"It will help if youíre already a fan of side-scrolling adventure games. If you canít do without your Rastan, or your Legendary Axe, you will already be predisposed to having some fun with this little game. Your character is nameless, presumably so that you can think of him as yourself. Perhaps they should have left the bad guy nameless as wellóhis name is Garth. I doubt they were going for ''Garth Brooks''ómaybe ''Garth Vader.'' "
Rastan's been circumsized!
Apogee is a name synonymous with fun, simple Shareware games. Dark Ages is synonymous with trash. It was one of Apogee's first titles, a trilogy begun with Prince of Destiny, and itís frequently called one of their worst creations, but this seems a little unfair. Detractors provide us with two reasons. One: itís far too short. Defending this is untenable. Once I figured out how to control my onscreen hero with the keyboard (no joystick options here), I was able to fly through the adventure in about fifteen minutes. Two: the sounds are horrible. This is also true. But then, this is true of most games from this era of EGA computer gaming, so never mind that. (Turning your speaker volume down only decreases the level of the rather excellent music, while the bleeping sound effects continue unaffected--you'll have to turn down the PC speaker volume to have the desired effect). In fact, never mind the dark outlook you may have on Dark Ages 1. Really, if you can put up with a very short adventure--and you should be able to, considering that itís free--and some harsh bleeping sounds (or none at all), then you may actually enjoy Dark Ages 1.
It will help if youíre already a fan of side-scrolling adventure games. If you canít do without your Rastan, or your Legendary Axe, you will already be predisposed to having some fun with this little game. Your character is nameless, presumably so that you can think of him as yourself. Perhaps they should have left the bad guy nameless as well--his name is Garth. I doubt they were going for ''Garth Brooks''--maybe ''Garth Vader.'' Anyway, as the title suggests, you are the prince of the kingdom, and heir to the throne. Garth had other ideas about who would be running the show though, so he captured you and cast you out of the kingdom into the arms of a peasant family, so that you would be out of the way while he proceeded with his very hostile takeover. Despite Garthís purportedly great magic powers, the fool didnít realize that your adopted family had one of the greatest heroes of past times as its head. This nameless, retired freedom fighter raised you as his (or her!) son, and shaped you into a fearsome warrior in your own right. Now the time has come to play the role of Simba, reclaiming his kingdom from his Uncle Scar (thatís Lion King talk). Put another way, you're tired of training, you're tired of the usurper Garth and his rhinestone shirts, so you aim to do something about it.
As a fan of the genre, what struck me immediately about Dark Ages 1 was the resemblance of the protagonist to the hero in Turbografx-CD game, Shapeshifter. Catching myself, I realized that itís not so mind-blowing--most barbarian adventurers are designed with the long flowing mane, a skirt of sorts (the sissies!), and an ideal tan with which to go topless. The very next thing to visually impact the experienced adventurer is the similarity in the backgrounds to Rastan, as that game appeared on the Sega Master System. Again, this is nothing revolutionary, as a diet of sun-baked plains, murky caverns, and craggy mountain passes, are all supposedly good for any growing side-scroller. The only standout is your weapon; itís not an axe or a broadsword... itís magic. Apparently, in the years of training you received while growing up, there was only time to learn one spell. Hit the fire button and coax a blue wave of energy forth from your hands (interestingly, if you registered the game during its day, you would be provided with a password that allowed for rapid fire. Now that the game is freeware, donít feel shy about searching for the password on cheat sites--your trigger finger will thank you). Think of Dark Ages 1 as the simplest of prototypical action adventure games--with an atypically short lifespan.
Indeed, some of your enemies must know how little time they have to do you in, because most of them are quite nasty, and can absorb a good deal of damage. The wall crawling spiders take three hits from your beam, and the fluttering purple birds (shades of Legendary Axe) take two apiece. Rolling boulders will beset you and positively eat up your unfriendly fire, as will the grotesque monster faces that rise up from beneath the ground. Interestingly enough, the weakest foes of all are the anthropoids, who amble along in a very singular, aberrant, alien fashion. Kudos to Apogee for accomplishing this; most games have trouble with making weird enemies (especially of the two-legged variety) move about in an appropriately weird way.
As you might have expected, the environment also claims its own vendetta against you. Hazards include falling stalactites, weary of a life of guard duty in the caverns; geysers of water piercing the sky from deep pools; lakes of fire yawning hungrily beneath crumbling bridges; and giant, skeletal hands reaching out to bring harm to your tanned ankles, and to hold you in prone and in place for other enemies to greedily happen upon.
There are no bosses in Dark Ages 1, so the only thing separating one scene from another are the whims of an old man. The brown-cloaked guide will implore you (you stand in front of him and press up, he tells you what he needs by way of a thought bubble) to seek out certain items, to bring back to him. Keys, apples, and once, a shield, will all be easily found as your enemies are no experts in the art of concealment. Only a fight is in your way. Present the item before him and press up, and the wizard will spirit away, leaving a door in his wake to the next area.
There are about half as many areas as would make a decent, remotely challenging adventure, from start to finish. That would make Dark Ages 1 very short, were it not for the save anywhere feature. The ability to save your progress severely compromises the game's challenge. By moving carefully and saving prudently, the repetition (dying and trying again) that would make a game of this type on say, the NES, long enough to keep you playing, is nullified. A day of adventuring is turned into a half hour at best, and a short game now appears to be a disposable title.
But somehow Dark Ages 1 dodges that disposable bullet. Because what little there is of it, is actually pretty fun to play. It's simple and it's colourful. It won't turn your gaming world on its side, but it will momentarily occupy your jaded backside. And perhaps if it was longer, the limitations in the gameplay would be revealed, and that dreaded word in video games: repetitiveness--would raise it's ugly head. But Dark Ages 1 doesn't even give the 'R' word a chance. Adventure fans, download this game, and anytime you have a short time to kill, you'll remember the Prince, and you'll follow his Destiny wherever it may lead you both. For at least ten minutes.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 14, 2004)
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