It's become something of a tradition in the gaming industry that whenever a company reaches a certain size or level of success it starts to bleed staff, who then leave to form their own companies in a kind of asexual reproduction (bear with me here). Bullfrog has spawned Lionhead, Elixir and Mucky Foot, 3D Realms has given birth to half the Dallas gaming industry, and it's happened to Blizzard as well. The latest splinter group to leave the company is Click Entertainment, co-founded by veterans of Diablo and now about to release its own action role-playing game, Throne of Darkness.
Big In Japan?
The idea behind Throne of Darkness came from co-founder Ben Haas' love of old Japanese movies, and the pressure of needing to come up with a design for the company's debut game. "We were working on landing deals in general, we didn't have anything, and we hadn't drawn a pay cheque for about nine months", Ben explained. "So it was like .. er .. let's figure this out quickly!"
The result was a pitch for Throne of Darkness which Ben jokingly described as "a combination between John Madden, Diablo and Dungeon Keeper". From what we have seen so far it looks like a promising start for the company though. "It really took me longer to convince my partner than anyone else that the game was a good idea and that the genre is something that's pretty valid and that people are excited about it. It's really coincidental that 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and all this other stuff just jumped out of nowhere about the same time that the game's going to be released. I'm not really that surprised though, because I think that the genre has been getting more popular over the years, and now it's just kind of where it's at."
The setting is also an obvious choice from an aesthetic viewpoint according to Ben, although not everybody is happy with their take on medieval Japan. "One of the funniest things is that if you show this game to a Japanese person they go 'that's not Japan, and that person doesn't look Japanese, and this isn't the way we do it, and blah blah blah'. They've basically designed a culture that's almost unduplicable. And they created it like that - you're not supposed to be able to! So to attempt it and have enough people say yeah, that looks pretty Japanese..."
Although the setting is novel for a western-developed role-playing game, the basic gameplay will no doubt be familiar to fans of the Diablo series. It's more about "levelling up your characters and getting more items for them and stuff like that, and less of a game like Arcanum or something like that, which is more of your hardcore RPG".
But it's not all brainless brawling, and there is some character development during the game. "One thing that we do do to let you in on the backgrounds [of the characters] is that we have these things called the personal quests based on the back story of the character you're playing .. something that happened to this character in its past". Also adding some depth to the game is the fact that you have control over anything up to four characters at a time instead of just one, with a novel tactics system for controlling the party. "[In] Myth they tried to do some stuff like we're doing, but we saw the downfalls of that. There just wasn't enough customisation in the actual formations. That was the one thing that we thought of originally - we want you to be able to create any formation you want."
"The other idea is that you don't need tactics to finish the game, it's more for advanced users. We've made a game that has levels of complexity. At the very top you have [something like] Diablo, which is very uncomplicated and straightforward and easy to play, which is why it has such amazing success. And then if you get a little lower you've got tactics, and you've got blacksmiths and priests [to customise and sell items], you've got offering things to the gods, and you've got some other things there that you can play with. Once you get the basic sense of the gameplay it doesn't turn into just a big clicking adventure, you're doing other things to make yourself more strategic."
Take Me To Your Leader
Another reason to go back and play through the single player campaign again once you've mastered the basics is that there are multiple paths through it. "When you go to 'New Game' you can select any of the castles to start from, which adds some replayability - you can basically play the game four times and have a fairly different experience".
Although clothing colours and personal quests for the characters vary from castle to castle, for the sake of multiplayer balance each has the same seven character classes available. These range from berserkers and swordsmen to archers and mages, although in keeping with the feudal Japanese setting none of these will be women. "There are actually female characters that have been developed, but I didn't feel like it worked as well [and] I didn't feel like there was any need to be real PC about it", Ben explained.
All of the character classes have their own uses, and you will have to weigh the benefits of using a particular hero for a particular job. For example, tactical "plays" can be called, which is where the John Madden element comes in. Doing this costs mana, but how much mana the character calling the play loses depends on his charisma. "For someone like the 'brick' character it's going to cost a lot more. But then you also have to think of things in terms of what am I going to use the brick's mana for anyway - he's not a very good spellcaster, so maybe I should just use him to call plays. Versus the mage, where he may have a pretty good charisma, but you're still not going to use him to call plays because you want to save his mana for spells."
While everybody has their own favourite combination of characters, ironically the least popular member at the moment is ostensibly the heart of your party. "The one guy that nobody likes is the leader - he puts on airs and he's got that charisma statistic that just makes him a good shopper", Ben told us, before joking that "we should have made the leader a woman".
"Honestly, the market is so male driven that I've never really been worried about women getting upset that there's no women characters", Ben admitted when quizzed about this by a lady from PC Zone. Even in games that do include female characters, such as Diablo II, most of the "women" are actually played by men. When you meet a sorceress online, "you know it's not a she".
"I don't know why everyone thinks that Blizzard's so PC, other than the fact that they have black wizards. Their female characters are extremely .. giant breasted. I would really point out the blacksmith who's a woman [with] huge breasts and .. I don't know what blacksmith's in this outfit, but she's got no shirt on except for a leather apron and her cleavage is like .. down to here. I know the guys that designed this stuff, so you can't tell me that that was PC - I was there!"
Throne of Darkness isn't completely without female characters, but they are just there to be saved by your samurai. In fact, there's not many people of any kind around to talk to. When Sierra's British PR exec Frazer Nash asked where they had all gone, Ben replied that "if you've noticed, there's a lot of dead people in the game". Right from the start you find yourself walking amongst corpses in the wake of an attack on your castle. "The castles are a mess, and they don't ever get cleaned up", Ben confessed. Maybe this is why you need to rescue the women?
So where did all of the villagers go? They can't all have been killed surely? "Some of them got away, but most of them got slaughtered, and then some of them are also in pens being fed to these big grinders that grind up bodies, and they have these funnels of blood that pour into these vats, and then the vats produce more monsters", Ben enthused, a strange look in his eyes. This isn't going to be a popular game with the German censors then? "I don't know about the grinders, I didn't think about those. We'll see what they want - it's easily enough done. In fact, all of the monsters' blood is rendered out green, and then we shift it back to red, and that way we don't have to deal with the Germans at the end of the day - it's already green."