Monday, July 22, 2019

Darklands: Summary and Rating

Note how little the box art exemplifies the game's adherence to historical accuracy.
              
Darklands
United States
MicroProse (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 DOS
Date Started: 24 May 2019
Date Finished: 13 July 2019
Total Hours: 65
Difficulty: Moderate-hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Summary:
     
A highly-original and innovative game from a rare entrant in the CRPG market, Darklands offers a compelling setting in the medieval Holy Roman Empire. Four characters struggle to gain fame and riches through a series of repeatable, statistically-driven, scripted encounters based on common themes and beliefs of the era, including escorting pilgrims, fighting bandits, storming the castles of robber knights, routing towns of evil witches, driving dwarves back into the depths of their mines, and slaying dragons. A main quest involving the Knights Templar and the demon Baphomet caps the experience. Nothing is quite like other RPGs: combat draws upon the realistic limitations and strengths of various weapons and armor; divine magic involves praying to saints and going to mass; and arcane magic involves mixing reagents into potions. Skills like speaking Latin and reading and writing are rare and prized, and many of the game's perils involve (seemingly) mundane situations like surviving a blizzard, gaining entry into a city, dealing with an arrogant priest who wants a "tithe," and getting a local lord to receive your party. Unfortunately, the "repeatable" encounters end up being "repetitive," and the lack of traditional RPG approaches to equipment, combat, and leveling creates some unbalanced gameplay.

*****

Well, what a ride. Darklands offers perhaps the most original approach to role-playing that we've seen since the inception of the genre, and in several dimensions. The experience wasn't always a joy, but I never stopped admiring what the developers were trying to accomplish. In this case, the primary developer ("original concept" and "project leader" in the credits) is Arnold Hendrick. It was his only RPG. Hendrick wrote responses to 13 pages of questions on Steam between 2016 and 2018, participated in a three-part interview with Matt Barton in 2010, and submitted to a long interview on RPG Codex in 2012. Thus, I was able to pepper my summary below with many of his recollections.
      
(Hendrick, I should add, is a fairly unique game designer in that he came from a background of board and tabletop gaming and never learned programming. It reminds me of how Irving Berlin became immortal writing hundreds of hit songs while never actually learning how to read, write, or play music. I sometimes wonder if I could make a go as a game designer or a composer with a similar lack of foundational skills. Perhaps--but I don't think I'd ever have the gall to put myself out there as such.)
          
As often happens when I encounter an innovative game, at its conclusion I (perhaps unfairly) find myself lamenting missed opportunities. First, for a game that offers so many different types of encounters, Darklands doesn't really support much "role-playing." It is assumed that every party is trying to be good, to gain fame, to enhance local reputation, to build virtue. For most encounters, the worst option you have is a mildly neutral one, such as bidding pilgrims good fortune without helping them, or ignoring traveling merchants. You can't become robber knights, steal from church collection boxes, or join evil cults. You can be overly-zealous, accusing innocent towns of witchcraft or bursting down the front doors of helpless women living alone--but in those cases, the game goes out of its way to make you feel bad about yourself.
          
Don't burst in on a witch unless you're sure she's a witch.
          
Perhaps the one exception to the "no evil" rule is the ability to attack town guards, as a way to enter or exit the city without molestation, or as a way to avoid paying a fine for sneaking about at night. The consequences of such actions are relatively severe--you find it hard to enter that same city ever again--and thus hard to role-play. 

My second regret is that the game doesn't use its setting to its fullest potential. Early 15th-century Europe was one of tremendous upheaval. There were dozens of competing factions. There were two or three rival Popes at most times until 1449 and no settled Holy Roman Emperor between 1378 and 1433. When I started the game, I thought it was going to be like Pirates! and I was going to be encouraged to pick sides, perhaps favoring Bohemian rulers and thus losing reputation in Burgundy, or hustling messages for supporters of Gregory XII. I thought real-life events would have ripples throughout the game setting. There was none of that. Most cities were interchangeable.
          
Slight variances in the names of key locations is all that distinguish most cities.
         
Third, I would have liked to see better balance between the deterministic and random encounter and quest systems. Darklands features an early incarnation of Bethesda calls "radiant" quests: repeatable missions to fetch items or kill enemies that send you to a random area each time. The concept isn't exactly new--it goes all the way back to many of the PLATO games, plus Akalabeth--but this is the first game to feature these quests in such detail and variety. I certainly don't mind them, but I like to see them balanced with more hand-crafted, fixed quests and locations. In Darklands, the only unique quest locations were the Templar fortress and the Castle of the Apocalypse.

A game has to be good in the first place for it to spark so many desires for it to reach the next level, so despite my few complaints, expect Darklands to GIMLET well.

1. Game World. It's a great idea: set the game in the real Middle Ages, but act as if the superstitions and rumors of the time were all true. In this, Hendrick said that he was influenced by the Warhammer tabletop RPG, which took its inspiration from the Holy Roman Empire. As pointed out in a recent thread, the creators thankfully didn't take the concept too far, or my characters would have spent the game slaughtering Muslims or constantly in debt to Jews. But even subtracting the more offensive caricatures, it takes some guts to build a divine magic system on the pantheon of Catholic saints. I learned some new things about history, geography, and language as I played, which is always a bonus. The world is well-described in the manual, which makes a clear distinction between history and legend, and does a good job explaining the game's choices. I just wish that the world has been more responsive to my party's actions, and that it had (as above) made more dynamic uses of its themes. Score: 6.
             
If only the act of praying to saints cured plague victims in real life.
          
2. Character Creation and Development. The Traveller- and RuneQuest-inspired creation process is a lot of fun as you envision various career paths for your characters, so it's unfortunate that no reference is later made to those careers. I found that development, while rewarding, was also very uneven, with weapons skills developing almost too quickly and most other skills too costly or time-consuming, or not improvable at all. In particular, virtue--a vital skill--is oddly obstinate, only increasing a point or two occasionally no matter how many pilgrims you help or witches you slay. I would have liked more opportunities to improve attributes, too. On the positive side, your character "builds" have a significant impact on how you approach quests and encounters, and thus adds some replayability to the game. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. The various political and economic leaders that the party encounters aren't really so much "NPCs" as "encounters." They're interchangeable ciphers with identical encounter options and no dialogue options--which was all disappointing given the various historical possibilities. The only real NPCs are the Hanseatic League representatives and small-town mayors who will join the party for a quest or two. They were a nice boost to the party's power, even if they had no individual personalities. Score: 2.
           
"Hanse" is really the only NPC in the game. He comes with pretty solid skills, and higher attributes than I think are achievable for regular characters during character creation.
         
4. Encounters and Foes. Unfortunately, setting the game in the "real" world creates a certain paucity of enemy types--but there are enough to require the player to make tactical adjustments. The monsters are thoroughly described in the game manual; you get not just a description and picture, but also a sense of their motivations and habits. I also like that they're slightly different than the foes you find in other CRPGs.

The crux of the game is, of course, its non-combat "encounters," presented in the form of menu options with associated skill checks, forcing you to find tactics for everything from entering a city (without paying the toll) to disrupting a coven of witches. Darklands is fundamentally an "encounter-driven" game in ways that we've never seen before. Unfortunately, very little role-playing takes place in those encounters; the player is usually trying to identify the option with the highest likelihood of success, not the one that best fits the party ethos. The encounters also become repetitive and boring over time. Nevertheless, it's an approach to RPG gaming that we've never quite seen before and may never again. Score: 7.
            
The long selection of options even extends to the party getting thrown in jail.
          
5. Magic and Combat. The real-time-with-pause combat system is an important innovation, although it hasn't quite reached its apex in Darklands. (In previous posts, I outlined some precursors to the Darklands system, but it appears from the interview material that the developers had never been exposed to them and came up with the system independently.) I outlined most of my problems with it in a recent entry, and these remained problems  until the end. Nevertheless, the system is more interesting and more tactical than most of the RPGs on the market at the time, and I like how the skills system allows you to create some specialties among your party members without any artificial considerations of "class."

I had mixed feelings about the magic system. I thoroughly enjoyed the pantheon of saints and their various uses, even if it did take me a while to fully grasp how it worked. I found offensive potions significantly under-powered, however, and I thought the alchemy system was far too complex and simply encouraged the player to purchase potions rather than make them. This makes arcane magic more of an "equipment" consideration than a magic one. Score: 6.

6. Equipment. This is another relatively strong category. I like the variety of weapons and armor, how they associate with various skills, and key considerations like quality, penetration, and encumbrance. Potions are also, of course, a major consideration, often making the difference between a difficult battle and an impossible one. But I was disappointed how few unique and powerful items you could find, excepting a few "relics." And it annoyed me how many useful-sounding but ultimately useless items I carried until the end, including spikes, grapples, and lanterns. Score: 5.

7. Economy. Darklands has perhaps the first truly good economy in RPG history. (Previous games that tie this score were rated too high, for the most part.) It hits all my points: you make money from successful encounters and quest-solving; there are multiple ways to make money (including working odd jobs); there are multiple ways to spend money; and you never reach a point in which you are "too rich." In a very real-world way, money is power in Darklands, and you can use it to compensate for party weaknesses--by, for instance, purchasing potions instead of making them, increasing virtue through copious donations to churches, and fronting tuition to increase your skills at the university. You can even bribe your way out of some encounters. I never reached a point where I stopped collecting equipment to sell, and I never reached a point in which I had too much money. I did think some of the quest rewards were unbalanced, however, with robber knights netting you dozens of florins while a more lengthy, complicated artifact quest might only get you half a dozen.

The only way a game could really improve upon the economy here is to offer more expensive and useful equipment and to offer the ability to purchase property, something that would have been within the game's theme and I'm surprised wasn't offered. Score: 8.
         
In a game where potions are so expensive and you can give copious amounts to churches for divine favor, money never stops being useful.
        
8. Quests. Another strong category. There's a main quest, of sorts, as well as innumerable side quests that serve to build the party's fame and fortunes. I particularly like that the party can assume only the quests that it wants and has the skills to successfully complete, ignoring others with no particular penalty. There are multiple ways to solve most quests (although they're not really role-playing choices), and there are even some alternate paths within the main quest, albeit with an obvious preferred set of choices.

As I mentioned above, I would have liked to see more scripted, deterministic quests to go along with all of the repeatable, randomized ones. (Such had been planned but were ultimately scrapped as the game ran over time and cost.) Plus, it would have been nice to have more quests that better used the history and characters of the time. But overall, Darklands earns a high score here in contrast to most games that offer a main quest and nothing else. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Graphics are a mixed bag. The still scenes that accompany most of the menu encounters are well-drawn and evocative, but the overland navigation screen is a nightmare in which it's hard to identify entire cities. I thought the character and enemy icons were also poor. I found the sound to be mostly forgettable.

The interface worked mostly okay. I appreciated the keyboard backups for all of the menu commands. I would have appreciated numbered options on the encounter screens, so I could choose them. There are a few too many commands that are indiscernible from the interface and must be looked up in the manual; for instance, pressing "A" to equip items in inventory, or "F7" to set an ambush. I didn't enjoy the number of places in which my party refused to walk in the outdoor environment, despite showing no obstacles, nor the micromanaging I had to do indoors to move the party through narrow hallways. There were other miscellaneous problems like the saved games not sorting in any clear order. Score: 3.
             
I found it difficult to see key features and to get my party to move where I wanted them to move on the overland map.
         
10. Gameplay. We finish on a strong note. Owing to the nature of the quests, plus the fact that every party starts in a different location, the game is both non-linear and relatively replayable. You could set all kinds of fun challenges for yourself, such as hitting a certain fame level within a certain time frame, or making a certain amount of money.

While I found the adjustment period longer than usual, overall the game had the right challenge level, and it's hard to complain about length in a game that has no fixed end and lets you retire whenever you feel like it. Score: 8.

That gives us a final score of 56. That doesn't quite put it in the top 10 list, but it's very close, and the game clearly will contend for "Game of the Year" for 1992. You could easily envision a near-perfect RPG that would, for instance, merge the Gold Box style of combat, Ultima NPC interaction, and the variety of equipment found in Might and Magic with Darklands' basic approach.
            
". . . and ends."
          
Like many games that appear near the top of my list, Darklands was controversial in its time. In the November 1992 Computer Gaming World, Scorpia loved the setting and character creation process, but she had many of the same combat complaints that I did, and she found the world a bit boring in its uniformity. She had issues with bugs, freezes, and a lack of features that were fixed by the time of my version.

But although I generally found myself nodding with her review, I have no idea where she's coming from regarding the ending:
             
The party's basic goal in Darklands is to acquire fame and virtue, to be remembered in times to come as great and daring heroes. While this appears to be a novel twist, something a bit different from the more common "Kill Foozle" objective, in actuality the game isn't quite so different . . . . Darklands operates in much the same fashion as any other CRPG, with the party working towards that big encounter with Foozle, although the final confrontation, in this case, is not exactly a battle in the usual sense of the word.
         
Not for the first time, I have to ask: what does Scorpia want? If a game with as original a main quest as this one still isn't original enough to escape being painted with the "Foozle" brush, what game could possibly avoid it? "Ho, hum," she seems to be saying, "it's just another RPG where the party gets more powerful and tries to complete some big objective. Yawn." As if there were any other satisfying way to structure a CRPG.

But the climax of Scorpia's review is reserved for invective against the sacrifices the party has to make in the final battle, including the lead character's reduced attributes (she made the same choice that I did) and the loss of florins to Pestilence. These things didn't bother me as much as perhaps they should have, since finishing this quest essentially brings the game to a close. (Having these developments spoiled for me by Scorpia, on the other hand, would have bothered me quite a bit.) But Scorpia was livid:
          
Probably some Bright Mind at MicroProse though it would be a Good Idea to have the player "make a real sacrifice." If so, that Bright Mind needs a new brain. It is inexcusable to treat the player in this manner, to not only provide no real reward for success, but to make the victory a Pyrrhic one. For this point alone, I would not recommend the game to anyone . . . . This is a shame, since Darklands might have been one of the great ones. Instead, it turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.
               
This is certainly in keeping with a trend. Scorpia knew her stuff, no question, and was probably the most experienced RPG player of the time. But when she was wrong, she was just staggeringly, bafflingly, unaccountably wrong.
            
I thought there was something noble in making such a big sacrifice.
       
(To avoid some fruitless debate along the lines of "how can someone be wrong about an opinion?," the issue here isn't that she's wrong about not personally liking the game. It's that she fails to recognize that her own perspective is dominated by a relatively minor issue, and that most players--as their own recollections prove--would appreciate the game regardless of that issue. It's one thing to say that "I didn't like it"; it's another to say, "it's to be avoided.")

Of course, Computer Gaming World was well aware of this, and by 1992 they were pairing her reviews with more temperate ones written by less-experienced players. This time, the counterpoint is written by Johnny L. Wilson, the magazine's editor-in-chief, who had already read Scorpia's review and was "horrified" by it. (I have to wonder: did he consider simply not publishing it?) His own column isn't so much a review as a counterpoint to Scorpia specifically, particularly taking issue with her inability to "recommend the game to anyone." Along the way, he shows that he gets Darklands' originality better than the magazine's more experienced reviewer:
              
I truly enjoy the variety of choices on the menus, by the way. What other game would give the party the choice of extorting a defeated witch for useful information; allowing her to give one alchemical formula; forcing her to repent . . . or killing her? In what other CRPG does the party really have to think about whether to let a physicker try to heal them or not? In what other CRPG can one avoid a major battle by asking a saint for protection? How many potential ambushes can players sneak around and avoid in most CRPGs? I honestly believe that Darklands gives players more authentic role-playing choices than any CRPG since Dragon Wars.
        
Scorpia was unrepentant. A year later, in a 1993 summary of modern CRPGs, she concludes her Darklands summary with: "Horrible ending, with the player being shafted rather than rewarded. For this and other reasons detailed in the article, it is not a recommended game." She really knew how to hold a grudge.

Dragon also had a mixed review (4 stars!) that complained about combat AI, the repetitiveness of some encounters, and a tough beginning, but otherwise called it "a great adventure and . . . certainly one of the best multicharacter FRPGs [?] we've had the delight to play" and recommended that the player "stick with it for a winning experience." A completely positive review is found in the May 1993 Compute!: "This newly revised game [some bugs had been fixed] should give you hours of pleasure. MicroProse should be congratulated for a truly heroic effort in creating a game for sword, sorcery, and history buffs."

I was curious how European magazines rated a game set in their back yard, but all of the OCR'd text that I could find just gave general platitudes and didn't address the setting specifically. The worst (62) was in the September 1992 German Power Play ("a diffuse brew of game elements that are neither thematically nor technically compatible"), the best (90) in the September 1992 French Tilt ("MicroProse has managed a tour de force to renew the genre"). Most were in the 70s or 80s.
     
Overall, Darklands seems to have required a bit of aging to fully appreciate. In modern times, it's hard to find a review that doesn't stretch towards hyperbole. "One of the best RPGs ever made," declares a 2014 review on "Rock Paper Shotgun." In 2004, it was included on GameSpot's list of "The Greatest Games of All Time." It has a 9/10 rating (from 117 reviews) on Steam. It has a dedicated fan page. It has a wiki. The only thing it doesn't have--bafflingly--is someone trying to remake it. There have been several attempts over the years, but they all seem to have fizzled out.

Alas, lukewarm reviews in its own day affected sales, canceling planned expansions of the game to other areas of the world and other times in world history. In his Steam interview, Arnold Hendrick said that the game had gone over time and over budget, "nearly bankrupting" MicroProse in the process, and that while subsequent sales were good, the company also received a lot of returns because of bugs, and then had to work on fixing the bugs. Hendrick blames poor approaches to project management in the era: "Nobody was teaching project management as a discipline, so the development process was poorly organized by AAA development standards today," he reported in the RPG Codex interview. Such comments are echoed in Jimmy Maher's coverage of Darklands from a few months ago. He portrays MicroProse owner "Wild" Bill Stealey as an eccentric, laissez-faire manager, personally uninterested in any game that wasn't a flight simulator. The failure of Darklands left MicroProse in such poor financial straits that Stealey sold it to Spectrum Holobyte the following year.
          
In the Steam thread, Hendrick is quite pessimistic about the possibility of either a sequel or a modern remake of Darklands, believing it would cost so many millions of dollars that it would be unlikely to get enough venture capital for even a demo. In fact, reading his cost estimates, I wonder how any modern game actually gets made.
              
The "real-time-with-pause-and-orders" combat system used by Baldur's Gate (1998) seems like a natural evolution from the system pioneered in Darklands.
            
The legacy of Darklands is difficult to pin down. It seems impossible that its wide-open world and procedurally-generated content did not affect the early Elder Scrolls games, and the Infinity Engine's combat system (used in Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment among others) seems to be a natural evolution from the one presented in Darklands. But I haven't been able to find any explicit acknowledgement from the developers of these later games that they had experienced Darklands. For what it's worth, Hendrick himself considers Baldur's Gate and its sequel the "finest and most polished" party-based RPGs ever made.

Darklands was one of only a small number of CRPGs released by MicroProse. I think it's fair to say that the company didn't really understand RPGs, the quality of Darklands notwithstanding. As we've seen, it suffers in some of its departures from standard RPG conventions. The only other two RPGs released by the company--The Legacy: Realm of Terror (1992) and BloodNet (1994)--are adventure hybrids that may ultimately fail to meet my definition. It really is too bad that the company never overcame its "RPG problem" because it produced extraordinarily memorable games in other genres, and it probably would be remembered as a major RPG publisher if it had built on Darklands instead of abandoning it.

116 comments:

  1. Much as I do enjoy seeing you soldier through the obscure and borderline-unplayable -- and much as those entries often yield funny and insightful commentary -- it's a real pleasure reading a summary of a game in which you yourself took obvious pleasure.

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    1. Thanks. It's a much better experience for me, too, since it takes longer to play than to blog.

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  2. "It seems impossible that its wide-open world and procedurally-generated content did not affect the early Elder Scrolls games"

    It has been acknowledged. But the original article has gone down with the Gamespy and now available only as an archived version.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20120808185406/http://planetelderscrolls.gamespy.com/fullstory.php?id=159095
    "The main inspiration for The Elder Scrolls comes from games like Ultima Underworld, Darklands, and Legends of Valour. And of course, D&D."

    I'd really like to see if the Legends of Valour will be a GOTY material for the 1992, like the first two already are. This one I haven't played myself yet.

    And, of course, congratulations on finishing one of the most notable games of the era!

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    1. Oh, very nice. That's exactly what I was searching for. I guess I have Legends of Valour to look forward to, then.

      As an aside, I love how the interview is titled "Exclusive Interview with Todd Howard" and yet the interviewer feels he has to start with the question answer to "What is your name?" A good editor should have said, "You know what? I don't think we need that one."

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    2. I guess I have Legends of Valour to look forward to, then.
      You really don't. It's a horrible game whose literally only virtue is that it inspired some elements of TES. Namely - the huge cities and the guilds with their questlines and services.

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    3. Well, that was an enjoyable 5 minutes.

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    4. That game has some really, really weird ideas, though in retrospect it's surprising how similar it is to TES: Arena.

      Stand around more than a few seconds near a guard: you get arrested for acting suspiciously. Look through a window from the outside: you get arrested for excessive snooping. Insult random people on the street, murder them and take their stuff: nobody bats an eyelash.

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  3. This Scorpia lady sounds to me like someone who had other things going on in her life that she wasn't happy about, and she used her column as an outlet for her frustrations instead of dealing with them. Calling the developers stupid and spoiling the endgame? Yeah, there was something else going on there.

    That dedicated fan page is the kind of website I used to absolutely hate. The weird intro page with the baffling text: "Take the high road, the middle road, or the low road" (turns out this means graphics detail, though that's not clear at all).

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    1. Maybe she just identified strongly with her characters and was enraged at a game that left them blighted.

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    2. Harland, please take this comment with the fondness that I hold for you, but given the last week or so of comments, if I don't point out that there might be some "projection" going on in your comment here, someone else is likely to do it less delicately. I just hope you have a better week this week.

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    3. Is this lady, Scorpia, still alive and reachable?
      I doubt that almost thirty years later people have still some grudge about the texts she wrote. It would have been interesting to know, from her own voice, the reasons why she wrote some reviews.
      Just wondering...

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    4. She's very much alive; most recently she contributed a couple of texts to the CRPG Book

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    5. Her real name, to my knowledge, has never come out. It was reportedly only known to CGW's one-time owner, not anyone else at the magazine. (I have a theory, but in interests of not doxxing a fellow writer, I've kept it private.) So it's hard to track her. I think she'd be about 60 now. She had her own web site for a while, and it's still up:

      http://www.scorpia.com/

      But it hasn't been updated in 10 years. I suspect if I really wanted to reach her, I could, but it seems disingenuous to reach out for an interview (or whatever) when I've been so critical of some of her reviews over the years.

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    6. Oh, I'd forgotten about the book! That's a much more recent "sighting" than the 10-year-old blog.

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    7. AFAIK she remained anonymous the whole time

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    8. I would be thrilled to read an interview with Scorpia. You have disagreed with her, but I think its clear from reading your blog that you also have tremendous respect for her.

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    9. I think one of the interesting, or maybe ironic, aspects on her take is we've been rolling our eyes for years at games that "reward" the player with piles of XP or the ultimate weapon, but only after the game has ended. "It's worthless now, but here you go," has little reason to be satisfying.

      On the other hand, making a sacrifice, especially if it's at the end where it doesn't hurt much but contributes to the story, seems like a good choice to me. I'm thinking in particular of Dragon Age: Origins, where (sorry, spoilers, but it's gotta be outside of the statute of limitations, right?) you have to choose at the end whether to sacrifice yourself, allow/order a companion to sacrifice themselves, or risk unleashing something very dangerous into the world. None of them are clearly good solutions, and the game gives you a chance at the end to feel unease or regret, whatever your choice. I think this is a fantastic piece of the storytelling. Darklands may not be at that level, but I think the parallel holds.

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    10. Hey Chester, I mailed her last week, she is very friendly and accessible, I think she would enjoy giving an interview to you. I can hook you up if you want :)

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    11. Totally reach out to her!

      People unafraid to give strong opinions (like Scorpia) are also typically unruffled by those who vehemently disagree with them.

      She's the most important crpg reviewer of that era, I think an interview belongs here.

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    12. Totally agree to the interview with her!

      Maybe consider also to do one with Mr. Schultz, the incredible walkthrough writer.

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    13. The gaming universe itself was a lot smaller then and Scorpia wielded real power in the industry. I would love to hear her take on gaming as it is now, among other things.

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    14. An interview with Scorpia would be great for this blog. It will always be impossible to tell 100% what was happening "at the time" without the kind of first-hand experience she has.

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    15. I'll think about it, but interviewing people isn't really what I do, at least not in connection to a particular game that I happen to be playing at the time. Matt Barton would do a better job of it.

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  4. "No settled Holy Roman Emperor between 1378 - 1433". True, but Sigismund had been King of the Romans, since 1410. He could be an absentee ruler if only because he was also king of Hungary. The empire, after the Golden Bull especially, was essentially a collection of states. The emperor was less important than the princes of the electoral states.

    I am not criticizing you. I agree that more history would have led to more immersion. Characters like anti-Pope John XXIII, or Jan Hus are just as interesting as any fiction character that I can think of. Sigismund's wife, Barbara of Celje, was dubbed the "Messalina of Germany", by the writer Aeneas Sylvius. Even Jeanne D'arc threatened to march against the Hussites. History offers a lot of material for stories.

    By the way, I actually designed a game on the Hussite Wars. It will come out soon, but I cannot say when.

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    1. I was trying to think of eras in which "what people actually believed" would create interesting foes and encounters and coming up short. But then it occurred to me that basically Red Dead Redemption does that with the Old West. Not only are there legendary creatures, ghosts, elements of old-school religion, and tonics that actually work.

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    2. I think you could get something pretty similar to Darklands out of third century Rome. The empire was at its most religiously diverse, with traditional Roman religion, the imperial cult, various imported cults (like Cybele and Isis), mystery cults like Mithraism, an ascendant Christianity... hell, Neoplatonism. The political situation was one of constant upheaval. And you could get a lot of mileage just out of all the crazy critters and medicines and whatnot in Pliny the Elder.

      If you're willing to fudge the timeframe a bit (since they showed up in the 4th century) you could have an encounter with a band of cudgel-wielding Circumcellions seeking martyrdom, too.

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    3. Well, make that 2nd century Roman Britain and you have Nethergate (1998), though I did not play it really.

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  5. The only other two RPGs released by [MicroProse] --The Legacy: Realm of Terror (1992) and BloodNet (1994)--are adventure hybrids that may ultimately fail to meet my definition.
    Don't worry, they won't. But you're forgetting Challenge of the Five Realms (also 1992). Both it and BloodNet owe a lot to (I suppose quite a bit of the original codebase got reused). Legacy, on the other hand, is a completely different beast, and - as arguably the only survival horror RPG out there - is also very original and memorable (I mean, BloodNet and CotFR are also quite original, just not very good - while Legacy is excellent). When you get to it, trust the manual and don't go all guns blazing - you won't last long.

    Nevertheless, it's an approach to RPG gaming that we've never quite seen before and may never again - and here you're forgetting Tunnels&Trolls which also spent most of the time in text-based encounters. Although you hated it there for some reason. As for "may never see again" part - an argument can be made that Planescape: Torment has a rather similar approach to gameplay, even if in a different engine.

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    1. "Both CotFR and BloodNet owe a lot to Darklands" I meant to say.

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    2. Okay, first, I didn't "hate" it. I gave it a 46, which is pretty high for my blog. Second, it wasn't "for some reason." I spent several posts outlining exactly why I didn't like aspects the game. Third, the "approach" I was referring to wasn't just textual encounters but the nature of the skill checks and the virtue system that go along with them. T&T had text-based encounters, but they mostly resolved things that most games would have resolved through the game's regular engine. Darklands doesn't quite have that problem; most of the things you accomplish through text are things that can only be accomplished through text (e.g., getting quests from the town leader) or that would have been too much to expect a developer of the era to design interactively (e.g., scaling a wall).

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    3. I dunno, it seems to me like many of Darklands' encounters could as well be resolved in a more traditional fashion. Like the city navigation in the very second screenshot in this post, for example.

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    4. Yes, that's true, but the idea of "menu towns" goes all the way back to Wizardry and I got used to that a long time ago. T&T had entire "menu dungeons," which I found a bit disconcerting. There were other issues such as all your options basically funneling to one outcome, or the most conservative option leading to the most damaging outcome, or the weirdest option leading to the most rewarding outcome.

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    5. Aren't robber knights' castles kinda "menu dungeons" too?
      Don't get me wrong though - I'm not advocating for T&T anymore. Personally, I've became very disenchanted with CYOA-style gameplay recently (particularly, after playing Age of Decadence which brings this formula ad absurdum). I just think there are more similarities between the two games' approaches then you give T&T credit for.

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    6. The robber knight castles have menu options for things that no game in 1992 was having the player do in the actual interface, such as scaling walls or besieging the entire thing. The same castles have you explore and fight in the regular interface for all other options.

      I think there are more differences between the games than YOU give them credit for, Exhibit A being that T&T bothered me and Darklands didn't, and it's not like I went into T&T with an existing bias.

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    7. the weirdest option leading to the most rewarding outcome

      And suddenly I'm thinking of Plumbers Don't Wear Ties. Or KILL DRAGON ("With what? Your bare hands?"), for that matter.

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    8. Age of Decadence is written such that you can play it entirely as a CYOA, or a pretty hardcore combat rpg. I only played it as a diplomat, and thought it was pretty cool. Vince pulled off an impressive feat with that game.

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    9. Personally, I hated every minute of my loremaster playthrough of AoD. Well, except for the lore - the lore was good. Ended up just using cheat engine to max all the skills so that I won't have to reload after dying to a random skillcheck every five minutes.

      But the experience also made me reflect on the value of the CYOA gameplay, and my conclusion was that it sucks. There's no actual playing involved in it - no risk and resource management of combat, and no puzzle-solving of parser-based or point-and-click adventures - everything just presented to you on a silver plate and all you can do is click on an option and hope that dice roll in your favor. Or, worse still, that your skill meets an arbitrarily set level that you have no way of figuring out beforehand. Now, it's not completely irredeemable, of course. I know of two recent games - Torment: Tides of Numenera and The Council - that try to make CYOA more mechanically interesting by introducing some sort of resource to spend on choices. But both kinda spoil it in the end - TToN by rest-spamming, and The Council, by being too generous with consumables. Still, the regular CYOA mechanic, where you just have options and binary skillchecks, needs to go, if you ask me. The sooner the better.

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  6. I agree about Scorpia's review; it seems like she's being needlessly picky. One paragraph she hates the unoriginal story structure, and in the next breath wants riches and rewards like any other RPG?

    Not related to Darklands specifically, but more finales in CRPGs as a whole: There are times I wish that RPGs would make the player actually *pick something* instead of just meeting a certain amount of karma points to get a given ending. Who sits down with a CRPG and thinks "Okay, this time I'm going to go for the B-grade ending"?

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    1. Usually those are for people playing blind/roleplaying their characters (so sometimes one picks up the suboptimal choice to stay in character).

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    2. @Alex - not sure what you're talking about. In most RPGs with multiple endings, the kind of ending you get is just a matter of choice made at the last minute. Only a handful of games actually tracks the player's actions/choices during the game in deciding what ending to show.

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    3. And then, a lot of people save the game right at the end, and just test all the choices - and then the endings don't feel like proper narrative outgrowth.

      The first Deus Ex from EIDOS Montreal had a choice right at the end of which button to hit, and it felt odd the other way.

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    4. Its not so much the actual mechanic of the choice I have a problem with, i.e. karma meters, one-time options, etc. but the fact that there is no tradeoff. There is always one ending that is always the best/happiest, and most likely intended, end of the story. In Deus Ex, even if it was just a button press followed by a cutscene, they were semantically different instead of being on a linear scale from "best" to "worst."

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    5. There's a decent number of areas in Fallout 2 where there isn't a single obviously superior ending, and there's a few cases where you could legitimately argue that getting the "best" ending for one area requires getting a worse ending for another.

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    6. Jeff Vogel did it well in Geneforge - there were a lot of different endings for the various factions and people involved, even if there was a roughly canonical ending for the main character.

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    7. I think Vogel's best games would outscore even the best goldbox games - they're almost made for our Addict.

      I've never played the original Exile though, and it'll probably be about 5 years before we get there. Got a lot to look forward to in the meantime though :)

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    8. One of the best ‚final decision‘ situations was with Torment: Tides of Numenera. I backed right away at Kickstarter and loved because it offered sinking option to really play through completely differently, e.g. as fighter or thief.

      This comes even down to the end where you have very well thought out options to end the game.

      No spoilers here ;) .

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    9. Err ... meant ‚different‘ not ‚sinking‘ ... mobile Auto-correction ;)

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  7. I don't know about other scripted quests, but there are some single encounters I'm pretty sure are unique. I remember encountering a cursed bridge somewhere (can't recall where) that the locals dared not use because the first person to cross it would have their soul taken by a demon.

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    1. I suppose I should have allowed for encounters that I didn't personally experience.

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  8. Congrats on the twofer. 1992's shaping up to be quite a fascinating year, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else it has in store.

    Darklands certainly seems to live up to its reputation, but I'm surprised to hear that a sequel is unlikely. Crowdfounding has resurrected so many traditional CRPG franchises or those homaging same, and I figure Hendrick could get Larian, InXile, or Obsidian interested given how many of their games are inspired (directly or indirectly) by Darklands's innovations. I'm also sure he's thought about the logistics a lot more than I have, however.

    I'm guessing the 1992 Arcana game on the upcoming list isn't the SNES dungeon-crawler. I realize you're branching out into the console sphere, but that'd be a strange one to hop into next.

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    1. I'm hoping that someone who knows more about the process of funding games--Corey, maybe--comes along, reads Hendrick's comments in more detail, and offers some kind of clarification or rebuttal. His estimates seem a little loony to me.

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    2. This is a good if short article on development costs with actual developer insight (like Obsidian): https://kotaku.com/why-video-games-cost-so-much-to-make-1818508211

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    3. Well, I am a video game producer myself (though not of AAA games) and I most certainly wouldn't invest in a Darklands reboot ; quite simply I believe the game while fondly remembered (including by people who did not play it) is not really a well-known classic for millennials (which are all adults now, and the ones buying or making people buy the games). Usually, popular licence from the era for millennials had a sequel in the late 90ies early 2000 to keep the memory alive.
      In addition, RTwP is not really something popular right now, but well if I did remake it I would not hesitate to convert this into turn-based tactics.

      I don't know any remake of games of that generation that worked ; this said, I am waiting with some impatience to see the performance of the System Shock remake.

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    4. Pricing depends a lot on what size staff and level of graphics you're trying to achieve. If you want something that looks on par with a modern box release, instead of a weird indie project... they can be insanely expensive.

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    5. I work in game dev too and can confirm that funding requirements vary wildly. AAA development obviously eats millions. But would you want a Darklands remake or spiritual sequel to be AAA or a more reasonable mid-budget production?

      We can look at successful Kickstarters to see how much money other RPGs required to get funded. The sums here vary wildly, too. inXile, Obsidian and Larian had the most profitable KS campaigns, and their games also cost the most to develop. Visuals are pretty high quality, and relatively large teams worked on these games. Games made by smaller indie studios are cheaper, because fewer people working on a project means fewer wages to be paid.

      Then you have to consider the location of the developer. Obsidian and inXile need more money because their studios are located in the ridiculously expensive Bay Area. Developers seated in rural America or Europe have significantly lower running costs. Eastern European studios have the lowest budget requirements due to the cheaper wages and living costs there. Look at indie projects such as ATOM RPG, Underrail, or Legends of Eisenwald for comparison. All of these are decent games, and I'd say a Darklands remake doesn't need much higher production values than Eisenwald or ATOM. It's more important to have more content than to look fancy.

      Then, you can also cut out one of the biggest moneysinks in modern games: voice acting. Look at Divinity Original Sin 2, or Pillars of Eternity 2. They both had full VA, even for the narration, not just the characters. That's not cheap. And that's something a Darklands remake wouldn't need.

      If you have a medium sized or small studio make the game, and one that is located in a reasonably priced area of the world (not the Bay Area), I'd estimate you could deliver great results with 200k to 400k Euros. You could even deliver good results with less.

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    6. Small correction, neither Inxile, or Obsidian are located in the Bay Area.

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    7. Oh? I thought they were. Maybe they're just in California and I automatically associate that state with the Bay Area because that's where most of the tech companies are. Still an expensive state overall.

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    8. Yeah, Inxile is in Newport Beach, and Obsidian is close by in Irvine. So Southern California, still not cheap to be sure, but not in the same league as the Bay.

      Inxile also has a second studio they opened in New Orleans a few years ago. And I think that was at least in part for financial reasons. Much cheaper to live and do business there, and I believe they also got a bunch of tax incentives from the local government.

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    9. My take on this is that you could ask the people from Harebrained schemes that brought us the reboot of Shadowrun.

      Which is by the way an example of a quite successful Kickstarter.

      Utilizing their engine for weapons and magic, all you need to add would be overland travel.

      I know this is over-simplified. Just as an example how you could enter such an enterprise with limited effort, i.e. not starting from scratch.

      The niche here would be historic role-playing.

      Count me in!

      :)

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    10. The Shadowrun games are misson based and rather linear. You'd still have to redo the entire artwork, rewrite the rule system, add menu cities or something similar (you're not doing 50+ cities in that engine), add a way to handle encounters. Plus licencing costs for the Unity engine at least. All that for a rather slow and buggy engine.

      I'm pretty sure Shadowrun Returns cost way more than $1M to make, all things included, and they are certainly not AAA titles. $3-5M for a much more complex game like Darklands sounds realistic to me.

      Best case would probably be the original source code, if it still exists, getting open sourced.

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    11. Shadowrun Returns' engine is absolutely not made for a game like Darklands. The original incarnation of the engine couldn't even handle persistency at all, and you couldn't re-enter an area once you left it. Dragonfall and Hong Kong improved that, but it still isn't the best engine for an open world game.

      Besides, the game has nu-Xcom style turn based combat, Darklands has RTwP. So you'd have to code a new combat system from scratch.

      I wouldn't choose that engine for a Darklands sequel.

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  9. Okay, maybe this has been talked about before, but why exactly did CGW keep Scorpia on for this long if she's so disliked that the editor has to come out and say she's full of it?

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    1. Well, first, the fans liked her. Even I agree with her reviews more often than not. She didn't beat around the bush and didn't give any leeway to AAA games or AAA publishers. She wrote more than just reviews, too, and I think a lot of the fans liked her for her hints and tips. She was definitely more honest than the typical game reviewer, insisting that she finish the game before writing about it. British Amiga magazines could have taken a lot from that ethic.

      This thread has some interesting information:

      https://forum.quartertothree.com/t/scorpia-is-back/28147/10

      A later editor-in-chief comments that Scorpia was friends with Johnny Wilson (despite the counterpoint in this issue). He may have brought her aboard when he joined the magazine in the early 1980s, and his departure in 1999 happened to correspond with her legendarily career-ending review of Baldur's Gate.

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    2. I'd assume it's a combination of experience, plenty of her reviews being more or less fine, and the fact that having a contrivertial writer isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't result in people canceling their subscriptions

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    3. While she held some things very important that may not be of any importance to me (or you), but re-reading those old magazine, I came to the conclusion that she was the one writer in the 80s and one of the very few in the 90s who had both an encyclopedic knowledge of adventure and role-playing games and a legitimate critical point of view. So many - so so many! - articles of that era, even in CGW are simple "this game has that feature and that graphic effect" type of alibi articles instead of reviews, while you can read her articles even today, and learn about that game something more than marketing lines.

      I think she was a bit ahead of her era in this regard, even if she placed an immense amount of weight on the endings of the games she played. Darklands' finish wasn't the only time she raged about a game, if I remember correctly, Eye of the Beholder 1 got the same treatment.

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    4. Ah, I didn't consider the whole hints & tips bit. But not only because of that. Sometimes because of how it seems her more memorable reviews are the controversial ones and her sometimes unflattering depictions in games. (although I can't think of one beyond MM3) Given that and the points you guys made about her knowledge and actually completing games, two things that to this day that less reviewers have than I'd like. I think I see exactly why she was kept on.

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    5. Thanks for mentioning the Baldur's Gate review, I hadn't heard of it before and boy does she deliver.

      http://www.cgwmuseum.org/galleries/issues/cgw_177.pdf page 190

      It's funny how much time she spends complaining about the lack of suitable mages but doesn't mention what I think most people did, dual Imoen, an unusual oversight for her.

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    6. Imoen is the only actual thief, though. There are enough traps and locks and sneaking that you always seem to need one. I never had a problem with using Dynaheir plus whatever wands came to hand, however. My problem with class availability is not enough good fighters. Under 2nd Ed rules, if you don’t have high percentile strength, you might as well be a cleric. Saddling the party with Jaheira the sort-of healer and her husband whatsisname the practically useless is the real crime there.

      Honestly, I don’t see her review as much of a condemnation as people seem to think. I mostly agree with her, and I bought Baldur’s Gate three times, including the Enhanced Edition. I’ve started and restarted so many times I can’t even remember.

      But I’ve never actually finished the game. Best I’ve done is getting to Baldur’s Gate itself. At that point the prospect of another round of fetch and fedex quest overwhelms me. As Scorpia says in her review, you can’t follow the main quest initially, and the game sort of forces you to complete everything in the first few maps. If you’re 7-8th level when you finally hit BG, it’s plenty past time to be shlepping goods around for a couple hundred gold, and theres’s a strong impression that you’re maybe halfway through the plot. Add in how unfair D&D starts to get at that point, and after half a dozen reloads I just get bored and discouraged. But up until that point, it’s interesting if not compelling and challenging but not impossible. I wouldn’t want to contemplate trying to finish on a first play through. I’m not even sure that’s possible, with all the ways you can screw up character advancement and party composition.

      Party NPC’s are the game’s biggest weakness, to me. Aside from Minsc, who frankly makes up for most of the others’ deficiencies, the available NPC’s you can find are weak, annoying, or both, and even the ones with the ability scores to be helpful have to be encountered early so that you can be the one making their advancement decisions.

      It’s no wonder that Scorpia’s review lauded the multiplayer so highly. I imagine that having properly constructed characters without dopey AI would eliminate most of the things that make the game drag. You just have to keep people in the room for 40 hours or so.

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    7. Or you could play solo multiplayer and design and play all characters yourself. It doesn't really need min-maxing though, most party compositions can beat the game if you have even the slightest idea what you're doing. I'm not even sure how you can "screw up" character advancement when there are barely any choices leveling up, and I think normal difficulty gives you maximum hit points. Attributes can be fixed with items and buffing spells.

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    8. For me, there's an entire gulf of 5 years between where I am now and BG in which I played virtually no games, so I don't know what I'll encounter along the way, nor what Scorpia had experience with herself between 1992 and 1998. All I know is that the first time I fired up BG, I encountered voiced, memorable NPCs with actual personalities for the first time. Even though I'd never used anything like it, I got used to the combat system immediately and thought it balanced real-time combat and tactical combat very well. The interface was extremely intuitive, the graphic backdrops lovely, and the quests both varied and interesting. Plus, there was a ton of the game to just EXPLORE. I had only been playing for a few hours when I remarked to Irene that I thought I was playing the best RPG that I'd ever played.

      I can accept that people don't like it in a "what a boring world it would be if we were all the same" sense, but I don't really UNDERSTAND it.

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    9. I looked at Scorpia's review again. It's less negative than I remembered, but there are still a few baffling lines:

      "I talked to people only when necessary . . . the dialogue is awful." I don't remember it being awful, certainly not in comparison to other RPGs I'd played. I couldn't remember any others that gave such a large set of dialogue options. I was enchanted with the approach. If she deliberately avoided NPCs, she missed half the game.

      "There is no question that [it] was designed from the first with multiplayer in mind." I mean, that's just about as wrong as you can be. The game features a single protagonist who encounters so many NPCs willing to join the party that you can barely juggle them all. It certainly SUPPORTS multiplayer, but it does just about all it can to discourage it.

      "Unfortunately, what starts as rather interesting [regarding the plot] later fizzles out." I have no idea where, in her mind, the plot "fizzled out," but I thought it built quite satisfyingly throughout the game, came to a major revelation, and ended relatively quickly after that. For a reviewer awfully quick to through the "Foozle" label on the standard beat-the-wizard plot, she's awfully critical of the first plot I'd seen in a long time with any significant complexity.

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    10. Personally, I think Baldur's Gate 1 is quite bland and boring. I had played BG2 first, as well as several other RPGs I liked much more - Arcanum, Fallout, Planescape Torment, Morrowind, even Diablo 2. When I then played BG as a classic I missed, it felt very bland and boring as all those other RPGs I had played had much more interesting settings.

      Some people prefer BG1's open exploration over BG2's points of interest you can only travel to if you hear about them. But I found BG1's wilderness maps to be mostly empty and filled with generic filler encounters. When you meet NPCs there they tend to just give you a quirky one liner and that's that. Meh. Exploration in BG1 was never much fun to me.

      Dungeons are also terrible, with thr exception of Durlag's Tower, which is expansion content. Optional side dungeons tend to consist of narrow labyrinthine hallways, which would work well in a game like M&M, but doesn't work at all in BG.

      The setting is the most generic fantasy ever, which was a huge disappointment to me after playing BG2, which contains some of the more interesting elements of the Forgotten Realms. In BG2, you enter dragon lairs, ancient temples to forgotten gods, an underwater city of amphibious creatures, the underdark, a planar sphere, pocket planes... cool stuff through and through. The city of Athkatla is also very cool, a vague mix of Renaissance Spanish and Middle Eastern architecture, and the city layout with the major explorable districts that are chock full of content and the implication of a larger city beyond that. Meanwhile in BG1 you explore mostly empty wilderness areas, meet mundane people in mundane towns, deal with generic fantasy threats such as orcs and goblins, and the city of Baldur's Gate may be huge but most of its real estate contains nothing of interest.

      I'm not a huge fan of D&Dbased RTwP combat (either give me proper real time or proper turn based, not some unholy Frankenstein abomination of both), and BG1 is much weaker in that department compared to BG2. It's low level D&D and very luck based at the start when HP is low. Enemy types aren't half as varied and interesting as in BG2. So coming from BG2, with its mage duels, illithids, umber hulks, beholders, kuo-toa, and the dozens of spells in your spellbook, BG1 felt very lame in comparison.

      I guess it's a matter of perspective. Back in th3 day BG surely was a revolutionary game, but since I missed it and played its sequel first, it just feels bland to me. There are also some earlier games I like much better, like Dark Sun Shattered Lands, so I can see how someone with as much genre experience as Scorpia would give BG a mediocre rating at the time of its release.

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    11. It's interesting. I was also extremely disappointed with Baldur's Gate when it originally came out. As someone accustomed to the Ultima games' rich world building and the Golden Box games' perfectly controlled combat, I found BG's world dull and lacking in interactivity, and its combat sloppy and chaotic.

      While I still hold these criticism to be true to a large extent, I did enjoy the game much more when replaying it a few years ago. Maybe I've learned to enjoy the little things more, all those small side quests and combat encounters, experimentation with the wide variety of spells etc.

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    12. Yeah, similarly to Chet, when I fired up BG I hadn't played many RPGs released post-'92, and my alwmost immediate reaction was: 'I am playing the best game ever made'

      "Under 2nd Ed rules, if you don’t have high percentile strength, you might as well be a cleric. Saddling the party with Jaheira the sort-of healer and her husband whatsisname the practically useless is the real crime there."

      Strength doesn't matter in BG. Melee is for chumps. Khalid has good dex/con and points in bows, can't ask for more. Except for a less annoying voice track.

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    13. At the time, I loved all the dialogue... coming back to it now, where I have a lot less time to dedicate to games, I find it tedious. I don't need to hear every barmaid's life story!

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    14. I'm having a similar experience in Planescape: Torment, playing for the first time. For the first hour or so I was amazed that everybody had something unique to say. It got to be tedious around the twentieth time I clicked on a generic NPC only to uncover yet another sidequest with half a dozen miscellaneous characters spread all over the place.

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  10. I think Battle Brothers initially tried to be a successor to Darklands, but pivoted to being the hardcore tactical experience in Germanish lands it is now.

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    1. Ah yes - I see two spiritual successors :
      - King of the Dragon Pass for the textual interaction and choice. This is one of this game that belongs to no real genre, even less so than Star Control II though.
      - Mount and Blade for the "freedom" of action and the Pirates! approach to objectives.


      None are full RPG, arguably KOTP is not a RPG. Arguably.

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    2. The indie Serpent in the Staglands calls out Darklands as inspiration, and a number of reviews it as a successor of sorts:
      https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1649838104/serpent-in-the-staglands

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    3. King of Dragon Pass was on my mind constantly while reading these reviews. That game also allows you much more roleplaying in the sense discussed here: true freedom of choice, with no obvious best or worst options, a wide range of possible outcomes (partly affected by stats, resource investment and prior decisions), and a number of different moral overtones.

      I hope we'll see that game on this blog at some point, even though it (defying genres as it does) isn't a true CRPG. But then, we've seen Pirates! on here, so hopefully there'll be space for it.

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    4. I like to create hybrids, and I would put KoTP in the same category as Crusader Kings : "Strategy RPG" or "Management RPG" :)


      Chester would absolutely love it.

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    5. I would classify Crusader Kings as a human genome experiment simulator, because that’s about all I’ve managed to learn how to do. CK wouldn’t get very high marks on the GIMLET for its UI.

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    6. KODP is an outstanding game. Only problem is that you sort of have to be into Runequest's default location of Glorantha to really get into it. But if you are, boy it is a rich treasure trove.

      It's not a "six characters hit the dungeon" RPG, but a "roleplay an entire barbarian clan over decades" RPG/adventure hybrid. Your clan council has development and your clan has an inventory. No character attributes, though. Much like Pirates and Star Control 2, it should still be played because it is awesome.

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    7. I love KoDP (and I see its sequel is out on the iOS App store, other platforms expected next year).

      But mechanically it is more like the 'Dictator' genre, with a menu of options presented every in-game month or so from which you must choose one.

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  11. Since you posted a question mark after the acronym FRPG used in one review, I'd wager it means Fantasy RPG, as opposed to scifi RPG or other (literary) genres.

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    1. That is probably the case. I don't know why it didn't occur to me.

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  12. Regarding the divisive nature of Darklands, Finnish gaming magazine Pelit gave it two separate reviews in the same issue - one awarding it 9/10 and the other 6/10.

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  13. > "Unfortunately, setting the game in the "real" world creates a certain paucity of enemy types...

    There's a tendency to assume this, compared to the bestiary of the average fantasy game, but there's no reason it should be true. Human opponents alone could be wide and varied... if the graphics and the mechanics allowed for that variety. A pikeman could be a completely different enemy from a mounted knight, who is different again from a knight on foot, who is different from a military archer, who is different from a bandit with a bow. Games can and have made all those options feel wildly different and interesting. But you need mechanics that make those differences more meaningful than just different armour ratings and damage values, which it doesn't sound like Darklands provides. (And you need graphics that don't just make them all look like "yet another random dude").

    >> Re: Scorpia's opinion

    Personally, I feel that Scorpia has taken the right stance here. All a reviewer can offer is an accurate description of the content they experienced, and an honest assessment of how they reacted to it and (where possibly) why. How can you honestly say that it's a good game if your personal experience involved you howling in rage?

    At best you can go, "It may be that others would have a different experience," but that really should be implicit in the concept of the review. It's not for every individual reviewer to create a perfect unbiased summary of the game, but rather for many reviewers to each accurately give their subjective opinion. If your experience is unique and unrepresentative, that will be clear in the spectrum of reviews generally. And in the meantime, it's relevant that the game as released left someone howling with rage, and gives developers an incentive to not release games with problems that leave players with that intensely unpleasant feeling.

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    1. One might also say that someone who reviews games professionally would avoid becoming so emotionally committed as to howl in rage, and that someone who did so frequently or who gave idiosyncratic or highly personalized reviews would naturally limit their utility as a reviewer. After all, the reason people seek out opinions about works of art is to consult someone with expertise who can provide a recommendation based on that experience. Someone who approaches games from an odd direction or with a glaring bias just isn’t as useful as someone who actually does their job.

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    2. That seems an odd claim. I want someone reviewing games who is knowledgable about them but also dispassionate? So they know, but don't have any emotional investment? I suppose that's helpful if you like playing games without reacting emotionally at all.

      Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the prototypical movie reviewers for a generation, and they were definitely emotional committed while also able to do their jobs. Indeed, the worst movies arguably aren't the ones that are enragingly or amusingly bad, but the ones that don't engage the emotions at all. To suggest that the opposite is true for CRPGs seems to me to require proof, and to fly in the face of Chester's experiences. And if a good CRPG is one that makes you feel, as well as think, then why in the world should a good reviewer ignore the way the game they reviewed made them feel?

      Scorpia was right about the ending of Eye of the Beholder, BTW. After an immersive experience culminating in a climactic encounter, the game abruptly dumps you to DOS with a single "thanks for playing" line of text. No treasure, no chance to review your winning characters, nothing. It's like if Jackson's Return of the King movie showed the One Ring falling into the lava and cut to a black screen that read "thanks for watching."

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    3. It's like if Jackson's Return of the King movie showed the One Ring falling into the lava and cut to a black screen that read "thanks for watching."

      That...sounds kind of awesome, actually. Sort of "The Nine Billion Names of God" crossed with The Sopranos, crossed with all the games that have indeed done something similar.

      (Though I'm glad the movie didn't actually end that way, mind. I've also never understood the complaints that it went on 20 minutes too long: can't we handle a bit of reflection after a 9+ hour journey?)

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    5. Shorter version of my previous comment:

      You can't speak intelligently to whether someone else might like something when your experience was horrid.

      Example: Chet is colourblind. Occasionally this severely impacts his enjoyment of a game. Occasionally it might render a game completely unplayable.

      A reviewer who isn't colourblind can't tell him whether he can play or enjoy this game, or whether it's visually attractive to him. They can, at best, say whether there's a colourblind graphics option that can be toggled. They don't know if it works. They might be able to tell that the game requires you to distinguish red and green where it's a core mechanic, but they're likely to miss red-on-green clashes in backgrounds or interface elements, because it's not their experience and they're not looking for it.

      If this is something that matters to Chet, he needs a review by someone who is colourblind. If their review is, "No, this game is unplayable for me, because you can't make progress if you can't distinguish red and green." That person is basically required to give the game zero stars - it's unplayable. They can't guess how many stars someone who isn't colourblind might give it, because they can't have that experience. Their experience was it was a useless piece of software, and that's super-important for Chet to know before purchasing.

      I could also give an example about reviewing games for women who haven't been socialised in the same gamer culture as me. Basically I can and should be aware of what makes or breaks a game for them, but I'm never going to be able to say, "I didn't like this game, but women might." That's frikking patronising. I can talk about what I saw in the game, in terms of representation of women, and then whether I liked that or not, and why, and that's about the extent of it.

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    6. I appreciate your post, GregT, but would sound a note of caution: I'm not sure it's useful to conflate things like "bias", "area of expertise", "personal preferences", etc.

      Personally, I find that a really good reviewer can give something a bad review, even a scathing one, and still communicate to me that I would like it. And -- conversely -- I'm getting tired of claims that our individual experiences are so unique that meaningful communication and mutual understanding are almost impossible unless you share a person's specific background, life experiences, and/or identity. Such things as empathy and imagination do exist, even if they seem in short supply among the loudest voices these days. Having lived my life marked for difference in many ways, including a long-term disability, I don't find any association between a person's experience with my exact circumstances and their ability to offer insight. It's smart, empathetic people with high intelligence (including emotional intelligence) who reliably outperform all others in that department, not people who can tick the right boxes on some imaginary checklist.

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    7. PK Thunder - I suspect we've already exhausted Chet's patience for this kind of discussion, and I've had plenty of words in which to make a convincing argument, so I'll stop here, noting only to accept your point that it's certainly not a black and white position that a person can make *no guesses whatsoever* as to whether different people might have a different experience to what they had.

      I think it's probably not safe, though, to say: "A male educated Western hardcore gamer who writes for a dedicated games publication can explain to me, a (presumably) male educated Western hardcore gamer who reads a dedicated games publication, why he didn't like a game but I might," and say that therefore any writer can say something meaningful about whether a game fills the needs of any reader.

      That's a tiny cultural gap that's being traversed, and the vast historical majority of critical writing about videogames has been addressed at understanding that gap and the array of preferences that exist within it. If you've read that kind of writing (as I have and, I suspect, you have) it can lead to a false impression of understanding a diversity of needs and tastes when in fact the diversity we're familiar with is basically homogeneity in the grand scheme of things.

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  14. Starting to play bloodnet this week. It's a game from 1993 instead, based on the time of contemporary reviews

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  15. An interesting read that matches the idea behind Darklands is Umberto Eco's Baudolino. It is set around the sacking of Constantinople by the 4th Crusade and the protagonist named in the title tells stories of having encountered all those beasts and kingdoms (e.g. Prester John's) in his life. It is typical of Eco's style of course, with lots of dumps of information on medieval history and folklore.

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    1. I liked that book, even though it read a bit silly and only became more so the further one read. And yes, it's a good showcase of what happens when you take mythological ideas seriously. At one point, fantasy creatures like centaurs and monopods (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopod_(creature)) are giving battle against the mongol hordes. Definitely quite a read.

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  16. Here is an explicit acknowledgement that Elder Scrolls was inspired by Darklands (among a short list of others too):

    https://web.archive.org/web/20120808185406/http://planetelderscrolls.gamespy.com/fullstory.php?id=159095

    See the Q&A at the end specifically.

    I enjoyed the write up, blog posts, and your enjoyment of this (unpolished yet striking) gem!

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  17. And I'm playing through Planescape Torment at the moment, my third attempt, determined to finish it this time!

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  18. I doubt that the fantasy elements in the game were really common belief in the 15th century. Medieval people were not as stupid as modern call them to feel smarter.

    It's like saying today's people believe in Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves.

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    1. I think you're underestimating the lack of education in large parts of the population. And how scary a (largely unexplained) world without technology feels at night...

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    2. Hell, even right here in the modern world there are plenty of adults who believe utter nonsense. In the interests of avoiding a flame war I'll refrain from giving examples, but I'm sure anyone reading this can think of plenty of people who believe in things he considers absurd...

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    3. People also had different takes on what constitutes authority. The Church says it's true? Then it's probably true the Church doesn't lie. Some ancient text from a Roman scholar says it's true? Then it's probably true these guys were smart.

      People believed unicorns were real because a church in France kept a unicorn horn once owned by Charlemagne. Charlemagne was a great king, he wouldn't keep a fake. The church wouldn't keep a fake either. So unicorns have to be real because it can't be a fake horn, because if it were fake such high authorities wouldn't care about owning it.

      It was a narwhal horn, but people didn't know about narwhals in that region, so it was a unicorn horn instead.

      People also believed elephants and dragons were bitter enemies who hunted each other in the African desert because Pliny wrote something along those lines, and he's an ancient Roman author who can be trusted, therefore what he says is true.

      Medieval people generally acted differently towards sources than we do. We ask, when someone makes a claim, where is your proof? Medieval people ask, who is making that claim? If it's an ancient Roman or Greek author, a man of the church, or high nobility like a king or emperor, it's a trustworthy source and therefore it must be true.

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    4. My Japanese wife very much believes in all the traditional spirits and yokaii that she grew up with.

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    5. People believed unicorns were real in Scotland up until the beginning of the 20th century.

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    6. 'Elephants and dragons were bitter enemies who hunted each other in the African desert.'

      I so want that to be true.

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    7. @JarlFrank A narwhal tusk to be precise.

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  19. Darklands was a frustrating game for me (And bear in mind I didnt mess with the earlier bug ridden versions, other then confirming they were bug ridden.) One issue I had was that while character creation was fun, there was little reason to do anything other then maximize strength and endurance, and ignore intelligence (Except for the alchemist.), the nature of the combat system meant that everyone was best in heavy plate, and that meant the agility score was almost useless (Darklands had a early penalty for agility bonuses for wearing armor. In heavy armor agility was not very useful.) As a result, All my characters ended up being armored, armed and fighting basically the same. I had no fighter, no thief, no cleric etc. Only my alchemist was really any different in combat, and his only difference was that he wasn't as good. And since potions could be shared prebattle, that wasn't offset by being better at spells etc. So I had 3 fighters and one less effective fighter. As the review notes, weapon skill increases easily, while vital 2nd skills are hard to raise, so other then maximizing Strength and Agility, maximize the 2nd skills and ignore the weapon skills since they improve so well.

    I also hated the permanent damage to equipment from alchemy potions. Combined with the near total absence of magical weapons, (And the one holy weapon I found was just a high quality weapon, you really couldn't see a difference using it) made looting and equipping nowhere near as fun.

    Now of course this can be viewed as realistic, but honestly I really affected how I enjoyed the game. At the same time I loved the attention to detail, all the options in the game, all the content etc. This is a hard game to judge, I loved and hated it.

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  20. When i tried Tales of Illyria a long time ago it just felt like i was playing Darklands again. Has anyone else here played it or felt like that with any other game?

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  21. Bloodnet is a C.R.P.G, one of my favorites of the genre despite many flaws. It has character stats and development, turn-based combat, party members, N.P.C.s and a complicated interface. I do not like this game, but Bloodnet's interesting world, nice mix of Gothic horror and cyberpunk, complex and difficult resource management and fun combat make it great.

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  22. Tales of Illyria, a series of a games for mobile systems (and the first Steam Console can't remember the name), kind of ran with text based encounters. Combat was different, but overall the games reminded me a lot of Darklands

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  23. "Hendrick, I should add, is a fairly unique game designer in that he came from a background of board and tabletop gaming and never learned programming. It reminds me of how Irving Berlin became immortal writing hundreds of hit songs while never actually learning how to read, write, or play music. I sometimes wonder if I could make a go as a game designer or a composer with a similar lack of foundational skills. Perhaps--but I don't think I'd ever have the gall to put myself out there as such."

    This probably was unusual in the early nineties, but not that exceptional, I think. Shigeru Miyamoto never was a programmer. Several pioneering producers like Warren Spector never had coding skills. It's not comparable to a composer who doesn't know how to read sheet music.

    I'd guess that starting from about 1999-2005 or so there were a lot of game designers, including lead designers, who didn't know programming. I haven't found any concrete information about the share of designers who know programming nowadays. I'd guess that it is less than half of the design departments in large companies. In smaller teams it's more important to be able to wear multiple hats. In any case, video game designers should at least acquire a somewhat decent understanding of the programming complexity of their game ideas.

    Are you toying with the idea of designing a CRPG? You seem to work very efficiently - your blogging output seems to be larger than the output of professional game journalists, and you do this in addition to a full-time job. (Could it be that you don't need much sleep?) So if you could put about 10 hours of work most weeks into designing a CRPG, work with an efficient programmer, and keep the scope of the game manageable, I think that this might be enough to attain sufficient development speed. And you could blog about it too.

    At first you can design the prototype of e.g. a turn-based combat system without programming help - either with board game tokens or miniatures, scraps of paper, or even in Excel. When you have a prototype, I'm sure you could find a capable programmer through this blog.

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    1. I've given it some thought. I need to get some other projects finished (or even started) first. But thanks for the encouragement.

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  24. I started to play earlier this year is Darklands, and I still need to get back to it (working on the Templars monastery). It was very intimidating back in the day when my friend gave it to me in high school, and I didn't know what to do. I was so lost in the open world that I was overwhelmed and put it away. It was something I was definitely not used after having played the SSI Gold Box series where you had way more guidance at the start. The character creation and skill based system is amazing even with its flaws of useless/hard to advance skills and the setting is so fresh.
    Overall, I think your assessment is spot on about the games strengths and weaknesses. It was truly an ambitious game for its time. Although, I wonder if you would rate the economy so highly if you knew it could be broken through high-level alchemy? Once you get your alchemist to the right level with the right formulas, you can manufacture all the money you need in a few days in the inn. This is to the point that you don't have to go hitting the raubrittons for the cash like you have to do. Just reload on ingredients once you find the right place that sold them (changed every new game) and sell it the towns that paid the most for choice potions.

    I would love to see a modern remake of Darklands!

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  25. "You could easily envision a near-perfect RPG that would, for instance, merge the Gold Box style of combat, Ultima NPC interaction, and the variety of equipment found in Might and Magic with Darklands' basic approach."

    That would be awesome! Also if wasn't set in typical fantasy that would be even more amazing.

    Of course, when you say "Darklands basic approach", do you mean it's skill based almost classless system or it's more replayable open world format or aging of characters into retirement?

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