I believe there are a few types of games that come onto the market:
Firstly the guaranteed money earners - big name sequels. They've already done the hard yards and have the budget to improve on their original success - Warcraft 3, Age of Mythology. Then there are new games which are truly innovative, such as The Sims - an idea nobody had thought of before. Then there are the B-class ripoffs of big name games. Since the big boys like Command & Conquer, Diablo and Doom made their mark all those years ago, The majority of games have fallen into this category to some extent.
Then there are games like Darkstone, which don't pretend to be the next big thing in gaming. They don't try to dazzle the gamer by adding elaborate features, confusing interfaces or wacky storylines. They don't take pride in the fact that they are so complex and unwieldy that you need to devote your whole life to learning to play them. They don't spend half the budget on a 200 page novel for a manual.
They are simply an intelligently designed implementation of a familiar formula. They strip away all the features that we found annoying in other games, and include all the ones we liked. So easy to use you don't need a manual - just a list of shortcut keys.
The graphics in Darkstone are not the most complex you will ever see, but they are very tastefully executed. A good percentage of 3D games look like crap because they are trying to look real. With a few exceptions such as Dungeon Siege and Earth 2150, most games simply don't have the graphics engine to create real looking environments. The creators of Darkstone recognise this, and have created a 3D graphics engine which is perfect for the graphics style they have used.
The terrain is flat, and the buildings and ground cover have obviously been created in ''tile'' fashion ala Age of Empires. The character models do not have a lot of polygons either. Having said this, the graphics in Darkstone are a perfect balance between simple elegance and lush eye candy. Everything in the terrain and scenery is very clear, colours are nice and bright, and the characters are tastefully cartoony. The character animations are much better than most 3D games. You can rotate and zoom freely using the arrow keys. I would liken playing Darkstone to running around inside a big budget Disney cartoon movie.
Sound is not nearly as important for me as graphics in a game. The music is tasteful and in keeping with the feel of the game. There is the usual grunts, clangs and squelches as you slay goblins and orcs. On of the few gripes I have with this game is the annoying voice acting. NPCs go on and on with their stories in loud, slow sing-song voices. However it is not a major problem as the game is not dialogue heavy.
In the game you control 2 characters whom you choose before the game starts. The character classes are your stock standard fighter, thief, cleric, mage (male & female versions of each). Your clothing and portrait is determined by your gender and class (there are also skins and portraits available on the net). There are no special skills or abilities yet - you pay to learn these during the game. Character stats are also pretty basic - strength, dexterity, vitality and magic. You also have an armour class which improves as you upgrade your armour.
I would have liked more startup options, but in the end you don't really care what your portrait or character looks like, as long as they look nice (which they do in Darkstone). And it can be frustrating to have to choose special abilities for your character before you've even seen the game! The stats do cover the basics without complicating things - at least you can be 100% sure what they mean.
This is another area where the simple elegance of Darkstone shines through. You control one character at a time, and the AI takes over the other one, backing you up with arrows, fireballs or whatever. There are hotkeys for your potions and spells, and to change which character you control.
Wizards and Clerics can learn spells from scrolls and heal themselves and their friends. Other classes can learn spells too, but cannot cast healing or protection spells on other party members - only on themselves.
As I'm sure you can guess, you attack by left clicking on an enemy creature. The characters are smart enough to keep attacking after they have been told once, so you don't need to keep clicking madly like in that other RPG. Two characters is enough that you can employ tactics in battles without the need for a pause feature, and you don't get bored with controlling just one character (like in that other RPG).
The overland maps in the game are pretty small, but the dungeons are quite big. Each dungeon level has a boss character, and you will have to decide on tactics, spells and weapons to defeat them. Each level usually contains an item you need to solve a quest.
You visit towns to purchase weapons, food & spells and learn special abilities, and to sell dungeon booty. There are some interesting skills you can learn such as forestry which allows you to find food in the forest, and repairing which allows you to repair your weapons without going back to the blacksmith. You can pay money in town to reach higher levels in these skills.
The game does not have an epic storyline like Baldur's Gate. More like Diablo... the ultimate goal is a showdown with the evil Draak, but the fun is in the quests along the way. Some of the quests are of the basic ''go and get X from the dungeon and bring it back to me'', but often they are a lot more cryptic, and there may be more than one way to solve them.
For example, I came across a fairy in a lake who said something about snakes and making reeds sing from shortest to longest. After spending a bit of time clicking on the reeds surrounding the lake, I decided to head to the dungeon. I started coming across pieces of a pan pipe (''reeds'') and started to get the picture. At the bottom level of the dungeon was a room with hundreds of evil poisonous snakes. After much running back and forth and spellcasting I finally defeated all the snakes and got whatever I had to get to complete the quest. The fairy was happy, but I thought ''What about all these reeds?'' I later found a walkthrough which answered my question: If you lay the reeds from end to end along the corridor leading to the snake room, you will invoke some magic spell and all the snakes will disappear. Ah well, at least my stats benefited from the extra work!
The quests are generated randomly, so are different if you start a new game (although the maps are the same). Recently a quest editor has been released - you can create your own maps, quests and monsters. I have not used it, nor have I played any quests created with it. Obviously such a feature improves the replayability of the game immensely. You can also play with friends online using your single-player character, but I have not done this before either.
Darkstone is a nice action RPG in the style of Diablo 2, but with much better graphics and way less dark and gloomy. The graphics are crisp and clear, and zooming and rotating the camera is a snap. If you're looking for a grand adventure you'd prefer Baldurs Gate 2, but if you want a nice 3D environment to let off some steam, Darkstone is your answer.