Japan is a country with a rich history and its own fascinating mythology, and Throne of Darkness uses these as a basis for a hack-and-slash action RPG set in a fictional medieval era in the country's past. Featuring countless battles and plenty of exotic treasures to be found, Throne of Darkness is the first effort by San Francisco-based Click Entertainment, a company cofounded by two developers who previously worked on Blizzard's extremely successful mid-'90s action RPG, Diablo. The influence of the original Diablo on Throne of Darkness is clearly evident in the game's isometric perspective and emphasis on combat--but while Throne of Darkness may be similar, you'll find that the Japanese setting isn't its only distinguishing feature. Though it has few real role-playing elements to speak of and though some aspects of its gameplay aren't well implemented, Throne of Darkness does succeed in offering plenty of good-looking combat sequences, which are repetitive but interesting nevertheless.
Seven samurai are yours to command in Throne of Darkness.
In Throne of Darkness, you'll take command of the loyal samurai retainers of one of four Japanese clans, each of which has a similar goal: to rid the land of the Dark Warlord Zanshin, an incredibly powerful demon warrior that resides in his own fearsome fortress. The recently awakened Zanshin has already corrupted the countryside--it's all become shrouded in darkness and filled with nefarious beasts, ogres, bandits, and undead. Only the four clans' samurai warriors, as well as their respective daimyo masters, remain unaffected. To save the land, you'll have to guide your samurai all across the country, fighting evil, gaining new skills, and finding new and better equipment. You'll take on some side quests in your search for Zanshin. These are good diversions, but they're as straightforward as the rest of the game and usually just involve going out of your way to kill one fiend or another.
The clan you choose has little effect on the game--you'll have the same seven classes of samurai at your disposal, regardless. These include the leader, a venerable and charismatic warrior; the aptly titled brick, a giant of a man; the archer, master of kyudo, the unique Japanese bow-and-arrow style; the swordsman, who's exceptional with a sword in each hand; the berserker, a brutal fighter who prefers polearms; the ninja, a versatile assassin; and the wizard, practitioner of the occult. These characters are distinguishable by their individual appearances, by the weapons they can use, by the spells they can learn, and by their starting statistics for attributes such as strength, dexterity, and vitality. In reality, they can all become quite capable in battle, and many of them share analogous roles, making them not so different in practice as you might hope or expect. Still, Throne of Darkness' most interesting feature is that it readily lets you command any combination of up to four of these characters at any given moment, and thanks to your daimyo's magical powers, you can easily and almost instantly swap different samurai in and out of your active group.
The Japanese theme is well maintained throughout the game.
Having to direct four characters in real time may sound like a tall order, but in truth, you directly control just one while the computer handles the others. This makes Throne of Darkness play somewhat similarly to another Diablo-inspired game, Darkstone, a hack-and-slash action RPG from 1999 that lets you play with two characters at once. Of course, Throne of Darkness lets you manage even more. At any time, you can quickly switch your control from one samurai to the next, and injured samurai can be teleported out of action and replaced with one of their fully rested comrades--this unique mechanic is central to the combat in Throne of Darkness and gives the game a distinct feel. Combat itself is simplistic but frantic since it plays out so quickly--you just left-click your mouse on targets repeatedly to swing or shoot at foes, and alternately, you can use the right mouse button to cast a variety of magic spells. Also, you can easily switch between two sets of weapons at the touch of a hotkey--for instance, from a razor-sharp katana to deadly accurate shuriken--but you'll usually have just one weapon per character that you'll prefer to use.
The game's interface can be a bit confusing at first, but it actually works quite well for the most part, once you get the hang of it. What's called the "daimyo interface" is easily accessible with a keyboard hotkey, and it's here that you can swap samurai in and out of your group just by clicking on their portraits. Samurai not in your group slowly regenerate their health and "ki" points, which are used for casting spells. Teleporting samurai back and forth uses up some of your daimyo's ki, which constantly recharges. The daimyo can also resurrect slain samurai, though this is particularly taxing for him--if many of your samurai are killed in a difficult battle, you'll have to wait a while before you're back in force. Each samurai has his own unique character stats sheet, item inventory, and spell list. Separate interface screens are also available for dealing with the blacksmith, who can repair your items, make new ones, and customize old ones by combining them with magical components for a fee; and the priest, who can identify artifacts, purify cursed items, and offer your magical goods to the gods in exchange for more spell knowledge. The blacksmith and the priest become available early in the game, and you can magically trade with them at any point, much like the way you can switch samurai. You can also call up an unobtrusive minimap that will float in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, though unfortunately, you can't scroll this map to help get your bearings, and your own view is always locked on your samurai. At least you can resize the map to your preference.
Throne of Darkness has a battle tactics feature that looks promising, but it ultimately doesn't work well and can just as easily be ignored. The game lets you issue a variety of preset tactics that are named after animals, such as "frog" and "centipede." These tactics are selectable from a prominent green button on the interface panel, and triggering them causes your characters to change positions relative to one another and possibly switch weapons or switch between an aggressive and a defensive combat posture. However, while names such as "frog" and "centipede" may be in keeping with the game's far-eastern martial arts theme, they're not exactly intuitive. Indeed, in practice, none of the tactics make any kind of sense. They just throw your samurai into some arbitrary pattern. Not unless you right-click on each individual tactic and take note of where it's putting whom and what it's making whom do will any of these prove remotely useful. Even if you eventually find a few that you like in theory, their value is still pretty limited--your samurai will lock themselves into the same relative position every time, and unless you manually rotate the formation and reset it, they'll stay where they are. This makes it difficult to maintain formations that protect weaker party members like the wizard, since you'll need to readjust the formation every time you change direction.
Various subquests will become available along the way.
There's an option to create your own tactical formations. You can reposition the samurai, set their posture to aggressive, neutral, or defensive, and specify whether you want them to use a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, or a spell. This feature seems promising too, but it's actually very limiting, or at least it seems that way since the computer is rather single-minded in how it controls your samurai. Computer-controlled samurai using ranged weapons or spells will just stand there and fire--they won't try to keep their distance or dodge enemy attacks. Also, magic-using samurai will repeatedly cast the one spell that you've selected for them. This particular shortcoming ends up making most of the game's dozens of spells all but useless in practice--a frustrating fact, since all the samurai have the ability to use magic and should have been better-equipped to take advantage of it.