Throne of Darkness

Preview - hack 'n' slash role-playing oriental style, courtesy of a group of Diablo veterans

Click Entertainment is a new company co-founded by Blizzard veterans who worked on the classic Diablo, so it's perhaps no great surprise that their debut effort is itself an isometric hack 'n' slash role-playing game. But with some novel new features and an oriental setting, Throne of Darkness is far from being a straightforward Diablo clone. We caught up with the game's art director and designer Ben Haas during his recent press tour of Europe to find out more...

Seven Samurai

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Here be dragons, with scorpions tails and big whispy moustaches. Yes, it's Japan.

Set in a fantasy version of medieval Japan filled with sorcerors and samurai, Throne of Darkness tasks you with toppling an evil warlord whose minions are attacking your master's castle. The rooms are filled with debris and corpses, and your first duty is to battle your way out into the courtyard and defeat the leader of the raid, gathering any other surviving samurai as you go.

This is the first major difference between Throne of Darkness and the Diablo series. By the end of the opening levels you will have gathered a group of seven characters (a nod to the great Akira Kurosawa), and although you only have direct control over one of them at a time, up to three other characters can accompany him in his adventures. These are controlled using a variety of tactical options, varying from setting aggression levels (which determine how far they will chase targets before returning to your side) and which weapons and spells they will use to adjusting their formation. Multiple tactics can be set up and selected via hotkeys, and when necessary you can also switch between characters, allowing you to take manual control if one of them runs into problems.

Another neat feature is that your lord (daimyo) can teleport your heroes to and from his castle, allowing you to swap characters in your party for those you left behind at your base, and to send dead or wounded samurai home to be healed. This means that you will only ever lose the game if your entire party dies and your daimyo doesn't have enough mana left to teleport you home to be resurrected.

Less Talk, More Fight

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Let's get ready to rumble!

Which is lucky, because combat is the heart and soul of this game, and it is currently very fast paced and frequently lethal. Like Diablo, Throne of Darkness is more focused on fighting and levelling than storyline and conversation.

Although combat looks rather chaotic at first sight though, it's not simply a case of everybody piling in at once. Your characters follow a samurai honour code and will fight one-on-one where possible, only ganging up on a single target when faced by a more powerful enemy. And with the new tactics system allowing an easy way of quickly switching formations, weapons and attitudes for your entire party, combat could prove to be rather more rewarding once you have got to grips with the game and its frantic pace.

To keep things interesting there is also an almost limitless variety of weapons and armour on offer in the game, thanks to the blacksmith, described by Ben as a "big recycling factory". Whenever you find some piece of armour or low grade weapon which you don't have a use for, you can simply send it back to your base for the blacksmith to analyse and turn into something more useful. You can also find special components which will add extra abilities to your equipment, varying depending on the type of weapon or armour that you use it with, as well as gems which will give additional bonuses.

A Kind Of Magic

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That's gonna hurt

Doing this all takes time and money, but it provides an incredibly wide range of unique weapons and armour, and means that you can constantly upgrade and recycle your equipment throughout the game instead of just throwing away the less powerful items you find or trading them in for cash. There are a limited number of slots in each item for you to fill with gems or components, but you can still end up with some incredibly powerful magical equipment with several different spell effects or special attacks built into them.

There are also around 80 types of spell for players to learn how to cast, split between neutral magic such as healing spells and elemental magic which is based around earth, water, fire or lightning. These are earned by making offerings to the appropriate god, and the effects can be spectacular as you unleash them, with firestorms erupting all around you and lightning arcing between enemies.

Ben Haas insists that "gameplay's much more important than graphics when you get down to it", but the visuals in Throne of Darkness certainly aren't too shabby. Characters are big and colourful, not to mention downright bizarre at times thanks to the unusual oriental setting. The 800x600 resolution matches that offered by the new Diablo II expansion set, and the locations are nicely detailed for the most part. In fact, the engine has apparently attracted the attention of Korean companies interested in developing online games using it.

Must Be The Reason...

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This looks like bad news

Of course, Throne of Darkness will itself have a strong online component, with a Battle.net style matchmaking service and support for as many as 35 players in a single game. This will apparently be run through Sierra.com, although individual players and third parties should be able to host their own multiplayer games.

The online experience will mirror the single player game, but with the catch that all of the various factions are represented by up to seven players. Not only will you be able to join any of the four castles featured in the single player campaign, but you will also be able to join the dark side and defend the warlord and his fortress against those lousy do-gooding samurai.

While this might at first seem a little one-sided, only one of the four good factions can win the game by killing the warlord, and so they will no doubt be fighting amongst themselves as well as battling the evil players. Exactly how this will work out in practice remains to be seen, but it's certainly an interesting idea.

Conclusion

With an innovative multiplayer mode alongside a suitably epic single player campaign offering somewhere in the region of 50 hours of gameplay, Throne of Darkness looks like it could be just the ticket for Diablo fans looking for something a little different. The oriental setting makes a nice change from your run-of-the-mill European-inspired fantasy worlds, and the game certainly looks promising at this stage. Currently the developers are expecting to have it ready for release some time around August, with a demo possibly appearing as early as next month.

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