Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Obligatory Retrospective Review of a Beloved Childhood Thing #3: Dark World

Not Pictured: Anything with an XX Chromosome

Imagine being a young boy in the early nineties, home alone and you’ve already watched Wrath of Khan five times, and stared at that poster of Leia in the metal bikini for far longer than would be considered healthy. What’s one to do without the internet? I mean Pokémon hasn't even been invented yet for Christ's sake. Then suddenly you invite a friend round he brings along a copy of Dark World, an Action-Adventure board game which captures the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons whilst mentally distancing yourself from that silver bullet. 

Dark World was published in 1992 by Waddingtons, before they were bought out by Hasbro for creating board games that didn’t ruin entire families (i.e. Monopoly). 1992 was an interesting year (according to Wikipedia, I was still running into walls and soiling my pants): the Japanese government apologised for the crime of using Comfort Women and President Bush vomited into Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap. The modern European Union was formed; Lee Jang Rim’s Dami Movement inevitably fails to predict the apocalypse, and the existence of exoplanets is confirmed. But bringing up the grim side of the year (aside from the many natural disasters): Dr. Almada discovers the Archives of Terror – detailing the brutal actions of the police throughout Latin America. 1992 is officially known as the International Space Year and saw the first ever worldwide commercial video game release – Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Sonic II multi-player: the number one cause of Resentful Little Brother Syndrome.

The Consensus:

After a brief bit of research on the internet, I’ve concluded that Dark World is considered to be every bit as derivative of better work as the test results in a clone laboratory mass-producing cheating students. I suppose this is expected considering the game’s setting is an unholy amalgamation of the worlds of Howard and Tolkien. The market for this sort of game was as over-saturated as Narcissus' Instagram account.  

Particularly loathed is the game's uncanny ability to grant one player more power than the rest combined. Dark World apparently being designed by an embittered mole-man who can’t speak the word ‘friendship’ without it tasting like bitter ashes in his mouth.

How I Remember It:

“Whoa! Is that an ogre?” "Wow, I nearly lost my eye to that stray Barbarian nipple. Great!" Obviously, a child-like imagination is required to make the whole stale progress come to life. Something the manufacturer cannot put in the box – well, not until Inspector Cranium starts working for Mattel. Also, it should be noted that my childhood lacked the more intricate dungeon crawling board games, I didn't play Legend of Zagor or HeroQuest until much later. And I didn't truly get into board games until Altar GamesProphecy, released a whopping twelve years after Dark World.

Does It Hold Up?

Like almost everything from the nineties (I'm looking at you bucket hats and Gameboy Colour worm lights), time has not been kind to Dark World. It's the type of board game that comes with the recommended production levels of adventure, but no more. Like a wealthy family, Dark World does the bare minimum while holding you in contempt when you attempt to finish the rest yourself and subsequently fail to meet its lofty expectations. Immediately, as you open the box, you’re greeted by dozens of shoddy plastic pieces, which the manual decrees must be painted to enhance your experience somehow. It's a cheap trick, like Pope Julius II commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and then being all "bitch, get off your lazy arse" when the painter enquired about scaffolding.

You practically need a degree in medieval architectural engineering to put the whole thing together. There's this flimsy multi-layered castle with individual sections that you need to trickily lock into place like an inverted L-shape at a Tetris orgy. The problem is that the production is weak, and the holes are either incorrectly aligned or the pegs are. So the whole procedure devolves into a process of deft manipulation, as you attempt to the angle the pegs from one side into the holes without the full thing popping out. And WHO think solving the Ebola crisis is a thankless task. Even when you do eventually complete the entire structure, it's guaranteed that it'll be too late for your waning interest.

Not unlike manually inflating a blow-up doll.

Gameplay revolves around infiltrating Korak the Cobran Nemesis' doom fortress. You know, the one you just spent half an hour putting together. Right from the off you're up against the villain you helped to cement into a position of power; you're essentially the CIA and Korak's the Mujahideen. In order to complete this task, you are required to chose from one of the usual bunch. There's a Barbarian, a Knight, a Ranger, or a Dwarf - because being short, and stout, is now a career choice thanks to Little Tea Pot. As it's the early nineties these guys all resemble the cast of a cheapo direct-to-video fantasy flick; rippling muscles, dodgy facial hair, and loin cloths so skimpy there's an online community dedicated to lambasting their skinny privilege. I always went for the Knight purely because he rocked a John Walter's pencil 'tash.

Not that it ultimately matters who you choose to play as. Dark World does the whole peculiar (not to mention lazy) thing of every character having the same number of hit points, damage dice rolls, etc. Which is particular erroneous considering one of the characters is pure testosterone left behind the radiator to curdle, whilst the others are as flimsy as the knob of a stick man trapped in a sexless marriage. In fact, homogeneity is at the very core of Dark World's ethos and proves to be ruinous to the game's attempt at creating an epic world. Imagine remaking Sophie's Choice and replacing the children with potatoes. You would hardly expect the choice aspect to carry the same weight.

The monsters progressively increase in vitality and number, but they operate within the exact same damage bracket - regardless of whether they fight with crude little daggers, prodigious claws, or the Wave Motion Gun from Star Blazers. Fight a goblin at the start of the game, and that's pretty much how it'll feel fighting a Chimera, mummy or ogre. Once you realise this - that the game is essentially going to boil down to a carefully executed line dance - Dark World stops being fun. If you and your cohorts can quickly clear a room with deft use of your items, abilities, and jolly co-operation, then you'll be equipped to handle most of what the game has to offer. You can search the dungeon for the bonus golden weapons, but there's little incentive - beyond being able to utilize an extra die. Yes, find a magic sword and you'll be able to roll three dice like you're in an elevator trying to do a bluff skill check to cover up a rank fart.

"He who rolled it, dolled it."

Eventually, the gameplay devolves into one big monotonous drag worthy of a soul-crushing shift at Greencore. The funny thing is that despite this,
Dark World attempts to remedy the problem of the Game Master having nothing to do. During their turn the GM gets to decide turn order, as well as enemy placement and distribution. They are even given a secret weapon to unleash: namely the Haunter. Naturally he's as grossly overpowered as the wave machine in Moses' pool. Randomly, the Haunter sweeps the board as broadly as the rubbish that spews from the mouth of Katie Hopkins. And if you happen to be in his path, well then it's back to the start for you. Do not pass go. I'm unsure of how best to describe micro-managing the threat of the Haunter and carrying out your monster-slaying duties. But I'm confident trying to keep two salt-water crocodiles from mating, whilst sitting a paper on interdisciplinary studies, would be far easier.

Obviously being the one to take charge of proceedings and screw over your friends is the most entertaining aspect of Dark World. After all, Medici probably imprisoned Machiavelli for being a motherfucker at games night. For everyone else, the game is likely to become a massive drag before the end. In part, this is because akin to a serpiginous lesion it's completely uneven. The aforementioned problems with homoeostasis in regards to damage output, abilities and powers, coupled with the overall lack of diversity results in the fun quickly expiring. Enter room, kill enemies, steal loot, and rinse and repeat - like an Edge of Tomorrow brand of shampoo.

Still, Dark World's nostalgic swords and sorcery setting whisked me off to my halcyon childhood days. There's something infinitely appealing about this style of fantasy. Big Damn Heroes bumbling their way through dungeons that increasingly resemble Gary Gygax's sex-basement. Invariably battling a Rolodex of mythological creatures, until the whole affair starts looking like the back of a secondary school maths exercise book. This was the ethos of the earlier editions of DnD: a bit silly, and full of obscure references. Nothing can compare to discovering a masterful re-imagining of a Dobrynya Nikitich byliny subtly buried in a campaign.

The Dark World of Dark World is one where whimsical magic meets technology. It can be weird when you pick up a hand grenade from a felled foe. What is this: Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I can't help but think that archvillains like Korak would get far less work if some entrepreneurial young spellcaster fused magic and steel together to create himself an ass-kicking assault rifle. The other consumables included winged boots and various elixirs, and these can be used exactly once. This stringent limit makes sense for the explosives and potions, but less so for the boots - I guess Meathead the Barbarian is sensitive about his smelly feet.

All in all, this is by no means a terrible game. For its time, the set provided was surprisingly intricate. Sure, you had to paint everything yourself - but you were given substantial pivoting doors, and twistable character stands with health trackers. What did HeroQuest give you? Pen and paper? Pft. László Bíró eat your heart out. Unfortunately, these improvements do not make up for Dark World's ultimate shortcoming: that it's rather tedious and lacks replayability. Nor is it a game that you'd want to play repeatedly. Unlike most board games, or even, game books (such as the awesome Lone Wolf series) there are no variables to alter. Which means that Dark World does not allow for different styles of playing, and it also means that the story and setting is always the same. You may like inoffensive predictability, but so did the inhabitants in The Machine Stops, and we all know how that ended. With death, obviously.

"What's on the schedule today? Ah, death, death and more death."

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