Ah, to have friends! Now don’t get me wrong; I enjoy spending all my free moments in complete solitude except for my television and game consoles, but occasionally a human acquaintance can make those moments more meaningful. Such is the case with Black Stone: Magic & Steel, a new action RPG from Xicat Interactive. Up to four people can take advantage of the same number of controller ports on the Xbox to slash up monsters – and gain experience at the same time.
Black Stone features a classic over-the-top perspective incorporating smallish characters running around and slamming into each other like a hyper-charged chemical reaction. There are massive amounts of enemies in this game which either appear out of nowhere to attack the player, or continuously spew out of portals or gates that can be destroyed by the player. This last opens up the potential for some interesting multiplayer strategies; for instance one player might keep the beasties occupied while another goes for the source. Hopefully this game will find other ways to capitalize on its multiplayer capabilities. More intense combat can be expected from the bosses, who are big and impressive-looking, and have huge attacks that sprawl across the screen in unrealistic patterns, forcing the player use foresight to avoid them (as all good action bosses should.)
A fair amount of character choice is available, and it is possible to change between characters during the game. Hidden characters may also find their way into an adventuresome party at various times. The characters come in five different classes: warlock, thief, warrior, pirate and archer. There are predictable variations in attributes and skills according to class. Unhappily, there is an unbalance between the different characters available to be selected. The thief class in particular is reportedly quite weak. The other type of character that joins the quest are the dinosaur mounts that the player can pick up for some ridin’ and chompin’.
The gamer has many things to with all those buttons: he or she can slash, cast, shoot projectiles, refer to a map, charge an attack, or dodge. Using the dodge function will lower the charge, but hey, the joystick will still move the player out of the way. A player’s fingers may grow to rue these buttons, as the arcade-style hack and slash with the constant battles will certainly encourage constant contact with them. Indeed, this is one of those RPGs that is going to have to work to keep the title of RPG. First off, this game has levels, and levels in this case refers to "Arrgh, I keep dying on the third level of Earthworm Jim!" type levels. In between said levels (the term "stages" should simplify things) a player can exchange gold for items and experience points for experience levels, although there are some opportunities to gain levels during the stages.
The story also sounds better suited to an arcade game. A millennium ago, the Dark Mages were defeated and now they’re back and conjuring a soul-enslaving plot. The good mages are trying to awaken a holy power from a volcano to stop them. Somewhere, somehow, the destiny of the man known as Xylon fits into all this. Yup. On to graphics.
Overall, the visuals are dark and blurry with mediocre character models, although these models do manage to pull off some fun and spirited animations. The biggest offense here, however, are the lame enemy deaths. No flashy portals come to take them away, no slow erosion of the features, but rather they just go plink! and they’re gone. A little spray of blood is a player’s only graphical reward for defeating a foe.
Nor can they expect much more from sound. The sound effects are weak, disturbingly weak, featuring half-hearted slashes and tiresome moans. The music – enjoyable as it is – often seems out of place. The composer seems to have been trying for two things: either fast-paced action tunes, as exemplified by the techno tracks, or moody slow tracks. However, the music is either too much or too little for the fighting, and the happy medium is hard to come by.
It seems to be a rule that unremarkable RPGs always appear on a system before the big-ticket ones do. It looks as if Black Stone might be such an icebreaker. RPG thirsty Xbox owners could take an interest in this game, especially those with friends (lucky sons-of-guns) but they also have Balder’s Gate as an option now. For those looking for more action-packed adventures in their RPGs, this could be the game for you. We’ll find out for sure on the seventeenth of December, 2002.