5/3 – Darklands

Hello and welcome. My name is Katosepe and I’ll be your host for today’s Video Game of the Day.

Today is our penultimate episode of DOS week so let’s go with one of my personal favorite DOS games that many have likely never heard of. Today’s game is Darklands, developed by MPS Labs and published by MicroProse in 1992.

Darklands puts players in the 15th century, right in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire, what is now Germany. While the game takes place in the real world, during a real time period, based on real events, it is maybe best described as realistic based on the understanding of people of the time. For example, a cleric may not have really had the ability to magically heal someone of illness in reality but people believed they did so in Darklands, they can.

The gameplay is a class-based RPG system similar to Might and Magic or Wizardry. Players start in a tavern and must assemble their party by gathering people of various abilities and skills. Towns are navigated through very in-depth menus and text-based choices, with hand-drawn artwork of each area in the backgrounds. For example, in the tavern, you are not able to move your character but you can order food or a room for the night, ask other customers for information about the world or quests they may be able to undertake, leave to enter the main city streets or slink off down a side street. The choices are numerous but almost exclusively are presented through text.

The two exceptions to this text-based approach are battles and the world map. Battles are presented in tactical maps and fights occur in real-time with pausing available for commanding units. Functionally, it works similarly to games such as Baldur’s Gate or Pillars of Eternity. Once players leave towns, they are presented with a world map where they can travel across the open world to any number of other cities or locales.

Darklands is an early example of open-world RPGs and was heavily inspired by tabletop RPGs as a method of storytelling. Character deaths are permanent and relatively frequent, requiring players to go back to a tavern to recruit new party members. The story is entirely non-linear and requires player exploration to even find. The game starts off with the characters simply agreeing to journey together for glory without any real purpose or direction. It is up to the player to find their quests and story.

Darklands released to remarkably mixed reviews. Some critics, like Dragon Magazine, loved it, calling it one of the best RPGs they’ve ever played while other critics, like Computer Gaming World hated it, calling it a great idea gone wrong. Even in retrospective reviews, some outlets, like Gamespot, have listed it as one of the greatest games of all time while others find it too buggy and confusing to even start. Still, it would go on to influence many game developers, including Todd Howard, who lists it as one of the major influences of The Elder Scrolls series. I was unable to find sales figures but despite the mixed reviews, the game did receive a CD-ROM re-release in 1995 and, almost two decades after it was originally released, the game was picked up and re-released on GOG and Steam where it can still be purchased and played today on Windows, Mac and Linux.

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