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Video Game / Darklands

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Darklands is a Wide-Open Sandbox and Role-Playing Game by MicroProse, released in 1992 for DOS. Its most defining trait (there are many) is that it is set in 15th-century Central Europe, and turns real-world cultural lore and even religion into a background story.

In Darklands, an adventuring group of four characters sets out from very humble beginnings to make a name for themselves and (potentially) save the world from the dark forces of The Devil. The game aspires towards realism with its unique setting - the late medieval Holy Roman Empire - allowing the characters to visit many cities across renaissance-era Germany, Denmark, Poland, and Switzerland. Your characters wear armor and use weapons that did indeed exist during this era (including inefficient but deadly handguns!). They spend much of their time battling brigand-lords, sucking up to the clergy, and running errands for civilian organizations such as the Hanseatic League. They can work for a living, struggle to maintain a decent reputation, and perform many other mundane activities that most RPGs simply take for granted.

On the flip-side, the world of Darklands incorporates real-world mythology as de-facto reality. Alchemy actually works, so the staple "Wizard" class character is replaced by an Alchemist who concocts various and potentially dangerous potions from alchemical materials. Christian saints can actually bless your teammembers if you pray to them, so a "Cleric" must be a pious man versed in the properties and abilities of dozens of different saints. Monsters are taken right out of Central-European medieval lore, including gargoyles, dwarves, witches, and even the occasional dragon, along with more exotic fare such as the schrat, the holzfrau, and the dangerous Wild Hunt.

Darklands is perhaps one of the more hard-core RPGs out there, a fact that becomes apparent as early as the character creation menu. Instead of freely assigning points to skills, the player must build up each character's background, past career choices and life experiences, which in turn set a hard limit on how those points can be distributed. There are about two dozen skills in total, making it difficult to create a party that covers all of them adequately; and each skill has a major impact on at least one important aspect of the game. Survival is tough, especially because the game doesn't scale down encounters; If you're not careful, you can easily run into enemies that are far too powerful for your party to defeat. Magical weapons are extremely rare, so you can expect to play most of the game with just the "mundane" weapons of the period - but this nevertheless includes a vast array of weapons and armor, each with its own advantages and drawbacks to consider.

Despite many bugs and other issues with its original release, Darklands managed to stay popular with hard-core RPG gamers over the years, and is remembered very fondly even by players who didn't manage to get very far in the game. It should be noted that, for the most part, the game is a Wide-Open Sandbox with virtually no mandatory objectives. With so many different things to do and places to visit, finishing the game becomes almost an afterthought. Even if you do manage to complete the very long main quest, the game never really ends; Characters slowly age out and retire, and can freely be replaced at any time with fresh recruits. Though the game keeps track of the passage of time, the setting itself never moves past the 15th century.

Darklands is currently available as a digital download on Unfortunately, while there have been many calls from the fanbase to remake the game, these calls go unanswered. A sequel was originally planned, but scrapped early on. It remains to be seen whether another developer will pick up this very, very heavy gauntlet.

This work contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Alchemy Is Magic: There're no magical spells in the game not counting the Black Magic of witches and demons, but characters can practice alchemy, buy and trade recipes, obtain ingredients, and brew many, many potions.
  • All Trolls Are Different: Schrat and Holzfrau. Pagan and violent, but they'll reward you if you help them.
  • And the Adventure Continues: After stopping the apocalypse! The party is always free to continue adventuring. Some players report repeating each quest, including the main one, multiple times.
  • Anti-Grinding: The party can rent a room and find tutors to visit the inn and teach them many valuable skills, but staying in one place for too long will decrease their local reputation, eventually forcing the heroes to leave the city or have trouble with the law.
  • Armor Is Useless: If a weapon's Penetration value is higher than an armor's thickness value, it will punch straight through it, doing full damage. This means that there is very little use for Leather or Padded Armor, as almost all weapons will simply ignore them. Even Studded Leather and Cuirboulli (hardened leather) are only really useful against back alley thugs and other very low-grade enemies.
  • Automaton Horses: Possibly, one of many things left unfinished.
    • Horses don't need to rest or be fed, but then again, neither do the heroes.
    • The party speed seems to be determined by the best horse in your possession. There are mules, pack horses, war horses... But just a single fast horse is enough for four knights in plate armour and a ton of spare weapons.
    • There are no mounts in combat mode. The outcome of jousting during Random Encounters and the trials of the main quest is determined solely from characters' statistics.
    • Effectively, a horse is a somewhat cumbersome item sold at inns that increases speed outdoors.
  • Awesome, but Impractical:
    • Some character classes are simply not going to be usable by the average PC. A prime example is the Village Schulz; you need to have both been a peasant and taken an upper-class job at some point, which means the youngest you can realistically start the job is at 35note , and at that point you should be ready to go adventuring.
    • The Battle Axe looks badass and can do massive damage... if your opponent isn't wearing metal armour. It also strikes rather slowly.
    • Handguns and crossbows are powerful and good at piercing armour, but painfully slow to reload.
    • The Giant Cudgel looks intimidating, makes a mockery of armour and does good damage, but strikes very slowly and is very heavy, which can potentially slow a character's attack speed down even further.
    • Flails look cool and do decent damage, but strike very slowly. Impact weapons like maces and hammers are simply more efficient.
  • Baphomet: He's the Big Bad and final boss, who's planning to take over the world. Take Your Time, though, the game is more about exploring the Wide-Open Sandbox than getting to the credits.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Sometimes a defeated witch, trying to save her life, offers you a boon of your choice. Hint: do not ask for "unnatural strength".
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: Holzfrauen look like attractive women. The men of their species look like sasquatches.
  • Boring, but Practical:
    • The Shortsword is the plainest-looking sword, but don't let that fool you. It may not do much damage, but it strikes very quickly, and is surprisingly good at penetrating armour. Only plate armor provides very good protection against it, but a) few enemies wear it and b) there are alchemical preparations that can make edged weapons much better at penetrating armor.
    • The standard one-handed Mace is also better than it might look at first because it strikes much faster than the heavier Impact weapons and is still good at penetrating all but plate armour.
    • Unless your opponent is wearing chain, brigandine or plate armour, the Shortbow is better than any other bow. Why? It shoots quicker than any of them, and does the same amount of damage. In addition, it's *much* cheaper.
    • Javelins. Even if they do not do any significant damage, they are very cheap and can be used against weaker enemies to raise your throwing skill, which becomes very useful later in the game.
  • Breakable Weapons: Weapons don't deteriorate during usual fighting, but alchemical fire and other supernatural causes such as dragon's breath and demonic fire can lower their quality. Also, weapons taken from enemies lose part of their quality.
  • Burn the Witch!: Averted. When you defeat and capture a witch during a special encounter, you get many options to deal with her, but killing is not one of them.
  • Church Militant: Party members with a clerical background would be this. The Knights Templar are also powerful enemies in this game. During a random encounter, the local bishop may demand a special tithe for the right to travel his lands. Should the party refuse and attack, he will fight them along his retinue.
  • Conveniently Placed Sharp Thing
  • Copy Protection: Required to adventure outdoors, interesting in that it is based on real alchemical symbols so it is possible for a student of medieval/renaissance alchemy to not need it.
  • Corrupt Church: Maybe not exactly corrupt, but the Catholic Church is, in general, presented as a rather mercantile enterprise, with monks expecting "donations" in return for vital medical aid, library access or tuition services, bishops collecting special tithes off everyone they pass on the roadway, and wandering monks literally cursing people who refuse to pay up. To add insult to injury, just in case you get the idea to tell the racketeers where to stick it, kicking a priest's ass for any reason will lower your Virtue.
    • You can reason with most of them, if your Virtue and knowledge of religion is high enough, and talk them out of taking your money, but this requires a lot of training.
  • Covers Always Lie: The intro features a gargoyle peeping at a witch creating a glowing game title. The box art is the same witch and title. Somewhere in the game you may meet some winged monsters and witches (who have no cool spells and just throw potions), but that's about that.
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: You can start to try digging with a spoon right after getting arrested. With luck, it takes about a week of game time to reach side streets.
  • Darkest Hour: The final boss destroys all of the items that are supposed to prevent the apocalypse and has the characters at his mercy.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Virtue, ethics and religion are based on fifteenth-century Christian standards. Accordingly, sometimes your traveling brotherhood needs to bow down to corrupt nobles and greedy clerics, and anyone who's not a Christian is a baby-killing worshiper of Satan (Not Hyperbole). Also, Hussites are presented as dangerous heretics.
  • Demon Slaying: Since they are the God's own champions, the heroes are supposed to destroy hell's spawn whenever they encounter it. The easiest way to do it is to find a Satanic village, defeat its inhabitants and find their unholy altar. Ironically, summoning the demon may be even harder than actually defeating it, especially when you party has low non-combat skills.
  • Developer's Foresight: When they have time to implement it.
    • If all characters are illiterate, they need to ask for help to read notices in a city. Therefore, they can't read anything at night. However, illiteracy isn't an obstacle to solve written puzzles in mines.
    • You need to abandon horses to sneak into/out of a city over a wall or through a sewer.
    • At a glance all cities seem quite simple. Central street, side street, town hall, marketplace, inn. Maybe also slums, docks and a grove. But falling into bad ways may lead you to places most games ignore. Let's say you got caught violating the curfew and did not bribe the patrol. Now you may try seeking sanctuary in a church. Or try various ways of sneaking out of the city. Or if you lost a fight with guards, you can try breaking out of prison. Or fight your way to freedom during your torture or execution. Or use stowed alchemical potions and ask saints for help...
    • Along that line, if you have no female party members, you cannot seduce the warden.
    • If that fails, the heroes may be rescued at the last moment by intervention of Holy Church, bankers or just a mob of grateful citizens.
  • Dirty Coward: When laying siege to a raubritter's castle, the party may try to challenge him to a duel. However, a failed skill check will just make him laugh at the heroes and then he will send more henchmen to the field.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Averted. Having good fame, and good reputation for a city/town, give advantages.
    • Hanseatic League representatives can play it straight slamming the door in your face, when they no longer need you.
  • Dug Too Deep: Sometimes, mines will dig deeply enough to encounter hostile dwarves and kobolds. Sometimes it's the dwarves who dug too deep and had to retreat to the upper mines, kicking humans out in the process.
  • Eats Babies: During the Sabbat, a witch is getting ready to cook unbaptised babies. You can sabotage this feast most foul by baptising the babies when nobody is looking.
  • Emergency Weapon: If you have no weapon equipped, the game assumes you have a small knife. As you can imagine, it's a very weak weapon. On the bright side, it never gets damaged or broken.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: You're trying to avert it.
  • The Evils of Free Will: At certain points a demon-possessed can be recognized by the phrase:
    We [...] follow the scriptural sayings, especially ' shall be as the gods, knowing good from evil.'
  • Expansion Pack: Several were planned, adding more territories, like Mediterranean or Russia, but never materialized. Descriptions of some saints include additional bonuses they can give in specific countries, you cannot visit.
  • Explosive Results: When the party alchemist fails preparing a batch. This may injure people and may damage or destroy some equipment. If the party was camping in the wilderness, a large explosion attracts bandits or the landowner, and the party has to relocate. If at a hamlet, it may burn to the ground, but the locals would be none the wiser. If it doesn't burn, the party is kicked out first thing next morning. If in the city, the party reputation suffers. If in the inn, they may have to pay for damages or become wanted fugitives.
  • Fantastic Catholicism
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Averted. You can get your hands on some brass "handguns". They're VERY expensive, and only useful for hitting heavily-armored opponents, where a bow or crossbow may fail to penetrate. They take ages to reload, so after the first shot it's likely that you won't be able to shoot again for the whole battle.
  • Game-Breaking Bug: According to a developer interview, the release was rushed, and in early versions memory leaks damaged save files, broke mid-game quests and made the main quest unwinnable.
  • Giant Spider: One of the random enemy types.
  • Global Currency: Lampshaded. The game deals in Florins, Groschen and Pfennig, but the manual points out that several other denominations were minted, that coins would often vary in value due to metal content, that merchants in one town might not take coins that had the rival town's marks on them, and that a stable, truly universal currency like the one in the game would have been a dream for most people in the period, but they did things this way for simplicity's sake.
  • Guest-Star Party Member: Possible under very specific circumstances. Also it is possible to recruit a village's schultz. For example if you take his quest to slay a robber baron, he may join you for the duration of the quest. But since there seems to be no time limit...
  • Holy Roman Empire: The setting.
  • Historical Fantasy: Set in our own 15th century in Germany, with the fantastic elements derived from period superstitions and folklore.
  • Hope Spot: The final boss tries to induce this, but sticking to hope beyond all reason will break him.
  • Karl Marx Hates Your Guts: Averted, it is possible to make a profit through trading and good bargaining, and the party can work ordinary jobs for a stable income.
  • Karma Houdini: When your characters become imprisoned, they may may be ask a priest for help and be released, if only their Virtue is high enough. This happens even if they were put into prison for slaughtering dozens of city guards.
  • Knights and Knaves: Most puzzles in dwarven mines are either that or mathematical rebuses.
  • Low Fantasy: It may not be "as low as it goes", but this is a game set in 15th century Europe, with no magic (except Alchemy and Religion), and an ample emphasis on mundane activities.
  • Magic Potion: Characters can buy and trade alchemical recipes, obtain ingredients, and brew potions whose effects can range from buffing allies to creating explosions.
  • Mana: The game has no spells as such and no spell points, but the way saints work is close enough. When characters pray to a saint for help they spend "Divine Favor" (DF) points when the miracle is performed. DFs regenerate over time to a maximum of 99. To speed up the regeneration the character can spend a day praying for DF instead of working or studying.
  • Moon Logic Puzzle: The dwarf puzzles are normally straight logic, but sometimes get into this. Guide Dang It! can result when the dwarves screw up.
  • Mugging the Monster: As the party increases in power, many of the random encounters become this. It is even possible to intimidate some of the bandits into running away. A well-built party can easily dispose of common muggers at the very start.
  • Never Learned to Read: All player characters have 'Read & Write' skill, and characters with 0 in this skill cannot read nor write at all. Being able to read confers a significant advantage in certain situations. As befitting the era, clergymen tend to have high value in this skill, whereas everyone else... not so much.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: One random encounter has a Holzfrauen being attacked by the Wild Hunt. If you decide to rescue the wild man, you get his thanks and then each night the Horned Hunter comes out to attack you until you discover the name of the appropriate saint to drive him away for good. This makes for an extremely tedious experience.
  • No Stat Atrophy: Very averted. Characters accumulate penalties with age, most noticeable when creating a character older than 30 years. However, a year takes quite a lot of game time, and it is easy for a 20 year old character to peak at their specialty skills in 3 or so years, long before age penalties kick in. There are also some encounters and traps that drain your stats permanently.
  • Now, Where Was I Going Again?: There is no quest log. Heaven help you if you don't write your quests down, or leave the game for a while.
    • Not long after the release of the game, someone made a DOS-based tool that reads the game file, analyzes it, and prints out a list of all the quests you're currently on. It's still available, and usually comes bundled with abandonware downloads of Darklands today.
  • Obviously Evil: Satanic villages are not very subtle.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: They are apocalyptic monsters, who shall sleep until the end of the world. The ones you meet were woken by human hubris or stupidity. Unlike humans (and most supernatural creatures), who can be satisfied, dragons embody the principle "appetite comes with eating". They cannot be appeased — anything they get only inflames their desire for more. Part of the puzzle is persuading peasants to stop giving tribute to a dragon, while not letting the dragon get the tribute.
  • Our Gargoyles Rock: Gargoyles show up as a rare enemy you can encounter in the wilderness. They fly very fast and have a very good armor rating thanks to their stony skin.
  • Patriotic Fervor: While travelling through Bohemia, your party may encounter a group of Hussite rebels. When they identify your heroes as ethnic Germans, things may get very violent very soon, although, typically for the game, there are several options to avoid bloodshed if you can use certain skills or a saintly intervention.
  • Politically Correct History: Only three professions are forbidden to women, specifically friar, priest and bishop (and most male PCs will never get those jobs either). Women can become knights, soldiers or students as easily as males.
    • Jewish population is completely absent from the game, even in large cities, and nobody ever mentions them. The only exception are the few names in German, like Judenmarkt (Jewish Market).
  • Purely Aesthetic Gender: Mostly played straight, but there're some aversions: for example, at least one saint grants her miracle only if there's at least one female character in the party. Also some miracles have different benefits depending on the character's gender, and only males can be friars, priests or bishops.
  • Rags to Riches: It's possible for a commoner to work their way up the ranks into the nobility during character generation, though it takes years of dedicated work either as a soldier or a cleric. Working your way up to be a wealthy merchant is only slightly easier.
  • Real-Time with Pause: During combat, this is practically essential... mostly due to a clunky interface.
  • Religion is Magic: There're no spellcasting priests, but learning about different Saints and praying for miracles is an important part of gameplay. Each character has the Virtue stat which may be improved by performing good deeds (according to the teachings of the 15th century Catholic Church). High Virtue allows to call more powerful saints and influence the clergy.
  • Revenue-Enhancing Devices: You'll want the cluebook, trust me. (Fortunately, it's available in scanned PDF if you know where to look—or as part of the Good Old Games extras package, if you want to go that route.)
  • Saintly Church:
    • The saints only answer your calls if you're a virtuous soul (something of a double standard, given that most of the church representatives you meet are quite corrupt).
    • In general, the village pastors are decent people who live to save souls. Unless the village is secretly Satanist.
    • If you attack a pious feudal lord who enjoys holy blessing, your party may get mind-controlled and walked away from his land; also you lose some Virtue. Since robber barons are an overwhelming majority, it's easy to make a mistake.
  • Savage Wolves: A possible random encounter in the countryside. They can be particularly dangerous for an inexperienced party, as they attack in packs and are very fast.
  • Shout-Out: Baphomet almost quotes William Blake when he is defeated: "The stench of blood makes sick the heavens, ghosts glut the throat of hell...the dark religions are departed, and sweet nature reigns"note .
  • Shown Their Work: Both history and legend are extensively researched, particularly the latter.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: The military hammer is very good at bashing through armour and strikes quite quickly, allows you to use a shield, and is very light to boot!
  • Stat Grinding: There are no classes or levels, and the only way to improve skills is through practice. Although, the opportunity to practice combat skills is much easier to find. On the other hand, teachers for non-combat skills can be found in most cities.
  • Sword and Sorcery: Magic is real, though proper magic is the realm of the devout and of alchemists. As for your party, there is the possibility of thwarting a plot to bring about the end of the world, but the starting narration establishes that they're all in it for glory and personal gain.
  • Take Your Time: Baphomet is plotting to bring the end of the world, but you can play to exhaustion without it ever becoming more of a trouble than it already is. For most quests you get an in-game year to complete it, and then one more year upon completion to claim your reward.
  • Talking Your Way Out: Most random encounters can be solved this way, IF your characters are sufficiently trained. However, there's not one, but two statistics for quick tongue: "Speak Common" and "Speak Latin" for dealing with different classes. And you often need some additional statistics. Streetwise and a weapon use statistic may impress street thugs. Virtue and Religion may allow not paying church taxes and not buying indulgence. Woodwise characters may even calm rampaging bears. Saints also can help, usually by boosting stats.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: This is what happens when you expose a Satanic cult. Armed villagers will run to the Schulz's house and try keep you silent... as a grave.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Villages, in this case. Their secret is that they are filled with devil-worshippers. (If your characters go to confession to the priest of such a village, the penance will be quite disturbing: "You must slowly kill a small animal...") If you expose the devil-worshippers or just stay the night in such a village, they'll attack you.
  • The Very Definitely Final Dungeon: With walls of fire, falling stars, and other apocalyptic happenings.
  • Video Game Cruelty Punishment: Not necessarily cruelty, just anything that lowers Virtue stat. Effectively, the opposite of Karmic Protection. Let your virtue fall too low, and you get Random Encounters like acid rain, corrosive mist or grass fire. At least, according to this review.
  • We Can Rule Together: Raubritters who invite the party to their feasts always request, "Let us reason together."
  • You All Meet in an Inn: Not only is it where the game starts, inns are also where you recruit new characters for your party and abandon old ones.

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