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Remembering Darklands

In last Thursday’s post about “realism in role-playing” a user asked the question, and I am paraphrasing,

“Bill, do you have any modern examples of your so-called perfect RPG?”

I sat there staring at that question and came to the answer: not really.

That forced my brainwaves to wander down another corridor to a door that read: ‘what game best represents the type of RPG you were yapping about?’

Again I sat there and all of the usual names popped in my head. The Baldur’s Gates, the KOTORs, Fallouts, The Witcher, Krondor, and classics like The Bard’s Tale, Ultima, even the truly classic Adventure Construction Set on the C-64. Pretty much the standard canon for a westernized RPG fan.

Then it hit me…

For a guy who was growing increasingly tired of Dungeons & Dragons and its over the top high fantasy style, two games helped redefine my thinking of what an RPG could be – one was the “pencil and paper” role-playing game Warhammer from Games Workshop, which at the time was far and away the greatest RPG of my generation (that and Cthulhu), and on the PC a game called Darklands from Microprose.

Darklands was released in the early 1990s; I was actually in college at the time and installed this monster on 16 3.5” disks and it ran a whopping 25 megs and I thought that was the biggest program on the planet (and it likely was close.)

If you never played this brilliant, yet admittedly terribly buggy game, let me lay out why this was such a revelation for me and also to help explain the style of game I was referring to in Thursday’s post.

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Darklands was set in 15th century Germany – the real Germany, only in this game world all of the traditional German folklore written/spoken at the time was very real. This includes creatures like the hermit Schrat, Rock Gnomes, Dwarfs (not the Tolkien kind), Kobolds, Dire Wolves, and so on. There were evil men such as powerful robber knights and thieves, but the biggest “evil” in the game were witches, demons, cultists, and other humans who were lured to the side of, well, Satan basically.

There was no spell casting in this game. You could still perform “magical” feats but it was through alchemy (hurling potions) and divine intervention (prayer). You wouldn’t see a dude with a staff with an eagle’s head walk up and say some words as “chain lightning” flew from his fingers. Not that I have anything against chain lightning but the way in which “mages” cast spells in most fantasy games seems too…easy.

Another neat part of Darklands’ design and something that I felt was borrowed from Warhammer, was that the characters weren’t labeled generically as “fighter”, “warrior”, “mage” or “ranger”. When you think about it, how silly is that?

Hey, “Ragnar”, what’s your job in life?

“I’m a ‘fighter.”

I never understood what the hell that even meant. The idea of being classified as a “mage” or a “warrior” is so generic and flat out boring. What do you DO?

In Warhammer I had characters who, before being thrust into the role of “adventurer” were nobles, pit fighters, herbalists, mercenaries, or town scribes. Maybe even a common footpad.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Darklands was the same way with its character creation. You guided your PCs from birth to the day that they decide to leave the mundane life and become adventurers. But what they DID in life was very, very important. Maybe one was a lifelong soldier? Perhaps a student or a monk or a nun? (Remember religion is a big deal in this setting). Monks could speak Latin, soldiers started with weapon bonuses, nuns were solid with various Saints, etc. –and that’s a small sample.

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In the end you started the game knowing more about your characters than you do in nearly all of the RPGs we play today.

The gameplay was a mix of several genres. You had the ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect – as there was a lot of reading in the game backdropped by lovely watercolor artwork. So for example when you were in a city you would be presented with several choices as to where you wanted to go. After choosing a destination either a new screen would pop up with more choices, or you might get attacked by thieves. But here’s another kicker – once you got powerful enough the thieves would notice this and decide that attacking you wasn’t too bright so they’d leave you be.

Wandering bands of thugs were a real problem in 15th century Europe, so this made perfect sense to me. You wouldn’t see an attack in broad daylight but once the sun went down it was a bad idea to wander – especially early in the game.

There was the open world map where you traveled around from city to city finding trouble to stir up, and unlike something like Oblivion – if you left your starting city you were going to die. No auto leveling here. It was tough out there in the wilds of Germany with all of the wolves and pagans running amuck and your merry band of a former monk, a nun, and a 40 year old ex-soldier wouldn’t last too long.

The combat portion which was pauseable real time which for 1992 was SO ahead of its time. Baldur’s Gate? Yep. It took a lot of ideas from Darklands.

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You could even RETIRE your aging characters once they reached a certain age ala Pirates. “John, you’re just too damn old for this life. Back to the smithy with you.”

I miss this style of game a great deal. There were so many aspects of Darklands that hit a real sweet spot with me – “realistic” setting, low/grim fantasy, dangerous (extremely dangerous) combat that was built into the core design and not by adjusting difficulty level, and an open world style of play that allowed for a lot of freedom without feeling lost.

There have been various attempts to “remake” the old girl, and you can even grab the game from various abandon ware sites, but when I spoke of realism in role-playing this is the type of game I was talking about: combat that made sense wrapped up in a believable world where gutting a man on the street was murder, characters didn’t try to sleep with every party member, and being an adventurer and leaving your mundane life behind was reason enough to play.

To get a better sense of what this game was like watch this 10 minute clip. It brings back a lot of memories of late night adventuring and missed Sociology exams.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

18 thoughts to “Remembering Darklands”

  1. Ok so we need someone to remake this. I’m too young to remember this game but damn Bill this sounds…amazing.

    Thanks for posting that vid, too.

  2. Was a classic, no doubt.

    I should also add that Todd mentioned a more ‘modern’ example to me even though it’s not straight up fantasy but Vampire: Bloodlines is another game I think fits this “realistic” criteria. Another (buggy) game that put you in a very, very believable world.

  3. That looks quite good actually! I am definitely going to try and get this from an abandonware site. Thanks Bill! I think it’s my comment you were referring to, or maybe not, I said something similar at least. Either way, I’ve always been rather bored with “High” fantasy. Imagining a high fantasy world is just too easy. If developers can’t explain something, they just say.. “It’s maaagic!” while waving their arms around in a mysterious way.

    It looks a tad complicated, especially for someone like me who is used to shiny modern user friendly interfaces. But I’ll manage.. I hope.

  4. Holy crap, I forgot about this game…wow. Yeah, it was really cool…

    I am ALL ABOUT low/grim fantasy. The lower and grimmer the better. To hell with elves, orcs, and all of that post-Tolkein garbage. Give me a game based on Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Or more like Torment.

    This is one of the reasons I LOVE Demon’s Souls. It’s utterly, unremittingly grim. It’s not the hippie/renaissance faire trash that masquerades as fantasy. I mean, I like some high fantasy (see: Dragon Age II review) but I’m much more interested in the Howardian take on it than the Tolkeinian one.

    As for the class issue…one thing I’m really interested in with Skyrim is how it supposedly allows the player to effectively generate a “class” through playing the game. you don’t say “I AM A MAGE” and go from there…if you use spells, train in magic, and mess with herbs you develop those skills. It’s a more interesting idea than having these absolute choices.

  5. Yep that was you and I appreciated the question. Good luck getting DL to run (I have no idea if it will). If you do I think you’ll like it, even 20 years after the fact. So many forward thinking design choices in that game.

  6. One of my favorite RPGs of all time. The “final battle” (because you could keep adventuring) was damned hard, and I never saw the dragon that is allegedly in the game.

    It was repetitive, no doubt. The robber baron battles were all pretty much the same, for example, but a lot of modern RPGs owe their ideas to Darklands. Like the Elder Scroll games, for example, the most reliable way to upgrade your skills is to use them. You will never be a good marksman if you don’t use it in battle, but practicing on live targets and sucking could get your party killed.

    Great, great game.

  7. There was a dragon in Darklands?!

    Holy cow I didn’t know that.

    And yes, that final fight was a real bear. I remember the first time I “discovered” the secret coven meeting. Totally awesome.

  8. As for the current days:

    Odds of a similarly innovative game getting a greenlight with a decent (though not extravagant) budget – zero.

  9. My GOD Darklands! I loved this game! I was a young kid when I played this, couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven, but I played this game nearly constantly. I was awful, but it was so much fun! I actually think it was this game that helped instill a life long love of history. I remember that when I started playing it was about the time that the Beatles Anthology 2 disk came out, the album with the track Fool on the Hill. I’d play Fool on the Hill on repeat ONLY when I was playing Darklands, and till this day whenver I hear that song I think about scouring the German wilderness.

    I would do ANYTHING to play this game on my mac now. I’m to dumb to figure it out myself, but I can’t think of anything that would bring me greater joy. Thanks so much for posting this!

  10. Bloodlines was a great example of how you couldn’t just “attack” random people in the street without repercussions. I remember spending a lot of time crouching in the sewers because I misjudged whether or not someone could see me.

    Another game that I think is great for the grim fantasy — also having one of my favorite stories — is Planescape: Torment. It does include some of the tropes that you complained about, but most (if not all) are explained within the context of the setting.

  11. Actually, this blog post made me fire it up tonight. You need DOSBox to get it to run, but it runs fine (need to turn XMS=false in your DOSBox config or the game crashes when you go into combat). I didn’t get the music nor the sound to work but I didn’t fiddle with it either.
    If you can find it, make sure you get the damn manual! First of all, you will need it – this ain’t some sissy consolized game made for the masses! This is a hard-core, old-school game – no tool-tips or hand-holding here!
    Second, the manual is excellent reading material all by itself. You may actually learn something about 15th Germany unless you are careful.
    And Bill, 16 disks? No. More like 10 (I still have them all, even though I haven’t owned a floppy drive in years and years). Still a lot, but less than Ultima VII

  12. I think I have this box version somewhere in storage. prolly stateside. I just remember the map that came with it was worth the buy.

    too many hours spent on this gem.

    12 MB that’s less than a sound file or a glove in today’s games.

  13. Thank you so much for reminding me of this game. I like to think of scraping together my pfennings for the better equipment and potion ingredients, not to mention venturing out of town for the first time and getting gored to death by wild boars!

  14. Well, after much fidgeting and messing around I got it running on my 64bits system. It involved installing windowsXP on a virtual machine. It’s quite an interesting game. It took me a while to find my way around how it works and such(Died many, many times), but this is going to keep me busy for the rest of the weekend at least! Once again thanks for the excellent recommendation.

  15. Darklands was one of my all time favorite RPGs and illustrates nicely what I would like to see in modern day games. I spent hours playing Darklands with Roger Waters’ Amused to Death playing basically on loop. I miss Microprose.

  16. Hey you’re welcome. I’m glad to hear you got it working.

    Based on the comments here it’s cool to know I’m not alone in lovin’ some Darklands.

    And yes, it’s a tough game to get started because combat is really, really dangerous in that game.

  17. I just want to say that Darklands is in my top ten of my all-time best games list.

    I’ve never even reached the “final encounter”. I did kill a dragon though; that was baller.

  18. easy peasy to play on ur mac.

    I have a copy i have played on my dosbox no prob. look for some abandonware site or get buy a cheap copy somewhere.

    funny it’s easier to get running now then it was during the XP years

    I also never found the dragon… do I have patience (read: time) to do all that crawling again? unbloodylikely!

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