Blog 616: Darkstone

Having given Helios a decent work-out with Crysis, what could I do next but pick up an ancient 3D hack ‘n’ slash from GOG.com that it could probably run while switched off?

Hey — my game is going to be a hack ‘n’ slash, it’s totally research.

Darkstone

I’m not going to lie, I came to Darkstone for the low-poly artwork. Darkstone looks like the Warcraft III alpha we never got to play. It’s like seeing Daggerfall from the top down in marginally higher resolution. It’s like Tomb Raider if they swapped the cubes for vaguely moulded prefabs.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s beautiful in the way that only ancient low-poly games can be, smooshy textures and all.

Okay, okay, that’s just me. You come for the graphics, you stay for the game, and the game sadly doesn’t live up to its sumptuous appearance. Let’s see if we can’t learn some lessons, though…

I've got a bone to pick with these sumptuous static mesh props.

I’ve got a bone to pick with these sumptuous static mesh props.

It’s a fairly straight forward hack ‘n’ slash, though it uses the same broken control scheme as Torchlight — left click to both move and attack, meaning you often end up running around enemies instead of hitting them. (Sure Torchlight is a hell of a lot slicker, but it’s the same problem.) Maybe it’s a bit worse than TorchlightDarkstone has trouble letting you use ranged weapons at all without holding shift.

The other issue with the controls is the ambiguity between holding down the button to walk towards the cursor and clicking once to walk to that point. If you’re in a scramble against fireball-spewing skeletons and need to take evasive action, the mouse being accidentally over the wall instead of some floor means you just stand around like a lemon… And then you die.

The lesson: hitboxes, actually, and the fact that true precision isn’t always desirable. I spent most of my life in Warcraft III striving for precision in pathing, in collision, in all sorts of places. However, I now realise that too much precision can be a detriment — case in point, the controls here seem to detect if the mouse is precisely over an enemy’s mesh or not. That means if you are hovering over the gap between his arm and his torso, yep, you get a move order to just behind him rather than an attack.

(I recently implemented fuzzy capsule/cuboid bounds for targeting in my own game to thwart this very issue. Needless to say, these are independent from damage detection bounds — which are still fuzzier than I’d origially intended but not quite as fuzzy. You can go for supreme precision in an FPS where you have fine control over aim, but definitely not in a top-down game.)

And then they just put some tiny enemies against you. Chickens aren't too bad, but for some reason Giant Wasps can shoot magic missiles.

And then they just put some tiny enemies against you. Chickens aren’t too bad, but for some reason Giant Wasps can shoot magic missiles.

Continuing on the theme of hitboxes and targeting, the items are also tiny. This isn’t necessarily a problem of itself, since you can rotate and zoom the camera, but it does bring to light an issue of the game’s treasure chests. It’s impossible to tell what a chest or crate might contain from its appearance — it could have nothing, it could have some junk, it could have an important quest item.

That’s the key — I never know whether or not I should be scouring the floor for a hard-to-see item that could be buried in the remains of that urn. Even once you have equipment items on board, they all look basically the same. I’ve always repeated that I’m a fan of dress-up games, but there’s often more to it than mere appearance — a fancy or unique looking item is a sure way to know it’s somehow special, or important. It’s an immediate way of filtering out the junk.

The lesson: don’t judge items by their looks, but you should be able to (at least a little). While Icewind Dale neatly subverted this on purpose by giving the best sword in the game the icon of the most basic longsword, here there are no visual cues in the icons, let alone on the character models, to denote the upward progression such games are known for.

"This object"? I've been had!

“This object”? I’ve been had!

Alongside the usual systems of casting and conumption, characters also have a hunger bar. As well as normal equipment and potions, you have to carry food around.

On the one hand, it could have been an interesting survival element. On the other, food is cheap as chips and once you find the Magic Door spell you can traipse back and forward to the Town as much as you like. On the third hand, there’s even food to be found in chests in the dungeons.

It might make more impact in the higher difficulty levels, which are naturally locked behind completing the game on Novice first, but I can’t help but think it adds nothing here and it’s a superfluous mechanic. Your characters even warn you when they’re hungry, so you don’t really have to pay attention to it — there are no ill effects until you hit rock bottom.

The lesson: mechanics have to actually have some kind of impact and risk/reward or they just take up space. I can imagine a survival food mechanic working in something more forward-motion driven like Nox, where circumstance might take you a long way from shops, necessitating scavenging and other extra unpleasantries, but in this open world where you can teleport instantly to the shops…

There are also puzzles. The voice acting is hilarious, especially when they say "Yes!" on levelling up and "woooaaa..." on identifying an item.

There are also puzzles. The voice acting is hilarious, especially when they say “Yes!” on levelling up and “woooaaa…” on identifying an item.

Why can’t more hack ‘n’ slash RPGs be like Nox? Seriously. It’s fucking hack ‘n’ slash perfection. If you know of any hack ‘n’ slash RPGs like Nox, do tell me. I feel like I should love the genre so much but every game I’ve touched that isn’t Nox has been annoying on some level. Loki was a characterless grind, Torchlight was a cheap WC3 rip-off with the wonky controls and intangible loot progression…

Conceptually, I love it. Go out into an overworld, fight monsters, find dungeons, fight more monsters, collect loot, get better, fight better monsters… It just never quite seems to work. Should I give up and go back to story-driven singleplayer FPSes?

It can’t just be because I played Nox first. There has to be something much more smooth and natural about its control scheme and everything else flows from there.

The lesson: controls. It’s all about the controls. Smooth, responsive — Darkstone has far too many buttons to press and you have to press them in all the wrong ways, plus the aforementioned shoddy targeting and movement orders.

The option to use two characters instead of one means that the other lags way behind in level due to the experience hand-outs for kills, so you have to swap between them now and again.

The option to use two characters instead of one means that the other lags way behind in level due to the experience hand-outs for kills, so you have to swap between them now and again.

Another point reminiscent of Daggerfall is the lack of structure in dungeons. I’m not sure how much is procedural and how much is hand-crafted (there are sporadic set-piece rooms), but it is relatively hard to navigate without using the map overlay because there aren’t that many different structures on show. It’s hard to tell one part of the dungeon from another, is what I’m saying. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the dungeons are all pretty dark and the Light spell is completely useless.

The lesson: features aren’t just for eye-candy, they’re for navigation too. A piece of notable architecture is a good way to remind you that you turned right last time and should now go left, but one bare stone-walled chamber with three doors is much like any other, even from the top down (especially if your camera can rotate freely).

Counter to Daggerfall, though, the dungeons’ first levels at least tend to match their overworld entrances — a castle will have castle-styled dungeon walls, while a cave will have cave-style walls. So while the dungeons don’t vary they much, what little variation they do have is fairly coherent.

Come on, though, look at those graphics! Eras' magical floating face even has lip movements when he talks!

Come on, though, look at those graphics! Eras’ magical floating face even has lip movements when he talks!

The Verdict

Yeah, sure, I’m not going to recommend this. There’s definitely a fun game in there somewhere but it’s heavily bogged down by its shonky controls. The artwork is pretty lovely but there’s not too much of it to see, there are basically zero dress-up options…

Oh well, it only cost me a quid, and we have at least managed to harvest some design insights for our own efforts… Haven’t we?

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