Darklands (PC) review
" Dear reader, are you lonely? A bit sad? Not feeling very loved? Well, I have a solution for your woes! Play Darklands! "
Dear reader, are you lonely? A bit sad? Not feeling very loved? Well, I have a solution for your woes! Play Darklands!
You see, Darklands will not warrant you sex. True. However, this title drips so much *love* that it certainly will make your outlook brighter for quite some time. And, mind you, this is not some kind of 'creepy' love I'm talking about, this is the real thing, the love that only the most overly caring of game designers puts in its game. I throw a gauntlet to any who would dare say there is a RPG out there that has more of the designer's love woven into it than Darklands. I dare ye!
As you probably guessed already, Darklands is an RPG. A Medieval RPG. There are many of these around, no? True, but none like Darklands. The cup of tea of this game is it's setting, the incredible land known as... are you ready for it?!
... Medieval Germany!
“What? A RPG set in Germany?” Yes! “Like, historically accurate Medieval Germany?!” YES!
For starters, setting the RPG in medieval GERMANY and not medieval ENGLAND already makes this game different from 90% of other medieval-themed games. (I get the distinct impression that game designers, as well as movie-makers, regard medieval England as “the U.S . in medieval times”, but that's just my far-fetched opinion)
However, making this setting a HISTORICALLY ACCURATE rendition of Germany in the 1400's makes this game even more remarkable!
First of all, in this game you get to roam ALL OF GERMANY in the 1400's with HISTORICALLY ACCURATE TOWNS! This means, basically, that the authors of the game had the decency to draw AN ENTIRE MAP OF GERMANY for the player to roam, filled with forests, rivers, roads and whatnot, and also they FILLED THIS MAP WITH EXACTLY THE TOWNS OF THE 1400'S!
The level of detail put into this effort is absolutely breathtaking. Even though most of the towns of the 1400's exist to this day, in the game they are portrayed as they were in the 1400's. The designers actually researched what towns were large and which ones were small during that period! The cities of Frankfurt and Berlin are nowadays the most important ones in Germany, however in the game they are small towns of small significance, Berlin being probably the smallest in the game as it was so young in that century. The true centres of power in this age are cities like Ulm, Lübeck and Nürnberg, home to thousands of people and skilled craftsmen. I find it very fun to have a chance to experience these now-small towns in an age when they dictated the rules.
Adding to this level of detail is the fact that, in every town you visit, you can probably enter a building named after an establishment that was around back in 1400's. Go to Köln and visit the “Haus Lyskirchen”(a local tavern) or the “Domplatz” (this particular town's main square), or try another of the many unique institutions of the town. In your travels through Germany, you will get to know unique town halls, taverns, markets, monasteries, cathedrals and fortressess. You'll be baffled to see how the designers cared enough to research what cities had what buildings in them and how they were called by the citizens.
But thus far it's just the cities I have talked about. We have more attention to detail here in this game for us to expose the dripping love. You see, the developers decided to include the mystic arts in this game. “Oh, but that is not historically accurate!” You'll say, probably. That's true... to us, unbelievers of the XXI century! In the 1400's, science was still something reserved for a snotty elite. The people at large believed all sorts of things to be supernatural in nature. And it is in this fine line between magic and science that Darklands chose to dwell.
Here, you will not meet spellcasters that produce fireballs by uttering a few words and making weird gestures. Spellcasting like these would not match the setting, as magic does not exist, right? Instead, you have scattered across the lands several alchemists, reserved scholars that dabble with different and arcane materials to produce truly wondrous effects. Alchemists do not cast spells like your average Final Fantasy mage, they first gather the necessary substances (like, say, animal parts, chemicals, minerals like coal and mangane, etc) and then mix them into potions that, when used, produce effects that a man from the 1400's would surely mistake for magic.
That is not all there is to it in the supernatural department. You see, all the time, in that world and in ours, inexplicable events happen. Thunder strikes where it is least expected, animals behave in ways no human can understand, equipment fails for no apparent reason, incurable illnesses sometimes get suddenly cured, and things people are sure to think will happen sometimes simply don't. When these unforetold events happen, and they are good, people would say they are 'miracles'. And, in Darklands, miracles happen to those with faith!
Beset by wolves? Facing rough storms whilst aboard a flimsy boat? Trapped in a dirty dungeon with no means to escape? Unsure if the guards will trust you explanation as to how those coins got in your pocket? Pray, my friend, pray! And if you are faithful, and know what exact saint of the Catholic Church can provide the miracle you seek, your desire will be fulfilled!
The designers in Darklands made available more than 100 real saints of the 1400's (a time when the catholic church was the sole religious authority in Germany) for the players to pray to. Each saint even has its own day when they are worshipped. In game terms, this means your characters have access to over 100 'miracles' (playing the role of spells, if you will) during an adventure, accessible if the character knows the existence of the saint and if the saint is willing to help the party (they are picky about who deserves what miracle). A game that featured over 100 spells would probably be very nice, but one that has the equivalent of such 'spells' so interestingly woven into the setting and with so much history tidbits for the player (each saint featured comes with a little biography and its saint day) gains extra points.
Alchemy and miracles are supernatural addition that will help the player most of the time, but there are also those which can be hazardous. You see, in the middle ages, the people attributed all sorts of hardships they had to endure to supernatural creatures having fun at the cost of their sustenance. Cave-ins in mines were probably caused by Gnomes and Dwarves toying in the depths. Barren fields could be the doing of wretched dragons that corrupted the land with their pure evil. And disease certainly was the work of witches and their dark rituals. In Darklands, you will face these dire situations. And to solve them, you will have to confront their causes: tectonic plates, soil degradation and germs. Oh, wait, no these are the causes of woe to people of the XXI century! Doh, my mistake! In Darklands, you solve the problems of the land by beating up those evildoers that are causing them, the aforementioned Gnomes, Dragons and Witches! Much more interesting, no?
All of the battling you will do with the minions of Satan can get very interesting. The Gnomes will trick you with devilish puzzles, the Witches will use their own knowledge of alchemy and the dark arts to make sure you are the next person in line for the sacrificial altar, and Dragons are simply BIG and COOL to fight against. Sometimes in their hoards you shall find magical weapons. Actually, not exactly magical (magic doesn't exist, right?!), but of such incredibly good quality that certainly they cannot be the work of mere mortals.
Oh, I have not yet talked about the thing many RPG players consider most important, the plot!
Here's the plot of Darklands: you play as a group of 4 people who make a pact to achieve fame and glory by righting as many wrongs as possible. That's it! You create the characters, make the pact, then set off trough Germany seeking evildoers!
This may seem lame at first, but do not forget that you have ALL OF GERMANY to search for evil. The story is not in the plot, it's in the hugely expansive gameworld, full of cities, brigands, raubritters (robber knights), abusive feudal lords and minions of Satan. There is a 'main quest' of sorts, since the saints will come in your dreams and warn you about the greatest evil that Germany shall face (I'll not tell what it is, only that it is a very worthy villain), but this 'main plot' is ranked simply as one of the quests you shall undertake, albeit a very big one.
By 'you', I mean of course the party of 4 characters that are created in the start of the game (or in the middle, if you wish to change the party). The character creation system is unique and surely deserves to be resurrected in a new RPG.
The first step of character creation is choosing how your character lived his infancy. Was he a wealthy noble's son? Or a dirt poor peasant? Maybe a street urchin in the streets of some german town? Whatever your choice, it will influence your character's attributes: peasant tend to be stronger and more agile than noblemen, however the richer kids also get better education and higher intelligence and skills.
After making the adjustments that the character's background allows, you start writing the story of his adulthood. You already established how he was born and bred, but what jobs did he undertake? Was he a soldier when he was 20? Or maybe a swindler? Perhaps a bandit?! The choices you make affect the physical and mental attributes of the character, as well as his skills. After choosing his first profession, you can declare the character all set or choose to write more of his history as you select another profession he (or she) held from his 20th birthday to the 25th. Maybe our little swindler wanted to repent the sins of his past and chose to retreat to a monastery for 5 years? Or, maybe, the soldier got promoted and then spent some time as a Lieutenant? This choice of profession again affects his stats. You can then choose another profession or declare the character finished. The more jobs the character has, the more skilled he is, but it will also mean the person is getting older, and thus becoming frailer physically compared to his younger compadres. The balance between age and skill can make for a plethora of character design choices.
There are no 'levels' in Darklands. Characters advance in skill mostly by two ways: they either stay in a town and find a tutor to teach them the subtleties of their craft, or they go to the field and practice them by themselves. Fighters will improve their skill with the ax and flail by battling robbers and satanists, Alchemists will make better potions by staying in a town and attending the local university or guild meeting, Clergymen will be better favored by the saints by attending mass and praying. You can take your characters, sometimes, by paths you never thought before.
In the end, Darklands is an incredibly unique game. It is unfortunate that few remember it, because it certainly deserves praise. Nowadays, its graphics certainly are outdated and maybe the difficulty level it offers along with the complexity it seems to show would scare many people away. However, a gamer that values it when a game designer puts its heart into a game settling for no less than the best and most unique experience he can offer will find in Darklands Micropose's Magnun Opus in the field of RPGs.
This from the same company that brought us Master of Orion, Civilization, and X-COM!
Community review by zanzard (November 15, 2007)
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