Over the years, there have been many RPGs. Definitely more than five. Perhaps even ten. Every now and again we’re going to dig into the archives to take a look at one from when the ink was still dry on the Elder Scrolls. First up, Drakkhen [Wikipedia page], one of the more unusual games that I was never very successful at back in the 80s. But goodness, what a memorable half hour to fail at.
Now, I never actually bought this game. Back in the 80s, at least in the UK, there was a company called Special Reserve that pioneered – and by that I mean, was basically the only company to get away with – the idea of games retail as a club. If you wanted to order from them, you had to become a member. This would give you slightly better prices than you’d find elsewhere (or so it seemed), access to one of the biggest catalogues of games at a time when PC games not by Infocom were rarer than hen’s teeth, and in my experience, games arriving about three sodding months after being ordered. Not that I’m still bitter about that today or anything.
At the time though, it was a pretty good experience. You got free games for signing up, plus regular newsletters that I’m sure were terrible but at the time were always fun to receive. Here my memory gets a mite fuzzy, so do correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember that Special Reserve had two clubs – its main one, and Official Secrets, whose magazine was called “Confidential” and focused far more on my kinds of games. Adventures and RPGs and other things that made you feel properly grown-up while sucking on free Zool promoted Chupa-Chups. Sadly, Official Secrets wasn’t long for this world, and soon enough there was only a much crappier mag called NRG.
Yes, it was exactly as 90s as it sounds.
Anyway, when I signed up, I got a ‘free’ copy of Drakkhen, along with the Amiga version of Myth, a crappy little mini-game made specially for it by Magnetic Scrolls. I was promised a PC replacement. It never arrived. Again, not bitter. Really. Especially after eventually playing it. It was Not Good.
So what this meant was that I had a copy of Drakkhen and absolutely no idea what Drakkhen was. This was pre-internet. I’d never seen a review of it, and at the time games either did well enough that mags never shut up about them, or were mentioned exactly once before fading into obscurity. It was a mystery wrapped in… well, a very nice shiny box, actually. Gold text! With a novella inside!
(Certainly better than this awful, awful alternate one…)
I remember the novella about as well as the game itself, telling the story of a stupid knight who kills the last of the dragons and in doing so dooms the world. As far as I can tell it has exactly nothing to do with anything until the last five seconds, which is actually a power-struggle between very much still alive dragons over magic gems and such, but never mind. I particularly remember in quite vivid detail the bit where he returns to collect his prize for being Mr. Hero, only to find himself instead becoming Mr. Limbs Chopped Off And Fed To The Hounds once the king hears. It’s a warm memory from the days when novellas were linked to their source by title, and basically title alone.
(My other favourite from the time was the Starglider one, which pretended the game’s wireframe graphics were actually a super-advanced tactical display way better than seeing solids. Nice try.)
But to the game! Not having had any idea what the game was going to be, this was incredible. Well, it was also the CGA version, but I’ll spare your eyes that in favour of these lovely EGA graphics instead. Most of the RPGs that I’d played up to this point had been either spent in dark dungeons, peering through tiny windows, or viewed from far on high with pretty much no animation.
This? This was a full 3D world! Open! You could see the sun and everything! If you wanted to turn around and run back the other way, you could! Or you could run over to the right and try to get to those mountains! You wouldn’t be able to of course, but you could still try – and nothing could take that away from you! (He laughed hollowly, in bitter tones of foreshadowing…) There’s even day and night changes as you wander around, slowly shifting from one to the other. Pretty cool early on!
So yes, Drakkhen was impressive. But oh goodness, it was brutal. This is where you start: right in front of a faintly ominous looking castle. That’s where you meant to go, but even so it’ll happily throw in random enemies the very second the game starts and not necessarily your usual Level 1 trash. If it throws a scorpion in your path, you may as well just restart the game right there and then.
Then you actually get to the castle, and…
HE HAS A SHARK. A DRAGON WITH A SHARK. THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.
And not only are we attacking a dragon protected by a shark, making him just one grinding chord away from being the most metal RPG character ever, that shark is a straight-up monster. You not only can’t kill it, you have to precisely time your run, a bit like getting under the Marshmallow Man’s legs in the 8-bit Ghostbusters games, or he straight-up one-hit destroys your guys.
I’m not even sure what you have to precisely time. The shark will kill you even if it’s under the drawbridge, has swum round, has just gone past… the only faint, faint mercy is that you only have to get one character past it to get everyone into the castle. It’s still very easy to get a total party wipe.
Actually go wandering off into the wilds and you… there’s no other way to put it. You die. You die horribly. There’s no real tactics behind the combat either, just flicking it on and realising that you’ve accidentally gone questing with the Quiche Awareness Board’s LARP group. They’re just pathetic at the start of the game, outmatched by just about everyone, and that includes bodies of water. Accidentally dip a toe in a puddle – and look at this field of view, it’s hard not to – and your guys start drowning until you pull them back to land. Morons! Total morons! Begone!
Step out of the part of the map you’re supposed to be in, and Drakkhen really stops messing around. Particularly dramatic are these crossroad markers thrown in to punish childish notions like ‘running down the road’. Bump into them, and Cerberus here pops up to explain the error of your ways. Even later on in the game, these things are crushingly powerful. At least they’re also easily avoided.
Inside the castles things become a bit more adventure style, with some actually quite nice backgrounds and a fair few puzzles – flicking switches to close off magic fields, enemies bursting in if you trespass in the wrong areas, and if you’re lucky, meetings with the Drakkhen Princes, all of them with names that sound like Klingons desperate for throat-sweets. Hazhulkha. Haaggkha. Hordkhen. Nakkhtkha. You spend much of the game just delivering messages to each of them, which inevitably means fighting through their home security systems, before discovering that your real goal is to collect the magic tears in their foreheads to bring magic back to your own world.
Now, personally, I query their honesty here. The entire plot in the PC version is kicked off with the death of the last dragon, who in fairness to him, was actually quite a gentleman in the novella. A bit like Dragon Heart, I remember, only genuinely surprised that his vanquisher decided to finish the job instead of just taking the treasure. There’s no real explanation though for how this whole other island full of the buggers came to be, but you’d better believe that the finale involves them both saving the world and adding rather pointedly “Now quit killing dragons, you assholes. Seriously!”
I like to think that they’re just taking advantage of the situation, not least because they don’t even blink at crushing your entire party without so much as a hello. As well as the Princes and Princesses mostly being pricks, the casual explorer will soon encounter giant flashing arrows sitting on the ground. “Come to us,” they whisper. “We’re interesting. We’re- Ha! Dragon in your face!“
Needless to say, I never got particularly far in this game back in the day, and looking at the walkthroughs of it now, I can’t say I’m entirely sorry. I like my RPGs a lot more narrative driven, and the occasional inn where local humans will spread gossip and point you to things of interest really don’t help all that much. I’m told that once you get past a certain point you hit the usual rolling-rock of power and the second half especially gets pretty straightforward, but… well, no. A game that expects you to check the manual just to see what your magic spells are in nonsense-letters is a game that’s probably not worth ploughing through to see what the ending’s like. (Though it’s like this!)
Instead, most of my time with Drakkhen was spent staring at one thing… the death screen. And goodness, is it a doozy. Generally these things will end on something like a skull, a casual mutter that “Your party has been defeated” or somesuch. Not Drakkhen though. Drakkhen really rubs it in.
…P.S. Game Over.