells look nice visually, but the actual application needs a lot of work.

The 12 formations seem like a nice idea, but are not incredibly effective.







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