Darklands

This wasn’t the first pausable-real-time combat game ever made, but being from 1992, it’s the earliest one I’ve ever played. Some things haven’t really changed. You hit the spacebar to stop time and tell your guys where to move, and there are little indicators for where they’re heading and who they’re targeting. And while there aren’t magic spells to cast in real-time, some actions do take longer than others, like preparing to throw an explosive potion or reloading an arquebus, compared to quick sword attacks.

Man, are there ever some conveniences that would make this game so much less of a pain, though:

  • You can’t select all your characters to do a ranged attack on a target at once, or have them automatically switch ranged targets when one dies (they’ll do this in melee range, though).
  • Out of combat you can move all your characters together, either clustered together or single-file, but goddamn is the AI pathing terrible. If you’re in a narrow corridor, you won’t be able to use the group-cluster at all to move, because the pathing range is only about a screen’s distance away and you need to target a spot wide enough that they can all come to a rest. And in single-file mode, if one person gets out of position in the line, say, because you repositioned your #2 guy slightly to loose an arrow through a doorway and then moved the #3 guy up closer so he could pick a lock or just hit in melee range or whatever, once you tried to get the line moving again, #2 would come to a dead halt behind #3 and #4 would queue up behind #2 forever. So you’d have to select #4, move him backwards to the nearest open space, then pull #2 out, then #3, then put #2 back in… it’s horrifying.
  • Don’t even get me started on stairs. Each character has to be close enough to interact with them but there’s not enough room in front of the staircase for the whole party all at once, so you have to march the party up to the stairs, push your #1 through, then turn off group movement because having two characters present on two different floors confuses it so you can’t move at all, then switch to #2 and move him to where #1 was standing… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually quite proud of how good I got at using stairs in this game. I probably went from taking a full minute to get everyone through, to about five seconds of rapid clicks and hotkeys.
  • Scrolling the viewport around is a huge pain, and every time you hit the key to swap to another party member, the camera centers on them (a modern game would probably have you double-tap their key for that). So if you’re doing the aforementioned one-by-one ranged target-painting, you have to painfully scroll the viewport back over to the enemies each time.
  • Everyone moves sooooo slooooow in dungeons. I actually got into the habit of leaving Dosbox in turbo mode, and even then it’s still so slow when you’re just moving around that I would tab out of the game’s window after telling my party where to go, and this despite the pathing range being as short as I said it was. Really, if everything else didn’t seem normal–even the visual effects on screen as I moved–I’d have suspected that some issue was causing the emulator to slow to a crawl. It’s hard to believe they deliberately chose that walking speed.
  • The UI is really bad. I was miles deep into the game before I figured out how to throw potions (you can’t already be engaging an enemy at the time), or how to tell why I couldn’t open a chest (because it was locked and I needed to press P instead of O) or why I couldn’t pick a lock (because it was trapped and I needed to press D instead of P). When you’re buying or selling items, your inventory box is only tall enough to see like 4 items at a time, which is like trying to see something through a 2-centimeter-high window. And if your first-slot character’s inventory is full, any further items obtained–even key items–are just quietly thrown away when the game says you got them. Not only did I miss out on some caravan random encounter rewards because of this, but I also had to roll a save back (twice) in the final dungeon because I didn’t have room for each of the six key items I needed to bring to the final door. God forbid they put up an “inventory full” dialogue confirmation, or, hell, just hand the item to the #2 hero, eh?

Perhaps nobody can really load up a quarter-century-old game expecting drag-selections and right-click context menus, but, hey. Things to consider for an OpenXcom-esque remake project some day, right?

It’s clear we’ve come a long way–in some ways–but the more old games I play, the more it seems like the only strides we’re making are in ease-of-use. 1992 was also the same year as Ultima 7, which shocked me even more in that department. Once more, a lot of this gameplay is eerily modern when you strip modern gaming’s paint away (and I don’t even mean this in the most insulting sense). There’s a lot going on in Darklands. It’s very open-world–you can probably infinitely continue with killing off your heroes and hiring replacements, even repeating the main questline dungeons, which is more penalty-friendly than games like Wasteland 2 (which offered a similar “replacement party member” feature). The skill challenges in Pillars of Eternity, which at the time of my review I compared to a 1994 game called Realmz, are even more obviously inspired by Darklands (which is actually a favorite game of Pillars’ lead designer)–although Pillars handles them a lot better, because it only checks if your attribute scores reach a certain value, so you can’t save-scum until the RNG smiles upon you.

The most interesting thing is the invocation of Catholic saints, which you essentially collect like Pokemon from city churches and remote monasteries. There are like fifty billion of them, most of which I never even used, but I at least found the locations of all but the last ten or so. Pray to St. Polycarp for a temporary fire resistance buff! Call upon Thomas Aquinas to debate against a bridge demon who has claimed the right to your soul! Well, most of them just restore endurance points or boost your stealth skill or whatever, and there’s a ton of overlap, but it’s quite cool. I would have suggested having them play a more active role and making them more fun to find (and use, and sort through). Though they can be invoked mid-combat, it’s an instantaneous pause-menu action rather than a time-consuming prayer.

The basic gameplay loop–heading to a new city, checking for alchemical recipes and any saints your party doesn’t know about, looking at the reagents in the market stalls and the horses in the stables if you’re in need before leaving for the next place, getting into random encounters along the way–is typically quite boring, especially later into the game. Most of the navigation occurs through CYOA-esque text choices, and this gets in the way once you’ve read it all before and you’re finding your way through to your fiftieth alchemy guild by rote, or back to the inn after a study at the church brings you late into the night. A simple abstract map with nodes where the churches and markets and guilds are would be far better than nested pages of text: I imagine clicking to an inn which might be two nodes away from you on the map, thus requiring two opportunities for time to pass or for bandits or guards to catch you out past curfew–you could show more dangerous regions by coloring a node differently and so on.

It’s also unfortunately RNG-heavy at every step. Is your next random encounter a bunch of spiders with no item drops, or a caravan under attack by bandits? Will that caravan reward you with a potion you don’t need, or with a 46-quality longsword? Do you have to pay money to get into the city, or do you get you in for free and level up your Speech skill as a bonus? Does the church require more time and payment to study their saints? Does the alchemist freely offer to trade a recipe you’ve never seen before, or just one of the ones you can buy anywhere? Or does he offer you nothing and tell you to piss off? The incentives to save-scum are profound; I couldn’t dream of not doing it.

Ultima had its Skyrim parallels in its moveable objects and NPCs with scheduled lives and theft detection, and Darklands has its own parallels in the skill system, as you’ve got each of your skills represented by a number that can be grinded up at any time through use of the skill in question, with some requiring a special opportunity and others being trainable at virtually any time without even moving. And, luckily, there’s no awful level scaling in Darklands that makes you get your ass kicked because you got your Speech skill raised a bunch before you ever got into a fight. (Skyrim’s one true innovation?)

And Darklands’ equipment weight system is a lot like Dark Souls, in that you have tons of inventory room, but only what you’re wearing has an impact on your carry weight–which I thought was extremely inventive and ideal in Dark Souls, because it removes the tedium of constant item storage and management, but makes you really have to think about whether your 30-pound armor is worth it.

I could talk about the annoying quirks of DOSBox or the crashes and save-file corruptions I had to contend with while playing, and there are a million more conversations to be had about whether Darklands does this or that right, whether character generation could have been simplified, or attributes better balanced, whether these potions are too useful or too useless or too easy for making and selling for cash, whether there should be fewer stats for weapon proficiencies, or on the role of the calendar and character aging, on crime and the Virtue statistic, on Divine Favor as a conservative resource mechanic… one could write several long essays on the depiction of 1400s Catholic ethics or the portrayal of witchcraft and Satanism alone… it’s so weird to see a game with a religious angle.

Like, could I just talk about the very unusual feeling of praying for some plague victims, and the prayer not being answered because of a bad RNG roll, but being in a situation where the people are still grateful for my prayers despite the fact that I could have burned more of my Divine Favor (read: mana) to increase the prayer’s success rate? And what does that say about St. Roch, who has been empirically shown to be capable of helping with these situations in the Darklands world, but chose not to? Game mechanics are such an unusual lens for viewing religious stuff through, aren’t they?

But I should only ramble on for so long about such an old relic of a game. Any influences it might have had, or lessons that might have been learned from it, are distant enough to seem fruitless to be chasing down now. The age makes a review score that much sillier, and makes it that much harder to fault the game when it falls short. Darklands certainly does impress, though I’d hardly say it was perfect even in its own period, so let’s give it a four. 

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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