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Darklands (PC)

Though knights could be strong, they weren't always noble.
When most of us think of a fantasy role-playing game, we think of elves, dwarves, and trolls clashing swords and casting spells in a setting that's only vaguely medieval. Although Darklands was released by Microprose back in 1992, it has remained unique as the one game that's gone back to the source of fantasy conventions to weave its setting directly from medieval myths and legends. Instead of painting a rosy picture of the middle ages, the game's world condensed all the things that might have filled the nightmares of a commoner in medieval Germany, from robber knights and corrupt bishops to witches, faeries, and dragons. This concept opened the door for tweaks to gameplay conventions. For example, instead of channeling magic directly, like a Dungeons & Dragons wizard or cleric might, the game's arcane arts revolved around alchemy and praying to saints for direct intervention.

Would you like to see more RPGs based on real history?

Yes, that sounds pretty interesting
No, I'll take Dungeons & Dragons any day

Darklands innovated in ways beyond its setting. The character-creation system was skill-based, but it had a twist--in five-year blocks, you chose the professional path that a character took before joining your band of adventurers, and each choice imparted costs and benefits as well as a background history. Additionally, most encounters in your adventure allowed for multiple choices, depending on your band's skills. To gain access to one of the game's many walled towns, you might rely on your good reputation, bribe a guard, pray to a saint, or wind your way through the sewers. When you did find yourself in combat or routing a knight from his castle, there was an isometric real-time tactical system that worked quite well.

Despite the fact that the game's manual hinted at plans to extend a series of games into related settings, like medieval Russia, Microprose never released a follow-up game. Microprose is now owned by Infogrames, which now owns the license to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, so it's not too likely that the publisher will create a role-playing game outside of that established setting. But we could imagine how modern 3D technology might allow for further expansion of Darklands' open-ended design. The combination of a rich setting, story-based missions, and an open world to explore would be at least as compelling now as it was a decade ago.

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