Fade in on a formidable fortress. The ominous music is soon accompanied by the frantic sound of hooves as a horseman gallops into view. The portcullis is raised, allowing him entry. He is a messenger, delivering unto Geron and King Richard of Gladstone a note containing dire news: "Scotia has uncovered the temple, and will have the Nether Mask soon." Naturally, Scotia must be defeated and the kingdom saved from eternal peril.
This impressively animated sequence begins, the first of Westwood Studios' famous trilogy. A spiritual successor of sorts to the acclaimed first two Eye of the Beholder games, The Throne of Chaos hones and polishes the dungeon crawler aesthetic into a feast for the senses: beautiful pixel art featuring smooth scrolling, which gives the game a remarkable 3D feel; an excellent musical score by Westwood maestro Frank Klepacki; and an engaging (if not overly original) storyline with entertaining characters and creative enemies. Indeed, the evil old hag Scotia presents a visage you won't easily forget.
Rather than create individual, customized characters, players can choose from one of four pre-designed options: Ak'Shel, a Dracoid specializing in magic; Michael, a human whose strength is fighting; Kieran, a Huline who's quick on his feet and something of a rogue; and Conrad, a human well-rounded in all three traits. The four options lend the game much replay value, as the different skill sets do require different approaches - at least at the beginning of the game, for things start to even out if you take the time to build your hero's stats.
Eventually, your hero will be joined by others as your quest progresses. Some, such as Timothy and Lora, only accompany you through certain areas, while the four-armed Thomgog Baccatta and Gladstone Council Member Paulson are with you for good once they join up. As the areas become larger and the monsters more ferocious, the extra hands will be most appreciated.
The Throne of Chaos may not reinvent the wheel, but it certainly gives it a fine tune-up, offering a title that's engaging and runs like a well-oiled machine. Though the diskette version may lack perks like full voice-acting (Patrick Stewart's involvement was touted as a major selling point), the engrossing gameplay makes any version worthwhile.