For our next witch, things are going to get a little more obscure. This post is about a video game: a video game from 1992, set in medieval Germany. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, even though very few other people have heard of it.
Because Darklands is a game about witches.
I first played Darklands when I was in Grade 5, after a classmate of mine installed it on our school computer. Playing as a group, my friends and I designed four adventurers to send out into the medieval world, giving them strange occupations (“Novice Monk,” “Vagabond”) and even stranger skills (“Religious Training,” “Artifice”). A few clicks later and we were sneaking around a Germanic city in the middle of the night. To our dismay, we were accosted almost immediately by the night watch, who demanded we pay a hefty fine for breaking curfew.
What were we to do?
So, we attacked the night watch. And, as far as I can remember, they beat us pretty handily. We got taken to prison, where we attempted to tunnel out with a spoon; unfortunately, the turnkey found our “embryo tunnel,” and so we were moved to an even worse cell. Eventually we were taken before the magistrate, and quickly sentenced to death; unable to break free of our bonds, each of our four adventurers was beheaded, one by one.
Suffice to say, our first attempt at playing the game was not a success.
We got better, though. Darklands is largely a text-based game, and as we learnt to make smarter decisions, our party of adventurers began to find more success. We fought brigands in the woodlands, selling their clothing to buy lock picks, weapons and armour. We sought out robber knights (or raubritters) in their castles, sneaking into their bedchambers at night to duel them one-on-one. We survived attacks from wild boars, roasting their meat and slicing off their tusks for good luck charms.
But as the game went on, stranger things began to happen. You see, Darklands is a game set in medieval Germany – as imagined by the medieval Germans. It’s a world where a priest can routinely perform miracles by praying to the saints, and where seemingly innocent hamlet towns can be found cavorting with genuine demons. It’s a world where a secret witch-cult is plotting to bring about the end of all things, protecting their evil work with a series of magic seals. It can take hours for the player to discover any of this, but once they do, it becomes clear that the witches must be stopped.
And so we come to my favourite encounter in the entire game.
The witch in the sod hut is one of the earliest witchy antagonists a Darklands player can encounter. As soon as you approach, she bursts out of the hut, screeching; wolves appear on either side of you, howling out blood-curdling shrieks. Combat begins at once: the wolves attack as expected, but the witch begins throwing potions, which are extraordinarily rare in this game. Sometimes she’ll slow you down with a stone-tar potion, which turns the ground to mud; other times she’ll stun you with a vial of sunburst, or try to blind you with Solomon’s Eyeburn. When your adventurers finally reach her she draws a knife for the close-quarters combat, slicing and slashing with unbridled fury.
Alright, I admit it – I’m embellishing things a bit. It’s an exciting fight, but the graphics aren’t that great. It actually looks like this:
If you can win the combat, you’ll get to loot the battlefield, claiming the witch’s dagger and maybe even some of those super valuable potions. The blonde witch is left cowering before you, trembling with fear as she begs for her life. The player is given five options to decide the witch’s fate. Two options progress the main storyline, two give the player a boon, and one option is a deadly trap. Which one would you choose?
Have you made a choice? Alright, here are the spoilers. The alchemical formulas are a rather useful boon, as they’ll allow a skilled character to brew potions of their own; getting three of these formulas at once is a significant windfall. Asking the witch to do penance for her sins is also good, as it will sometimes increase the virtue of the party; this is essential for calling on saints, which becomes increasingly necessary as the difficulty of the game increases. If you picked either of these options, you’ve chosen very well indeed.
Asking for unnatural strength is the trap. In fact, it’s one of the nastiest traps in the entire game.
So getting a boon is better than dying – but perhaps better still is learning the time and place of the High Sabbat. To break the first of the great seals, your adventurers will have to infiltrate a meeting of the witch-cult, disrupting the wicked ceremony from within. By asking about the secret calendar, or about the High Sabbat directly, the player can learn where to direct their heroes next, and so continue their virtuous quest.
I’d love to tell you all about the High Sabbat (it’s one of the most thrilling encounters in the entire game), but I think this post has already done enough to introduce you to Darklands. The game is very old, and very difficult, but if your interest has been piqued, I encourage you to seek it out. I’ll leave you with just a taste of the meeting with the witch-cult, as the party first enters the site of the ceremony. Spooky!
— One of my favourite things about Darklands is the sheer amount of content packed into the game – and how long you can play for without stumbling across any of the good stuff. Dragons in particular are so darn rare that you can go an entire game without ever seeing one, even though the developers must have spent a significant amount of effort programming them in. There are numerous other secret monsters hidden across the map as well, and discovering them is always an absolute thrill.
— The Darklands manual (which I never had as a kid) cites the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1486) as a key influence on the game’s folklore. I skimmed the Malleus Maleficarum a couple of years ago, but I must admit that I’m yet to read the book in its entirety. If I get it read anytime soon, my review may turn up as a witch post later in the year.
— No joke: this is a hard game. I first played it in 2002, but I completed it for the first time in about 2012. I certainly wasn’t playing the game non-stop for that ten year period, but it took me a very long time to build up enough tips and tricks to make it to the end. It’s a fun game no matter how you’re playing it, but if you want to beat the final evils, you’ll have to put in quite a bit of practice. (Or maybe I’m just really bad at it.)
— So, here’s a pro tip, based on years of Darklands experience: to get far in this game, your party will need to consist of a charismatic leader, two warriors, and an alchemist. For this play through, my leader was called Jeff Winger, my warriors were called Indiana Jones and James Bond, and my alchemist was called Walter White. All of these names please me greatly.
— The game also features my favourite ever description of broomstick flight. Here’s another snippet from the High Sabbat:
— The unsung hero of the game really is the artwork. Sure, it’s dated by modern standards, but I really love those pixel art backgrounds, and it’s such a thrill when I find one I’ve never seen before – which is still happening in 2017, 15 years after I first played the game. Huge credit goes to art director Michael Haire and the rest of the team at MicroProse.
— I eventually bought my own copy of Darklands for $2, in a toy store in Horsham. You can now buy it for slightly more than that on Steam.
— Special thanks to Matt K, who first installed Darklands on our class computer, and to my good friend Jarryd, who has similarly been playing this game for far too many years. Thanks for the memories!