Wednesday, 7 November 2012

His Dark Majesty (Atari XE/XL)


It is no picnic living, as many of us poor unfortunates do, in David Cameron's Britain. If it isn't riots on the streets, funding cuts and financial crises, well, they're trying to sell off our forests, take away child benefit, or make us participate in something they call the 'big society.' The problem is, no one knows what it is. Even the humble ash tree is not safe, as the Government has resisted taking simple measures to protect it for the past three years.

It may be horrid, folks, but it could be worse, and D.C. is a purring tabby in comparison with H.D.M. - His Dark Majesty. Let me give you a flavour of his work. We are told, in His Dark Majesty's excellent but rather morose introduction, that the Dark Army 'descended on the land' one 'disastrous decade' ago. It brought 'chaos and pain' making 'simple worries only a memory'. Hmm, so far, so much like our Dave. 'An eternity of dread became a certainty for high-born and peasant alike.' Well, I think we can all see where the two approaches are starting to diverge!


The King was executed, and his son slung in a cell to rot with 'only half remembered visions of a happier time armour his soul from complete madness'. I am sure some of us can relate to this. But enough Cameron-bashing. To be fair to the man, he would never execute anyone, and - gosh - certainly not a king.

His Dark Majesty is a highly accomplished turn-based strategy game with (some) similarities to 8-bit classics like Laser Squad and Lords of Chaos. You take the role of the imprisoned prince just as his squire attempts - somewhat belatedly, it has to be said - to free him from jail. The first two scenarios, where you fight guards to escape your dungeon, play more like a Hero Quest-style turn-based RPG. The game quickly develops, however, into a strategic war game of pitched battles, sieges, skirmishes and ambushes, with the occasional character-based scenario. For example, when the inn you are staying in is attacked or a group of your men becomes lost in a swamp infested with deadly serpents. I'm still having nightmares about that one!


There are 23 scenarios in all, each one representing a progression in the story and a step closer to a show-down with H.D.M. The narrative is related at the start of each level through dialogue between a cast of characters who join your forces - or oppose you - as you advance. It's effectively done and moves the story swiftly along, drawing you into a well-realised - and increasingly fantastical - troubled land.


Graphically, the game is solid but unspectacular, although I appreciate it is difficult to turn the style up to eleven in a birdseye view strategy game. Having said that, the game maps, scenery and units are clear and well designed, and the character icons are nicely drawn, as are the dramatic introductory and 'game over' illustrations.


There are a number of areas where His Dark Majesty really excels, making it a shining example of the genre. Firstly, the game interface is brilliantly simple in design. Unusually for a strategy game you can pick it up straight away, without instruction. You can do everything with one fire button and four direction keys - without any pesky icons or menus, either. The game design is helpful, too: you can view the attack range of enemy units by selecting them, which saves foolishly and painstakingly counting squares with your fingers! You can even take back disastrously miscalculated moves (you cheat)!

This is a pleasingly challenging game, with the difficulty pitched extremely well, and a very effective learning curve. Although you may lose a battle once or twice, you can replay, and it does not get frustrating. Facing an army of zombies was a particularly trying episode, especially when my dead soldiers started rising up and attacking their comrades! I found that different strategies were necessary to succeed on each level, renewing the challenge and keeping interest levels high, which is no mean trick.

Another strength of the game is the sheer variety of scenarios. One early favourite is a pitched battle where you control a small band that has to influence the outcome in favour of your allies. In another, you have to defend a group of wise men from wave after wave of vulture attacks. In one level you lay siege to a village swarming with enemy troops, only to be caught there - on the next stage - by a larger army and forced to defend it yourself.


The game's variety is further enhanced by new units being introduced every level or so. Early units like pikemen, cavalry, archers and catapults are fairly standard, but before long you have to contend with necromancers, ogres, serpents, mages and the undead. Fortunately, you will gather some exotic allies as well, including elves, giant eagles and dragons. Many of the units have special attributes that can transform your chances when fully utilised. Your 'Lord' unit, for example, gives a defence bonus to nearby troops, and cavalry and dragons can trample enemies, multiplying their attack strength.

I can't offer much criticism of His Dark Majesty - it is a cracking strategy game with a strong narrative and each level is intelligently designed. One small point: if the character dialogue before each scenario was played out before you could view the level it would work much better, as sometimes what you see acts as a spoiler. I would also like to be able to replay completed levels - or even play as the opposing side (Red Alert style).


Rather than nit-picking, I will just encourage you to give this excellent game a try. It's engaging and well presented, with an atmospheric and dramatic martial score. It provides a meaty and evolving challenge and you'll want to celebrate every victory with a mighty 'huzzah!' More often than not they will be hard-fought and by the seat of your pants.

Anyway, it's back to the real world for me, now I've finally defeated H.D.M. Our own dark lord doesn't seem as scary now, but I will employ our hero's coping strategy to armour my soul from complete madness by picturing 'the sun upon an open field' or 'a smile on a maiden's face' whenever seeing Dave's smarmy mug gets a bit much for me in future!



Download the game here (from the H.D.M website).
Run it using Atari800Win Plus 4.0 (freeware).
5 out of 5