DARKLANDS / Microprose / PC

Darklands offers up a medieval (15th century) German setting with fantasy elements from the period, an SSI Gold Box-like combat engine, and an incredible amount of detail and questing. It comes from the early '90s PC era, however, which was a vastly different gaming market from the more mainstream tastes now. As such, unless you're already a fan of old-school PC RPGs, the intricate detail will likely be lost on you.

You start out by creating a group of characters to send out into this world, although options seem to be limited - while there is a robust skill set, most skills are developed via in-game actions, and you can't even seem to name the characters but rather have to choose from a limited list of pre-fab German names ... no Hans Gruber for me unfortunately. You can also choose their sprite, although there's only like 4 choices - jester knight, fat monk, hottie sorceress chick or generic fighter. You can have up to 5 guys in a party at a time, though as with many old school PC RPGs you can craft a whole stable of characters and swap them in and out of the adventure at any point.

The aesthetics of the game are underwhelming. I don't know if it's better on the Roland MT-32, but with the standard Soundblaster or Adlib the game's music is really kind of obnoxious. It's meant to emulate actual German music from the period I guess, but I don't know too many people who listen to 15th Century German Monk Jamz on their ipods, you know? The graphics are nothing special, either - tiny, smushy sprites with low-detail static backgrounds on the world map and in combat, with static first-person screens representing towns and other interior locations that sometimes look kind of amateurish and are drawn/colored oddly.

Each new game starts out with your party swearing an oath at the local tavern to "do good" and wander around looking for random adventures. Unfortunately they are hampered by the fact that they're nearly broke and have little experience in doing anything at all. The game actually does have a main story arch that involves the Knights Templar and a plot to summon demons back to Earth, but you're free to ignore it and just wander around doing odd jobs and random tasks, which is really the meat of the gameplay. You have a reputation meter that rises as you do noble adventurous things and lowers as you do shady or cowardly things, and the goal is basically just to boost it as high as possible with feats of heroism and etc.

The way you navigate the game world is a little unusual. The world map is the standard RPG "overworld", but once in towns or other indoor locations, you move about in Choose Your Own Adventure style by clicking on a (usually really long) list of potential destinations, then you get a list of potential actions once there. As mentioned earlier, combat drops you into a sequence that looks a whole lot like SSI's D&D Gold Box games (Pools of Radiance, et al), but instead of being turn-based, everyone just attacks each other in real-time but you can pause the action at any time to issue new commands to your party.

The game's main selling point is intricate detail and depth. Aside from the recreation of medieval Germany with all sorts of historically accurate detail and whatnot, there's just shit tons of quests and possibilities for your party to raise their stats, make money and raise their reputation. There's a day/night cycle, party members age as the years go by and lose a step, there's an alchemy system (replacing magic) that involves collecting ingredients and mixing them to create various potions, and there's 140 saints you can learn of as you go to have your pious characters request aid from.

I think in the end, maybe all the focus on realism was the double-edged sword that keeps this game from unquestionable greatness. First of all, for all the intricate detail, there's really only three things to do in the game - fight battles, stockpile money and build levels. Navigating the towns is a bit of a pain in the ass with the huge lists of text, and you can easily find your time in the game being wasted in epic amounts while just exploring and trying to do basic things. Walking across the world map is slow, unexciting and tedious, and combat is pretty generic and unremarkable and quickly turns into a bit of a grind as well. Then you wonder if some slightly less "authentic" old-school German music might have been more pleasant to listen to as well. I dunno. I think you definitely have to have a taste for grindy, old-school PC dungeon crawl games to get into this one, really. If you do this is probably one of the more fascinating ones, but I don't think it will convert anyone who isn't into that genre already.

Links :

* Game Guide
* Darklands.net

Videos :

* Gameplay Video

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