Quite how the 'hack 'n' slash' RPG genre remains such a commercially viable venture for so many developers is becoming more fantastical than the subject matter itself. Give or take a variation in setting and narrative, the similarities found between any two games are so gargantuan that once you've played one decent title it's hardly worth looking at another. And that brings us to Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony. Does this long-running series have what it takes to form a successful spin-off PSP franchise or is it another carbon copy?
Throne of Agony does actually offer up something different. It is as much a free world romp as it is a dungeon crawler; although, wherever your character may be, finding and administering a timely end to all sorts of critters is the crux of Throne of Agony. In fact, this game is built around the combat system. So, naturally, attention has been heaped on making Throne of Agony easy to play, while still offering something that is at least mildly absorbing. As a result the RPG elements are concentrated on weapons and magic upgrades in order to offer some sort of variation as you battle through the million enemies that inevitably block your path.
Unfortunately, no matter how much you level up, the style of gameplay (specifically combat) is unchanged. You find yourself smashing the same attack button over and over until the enemy is slain (even as you assign more powerful attacks to button combinations as you level up). If the opponent is of the upper echelons of power then you avoid until you can face him/her on equal ground - Thrones of Agony does an excellent job in balancing the level of your character and the various enemies you meet.
The game picks up where Broken World (expansion pack to Dungeon Siege II) finished off - look out for the neat little nods to the former title. So, despite being an exclusive PSP title, Thrones of Agony still sits comfortably in the franchise. However, given the PSP's lack of technical clout - certainly compared to the PC - SuperVillain Studios has been forced to make omissions: there are only three playable characters compared to the limitless potential of customisable character creation. Still, this actually works to the benefit of the game as the three characters each benefit from separate storylines that drive the game forward. While the game follows a similar path regardless of the character, there is a well thought-out, if a little uninspiring, tale to be told for each.
Allister the Battle Mage is on a quest to find his lost love Sedara, Mogrim the oversized warlord is bidding to end his people's nomadic existence after they were banished in times long past, and Serin the Elvin Shadow Stalker is on a mission to explain her prophetic visions - a gift her people lost in the aftermath of Dungeon Siege II. All three are on a ship (how all their noble quests put them on the exact same journey should be forgiven - artistic licence and all that) which is wrecked by a magical ley line, beaching them in the shores of the Broken Lands - and so the journey for each begins and they make their separate ways.
And what follows is an RPG of good length. Not the relationship killing extent of the Diablo games perhaps, but certainly a drain on time - it should take you about twenty hours to complete. The mission-based areas, while sometimes quite large, are never varied enough to offer any mysticism. The free-roaming world I previously mentioned isn't quite that - well it is but it's a bold claim when there's nothing to roam around, apart from the odd blade of grass. When in villages, forests etc you'll talk to NPCs, collect items, take on missions, level up, improve weapons and generally be a hero. People, as ever, will be 'wary of the stranger' but you defeat this Xenophobia by performing the initial menial tasks of clearing the areas of baddies or finding Shep the village dog, etc. It's all massively familiar and yet comfortably loyal to the genre.
The only major letdown is the loading times - perhaps not so much SuperVillain Studios' fault as their ambition for Sony's handheld console. When entering an area from the 'free roaming' landscape you're treated to an egotistical pigheaded loading screen that refuses to move regardless of how loud you scream at it. Eventually it does make a move and you're left to move on as you will, but you know that in another five minutes or so it will be back, all in your face again. Given the size of any one-mission area the amount of times you encounter the loading screen and the length it stays in view is a complete drag. All the MP in the Broken Land can't swerve the fact that this is a game for a portable system; it's essential to have that 'pick up and play' factor. Throne of Agony doesn't.
Still, if you can forgive this gripe and you're into your hack-n-slash-rpg-dungeon-free roaming-button mashing-NPC-level-em-ups then you'd do well to wave your wand at this. It's not massively inspiring, nor is it innovative, but it is a solid and at times addictive little number.