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Darklands is a role-playing game set in 15th century Holy Roman Empire, which at that time encompassed today's Germany and several surrounding countries. Unlike most other role-playing games, it is set in a concrete historical environment that is accurately depicted, including geographical outlines, social and cultural backgrounds, authentic establishments and items, and so on. The game's supernatural elements are strictly based on the popular beliefs of that time and region and include fantastic creatures such as kobolds or dragons, curses, witchcraft, alchemy that actually works, etc.
The player controls a party of four active characters, though any amount of them can be created and swapped in the town inns. The player can begin by either selecting a pre-made party (quickstart) or by creating their own characters. In the beginning the player selects the character's social background. Afterwards, when they are ten years old, the player can choose an initial career path for them. Careers may include diverse occupations such as soldier, peasant, bandit, etc., which may eventually become more specialized (e.g. a student turning into an alchemist).
The more time the player invests in a certain career path (in five year periods), the more experience points the character receives, which can be manually allocated to improve their skills. Career choices affect main attributes such as strength or charisma, as well as skills, which involve weapon proficiencies, stealth, virtue, speaking Latin, healing, riding, and many others. Though there are no class definitions and each character can theoretically achieve excellence in any skill, character builds in the game can be seen as warriors, clerics, and alchemists. Religion-oriented characters may learn about various saints during the course of the game and pray to them for different benefits. Alchemists gain access to formulae and have to procure ingredients to mix potions with various effects. Skills in the game increase through repeated use: using swords in combat may increase the edged weapon skill, successfully conducted conversation may increase the character's common speech skill, etc.
The party chosen by the player begins the adventure in the inn of a randomly chosen town. The main plot eventually involves confronting a powerful demon and its cult, but it is unraveled only under specific circumstances achieved in the game. The game has a vast scope and can go on indefinitely. However, characters would age, grow weaker, and eventually die, requiring the player to create new ones. The main goal is to collect as much fame for the party as possible to obtain higher-ranked quests with better rewards, which also includes the quest that leads to the completion of the main plot. The player is completely free to roam the vast map of the Empire, accessing towns, castles, villages, and other places of interest. Towns and castles are navigated via text menus, with background images representing various locations. The travel screen is a map of the Empire with a lone figure representing the player-controlled party.
Most settlements of the same type have nearly identical options, though actual results may vary depending on the characters' skills, their local reputation, as well as unique traits found in different locations. For example, different towns may have wares of vastly different quality for sale; villages may engage in devil worship, and the player may attempt to prove that, etc. It is possible to increase local reputation (for example, by taking on cutthroats bothering the citizens) and overall fame by making virtue-increasing choices and vanquishing foes. It is, however, also possible to become outlaws by attacking guards, killing priests on the roads, and so on.
The game has several large isometric dungeon-type areas, most notably mines of different types, which contain generic quests as well as puzzles to solve. Areas unique to the main plot are also built like dungeons with particularly dangerous enemies and treasure to loot. However, much of the activity in the game takes place either in towns or in the wilderness, through various types of random encounters. The player is always given the option to avoid combat either through diplomacy or other means, the success depending on the character's corresponding attributes.
Combat takes place on separate isometric screens and proceeds in real time, but the player can pause the action to give orders to the characters at any time, giving it a pseudo-turn-based flavor. Characters can be ordered to attack, search for the enemies' vulnerable spots, use items, etc. Different types of weapons may have different effects depending on the enemies' armor: for example, blunt weapons are more effective against plate armor than swords. Depending on the enemies' intentions, player-controlled characters may only be knocked down or wounded mortally in case of defeat. Dead characters can not be brought back to life and must be replaced with new ones.