Monday, November 30, 2020

Darkness, Darkness...

Sometime around the middle of Sunday afternoon I happened across this news item at Massively OP. I was mildly interested. I had a vague memory of having heard the name Reign of Darkness before, although I didn't immediately associate it with an mmorpg. Maybe I was thinking of that project Funcom canned when they were having money troubles. Or was it CCP? Some northern European developer, anyway. 

"Old school hardcore" isn't a phrase that sets my juices flowing these days, either. It might have, a few years back. There was a moment when taking a trip back to the imagined golden age seemed like a fine idea but I'm guessing most people are over that, now. And anyone who's not is probably playing Classic WoW.

Still. Tab-target and all. It seemed negligent not to at least take a look and there was no time to waste. Doors close on the free weekend at 10am PST on December 1st. Which means you still have a day to check it out for yourself, providing you're reading this right after I hit publish.

Reign of Darkness is conveniently available on Steam and I do mean conveniently. Steam hasn't generally been thought of as a primary platfrom for mmorpgs but if there's one time when it comes into its own it's for demos and tests like this. It makes a big difference, not having to come up with yet another throwaway email address to make yet another account with yet another company for yet another game that I'll only ever use this once.

Instead it was a flurry of quick clicks and a fast download and there I was, staring at my new character moodily staring back at me from beneath her pointy hood. Nice armor, too.

There was a large Kickstarter logo to the upper right and a succinct and coherent mission statement to the left. I didn't stop to check the Kickstarter page at the time. I was eager to jump into the game, get a few screenshots and call it a day. I figured I'd get a blog post out of it and not much more. 

I'm going to de-rail that story by saying right now that I ended up playing for a couple of hours. It was fun. Also, I have since visited the Kickstarter page and it's a good one. 

The goals are realistc. The developers (it's really pretty much one guy, Tyler Smith) already have a working game. They just want to ensure that development is able to continue. The sum they're trying to raise, $100,000, seems realistic but for once, very unusually, they've itemized exactly how that money will be spent.

At least, I think that's what the wheel is meant to show. There's no explanatory gloss. It's fascinating to see the lion's share of money to be raised is predicated for taxes and legal costs. I'd be curious to hear some more on how that works. Also, why the total comes to $123,000 rather than round hundred the campaign asks for.

Overall, though, it comes across as one of the more balanced, rational and convincing Kickstarter pitches I've seen. The goals are clear and coherent, there's a working product backers can try out and the stretch goals do in fact stretch the concept rather than break it.

Not that I imagine the stretch goals are going to come into contention. The campaign has only just begun (it runs until December 27th) and so far it's at $1,656, which is 1.66% funded. The way these things go, if they're going to succeed there's usually a big burst at the start and then again towards the end. RoD's going to need to pick up some traction if it's going to make its goal.

I'm thinking about pledging, albeit only at the level that gets me a copy of the game and a title. At $20 that's really not much of a commitment. It's the same price as the Early Access version already available on Steam. I might just buy that instead.

The reason I'm considering it is simple. Reign of Darkness already has the makings of a decent mmorpg. I played for a couple of hours yesterday and didn't really want to stop. It's barebones, yes, but the bones are sound. It just needs flesh putting on them.

The developers are a little vague about their credentials ("Together our team has worked on many projects and has over 30 years of experience.  Working on apps, online & offline games, company-specific tools, and many other creations.") but they mention having worked on the Vanguard Emulator project. That doesn't surprise me. There are some distinct similarities between RoD and Vanguard.

There are a lot more differences, though. There are all the usual high fantasy trappings ("Medusa, Minotaurs, Lycans, Vampires, Sirens, Chimeras, and vile serpents, Dragons") and the classes are familiar (Necromancer, Paladin, Priest, Archer, Barbarian...) but the choice of background and setting is odd. It's set in an alternate version of the Middle Ages when "Through his own actions mankind created the bane of his own existence, he had created Satan".


There's a lot of that going on, I find. I'll add this one to my growing pile of horror-inflected fantasy I.P.s. I have a post brewing about that but it's almost too big a topic to get a handle on right now. Suffice it to say that, for me at least, dragging Christian iconography into the fantasy mix is not a strong selling point.

I'd rarely let the supposed lore put me off playing an mmorpg with solid diku-MUD gameplay, though, and based on my brief experience with it so far I'd definitely say Reign of Darkness has that. Once I'd made my character, which didn't take long since there are currently no choices beyond whether you want to be male or female and what you want to call yourself, it was off to kill small animals and level up.

Yeah, not exactly. I did get to that but it took just a little longer. First I watched the optional introduction in which a mysterious figure, apparently suffering from a severe depressive illness, made a long speech in a barely-audible whisper. The figure kept its back to me the whole time. Once it stood up. Then it sat down again. Meanwhile an ominous, giant figure moved across the horizon. If it was meant to be unsettling it succeeded.

Once that was done I logged into the game itself and found myself in a small castle. There were quite a few people wandering around, most of them players. At this point I'd usually spend a good while fiddling with the UI and the settings but RoD doesn't have many options yet and the defaults are very close to what I'd choose so I just checked I had a weapon equipped and set off to start hacking up the local wildlife.

The scenery was pleasant enough. The game's made in Unity and looks immediately familiar because of that, I think. I found a guard who wanted some scorpions killed, which sounded about my speed, although I thought he was pushing his luck asking for fifteen. Hasn't he ever heard of the Kill Ten convention?

Scorpions were easy enough to find. They were all over the place and the size of carts. Unfortunately the first three or four I tried were inert. I could hit them but they didn't bite back. I would have been fine with that but they also took no damage so I moved on.


That was the only glitch or bug I experienced in the couple of hours I played and it only happened in one spot. I soon found a scorpion that didn't stand still for being poked with a sword. It killed me and fast. I woke up in the castle and tried again with the same result.

There's old-school and there's hardcore and there's "you're doing it wrong". Which I was. Over the course of the next half-hour I managed to find out several things about how to set up a character in Reign of Darkness, among them how to choose a class (you can have up to three, mix-and-match), how to spend points on statistics (you start with forty, all unallocated), how to select spells, attacks and passives and how to move your abilities onto your hotbars so you can actually use them.

Some of this stuff I'd normally expect to have found in Character creation and the rest of it in a tutorial. Here you just have to pick it up as you play. 

Once I'd gotten all that lot sorted I had a much better time of it. I found some more quests (the game's not too old-school to hang a punctuation mark over an NPC's head) although I had to remember them for myself since I couldn't find a quest journal. I put my bow away because arrows are in limited supply and took to relying on my trusty starter sword.

As I wandered the roads around the castle, laying steel to anything that came in reach, my bags began to fill up with what looked like crafting materials and cash drops. With a couple of necromantic spells and a leech attack worthy of any dark knight I was winning most of my fights, even with creatures a level or two above me, but there were plenty of times when it was close and a few when I got in over my head and woke up back in the castle courtyard.

At one point I ventured through a portal at the base of a tower only to find myself in an arena of some kind. I came back out pretty quickly but not long after I managed to get into a competition with some passing stranger over who should be killing a scorpion and it turned out I'd tripped my PvP flag because the stranger left off killing the scorpion and killed me instead.

It was all quite jolly. I was having a pretty good time. It got even better when I searched the corpse of something I'd killed and found a blue-quality sword. Nothing like a good drop to raise the spirits. When I received an off-hand weapon and found I coud dual-wield I was really starting to get into it.

By the time I made level five it was plain Reign of Darkness was successfully pressing most of the right buttons for me. It's clearly in the very early stages and I'm not sure how much content it already has (although someone in chat mentioned hitting level thirty-two and I saw someone riding what appeared to be a wyvern mount, so there would seem to be some depth to the game already). The potential is evident, though.

Although it's coming from a somewhat different branch of the mmorpg evolutionary tree, perhaps the game RoD most reminds me of is Project:Gorgon. It has the same handmade feel to it, a similar sense of being one person's vision. There's the same impression of care and attention, that this is something someone's making because it's the game they want to play themselves.

That's not going to help RoD break any sales records but it's a good sign for longevity. Games like these tend to grow slowly but stick around. I'd be surprised if the Kickstarter succeeeds (although I hope it does) but, like Project:Gorgon, I don't imagine failure to fund will put an end to it. When P:G failed, Eric and Sandra Heimburg just kept plodding along and I imagine Tyler Smith will, too.

Like P:G, I can imagine RoD picking up a small but loyal following, particularly if development on Pantheon continues at the current, glacial pace. There's very definitely a market here that's not being well served and anything functional is going to draw at least a small crowd.

Reign of Darkness is already better than just functional. It's fun, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I don't imagine I'll end up spending a lot of time there, not least because I find the premise and the lore more than a tad disturbing, but I can definitely see it becoming one of those games I pop into now and again to see how it's coming along and then find myself playing for longer than I intended.

That alone makes it worth either backing or just buying on Steam. The question is, when am I going to find the time to play?


  1. Sounds like a pretty interesting game. I have to give the dev a big salute for making it this far, which is better than a LOT of other potential games out there.

    1. Having a properly playable early access version is something of a double-edged sword, I think. I'm not sure how much Project:Gorgon or Crowfall have really benefitted from being up and running for years in an unfinished format as compared to opening up for open trials at widely-spaced intervals. I think having a playable demo version during a Kickstarter campaign is useful but as I said in the post, if you can just play the game as it stands for a nominal fee anyway, why bother pledging?

  2. Game looks pretty interesting, it's sad that it has no playerbase at all according to SteamCharts. Even with current free week it got only small spike.

    1. While I was playing someone said in chat it was the most people they'd ever seen in-game at one time. It felt reasonably busy around the starting area but it would only need twenty or so people to create that impression. It's surprising how many ultra-low population mmorpgs there are out there, though. I've written about quite a few here over the years and I think most of them are still up and running. This one will need more of a population than some of those, though, if it's aiming to recreate the group-oriented gameplay of the past.

  3. "Through his own actions mankind created the bane of his own existence, he had created Satan"

    Forget the horror-inflected fantasy: the horror-inflected grammar and sentence structure is what puts me off. If many of the sentences in this game are that badly crafted, it's honestly a problem for me.

    I am having a hard time even rewriting that sentence into something usable: I think it may be cursed. Maybe "Mankind created the bane of its own existence. Man created Satan." It's still awkward, though.

    1. It's unfortunate that that sentence (which is taken from the website, not the game itself) is so badly-constructed because it gives a somewhat misleading impression of the overall standard of the writing. It's nothing special but by mmorpg standards it's no worse than average, particularly given this is an early alpha stage. Presumably it's all being written by the lead developer himself. There is a segment on the budget wheel for writers so with a bit of luck there'll be some polish added at some point.

    2. Good to know that text was from the website and anomalous, thanks! Yeah, I don't expect great writing from an early-alpha graphical game, but that sentence is Bulwer-Lytton-worthy.


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