Kurosawa would be proud.
I've been staring at a blank screen for hours now, trying to decide on what to tell you first about Click Entertainment/Sierra's awesome new RPG, Throne of Darkness. I could mention something about the cool Japanese setting, plethora of items and smooth graphics, but instead, I'm just going to go native for a second and describe Throne of Darkness with one simple Japanese word: Ichiban. Number one.
That is, until now.
Including members of the original Diablo development team, the Click Entertainment development staff has improved pretty much every aspect of the Diablo series, making ToD the best Action/RPG I've played in a long time. Ichiban, baby.
The game takes place in feudal Japan, where the sneaky demon Haou-Hakaiki Zanshin has managed to possess Kira Tsunayoshi, the Shogun of the realm. Needless to say, Tsunayoshi began doing weird things like growing horns and calling forth skeleton warriors that just happen to be trapped inside living bodies. Sounds like a fun guy, eh? But since all this fun is terrorizing the remaining population, seven samurai warriors have been summoned to stop the dark forces from partying all across the land. Seven, that's the magic number.
To start, you'll choose from one of four clans. The clans have slightly different plotlines from one another, adding a little extra something should you ever want to replay this huge game. Each clan is made up of seven warriors - a leader, berserker, archer, ninja, brick, swordsman, and wizard. Each warrior has his own specialty and you'll need to recognize each man's strengths to execute the most effective form of demon-zombie butt kickery. Put a sword in the hands of the brick and he'll do okay, but give him a big iron zombie-smashing-stick and he'll go bonkers.
Up to four of your samurai are active at any given time, but you have the ability to swap guys in and out at the mere click of a button. You can even call out a bunch of formations or customize a few to suit your every battle need. The use and management of seven guys is a little overwhelming at first, but you'll have no problem getting used to it due to simple, efficient commands and a streamlined interface.
Another interesting bit about your characters is that they all can cast spells. While the Wizard obviously specializes in magical mayhem, every one of your warriors has the powers of earth, fire, water, and lightning. Who needs a sword, anyway?
The game follows the familiar Diablo gameplay with a ton of mouse-clicking kills, character level ups, and more items to collect than the Salvation Army. But unlike the dungeon/town/dungeon/town sequence of Blizzard's RPG, ToD is completely free-roaming with a set of missions that is generally not linear. Both the blacksmith and priest can be summoned anywhere at anytime with no real need to constantly head back to home base. Now that's what I call service.
Still, the combat and general gameplay will feel largely derivative to those who aren't Diablo fans to begin with. You better have a strong mouse, because you'll be doing a LOT of clicking.
The intricate item hunting made famous in Diablo has gotten even better. More item types and an improved customization process lead to a seemingly countless number of outrageous weapons and armor combinations. Sure, there are a bunch of magic gems to use, but it's amazing what some Inu blood, a few Tengu feathers, and this big rock will do to a plain-looking katana.
The only bummer here is the reliance of your character's "skin" on the body armor class. Changing helmets, shin guards, or masks won't change the appearance of your guys. Your look is totally dependent on your armor and weapon class, so you won't get the same kind of Diablo style fashion show.
But even without all of the different skins, ToD looks good. Characters are detailed, textures are spot on and spell effects are fantastic. Even the intro and cut-scenes get gold stars for showing off some sweet three-dimensional toon textures. I'm am quite impressed.
The environments are massive, so huge that it's easy to get lost. A small map will point you in the direction of your next priority, but it is almost useless when trying to go back and explore any places you might have missed. If you're just going to stick to the game plan and follow the shortest route to the mission objective, there are no problems. But anyone who's hunting down all the hidden areas certainly has their job cut out for them.
As if the single player game wasn't enough, you can also play ToD online. It plays pretty much like the single player minus the quests, but instead of the goal being to defeat the Dark Warlord, your goal is to become the Dark Warlord. It's a simple "King of the Hill" structure with the guy on top as the Warlord. When a player defeats him, he becomes the new Warlord. Character stats are stored on the Sierra servers, and no, you can't use the guys you built up in the single player.
While Throne of Darkness is not the groundbreaking game that Diablo was, it certainly has improved nearly every aspect of the Action/RPG genre. Heavy duty item customization, a superb setting and fun, tactical strategy leads to a must-have for fans of the genre.