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Forgotten Gems: Dark Sun: Shattered Lands
Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Sat 2 October 2010, 11:42:38Tags: Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands is an AD&D CRPG developed by Strategic Simulations, Inc. and released for DOS in 1993. It is set in the Dark Sun universe, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting that was published in 1991 by TSR. A sequel, Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, was released one year later in 1994. It’s a turn-based game, and unlike earlier SSI titles like the Goldbox Games, it doesn’t switch to a first person view while traveling but sticks with an isometric perspective, which is something I vastly prefer.
To be honest, this article turned out to be less of a review and more like half a review, half a retrospective, and half a Let’s Play. There are a lot of spoilers, so be warned. There are worse things than spoilers about a 17 years old game though, I presume.
The sun is dark, the lands are shattered
Let’s examine the Dark Sun setting first, because this is not your usual D&D setting like the Forgotten Realms, for example. It’s a bit more unique and exotic, which is one of the reasons behind its charm.
The world of Dark Sun is called Athas. It’s a desert world where the conditions are harsh, water is scarce, resources like metal are almost depleted and only the fittest, strongest and smartest can survive. That’s the reason there is no level-less commoner class in the Dark Sun setting, odds are even your cleaning lady is a level 3 fighter with a strength of 18/00. You’re already something special if you can survive in this environment at all, as the weak have long been weeded out. It’s basically the D&D version of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, except the apocalypse has never really stopped. Due to the depleted resources most weapons and armor are crafted from bones, stone, obsidian, wood, and leather, which makes metal weapons/armor, let alone enchanted weaponry, very, very rare.
The races inhabiting Athas are mostly your typical D&D races like humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, muls (half-dwarves) and halflings but also more exotic races like half-giants or thri-kreen (intelligent insectoids) make their appearance. Of course they’re not just what their names seem to indicate. Elves, for example, are not of the tree-hugger variety; they are mostly thieves, marauders or even slavers, plus as every creature on Athas they’re taller, bigger, stronger and more durable than their counterparts from other D&D settings. Halflings are mostly known as a savage tribal people, rampant cannibals attacking and consuming everyone who dares to enter their territories. Remember those halflings from the planar sphere in Athkatla (Baldur’s Gate II) who tried to eat you? Yes, that’s them.
The most significant sparks of civilization are the city states, like in ancient Mesopotamia, each ruled by a sorcerer-king who is worshiped as a god. The city of Draj and its surroundings are where the game takes place; this city is ruled by the sorcerer king Tectuktitlay, and the whole region including the slave villages like Teaquetzl is inspired by the Aztecs, as you’ve probably figured out by the names used. Another one of these city-states is the city of Tyr, the stage for the second game, Wake of the Ravager. It’s the only city free of the malevolent rule of a sorcerer-king because its sorcerer-king Karak has been slain on the brink of ascension by a gladiator. The sorcerer-kings of Athas are powerful defilers and most likely dragons in disguise.
Let me add a few words concerning the use of magic in Dark Sun. Once upon a time Athas was a perfectly fertile planet with lots of water, rich plant life and a functioning ecology. It was turned into the godforsaken hellhole it is now by its decaying sun and the excessive use of defiler magic. There are no deities in the Dark Sun setting, no Mystra and no weave. Arcane magic is carried out by drawing on the life-force of the planet itself, its plants and other life forms. Powerful defilers can kill subjects just by drawing on their life-force, not only by using said life-force to cast spells. Wizards come in two varieties, defilers and preservers. A defiler draws upon the life around him recklessly, quickly, destroying and sterilizing the soil around him in the process. Doing that excessively turned a healthy planet into a desert over time. Preservers draw their power cautiously not destroying life in the process but that comes at the cost of power obviously. Most common folks don’t know the difference between defilers and preservers and will treat any arcane user with distrust.
Arcane magic isn’t the only form of magic in Athas; far more common is the use of psionics. In their struggle for survival basically all creatures developed some psionic abilities, player races and monsters alike. Unlike arcane magic, psionics are an accepted part of everyday life and all characters regardless of class will get a few psionic abilities.
With no deities granting spells, clerics and other divine casters naturally differ from their counterparts in other D&D settings as well. Some clerics worship a specific element like fire, water etc. and draw their power from that element. Druids worship nature itself or powerful spirits of the land. Yes, they still have a knack for nature, trees and the like and will usually oppose defilers whenever they can. The templars on the other hand receive their spells directly from the sorcerer-king they worship.
Assembling your merry band of heroes
With a bit of background info out of the way, let’s proceed with the game itself.
After starting the game you can create your party of up to 4 characters. There is no point in taking less than 4 characters as even with 4 triple-class characters you’ll hit the level cap by the end of the game.
Right-clicking on one of the party slots lets you either add an existing character or create a new one.
You will probably notice that even after the first roll, as shown in the screenshot above, your character will have unusually high stats. Don’t panic, this is normal. Remember the “survival of the fittest” theme? That’s why. In Dark Sun player characters don’t roll 3d6 for their stats at character creation but 4d4+4, resulting in the exceptional stats they need to survive. Of course, if you think those stats are not quite exceptional enough (and why would you?) you can just edit them to your liking (just click on the number in question to increase it up to the max). Even if you prefer to go with what you initially rolled, I’d recommend increasing your HP to the max value, bad rolls for HP at later level-ups are always a possibility and that way you’re going to start with approximately 20 HP and won’t die from a single hit while fighting in the arena at the beginning of the game.
You can choose from several races: human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, mul, thri-kreen, halfling and half-giant. Whether you choose male or female only affects the sprite of that character. Non-human races can multi-class (highly recommended) whereas humans can dual-class. Some races have class restrictions, e.g. thri-kreen can’t be thieves or preservers, half-giants can’t be thieves, preservers or druids. It’s probably a good idea to pick the race according to the class, e.g. elves can have the highest INT so they make good preservers, half-giants can have the highest STR so they make excellent fighters or gladiators. Half-Giants also get double HP on level-up making them obvious choices for melee characters.
On the classes available:
Clerics have to pick an elemental sphere at character creation; you’re playing one of those elemental clerics I mentioned earlier. However, there’s a big problem with clerics in this game. Above spell level 3 they only get spells of their elemental sphere, not the spells of the cosmos sphere. What does that mean? All typical cleric spells you’re used to belong to the cosmos sphere, e.g. Cure Wounds spells, Heal etc. It means your cleric is stuck with Cure Light Wounds forever and you only know like 2 spells per spell level above 3, most likely entirely useless spells to boot.
In the above screenshot you see my thri-kreen cleric. She has exactly 2 level 4 spells, the white one is called Blood Flow (I didn’t choose the fire sphere for the purposes of this playthrough but water) which lets you heal 2d6 HP or, when used on a hostile, stuns for 1d4 rounds, the spell with the black icon is called Dehydrate. But don’t get excited, Dehydrate merely does 2d6 damage here, plus 1 damage per caster level. Plus, it is a touch spell, and all that at a spell level where a druid casts Cure Serious Wounds or Freedom of Movement. Just compare the spell selection to the druid’s:
It helps a bit to take the fire sphere because at least you’ll get useful offensive spells like Flamestrike (lvl4), Wall of Fire(lvl5) etc, but as a healer your cleric is doomed to fail. Druids don’t have that problem and get the cosmos spells all the way on top of the elemental spells. So if you need a cleric, go with druid. The only redeeming quality the cleric class has is Turn Undead which works like a charm; I’ve never seen it fail. But the undead you fight in this game aren’t very powerful in the first place, so is Turn Undead worth the limited spell selection? I doubt it. And it gets worse with each level, especially if you consider importing your party into Wake of the Ravager. A level 15 cleric with no healing spells but Cure Light Wounds? Go figure.
The fighter class gives you what you’d expect, all weapon and armor proficiencies and THAC0. It’s an excellent choice for multi/dual-classing with any character. Note that there’s no arcane spell failure so any caster can take advantage of the fighter class to gain access to good armor and all weapons.
The game doesn’t let you choose an evil alignment and thus you can only pick preserver as arcane user. Mages are, of course, a backbone for every party with their Webs, Icestorms, and Cones of Cold. They’re another very good multiclassing choice. However, be aware that you get to choose only 1 spell at level up and arcane scrolls to learn more spells are extremely rare. It’s bad luck if you just wasted your level-up spell pick on Fireball only to find the only Fireball scroll in the game 10 minutes later. By the way, the game doesn’t use the Vancian spellcasting system. All druids/clerics/mages cast dynamically (sorcerer-style) and psionicists use spellpoints (psi-points, basically like a mana-pool).
Speaking of psionicists, not only does PSI absolutely rule in this game, it’s also faithful to the setting to begin with. All psi-abilities are grouped into schools of mind, telepathy, kinetics and metabolism. The telepathy school is probably the most powerful, featuring entries like Ego Whip (stun target for a few rounds) and Mass Dominate. Well, a reference to Knights of the Chalice is in order, which is only appropriate, considering the fact that game was heavily inspired by the Dark Sun games. In KotC Dominate Monster is a lvl 9 (!) arcane spell giving you 3 attempts to dominate one or more targets, swaying them to your side. In Dark Sun Mass Dominate is a psi ability giving you 5 attempts to do the same and you can have it from the get go. Unnecessary to emphasize that it is very useful.
Given the usefulness of the telepathy school you’re probably well advised to pick telepathy on character creation for your non-psionicist characters so that you might end up with a couple of very helpful abilities. Psionicists themselves have access to all schools and get to choose 2 new abilities on each level-up, alternatively they can improve abilities they already have. There are a lot of useful psionics outside of the telepathy school though, Displacement, Flesh Armor (useful for thri-kreen who can’t wear armor) and so on. You will also find psionic “bracelets” in this game, which can be used by psionicists to learn new abilities, pretty much in the same manner as scrolls work for mages, except you can also use them to improve abilities you already have. However, keep in mind that not all abilities need to be improved. While abilities like Ego Whip, Mass Dominate, Disintegrate etc will benefit from improving their level because your chance to succeed with the spell increases too, other abilities won’t change at all if you improve them. For example Displacement always gives -2 AC regardless at what level you have it, Flesh Armor depends only on caster level not on the level of the ability itself etc. So, use those bracelets to give your psionicists a wide array of abilities to choose from.
Thieves don’t add anything worthwhile to the game, except you’ll need one because sometimes a lock that can’t be bashed in needs to be picked or you have to climb up some cliff and for some reason only thieves can do that. Therefore have one of your characters multiclass with thief.
One last word concerning the gladiator class: if I remember correctly a gladiator gets grandmastery bonuses to all weapons. So, a half-giant gladiator is most likely the most powerful warrior in the game. On the other hand you can’t multi- or dualclass with gladiator, that’s why I’d prefer something like fighter/psionicist. But if you think the pinnacle of tactical turn-based combat is to click on a sprite and watch your character full-attack each round, then by all means, go ahead with a gladiator.
Single Class vs. DualClass vs. MultiClass
I finished the playthrough I did for this article with the following party:
- Thri-Kreen Fighter/Cleric/Psionic
- Elf Fighter/Preserver/Psionic
- Female Half-Elf Fighter/Druid/Thief
- Female Elf Fighter/Preserver/Psionic
The level cap for each class is 9. You get to level 9 with a preserver at around 120000 XP, some classes like fighter require ~200000 XP. It doesn’t matter, each of those characters was at 9/9/9 by the end of the game without any additional grinding. What’s better, a character that is a level 9 fighter or one who’s a level 9 fighter, a level 9 mage and a level 9 psionicist? That should settle the argument concerning single class characters.
Regarding dual-classing, that’s only available to humans and actually, it should be called triple-classing because you can dual-class twice. It works as usual, at any point you can dual your character into a new profession, losing all abilities of your previous class in the process. When the level of your new class exceeds the level of your former class you gain all the proficiencies and abilities back. So technically, you could do something like fighter 8/psionicist 8/mage 9 and when you reach level 9 as a mage you will have all your abilities back. Well, it’s better than going single-class but considering you can never increase the level of the classes you abandoned it’s worse than going multi-class, again, especially if you plan to proceed with Wake of the Ravager after Shattered Lands. OK, worth mentioning is the following: since all characters have psi-abilities even if they’re not psionicists, when you dual-class away from a psionicist you actually don’t lose the ability to use your psionics. You can cast your psionics just fine, which makes psionicist a major choice for dual-classing.
Well, with our party assembled, let the game begin!
Demand your payment, Gladiators
The premise of this game is quite simple, you’re a bunch of slaves in the slave pens in Draj and your purpose is to fight in the arena for the amusement of the local populace until you meet your death at the hands of the monsters you’re up against. Your objective is to escape the arena and once you left your days as a slave behind, to unite the slave villages of the desert and to lead them to victory over Draj’s military forces. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
For the time being they don’t hesitate and drop you into the arena at once.
While moving around you’re party will be collapsed into one sprite – the party leader. As soon as combat starts however, you will control each character individually.
After the first batch of monsters is slain you can return to the slave pens to plan your escape. To explain the arena a bit: every time after you rest in your room in the slave pens, you’ll be summoned to the arena to fight another fight against progressively stronger opponents. So if you have any business in the slave pens for certain quests, do so before you rest. If you consider it fun you could technically fight in the arena until you hit the level cap, otherwise you should just do a few fights until you think you’re up to the task of escaping.
Above you see the map of the slave pens. You don’t have an overland map in this game but each area has a mini-map that you can open to scan for hostiles or to orientate yourself. If you wonder how long you should play the arena minigame, well, I fought there until my psionicists leveled up and I could pick Mass Dominate, which proved enough to escape the hard way: slaying everyone who opposes you. As it often happens in this game, there are several ways to handle your objective. In the case of escaping the arena there are five ways I know of to accomplish this.
- Get a girl in the slave pens to tell you of a secret exit, pick an unguarded door in the kitchen and try to make your way out undetected, you probably have to fight some guards though
- Team up with one gang of slaves and escape the slave pens violently
- Team up with another gang of slaves in the arena when you’re pitted against each other and instead of fighting break through the exit and make your escape
- Do a quest for one of the slaves in the pen and have him “help you escape”. It’s a trap but leads to freedom anyways
- Just attack the guards, kill them all and loot the place
The last one is obviously the right one, XP and loot-wise, especially considering that one templar in the pens drops an enchanted sword. Did I mention that those are rare?
Once you’ve made it through the slave pens to the exit, you’ll find yourself in the sewers. The sewers are inhabited by ratkin people and there are a few more quests to do here. More importantly, one of the few very powerful defilers you’re going to meet in this game is introduced here: Dagolar.
I assume you’re not supposed to enter his lair yet at this low level, he’s level 20 after all. I entered anyway.
You have to solve a few puzzles to reach Dagolar and once again there are several ways to reach him. Anyway, this is one of the few areas in this game where you can’t rest. In Dark Sun: Shattered Lands you can only rest at campfires which is usually not a problem because you can just backtrack to the next campfire but here’s a point of no return after which the only way is to stride forward and kill Dagolar.
Actually it sounds worse than it is, thanks to Mass Dominate I didn’t encounter any difficulties. Just beware of the slimes.
The reason to take on Dagolar that early isn’t only to rid Athas of a defiler with a knack for world domination, it’s also that level 20 characters usually have lots of good stuff which could be yours!
Every party member receives 12000 XP! This is one of the psionic bracelets I mentioned earlier; you can learn “Project Force” from it. This whole episode teaches you something about the difficulty of the game. Frankly, it’s pretty easy and the AI isn’t something to write home about. You’d guess that a level 20 mage would have some ways to get rid of a bunch of level 4 wussies, but honestly all Dagolar does is to summon some slimes, which can be dominated and will make short work of him. If you think he’ll cast some powerful spell… think again, he seems to be fonder of using his +3 dagger. On the other hand, maybe I’m too harsh with him, the point is, in this game you can’t cast a spell or use psionics in a given round when you’ve been previously hit in that round. So all you have to do is to take care that enemy mages are hit each round by a weapon, an arrow or a spell to render them helpless.
This whole Dagolar interlude is entirely optional and by no means necessary to beat the game, so back to our escape. After exiting the sewers you’ll be in Draj’s crop fields, again there are several ways to make a beeline for the desert, to give you another example for Dark Sun: Shattered Lands take on solving quests:
- Find a hidden exit
- Slay all guards and take the main exit
- Have one of the slaves in the crop fields help you by distracting the guards and make it through the main exit unnoticed
A point of interest in the crop fields is a fruit merchant. Not only can you unload your loot thus emptying your inventories, you can also purchase magical fruits. You can use those fruits to cast spells, Bless, Barkskin, Neutralize Poison and the like, some restore health or psi-points too.
Speaking of the inventory, each character has 12 inventory slots, which are the only restriction on what you can carry since there is no encumbrance. So you should take up some chests and bags to increase your inventory space unless you greatly enjoy traveling back and forth to sell loot.
Another point of interest in the crop fields is the stone obelisk. Several areas in the game have one and those obelisks are actually teleporter devices; they can be activated with a very large gem. The gem can always be found somewhere near the obelisk, sometimes you get it from an NPC or a merchant or sometimes it’s hidden somewhere. Having all those obelisks activated is pretty helpful, allowing you to teleport between them, shortening your travel distances.
Finally the game drops you into Teaquetzl desert and you’re on your own.
Strolling around the Shattered Lands
At this point the game opens up and all locations are available to you. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want in a pretty non-linear fashion. It’s probably a good idea though to pay a visit to Teaquetzl village first, because they’re expecting you.
You see, they have a mad halfling visionary in Teaquetzl who foretold our arrival and our heroic deeds, namely that our merry band of ex-slaves will unite the villages and lead them to victory over Draj. That’s why they give us a home as a base of our operations and some loot including a nice +2 blade and our main task: to find allies against Draj.
After making a short stop by the visionary, who gives us the teleporter control rod and talks a lot of gibberish, we’re leaving Teaquetzl to explore the world, righting all wrongs, genociding all hostile life forms and gathering loot and XP as in every RPG ever created.
As I mentioned earlier the whole main plot is pretty simple and straightforward. You’re going to find the other two slave villages in the desert and convince them to join your cause. Of course, you first have to gain their trust by ridding them of their problems but once you did that and return to Teaquetzl the endgame will trigger.
Other than completing the main plot there are a couple of areas to explore, many of which will have a subplot or a few interesting sidequests to do. Contrary to the “escape the arena” solution, the violent approach isn’t always the best. Sometimes settling a conflict peacefully gains you the best rewards. Of course, being an AD&D game, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands has no skills, as diplomacy and the like, so instead of skill checks in dialogues it’s generally up to you which course of action you choose when talking to NPCs. It’s most likely wise to be not overly hostile; sometimes you might find unexpected allies against the Drajian army.
You’re going to encounter a lot of different creatures during the course of the game; sometimes it’s a druid trying to protect his oasis against defilers:
At other times it’s just one more thing trying to kill you, like this vrock:
But here and there your efforts are awesomely rewarded, like with this enchanted +2 flaming sword for instance:
Nothing beats a weapon like El’s Drinker which casts Vampiric Touch on hit though.
Above you see a shadow, all that remains of Tanelyv. He was a paladin in life, you can tell it from his babbling. Understand & kill for justice! If you help him, you’ll get his armor as a reward, the only really badass armor in the game.
It’s needless to emphasize that you’re going to encounter a lot of monsters that aren’t exactly friendly. Those come in a large variety and, not counting all the humanoid races I already mentioned, most are pretty exotic. There are mountain stalkers, bulettes, dune reapers, fire eels, different kinds of elementals, sand howlers and more. The nastiest fuckers you’re going to fight are the rampagers. Those monsters are not only fairly high level and pretty resistant to psionics, but their attacks do corrode armors destroying them in the process, which does suck. It does really suck. Magic armor, as in armor that does actually grant nice AC or other nifty effects, is extremely rare. You won’t be able to deck out all your party with it, even if you manage to get your hands on every enchanted piece of armor in the game. So, getting one of those pieces destroyed by a rampager isn’t funny.
Other powerful monsters are vrocks, babaus and mastyrials. Vrocks and babaus are demons and I think they deal additional acid damage whereas mastyrials look like giant scorpions. Another monster-type to beware of are wyverns. It’s not that they’re as powerful as the demons or mastyrials, let alone rampagers, but they are poisonous and in this game every time you’re poisoned you have to save versus death or die immediately, so it’s a good idea to use your “Ego Whip” or “ID Insinuation” psionics to stun them before entering melee range.
Now, if you find the time during the course of the game you might want to backtrack to the slave pens. You can rescue Trustee (a helpful NPC of the beginning of the game) who’s being tortured. Sure, a small army awaits you but at that time they only prove to be a minor obstacle and the only challenge they provide is how to handle all the loot.
When you’re done exploring the areas of the game, having gathered wealth, XP and magic items, and you’ve found your allies against Draj’s army, the endgame will trigger as soon as you return to your home village Teaquetzl. Before the battle occurs, you’re going to a final location, a secret temple, but I won’t spoil that here. Emerging from the temple you’ll find yourself in Teaquetzl desert and the battle begins.
It’s worth mentioning that the sequence of end fights versus the army of Draj is a point where a possible major bug of this game might kick in. If you encounter this bug the battle just doesn’t happen, which kind of breaks the game since you can’t finish it that way. Personally, I never encountered that bug so far, but the possibility is there. There are some minor bugs in the game you might encounter too, but nothing earth shattering. In this playthrough, for instance, it happened to me that a reward dialogue triggered twice, so I ended up with twice the XP and two copies of a magical weapon. Well, you can probably live with that kind of bug.
The game does suffer from a few interface quirks though. One example: It happened to me frequently that while aiming a spell at a specific enemy, instead of casting the spell, just nothing happened and the next character got his turn instead. Despite the spell icon seemed to indicate that I can cast the spell I probably didn’t click at exactly the right spot and so the spell got wasted and the action lost. That happened far too often. Another thing that can happen to you is when a NPC follows you, due to some quest, and you go to some dead end on the map you suddenly can’t return because the NPC is blocking the path and won’t move away forcing you to reload an earlier save. Of course, it’s up to debate how many of the quirks I encountered are actually attributed to DosBox, but on the other hand you will play it in DosBox so it’s significant nonetheless. Unless you still have a functional 486er somewhere that is.
But (possible) bugs aside, let's continue with the final battle. The first wave of Draj’s army is probably the most difficult, because it’s composed of a lot of high level monsters among them 3 rampagers.
If you manage to defeat the first wave a few NPCs you’ve met earlier will greet you and join you in your fight, basically every village sends one of their village heroes to support you. Frankly, they are not much of a help although they might provide a bit of distraction. You probably won’t be able to keep them alive.
The second wave is merely composed of a bunch of wussies in comparison, although a few level 9 defilers and psionicists are among them. Anyway, they shouldn’t prove too difficult as long as you remember to prevent the defilers from spell casting.
Finally you’re going to meet the last wave of Draj’s forces and this will be another rather difficult fight since you're up against their elite. You’re well advised to use Web or something like that to prevent them from swarming you, otherwise it might be a rather short fight and not an especially successful one either.
After you’ve beat him and his elite soldiers, you’ve beat the game as well. You’re going to find Dragon’s Bane, a +4 sword, in the loot and you can play on if you wish, exploring areas you neglected previously or doing whatever you like.
Well, I like this game, it’s one of the classics I grew up with and frankly, it hasn’t lost any of its charm. However, it does have the reputation of being a bit buggy and although you might not encounter any serious bugs, like I did in this playthrough, things can be quite different too if you’re unlucky.
Concerning the graphics, they’re exactly what you’d expect from a game released in 1993. So is the music, and although there are some tracks that can get on your nerves and make you want to switch out your speakers, usually the tracks are rather nice and fit well with the environment you currently reside in. Both graphics and music have a certain style though which I like.
The game isn’t too long and you’re probably able to finish it in less than 30 hours even if you complete every quest and explore every area. The combat difficulty isn’t too stiff either, although the challenge you will face largely depends on your party formation. A party like I chose for the purposes of this article isn’t really suitable for providing much of a challenge, but there are some difficult and tricky encounters anyway.
The game isn't really combat heavy either, you don't have to grind and you will at least spend the same amount of time talking to people, exploring and questing as you'll spend fighting things.
There's the atmospheric wasteland of Athas awaiting you, where the sun burns your skin, templars or slavers try to hunt you down and most creatures try to overwhelm you with their psi-abilities, so if you never played this game and are not afraid of DosBox you should definitely give it a try.