The word “play” is an ill-suited description of what it means to engage with Prelude to Darkness. Ludic archaeology is more accurate. This is a deeply unfinished and broken game. One hour of interrupted gameplay will seem like a miracle after the umpteenth crash. And each crash provides a momentary distraction from the inscrutable UI and unappealing graphics.
But this isn’t a game to be played, it’s a game to be studied. Beyond all the technical dross lies one of the most ambitious RPGs ever attempted.
This is immediately obvious from the character creation where the main characters can have different bloodlines, backgrounds, attributes, skills and spells. Various UI tooltips hint towards the game’s depth by warning of having low intelligence or low charisma.
The role of the player-controlled party is to keep the peace in the Valley, a region defined by an uneasy covenant between the urban “Children of the Flame” and rural “Riverfolk”. Given the monstrous antagonists introduced from the get-go, it is clear that PtD wears its high fantasy trappings on its sleeve. But there is still a wonderful sense of the mundane which elevates the atmosphere in spite of the shoddy visuals.
The crowning jewels though, which makes PtD surpass the likes of Fallout (in intention, not execution), are its quest design and reactivity. Learning new spells involves going to trainers, with each spell having an associated quest. If no one in the party is literate then quests don’t get written in the journal. A male character asking for a shaved head is a non-issue while the barber is shocked if a female character does the same. A woman is kept asleep by a magical amulet that will kill her if removed, something that the player is prompted to do unless they have high enough magical knowledge. This is the stuff lifelong gaming memories are made of while, hopefully, the technical issues fade with time.
Make no mistake, this is a connoisseurs’ item of worship. The very antithesis of a “fun time” for those who want to be whisked away into a fantasy RPG. For the novelty seekers who want to dig deep, they are in for a good deal of infuriating drudgery. But eventually, they will both marvel at what the game is and be heartbroken at what the game could have been. Ludo Lense