I love the Dark Sun setting. It takes the standard Tolkien plagiarism that makes up the fantasy genre and just defecates all over it. Gone are the happy elf/dwarf/human versus evil clichés. This is the world of Athas after evil has triumphed. Monstrous genocidal sorcerer-kings have exterminated many of the non-human races and left the planet bereft of natural resources; metal, water, and humanity. All that’s left are hellish deserts, seas of silt, scattered Mad Max-like groups of raiders, oppressive cities where death and slavery are the rule of law. Anything that can survive in this nightmare world of thirst and cruelty must be strong indeed.
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands begins with the player’s party of four characters forced into combat as slaves in a gladiator arena. You witness another prisoner horrifically slaughtered by some reptilian beast called a rampager and then you are immediately thrust into the fighting pit to battle for survival. Immediately the sense of tyranny and injustice is apparent; the unfortunate are forced to suffer pointlessly for the pleasure of the masses. This sets Shattered Lands apart from other RPGs; endurance is the name of the game, not triumph after some grand quest.
Shattered Lands’ story continues with the player’s party escaping from the slave pens to unite various desert towns together to fight against the evil empire of Draj (One of Dark Sun’s many evil empires, sadly). Now, any form of media in which slavers get messily slaughtered is cool with me, but the game’s finale features only one section of Draj’s army being defeated. Victory is satisfying but quite short. The implication is that your ragged group of escaped slaves and poor farmers has attracted the attention of the vicious overlord and your destruction is imminent. Unfortunately, the sequel does not explore this angle, but instead features your party generically going on various adventures and fighting against uninteresting villains. But that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment found in the first game.
Athas is a world completely rotten. In this cracked, sandy hellhole, it is a rare treasure to find a metal sword as opposed to the usual bone, stone, and wooden contraptions that are typically used as weapons. Monty Haul Dark Sun is not. The relentless oppression by man and nature alike is a constantly recurring theme throughout this setting. This is one of the many things that separate it from the generic childish Dungeons & Dragons setting; most of the time, evil is victorious. The vicious and inhuman are in charge and anything—rebellion or mere survival—must be done in the shadow of that fact. Shattered Lands’ search for unity amongst the villages that dot the hellscape must be done while fighting against the natural human desire to merely live. Overthrowing monstrous and nearly-invincible sorcerer-kings is not very prominent on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
And the creatures of Dark Sun are just fantastic. Giant scorpions, dimension-traveling worm wizards, mantis people, intelligent-but-crazy frog creatures from Limbo, dragons that are actually interesting, huge hulking steroid beasts, and whatever this lunatic thing is. Most of these appear in the game, which does its best to render them with its limited graphical capability.
The gameplay is typical turn-based D&D stuff: simple but satisfactory. You can build your characters to be perfect in all stats at the beginning of the game, but you’ll still have quite a challenge ahead of you. Psionics and non-healing magic are basically worthless; you need to build lots of physical fighters to have a chance. But it is the exploration and the atmosphere, not the combat, that compels the player to continue.
One weird thing I found is that upon exploring a new area, the entire place is available for view. You can scroll around and see the twisted passageways, vast deserts, and hideous beasties that await you in this section. I doubt it was intentional, but this revealing of the map is a unique way of instilling a sense of mystery in the player. You can see this weird crap on the other side, but you probably can’t get to it yet. Instead of just launching surprises at the player, it fills them with curiosity. I like that.
The sequel, as spoken of before, is not worth experiencing. It is literally the buggiest game I’ve ever played—missing doors, characters talking after being killed, impassible passages, heavy graphical glitches, and even one bug that resulted in my party becoming invincible. This cavalcade of programming errors often rendered the game unbeatable, requiring me to use multiple save slots to go back to a point where the game world wasn’t completely wrecked. Wake of the Ravager also contradicts established Dark Sun canon by including creatures like Umber Hulks that are supposedly extinct on Athas. It was kind of cool that the final boss was the Tarrasque, though.
Shattered Lands is still a great game that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. The fantastic setting alone makes it worth playing, but combined with the theme of rallying against a greater evil with no help from destiny or any other metaphysical aid is such a compelling one that it drives the game into brilliance.
But don’t talk to me about Dolphin, Athasian. That never happened.