Adventuring in the World of Mundane Magic

Andy Chalk | 5 Apr 2011 08:29
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Darklands was originally envisioned as the first in a series of "realistic RPGs" that would allow gamers to explore other mythologized worlds. "Let us know what you enjoyed in Darklands, what you would like to see in a sequel, and what setting you prefer," Hendrick wrote. "There are plenty of possibilities: the Emperor in Germany has many political problems and intrigues, England and France are busy finishing the last half of the Hundred Years War, after which England falls into civil war (the War of the Roses). Meanwhile, Italy is at the peak of its warring city-states era, Vlad the Impaler appears in the Balkans (the historical figure who ultimately became Dracula), Tamerlane is conquering Central Asia, and much more. What's your preference?"

But the sequels never came. What went wrong?


Darklands is remembered fondly by a small cadre of gamers who were fortunate enough to play it and also holds a well-deserved place on GameSpot's list of "Greatest Games of All Time." But the truth is that for all its originality, it was deeply flawed. Darklands was notoriously buggy and although post-release updates ironed out many of the worst problems, the lack of widely available internet meant that most gamers simply didn't have access to them and had to put up with it in out-of-the-box condition. It was also quite dense, with a steep learning curve, clunky interface and downright intimidating amount of data to be tracked and managed.

Perhaps worst of all, it was a massive game that in spite of all its promise fell into dull repetition fairly quickly. Most quests were straight-up FedEx jobs with minimal variation; combat could quickly bog down into tedium. The most exotic and exciting encounters in Darklands were few and far between, which was perhaps true to the nature of the world - roadside bandits were bound to be more common than ogres or holzfrau, after all - but not necessarily the best way to keep things interesting.

Despite all that, Darklands was a remarkable game, just not a very successful one. Had it been, the nearly boundless opportunities to turn history into swashbuckling fantasy realms had the potential to seriously shake things up in the RPG arenas. Instead, it wound up a one-off curiosity that, for all the accolades it's earned over the years, has exerted almost no influence on the direction of the genre. Games today look better than ever with razor-sharp details, lifelike textures, and smooth, flowing character animations, but the real world seems even further away.

Darklands came as close as any game ever has to presenting historical realism in a fantasy RPG, and for that alone it was a truly memorable experience. But the execution didn't, and maybe couldn't, live up to the potential of the concept. In the end, much like the medieval world it was built upon, the idea of Darklands was magical, but the real magic just wasn't there.

Andy Chalk actually believes that magic will betray you at the worst possible moment, which is why he always plays a fighter.

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