Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone
Demon Stone had two strikes against it right from the start. It feels like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (blah), and one of the three main playable characters looks like Scott Stapp, formerly of Creed (double blah). Luckily, it manages to outdo the game depiction of that Tolkien classic, though regrettably, there is nothing to be done about the rocker’s distasteful likeness.
The tale of Demon Stone goes this way: three clueless heroes–each with his own considerable emotional baggage–embark on a journey of self-discovery, managing en route to unwittingly loose upon the world a two-headed terror from years gone by. A pair of war-bent tyrants (the Slaad Lord and Githyanki Queen) were trapped safely, if precariously, within the confines of this magical Demon Stone, and they are ‘accidentally’ released by the heroic trio, who must then use their unique abilities to right their significant blunder and find themselves in the process.
Demon Stone is a step above The Two Towers by virtue of the fact it allows you to control three characters: Rannek, the very standard bearded fighter; Zhai, the shapely female rogue; and Illius, the Sorcerer of Creed fame–asking that you become rather adept at switching between them on the fly. In this way, the game is a step below The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which allowed two-player simultaneous play! I shake my head at Stormfront Studios’ decision to regress in this fashion. Had the two-player simultaneous function been left in, the game’s addition of team aspects over The Return of the King would have really solidified it as meaty action fare. Woe is we.
In any case, of the trio at your control, the sorceror is most consistent about being cool, bringing to mind Legolas and his ranged attacks. Illius though, brings unlimited ranged magic to the party, which more than compensates for his lousy melee skills. Greater experience is awarded for stringing kills together without taking damage, and for using certain combos over others–and that’s consistent with Stormfront’s previous efforts. But in Demon Stone, thankfully, we are not given a slew of “fair” kill ratings to discourage us from the enjoyment to be had by skirting about the environs, sniping. Illius, in fact, is often given carte blanche to snipe powerful enemies and even bosses, as the other two characters continue to slash gamely as controlled by the game’s AI.
In terms of bringing much needed spice to the rote swashbuckling mix, Zhai is even more essential than Illius. Her specialties include jumping, and the far more interesting stealth kill. This isn’t Metal Gear Solid or Tenchu or anything, but in a game that features enemies who in some instances take three complete button-mashing combos to put down temporarily, only to buy you time to light your sword on fire before finishing them off with a ‘critical’–her one-hit kills are more than welcome. The limitation is that they can only be performed when she is walking on these sparkly shadows that serve to mark her stealth territory. With the right upgrades (more on those later), you’ll be able to prolong her stealth ‘life’ and increase her stealth ‘range’. Still, there will definitely be parts in the game where you’ll wish for Zhai’s sparkly areas and they won’t be there.
And at such time we are returned to the tedium of melee combat.
This is the bland, thumb-busting realm of Rannek. This is his world, the world where enemies simply take too long to dispatch. The “riposte” technique is your best bet at fighting off both the foes and the frustration at being in the same spot on that bridge you were at two minutes ago. The technique requires blocking an attempted blow, before quickly responding in kind. Ripostes often score immediate knockdowns! And yet, even this mighty move is rendered useless when scores of Slaad are raining giant battering hammers down upon your head, as taking your finger off the defend button to swing your own weapon will open the door to a world of staggering doom for your character.
These action games are supposed to be fast and frenetic. They’re supposed to keep you on your toes as enemies try to encircle you. You’ve got to keep them to one side–corner them, if you can. You’ve got to know when to button mash the basic enemy-dispatching ‘combos’ and when to implement the more difficult attack moves, which offer critical damage as a trade-off for their reluctance to be implemented.
Inevitably, this will get repetitive. The best action games keep the scenarios by which you spill blood, fresh and atmospheric to create the necessary illusion that level-by-level, you’re doing something different. Classic oldies like Final Fight spring to mind; that game was all about clever maneuvering so as not to get caught in a crossfire of right crosses, and stomping boots and slashing shivs. Demon Stone does both things: we are constantly moving to create space to stage our fights most effectively, the environs are constantly inspired. But the game trips up in a way the old games never did: it makes us indifferent through having much too much on offer.
Most times, an illimitable stream of monsters will pour forth from zones unknown to suffocate your warriors with their sheer numbers. They will brood around you and remind you of the first time you played Resident Evil and died with a half dozen zombies pressing grotesquely over your lifeless body.
Similarly, the game offers you too many useless options. You’ll be expected to keep up to speed with level-by-level upgrades of your characters and their equipment. But the thing is, there are only a handful of useful moves, and for all the chapter intermission ‘upgrades’ you are forced into, by journey’s end, you’ll be performing the very same moves as at the beginning, only with gaudier fantasy nomenclature. Yes, only the names of the techniques are actually upgraded. It all seems rather unnecessary.
What is enjoyable, however, are the Team Attacks, whereby you press a button once your gauge is full to call in one of the others to momentarily augment your attack. Executing Team Attacks sets up some truly dramatic battle sequences. Building the gauge is accomplished the same way as earning big experience–through stringing together combos and avoiding taking damage. Besides the standout Team Attack, the gauge also powers your individual Special (your invincible limit-break-like move) and the Super Team Attack (which amounts to all three characters performing Specials in concert). All these special attacks are performed in a pseudo-cinematic style (think The Matrix, only not so over-the-top), so in addition to being highly effective breaks in the relentless onslaught against you, they’re wonderful to look at as well.
Generally, the visuals on display in Demon Stone are not the best on the PS2 by any means, but the darkly beautiful settings are nothing if not immersive. This is truly wonderful stuff for fantasy fans. Each scenario will no doubt feel like a perfect game depiction of what aficionados have read about in their Forgotten Realms books. Detailed realizations of Gemspark Mines and Mithral Hall are sure to please. The enemies too, are a dark and fantastic bunch, their malignant looks only outdone by their thirst for your blood in terms of impressiveness.
Demon Stone’s music is suitably pompous, at times bordering on Lord of the Rings-esque, which is a compliment, just in case you didn’t know. The tunes can really be that good, or else not at all noticeable. Now that I consider it, perhaps that’s not the fault of the music, as the blame may well lie with the swarming legions of spawning and re-spawning filth; it’s hard to enjoy the sights and sounds when a million foes are crowding all else out.
We won’t be required to endure the assault for long though; Demon Stone is quite short. Its ten chapters repressent a day or two’s work, which is fine for that type of action game that demands perfecting and invites replay. Strider 2 for instance, is a game that can be beaten quite easily in under an hour. But it’s got a personality that will encourage multiple plays, to better your scores and times, to limit the lives and credits you require to finish it. Blood Stone does not have this engaging personality. It is gloomy and obstinate–not in the sense that beating it will be challenging, but in the sense that beating it will be a difficult task to want to keep at, let alone repeat.
Demon Stone improves on the LOTR games by allowing you control of three characters and by introducing those team elements which connect you nicely with the trio. Ditching the kill rating system was another good move, and the excellent voice acting was a tremendous plus that gave the package a greater level of polish. The producers boast the use of Patrick Stewart and Michael Clarke Duncan’s voices as NPCs, and they were quite right to do so.
The awe-inspiring confrontation with the giant Yuan-Ti God (a towering snake hungry for sacrifices), and the incredible run-ins with The Dragon (that fears Rannek’s blade!)–also bear mentioning. And playing as the double-sword bearing Drow ranger, Drizzt, offered the game’s best melee battling moments, and had me wanting him to replace Rannek as the group’s swordsman because of his seemingly equal power and far greater speed.
Add to those highlights the sorceror’s keen sniping, and the rogue’s ability to kill coolly and quickly (the documentation insists that her kills are “sexy”), and despite Demon Stone’s deficiences, it is still a pretty good action game. But I cannot stress enough the speed with which Zhai brings doom to foes. When the cool factor of her leaping high into the air atop a giant monster’s back to slash its neck with double blades has faded–you’ll still be supremely grateful for the fact that the giant fell instantly. Her quickness reminds us what could have been if more of the same had been permitted. That, along with co-operative play, would have made Demon Stone a great, rather than decent, adventure.
As it stands, it’s a flawed effort which will seem amazing to hardcore fans. Everyone else will be genuinely thrilled with the larger-than-life fantasy scope at times, suffocating unhappily under the monstrous enemy forces at other times, before it’s all over, in no time.
Six out of ten