New Retro Vault: Dark Disciples (2004)
Dark Disciples is a series of two freeware indie CRPGs that never got much of the limelight compared to its older brother Eschalon, who was good at both sports and study and popular with girls. It’s a diamond in the rough. Where by “rough” I mean something like “adamantine or titanium level of roughness” – but if you can look past its not-so-sleek 90s veneer, a sprawling open world of questing awaits, that effectively does what Skyrim and Fallout 4 took decades to catch on to; just without those pesky things like AAA music production, UX design or an actual budget. Considering Dark Disciples is roughly infinity percent cheaper ($0) that’s a pretty good value proposition on the whole.
Dark Disciples is as basic as an overly-conservative farmer’s dinner in many ways, but just as hearty. The graphics were dated even for 2004, the interface is suitably clunky, and the opening moments of the game don’t leave the best impression. The combat perhaps, may be the biggest obstacle for some – it’s mostly “serviceable”, served by walking into enemies to attack (like in Roguelikes), with few direct tactical options (aside from limited magic items). Stick with it though, and fans of old school RPGs longing for more roleplaying options, puzzles, and creative quests (from a cult of slime mages, to ghost murder mysteries to treasure hunts and grave robbing, Disciples has it all) often with multiple solutions, can really find something to dig their teeth into. It’s a bold claim – but the exploration and adventuring in Dark Disciples is perhaps some of the best of the old school indie RPGs I’ve played.
It’s tough love, though, as the first steps are awkward ones to be sure. Character creation is a simple process, in which you allocate points to your core stats, strength, dexterity: the usual stuff. But there’s no clear explanation of what stats do – other than that they are “all equally useful”. Thanks, I guess. There’s no classes, skills, perks or traits or anything like that. There’s no magic (you must rely on wands which have limited charges and scrolls that are one-use items). There’s no ranged attacks (unless you count wands). The graphics have probably been made in a bootleg copy of the Windows 3.1 version of MS Paint. It all seems so lacking and yet… there is somehow so much more to do in Dark Disciples than most modern CRPGs out there. It’s like some kind of alternate dimension where Castle of the Winds was actually popular and they made a sequel that didn’t completely suck.
And so, as when begin our grand journey, we’re presented with a story that isn’t particularly captivating but refreshing in its unepicness – your father racked up a 100,000 gold debt with the obvious corrupt merchant guild and then committed suicide in hopes to escape the debt. Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with common law knows, the estate merely inherits the debt. Estate being his now widowed wife and you, who are already living in abject poverty. You, being the inexperienced you that you are, decides to head to the capital to plead for a way to be rid of this impossibly large debt. Much like someone who just graduated from University, you are expected to complete this massive task with no money, experience or support… So it’s kind of like real life, I suppose. It’s not saving the world, but it’s actually a refreshing change from waking up in a bed/cell with amnesia and later learning you are the chosen one that will save the world and, optionally, heir to the throne.
From here, the opening of the game begins directly in front of your miserable shack (which still manages to look more luxurious than my overpriced apartment), where you can scrape up a few coins and some meagre equipment to begin your grand beggar quest with. One might expect to be immediately given a few mandatory introductory quests that explain the game’s mechanics, grant a few levels and better equipment with which to move forward in an orderly fashion. One, of course, would sorely be mistaken since Dark Disciples gives no shits about your special snowflake needs for direction and instead fills the very next house with giant rats which can throughly wreck your shit and give you a crippling unrecoverable disease (if you aren’t immediately killed) to boot.
Disease bestowing enemies are not the best starting point, since it prohibits you from healing when resting, and you can’t afford any healing potions (and no “cure disease” potions are even available yet). It’s all a bit confusing and I suffered on for a while before eventually giving up and restarting. This was the point where I was getting ready to click-and-drag to whole mess into the recycle bin, and resume my more socially-acceptable lifestyle of consuming fermented vegetable drinks instead. By some strange twist of fate, I embraced a second reincarnation into peasanthood, and in this life decided to enter the network of caves which I formerly avoided due to signs warning of the danger contained within – I assumed this was a fair warning to be strictly adhered to. Turns out one of the “dangerous” caves holds the only healer in the starting area, I can only assume this is because Dark Disciples wants you to accept the face of death, which will soon become very familiar to you. It’s hard to deny that things like this are unnecessarily confusing and don’t inspire the greatest hope in the game – however once you finally manage to scrape together a few levels and better equipment, things markedly improve. Once you start discovering the varied quests and secrets tucked in seemingly every corner of the map – the world, and game, begins to open up a lot more and suddenly the sun is coming up and oh god I have to finish that paper in 30min. Ah, screw it, I’ll submit late so I can level up to defeat that lich and find out what’s lying up for grabs on his table.
That’s the spirit and strength of Dark Disciples – its relatively non-linear structure, filled with optional side-quests and content that brings it closer to tabletop roleplaying Since there’s no random encounters or respawning enemies you’ll need to do at least a majority of the ‘optional’ content to gain enough experience and equipment to move forward – but in which order and fashion you choose to tackle them is pretty much completely up to you. These supplementary quest areas tend to be huge, as well. Not just in terms of size, no, but content – there’s always seemingly a new NPC, side quest or hidden room or tough monster that you just can’t overcome waiting for you to get stronger elsewhere and come back later. It’s almost like the metroidvania of indie cRPGs.
The first ‘real’ dungeon for example, is firstly just an obstacle to pass through, and, theoretically, once you’ve opened the way forward you can never worry about exploring it any further. However, return once you’ve levelled up a bit to properly explore and you’ll find both upper and lower levels with more NPCs, enemies and loot. Meanwhile, back on ground level, I found a secret passage in the ground floor, which revealed a treasure map that a treasure hunter whom I met earlier was searching for. I was given the option to sell it to him, or try negotiate a higher price. But I decided to keep it for myself and later took it to a captain in the main city’s docks and, for the hefty fee of 500GP, sailed to the island directly. The island is no one-shot side-quest, either. There’s new NPCs, various groups of monsters, two giant beasts to try and overcome, and multiple floors of dungeon beneath – complete with puzzles, of course, and then.. But wait, I digressed, didn’t I? Back to that starting dungeon. Turns out, even later on, you might find an item that opens access to even more lower levels, leading to several NPCS, hidden treasures and finally a boss encounter. I finally managed to defeat the boss but still haven’t figured out how to get to all of the areas in this dungeon. And I’ve barely scratched the surface of that treasure island. This sense of exploration and adventure is whats makes up for Dark Disciples’ rough ‘n’ tough edges.
The other point worth mentioning is the somewhat open-ended approach to problem solving. Most areas present quite a few options for getting around obstacles. Many obstacles may need a key, puzzle solved or for you to find a password to get through. You might explore to find what you need, or you might look for locked doors and locked chests that can be picked (dexterity) or bashed open, some walls can be broken down too, Adam Jenkins style (strength), or climbed over if Garett is your prefered antihero persona (agility+rope and grapple). Or perhaps you might directly address the monster problem that is usually present. The simplest but usually hardest option for this path is to just fight your way through. Or you could try to use stealth. If you’re going to fight though, you may want to use magic (wands and scrolls) to get rid of otherwise too high level foes, or enhance your stealth ability with an invisibility potion. Or you could just keep searching for other pathways through, and avoiding the whole mess, such as going the long way round and finding a convenient raft at the back of the map, and crossing the river to the backdoor. Not all of these options are always available for any given obstacle or objective, and combat is generally inevitable at various (frequent) points – but most dungeons/areas provide a healthy mix of options, making getting through an area always feel interesting and meaning that all your skills feel potentially useful in assisting your overall progress.
If you couldn’t tell by the size of those paragraphs explaining the insane detail in the very first dungeon in the game, or range of gameplay options, I’ll summarise it here: Dark Disciples is somehow absolutely filled to the brim with stuff to do despite being so simplistic at the same time. Much like Skyrim, you’ll find yourself delving further and further into dungeons or quests, or simply wandering off untrodden trails and starting new, seemingly innocuous requests from NPCs, and ending up spending a few hours wrapped up in a completely new task forgetting what you were supposed to be doing in the first place. The fact that I haven’t even described every element of the game in all this text is also a testament to Disciples… like the way you can push carts over traps to set them off, or crush otherwise pesky monsters under a portilicus (never gets old)…
The sequel follows in much the same pattern as the original, and while it appears to use the same engine, there are some pretty notable improvements. Namely – magic and archery are now included in the game, and I’ve heard it’s even bigger (it received content updates as recent as a few years ago!). I’ll probably take a closer retrospective at that one at a later date, though, since right now I need to get back to that underground temple and see if I can find out what these ancient coins I found are used for…
Dark Disciples 1 | Download at Reloaded.org
Dark Disciples 2 | Download at Reloaded.org
Other links | Interview with Developer