Recently, I've been contemplating buying one of those fancy Aeron chairs. The justification is the same as when I spent a vast amount of money on an enormous flat-screen monitor; as not only a sedentary gamer, but a sedentary gamer who stops playing games and proceeds to be even more sedentary by writing about them for a living, I spend really rather a lot of time in a chair, in front of a screen. My regular bus route into town, which brings me past the Home Office building in Westminster, sealed the deal; everyone who works there has an Aeron chair, and all they do all day is release criminals, lose records and brainstorm new ways of letting John Reid watch you going to the toilet. None of them has to heft a PSP in service of a legion of readers desperate for information on the latest games. They don't know what real work is.
So I've been examining the Aeron website, which basically promises that in return for handing over enough money to buy a lot of Twix bars, my back and butt will be supported in a manner not unlike being gently held aloft by a cohort of angels with hands so soft that they must have been previously employed to squirt Fairy liquid at God's own kitchen sink. With each passing day, the initially absurd asking price seems more and more reasonable. Each morning and evening, I regard my humble 50 quid office chair with increasing contempt. I lean back violently, hoping secretly to hear a telltale cracking noise which will give me an excuse to throw the accursed thing out and acquire for my bottom the executive-level pleasure it deserves. Alternatively, that sound could mean that I'm going to spend the rest of my life building my schedule around visits to the chiropractor. If I wait for the chair to break, it could already be too late. The Aeron draws ever nearer.
Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony is not a game about my office chair. The clue is in the first part of the name - I do not live in a dungeon (although I'm informed that my neighbourhood, Vauxhall, is amply equipped with such things), and nor is my house under siege, unless you count the never-ending barrage of leaflets from vendors who fry rats and call it chicken. No, I merely point out the interesting correlation here to let you know that as your chosen reviewer for this title, I bring to the table some pretty serious experience of the topic at hand. When it comes to Thrones of Agony, I'm an expert in the matter. I can empathise.
Barstool of Mild Discomfort
On the PC, Dungeon Siege is a pretty well established franchise - an action RPG which places the emphasis pretty strongly on the action side of the equation, but provides plenty of character customisation and party interaction to keep things nicely balanced. This title is its first foray into the handheld market, and it's immediately apparent that what we have here is a stripped down version of the game, in some respects. Much of the complexity of the PC titles has been removed, in favour of letting the player spend as much time as possible beating nasties over the head - the character customisation is all but gone, the party has been replaced with a single hero accompanied by one AI-controlled companion, and the control system has been simplified and streamlined to fit the handheld profile.
Now, you could read that two ways. On one hand, you could bemoan the dumbing down of an excellent PC title to suit the console gamer's perceived demand for instant gratification; on the other, you could celebrate the changes as an example of the developer's willingness to rethink the fundmentals of the game in light of moving to a totally new platform with very different requirements. After all, haven't we spent the last couple of years bemoaning the fact that all too many games are ported to the PSP with little regard for the handheld nature of the system?
When it comes to Dungeon Siege, though, you'd actually be right both times - a little from column A, a little from column B. There's no doubt that in many respects, developer SuperVillain has done a great job of adapting the core of the game to the PSP while shedding some of the more in-depth elements which would have burdened the game on a handheld platform. The team's objective is clearly to play to the strengths of the Dungeon Siege franchise - it has lovely graphics, good audio and fluid, exciting combat, all of which are carried over nicely to the PSP. Other aspects, such as the intricate character customisation and the party system, are shorn down to minimalist levels in order to make the experience more streamlined and arguably more suited to short bursts of play.
However, the dumbing down argument starts to feel a bit more compelling once you're a few hours into the game - not least because the combat system starts to feel a bit familiar and ultimately even tedious, and when you look for a bit more depth to the game to maintain your interest - well, that's the depth which the developers removed to make the whole experience more immediate in the first place. It's Catch 22, and it's hard not to sympathise - make a game too complex, and it'll alienate handheld game fans in general; remove all that complexity, and it'll feel dull after a few hours. It's an extremely tricky balancing act, and Dungeon Siege doesn't do badly, as such - but it doesn't last the whole way across the tightrope either.
Bench of Aggravating Itch
Although it may lack the depth to keep you coming back, there's no doubt that Dungeon Siege has a thing or two to teach a lot of other games about action RPG combat. The control method, in particular, is excellent - all of your various attacks can be bound either to the right-hand face buttons, or to the R-trigger and a face button. Rooting around in your inventory is kept to a minimum since health potions are on the L trigger, and mana potions are on L+R - a simple system which helps to keep the pace of the game fast and furious, and is pleasantly easy to master. Less simple are the attack patterns and strategies of your enemies, all of whom exhibit a unique approach to attacking you which you'll have to practice with a bit each time before settling on the best way of taking care of your foes. You can, of course, also select between ranged and melee attacks - this is done with a simple press of the D-pad, again avoiding menu systems and keeping you in the action.
Rather than allowing you to create your own character, Dungeon Siege offers you three pre-defined types to choose from - and although you can modify them as you level up, allocating points in Dungeons and Dragons style to a variety of different character stats, by and large your options in terms of changing your character are limited. At level 30 and 60, you can select to specialise your class - diversifying first into the "Hero" level classes, then into the "Legendary" classes, which does bring some much needed variety to the table, although even at this point your basic combat strategies will remain the same as they were hours earlier in the game.
More interesting than the changes you can make to your own character is the option to swap in and out different companions - the AI controlled characters who fight alongside you, and also level up and gain abilities as your character does. You can only fight alongside one at a time, but if an AI companion falls, you can summon another - which can sometimes radically change how the battle is fought. Once they die, though, you'll need to wait until you get to a town to be able to resurrect them. Annoyingly, we noticed that AI characters seemed to be prone to getting stuck on the scenery, and while this could normally be fixed by dismissing and re-summoning them, it was by far the most major of a number of glitches which broke up the flow of the gameplay - which also included long load delays (and occasional pauses mid-battle while the UMD struggled to load something) and some rather unwelcome lag in the co-op multiplayer mode, which supports two players over local wireless only.
Chaise-Longue of Slight Irritation
You can't fault Dungeon Siege on its presentation - the game lifts a lot of artwork and audio from Dungeon Siege 2, and is one of the PSP's better looking titles as a result. The storyline is a bit on the sparse side, not to mention being rather laden with fantasy cliches, but it's solid enough to keep you engaged during the rare points when the action lets up, and the decision to tailor most of the game's dialogue depending on which character you're playing earns brownie points on this front as well. The interface is mostly excellent - we especially liked the ability to quickly compare the statistics of items you find in loot to items you're wearing - but some rather unresponsive and awkward menus let the side down somewhat. Overall, though, the window dressing on Dungeon Siege is of very high quality - and the game really is very, very pretty, albeit a little too zoomed in on the action for our liking.
Unfortunately, the nicest window dressing in the world can't disguise the fact that despite an unquestionably good effort, and the best of intentions, the window itself is a bit cracked. Dungeon Siege starts out exceptionally well but really does fail to build in its promising foundations as the game progresses, and this lack of development means that as you approach the eight hour mark (the whole game works out at somewhere between 12 and 15 hours), you'll really feel like you've seen everything on offer. Stripping the complexity of the PC version down for a more streamlined game was a fine plan, but the process of throwing out the bathwater has left a rather stunned looking toddler sitting in the drain. Superb presentation, brilliant controls and fluid, fast-paced combat lift the game well above average - but while the Throne of Agony is initially very inviting, it's not one you'll be sitting in for long.