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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Darklands

Microprose is a name commonly associated with in-depth simulation games that have a surprising touch of realism without sacrificing playability.  Darklands takes that philosophy and applies it to a low-fantasy RPG set in a meticulous recreation of medieval Germany in the 15th century.  But does their keen eye for detail and realism pay off in the realm of role-playing games, or is Darklands a game crushed by its own ambition? 

Microprose is another company name well-known to computer gaming enthusiasts - it was the original development house of one Sid Meier, who would bring us beloved games like Pirates! and of course the Civilization series, which were highly regarded in their time and continue to be hugely popular even today.  But even without factoring him into the equation, they gave quite a few other beloved franchises life - from business management/tactical alien combat game X-COM: UFO Defense to the 4X classics Master of Orion and Master of Magic.  All hugely influential games in their time whose legacy lasts to present day.

One of their titles that slipped by relatively unnoticed was Darklands, which was a little surprising considering what it promised - an immersive, open-ended role-playing experience set in a relatively realistic facsimile of medieval Germany whilst it was part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Its world map was surprisingly period-accurate, having numerous real-life towns and landmarks in place, and it goes to great lengths to use era-appropriate German terms like "schulz" (town leader) and "fraubritter" (robber baron).  The game exhumed an arbitrary "levels and experience points" system in favor of having to actually train up your skills through use - something pretty uncommon at the time.  It even touted such in its tagline - "in medieval Germany, reality is more horrifying than fantasy".  But what led it to being overlooked by so many RPG enthusiasts?  Well, that's a bit of a complex topic. 

The first thing to note is that despite the tag line, Darklands is not totally realistic - some fantastic elements show themselves pretty quickly.  This is most prominent in the alchemy system, wherein you brew up potions that have similar effects to "spells" in other RPGs - usually inflicting detrimental effects on your enemies, but they do have beneficial uses too, boosting weapon damage/accuracy, temporarily improving stealth or purifying tombs full of undead, letting you claim their treasures unmolested to name a few.  A holy magic equivalent comes in the form of praying for miracles to various saints, of which there are over 100 in the game, with equally varied effects - bolstering stats temporarily, driving enemies away, or even granting the ability to walk on water or temporarily removing the need to breathe (avoiding the effect of noxious potions and the like). All of these are activated by spending "Divine Favor", which can only be regained by doing virtuous deeds around the land, and having a greater Religion skill will make your prayers more likely to be heard.  Darklands' setting is also a fair more progressive than the real Holy Roman empire - female characters still can't reach the upper ranks of the clergy, but they can take on almost any other profession the game has to offer and do it just as well as any male character. (Some saints will also only bestow help upon you if you have at least one female character in your party, so it's worth diversifying for that reason as well.)  Bandits and mercenaries are common foes, as are knights and even townsfolk if you run afoul of the law, but a lot of supernatural enemies are present too - from demons to witches to kobolds - so there's just as much enemy variety as any good fantasy RPG. 

To deal with the many challenges you face, you'll need skills and experience.  Darklands definitely does not skimp on this front; in fact, its character creator is probably the most in-depth and ingenious one I've seen in any game to date.  You generate characters by walking them step-by-step through their life, beginning with their social caste at birth (from noble to trader to country-born peasant) and from there, you select a career path in steps of five years.  So, you can be born a noble, take up a career as a Monk-in-training, work your way up to a Monk proper, then become a friar or a bishop before your adventuring career begins.  Or one could begin as a city commoner, join the military, become a soldier, work their way up to become a seasoned veteran, and retire to become a hunter.  Each step of this process comes with a new pool of skill points to spend freely, as well as shaping what you can spend them on - naturally, a militia-raised character will have more points to spend on things like weapons skills and riding, but few to none to put into things like learning Latin or "Artifice" (disarming locks and traps).  Similarly, becoming a hermit for a time will give you little chance to develop your language skills and none to develop your Streetwise stat, but can give you a substantial boost to Woodwise, Religion and Virtue.  You can repeat taking five-year career steps multiple times before beginning the game proper, even into old age if you wish.  This does come with some drawbacks, though - characters will start to get substantial stat penalties as they age (they can and will die from old age as well), but they will also begin with more stat points, money and may even have better starting gear than younger, less-trained characters.  On the other end of the scale, starting too young will put you at a severe disadvantage with low stats and virtually nothing of value to your name, making it extremely difficult to survive.  In effect, this serves as a difficulty setting, character generator and even a touch of a storytelling mechanic all rolled into one, which is pretty ingenious. 

If Darklands' gameplay were half as brilliantly realized as its character editor, it would be an instant classic; hell, maybe even a gold standard for the genre as a whole. Sadly, that isn't quite the case despite having some interesting ideas of its own.  The game is pretty open-ended for the most part, allowing you plenty of options for interactions in almost every scenario you come across.  This is evident even right from the first town - you can seek out quests from shopkeepers and guilds, hang around the slums looking for robbers to fight (or just a cheap place to stay, though it does your reputation no favors), and entering and leaving town also offers a number of options - smooth-talking your way past the guards, sneaking in unnoticed, or climbing over the walls or entering through the sewers (the latter two being handy options if you're wanted by the law) .  Encounters with enemies don't always have to end in fights - sometimes you can drive enemies away with divine intervention, an alchemical potion or even just a speech or Woodwise check.  All of these depend on your character's stats and skills to varying degrees, and even botched attempts have a chance to raise them, so there's little reason not to at least try when given the chance. 

A significant downside to this style of design, however, is that many of your skills are very situational and chances to use (and raise) them relatively rare.  Usually they're only seen in scripted cutscenes encountered during quests, and even then they're not always consistent in how they're applied.  Artifice is a good example of this - you may encounter a trap or a blocked door in a cutscene, but if you fail the roll you can't retry it without leaving and returning some time later; a lock, on the other hand, can be retried repeatedly as long as your skill is relatively close to the required level for it (you'll get a message saying it's "beyond your skill" if it isn't), giving you a chance to raise your skill each time you attempt to open it. Other skills have very little function; Latin only comes in handy during specific interactions with clergymen, and read/write only really benefits you when visiting a Koster to learn about new saints - it does not factor at all into the Dwarven puzzles that appear in some mines. Riding is of dubious value too - one would think you would need a horse and therefore riding skill for each member of the party, but in actual effect, one decent horse and rider can carry the entire party, no matter how they're armed or armored. For a game that touts its realism, several skills in Darklands seem surprisingly underutilized or just not implemented very well.  

Darklands has a relatively unique combat engine for its time as well, operating on a similar "pauseable real-time strategy" principle to later games like Baldur's Gate and Syndicate. Pressing a number key selects one of your four characters, whom you can then issue a command to before the action automatically resumes. So you can do things like order your Alchemist to toss a potion at a group of enemies to debilitate them, then quickly move in for the kill once the cloud clears. Or target enemies appropriate for the weapon type you're using, which is also handled with a surprising degree of realism - short swords are very fast effective against lightly-armored bandits but virtually useless against a knight in plate mail (for whom a war hammer, giant cudgel or longbow works much better).  Firearms, as one would expect in the 15th century, are very powerful and pierce armor quite well but reload very slowly, making their use in large-scale fights impractical.  However, some weapon types are all but useless, whether due to low speed and penetration (Polearms) or just bugs (Flails, which have an upper strength threshold of 99, meaning you'll basically never get bonus damage with them).  Pathfinding in combat is rather questionable too - not too much of an issue outdoors in wide-open fields and forests, but when you're wandering through narrow alleys, mines and crypts that are laden with traps it's much more of an issue.

The overall design of Darklands has some very prominent issues too.  Being an early open-world game, nearly all of its quests are randomly-generated, usually in the form of "go to location X, get item Y and return it to Z for a reward"; while fun for a bit, you do start to see the same handful of quest types after a while, and they quickly become repetitious.  Moreso because the only way to start the game's main storyline is to randomly stumble across a particular event, then get to the place specified in time (not always easy to do) and go from there - if you miss the date, you have to try again at another randomly-placed later occurrence.  There is no quest log built into the game and no reminders of upcoming deadlines, either, so you'll either want to write down any quests you get and where you get them, or use a third-party tool to keep track of them.  Other elements are randomly placed each game too, with a prominent example being the various saints - any given Koster will have only one or two of them you can learn about (at hefty cost), and some may not appear at all that game.  Which leads to another infamous problem involving the Wild Hunt encounter - once you're marked by the Wild Hunt, you can only lift it by praying to a particular saint (randomly chosen each game); this can entail weeks or even months of scouring all the Kosters in the game and hoping it's not one that was excluded entirely.  If it is, well, you'd best get used to fleeing or fighting badass monsters on a constant basis for the rest of your days.

Technical issues plagued Darklands as well, which certainly did its reception at the time no favors.  In addition to the generally plain/ugly aesthetic (compare to Ultima VII or Might and Magic IV from the same year), the constant copy protection popups after you do basically anything of note quickly got tiresome; particularly as one wrong answer would cause the game to close and erase a big chunk of your progress.  A problem that was further exacerbated by the game's clunky save feature - while you can save as many times as you want (and at almost any time), the menu shows only the first eight files you'd made in a seemingly random order.  Subsequent saves would begin to push other files off the bottom of the menu, necessitating that you exit to DOS and delete older files to have access to your most recent saves again.  There's no option to just overwrite existing save files, either, which could quickly fill up an early '90s hard drive and leave you high-and-dry at a very bad moment.  It was buggy in multi-stage battles too - saving between fights and reloading would sometimes put you back at the first fight of the sequence, but with all the damage you took from it and subsequent battles retained.  Early versions of the game had a plethora of other issues too, from being trapped in dungeons with no exits to being unable to hire healers no matter how much money you actually had.  A series of patches were developed to address most of the game-breaking ones, but as Darklands was released before the internet was a common household fixture, relatively few customers were able to take advantage of them. 

Darklands was a game ahead of its time in many ways, with an innovative character creation system, a vast, detailed historic setting to explore and even some fresh gameplay elements like semi-real-time tactical combat.  However, that also came with disadvantages; the technology just wasn't there yet to realize a fully-fledged world of this scale and scope, necessitating that its interactions be largely reduced to sequences of generic pre-generated events.  That, in addition to a plethora of annoying bugs, some generally clunky design and underwhelming aesthetics all contributed to the game getting a muted reception and caused a planned follow-up to be scrapped due to underperforming sales.  Still, its innovative design elements helped it to amass a small but dedicated fanbase, and even with all its faults it's served as a major inspiration to later games like Elder Scrolls and Wartales.  So for RPG history buffs or just die-hard DOS gamers, it's one that's at least worth a look.
 

Developer: MPS Labs 
Publisher: Microprose
Platform: MS-DOS
Released: 1992
Recommend Version: N/A