Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
The biggest question I initially found myself asking upon embarking on this handheld entry to the Dungeon Siege cannon was who would actually own a Throne Of Agony? I mean surely if you were in the sort of lofty social position to be required to sit on a throne you'd be able to order a whole team of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen types to at least add a cushion or two here or there and perhaps some kind of recliner function to make things a bit more bearable. It's a question that despite hours of play remained sadly unanswered and instead I soon found myself asking a question much more relevant to this review, is the game any good or not?
At first the answer seemed a resounding yes, Dungeon: Siege Throne Of Agony (DSTOA) takes the familiar action RPG concepts of it's PC cousin and trims them down to fit into this handheld console release. Taking traditional RPG quest based progression, mixing in a load of real-time arcade combat and serving it all up in nice pick up and play bite sized morsels for your gaming pleasure DSTOA claims to offer PSP punters starved of similar fare the perfect gaming mix. Unfortunately in the process of streamlining the Dungeon Siege experience for the PSP, developers SuperVillain Studios seem to have removed a lot of the substance from the experience leaving some impressive looking bones but not much meat to hang on them. It's a frustration that is becoming ever more common as more and more PSP games seem to be claiming simplified game play as some kind of selling point. Sure, there is a time and a place for short sharp bursts of gaming pleasure and at those times handheld games designed with that in mind are perfect. But that's not a reason for every handheld game to avoid complexity and depth; I'm surely not the only person who sometimes wants to spend a couple of hours playing something with a bit of substance to it on my handheld console? Anyway, moan over, back to the review.
The dreaded simplification starts right from the word go, anyone coming to this PSP iteration of Dungeon Siege fresh from the PC version will immediately notice that the character customisation and party system so integral to the experience on the PC has either been reduced to their most basic level or omitted almost entirely. Upon starting a new adventure DSTOA simply offers players a set choice of three pre-designed characters to choose from and that's your lot, you can obviously still choose where to spend the skill points that levelling up during play earns you to mould a character more suited to your play style, but it's a pale shadow of the system fans of the series have been used to. Even the opportunity at levels thirty and sixty to choose to specialise your given class into the Hero and Legendary classes fails to seriously affect things. Rather than having a whole party to play with in DSTOA you can summon fully AI controlled companions to accompany you on your journey. Although you can only have one at a time if your current companion dies in battle you're able to summon another which can offer an interesting twist mid battle as their abilities do differ. Contrary to what may normally be expected from an AI controlled helper they can actually prove to be surprisingly useful and often genuinely help your progress, taking their fair share of flack when the going gets tough, but again, for all their positive points they do feel very much like a slim line replacement for PC Dungeon Siege's party system.
The game itself is a fairly generic fantasy tale of personal crusades driving the characters towards the desolate northern wastelands, although having a lot of the story and dialogue differ depending on which character you're playing as is a nice touch. All of this plays out from a top down isometric viewpoint as you wander the land completing quest after quest to push the story along. It all looks lovely too as the graphics engine seems to handle the demands of the different environments and varied enemies easily enough making it one of the better looking PSP games on the market, although the chance to zoom the camera out a little would have been welcomed as things can feel a little claustrophobic at times.
This being an action RPG, combat is a big part of the game and for the most part DSTOA does a fine job of keeping things interesting. Different enemies have different attack patterns and you'll need to pay close attention to different ways of defeating them once you start facing some of the bigger ones. The stronger you get and the more magic you are able to perform the more interesting things are with some of the higher level spells really quite impressive. The controls have also been laid out brilliantly, something of a change for a PSP game, with attacks able to be mapped to different face buttons or the R shoulder button and a face button. The L and L+R shoulder buttons providing a quick way of administering health and mana potions which saves a lot of messing around in your inventory during the heat of battle. Unfortunately some small irritations let the otherwise fun action down, the zoomed in camera I mentioned earlier means using ranged attacks against off screen enemies is commonplace and once enemies do appear on the screen it can soon feel overcrowded. The fact that you can see enemies standing stationary on the mini map, waiting for you to walk into their game designated sphere of awareness before they jump into action takes away any sense of walking through a living breathing world which for any game trying to be an RPG, even an arcade one, is a bit of a no no. Your ever willing companion also has a strange habit of getting left behind off screen as you move around only to magically re-appear back on screen nearby when you come to a standstill, quite why he couldn't just walk alongside you or even saunter on from the side of the screen rather than just appearing out of thin air remains a mystery.
There are other more general niggles too that take the gloss off the finished product, the on screen mini map, while fantastically useful (possibly too useful in fact) at showing you the location of monsters, treasure and everything else you could want, only ever shows a small area around your current location. A much bigger world or area map that could have been opened up to save a lot of aimless wandering around looking for places you've been told to visit would have been a godsend at times and seems a strange omission for a game based around travelling across a whole world. Your character also only has a seriously limited amount of storage space about their person and as there's a massive number of items available as pickups from kills you end up having to either leave a lot laying on the floor or make depressingly regular trips back to town to sell your hard won goods which can get boring very quickly.
All of this sounds like I probably hated the game, and in truth that feels a little unfair, I actually enjoyed a lot of it especially at first, there isn't anything particularly bad on display here and it does what it does very slickly. The problems I've mentioned are more often than not small irritations rather than show stopping flaws. The problem is there just seems to be something missing somewhere, the whole experience becomes bland far too quickly and soon enough the prospect of yet another 'go there, kill something' style quest just isn't enough to keep you playing. The ad-hoc multiplayer (yet again a PSP game with no infrastructure mode support) tries to provide a bit of longevity and gives you the opportunity to play the game co-operatively with a friend but reliant as it is upon knowing someone else with a PSP and copy of the game its questionable how much use this will be to the majority of people.
While streamlining the Dungeon Siege experience for the handheld market undoubtedly made sense when it was discussed at design time, the sense of depth and involvement that's been lost in the process leaves a frustratingly shallow game that fails to do justice to the often quite excellent building blocks it was made with, ultimately offering very little incentive to keep the player plugging away beyond the first few hours. Unfortunately that's something even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and a whole truck load of the softest cushions can't improve.
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