Friday, 31 March 2017

DARK EARTH


When a pen and paper RPG gets adapted for a video game, you'd expect it to follow certain conventions such as a complex fighting mechanic, character stats and the like. Based on the short-lived French series, Dark Earth by Kalisto Entertainment doesn't do that. It was released in 1997, the same year as the first Fallout, but by contrast it ignors its stat-heavy origins and follows the formula of another one of its contemporaries: Resident Evil.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a Great Cataclysm has engulfed most of the world in a thick black ash. Survivors have escaped the soot clouds and settled on higher ground and build a monastery/keep hybrid they've called Stallite Sparta after the Sun. A new mystical religion arose where magic is very much a reality. They worship the Sun and fear the Darkness and believe the day and night cycle are the two forces at war. Unlike Fallout, this post-apocalyptic depiction of Sparta is colourful and ordered. Only a rebel faction known as the Konkalites offer any kind of disruption and with this being a game, you know they will. Big time.

As Arkan, son of the Suneer Rhylsadar (think monk), you are enrolled as a Guardian of Light (think soldier). On your first day, the Konkalites sneak in and attack the Sunseers and infect you with a nasty poison called the Black Rot. It's no ordinary poison either. By using the power of the Darkness, it's slowly turning you into a monster. In this state, the game requires you to defeat the Konkalites, cure your illness and, naturally, save the world. A small task for a slowly dying man.

While you can play through most of the prologue before infection, the real game starts here. By now, you should've learned the rules of the land, and the basic mechanics but you'll now have to put them to good use. As you wake from your ordeal, you're told the illness is slowly taking you over. This is represented by an ever-increasing black bar next to your life bar. I really do hate timed sections in games, especially those that require a more thoughtful approach, but I had no issue with it here. There's a point where you come across a location that can reset the timer as many time as you want, but it was barely half full when I first found it.

You have three different stances or moods: light, dark and combat. The light mood is your regular polite self and is how you'll spend most of your game. Some situations require a more assertive demeanour so press TAB to embody your dark side. Your responses will be more aggressive and short-tempered and when searching for items, a kick or a punch will replace the gentle rummage. In this state doors can be kicked down 'cos turning knobs may be more than you can handle. It's rarely needed for plot progression, and for the longest time I forgot it was even an option, but it does embody one the game's most impressive features: multiple solutions.

Sometimes important answers can be wrangled out quicker when angry, which can be important if you're running out of time. Other times small side stories or character building will emerge. For example, you won't know the cause of the Great Cataclysm unless you punch things in a bunker. Other times your actions are just as important as your mood. Do you fight a guard blocking your path, or do you get him drunk? Maybe if you keep taking to him he'll budge, but maybe not. The entire middle section of the game even has two completely unique ways to get through it. And with the only way to die is by taking too long or fighting poorly, you'll be on the right track either way.

The last mood is combat. Press C to raise your fists ready for a punching. If you're holding a weapon at the same time, you'll fight with it. To attack, hold the Ctrl key and press one of the four directions to take a swing (or duck). The combat is mostly melee, although a small number of guns can be found later on. Guns are best suited it you're at a distance and with so few fights allowing for that they're not as useful as your axe or sword.

As you fight, your weapon will gradually break down until it's completely un-useable. Until you encounter an engineer later on in the game who'll be able to fix them, you'll have to keep switching blades so that none will be damaged beyond repair. Extra weapons are found on defeated enemies as well as hidden in various places in the game world. Considering how little you are required to fight, I never truly ran out.

Attack animations are slow and hits don't always register. The enemies are attuned to this way of fighting so it's not exactly unfair. It was perfectly fine for its time but with today's advances in controls it's incredibly clunky. Even so, you can still adapt to it quite easily. If anything it's the camera angles that really screw everything up - a problem that most survival horrors suffered from. If you don't get your timing right, you can be pushed into another room, and at one point that did cost me a game over. There was one particularly hefty boss who managed to knock me through an arch. This was a point where the game needs to load the next area so instead of carrying on, I instantly died with 70% of my health. There is a fair amount of minor bugs in the game (mostly in some jerky animation) but this was the only one to affect both the gameplay as well as the immersion.

Thankfully, there's little opportunity to fight. The main focus is on the amazing story and average puzzles. Most are little more than fetch-quests or treasure hunts, yet they still mesh well with the world. None feel out of place. Except one - the one puzzle that all developers from a certain era seem compelled to include in their adventures. I'm talking out Reversi. Or Othello. Or Yong as it's called in Sparta. I call it the Game Satan Shat Out to Torture Mortals. No matter what you call it, it is without a doubt one of the worst puzzles to ever include in a game. The way the game is constructed means that a perfect algorithm will always beat the imperfect mind. Unless programmers are up for the difficult task of coding fallibility, the AI will always beat you. To get around this deliberately including winning scenarios is the easiest option (there's apparently only two ways of succeeding here). It's made worse in Dark Earth by forcing you to trade in a weapon to play. Sure, you can find weapons fairly frequently but they're not unlimited. I had to restore a previously saved game more times than I can count before I won. Then, I'm told if I win three times in a row I'll get a cool weapon. Fuck that. I'll be damned if I ever have to play Reversi again.

If you've played any survival horror of the era, you'll have an idea as to how the game will look and play. The pre-rendered back drops are stunning, though objects may be a little too difficult to see at times. It's very atmospheric and does well in showing off this strange fantasy world, save for the odd weird camera angle. The ambient sounds and minimalist music also convey a palpable sense of wonder and menace that's rarely matched. The voice acting is above par too, though not without faults. The revelations of some characters' treachery will be spoiled by their obviously evil intonations and there's one character that sounds like a Monty Python cast member trying to act like a woman (even though the character is apparently a man). Beyond that it's very well done, at least compared to Resident Evil.

As a result, I was fully engrossed from beginning to end. It's mainly an adventure with a small amount of action with any signs of its RPG origins nowhere to be found. It's a testament to the game's writers and designers that Dark Earth doesn't feel like a watered down version of something bigger. What we have is an incredibly accomplished and absorbing game with a fantastic story that deserves far more recognition than it gets.


To download the game, follow the link below. This exclusive installer uses the DOSBox Daum build of DOSBox 0.74 running Windows '95. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 911 Mb.  Install Size: 1.4 Gb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

IMPORTANT - Run the PLAY shortcut withing the emulation to begin the game. Remember to shut down the emulated version of Windows before exiting DOSBox. This could potentially result in errors, lost saves and corrupt data. Press Ctrl-F9 when it is safe to do so.



Dark Earth is © Kalisto Entertainment
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me

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4 comments:

  1. This is awesome. More games with Win95 emulation (hell, maybe even 3dfx) would be greatly appreciated. As always, thank you for your hard work on reviewing and packaging these jewels of retrogaming.

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  2. Thanks man this game is my childhood!

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  3. the wait is over! finaly, Biffman made it! until now, nowhere can be found this underrated gaming gem! (working under win 7 with combo dosbox and win95, that is!)

    highly appreciated, thank YOU very much, B-man!

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  4. Thanks everyone! I too got a tinge of excitement when I got it working. I had played the demo in my youth, but didn't complete it until fairly recently. Brilliant game.

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