Darkstone was released in 1999 by Delphine Software International, a now defunct company, and can be played either on a PC or Playstation. There are differences between the two versions, more about which can be found on Wikipedia, but as I’ve only played the PC version, this is what I’m basing this review on.
An RPG, the action is set in the world of Uma, across the four lands of Ardyl, Marghor, Omar and Serkesh. In the game’s intro you find out that in ages past a monk called Draak gained the ability to turn himself into a dragon and set out to destroy the world, but he was beaten. Unfortunately now he’s back, and the Darkstone, which is a black monolith that appears in town at a point during the game, plunges the world into darkness. Your task is to solve the puzzles and raid the dungeons across the four lands of Uma to retrieve the seven crystals of wisdom, virtue, bravery, nobility, compassion, integrity and strength in order to form the Time Orb. With this, you enter Draak’s lair and enter the final showdown.
I absolutely love it.
This was the first computer game I ever played, and it took me years but I completed it in the end. And one of the best things about it is, there are four levels of difficulty so once your character(s) is/are strong enough, you can play with them at the next level up, which has different monsters and a whole new range of weapons, clothing and armour. Also, you can get different quests, a random selection from 22, if you start different games. It’s the game that keeps on giving.
You can play as one or two of eight different characters; a warrior, amazon, wizard, sorceress, assassin, monk, thief or priestess. They start off with different strengths, but you can alter strength, magic, dexterity and vitality to meld your character throughout the gameplay as you level up. And then off you go.
In the town where you start off there is a training area where you can learn how to shoot arrows or fireballs from a staff but I got stuck in there, not realising that you have to put the staff back down, and died of hunger, so it’s probably best to skip that part. The townsfolk will sometimes give you quests, such as killing the vampire Nosferatu or bringing back a relic. If you’re a thief you can also go around swiping stuff from them, and even the chicken if you fancy an egg. The blacksmith will buy and repair your armour once you’ve been out hacking and slashing, there’s a banker to keep your hard-earned gold safe, and a mage where you can buy spells, mana, and healing potions, as well as all sorts of scrolls and mystical nick-nacks. If you happen to pick up an item with a curse on it and all of your stuff keeps falling out of your bag onto the floor, you can get that removed, or you could toss a coin to Audren and hear her sing a song about the Darkstone.
And the adventure begins
Once you’ve got some rudimentary armour, and maybe a wooden club to clutch, off you go to bash your very first goblin. Savour this moment, because you’re going to see a lot of these snaggle-toothed little buggers around. Goblins and skeletons are the default monsters of the first land. You’ll get increasingly nasty and harder to kill ones the further along the four lands you get, and you’ll get hammered if you tried to move into the next land immediately, so you’ll have to have a wander round and see who’s doing what.
There are two dungeons on each land, each with four levels in, and there’s some sort of theme, which often relates to an area above-ground. For example, a village has been burned by Draak and a baby stolen. You find the mother next to the smoking ruins and you have to go and fetch the baby from the bottom of the dungeon where it’s being held as part of a ritual sacrifice.
Now, I admit that the graphics in this age of wiis and xbox 360s does look dated, and the incessant darkness of running around dungeons, and especially once the lands become dark as well due to the appearance of the monolith in town, does get wearing. However, I still think there’s a lot of joy to be had. Even if you’re not a mage, you can still get good at magic and use all sorts of spells to make you faster, launch bombs, shoot magic missiles etc., and the crunching sounds when you’re smacking the hell out of a skeleton with your double-headed axe is extremely satisfying. This is a meat and two veg sort of RPG in that it’s exactly what an RPG should be: you pretending to be a thief, wielding a bow that shoots fireballs, heading off down a dungeon infested with vampires in order to collect a crystal so you can defeat a dragon. It’s brilliant.
Also, a main selling point is the ability to play two characters that you switch between. This means more swag room to carry your stuff, and hence fewer trips back and forth to town to flog it, and you can build up two characters at the same time and make them different enough for you to cover all bases in combat.
Gamespot gave Darkstone an 8.6 when it came out, saying that ‘Darkstone essentially takes Diablo a few steps further’. IGN gave it a 9, calling it ‘an incredibly fun and addictive game’. So why is it so obscure? I’ve told loads of people about this game, and not one of them have heard of it, despite it being available for the Playstation as well as the PC.
Diablo, and Darkstone’s similarity to it, may be the answer. Blizzard, who produced Diablo, is also a heavy hitter in the games market with its Warcraft series, and Diablo has one sequal out, with Diablo III currently being developed, so it’s had a constant presence since the original game came out in 1996. Delphine, however, didn’t make any Darkstone sequals, and has since perished.
So, despite of, and because of, its obscurity, I think you should buy this game. It may be overshadowed by Diablo and subsequent RPGs such as the Elder Scrolls series, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.