By ahoodedfigure 16 Comments
I'm willing to bet most of you probably haven't heard of Darklands. Its messed up publishing history, where it was released with some rather nasty bugs, didn't help it achieve the legacy it deserves, and it doesn't help that it lacks some rather straightforward user-interface choices that would make it a lot easier to play. Yet, it is still one of my favorite computer role-playing games.
I think part of the reason I'll always like Darklands is its willingness to be different. So many games emulate success unthinkingly, never asking WHY we assume some RPG convention is needed. In the conversion from pen and paper rules to software, too many things are often kept, often limiting the systems, since a computer can do many more complicated things than a bunch of people can with dice and paper. Since there are things pen and paper games STILL can do better than software, not playing to the strengths of computing often leaves many of the games feeling a bit weak.
Still, there's something to be said for simple mechanics: while Darklands' innovations are manifold, with many ideas still feeling fresh today, it sometimes crushes itself under its own systems. Reading the cluebook that you often find accompanying digital packages of Darklands helps illustrate this, since when talking about character creation it will tell you straight out that many skill and attribute options are inferior to others, such that, despite all the options that seem to be in the game, you're almost better off accepting the default party, something that's counter-intuitive for me in games with character creation.
Creating Your Motley Crew
The game in practice is still fun for me, but is still an exercise in trial and error to get things right, and this starts from the very beginning (make sure to match up nickname and full name, and get the gender right. There's no going back unless you want to make the character all over again). When creating a world, you also are allowed the option of creating your own characters instead of using the defaults provided. Each character is given several base attributes that determine their ability to fight in battle, use weapons, dodge attacks, notice things in the environment, learn, and interact with other people. The game doesn't tell you this, but it's possible to completely expend your starting points and not have problems later on, but for YEARS I would hold off on adding attribute points to everything because I assumed unspent points would carry on to skills later. This doesn't seem to be the case, at least not substantially so, and often starting with high levels of attributes helps you get past starting-level difficulties very easily.
Something that also only becomes clear through repeated new games or reading the cluebook is that certain attribute combinations are not only vital for having a decent party, but are pretty much mandatory. You wouldn't know it, but the wizard-type characters are heavily dependent upon Charisma, since the way they often acquire new alchemical formulae. Charisma is also considered to be vital for your leader, defaulting to the character in the lead. The ability for your team to be able to defuse situations is often the difference between survival and reloading, especially if you start by venturing out of the town gates early in the game. Agility, strangely, as well as Perception, are considered by the cluebook not to be as useful as the other stats. I don't quite agree, but often it proves true when Endurance and Strength are what help you more than anything else in combat. If you come into this game looking at every attribute like you do ability scores in Dungeons and Dragons and its clones, you're in for a bit of a shock.
After attribute allocation you advance the character five years and begin their first career. These alter base attributes by a bit, and give you starting skill points, as well as skill points you can allocate to the skills. The skills are abbreviated, so you have to refer to the manual to know what they mean. It becomes second nature after a few minutes, or after a while playing, which is what, but again, not every skill is made equal. Often a thief-style build will help you in certain specific situations, but with four character slots you have to be careful not to have a dedicated thief and just hope that they'll make up for their lack of weapon skills with sly tricks. This isn't a class based game, technically, so you're basically building a "class" from scratch, often having to remember to add weapon skill points with each career advancement to prevent your character from being useless in combat.
You can choose several careers, and this is often required to get some of the rarer careers. The downside is that after a few advancements you start to run into age-based penalties to your attributes. If your character gets too old, they become effectively weaker, so having to balance this out is an interesting, and unlike many of the character building above, apparent challenge. It's common wisdom to spend a few more careers on your alchemist, so that they have sufficient enough skill in alchemy not to blow up the inns where you mix your potions. Critical failures there are some of the more devastating non-combat failures in the game, so it's smart to make them as capable as possible.
Once you finish mixing up your skills, your character will be allotted starting gear, and you can pick an image, colors for that image, and heraldry.
Another weird thing is the starting gear, since I created a rather diverse party that followed pretty standard archetypes: a charismatic leader fighter, a pious fighter with a smattering of saint lore, a dedicated priest with the highest virtue and healing skill, and an alchemist with a bit of tinkering. When I checked their inventories, NONE of them had any armor, though they had a pretty good selection of weapons (except for pious guy. He started with a bow with no arrows, and no melee weapon at all). I'll admit this roll was DEATHLY unusual, and it took a while for they were able to secure decent armor from the corpses of brigands. Usually it'll be armor and a club. I'm not sure what happened but it's down to careers I think.
H. R. E. Punk
Once you have a party together you start in a random city in Medieval Germany, during the Holy Roman Imperial period. The setting is one of the game's great strengths, as it permeates to how time is told, how currency is converted, and adds flavor to characters and organizations which could simply be generic mayors, traders and bankers. The beasts, too, draw from the lore of the period, so you'll find the classical wolves and giant spiders, but also strange wooly men of the wood, and enemies directly from Christian mythology, including demons, cultists, and pagan creatures. The game does not mince words when it comes to depicting the society as a reflection of how people saw it at the time, with hermits and cardinals cursing you if you don't pay them tithes, calling upon saints having instant and measurable effects, and pagans being inexorably connected directly to satanic forces.
These things, while they may be a bit shocking given our tendency now to make such religious questions generic and analogous, enhance the setting and make it even more strongly of the period. It doesn't take long before you're actively rooting out corruption, praying to saints for deliverance, and being pious to passers by, and interestingly the game doesn't seem to necessarily take your side in this. The mechanics reinforce these choices, but the modern player will pick up on some of the ambiguities regardless.
Alchemy is also a step more substantial than it was in history, with the philosopher's stone being a real thing that enhances your formulae. You work to gather jealously guarded recipes to make potions that anyone can use close up, or throw at the enemy if their throw skill is decent enough. These potions have a wide range of effects, and are pretty much the only "magic" that you can use once a battle has started, as praying to saints is never done in combat (presumably it would take too long, although you can prepare for battle or even prevent battle through the use of saints in contextual situations).
St. Michael and the Mechanics
I won't got too deeply into the specifics of the game mechanics, but I'll set aside a bit of time to praise the weapon system and a few other things. Weapons in the game are not like you would find in Baldur's Gate, often defined most by the damage they do and their magical abilities. In Darklands magic weapons are rare, but each weapon has its own traits that distinguish it. Some are easy for unskilled characters to use, some require more strength to wield effectively, some penetrate armor better and do better damage when they do, while others penetrate poorly but do better overall damage. All weapons, all items in the game really, are also defined by their quality level, which has a big effect on how useful they are. A long sword of 10 quality is, as far as I understand, not nearly as good as a very high quality club. It makes sense, and it makes weapon loadouts a lot more diverse and interesting, encouraging experimentation to start and specialization later. Armor is more abstracted than this, but there are no armor restrictions. Your alchemist can wear plate armor, as long as they're strong enough.
Saints are called by spending virtue, which everyone has. Anyone can learn about a given saint, and since some saints have low base-virtue requirements, you can have several characters call upon saints without taxing your main priest. Characters are further differentiated this way so, if you get used to creating characters in this game you can have some pretty interesting combinations and still have an effective party. But since the saints you learn about are randomly distributed you have more tactical decisions about who to learn about, and who learns about him or her.
Baldur's Gate may not resemble this game too much, but in combat you see what may have influenced Baldur's Gate's design. Combat is in a three-quarters perspective, and it unfolds in real-time with pauses. You tell characters where to go and who to attack, and when unpaused they do that, assuming their pathfinding tasks aren't too complicated. In addition, you can choose different attack commands, some of which put the character at risk for damage but increase the chances for critical hits. When throwing potions you choose where to fire them, and then unpause to watch them explode in the enemy's face. There are also situations where you explore castles or caves, and this is done in this perspective, allowing for some skill use to find traps and open containers.
Mainly, though, the adventuring is done through menus, and while some people may scoff at this, I think this is another highlight of the game, one that needs to be emulated more by games. Like in King of Dragon Pass, you are often given contextual decisions, each of which may lead to lasting consequences. You're also given these menus when navigating cities and towns, or trying to mount an assault on a robber baron's fortress. The city navigation is especially pleasing; you can allow your imagination to fill in the blanks as far as what the medieval town looks like, but it only takes you a few seconds to walk to the merchant district to buy supplies, then a few more seconds to go to the inn, put one to work, another to praying, another to heal up, and the fourth to brewing potions. Even within these menus there are chances to encounter interested parties who want to hire you, or bandits who will try to rob you, so it doesn't feel nearly as dry as it might sound. While we still see similar mechanics in games that use conversation trees, the power of contextual lists is so often painfully under-utilized, from what I assume is a conservative stylistic choice. While Darklands does have its flaws, these lists are always refreshing for me.
Reputable Adventures in Saving
The Save Often RPG maxim is in full force in Darklands. There are no autosaves, and the game has an unfortunate tendency not to put saves in the proper order, forcing you to read the in-game dates on the saves if you have more than a screen of saves in your list. I'll admit this sucks, and I've sometimes deleted my latest saves by not being careful enough. Still, saving is pretty much required because ONE rough encounter can mean the permanent death of one or more party members-- you COULD carry on after that and create a new character to replace them with one you create (perhaps with someone more capable), but I've never done it.
It's also easy to be poor for a while, so it's smart to live on the cheap, sleeping in groves in your starting city and picking fights with robbers in order to gear up and gain money. I tend never to do that, though; my wanderlust is too strong. This means more saves and more loading, but you're never restricted to a damned tutorial area. Once you figure the game out, that was your tutorial, and you never have to go down that road again, unless you haven't played the game in YEARS. The game still gates you, though, as your reputation will often determine whether or not you get lucrative and rewarding jobs. The higher-end stuff will have you searching for relics and taking on monsters, while lower-end stuff is more breaking into offices and finding ancient sites to loot. You never need take a quest or follow the main plot, though. Never. You can just wander the countryside righting wrongs, fighting wild beasts, burning down villages corrupted by evil, and discovering new cities, saints, formulae, and gaining reputation all the while: It's no first-person slasher, but Darklands out-Bethesdas Elder Scrolls in terms of the kind free-roaming stumbling into adventure that I enjoy.
The reputation you earn, in a sense, is like the party's level, and is your overall measure of success in the game. Since so many party-based RPGs now seem to level everyone simultaneously anyway, this game sort of predicts this. Individual characters advance randomly when their skills are tested, and this can happen at any time, but the substantial increases come through reputation. The world gets tougher as corruption spreads, but the benefits increase too as your reputation grows, both your own party's and your reputation in the regions you explore. When characters advance in skills, you'll get a little notice of this to the side of the screen after a given encounter, and you can also try to increase these skills through the use of tutors and study. To me it's much more interesting than level tiers, because every encounter can bring increases, though progress isn't predictable or steady.
The game has some bugs that pop in on occasion, but it's nothing like waiting for the other shoe to drop in Daggerfall. It's not pretty, but its visuals and art style for the splash screens are full of character, functional and sometimes beautiful. The music is drawn from the period (and later), and helps set the mood, while the sounds during battle have charming electronic clangs as sword meets skull. The gameplay is bumpy in places, lacking the safeguards we've come to expect in good game design, but there are plenty of surprises, satire, and daring design choices that make Darklands not only an adventure in mythological medieval Europe, but also an adventure in game design itself.
If you have any questions about the game, ask in the comments or in a PM, and I'll try to answer as succinctly as I can manage. The early part of the ride is a bit bumpy, and anyone who wants to try it can expect a few setbacks, so:
B E N E F I T _ F R O M _ M Y _ O D D L Y _ S P E C I F I C _ K N O W L E D G E,
if you dare.