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SummaryPray to saints, stop a cult, brew some potions in Sachsen-Anhalt
The GoodToday we hear a lot about "open-ended" RPGs; one might get the impression that games began as tiny, linear, constricted affairs, gaining in size and freedom of navigation as time went by. In reality, older RPGs were, by and large, less restrictive, creating a better illusion of the player's independence, of a flexible virtual world molded according to our desire.
Darklands, however, stands out even among those role-playing games of yore. Undoubtedly, it has one of the most open structures ever encountered in the game. In fact, it is similar to those free-form strategy games its developers were famous for. Suffice to say that the pedigree shows - Darklands is as close in concept to games like Civilization as an RPG could possibly be.
But fear not: we aren't talking about some sort of a hybrid with heavy simulation elements and large-scale management - Darklands is a pure RPG in the way it treats character growth and exploration, two cornerstones of the genre. The game boasts some remarkable achievements in both aspects.
Already the character creation gives you an idea of the carefully crafted, detailed, and unique role-playing system in this title - a veritable gourmet dish for lovers of that type of games. You can spend a very long time fiddling around with parameters and skills of your characters, which include such original attributes as age, social status, job, etc. These aren't just cosmetic choices - for example, the realism of the game is such that its internal clock keeps track of hours, days, months, and years, and your characters will actually grow old and eventually die.
The skill system is very elegantly designed - not too cumbersome, yet complex enough to make you think and plan. The balance in the implementation of those skills is what makes them work so well. If you think your character's piety is not important, remember that praying to saints will bestow various benefits upon the party, helping out in difficult situation. Don't want to fight those tough boars, who maim your weak party every time you walk through a forest? Try to develop better perception. Bandits want your money? You can charm your way out of that - but you'll need to invest precious points in that skill.
The variety and the wealth of situations in the world of Darklands are truly astounding. Whether sneaking past suspicious characters towards the docks in a big city, negotiating with a banker about loans, stopping a satanic cult or solving dwarf puzzles in the mines - everything contributes to the game's rich, busy world, where things keep moving and changing, and the player characters are welcome to join, welcome to choose their own fate. Wait a few hours to attend the Mass on time in that splendid Vienna cathedral like the pious Catholic you're supposed to be - or go berserk and slaughter city guards; but be prepared to damage your reputation, sealing off some quests. Slay dragons for fame and riches - or do some errands for haughty mayors; the choice is always yours, at any time.
All this wouldn't have meant that much if the game didn't offer some high-quality traditional goodies: making your characters stronger and fighting enemies. There are no levels, but you become better at whatever you do most, by simple repetition. I've always preferred that skill-based system to leveling up; the progress is more tangible, more exciting. Naturally, like in any good old game, the skill caps are high; with enough patience, you can turn your initial party of weaklings into veritable juggernauts of destruction. There are many melee and ranged weapons, including ancient relics - uniquely strong weapons and armor that are hard to find. Swords, axes, maces, bows, and even primitive guns - everything is there. The alchemy system is very important in the game; many of those potions are extremely helpful and will make your life in battle much easier. In short, the game gives you all the tools to become dragon- and demon-slayers - but you'll need to explore and work hard for that.
Combat in Darklands is one of the earlier examples of the "real-time-with-pause" system popularized by later games such as Baldur's Gate. It can get somewhat clunky and awkward (the slow speed doesn't help at all), but it's still very intuitive and satisfying, certainly making all those fights against lowly thugs and giant spiders flow faster and smoother.
Darklands is one of those games where the playing process itself is more important than the goal. I've always liked that school of thought in RPG design. From the onset, the game gives you complete freedom of movement; you can just march across the gigantic map of medieval Germany, visiting dozens of cities, villages, and other points of interest on the way. You can choose to be "based" around any city you want to. At first it's completely overwhelming, and certainly off-putting in the eyes of many modern players; but once you gradually get used to the world, begin to learn shortcuts, familiarize yourself with the mechanics, start having "your" spots, develop your own style of playing - the process can become incredibly exciting and addictive.
On top of that, Darklands has immense cultural value, perhaps more than any other RPG in history. History, geography, medieval Catholic Christianity, economy, folklore - all these spheres of interest are represented in the game. You'll be drawn into a fascinatingly realistic past that becomes, so to say, the true star of the game.
The BadLike all very ambitious games, Darklands often feels like a double-edged sword, sacrificing certain commodities to its design philosophy. What I mean is that the free-form structure comes with a price: Darklands requires a lot of patience and investment on the part of the player, their willingness to accept its idiosyncrasies. Think Daggerfall, but with even more abstract elements and repetitiveness. The lack of guidance and the very obscure (and optional!) main questline may turn off those seeking for an "adventure model" - a game that takes them places in a dramatic fashion. Darklands doesn't do that; it just puts you into its world and applies almost zero pressure.
The monotony of the random events and mini-quests can become annoying. Seeing the same picture with the same pilgrims and the same canned choices for the hundredth time made me want to slaughter the poor fellows. There is simply too much of the same - identical city streets, identical boars and wolves in the wilderness, identical procedures for most of the quests. When you just wish to get on with the meat and potatoes of the game, you discover that there isn't actually that much of it - Darklands is much more a like a sushi buffet.