ⓘ Darklands (video game)
Darklands is a role-playing video game developed and published by MicroProse in 1992 for the PC DOS platform, and re-released on Gog.com with support for Windows, macOS, and Linux. Darklands is set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 15th century. While the geographic setting of the game is historically accurate, the game features many supernatural elements.
This type of gameplay is an early example of open world in role-playing video games. The player is free to complete quests that will give them a positive reputation, or to pursue a negative reputation by performing evil deeds. In Darklands the players reputation is limited geographically, allowing the player to be simultaneously hated in one region and exalted in another.
The setting for Darklands is medieval Europe as the inhabitants thought the world was at the time. All the cities that ones party may visit in the game are real places that existed in the Holy Roman Empire of the 15th century. Most are in modern-day Germany, but some are within the modern borders of other countries including Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. The city names given in the game are old German names of the cities, some of which are now exonyms; the new local names are given in parentheses.
There are no other species available in character creation - all players are human and are differentiated by occupation. Any party member is capable of performing what are known as class-based feats in many other role-playing games, but skillful players usually improve the party members skills only in the appropriate area. Thus, the equivalent of a cleric in this game would be someone who specializes in religious studies as well as healing skills. Because the character specializes in the above, however, does not preclude him or her from learning artifice skills, such as lock picking. Age is a factor, as characters will begin to lose physical prowess as they age. However, the older the player is when the character is generated, the more skills and better equipment he or she starts with.
While the majority of the game uses text-based menus - enhanced with hand-painted illustrations describing the player partys available actions, the partys movement between cities and during battle uses a graphical user interface. The real-time combat is dependent not only on the characters skills, but also the type and quality of weapons used against the enemy and its armor. For example, using swords against plate armored foes would be less effective than using hammers or maces.
The game is set in a historical fantasy version of medieval Europe, where monsters and magic actually exist. The plot is not linear and there is no set path for a player to follow.
However, there is a main quest to follow in order to finish the game, which involves hunting witches and heretics. Darklands ends once the final battle is completed against the demon lord Baphomet, preventing the apocalypse. Baphomet can be found in a castle in an obscure part of the game map which can only be found after finding and defeating the evil occupants of various other fortresses around the game, in which the party can find information which will point it to the final location. According to the official clue book for the game, the final battle location, as well as the location of some other quests in the game, is randomized at the start of each new game.
The games manual notes:
The Church portrayed in Darklands has no relationship to the modern Catholic Church. For the sake of game play we emphasized the miraculous. Modern Catholics should be justly proud of the Counter-Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s that cleansed the Church, sweeping ancient, superstitious baggage away, along with all sorts of daily evils and hypocrisy. Out of that has come a vigorous, healthy, and far more spiritual Church whose quiet role around the globe is more altruistic and beneficial than many imagine. Be assured that this game has no secret "hidden agenda" or religious message, and our apologies to anyone offended by a glimpse into one of the less attractive aspects of European religious history.
The region depicted in the game, Greater Germany, is not intended to be a justification for German expansion into neighboring countries, including Holland, France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The game only shows the political conditions and borders of that era, rounded off to a conveniently square map area. The history of this region is so complicated that suggesting a "rightful" owner to almost any territory is silly. Instead, we applaud the growing European attitude that problems are best managed by people living together in harmony, democratically, without racial or cultural bias.
The portrayal of witches, witchcraft, and the Templars in Darklands is based entirely on 15th Century ideas, from careful reading of primary and secondary sources. There are no covens, no nature ceremonies, no pre-Christian rites or worship of Diana. The witches here come from the "Malleus Maleficarum", the classic book about witchcraft, written in the late 1400s by two Dominican friars. The ultimate purpose of the Darklands witches is entirely in keeping with philosophies of that era, especially the recurring millenarian themes. Modern historians still debate whether witchcraft really existed as a cult in its own right, independent of the confessions extracted under torture by the Inquisition and various witch hunters. Some argue that the Inquisition, with its methods and beliefs, created the idea of witchcraft, which was then seized upon and believed by various desperate and/or unbalanced people. Others see satanic practices as activities of real extremists, the "lunatic fringe" of various heretical cults spawned by the transparent decadence of the medieval Church. Recently, some historians have suggested that since witchcraft was predominantly female, it was a relatively harmless "device" women used to redress the balance of power in a male-dominated society. A few go on to suggest this sometimes expanded into a cult of self-delusion, caused by using various natural, mind-altering drugs available at that time. Regarding the Templars, most historians feel they were "framed" by King Philips need for cash and betrayed by a captive Papacy at Avignon. Indeed, subsequent medieval investigations confirmed this, but by then the legend of satanic rites was well established.
Darklands took almost three years to make and cost three million dollars, which was a very large sum for video game development at the time. According to the manual, Darklands would have been impossible without the faith and vision of the management of MicroProse Software. We originally underestimated the time, complexity and cost of the project by a large factor. When development costs rose past the stratosphere, there was a great temptation to either give up or just publish whatever weve got, regardless of quality." An Amiga version of Darklands was considered but the game was judged as too large to be played from a floppy disk and the potential market of hard disk equipped Amigas was not large enough.
Darklands was released by MicroProse with a number of bugs, ranging from minor to major. These included many instances of what would now be called crash-to-desktop errors. Additionally, the "character colors bug" results in on-screen characters colors being replaced with random often bright colorings. Most of the bugs in the game were correctable by subsequently released patches. Before ubiquitous Internet connectivity, such patches were typically only available through BBS downloads by modem owners and informal person-to-person copying, and thus many people were only able to play the originally-released version. This gave Darklands a reputation as a buggy game.
At least one third-party commercial character editor was advertised for Darklands. Darklands was supposed to be a first entry in a series of games with related settings, but no follow-up was ever made; sales were not high enough to justify a sequel, and the game engine was not reusable. It was later re-released by GOG.com as a downloadable title. Tommo purchased the rights to this game and digitally publishes it through its Retroism brand in 2015.
Computer Gaming World in 1992 offered contrasting opinions. Scorpia liked the historical setting and use of religion but criticized Darklands repetitive encounters and - more seriously - many bugs and missing features, such as the inability to save within dungeons which, she reported, was a problem given the games instability. She concluded that "the game ultimately brings little or no satisfaction when finished." Johnny L. Wilson acknowledged the bugs and repetitive nature but emphasized that "I still like the game", citing the importance of skills and an "open-ended feel and an element of free-will that I havent previously experienced in a CRPG". In 1993, Scorpia called Darklands "perfect example of a fine idea. gone wrong" with a "horrible ending", and "not a recommended game".
Despite the bugs, the game was well received by other critics. It got 4 out of 5 stars in Dragon, which stated that Darklands "is a great adventure and is certainly one of the best multicharacter FRPGs weve had the delight to play. With well-drawn graphics, multiple quests, good character generation, and flexibility in play, the games detail is phenomenal." Alfred Giovetti writing for Compute! praised Darklands for the "multitude of choices you get, which surpass the complexity and historical accuracy seen in any other contemporary computer game" and that its "attention to detail is exemplary". The review concluded "MicroProse should be congratulated for a truly heroic effort in creating a game for sword, sorcery and history buffs." Darklands won the 1992 "PC Special Achievement Award" from Game Players magazine.
Retrospectively, GameSpot featured Darklands on their lists of "The Greatest Games of All Time". Todd Howard cited the game as an influence on Bethesda Softworks series The Elder Scrolls.