Throne of Darkness: The End

tod-endIn the end, after you’ve defeated the demonic hordes assembled against you (preferably by using magic to kill them through a wall), it’s just four of you against one oversized demon who can knock you across the room before you get within sword’s reach. Fortunately, you have bows. More to the point, you have a wizard who can summon “dragons”. I put that word in scare quotes because the “dragons” you can summon are nothing like the dragons you fight elsewhere in the game. Instead, they’re basically automated gun turrets in the form of a ghostly dragon head sticking up through the floor. I’ve found that the best way to kill single extremely tough monsters in this game is to lay lots of dragon emplacements as fast as you can and then just run around in circles, adding more dragons as you go: the more you add, the more often the baddie gets hurt. It takes a lot of mana (or ki, as it’s called in this game) to pull this off, but as this is the final confrontation, I figured I may as well buy as many mana potions as I can carry. And so my wizard defeated the demon warlord Zanshin more or less singlehandedly, his companions being there mainly to keep the enemy distracted while I set up the initial dragon array.

After that moment of triumph, the final cutscene is a slap in the face. Basically, this is the point where the designers show just how slavisly they’re imitating Diablo. So be warned that I’m about to spoil the endings of both Diablo and Throne of Darkness.

If you’ve played Diablo, you probably remember the shock of the ending. Having defeated the titular demon and locked him back into the crystal he came from, the player character picks up that crystal… and stabs himself in the forehead with it. Which momentarily confuses the player, until you remember enough of the backstory to understand that the hero is binding Diablo’s essence to his own body in order to contain it, making the ultimate sacrifice of becoming a living vessel for the fiend, sealed away underground. It’s a dark, dark ending. There’s no earthly reward for the righteous, and a distinct possibility that the hero is going to eventually crack and let Diablo loose again, beginning the cycle anew.

The creators of Throne of Darkness were clearly aiming for something similar. After you defeat the Dark Warlord, the daimyo of your clan teleports in, takes the Dark Warlord’s sphere of power, and immediately transforms into the new Dark Warlord, turning the seven player characters into his new undead minions. (The final levels contained a “Dark” version of each of the player classes: Dark Swordsman, Dark Archer, etc. Presumably that’s what your team turns into.)

Now, neither of these games is high literature, but the Diablo ending has a bit of tragic depth to it, with the self-sacrifice for the greater good, while the Throne of Darkness ending comes off as no more than cheap irony, and mean-spirited at that. In Diablo, even if you take it that the world is still doomed, at least it’s spared for a while — longer, anyway, than the thirty seconds it takes the daimyo in Throne to render all your efforts pointless. If I had been playing the power-hungry Tokugawa clan, it might have seemed a more appropriate ending, turning into monsters as the ultimate result of placing ambition above all else. But I was playing the lawful-good Mori clan (it was the first one in the list). So the heroes are turned into monsters, not in punishment for their iniquities, or as a result of a tragic flaw, or in an act of self-sacrifice to spare others (as in Diablo), but “just because”.

Still, the final level had its virtues — mainly that, even with the most powerful characters and gear that I could reasonably hope to make, it still required some tactical thought. It’s significant that the monster supply, and thus the XP supply, is actually finite. In an RPG with an infinite XP supply, you have the option of avoiding the more difficult fights until you’re powerful enough to not have to think about them. Even here, I put off the final few castle floors in order to spend time levelling up. It helped, but it didn’t make things trivial. So, good overall balance, even if it did get tedious in the midgame.

Throne of Darkness: Fours and Fives

tod-hiI’ve explored all four slopes of the mountain now. Sure enough, the last one contained the Single Quest I had been missing. This was the Wizard’s quest, so it’s a good thing I went to the trouble of levelling him up.

This quest involved defeating a sequence of seven boss monsters, each alone in a separate chamber of a dungeon. Each chamber had a large kanji inscribed on the floor, possibly a hint about what sort of spells you’d need: 土 (chi/tsuchi, soil), 火 (ka/hi, fire), 電 (den, electricity), 血 (keshi/chi, blood), 気 (ki, spirit), 空 (kuu/sora, void or sky), 水 (sui/mizu, water). (The order may be randomized.) It’s a peculiar assortment. Fire, water, earth, and electricity are the four elements of the game’s magic system. Fire, water, earth, and void are four of the five classical Japanese elements, but air/wind is pointedly absent. Why blood and spirit are included is anyone’s guess, but I’ll note that both 土 and 血 can both be pronounced “chi” in Japanese (depending on context), and 気 is pronounced “chi” in Chinese.

I’m definitely overanalyzing this, but thinking about the element systems, it strikes me that the overall architecture of the game, like the classical elements, is in fours and fives. You’ve got four clans, each with its own castle, in a ring around the castle of the demon-possessed overlord Tsunayoshi. It’s tempting to declare that the four clans correspond to the game’s four elements, and that the central castle, on the mountaintop above the others, corresponds to kuu in the sense of “sky”. Well, okay, there’s one castle that’s surrounded by marsh, and which thus naturally corresponds to water, but that’s about as far as I can take this.

Reading the descriptions of the four clans in the manual, however, I think there may be a different base-four architecture at work. I hadn’t mentioned this before, but you can play any of the four clans, and presumably your choice affects the quests you get: the more noble and altruistic leaders will get quests to save surviving villagers, the more ruthless ones will seek out powerful foes solely to seize the sources of their power. From the manual:

Mori Motonari, the youngest Daimyo, is by far the most capable ruler of the four daimyos… He is currently under the impression that if Kira Tsunayoshi can be saved, they have every obligation to save him…

Seething with ambition, Oda Nobunaga leads a group of men who will stop at nothing to ensure he takes the throne. This attack has become a prime opportunity for Oda Nobunaga to destroy any obstacles, while having a legitimate reason to commit regicide… Oda’s ruthless tactics and heavy-handed rule are nevertheless brilliant…

A realist, Tokugawa Ieyasu has not only planned the entire offensive against the Dark Warlord, but has also created plans for his eventual attainment of Shogun himself… Although he will gladly join forces with any of the other Daimyo to increase his personal power, Ieyasu will be quick to exploit any weaknesses shown by the other clans…

Hideyoshi is a boisterous leader, and well liked by the normal troops because of his farming roots… Hideyoshi became known as “Hanuman.” … [H]e is called this for both his cunning and whimsical nature (like the monkey god’s namesake)…

In short, the four daimyo are respectively:

  • Loyal and honorable
  • Cruel and destructive
  • Scheming and machiavellian
  • Good-natured and whimsical

Which is to say, they are Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Good.

Throne of Darkness: Words

I haven’t mentioned that objects in this game tend to have Japanese names. That is, you don’t get a two-handed sword and a full helmet, you get a nodachi and a kabuto. I was pleased to see the word “kanmuri” used for one of the weakest helmets, as I had seen this word before in a completely different context: in writing Japanese characters, a kanmuri is a radical that goes on top. Apparently it means “crown”. It’s all a little reminiscent of playing the Samurai class in Nethack, with its name substitutions for items, but in Nethack only a few items are covered, and here it’s nearly everything.

tod-kunimichiSome of these words have already percolated through gamer culture (is there anyone who doesn’t know what a shuriken is?), others have not. (What on earth is a shinjyu? Or a ka-ho? 1Answers: The “shinjyu” in the game, an enchanted string of beads, is probably 真珠, which means “pearl”. There’s also an item-enhancement component called a “pearl”, but I think that’s just a result of the developers not paying much attention to translations when they were choosing names. “Ka-ho” in the game is a gem that enhances your stats, and is probably 果報, “good luck”. ) Some may be made up or misapplied: the strongest armor in the game is called “kunimichi”, which googles primarily as the name of a famous swordsmith. I suppose that there aren’t any famous armorsmiths, and they ran out of real armor terms. (They ran out of monster names too, but solved that with the time-honored gimmick of shoving prefixes in front of everything: Forest Oni, Fire Oni, etc.)

To the extent that they refer to unknown things, the Japanese names are an obstacle to understanding. I’ve noticed before that I generally have an easier time getting used to the relative power of things in fantasy games than in sci-fi games, because “dragon” and “unicorn” are extremely clear and distinct ideas in my mind, while “photon cannon” and “tachyon beam” both get filed under technobabble. Similarly, even though I’ve studied Japanese a little, this game is full of what I can only see as Japanobabble. To someone learned in traditional Japanese martial technology, the difference between a “shibata” and a “nisun nobi” might be obvious. Me, all I have to go on is the pictures. They both look like bows.

But I suppose it’s educational. At least, in those cases where they didn’t just make up the words or assign them arbitrarily.

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1. Answers: The “shinjyu” in the game, an enchanted string of beads, is probably 真珠, which means “pearl”. There’s also an item-enhancement component called a “pearl”, but I think that’s just a result of the developers not paying much attention to translations when they were choosing names. “Ka-ho” in the game is a gem that enhances your stats, and is probably 果報, “good luck”.

Throne of Darkness: Unready

tod-guttyThe second floor of Castle Tsunayoshi ends in a transition from traditional Japanese decor to Hellmouth, complete with pointy teeth. And climbing the stairs to the third floor brings me to another one of those points where my party is slaughtered swiftly and mercilessly. In part, this is just the nature of stairs. When you climb stairs, you wind up in the middle of an unexplored space; there’s no safe area to fall back to. The archer and wizard can’t hang back in the rear if you’re surrounded. But also, it’s just that the monsters are suddenly a lot harder again.

So I left the castle and gave a thorough explore to the southeast slope of the mountain. This was a pretty meaty chunk of adventuring, with two small optional dungeons (in addition to the big one that leads into the castle, which has entrances on all four mountain paths). Several of my samurai gained levels, and my ninja has maxed out his skill in the “Fire Kanji” spell, effectively making him as powerful as my wizard as long as I keep buying him mana potions. My current plan is to keep on doing the slopes until I run out, then assault the castle again.

The general RPG design concept of making areas available before the player characters are actually ready to tackle them is one that I’ve praised in the past (Wasteland is a good example), but it doesn’t work quite so well at this moment. Mainly because of the way the game leads you around the gameworld by assigning quests. For the most part, just following the lead of the quest system takes you through the game in optimal order. There comes a point where the mountain trails become available, but your assigned quest is to continue to the next castle in the proper sequence; ignoring your quest and charging up the slopes quickly proves suicidal. But here in the endgame, that’s reversed: obeying orders and continuing into the castle is suicidal, and the sensible thing to do is to wander around in the wilderness, which makes no sense in the story.

Throne of Darkness: Slow Progress

tod-diningI mentioned recently that the most numerous game genre on my stack was adventure games, but RPGs are a close second, thanks largely to anthologies. I’ve got the majority of the Wizardry and Final Fantasy series ahead of me, as well as the entire Might and Magic series. (Ultima I finished some time ago.) So, I think I should try to finish up Throne of Darkness so I can start a different RPG without feeling like I’m neglecting it.

When last we left our band of intrepid samurai, they had just gotten through the dungeons under Tsunayoshi’s castle, and were getting killed a lot. They’re getting killed somewhat less now, due to a combination of more XP, better tactics (I’m swapping out wounded characters sooner, and trying to make sure I always have a combination of melee and ranged characters out), and better equipment. Some of the equipment is crafted, but I’m finding crafting to be something of an exercise in frustration at this point: the moment I make myself an Ultimate Weapon, costing half my gold or more, I find a new previously-unseen component that would make it even better if there were any free slots left. Perhaps the better approach to crafting in this game is to just make little improvements to whatever you find.

Even though I’m within spitting distance of the final confrontation, I’m taking things slow. This seems to be the best way to approach this game: going through the castle level by level, room by room, taking the time to process your loot after each room you clear and at the same time letting everyone heal. Impatience gets you killed. I’ve even toyed with leaving the castle to explore the unexplored paths down the mountain, since the last Single Quest is presumably out there somewhere.

And, really, taking things slowly is kind of the right way to play RPGs, MMO or otherwise. To rush to the end is to miss the point. Experience farming is a meditative practice, similar in a way to “casual” games like Bejewelled: simple, repetitive, only partly engaging one’s attention. It’s something you can rest your mind on.

This is pretty much the opposite of the attitude I took the last time I wrote about this game. What can I say, it’s spring now.

Throne of Darkness: Graphical Style

So, I gave Throne of Darkness another go. I’m out of the dungeon and into the final castle, but things there are slaughtering my party regularly. I think I’ll have to have another crafting spree before I can make any more progress, and maybe go back and slaughter some creatures along alternate paths for more XP and crafting supplies.

Since I’ve run out of interesting things to say about the gameplay, let me talk about the graphics a little. I mentioned before that I bought this game primarily on the basis of the screenshots on the box (which is a poor way to make purchasing decisions, but hey, it was cheap). The thing I liked was mainly the texture of the objects. Items have engraving-like detail, and magic items are tinted in various colors depending on their enhancements. It’s especially striking now, coming from a stint of Guitar Hero, which uses heavily stylized 3D. The Throne of Darkness style is a good example of what 2D graphics can do better.

All of which makes me wonder what they were thinking when they made the crudely cel-shaded cutscenes. Nobody’s perfect, I suppose.

Throne of Darkness: The Point of Tedium

I underestimated the amount of game left. There’s a fairly substantial dungeon to be completed before tackling the central castle. The thing is, I don’t think there’s anything left to learn about the game. While the motivation behind gaming is (for me) largely about the sense of accomplishment, much of the actual pleasure comes from mastering new systems, and now that I’ve mastered magic and crafting, there’s nothing new left. I’ve reached the point of tedium.

It seems to me that CRPGs are particularly prone to becoming tedious, because progress in a game is based on developing the skills of the player characters, not on developing the skills of the player. There is one skill that the player learns: how to advance the characters efficiently. Mastery of that skill means that the PCs will be ahead of the difficulty curve from there on out, robbing the game of challenge. When this happens, the game can either end, or throw some new wrinkle at the player that forces them to revise what they’ve learned, or it can become mindless and repetitive. The last option is surprisingly popular among both developers and players.

A reasonable person just would stop playing at this point and get on with things that are either more enjoyable or have practical merit. But this blog is not about being reasonable. I will finish this game. I won’t do it right away, though. It’s high time for a break.

Throne of Darkness: Crafting

I seem to be getting into the home stretch now. The overall structure of the game involves five castles, a central one on a mountaintop and one in each of the cardinal directions around it, connected by a ring road. I’ve done missions in all of the castles except the central one now, and the only quest currently active is to activate the last remaining teleport gate of the eight on the ring road. This will take me back to near my starting point.

My characters are also nearly all up to the point where they can wield the strongest weapons available for purchase. And that means it’s time to sit down and do some serious crafting.

Crafting in this game involves combining items with monster leavings, such as oni horns and kappa claws, or various kinds of gem. Each item has specific effects: dragon stingers make a weapon poisonous, tengu feathers give a bonus to dexterity, etc. Each weapon and piece of armor has a certain number of enhancement slots; the more powerful items tend to have more. It’s kind of like the Final Fantasy 7 “materia” system, except that enhancement items can’t be removed. To effect an enhancement, you have to pay a blacksmith, who charges more for more powerful effects. More powerful effects also take more time to produce, and while the blacksmith is working on an item, he can’t do anything else, like start on new items or repair damage to the stuff you’re already using.

So there are four limiting factors on how powerful an item you can craft: enhancement items, enhancement slots, money, and time. Money was the chief limitation at the beginning of the game — at least, it was after I had spent it all crafting a wicked bow for my Archer. But for most of the game, it’s been enhancement items. I have lots of certain items, such Elder Kappa Shells, but not the things I really want to use. Shortages trigger the hoarding instinct: rather than use my last precious gems on a suit of armor that I’m just going to throw away once I can wear something stronger, I’ve been saving them up.

And now comes the moment I’ve been saving them up for. There’s no need to wait for a better item to use them on. It’s time to make maximally amazing stuff for all seven characters. Which means spending maximal amounts of money and time. The money isn’t a problem (at least, I don’t think it is), but the time factor means that there’s probably more than an hour of solid crafting built up. I hope it’ll all be ready by the time I get sent to the central castle.

Throne of Darkness: Twinking the Wiz

Since my last post, I’ve got both the Berserker and the Ninja up to the same level as the rest of the party and completed the Berserker’s special quest. It turns out that power-levelling characters gets easier as you go along, because there’s a positive feedback loop: the more advanced the charcter is, the more often he succeeds in hurting things and getting XP. The Wizard is still lagging, though, because he’s spending half his time dead. Resurrection is essentially free in this game, but there’s a limit to how frequently you can do it.

Fortunately, the Wizard is the one character that can be effectively twinked at low levels. To explain why, I’ll have to describe the magic system.

Every character class, even the Brick, has its own set of forty magical abilities that can be purchased and enhanced with “spell points”. These abilities are divided into four groups, corresponding to the four elements but with “lightning” substituted for air; spell points are specific to an element. Some of these abilities are spells that have to be cast and last a short time, some are continuous status effects that last as long as they’re selected, some are permanent enhancements that are always active. The list varies from character to character. Obviously the Wizard has access to the most powerful spells, but they’re only powerful if they’ve been enhanced with spell points. For example, there’s a basic missile spell for each element that starts out doing 1-5 points of damage. After you invest a maximum of 10 spell points in it, it does 5-55 points.

Clearly, spell points make a big difference. Assuming that you don’t try to make him use a sword or something, the Wizard’s capacity for dealing damage is limited mainly by the number of spell points he has to spend, rather than by his experience level, stats, or equipment. So, how do you get spell points? Ordinarily, you get a spell point for each of the elements when you gain a level, but you can get bonus spell points by sacrificing magic items. Each item is worth a fraction of a spell point, and they build up.

At the point I’m at in the game, there is an abundance of magic items that I don’t want to keep, mainly armor and weapons that are too heavy for the Wizard and too wimpy for everyone else. This is how I know that the Wizard’s missile spell caps out at 10, even though I’ve only levelled him five times.

Throne of Darkness: Well, that was a mistake

I said earlier that there were twelve levels in this game. This is incorrect. There are twelve main quests. The first quest is simply to escape the castle where you start the game, so when I left that area and the first of twelve empty boxes filled in, I mistakenly thought that the rest of the quests would be similar: a linear series of endpoint-reaching exercises, as is common in videogames. But it turns out that some quests are given in parallel, with at least one of them spread out over multiple areas.

In addition to the main quests, there seem to be three “single” quests which require a specific character. The first one I was given involved talking to an old friend of the Leader. Only the Leader can do this. The second, which I have not completed, requires the Berserker. An NPC mentions three powerful adversaries who have set a challenge, and the Berserker immediately declares that he accepts the challenge, even if he’s not in the party. Which he wasn’t, because he’s one of the charcters I had decided to ignore. But I can’t actually do the challenge without shifting him into the party.

I haven’t checked the docs on this, but I’m guessing that the single quests are optional. However, I’m too much of a completist to just leave this challenge unattempted.

It’s going to be hard. The party is nearing 20th level at this point, and the Berserker was abandoned at level 1. In most RPGs, this wouldn’t be a big problem: you could just stick the low-level character in the back of the party and tell him to defend himself while the big boys win him some XP. That doesn’t work here, because the party doesn’t share XP at all. In most RPGs, that wouldn’t be a problem either, because you could just take the low-level characters back to the earlier areas and level by means of random encounters. But, as in Diablo, the monster supply here is finite, and I’ve been pretty thorough about clearing areas as I pass through them. There just aren’t any low-level XP farms left. In order to reach a level where he’s capable of completing the quest, the Berserker will simply have to fight a large number of things that are tougher than him.

Well. Can the other characters help, with buffs and twinks and healing? Sadly, there are no healing spells, and no buffs other than self-buffs. They can twink to a certain extent, but the better items have level and/or stat requirements that prevent this. Mainly what they can provide is cash. There’s no reason not to give the Berserker the best equipment he can use and a big stack of healing potions.

Despite difficulties, I have managed to get the Berserker up to level 5. I should bring out the Ninja and Wizard and start levelling them too, just in case I need one of them for the third single quest.

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