Darklands Retrospective: What RPGs Are Supposed To Be

A lesson that often eludes the games industry is how much names matter. Though it’s hardly the worst offender, Darklands is about as generic as a name gets, and its cover image (which mattered once) is even worse.

Even discounting that, it faced an uphill struggle, as its original 1992 release was marked by a plague of bugs, which Microprose’s patching never entirely expunged. It can still fritz during longer, complex sections – the ones you’ll save at most – and its occasional glitches compound cumbersome controls and an interface that’s awkward and often repetitive. Its sounds are few and its animations simplistic, with minimal feedback. On paper, it’s a bit of a mess.

It’s one of the best RPGs ever made anyway.

I could say it’s because the setting is original and unique, which it is. It’s a largely realistic depiction of greater Germany in the 15th century, with scores of towns, authentic currency, and even time itself based on literally canonical hours. “RTFM” is a cliché, but here a fair warning, as that kind of detail makes for a daunting opening. It is fortunately a lovely one, from that line of 90s manuals that featured a completely unnecessary educational section, with a full bibliography. Don’t say games never taught me anything, Mum.

I could also say it’s the absence of levels, XP, and over-abstracted stats, which are cast out entirely in favour of characters defined by dozens of skills, and progression that ebbs and flows with your success and misfortune. While better quality equipment helps in a fight, it’s choosing the right tool that matters most. There’s no comparison of every sword against every other sword you pick up here. Instead you decide based on your skills, and whether you value fast attacks, higher raw damage, or better armour penetration – a battleaxe might be cool and mop up the cannon fodder, but it’ll simply bounce off the plate armour that knight’s wearing.

Weapons and armour are expensive, and while there’s no regular degradation, some events and enemy attacks can damage them permanently. And if you lose a fight or surrender, don’t think anyone will hesitate to strip you naked and take every pfennig you own. And those are the merciful ones. But hey, some of your party survived that encounter, right? So, dust yourselves off, recruit some replacements, and get back on that horse.

Because here, I could say its greatness comes from character creation, done not via a preset menu, but by choosing a social class and a series of jobs. A young noble who goes into the priesthood, leaves to peddle goods, then falls on hard times and banditry? Go for it! You can focus or generalise as you like. Every career grants guaranteed points in certain skills, and extra ones to divide up among a narrower range.

A clerk could dedicate these to more literacy, or brush up on archery. Soldiers get a broad fighting education, then an opportunity to specialise in (say) polearms, or instead round out with a sliver of stealth and theology. And that soldier could work for another 10 years, gaining rarer or more balanced skills in exchange for her declining physique, or join up now and prove herself on the road. You can’t create a perfect team anyway, so even that skilled priest and healer had better learn to defend himself.

After creation, characters grow, decline, and die. Every skill can increase through use or study, but can be decimated by events, poor decisions, or some of the nastier enemy attacks. Everyone will age, inevitably declining, and perhaps being voluntarily retired before their luck runs out. And it will. If your wounded group staggers from a fight into a wolf attack, don’t think they won’t chow down on one or two of your people while you limp away. Werner might have been a great swordsman and scholar, but he’s gone now. Resurrection? What are you, a satanist? Anton, fetch my crossbow. We got ourselves a devil-lover.

You’ve probably guessed that this “I could say it’s x” schtick is going to end with an “it’s ALL of those things, and then some”. Well, it is. There’s just so much going on in Darklands that hasn’t really been done since.

It’s neither dragged under the realism bus by pedantry, nor throwing awkward modern concessions or fantasy generica in where it feels wrong. It’s instead a unique interpretation of history and mythology; a world that’s half reality, half folklore and dogma. Violence and often arbitrary law rule the cities, but commerce is rising, and you’ll seek out more bankers than knights or kings. Elves and orcs don’t exist, but weird, wild creatures occasionally appear in the forests. The devil is real, and he will mess you up.

Spells and magic aren’t real, though alchemy is a highly specialised, expensive and powerful discipline. Potions require a formula and chemicals, plus time to brew, and can still result in disaster. The other stand-in for magic is prayer, with dozens of saints to supplicate for stat bonuses, or direct intervention during events. Both require ongoing study of knowledge that’s scarce and jealously guarded in universities and monasteries, who’ll require generous ‘donations’ for even a peek of a tutor. The church’s authority is absolute, and not unlike King of Dragon Pass, you need to accept that doctrine.

If a bishop is abusing his position to take money from people… you’d better pay up. Refuse and his people will attack, and a virtuous soul would never fight a man of the cloth. Conversely, devil worshippers must be slaughtered without pity – they eat babies, you know. No, really. There’s an event where you can foil their plans by secretly baptising the babies.

I haven’t even touched on its approach to choice. Players of KoDP will recognise another element in its random event screens, your primary means of interacting with the world. Most give you several options, though whether you have the skills to pull them off is another matter. While a talented and well-equipped group can tackle most situations, these choices are often no less dangerous than combat.

I recently had a guard in Rottweil falsely accuse me of some vague criminal act, and protesting my innocence kicked off a fight. This knackered my reputation there, and when I returned I snuck in to claim my reward (it was a huge reward), but was recognised at the market. This time I came quietly, and was clapped in chains and sentenced to death. Game over? Nope.

They started executing my team, one by one. All I could do was struggle and hope to break free. By sheer fluke Gertrude did, and happened to be lethal with a dagger. A quick, desperate knife fight later, she and Anton fled to the docks and swam to freedom. The reward? I’d converted it into a promissory note before we were captured. It paid for new armour and weapons for us, the nun and the semi-reformed swindler we recruited in Strassburg. Back on the horse.

Darklands is great for more reasons than I can breathlessly enthuse about. It’s entirely open world, with endless jobs and events, and everything from Luxembourg to Marienburg open from day one. Your only goal is a heroic reputation – which is tracked globally and locally – you can be a hero in Stuttgart, an outlaw in Rheims, and completely unknown in a dozen towns in between. Even today that’s something few RPGs attempt. There’s also a long main quest that’s completely optional, after which you’re free to play on indefinitely.

It is, in short, what games are supposed to be. For all its flaws and frayed edges, it still shines with the love and ambition spelled out in that manual, and it richly deserves the follow-ups that sadly never came.

57 Comments

  1. bilharzia says:

    Serpent in the Staglands is looking pretty good so far, not a sequel but possibly as good as you might get.

    • Niko says:

      That looks interesting, thanks!

    • Anthile says:

      I nicknamed it the-game-RPS-doesn’t-want-to-know-about on the forums. It’s almost like they go out of their to not write about it. :(
      The developers actually released a new teaser-trailer the other day:

    • chargen says:

      Man, that trailer doesn’t really do it justice. FPS are too low and zoomed out. You need to fullscreen and squint just to see what’s going on.

      The many gifs and short videos they’ve made let you see the detail much better:

      link to s3.amazonaws.com

      But while the graphics are very Darklands-ish, Staglands’ gameplay seems much more like Baldur’s Gate. In a good way.

  2. SkittleDiddler says:

    That typeface, ugh. Even back in 1992 it was migraine inducing.

  3. Martel says:

    I wish I had heard about this when it came out, this sounds awesome. Not sure I could play it these days though, having a harder and harder time getting into super old games.

  4. Glubber says:

    Absolutely LOVE this game, and have since it came out. I come back to play it every few years, and even though there is a main quest line, I’ve never finished it because I just enjoy the sandboxy nature of the game. I would love to see this remade, but then again it would probably just get messed up.

    In any case, I’m starting a new game over the holidays. Anyone interested can find it on GOG, and it also recently came out on Steam.

  5. JamesPatton says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of this thing. It sounds frustrating and breathtaking in equal measure, thanks for pointing it out!

  6. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    I always thought it puzzling (and downright criminal) that there are so few games rooted in real history that are about something else than just warfare. I’ve heard a lot about Darklands, but it just feels so old and clumsy; RPGs tend to age very poorly in general, and the barrier to entry is becoming worse and worse as time goes on.

    Still, to me, exploring historical settings is potentially a billion times more exciting than slaying yet another dragon.

    • sabrage says:

      “…and the barrier to entry is becoming worse and worse as time goes on.”

      Only if you don’t enter! How bad could it really be? Darklands is $3 on GOG right now.

    • Wizardry says:

      I find that cRPGs age very well actually, especially compared to action games. Sure, the interfaces tend to suck a lot, but when the game’s not twitchy it’s easy to get used to.

  7. Niko says:

    The first time I played I haven’t realized there are horses that reduce travel time significantly, and eventually my characters started dying of old age. That’s not something you see in games, old or modern, often.

    On a side note, I’d love to see a Betrayal at Krondor feature on RPS. While this game might have not aged well in some aspect, it’s quite brilliant in some others.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      And let’s not forget that BaK was written by an actual professional author and features not only a satisfying story, but satisfying WRITING, which is another thing altogether. In fact, it was so good, he ended up converting it to a book.

      • rhuantavan says:

        Actually, it is a common misconception that BaK was written by Raymond Feist. The story and many of the characters were actually created by Neal Hallford.

        • wraithgr says:

          Indeed. Of course, seeing its success, Fei$t couldn’t resist the cash-in… BaK the novel certainly reads better than a lot of his later creations…

    • rhuantavan says:

      The good thing about Betrayal at Krondor is that despite its aged looks, the user interface is great even for today’s standards.

      • Niko says:

        I also love how BaK approaches items and currency. Due to inventory size, there’s no clutter of consumables and stuff that you might be saving for later, and everything’s important, and economy based on silver and gold makes much more sense than the one simply gold-based (I’m looking at you, Skyrim’s ridiculous prices and quest rewards).

    • Wizardry says:

      I quite like characters ageing in CRPGs. It adds pressure to get things done and always enters the equation when you’re deciding what to do next. I’d say around half the old cRPGs (pre-1995) had some sort of character ageing, but I can’t think of many since.

    • Haborym says:

      BaK was pretty great. I wish RtK was as open world as that game was.

  8. Shaun Green says:

    I’ve been meaning to play this for years. I really should get on it.

  9. Oakreef says:

    Bought.

  10. montorsi says:

    While it’s a nice sentiment, I’d flee the hobby in favor of one less repetitive if RPGs went all Assassin’s Creed on us.

  11. Myrdinn says:

    Wow, very particular timing.

    Josh Sawyer (of Black Isle fame and working on Pillars of Eternity right now) posted this a few days ago:

    why don’t developers make more historical RPGs?

    he specifically mentions Darklands as well, two mentions in a single week means I have to buy it now.

    • P.Funk says:

      His commentary about why developers ignore historical context just reinforces my feeling that gaming lacks a lot of the thoughtful well rounded sense of culture and history that film and TV creators have. Its like game development school needs to seriously tap into the liberal arts tradition to enrich itself and break some of these strange attitudes.

      Watching the video of Tim Schafer playing Grim Fandango and hearing all his little comments about where things came from like “The music here is like Vertigo” or “thats a Woody Allen joke” or “I was immersing myself in every single film noir movie I could at the time” and “I was reading Raymond Chandler books” I think also really reinforces to me how important that classic kind of renaissance man diversity of interest and influence in varied cultural and historical resources (mexcian day of the dead meets film noir; that doesn’t come from a focus group) is to creating more than just a product but something that is actually culturally valuable and more profound in its effect on people.

      Just walking around renaissance Italy in AC2 is enough to make me hit wikipedia for hours. Ironic that asscreed is also seen as one of the most intensely cynically made and predictable franchises.

      • Premium User Badge

        basilisk says:

        Yep. One character in AC Unity in particular made me alt-tab to wikipedia to check if what the database is saying could possibly be true: Jean Bernadotte, Napoleon’s marshal and rival in love who eventually (and quite randomly) became king of Sweden. A guy I somehow never heard of until then and whose life story is so amazing you couldn’t make it up.

        No amount of lore building in a fictional universe can ever produce something this interesting. This guy’s life actually happened.

      • WHS says:

        P.Funk, I just wanted to say this is an extraordinarily good comment. Of course, I doubt you’ll ever see this.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        I know what you mean. I think a huge problem with vidya gayms right now is how huge chunks of the industry are completely incestuous – lots of new games have no references other than older games, that reference older games, that reference… You can’t go to other media for gameplay, (or can you?), but for everything else there are plenty of other wells to drink from.

    • The Dark One says:

      He also talked about Darklands in a PoE interview on this very website!!!

  12. ffordesoon says:

    I need to sit down and make the effort to get into this thing one day. It’s theoretically everything I like in games, but I bounce right off it whenever I give it a go. I know I’d be able to feel the magic if I stuck with it, but it’s just so old and clunky.

    I wish someone would remaster Darklands Monkey Island-style. All it really needs is a graphical touchup and a more intuitive interface. Who owns the rights to the MicroProse library at this point?

  13. Kaeoschassis says:

    Well, this is interesting. I wonder how I’ve never come across Darklands before. Probably the generic name, right enough.
    Ageing games don’t tend to bother me much, I’m quite willing to dig for awhile and browse through a manual if it means I get to play something unique and captivating, and those graphics honestly don’t look so bad. Will be checking this out over xmas, I suspect. Thanks RPS!

  14. Raazer says:

    This is quite simply one of my all-time favorite games. I still remember the day I picked off the shelf the day it was released and the way it absorbed my life over the succeeding months. But yeah, the bugs were agonizing. And this was back in the day when, to get it patched, I had to call Microprose by phone and have them mail me a floppy disk with the patch. And of course the patches created more bugs and the need for more patches D: Imagine if it still worked like that!!

  15. Tom Servo says:

    I ignored Darklands back when it came out after hearing about all of the bugs. It sounds interesting though and I think I might just try it out, the game is $2.99 on GOG right now, can’t hardly go wrong with that.

  16. ResonanceCascade says:

    I picked this up when it released on GOG a while back, but I haven’t really delved into it much. It looks very interesting, but old RPGs generally require a time commitment that I just don’t have anymore. Hopefully I can squeeze it in.

  17. wengart says:

    GoG Winter sale is on now., and Darklands is on sale for 2$ and change if anyone is interested. It is listed as working on Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8), Mac OS X (10.6.8) and Linux (Ubuntu 14.04, Mint 17).

    link to gog.com

    link for the lazy

  18. blastaz says:

    Best rpg ever. Definitely a game that made me, even if I was about five at the time and had no right to understand it.

  19. Fitzmogwai says:

    My favourite Darklands memory was having a party of four women and watching their little stick-figures all taking their time to beat a bandit to death with flails.

  20. Person of Interest says:

    Sin’s articles have completely taken over my purchasing decision-making. I don’t buy many games, but I now own and am enjoying Sid Meier’s Covert Action and King of Dragon Pass. I’ll probably get Darklands too: the positive reinforcement from the comments section is too enticing.

    I didn’t play RPG’s in the 90’s: I was captivated by pretty graphics from Nintendo, id Software, and anyone who ported their game engine to Glide. I know I have some deficiencies in my gaming diet (P.Funk’s talk of a videogaming renaissance man resonates with me) and it feels so gratifying to finally fill in the gaps. And at $2-3 per game, it’s completely painless too.

    Keep ’em coming, Sin!

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Seconding that – that’s two games in the space of a few weeks gone from “I have never heard of it” to “I must have this”. You’re a very persuasive writer, Sin. Should be in marketing.

  21. Misha says:

    Sooo many, many things I’d like to say about how much I love this article and the game that it’s about, but I’ll spare you all or I’d never get done.

    I played it back when it came out, and it was epic. It is, to this day, the best RPG I’ve ever played, and I have spent every single year since then, and that’s a long time ago, wondering why on Earth nobody ever ran with that idea and made a worthy successor to it. I’ve recently picked up Mount and Blade (and added a mod to make it Medieval Europe instead of fantasy la-la-land) and am hoping that it will fill the void.

    I just don’t understand why nobody has gone with it. I have nothing against Magic and Dragons RPGs, I’ve played most of them and I love a lot of them, but why is it so impossible to find something like Darklands? I am, admittedly, fascinated with Medieval Europe, so I’m probably biased more than a little bit, but to me it is such a rich period, such a mother lode of material that it’s baffling to me why nobody has made an RPG that lets you live another life in that period. I mean, it’s pretty much the source material for every single RPG ever made, only with RPGs adding dragons, healing spells and demons with flames coming out their arses.

    How truly magical it would be to be able to “live” as a struggling noble, or a peasant, or a spearman conscripted during the War of the Roses, trying to survive in the 15th century with all of the added graphics, memory and overall capacity of today’s computers.

    It wouldn’t “just” be an escape from daily life to a fantasy world where anything can happen, it would be an escape to a different world that actually EXISTED once. It could even be educational AND fun at the same time!

    Please, make it happen.

    • Thankmar says:

      I would say, the healing spells, magic and the other stuff are sort of the “gaming” side of RPGs. What you describe sounds more like some historically correct Sims game. I don´t mean that as an insult, the style is different and would not fit well into the skill-and-stat-progression of RPGs, I think. With fantasy involved, there so much more room for interesting tactical combat choices because you are not bound by (pseudo)realism, I suspect thats why Darklands has its alchemy and monsters as well. But if you take away the combat, theres not so much left of RPG, even in the less combat-focused ones.
      But when I think about it, an open-worldly adventure with skillbased dialogue options set in a somewhat historically correct medieval setting sounds very promising.

    • Niko says:

      Hello, I’m writing from a parallel universe similar to your own, but slightly different in the way video game evolution went. Going to play Baudolino today – it’s an AAA game based on Umberto Eco’s novel by the same name. Cheers.

    • DuneCat says:

      I think you should check out Kingdom Come: link to kickstarter.com

  22. Grey_Ghost says:

    Great game! I used to keep a really old PC around just for playing Darklands. I would absolutely love a remastered version for modern PC’s.

  23. Oozo says:

    The games that made me, more than any others, are the ones in the Dark Eye trilogy.
    This article makes it sound like it could just as well have been Darklands, though. I’ll agree that I can’t help imagining an alternate timeline, where systems-driven RPG like those two (and maybe Ultima VII) have never been abandoned. I guess it would be a world where Ultima Online II has more players than WoW and it didn’t take Baldur’s Gate to revive the genre and pull it towards more and more fixed (albeit branching) narratives with huge voiceover budgets…

    Oh, well, let’s be honest: those would never be as popular. Still, as a lot of people have said here already: it’s somewhat baffling that there is not even one mid-tier developer trying to work on something along that line, and be it only a remake.

    Anyway, I have King of Dragon Pass and Darklands to check out now, so it’s not like I’ll be bored, anyway.

  24. Premium User Badge

    timzania says:

    I guess I’m late to the thread here, but if anyone reads this far down, I want to encourage you to play Darklands hardcore, as a roguelike, because the game is so well-designed to be played that way. Sure, there’s all this late-game content if you manage to get a good party going, but mostly it’s about sneaking past guards because you’re too poor to pay the city toll and then hoping to get into a fight with some thugs so that you can sell their clothing and clubs for a handful of copper pieces.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I suspect it says something about me as a gamer that I had assumed that was the default or possibly only option for playing Darklands – having not yet tried it myself. There are certain (many, possibly) types of game where having the option of rolling back any time you do anything wrong or have any kind of bad luck just ruins 90% of the enjoyment.

  25. bill says:

    Darklands was awesome (except the bugs)!

    I’m surprised to see so many commenters saying they hadn’t heard of it, I thought it was pretty well known. Maybe I’m old.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if they were soaying they’d heard of it but not palyed it.

    Speaking of the character creating system alone it’s baffling that no other games have done something like that.

    I keep meaning to see if it would work on a tablet on Dosbox. It seems like the pixelated graphics might be less of a hurdle on a smaller screen… if it’s controllable that is.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Regarding character creation, some games have. It’s at least been experimented with. Mount and Blade is a good example. System Shock 2 played with it a little. And though I haven’t played it yet, Deadnaut is an extremely recent release that seems to have a similar take on character generation.

  26. HallowedError says:

    Makes me think of most of the reasons I play Mount and Blade. Hm, might have to start that up now

  27. oceanclub says:

    Oh, Darklands. I’ve no idea why why I picked this up a few years ago on GOG.com, but for a very old game which I’d never played at release, it really hooked me. So much so I ended up writing the PCGamingWiki page for it and even doing a helper spreadsheet. I think a lot of the reasons why are covered in the article; despite being 22 years old, it’s still quite unique – both in the almost-reality setting and the game mechanics used. I keep it in Dropbox and once in a while still load it up and jaunt my merry way across Mittleeuropa….

    P.

  28. Haborym says:

    Battleaxes bounce off armor? Wat. But that’s exactly why they used battleaxes, to defeat plate armor. They were basically like giant can openers.