Game 329: Darklands (1992)

From The CRPG Addict

When you start up the game, this woman says “Welcome to Darklands” in a digitized voice.


United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started:
24 May 2019
Excited about killing orcs and finding treasure, I fire up a game and crack open the manual. Three hours later, I could give a university lecture on political intrigue in the court of Emperor Frederick III in the 1470s. If it hadn’t already been made clear by the box and title screen, I would know for certain: I am playing a MicroProse game. One of these days, I’m going to add a column to my game rating sheet indicating whether the game manual comes with a bibliography, and thus determine whether it has a correlation to the GIMLET. I suspect it will.
Darklands is perhaps the most anticipated game on my blog, so much so that when I went to do my customary pre-game search of player comments, there were far too many to review. Readers were telling me that they were looking forward to the game back in my first year. There are many who feel that it marks the beginning of a new era in both mechanical complexity and quality of role-playing.

A brief animated scene shows a gargoyle awakening and flying through a medieval city.

The game is set in the Holy Roman Empire, staring in 1400. For those who haven’t had much excuse to think about the Holy Roman Empire since high school, it was a political organization in central Europe that existed for about 1,000 years, between 800 and 1806 or between 962 and 1806 depending on what you regard as the beginning. (Pope Leo III revived the Roman title of “Emperor” for Charlemagne in 800, but his empire fractured afterwards and wasn’t put together until 962 under Otto I.) At its height, it included modern-day Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Czechia, Slovenia, most of Italy, and parts of France and Poland. The Holy Roman Empire and its emperor never had the centralized authority of the earlier Roman Empire; kings and dukes and princes existed within it and sometimes had more real power than the putative emperor. The HRE was universally Catholic (Martin Luther wouldn’t vandalize any doors until 1516), feudal, and caste-obsessed. Its political machinations are the stuff of legend, and thus it serves as a great place for an RPG. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018) will later be set in the same era.

The gimmick of Darklands is that the game isn’t really set in historical reality, but in the era as the people of the era believed it to be. Thus, witches and demons are real, werewolves prowl the forests, mixing alchemical ingredients produces results, and saints occasionally deliver miracles. Otherwise, the game adopts realistic terms and concepts from the era. Money consists of florins, groschen, and pfenniges. Knowledge of Latin is an asset. And the player has to get comfortable with terms like schulz (local leader), dom (cathedral), raubritter (robber knight), and zeughaus (barracks).

The game map reduces the complex borders of the HRE into a convenient square.

The player controls a party of four characters, generated through a complex system that recalls MegaTraveller. After specifying a name and sex, the player choose the character’s social background, from nobility down to rural peasantry. He then spreads a pool of points among six attributes: strength, endurance, agility, perception, intelligence, and charisma. I would note that these are the same attributes as the later Fallout, minus luck, but there is a “luck” statistic in the game in the form of “divine favor.” Attributes exist on a scale of 0-99, although only a range of 10-40 is available on starting. They are dynamic throughout the game, as wounds cause direct damage to strength, endurance decreases with fatigue, and agility goes down with encumbrance.

Next, the character can take one or more occupations for blocks of 5 years. Available occupations are limited by skill, attributes, background, and previous occupation choices. After each 5-year term, the player can allocate a pool of points among the game’s 19 skills. These skills are organized into three groups: martial (e.g., Edged Weapon, Throwing Weapon), intellectual (e.g., Alchemy, Religion, Latin), and crafts (e.g., Stealth, Riding). Some of these skills are adjusted automatically based on occupation. They exist on a 0-99 scale. Since the game does not have levels as such, I assume increases in these skills are the primary means of character development.

Improving a characters’ skills between occupations.

You can stop the character’s career at any time. Older characters will start the game with more skills but will also age and die. My understanding is that the player may end up replacing characters several times throughout the game, particularly since there’s no such thing as resurrection, so I didn’t waste too much time trying to get it right the first time. I came up with:

  • Chestremagne: Her to a noble house, strong and fit, schooled in edge and impact weapons, Latin, reading and writing, and riding. From ages 20-25, he was a student and developed all his skills a little more. He is presently 25.
  • Lothair the Lender, an unscrupulous trader and moneylender. He comes from a background of urban commoners but used his high intelligence, perception, and charisma to work his way up from peddler to trader to traveling merchant to merchant-proprietor, along the way developing skills in both common language and Latin, streetwise, woodswise, and artifice. He is now 35.
  • Tabitha, the child of a wealthy urban family pledged to a religious and healing order. She worked for 5 years as an oblate and then 5 as a novice nun. She is moderate in all attributes and skilled only in religion, healing, virtue, and alchemy. She is 30.
  • Adelaide the Ant, a famous thief. Ugly but shrewd, perceptive, and agile, skilled in streetwise, artifice, stealth, and the use of edged and thrown weapons. She has alternately been a thief and bandit for several decades, and is the oldest of the group at 40.

I can see a couple of weaknesses in the party. First, I have no one obvious “warrior.” Chestremagne was headed there, but I stopped his education early. Second, I have no one particularly strong in alchemy. I tried to get Tabitha there, but I guess there really isn’t a lot of affinity between alchemy and the religious occupations; I should have moved her along a more “student” track. I probably have too much duplication between Lothair and Adelaide; there really aren’t that many thief-specific skills, and I could have combined what I was attempting with the two characters into a single character. Nonetheless, I’ll go with this party for now.

The first party.

Darklands has no particular backstory, so you have to decide for yourself how this weird crew came together and what they’re trying to accomplish. The game has them starting at table in an inn. I think the location is randomized; in my case, it was the Rheinischer Hof in the city of Dortmund. Anyway, as the game begins the group has just sworn “a pact as blood brothers, to seek good and avoid evil, and to bring everlasting honor and glory to our names.” They then spend some time debating next steps, such as getting jobs locally to acquire more training, improving their equipment, or hunting for street thieves at night.

The party unites in a vague quest for fortune and glory.

The game then hands control over to you, and you can start exploring the city via a series of nested menus. For instance, if you head out to the main street, you have options from there to visit the stadtplatz (the political center), the alter markt (central market), the churches, the guilds, an inn, a scenic grove, various side alleys, and the city gates. Each of those locations opens up a new series of options. For instance, in the stadtplatz, you can view local notices, listen for rumors, or go to the stadthaus and try to get an audience with a local official. Each option costs time, and the days pass quickly. There are different options at night than during the day.

Some of the options specific to an inn.

My party first went to the market to check things out, but I was a bit too concerned about finances to make any purchases. We then went into a back alley and nearly immediately entered combat with a group of thieves. Darklands features a real-time-with-pause combat system that I’m still figuring out, but it anticipates the Infinity Engine titles. You basically hit SPACE to pause, select each character and issue orders, and then hit SPACE to watch them carry out those orders to the best of their abilities. At the beginning of the game, I can’t do much more than attack.

The party and the thieves engage in the very definition of “melee.”

With the thieves, that was enough. I killed them without taking much damage and looted their bodies for some useful pieces of armor and excess weapons to sell in the market. The game is pretty light on types of equipment, incidentally. You get a melee weapon, a missile weapon, “vital” armor, “limb” armor, and a shield.

Hear that? My massacre of the thieves was ordained by God.

The next day, I visited the stadthaus and got an audience with the ältere herren. He confided that there is a plot to take over the city. His men had intercepted some reports going to the fugger (banker) in Fürstenberg. He wants me to go to that city and “steal prior reports.” From the map, Fürstenberg is quite a distance to the east. My understanding is that you might get similar quests from churches, guilds, and other important people in the town.

How do we know that Fürstenberg won’t rule the city better than you? Which of you favors universal health care?

I left the city to check out the wilderness. (Entering and leaving the cities involves a bunch of options depending on whether you want to pay the associated fees or hide from the guards or whatnot; I’ll cover that later.) Outdoor travel takes place on a world map full of landscape features and roads. There are miscellaneous encounters with friends and foes every few minutes. I was able to bluff my way past a couple of hostile parties as I headed east.

Lothair bluffs his way past some bandits or worse.

Everything I’ve described adds up to a game that’s an awful lot like a medieval RPG version of MicroProse’s Pirates! There are direct analogues in the menu towns and the randomization of quests. Just like the earlier game’s Spanish Main, here were have a rich backcloth in which somewhat random events transpire, with or without the player’s involvement, thus creating a different experience for every player.

Hiking around central Germany replaces sailing the Spanish Main.

Even the goals are similar. It appears that as I solve quests and slay thieves and whatnot, I’ll gain fame and reputation specific to each territory. I can “retire” the party at any point with that fame score, just as you can with the main character in Pirates! There’s also a main quest to find, lurking somewhere. Still, it’s clear that part of the game’s legendary length is related to the dynamic, somewhat random way the game world evolves.

I may roll a new party and choose to stay more local before getting a quest, or just go with it and see what happens. There are lots of things I have not yet explored, including the alchemy system and the praying system. Since the plot can’t really be spoiled (I assume), I’ll be happy to take plenty of opinions on this one.

Time so far: 3 hours

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