Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
Lets make things clear from the outset. This article will not, and I repeat, WILL NOT, contain any jokes about the titular ‘Throne of Agony’. No references to the morning after a curry or other such base comparisons will be found within the proceeding text, as tempting as it is to take a few cheap shots. Given the title of the game and the desire to fill a few paragraphs with ass-jokes and references to home and office furniture, that’s no mean task to accomplish.
Dungeon Siege is one of those series that PC gamers take for granted. It’s just sort of there, without selling drastically large amounts and always in the shade of perennial favourite Diablo II. Hack-and-slash action-RPGs have never been the most innovative of titles, and Dungeon Siege has always stuck firmly to the staple traits that define the genre. That’s not to say its a bad lineage however, and the legion of ardent fans that the title commands will attest to that fact, if at times a little over-zealously.
The PSP version, ‘Throne of Agony’ (must.. not… joke…), has been created by relatively unknown development house SuperVillain Studios. Previously responsible for a couple of Tony Hawk’s ports and an X-Men game, this title marks the largest project yet for the developer, and fans of the series will be relieved to know that they’ve done a mighty fine job in translating the experience to the small screen.
Beginning with a very stylish comic-book style 2D cutscene (a theme that runs throughout), the game opens up to a choice of three characters conforming to the typical RPG archetypes of Warrior, Assassin and Mage. No customisation options are present, with the only further selection being to choose between one of two initial ‘followers’. PC gamers may baulk at the simplicity, but in retrospect, that particular design focus turns out to be the saviour for a game that could have easily been bogged down under its own weight.
SuperVillain has effectively streamlined all aspects of the title to fit neatly onto the PSP. Chief amongst missing gameplay elements is the party system, which is replaced by a single player character and a number of unlockable and summonable NPC followers that can be taken into battle and dismissed at a moments notice. Each follower fulfils a different role, with characters suited to healing, buffing and damage dealing available at the push of a button, but never at the same time. The generally decent AI and simplified combat make this particular system a joy to use, and adds enough of a tactical layer to keep higher-level encounters interesting. If your followers die in combat they can only be resurrected at the nearest town, and as such knowing when and where to use each one becomes paramount to success.
Character levelling is also super-fast and gratifying, with new abilities (passive and active), turning up at a frighteningly quick rate throughout. Your main character and each of the individual followers can be levelled up, and traditional attribute points become available for distribution with each advancement. This approach does lend the game a somewhat customised feel later on, but by traditional standards the affects of each statistic on actual gameplay are fairly limited.
Somewhat surprisingly, the simplified approach to the overall structure of Dungeon Siege lends itself to some genuine progression within the genre also. The control scheme is nothing short of excellent, and leaves you wondering if it’s really necessary to have a billion keys mapped to different functions on the PC variants. Basic character movement is performed with the analogue nub, attack is mapped to the X button, magic or special skills are activated with a combination of the right trigger and face buttons, and potions are mapped to the left trigger and the D-pad. Easy.
It’s a simple, intuitive system that never becomes an issue throughout the campaign. Every attack, summon, map view or item that you need during play can be accessed swiftly and with the minimum of fuss, which in turn gives exploration and combat a truly dynamic and fluid feel. Kudos to the developer for finally cracking that particular nut on a handheld system.
Presentationally, Dungeon Siege also garners respect for tailoring dialogue and cutscene audio specifically to each character that you can choose, and whilst the overall story arc is nothing that stands out of the traditional fantasy canon, aesthetically the title excels itself. Graphically the game is lush and detailed, with a great deal of influence from the parent titles on the PC, and some excellent level design and variation in theme throughout. Audio design is also very accomplished, and whilst the sound effects and speech are fairly basic, the full orchestral score is superbly realised and puts many larger titles to shame. Atmosphere was clearly at the top of the design list, and the developers can consider that particular aspect to be a mission fully accomplished.
All of which gushing praise would lead the title into stratospheric scores, if only the same approach that lends the game of fresh air didn’t also partially cripple it along the way.
Unfortunately the lack of depth stretches a little too far at times, even for a portable title. There really isn’t much difference between playing a level 10 character or a level 30+ character, and the difficulty level never ramps up to provide a suitable challenge with which to unleash your upgraded skillset. Basically the game plays exactly the same throughout the entire campaign, which is a shame because a little tweaking to the aggressiveness and difficulty of the higher-level foes could have done much to alleviate the sense of monotony. Lessons can be learned here from something like Titan Quest, which provided some truly fearsome adversaries towards the tail-end of the game, and felt extremely satisfying to complete. An overall sense of achievement is sorely lacking in Throne of Agony.
There are also a number of fairly superficial issues that tend to grate after a few hours of play. Whilst the interface is generally excellent, the game is prone to some extreme button-lag even when simply looking through your inventory. Needless to say this can become annoying very quickly, especially when you end up selling multiple items mistakenly by pressing a button twice, as the initial contact didn’t register for a full second or two. Loading times are also fairly bad, with the UMD also pausing very occasionally in mid-battle. For a game with such detail packed in however, this can be forgiveable.
Throne of Agony is arguably the best Action-RPG available on the PSP at the moment, and if you’re a fan of the genre it’d be a criminal to skip this in favour of some of the more derivative fair that clutters the Sony release schedule from time to time. The basic experience is nothing short of excellent, and even with the annoyances of the genre and the shortcomings of the engine, Dungeon Siege is a worthy purchase. Just don’t sit on the toilet playing it all day, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Eight out of ten
- Lush graphical detail
- Swift and involving combat
- Fast progression
- Somewhat lacking depth