Darklands: Summary and Rating

From The CRPG Addict


Note how little the box art exemplifies the game’s adherence to historical accuracy.
              
Darklands
United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 DOS
Date Started: 24 May 2019
Date Finished: 13 July 2019
Total Hours: 65
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Summary:
     
A highly-original and innovative game from a rare entrant in the CRPG market, Darklands offers a compelling setting in the medieval Holy Roman Empire. Four characters struggle to gain fame and riches through a series of repeatable, statistically-driven, scripted encounters based on common themes and beliefs of the era, including escorting pilgrims, fighting bandits, storming the castles of robber knights, routing towns of evil witches, driving dwarves back into the depths of their mines, and slaying dragons. A main quest involving the Knights Templar and the demon Baphomet caps the experience. Nothing is quite like other RPGs: combat draws upon the realistic limitations and strengths of various weapons and armor; divine magic involves praying to saints and going to mass; and arcane magic involves mixing reagents into potions. Skills like speaking Latin and reading and writing are rare and prized, and many of the game’s perils involve (seemingly) mundane situations like surviving a blizzard, gaining entry into a city, dealing with an arrogant priest who wants a “tithe,” and getting a local lord to receive your party. Unfortunately, the “repeatable” encounters end up being “repetitive,” and the lack of traditional RPG approaches to equipment, combat, and leveling creates some unbalanced gameplay.
*****
Well, what a ride. Darklands offers perhaps the most original approach to role-playing that we’ve seen since the inception of the genre, and in several dimensions. The experience wasn’t always a joy, but I never stopped admiring what the developers were trying to accomplish. In this case, the primary developer (“original concept” and “project leader” in the credits) is Arnold Hendrick. It was his only RPG. Hendrick wrote responses to 13 pages of questions on Steam between 2016 and 2018, participated in a three-part interview with Matt Barton in 2010, and submitted to a long interview on RPG Codex in 2012. Thus, I was able to pepper my summary below with many of his recollections.
      
(Hendrick, I should add, is a fairly unique game designer in that he came from a background of board and tabletop gaming and never learned programming. It reminds me of how Irving Berlin became immortal writing hundreds of hit songs while never actually learning how to read, write, or play music. I sometimes wonder if I could make a go as a game designer or a composer with a similar lack of foundational skills. Perhaps–but I don’t think I’d ever have the gall to put myself out there as such.)
          
As often happens when I encounter an innovative game, at its conclusion I (perhaps unfairly) find myself lamenting missed opportunities. First, for a game that offers so many different types of encounters, Darklands doesn’t really support much “role-playing.” It is assumed that every party is trying to be good, to gain fame, to enhance local reputation, to build virtue. For most encounters, the worst option you have is a mildly neutral one, such as bidding pilgrims good fortune without helping them, or ignoring traveling merchants. You can’t become robber knights, steal from church collection boxes, or join evil cults. You can be overly-zealous, accusing innocent towns of witchcraft or bursting down the front doors of helpless women living alone–but in those cases, the game goes out of its way to make you feel bad about yourself.
          

Don’t burst in on a witch unless you’re sure she’s a witch.

          
Perhaps the one exception to the “no evil” rule is the ability to attack town guards, as a way to enter or exit the city without molestation, or as a way to avoid paying a fine for sneaking about at night. The consequences of such actions are relatively severe–you find it hard to enter that same city ever again–and thus hard to role-play. 

My second regret is that the game doesn’t use its setting to its fullest potential. Early 15th-century Europe was one of tremendous upheaval. There were dozens of competing factions. There were two or three rival Popes at most times until 1449 and no settled Holy Roman Emperor between 1378 and 1433. When I started the game, I thought it was going to be like Pirates! and I was going to be encouraged to pick sides, perhaps favoring Bohemian rulers and thus losing reputation in Burgundy, or hustling messages for supporters of Gregory XII. I thought real-life events would have ripples throughout the game setting. There was none of that. Most cities were interchangeable.
          

Slight variances in the names of key locations is all that distinguish most cities.

         

Third, I would have liked to see better balance between the deterministic and random encounter and quest systems. Darklands features an early incarnation of Bethesda calls “radiant” quests: repeatable missions to fetch items or kill enemies that send you to a random area each time. The concept isn’t exactly new–it goes all the way back to many of the PLATO games, plus Akalabeth–but this is the first game to feature these quests in such detail and variety. I certainly don’t mind them, but I like to see them balanced with more hand-crafted, fixed quests and locations. In Darklands, the only unique quest locations were the Templar fortress and the Castle of the Apocalypse.
A game has to be good in the first place for it to spark so many desires for it to reach the next level, so despite my few complaints, expect Darklands to GIMLET well.
1. Game World. It’s a great idea: set the game in the real Middle Ages, but act as if the superstitions and rumors of the time were all true. In this, Hendrick said that he was influenced by the Warhammer tabletop RPG, which took its inspiration from the Holy Roman Empire. As pointed out in a recent thread, the creators thankfully didn’t take the concept too far, or my characters would have spent the game slaughtering Muslims or constantly in debt to Jews. But even subtracting the more offensive caricatures, it takes some guts to build a divine magic system on the pantheon of Catholic saints. I learned some new things about history, geography, and language as I played, which is always a bonus. The world is well-described in the manual, which makes a clear distinction between history and legend, and does a good job explaining the game’s choices. I just wish that the world has been more responsive to my party’s actions, and that it had (as above) made more dynamic uses of its themes. Score: 6.
             

If only the act of praying to saints cured plague victims in real life.

          

2. Character Creation and Development. The Traveller– and RuneQuest-inspired creation process is a lot of fun as you envision various career paths for your characters, so it’s unfortunate that no reference is later made to those careers. I found that development, while rewarding, was also very uneven, with weapons skills developing almost too quickly and most other skills too costly or time-consuming, or not improvable at all. In particular, virtue–a vital skill–is oddly obstinate, only increasing a point or two occasionally no matter how many pilgrims you help or witches you slay. I would have liked more opportunities to improve attributes, too. On the positive side, your character “builds” have a significant impact on how you approach quests and encounters, and thus adds some replayability to the game. Score: 5.
3. NPC Interaction. The various political and economic leaders that the party encounters aren’t really so much “NPCs” as “encounters.” They’re interchangeable ciphers with identical encounter options and no dialogue options–which was all disappointing given the various historical possibilities. The only real NPCs are the Hanseatic League representatives and small-town mayors who will join the party for a quest or two. They were a nice boost to the party’s power, even if they had no individual personalities. Score: 2.
           

“Hanse” is really the only NPC in the game. He comes with pretty solid skills, and higher attributes than I think are achievable for regular characters during character creation.

         
4. Encounters and Foes. Unfortunately, setting the game in the “real” world creates a certain paucity of enemy types–but there are enough to require the player to make tactical adjustments. The monsters are thoroughly described in the game manual; you get not just a description and picture, but also a sense of their motivations and habits. I also like that they’re slightly different than the foes you find in other CRPGs.

The crux of the game is, of course, its non-combat “encounters,” presented in the form of menu options with associated skill checks, forcing you to find tactics for everything from entering a city (without paying the toll) to disrupting a coven of witches. Darklands is fundamentally an “encounter-driven” game in ways that we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, very little role-playing takes place in those encounters; the player is usually trying to identify the option with the highest likelihood of success, not the one that best fits the party ethos. The encounters also become repetitive and boring over time. Nevertheless, it’s an approach to RPG gaming that we’ve never quite seen before and may never again. Score: 7.
            

The long selection of options even extends to the party getting thrown in jail.

          
5. Magic and Combat. The real-time-with-pause combat system is an important innovation, although it hasn’t quite reached its apex in Darklands. (In previous posts, I outlined some precursors to the Darklands system, but it appears from the interview material that the developers had never been exposed to them and came up with the system independently.) I outlined most of my problems with it in a recent entry, and these remained problems  until the end. Nevertheless, the system is more interesting and more tactical than most of the RPGs on the market at the time, and I like how the skills system allows you to create some specialties among your party members without any artificial considerations of “class.”

I had mixed feelings about the magic system. I thoroughly enjoyed the pantheon of saints and their various uses, even if it did take me a while to fully grasp how it worked. I found offensive potions significantly under-powered, however, and I thought the alchemy system was far too complex and simply encouraged the player to purchase potions rather than make them. This makes arcane magic more of an “equipment” consideration than a magic one. Score: 6.

6. Equipment. This is another relatively strong category. I like the variety of weapons and armor, how they associate with various skills, and key considerations like quality, penetration, and encumbrance. Potions are also, of course, a major consideration, often making the difference between a difficult battle and an impossible one. But I was disappointed how few unique and powerful items you could find, excepting a few “relics.” And it annoyed me how many useful-sounding but ultimately useless items I carried until the end, including spikes, grapples, and lanterns. Score: 5.

7. Economy. Darklands has perhaps the first truly good economy in RPG history. (Previous games that tie this score were rated too high, for the most part.) It hits all my points: you make money from successful encounters and quest-solving; there are multiple ways to make money (including working odd jobs); there are multiple ways to spend money; and you never reach a point in which you are “too rich.” In a very real-world way, money is power in Darklands, and you can use it to compensate for party weaknesses–by, for instance, purchasing potions instead of making them, increasing virtue through copious donations to churches, and fronting tuition to increase your skills at the university. You can even bribe your way out of some encounters. I never reached a point where I stopped collecting equipment to sell, and I never reached a point in which I had too much money. I did think some of the quest rewards were unbalanced, however, with robber knights netting you dozens of florins while a more lengthy, complicated artifact quest might only get you half a dozen.

The only way a game could really improve upon the economy here is to offer more expensive and useful equipment and to offer the ability to purchase property, something that would have been within the game’s theme and I’m surprised wasn’t offered. Score: 8.
         

In a game were potions are so expensive and you can give copious amounts to churches for divine favor, money never stops being useful.

        
8. Quests. Another strong category. There’s a main quest, of sorts, as well as innumerable side quests that serve to build the party’s fame and fortunes. I particularly like that the party can assume only the quests that it wants and has the skills to successfully complete, ignoring others with no particular penalty. There are multiple ways to solve most quests (although they’re not really role-playing choices), and there are even some alternate paths within the main quest, albeit with an obvious preferred set of choices.

As I mentioned above, I would have liked to see more scripted, deterministic quests to go along with all of the repeatable, randomized ones. (Such had been planned but were ultimately scrapped as the game ran over time and cost.) Plus, it would have been nice to have more quests that better used the history and characters of the time. But overall, Darklands earns a high score here in contrast to most games that offer a main quest and nothing else. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Graphics are a mixed bag. The still scenes that accompany most of the menu encounters are well-drawn and evocative, but the overland navigation screen is a nightmare in which it’s hard to identify entire cities. I thought the character and enemy icons were also poor. I found the sound to be mostly forgettable.

The interface worked mostly okay. I appreciated the keyboard backups for all of the menu commands. I would have appreciated numbered options on the encounter screens, so I could choose them. There are a few too many commands that are indiscernible from the interface and must be looked up in the manual; for instance, pressing “A” to equip items in inventory, or “F7” to set an ambush. I didn’t enjoy the number of places in which my party refused to walk in the outdoor environment, despite showing no obstacles, nor the micromanaging I had to do indoors to move the party through narrow hallways. There were other miscellaneous problems like the saved games not sorting in any clear order. Score: 3.
             

I found it difficult to see key features and to get my party to move where I wanted them to move on the overland map.

         
10. Gameplay. We finish on a strong note. Owing to the nature of the quests, plus the fact that every party starts in a different location, the game is both non-linear and relatively replayable. You could set all kinds of fun challenges for yourself, such as hitting a certain fame level within a certain time frame, or making a certain amount of money.

While I found the adjustment period longer than usual, overall the game had the right challenge level, and it’s hard to complain about length in a game that has no fixed end and lets you retire whenever you feel like it. Score: 8.

That gives us a final score of 56. That doesn’t quite put it in the top 10 list, but it’s very close, and the game clearly will contend for “Game of the Year” for 1992. You could easily envision a near-perfect RPG that would, for instance, merge the Gold Box style of combat, Ultima NPC interaction, and the variety of equipment found in Might and Magic with Darklands‘ basic approach.
            

“. . . and ends.”

          
Like many games that appear near the top of my list, Darklands was controversial in its time. In the November 1992 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia loved the setting and character creation process, but she had many of the same combat complaints that I did, and she found the world a bit boring in its uniformity. She had issues with bugs, freezes, and a lack of features that were fixed by the time of my version.

But although I generally found myself nodding with her review, I have no idea where she’s coming from regarding the ending:
             

The party’s basic goal in Darklands is to acquire fame and virtue, to be remembered in times to come as great and daring heroes. While this appears to be a novel twist, something a bit different from the more common “Kill Foozle” objective, in actuality the game isn’t quite so different . . . . Darklands operates in much the same fashion as any other CRPG, with the party working towards that big encounter with Foozle, although the final confrontation, in this case, is not exactly a battle in the usual sense of the word.

         
Not for the first time, I have to ask: what does Scorpia want? If a game with as original a main quest as this one still isn’t original enough to escape being painted with the “Foozle” brush, what game could possibly avoid it? “Ho, hum,” she seems to be saying, “it’s just another RPG where the party gets more powerful and tries to complete some big objective. Yawn.” As if there were any other satisfying way to structure a CRPG.

But the climax of Scorpia’s review is reserved for invective against the sacrifices the party has to make in the final battle, including the lead character’s reduced attributes (she made the same choice that I did) and the loss of florins to Pestilence. These things didn’t bother me as much as perhaps they should have, since finishing this quest essentially brings the game to a close. (Having these developments spoiled for me by Scorpia, on the other hand, would have bothered me quite a bit.) But Scorpia was livid:
          

Probably some Bright Mind at MicroProse though it would be a Good Idea to have the player “make a real sacrifice.” If so, that Bright Mind needs a new brain. It is inexcusable to treat the player in this manner, to not only provide no real reward for success, but to make the victory a Pyrrhic one. For this point alone, I would not recommend the game to anyone . . . . This is a shame, since Darklands might have been one of the great ones. Instead, it turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.

               
This is certainly in keeping with a trend. Scorpia knew her stuff, no question, and was probably the most experienced RPG player of the time. But when she was wrong, she was just staggeringly, bafflingly, unaccountably wrong.
            

I thought there was something noble in making such a big sacrifice.

       
(To avoid some fruitless debate along the lines of “how can someone be wrong about an opinion?,” the issue here isn’t that she’s wrong about not personally liking the game. It’s that she fails to recognize that her own perspective is dominated by a relatively minor issue, and that most players–as their own recollections prove–would appreciate the game regardless of that issue. It’s one thing to say that “I didn’t like it”; it’s another to say, “it’s to be avoided.”)

Of course, Computer Gaming World was well aware of this, and by 1992 they were pairing her reviews with more temperate ones written by less-experienced players. This time, the counterpoint is written by Johnny L. Wilson, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who had already read Scorpia’s review and was “horrified” by it. (I have to wonder: did he consider simply not publishing it?) His own column isn’t so much a review as a counterpoint to Scorpia specifically, particularly taking issue with her inability to “recommend the game to anyone.” Along the way, he shows that he gets Darklands‘ originality better than the magazine’s more experienced reviewer:
              

I truly enjoy the variety of choices on the menus, by the way. What other game would give the party the choice of extorting a defeated witch for useful information; allowing her to give one alchemical formula; forcing her to repent . . . or killing her? In what other CRPG does the party really have to think about whether to let a physicker try to heal them or not? In what other CRPG can one avoid a major battle by asking a saint for protection? How many potential ambushes can players sneak around and avoid in most CRPGs? I honestly believe that Darklands gives players more authentic role-playing choices than any CRPG since Dragon Wars.

         
Scorpia was unrepentant. A year later, in a 1993 summary of modern CRPGs, she concludes her Darklands summary with: “Horrible ending, with the player being shafted rather than rewarded. For this and other reasons detailed in the article, it is not a recommended game.” She really knew how to hold a grudge.

Dragon also had a mixed review (4 stars!) that complained about combat AI, the repetitiveness of some encounters, and a tough beginning, but otherwise called it “a great adventure and . . . certainly one of the best multicharacter FRPGs [?] we’ve had the delight to play” and recommended that the player “stick with it for a winning experience.” A completely positive review is found in the May 1993 Compute!: “This newly revised game [some bugs had been fixed] should give you hours of pleasure. MicroProse should be congratulated for a truly heroic effort in creating a game for sword, sorcery, and history buffs.”

I was curious how European magazines rated a game set in their back yard, but all of the OCR’d text that I could find just gave general platitudes and didn’t address the setting specifically. The worst (62) was in the September 1992 German Power Play (“a diffuse brew of game elements that are neither thematically nor technically compatible”), the best (90) in the September 1992 French Tilt (“MicroProse has managed a tour de force to renew the genre”). Most were in the 70s or 80s.
     
Overall, Darklands seems to have required a bit of aging to fully appreciate. In modern times, it’s hard to find a review that doesn’t stretch towards hyperbole. “One of the best RPGs ever made,” declares a 2014 review on “Rock Paper Shotgun.” In 2004, it was included on GameSpot’s list of “The Greatest Games of All Time.” It has a 9/10 rating (from 117 reviews) on Steam. It has a dedicated fan page. It has a wiki. The only thing it doesn’t have–bafflingly–is someone trying to remake it. There have been several attempts over the years, but they all seem to have fizzled out.

Alas, lukewarm reviews in its own day affected sales, canceling planned expansions of the game to other areas of the world and other times in world history. In his Steam interview, Arnold Hendrick said that the game had gone over time and over budget, “nearly bankrupting” MicroProse in the process, and that while subsequent sales were good, the company also received a lot of returns because of bugs, and then had to work on fixing the bugs. Hendrick blames poor approaches to project management in the era: “Nobody was teaching project management as a discipline, so the development process was poorly organized by AAA development standards today,” he reported in the RPG Codex interview. Such comments are echoed in Jimmy Maher’s coverage of Darklands from a few months ago. He portrays MicroProse owner “Wild” Bill Stealey as an eccentric, laissez-faire manager, personally uninterested in any game that wasn’t a flight simulator. The failure of Darklands left MicroProse in such poor financial straits that Stealey sold it to Spectrum Holobyte the following year.
          
In the Steam thread, Hendrick is quite pessimistic about the possibility of either a sequel or a modern remake of Darklands, believing it would cost so many millions of dollars that it would be unlikely to get enough venture capital for even a demo. In fact, reading his cost estimates, I wonder how any modern game actually gets made.
              

The “real-time-with-pause-and-orders” combat system used by Baldur’s Gate (1998) seems like a natural evolution from the system pioneered in Darklands.

            
The legacy of Darklands is difficult to pin down. It seems impossible that its wide-open world and procedurally-generated content did not affect the early Elder Scrolls games, and the Infinity Engine’s combat system (used in Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment among others) seems to be a natural evolution from the one presented in Darklands. But I haven’t been able to find any explicit acknowledgement from the developers of these later games that they had experienced Darklands. For what it’s worth, Hendrick himself considers Baldur’s Gate and its sequel the “finest and most polished” party-based RPGs ever made.

Darklands was one of only a small number of CRPGs released by MicroProse. I think it’s fair to say that the company didn’t really understand RPGs, the quality of Darklands notwithstanding. As we’ve seen, it suffers in some of its departures from standard RPG conventions. The only other two RPGs released by the company–The Legacy: Realm of Terror (1992) and BloodNet (1994)–are adventure hybrids that may ultimately fail to meet my definition. It really is too bad that the company never overcame its “RPG problem” because it produced extraordinarily memorable games in other genres, and it probably would be remembered as a major RPG publisher if it had built on Darklands instead of abandoning it.



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