A Return to Darklands

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.

Epitaph

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.

15 Comments
16 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

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.

Epitaph

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.

Posted by FourWude

A man who never eat pork buns is not a whole man.

Posted by ahoodedfigure

@FourWude: It's good to know my efforts weren't wasted.

Posted by ArtisanBreads

@ahoodedfigure said:

@FourWude: It's good to know my efforts weren't wasted.

haha geez. Well started reading this and sounds interesting but I have to go to work, at least this man will be reading this all later. Sounds like an interesting game. I love the idea of a non-magic RPG with unique systems.

Posted by ahoodedfigure

@ArtisanBreads: I appreciate it :) I know it's long but I'm hoping to err on the side of informative, so I hope you get something out of it when you have the time to check it out. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's non-magical, but it's DIFFERENT enough that it doesn't feel like the usual infallible, error free hand waving we've come to expect in genre titles. Anyway, cheers :)

Posted by OldGuy

Very nice... I remember struggling with the game as MicroProse attempted to patch it into a playable state -- the number and scope of game breaking bugs in the initial release and first few patches was impressive (they did finally get it sorted but it was too late for most people at that point) -- for those of us who waited it was well worth it...

Hrmmm... I suddenly feel a need to dig this up and play again...

Posted by ArbitraryWater

This game is in my GOG library. I don't think I've actually gotten past the "die and reload to a save that you made an hour prior, then give up in frustration" part. It certainly seems cool, and your blog has certainly motivated me to try it again (right after I play enough Inquisitor to skewer it for being a crummy imitation of the games I love. Because apparently I don't know what I should be playing after Icewind Dale II). Sadly, I don't think I've ever written about a RPG made before the windows 95 era (though I can and will write about Darkside of Xeen once I get around to finishing that), but I guess that is what comes from being born after the fall of communism and expecting things to at the very least not kill me from the outset.

Posted by Mento

I think the real reason I refrained from writing a GrouseBlog for Lords of Shadow this week was that I respected its ambition. Not its creativity so much, as it did kind of crib from God of War and Shadow of the Colossus to an extent that almost seems criminal, but the size and scope of the game and its world was admirable. It did leave us with a game that was very rarely fun to actually play, but that is so often the case with projects whose reach exceeds their grasp.

Not sure if this has anything to do with Darklands per se, but it sounds like it was a game that was unfairly buried by being a little too buggy at launch, perhaps due to it heading in a direction no other game had ventured towards (or cared to). I know my favorite PC game Master of Magic had a similarly spotty history, as indeed does the Elder Scrolls example you used. Man, imagine where we'd be now if no-one gave Arena and Daggerfall a break.

Moderator
Posted by ArtisanBreads

Finally got to reading this. Great write up and I have to say the game sounds amazing. I love the idea of the setting, I love tactical combat, and the other mechanics sound unforgiving but compelling. I'm going to seek this one out. Thanks for spending the time writing this.

Edited by ahoodedfigure

@ArtisanBreads: Thanks for taking the time to read it :) Don't forget the unforgiving part, there are times when I just shake my head at it, like with the inventory system not distinguishing between equipped and non-equipped items, or the save system, which allows a new save each time, but doesn't let you overwrite existing saves, so you have to go in and clean it out, since it doesn't seem to understand how to put saves in chronological order. I'd criticize it for not putting saves with different parties, but even Skyrim doesn't put saves to individual characters (like, say, Dragon Age did).

But I spent a good part of my weekend so far playing Darklands, and now that my party's past the initial difficulty hump I'm less afraid to dive in and hit "B" in combat, which means they don't bother to defend themselves and just whomp on things. Also, when you take out a Raubritter after being asked to, things really pick up. My folks are known throughout central Germany now, though are hated in Prague (I think) for blowing up an inn with a freak alchemical failure.

@Mento: I'm not familiar with Lords of Shadow, but I'd say Darklands was FAIRLY maligned when it was released, and it still has painful design choices (and lack of choices) in certain areas, but I do think they took routes that make for a satisfying alternative in key gameplay areas. I keep thinking this would be a great project for a full Infinity Engine conversion, but I imagine that'd be a lot of work.

And yeah, I guess Arena was popular for its time but not excessively so, and Daggerfall was popular enough despite its legendary level of bugs, just for their ambition alone. That ambition's taken a slide with the sequels, but there are hints here and there of the past in their new games. Not enough for my taste, but I already know I'm a bit eccentric :)

@OldGuy: If you do, let me know how it goes. I get a bit cantankerous at times with it, but if I stick with it I tend to feel a sense of ownership over my party after a while, which I think is a good sign. Saint list is getting a bit long, though...

@ArbitraryWater: Yeah, there's no autosaves. I was feeling that pinch a few times until I got into the habit, but it goes OK now, especially since my general survivability is a lot better. Sad to hear Inquisitor's not living up to expectations, but I can't say I really felt strongly about it from what I'd seen. I'm sorta glad a project that TRIES to hit those targets gets enough publicity to be noticed, though.

Things are a bit tough, perhaps too tough for someone who isn't prepared to reload. I had to get used to it until I caught enough lucky breaks through gameplay that my folks were strong enough. May be a bit of work, but it feels like you accomplished something afterward. No foolin'.

You haven't even written about a pre 95? Hmm. Well, I'm not going to lean on you, given how derelict I've been on my side of things, but would like to see what you have to say about this stuff, regardless. You may even... find something... you might... sorta like.

Also, sorry IWD2 wasn't super great for you, I'm still having trouble figuring out why I liked it so much. Maybe I was a bit lucky with some of the situations working out as they did, or... maybe we have different tastes. I dunno. (Yeah, many of the puzzles are a bit insane).

Posted by ArbitraryWater

@ahoodedfigure: I checked through my blogs, and yes I have written about something pre Win 95. I wrote about the DOS version of Sid Meier's Colonization, which I still consider to be quite rad, 3 years ago. Also X-COM, but that's kind of a given considering how much I was into that game circa 2 years ago. I guess colonization is the earliest game I've written about, which is weird because I've probably played more World of Xeen than that game (totally close to finishing Darkside, and then onto the combined world stuff) and I don't think I've ever successfully won a game of colonization. Guess I was a bit more lenient in those days with what I wrote. Now I only write about games if I finish them. I redownloaded the cluebook for Darklands from GOG, so let's see what happens with that.

Inquisitor has several neat ideas, mostly in regards to the tone and setting (which, admittedly kind of unnerves me with how directly it references the actual historical inquisition and the Catholic Church of that era). However, the actual gameplay is pretty bad and the game would be way better if it was more about talking and detective work than combat and buying a billion healing potions because your party members drink them like water. That's basically what you can expect from my impression blog in a nutshell, unless something changes my mind. I'm glad it exists, but if it had come out around 2000 or so, I predict that it would've been lumped in the same category as something like Lionheart.

I actually enjoyed IWD2 for the most part (though maybe I didn't convey that strongly enough in my write-up). I just think it has some serious pacing issues and tries to hard to be a fully-formed RPG instead of the hack-n-slash it actually is. Of course, it probably doesn't help that I really, really like the first game and installed it after that blog to make sure I wasn't over-praising it. Nope. It's that good. One of the hallmarks of any good RPG for me is that it makes me want to go through it again with a different party or set of skills, so of course I made an absurd 4 man team of a fighter, a fighter/druid, a fighter/mage/thief and a fighter/mage/cleric and totally played through the opening area. Man. Triple-classed characters are so dumb.

Edited by ahoodedfigure

@ArbitraryWater:

I'm sort of saying this to everyone in general, even if you're probably the only one reading it, as someone who's played the game enough to know some of the little pitfalls and quirks, feel free to ask me about how to do just about anything in Darklands and I'll come up with a concise, non-spoilery answer to push you in the right direction. The cluebook actually isn't so bad at the start, although later on it pretty much spells it all out. The character creation stuff in the beginning is good if you're not into using the defaults (and if you're not I don't blame you, though you're adding a few layers of complexity).

(How do you feel about the Darkside of Xeen as compared to the other? I felt it was vastly more fun, but again that's because I did it first.)

The unnerved feeling you get, is it due to the general subject matter being a bit tasteless or their dealing directly with a specific historical incident? Darklands seems to take a tasteful tack on the state of belief in the 1400s but it sort of depends on your tolerance levels, I guess.

I tend to think of Arcanum when we get in these discussions. You say Lionheart, which is generally thought of to be Not Acceptable, but how would Inquisitor compare to Arcanum?

I guess for me what shined in IWD2 were the vignettes. Like escaping the alternate dimension after beating the dragon, or fighting to retain the bridge. Even if there weren't consequences beyond loss/win it still felt more final than your garden variety TPK, and the music worked well to accompany the desperation of those fights. The puzzles were a bit harsh in places. I had to cheat to figure out the forest one, which was a source of embarrassment for me until I found it was basically impossible the way I was trying to tackle it. That, and I had a monk.

In a game where leveling is the point, triple classing is a good way to make sure you stay runty forever. I guess it's good if you're trying to go through it on the fewest characters possible, but DnD never really rewarded anything but specialization, unless it comes to spells. It is good to have a few levels in fighter, but it wasn't really possible until 3rd E to do that legally.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

@ahoodedfigure: I may call you on that offer, so thanks for that.

According to the videos uploaded on my youtube account, it seems like I finished the cloudside around 3 years ago. I can still tell you that darkside is better though. Certainly loves it some power creep though, as it's started giving me absurd amounts of free levels and millions of XP. In general I think the aesthetics are better, with much more imaginative environs to go along with a better soundtrack.

Obviously, inquisitorial organizations have been a thing in popular fantasy literature for ages, but I guess I'd go for tasteless in that regard. You're still torturing people and burning them at the stake, but it's ok because demons and devils actually exist...? Yeah. I'm not sure that sits entirely right with me. And no, I meant Lionheart, in that the first hour or so was pretty neat with all the investigation going on and then it immediately turned into a crummy dungeon crawler. Obviously, unlike Lionheart I will inevitably have to do more talking and investigation once I get through this iron mine, but that core gameplay is so mediocre that I don't even want to continue (but I will because I need to get that far in order to make valid complaints). Arcanum is, by comparison, a fully cohesive RPG that I got kinda bored of 20 hours in.

Monks are my least favorite class, although the one I brought along in my initial playthrough of Temple of Elemental Evil pulled his weight by the end.

Posted by ahoodedfigure

@ArbitraryWater: Agreed on all counts with Darkside. Art took a significant leap forward, as did the music. One of my favorite game tracks is in there, the doom-sounding dungeon theme. The XP rewards were huge to start, I remember the first quest I completed in ALL of World of Xeen was a Darkside quest that gave me 1M XP, basically leveling my dudes past the starting stuff on the Cloudside of things.

I found the point where I gave up on Arcanum was when a shop owner seemed to suggest that she had some quests for me, like actually talking about it more obviously than usual. It had reached a point where the game's generosity with stuff to do actually exceeded its seeming enthusiasm. Probably not really the case but it felt that way for me as a player. I sort of wish they hadn't shown you the big city so early, that would have been something to build up to. Also I was annoyed that they hadn't thought that a player might want to tell the newspaper about a specific corruption incident, even though the option seemed like it would be there. That was just one quest, though.

Ah, I didn't realize you were actually part of the inquisition. That's fucked up. Not sure who that's supposed to entertain... then again I know who it's supposed to entertain, but it wouldn't be me. I'd be coming up with excuses not to torture people, which doesn't sound like their intent. I'm willing to bet the historical inquisition wasn't trying to fulfill the exact stereotype we get now, either. Not all of them. I hope. What time period is this, and where?

I LIKE Monks in theory. They've always been the slow build kind of character, ever since they were introduced waaay back in the first edition pen and paper. I think the problem has always been that you build the game around standard leveling schema and then you try to insert an unarmed dude in there. You have to make him arbitrarily equivalent, which means he may exceed the party if he does this naturally or be too loot dependent if not, or he'll lag way behind or be way ahead... but because they're outliers they're harder for people who design RPG systems as an algorithm. In pen and paper games it's easier to fudge and adapt while in the middle of a campaign (or the middle of a sentence). I guess that's my primary fondness for pen and paper in a nutshell, with an intelligent person (usually) behind the system, the system itself doesn't run things and can be changed or even annulled if it's not working.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

@ahoodedfigure: Inquisitor takes place in a low fantasy world that resembles 1300s Europe. You work for the inquisition of the "Holy Mother Church" (which is totally not the catholic church. Nope.) and as far as I can tell you have to torture people in order to progress in the story. Obviously, it is for information and whatnot, but it still doesn't sit well with me.

Posted by ahoodedfigure

@ArbitraryWater: I read up on the inquisition a bit. Seems a lot of the torturing was done judicially, through whatever civilian system was there. But the word inquisition also means a bunch of different things depending on the time period.

And yeah, I don't get my kicks from torture, even the virtual kind. There are a few such things in certain storylines in SWTOR that make me uncomfortable even when others are playing them. Helps emphasize why a narrow band of choices can be really frustrating: you don't ever free the guy getting zapped by lightning, but you can be snarky about it. You rebel you.