In the not-too-distant future Darkness reigns. The Earth has become a desolate wasteland and there remain but a few sanctuaries of civilisation. You are Arkhan, Guardian of Fire, elite guard in the city called Sparta. Sparta is a Stallite -- one of the few places on Earth where the life-giving light of the Sun-God shines through the murky clouds of the post-apocalyptic adventure.
Humankind has reverted to Nature Worship in the dark days following the fall of chaos from the heavens. Not only was earth bombarded by comets which shrouded the land in un-ending dark, but the comets contained some foulness that spread like a disease across the face of the planet, corrupting animal and plant alike. Only the Stallites, cities sheltered in the benevolent gaze of the Sun God, were spared this corruption.
Dark Earth is another member of that hybrid breed known as action/adventure; with both arcade/fighting and puzzles to master you will certainly be kept busy. The game interface is quite simple with solely keyboard controls for movement and object "manipulation". I say "manipulation" because most of your interaction with objects is to pick them up or combine them with other objects, with only a few exceptions where you might move an object rather than take it. Combat is also keyboard-controlled using only a few extra keys; the difficulty comes with choosing the right manoeuvre -- not remembering a varied list of key combinations. Players who are familiar with the "Alone in the Dark" series will be immediately comfortable with the game interface.
Conversation is controlled by the same multi-function "action" key used to pick up, move or interact with your environment. It consists of pre-determined statements and responses, all you do is key off the next segment of speech, you do not choose it. (Talk to your father, is there more? Talk to him again and again until he repeats himself.) There is, however, the option to change your "mood" when talking. You can be in "light" mode where you ask for things politely, or in "dark" mode where you demand what you want and interrogate people more aggressively. Each mode has its time and place, but -- spoiler here -- "light" mode works on almost everybody and you'll do less fighting.
The puzzles are of the "Find X to use on Y" type, familiar fare for an adventure game, and the majority seem to involve determining which bit needs to go with which other bit. There is also a maze to navigate with spinning blades and a light-sequence puzzle that needs to be figured out while being attacked. Thankfully, none of these puzzles are really timed, although the whole game is timed in a way. You will become poisoned early on in the game and then it's a race against the clock to cure yourself and save the world. You do find a partial cure about half-way through, so don't panic too much. All of these puzzles are integrated fluidly into the story and world you inhabit. No unexpected brain-bursters here!
This brings me to the fighting. No bones about it, fighting plays a major part in Dark Earth. You will confront a multitude of creatures ranging from fellow humans to purely evil, corrupted creatures of the Darkness (with a capital "D"). Once you become corrupted by the Darkness (and you will be) into a less-than-human monster, many of your fellow humans will not understand your predicament and respond with characteristic violence ... they must die. You will at times fight more than one opponent simultaneously, a challenge for even the best thumb-twiddlers. One opponent cannot actually be defeated, so an alternate means of demise must be discovered. The fighting cannot be avoided, so if you detest combat and prefer puzzles this may not be the game for you.
Dark Earth earns a brownie point from me for its plot and setting. Post-apocalyptic worlds have been rife in adventure games, but many use the setting as a plot device to include gratuitous gore or "atmosphere"; Dark Earth is different. I found myself intensely involved in the game world, the story had just enough detail to keep me intrigued, and just enough plot to ensure I knew what to do next. I found myself in the rare situation of actually caring what happened to Arkhan, and more than once I was "emotionally involved" in his disputes. (My housemates assumed that it was the GAME doing all that swearing!)
Arkhan is a honest and respectful figure unfairly stricken by a disfiguring illness and he faces a world that judges quickly on the way you look. Outcast from the society he serves, he is a figure I could really feel for and for this reason I relished the ultimate triumph that much more. The feature I felt most lacking from this game was the ability to determine the course of conversations, the ability to use my mind rather than my blade to convince my peers I was worthy of their aid.
The graphic engine itself is quite good, beautifully drawn and computer-designed backgrounds merge perfectly with the polygonal characters. The textures used on each character make each unique, and the environment, well, what can I say? Birds flying in the background, moody clouds above, a neo-medieval setting for the city and a corrupted landscape all beautifully delivered. The music and sound effects merge well with this scene, you will hear the faint cries of the birds and the bone-crunching impact of your axe upon your opponent's skull. The background music is faint and fits in well with the almost ethereal mood of the game, you get the sense that there is more at stake than your own personal health in this city.
I wasn't originally going to make this point, but it has been pointed out to me that Dark Earth comes in at least two different box designs; one features a muscular man with weapons at the ready on the cover -- indicative of the gameplay. The other, falling victim to the marketing ploy of "sex sells", features a scantily clad female, well actually clad only in bronze bells over her nipples, on the cover. You will meet her for less than one minute in the course of this game, she does NOT play a major role at all.
Dark Earth is a game targeted at a younger audience, with lots of fighting and some fairly simple puzzles, but there is plenty here for the more mature player too. While I am not a great fan of fighting-rich adventure games, Dark Earth captured me with its story and setting and kept me playing feverishly until the end.
Copyright © Adrian Carmody 1998.
All rights reserved.
P75, 16MB RAM, Win 95, 16 bit sound card 4x CD ROM.
Recommended: P120, 16MB RAM, Creative Labs AWE32.