Published in The National on September 29, 2000

Light in the darkness


By Daniel Lam
Darkstone has been labelled a Diablo clone. Which is true, in a sense. The same simplicity in terms of gameplay (point and click, kill everything in sight ... well, almost everything), the linear storyline, the endless hordes of sword and sorcery fodder. But Darkstone was a joy to play, because it is gorgeous. It is a 3D hack-and-slash game with pretty good features. But let's start from the beginning...

All's not well in Uma
The world of Uma is in trouble from this former priest, Draak, who dabbled in the necromantic arts. Later he acquires the ability to transform into a dragon. Now Draak didn't like his former priest colleagues, so he incinerates them. Cool. That is all that the opening movie sequence reveals.

The player is then ushered into the character creation section. Here's one thing that differentiates Darkstone from Diablo ... in the single player mode, you get to play TWO champions.

In the pure brawn section we have the trusty Warrior (read: Arnold Schwarzeneggar in Conan the Barbarian) with a very impressive upper body and the Amazon (with an equally impressive upper body). In the sorcery category we have the Wizard (no, he does NOT look like Harry Potter or Merlin the Magician) and of course the Sorceress. In the clerical department we have the Monk, who is supposed to be like one of those militant order types (looks like a Shaolin monk), and the Priestess (who looks jolly good). Lastly in the field of stealth we have the Assassin and the Thief (Darkstone's answer to Diablo's Rogue). Choose any two and you are ready to roll.

Your mission
With your champions, you are duly charged with locating seven crystals, which are to be combined to form a potent weapon against Draak. You get to explore four main regions (which cover both outdoors and underground) over some 30-odd dungeons, solving quests which one way or the other leads to the discovery of a crystal. Once you form the artifact, the Darkstone, with the crystals, you meet the final boss and try hard to thrash him. Simple, no?

What you need
According to the developers, you need a computer with the following minimum specifications to run Darkstone: Pentium (or equivalent) 233 MMX, 4MB 3D AGP video card or 8 MB PCI compatible accelerator card (uses Direct 3D), 170MB hard drive space, 32MB RAM, 8X CD-ROM drive, keyboard, and mouse.

Enjoy the Scenery
There is a reason why a 3D graphics accelerator is highly recommended for playing Darkstone. Trying the game first on a computer with 8MB video RAM (AGP, but no hardware acceleration) made the gameplay somewhat tedious and jerky. But on a system with a 3D accelerator and 32MB of video RAM, Darkstone was simply breathtaking.

The Darkstone game engine allows the player nearly complete control over camera angles (zoom in, zoom out, pan to the left, right, etc). And lots of effort must have gone into the graphics, because they are awe-inspiring. Imagine having the freedom to zoom in and out and pan the camera view while taking on the enemy. Granted, you might not have the time to enjoy the scenery while you at it, but once the coast is clear....

The music, too
The sound effects are okay, the music is fine ... nothing particularly impressive, but there is a bonus of sorts. In town are a couple of minstrel. Drop some coins into their bowl and the game launches into music video-like mode, with the woman entertainer performing the "theme song". Cute.

It takes two to tango
Although you get to play two champions, you are in control of only one at any one time (your pick). What happens is that the computer takes over the other champion, who will follow your champion around, attacking enemies, etc. The sidekick's AI (artificial intelligence) isn't too stupid either, which means he or she won't be standing around doing nothing while the monsters do a hasty makeover of the champion's physical well-being. The sidekick won't be able to perform actions like drinking potions, switch spells, etc ... instead he or she performs the default actions (which you should have selected before relinquishing control). These include attacking, casting the chosen spell, etc.

One problem, though. Because the computer's reactions are faster than yours, the sidekick may well end up getting more experience points than your champion!

Character development
Defeating monsters and completing quests gains your champions experience points, which in turn allows you to beef up their attribute scores (Strength, Dexterity, etc). Depending on your champions' levels, you can also have them visit the town sage and learn skills appropriate to the champions' classes, which is more like Diablo II than Diablo.

The Random Factor
Like Diablo, Darkstone randomises itself from session to session ... the mix of monsters that throw themselves at your champions, traps (especially the spike traps - urghh!) and quests differ each time. The four main areas are the same in shape and size but the buildings and people who populate them (except for the main town) change depending on the quests you receive. Although there may be some repetition, each game can be wildly different. That surely adds to the replay value.

What about multiplayer version?
As in the case of Diablo II, I did not get the chance to try out Darkstone's multiplayer game. However, several visits to websites with Internet reviews of Darkstone reveal that Darkstone's single player game is much, much better than the multiplayer game. Issues like game instability (especially over the Internet) were cited reasons for this.

Verdict
Between Diablo II and Darkstone, I prefer Darkstone, but that could be because the computer system used could run the game just fine. Without a decent 3D accelerator, stick with Diablo II.

Darkstone
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Developer: Delphine Software International
Platform: PC

Warrior
The finest warriors are born in the heart of Ardyl's forests. From their earliest years, they have to become tough and develop absolute physical strength to be able to confront the dangers lurking in their region. As children, they learnt to survive in the most hostile of environments, to overwhelm wild beasts with their bare hands and, above all, to fight the goblins and skeletons, which abound in their land.

Their strength fills their enemies with dread and there are very few that would dare challenge them in single combat. They stalk their enemies with the patience of a hunting cat, and can swoop down on them with the speed of a hawk. They do have once weakness, however: they dislike magic because they consider it a demeaning means of combat. They prefer by far the incisive cut and hard steel of the sword to the use of spells.

Amazon
Amazons are fierce horsewomen who live in the region of Ardyl. They are entrusted at a young age to a Mother and soon become formidable warriors, showing no fear of either physical strength or magic powers. They learn as a group to compensate for their lack of physical strength through their agility and flexibility. Guided by their Mother, they must continually undergo a serious of stern trials with the aim of strengthening their spirit and making them a match for any warrior. The worst of these "character-building" trials involves them venturing into the goblins' den and bringing back the skull of their leader...

The Amazons gain the upper hand in direct combat thanks to their agility and ability to anticipate their opponent's blows. Their enemies describe it as being involved in a relentless dance of death. Similarly to the warriors, the Amazons have mastered the use of the sword, demonstrating impressive accuracy. It is, indeed, very rare for them to use magic.

Wizard
The greatest wizards come from the region of Marghor. Tradition has it that the ancient wizards always come to Marghor to choose those who have the Gift to become apprentice wizards. This happens when candidates are in their adolescence. Their whole life is then turned upside down. They return with their master to his tower, a solitary place conducive to reading and learning. These young wizards spend most of their time immersed in the spell books of the ancient wizards. For years on end they wear their eyesight out poring over scrolls, spending endless nights in their master's library. And then gradually, they begin to master increasingly difficult and complex spells.

Unfortunately, however, the wizards' towers have now disappeared since the lizard and rat men invaded the region. They carried out attacks on the towers, killing may apprentices in the process....

The young wizards have now been left with no alternative other than to fight for survival. But as they have never handled weapons they can only rely on their magic powers to defend themselves, as they have always preferred to concentrate on developing their minds, rather than their bodies. But, despite their lack of any physical strength, they have managed to impress their enemies with the intensity of their spells.

Sorceress
Very little is known about the sorceresses' early years. Rumour has it that they learnt their magic by themselves in the shady clearings of Marghor's forests. Others allege that the goddess Kaliba, herself, took them under her wing. The source of the sorceresses' power is Nature itself. And indeed, they have no match when it comes to knowing the right plants to combine in order to create terrible spells.

But their most terrifying power, which may be seen as either a gift or a curse, is lycanthropy, which transforms them into a beast, half woman, half wolf. The sorceresses are universally feared on account of their potent magic. However, for some time now, the ingredients that make up their strange concoctions have become more difficult to find. Worse still, the rat and lizard men have overrun their territory. The Sorceresses realised that they wouldn't be strong enough to confront them, so they had to leave the safe cover of the trees and venture further out towards the villages.

The village inhabitants still eye them with mistrust, even today, but the sorceresses pay little heed to this as it is vital for them to keep on the move, roaming the land of Uma in search of new ingredients that will enhance their magic powers.

Monk
In the past, before the darkness descended, many monasteries were established in the region of Ormar. The prospective monks were sent to these monasteries where they became good men, enjoying the respect of all. The monks spent many years in this place of prayer, learning various combat techniques and spells. Although less accomplished than wizards or warriors in these respective arts, the monks have the advantage of being highly competent in the complementary disciplines of war and magic. Isolated from the rest of the world in their peaceful haven, they have had years to master the use of blunt weapons (i.e. those weapons other than swords). The staff has become their favourite weapon.

They have also studied white magic, so that they can use it to help their neighbour and conquer Evil. There are now far fewer monks than there were in the past. Nearly all of the monasteries have fallen under attacks from the wyverns sweeping across the region.

Monks now represent good, as well as life and its combat. They are still held in high regard because of both their skills with a staff and their ability to heal wounds.

Priestess
As with the monks, the priestesses have divided their lives between religious devotion and learning the arts of combat and magic. The source of their strength is their faith and they fight in the name of the gods. In a world increasingly threatened every day by the Darkness, they stand out as beacons of Good and Life. During their travels they offer assistance to beggars, and they are quite prepared to take on thieves in direct combat, or use their magic to alleviate the suffering of the sick.

Assassin
In order to survive, assassins often begin their careers by relieving merchants of their purses. From their youth, they know how to move around in the dark without making a single sound and steal from sleeping travellers. Their exploits always end up attracting the attention of the Thieves Guild in Serkesh. The assassins have settled in this region, so that they can benefit from the lessons of more accomplished exponents than themselves. In time, the most able of the young apprentices can even surpass their masters. As they are cunning and nimble, assassins often use projectile weapons when attacking their opponents in combat.

Thief
The thieves' reputation precedes them in the region of Serkesh. All of these women have demonstrated at one time or other that they have the stuff of which thieves are made. Thus, they became members of the renowned Thieves Guild, where they could develop their natural talents further. Within the guild they learnt to use their skills to break into merchants' lavish residences to steal gold and precious jewels. They also learnt how to kill sentries using projectile weapons and to set traps for travellers at nightfall. Their skill set is considerable and makes them very dangerous opponents, both in direct combat and when using long range weapons.