In Praise Of: Darklands.

Really I should just rename this column the Microprose Nostalgia Hour, because that’s what it is now.

Darklands! Darklands is a really interesting game for a number of reasons. For starters, going back and playing it today is like visiting the Lost World; it’s an RPG that was made long before Bioware had had a chance to stamp the western market with their own particular brand of straitjacketed game design, and represents a fascinating glimpse into what might have been had they not gotten their grubby little hands all over the industry. Darklands is twenty years old at this point, and has a ruleset that is consciously and purposely designed for a computer game. Its age means that it has some genuinely archaic features — mostly relating to the UI and combat commands — which I’m sure would have been thrown out or improved as technology moved on. The ruleset on the other hand is almost perfectly byzantine, requiring the services of a 120 page cluebook1 to properly understand. Darklands does not fuck around when it comes to rules and mechanics. Here, look at this character stat screen:

That’s six attributes and nineteen different skills along with lists of known saints and alchemy formulas. It’s an awful lot to keep track of at first, and you’d be forgiven for bouncing off of Darklands at the first attempt2. However, that big list of numbers and abbreviations enables a game system that is by turns stunningly innovative and incredibly responsive. I’ve not ever seen anything else quite like Darklands in the intervening twenty years. It puts a high premium on realism and logic over gamey mechanics, and it’s precisely because a lot of things in Darklands happen exactly as you’d expect them to in the real world that it seems so fresh and new each time I play it. I’ve become conditioned to expect games to act like games, and for the events that take place within them to happen according to game logic that’s become so rarefied and specialised at this point that it might as well describe the back end of the moon.

You want an example of this? Look no further than the game’s armour system. There are five levels of armour in the game, ranging from leather to chain to plate mail.  There are something like thirty different weapon types in seven different categories, and every single one of those weapons has an associated armour penetration level. When you make an attack with a given weapon, you only do full damage if the penetration of the weapon exceeds the armour value of the target’s armour. If it doesn’t? Then it sucks to be you; you’re almost completely out of luck because that reduces the amount of damage you inflict by seven eighths. And that’s rounding down, too, so anything less than eight is reduced to zero.

At a stroke this one mechanic changes the entire nature of the game. Because armour behaves more or less the way you’d expect it to in reality it means that attacking a heavily-armoured knight with a glorified stick is going to be suicide every single time. Doesn’t matter how good you are with that stick, doesn’t matter if it’s a magic stick blessed by saintly powers, you’re simply not going to be able to inflict enough damage to take him down before he cleaves you in half with the huge two-handed sword he’s carrying. So if he’s passing you on the road and he asks you for a “toll”, you had better pay up unless you are carrying the appropriate can-opener and think you can best someone who has basically been trained for war since birth.

Armour is a genuine force multiplier rather than a simple static bonus; a character in full plate can face down three or four baddies while only taking minimal damage because the plate will soak most of it up. Plate doesn’t make them invincible, though, thanks to the way Darklands deals with character attributes. Attributes such as strength, charisma etc. are determined by the player during character generation by distributing a stock of character points, and then further modified depending on which careers you pick for them. After you’ve left the character generation screen those attributes are set in stone for the entire rest of the game. They cannot go up permanently, they can only be increased temporarily with alchemical potions. Worse, as your character ages your inherent attributes will actually start to decrease; characters past the age of thirty will begin to suffer permanent penalties to strength and endurance that are minor at first, but which gradually mount up as they get older and older until that character is combat ineffective and forced into retirement. Once you’ve started the game there’s plenty of scope for character improvement by increasing the nineteen different skills, either through using them or by being trained in them by somebody else, but the static attributes play a huge role in what you can and can’t do and drive you to make the most of them before the passage of time starts to slowly wear them away.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I wanted to explain just why plate isn’t a guarantee of victory when facing multiple opponents. First off, for every additional person attacking a target past the first one every person attacking that target gets a bonus to their hit probability. The target themselves gets a similar penalty. Much of Darklands is about positioning yourself so that your party can take on baddies in nice two-to-one ratios to make the most of this advantage, not to mention ensuring the baddies can’t do it to you. One man fighting four will always be at a disadvantage no matter how heavily armoured he is. Second, there are actually two stats that can take damage during combat: strength and endurance. Strength acts as both strength and hit points. Penetrating hits damage strength, and it cannot be restored except through resting, healers or potions. Damaging an opponent’s strength reduces their combat effectiveness since they’ll no longer be able to swing their weapon as easily.  Reducing it to zero kills them outright, so it’s by far the most important stat in the game. Endurance on the other hand represents a character’s stamina. Every single hit that successfully connects, whether it penetrates armour or not, has a chance to do a small amount of endurance damage. This does nothing until endurance is reduced to zero, at which point the poor unfortunate in question will collapse to the ground because they’re so knackered by all the fighting.

This doesn’t count as an immediate kill, but whoever wins the overall combat is assumed to do some surreptitious throat-slitting after the battle is done. If you win, any exhausted characters will get back on their feet seemingly none the worse for wear, while exhausted enemies mysteriously expire so that you can steal their pants. Endurance acts as a nice balancing aspect that gives poorly-equipped characters a small chance against heavily-armoured baddies. Unfortunately it also means that strength and endurance are by far the most important attributes in the game and that every character has to bulk up — even the cloistered nun at the back who is tagging along in case the party ever needs any divine intervention. Other attributes are good for certain character types – the party leader must have good charisma and Speak Common for negotiations and the alchemist needs high intelligence for mixing potions – but as a general rule you can get by with just one character having a high perception or charisma. It does sadly mean Darklands characters end up being a little bit identikit at the start of the game, for all that the plethora of skills allows for significant specialisation later.

Darklands is set in fifteenth century Germany, and its major conceit is that the world is exactly as the peasants of the time believed it to be. This means that alchemy works, saints and holy powers regularly intervene in earthly matters, and demons and witches are real threats that must be fought whenever they’re encountered. Alchemy and divine intervention make an interesting substitute for the traditional RPG magic system, while the enemies are pleasingly gothic spins on familiar tropes since they’re all rooted in the same common folklore. With such a plethora of evil beasties inhabiting the countryside, though, it makes travelling outside of the cities practically suicidal for a party that’s just starting out.  Instead, you begin the game by literally fighting crime. If you lurk around inside a city at nighttime and manage to avoid the guards enforcing curfew, there’s a high chance you’ll run into one or more groups of thieves who can be murdered in the cause of skilling up and their bodies stripped of loot to provide party funding.  Do this for a few nights and you’ll soon be competent enough at fighting to have at least a chance of survival outside the city. The next step is acquiring some good quality equipment, and once you’ve done that you can launch into Darklands’ raison d’etre: true open-world gameplay.

Darklands has no plot, you see. The game starts with your four characters swearing an oath to fight crime in a pub, and you progress from there onto bigger and better things quite naturally, but at no point does anyone give you directions about where to go or who to kill except in the most basic fashion as a part of randomly-generated quests. The point of Darklands is that you wander around this map of Germany doing heroic deeds and gathering fame while simultaneously trying to stay solvent (and this is harder than it sounds). Fame acts as the game’s score. Since it has no plot Darklands has no ending as we’ve come to traditionally understand them. Indeed, there are only two ways to have the game end at all: either have your party wiped out in a fight against something particularly nasty, or else go to the nearest inn and retire from adventuring. When you do this the game calculates your final fame and tells you how the world remembered you in the years following your retirement, but even this isn’t permanent; if you’re unhappy with the result you can come out of retirement and bash some more demon heads together for extra fame funbux.

The reason Darklands gets away with this – indeed, the reason why its open world approach ends up being so good – is because while it might not have a plot it does have a definite structure and progression to it as your party gradually grows in power. The harder tasks simply aren’t pointed out to you until you have sufficient fame, and this is generally enough to stop you from blundering into a raubritter’s castle or a dwarf-infested mine straight away (although you can still do those things if you really want to). It’s also aided considerably by its approach to all interactions that aren’t overworld travel or combat. Darklands uses a series of text adventure-like menus with gorgeous painted backdrops to represent these, which allowed the developers to implement just about any kind of scenario they wanted with a minimum of fuss. There are literally hundreds of encounter types in the game which vary by region and terrain and season and which ensure that Darklands never, ever gets old. It’s an amazingly flexible system and I’m staggered modern developers with limited resources always plump for godawful 2D engines that look like somebody ran the original Baldur’s Gate through a clothes mangler (hello, Avadon) instead of hiring a halfway competent artist to do the backdrops and implementing something like Darklands’ encounter system.

This is what gets me most about Darklands: that twenty years on nobody has even tried to do what Darklands did. RPGs have developed a prevailing orthodoxy in the intervening years which is in general hewn to very closely. Even indie developers don’t like to wander too far off the beaten track, preferring to ape AAA games instead of doing their own thing. Darklands uses an astonishingly powerful ruleset that allows for so much more variety than today’s RPGs, not to mention the fact that aside from some very frustrating archaic UI issues and the combat sounding like somebody brought Keyboard Cat back from the grave to do the effects the game basically hasn’t aged and will never age. Dosbox ensures it’ll run on modern computers for the foreseeable future, and I have every confidence it’ll look just as good and play just as well after another twenty years have gone by. That’s a relative assessment since it’s not like the game isn’t showing its age in the tactical combat and overworld segments, but that all happened early on and the game looks the same to me now as it did back in 2002. Grimrock proved there was still a huge appetite for old-school dungeon crawlers, so why don’t we resurrect a few more of the old classics?

Anyway, next time I review something and say “They should have done it like Darklands!” this is what I mean; go for variety and flexibility and static, good-looking art over complicated animations, linear encounters and a rigid, constrictive narrative structure. Darklands took GOG by storm when it was released on there a year or two back. There are still people out there who want to play this sort of thing. I’m one of them, but in the absence of anything better it was GoG who took my money for a game I’d already bought once. In light of this I can’t help but feel that indie developers in particular are missing a trick here; a Darklands-alike seems like it’d be a project that’d perfectly suit their limited resources since it’s all about doing as much as you can with as little as possible. We realised a long time ago that 3D for 3D’s sake wasn’t necessarily an improvement, so why do outfits like Spiderweb insist on doing a very poor imitation of late 90s isometric RPGs? The Darklands style is a perfect fit for their kind of text-heavy RPG, but instead I was forced to put up with awful graphics that were primarily there to service the needs of the not-very-good combat system. Indie games are supposed to appeal to the audiences that mainstream publishers ignore (again, Grimrock) so I don’t understand why so many of them shoot themselves in the foot like that.

Whatever. Just replace the last 2,500 words with “I want another Darklands, indie developers. You should get right on that,” and you’ll pretty much get the gist of what I’m trying to say here. The old adage is that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, but here it rather depends on which bits you ignore. In Darklands’ case, it could do with a little bit of repetition.

  1. That’s cluebook, not manual. The manual is as awesome as ever in terms of background information, but it’s deliberately vague on the actual calculations the game is crunching through to determine what happens when you swing your military pick at the raubritter’s head. The cluebook breaks all that stuff down in excruciating detail, and I think Darklands is a much better game when you actually understand what is going on.
  2. As long as you go back to it at some point. If you don’t go back to it at all then rest assured that I will find you.
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10 thoughts on “In Praise Of: Darklands.

  1. aosher says:

    Sometimes I wish I had the capability to make an indie game.

  2. innokenti says:

    Re: the quests. The only one I’ve seen done well recently are all the varied adventures in Space Rangers 1 and 2. They’re really good in Russian. Not so much in the poor translation unfortunately.

    Anyway, if anybody makes anything similar I’d put bets on an adventurous Eastern European studio. But there are fewer of those popping up these days.

    It is a sort of thing that does make me want to be involved with an Indie team…

  3. innokenti says:

    I think my favourite is the alien pizza competition in the second one where you have to find out what each of the judges like and then somehow deal with one of them through either bribes or by discrediting them.

    There is also a really really really long one where you go and infiltrate an enemy base to retrieve something or other and it is a huge enormous dungeon-crawl thing.

    • Hentzau says:

      TBH even getting it professionally translated probably wouldn’t have helped. I remember my bad experience with Metro 2033, which was an actual published novel that read like it had been written by an excitable 12 year old who had no technical familiarity with any of the stuff being talked about. I mean, maybe that’s what it reads like in the Russian too. I don’t know. But I don’t think so.

      • innokenti says:

        Well, we manage to translate games fine into Russian, even improve on them. The issue here is that there is simply very little experience of translating material into English because it happens fairly rarely, rather than en-masse. You need a well-cultivated set of writers, translators and voice-actors working in Language A->Language B to do it well. But you can’t really then use many of them to go Language B -> Language A, you need an almost completely different set of people.

        Metro 2033 the novel is… it’s not all that well written. It’s the more basic ground-level of literature, which happens to have a fairly interesting and entertaining premise and plot. It’s not really worth translating because at most you’re going to get a decent filler novel.

  4. ano says:

    There is a game that is a bit simiular to darklands, it’s called “mount and blade: warband”.
    With some mods it turn pretty good. Soon Mount and Blade 2 will be out too.

  5. Jimmy says:

    Sorry to nitpick.. but stats can be altered throughout the game through various events.

  6. Jimmy says:

    Forgive me, I jumped immediately to the comment field before finishing the article.

    I discovered another discrepancy here. There is totally a plot in Darklands, it’s just a bit hard to find. Judging from your comment that the game only ends when you die or retire, you have missed out. I guess you better fire it up again!

  7. Erik_Malkavian says:

    This is a great post about a great game.

    I am currently finishing Dragon Age 2 and I have Dwarf Fortress (Adventurer Mode) setup with Stonesense but I want to get sometime to play this because after watching some gameplay on YouTube, it looks AMAZING!

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