Back in the day, before 3D graphics and when people still struggled with DOS, SSI was the king of RPGs. Why? Because it held the lucrative Dungeons and Dragons license, and it successfully brought some truly great licensed games to PC, which have an X-Factor that in many ways has not been bettered since, even by Bioware.
|Just looking at this screenshot brings back memories of many, many childhood hours|
Looking at the list of some of the greats, it could almost be a ‘best of’ list; there’s Death Knights of Krynn, Eye of the Beholder, Menzoberranzan, Pool of Radiance and the Ravenloft horror RPGs, Strahd’s Possession and Stone Prophet. These games were universally capable of bringing Dungeons and Dragons fans into their favourite game worlds at a time where the value of Dungeons and Dragons was peaking, and there were more game worlds then people were capable of following.
But the best of them is the lost-to-history Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager. It was a supremely detailed game that encouraged exploration and consequence before the likes of Baldur’s Gate had even been thought of. As such it was also endlessly replayable, and as it was set in a game world that goes against the grain for modern fantasy, it remains, even now, reasonably unique.
|The character creation in this game was insanely detailed for its time|
Dark Sun was a deeply unpleasant world, and the perfect example of low-powered fantasy. The starving and thirsty pockets of civilization groaned under the whip of supremely powerful tyrants. Resistance movements dug themselves so deeply underground that they were unable to achieve anything of note. Five steps outside of those pockets of life were cruel wastelands, ruled over by merciless thugs and weird, amoral creatures.
Just surviving under this sun was an achievement, which is precisely what made Wake of the Ravager such an intriguing concept – what you did, and what you tried to do, could have substantial consequences. It was entirely possibly to accidentally cause the death of the resistance movement by failing to come to its aid. It was all too easy to wander into a fight well beyond your character’s means. It wasn’t from a lack of raw power – the skills and abilities of the party were broad. It was just that the enemy was even more powerful.
|You don't actually have to help the Veiled Alliance if you want to play mean|
In the place of dungeons were ruins, mines and city brawls. The story focused almost entirely around a single city, which meant the world felt, in some ways, more limited than other RPGs at the time, but also meant the city itself could have more intrigue and locations built into it. The underground of the city of Tyr was a massive adventure in itself. The brief walk to the mines contained a hours-long sidequest involving a ruins haunted by snake-men. Amusingly, this was a criticism that was also unfairly levelled at Dragon Age 2, but Wake of the Ravager might not have felt epic, but it was always engaging.
In true Dungeons and Dragons fashion there was a huge range of character options – including some races and classes unique to the setting, such as the giant mantis men Thri-Kreen and the half giant gladiators. Playing around with the various character classes to find the most effective, or most interesting teams was always reason in itself to replay the game.
|Evil snake men. Killing them all was a heck of a challenge|
And it was possible for teams to tackle objectives in different manners. Busting down doors and beating heads in was challenging, but possible, but so was talking through many situations, or finding back doors into areas the heroes were not meant to visit. Given the game itself was quite long for the time, the sheer replay value of Wake of the Ravager was a massive selling point.
Of course, Wake of the Ravager also wasn’t the most accessible of games. Working on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition ruleset, you’d almost need a mathematics degree at times to make sense of it. As a RPG gamer I loved it, but acronyms such as THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) and understanding that better armour made your armour value go down was difficult for the more casual players to wrap their minds around.
|It isn't the prettiest game, but a remake would fix that now, wouldn't it?|
TSR was later acquired by the current owners of the Dungeons and Dragons IP, Wizards of the Coast, and it wasn’t until the last year or so that the Dark Sun setting has had any attention paid to it since those days. Which is a pity. The setting retains a raw power and energy that is sorely missing from modern RPGs. While the likes of Dragon Age do indeed feature a dark setting, you still end up being the all conquering hero. Dark Sun works on the philosophy that a hero’s actions have that much more weight when the hero themselves are battling literally impossible odds.
For that reason, it would be nice to see this game or setting revived in some way. It’s unlikely – SSI’s IP is now owned by Ubisoft, while Atari has the D & D license, but a revisit to the Dark Sun world is well overdue. The success of Demon’s Souls shows there is a market out there for insanely difficult RPGs that really stack the odds up against you.
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