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Ask anyone remotely associated with gaming who the Butcher is and you're in for quite a tale. Most will spew forth accounts of death and dismemberment, detailing perilous battles with an evil beast, a monster so vile it murdered women and children for mere pleasure. The Butcher is just one of many lasting icons from Blizzard's 1997 hit Diablo that will live forever in the minds and hearts of gamers everywhere. Surprisingly, though, unlike most titles of its caliber, the success of Diablo remains uncontested -- until now.

While most industry watchdogs are keen on Eidos' Revenant as the true Diablo killer, a small, relatively unknown Swedish developer has something else in mind. Hard at work for the last year and a half on an isometric fantasy RPG adventure called Clans, ComputerHouse AB and publisher Strategy First just might have the surprise hit of 1999 on their hands. Strategy First, the development arm behind titles such as the Man of War and Steel Panthers series, acquired the rights to publish Clans in November 1998.

The basic premise behind the game is standard stuff. The ancient land you inhabit is in peril. Four clans, once at peace with each other, now fight for survival against an evil demon and amongst themselves. Warfare, plagues and flames have almost engulfed the entire world, a place once full of peace, life and prosperity now submerged in famine, desolation and filth. An ancient castle high up in the Misty Mountains is said to house the artifacts necessary to break the death cloud and return peace to the land. Standing in your way, however, is a powerful demon who lives within the legendary castle. Although each clan has sent its greatest warriors to beat this beast, none of the warriors were heard from again. Now, at the point of despair, the clans send their last and greatest champions to destroy the demon, take possession of his treasure and return peace to the land.

The races that make up the clans are Barbarians, Warriors, Elves and Dwarves. As the player, you have the ability to be the hero from any one of these races. The clans differ in strengths and weaknesses, and as such the game plays uniquely with each. The Barbarian clans inhabit the harsh and rugged outlying areas of the land and have chosen to send their champion Stoneskin. Stoneskin is well known for his great strength and vitality. A fighter equally good with the sword or axe, magic is his dominant weakness. The champion of the city-dwelling clan is the warrior Alaric. The son of a noble family, Alaric fought many for the right to face the demon. A combat contest to the death was held, and after using a great combination of swordsmanship and magical abilities, Alaric stands alone.

The forest-dwelling Elves remember when the demon first came to the land and the evil that has spawned since that day. Leayandor fought for the privilege to banish the demon, and with his natural magical ability, enhanced by years of training, won that right. Leayandor also has limited martial arts capabilities to aid in fighting the minions of the demon. Thorfinn represents the Mountain Dwarf clan in this quest. His mastery of the axe has blessed him all his life and was the prime reason he was able to crush the Ogres in their attacks on the Dwarven mines; hence, his warrior name, Ogrebane. Thorfinn is exceedingly strong physically but weak in magic.

As you can tell from the character descriptions, some will use magic and some will not. For those who choose to rely on the arcane, the magic system in Clans is very simple to understand. When you find a scroll, you automatically gain the ability to cast the spell associated with it. Each spell has five levels of intensity. By combining two scrolls of the same spell, you increase the power of it and, subsequently, deal that much more damage. Some spells I've played with so far are Fireball, Explosion, Confusion, Lightning Bolt and Meteor Rain. Fireball and Lightning spell effects are fairly self-explanatory. Confusion will cause your enemy to freeze for a few seconds, allowing you pummel them into submission or retreat if you're in danger. Meteor Rain is an area effect spell similar to the Cave-In spell found in Dungeon Keeper.

While there are many similarities to Diablo, in many ways the look and feel of the game is very different. Role-playing gurus should note Clans is by no means in the same hardcore vein as Baldur's Gate; rather, it plays like a combination between Psygnosis' Ecstatica II and Diablo. Managing statistics and such via the abilities screen is simple. As you progress through Clans, you'll find items, such as rings, that enhance your abilities. Some rings increase the damage of your sword or axe while others increase the damage of certain spells. Still others increase abilities, such as agility and life-force. Other than rings, your primary assistant in your quest for the kingdom will be the many potions to be found. Potions can poison, give health or mana, increase strength and magic, or improve your life-force. Conversation and dialogue are limited but effective. In your quests, you'll find money in various places, and eventually be able to buy weapons and items from carefully placed merchants.

The visuals are very detailed but smaller than what we've become accustomed to. The graphics aren't 3D accelerated via hardware; rather, the game uses a proprietary engine that displays some of the best non-accelerated 16-bit graphics around, capable of techniques such as real-time colored lighting and multi-layered 3D objects. These effects are good enough I had to make sure I wasn't running in 3D accelerated mode more than once. The game world is broken into pieces, much like a puzzle, and players traverse from location to location without the ability to see into adjacent rooms. This could have been a downfall to the overall experience, but ComputerHouse AB has done a nice job of ensuring gameplay events, such as creatures pursuing people from room to room, are not affected. I've been testing a recent beta and am happy to report enemies do follow you through rooms and doors, often relentlessly.

A robust single-player game will thankfully be accompanied by an equally powerful multiplayer feature. You'll be able to adventure through the entire quest cooperatively with up to three other players or competitively in a type of competition called Gold Rush. The object, of course, is to exit the level with more gold than your competitors. The parameters for winning can be a predetermined time limit, a set amount of gold or a certain number of monsters killed. This balanced attack on the fantasy role-playing action genre should turn a few heads this spring. Strategy Plus obviously has a good eye for quality and appear to have a prime candidate for sleeper of the year.


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