Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (1993)

It ain't easy being a gladiator, fighting in front of a bloodthirsty crowd, who only want to see monsters disembowel you. But that's how Dark Sun: Shattered Lands begins, on an arena, pitted against monsters while the audience gets bored while you try to stay alive. Entertainment isn't what it used to be, the audience is probably wondering when they see you again and again in between your feeble attempts at escaping.

It shouldn't take long though, for you to find means to escape. There's a plenty of planning going on in the gladiator pens. Almost everyone has a plan on how to get out and you might be the key to making some of them true. I don't know about you, but I ended up in sewers, where a pack of some sort of ray humanoids started pestering me for valuables. I thought that maybe I'd get an easy way out by giving them something, but they double-crossed me, the bastards, so I was given a merry chase by the arena guards, who ended up face down in the sewer sludge. From here on out, if someone threatens me, it will be a sock on the head for them. My giant fighter makes sure they'll get what they deserve.

Soon enough I found more rat cretins, but they weren't asses like the previous ones. In fact, their king pleaded me to rescue his daughter, who was taken by some cultists, so I agreed to do help. As the sewers were quite small, I found the cult fast enough. I fooled myself in and as the crazed leader told me about the upcoming sacrifice I decided to put an end to it pronto. Some fighting later the sewer floor was red with cultist blood and entrails. I and my posse looted the corpses and proceeded to open the only other door in the room, behind which we found the daughter of the chief.

We took her in tow and went back to the chief. Lo and behold, the small sewer system has somehow miraculously spawned more cultists despite I'm pretty sure we killed most of them already. Okay then, let's do it this way. Some uneventful fighting later, we finally learn the way out or ways out. Fuck hiding, we'll go out swords and spells blazing through the main sewer gate. Let's really rile those guards up.

So that's how it went. We killed a good score of guards, even a couple of asshats from the arena. You don't mess with a group of gladiators who do nothing else but beat the living daylight out of monsters all day long. But then, some sort of stage fright got us after we finally saw some sunlight after the smelly sewers, so we asked an elder slave a way out, which he jovially showed us. There were only a couple of guards on out way, so them skewered we broke the bone wall and were out.

I could go on and on of out adventures in the sun-baked desert, but I won't. Needless to say, we finally found our way to a little village, which had a sun touched shaman, who told that we were the only ones standing in front of an invasion army. Oh bloody hell, I thought. This must mean that we need to source the desert from end to end, doesn't it? Why saving the world is never a job for a team of professionals, but a ragtag gang of former gladiator slaves?

Dark Sun: Shattered Lands was an RPG developed by SSI of the legendary "gold box" D&D series fame. Time had driven past their old engine though, so Dark Lands doesn't look or feel anything like SSI's previous RPG's like the Pool of Darkness, or the Buck Rogers series. Away is the small, little 1st person screen for city navigation and full-screen overhead map for tactical combat. This time around the combat takes place on the main game screen, just like in Ultima 6. But unlike Ultima 6, Dark Sun constantly feels like a bit of a chore to play.

Sure enough, there are some nice things SSI did with the new engine they used on Dark Sun. The combat is one example, as it does feel snappier than it did on those old gold box games, where the combat areas could be very larger. On Dark Sun the combat happens right there on the same map and as each map is relatively small, the combat doesn't take that much time either. And in general, the combat system does work reasonably well. Also, the spell system, especially for mass effect spells, is quite nice, as the game clearly shows the effect radius of a fireball spell for an example, so you don't have to spend time figuring out if the spell you're blasting is licking your own group as well as the enemies.

But on an occasion, which is to say very often, it feels like the spells don't necessarily work as they're intended, as the game doesn't really give you feedback on spell failures and the like. While it looks like the spell is successful, it might not have any visible effect at all. Like if you do a mind control spell, you don't really know if that spell worked or not unless you're willing to wait and see who the enemy attacks.

The combat situations aren't always very easy to read either. It's all good if you are just battling an enemy on your own, but at times you might get NPC sidekicks battling with you against someone and then it might bet a tad difficult to directly see who's on your side. One particular battle with the spiders was very problematic in this, as the spiders that are on you side look exactly like the evil ones, so on that battle, I really didn't really know who to attack. I only knew the name of one spider on my side, but everyone else I had to wait and see whom they attacked. The combat system itself doesn't indicate in any way if the characters you are attacking are friendly or not.

As I did mention, the gameplay outside the combat reminds me a bit of Ultima 6.  This is because the game world is portrayed in a similar fashion. And, sadly, just like in Ultima 6 the visible area is just far too small, so the game feels a bit claustrophobic. Still, the navigation in Ultima 6 worked reasonably well, but in Dark Sun, even with the help of an overhead map, the navigation feels clumsy and at times unresponsive.

While the Dark Sun is an interesting setting, more so than what D&D's Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale settings are, the game itself hasn't really aged well. While it is playable, it's also all around very dated and it doesn't feel very fun game to play.

Dark Sun; Shattered Lands can be bought from GOG, if you fancy giving it a try yourself.