The Game Archaeologist: Dark Ages, the weird lovechild of Celtic lore and Lovecraftian legends

    
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While the online world was fascinated by “the Big Three” Western MMOs in 1999 — that would be EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron’s Call — this did not mean that they were the only three MMORPGs in existence. Plenty of other projects had come to fruition around this time, especially overseas in the Korean market.

One of these was Dark Ages, a Nexon-developed MMO set in a Celtic fantasy realm. Today we’re going to look back at this perhaps obscure title to see what other options MMO players had back around the turn of the century.

Following its founding in 1994, the Nexon corporation went to work on churning out popular MMOs during the rest of that decade. While I covered its first project, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds, in a separate column, what I want to look at today is its follow-up games.

In early 1998, Nexon released Legend of Darkness, an online RPG that embraced a quarter-view angle. And while this wasn’t as much of a huge hit as Nexus was, Legend of Darkness did feed into and inspire the studio’s third MMO, Dark Ages.

This time around, Nexon decided that it would incorporate Celtic elements into this fantasy realm. Players would explore a world full of ancient secrets, crazed gods, rising empires, and deep magics. When the MMO was brought over to the west, game designer David Ethan Kennerly also incorporated facets of Lovecraftian lore to make Dark Ages, well, more dark.

Players started out their journey in Dark Ages as a peasant, graduating into a class (if they chose — you could be a lifelong peasant!) as they found an associated guild in their starter town. These classes were fairly standard, with Wizards, Rogues, and the like on tap, but players had to develop them wisely with the right stat points and skill acquisition.

Those who stuck with their class to level 99 got the option to become a Master in that role, earning new abilities and gear. This further transformed their class into an advanced role, with Wizards becoming Summoners and so on.

On top of that, adventurers could also pledge themselves of to one of the game’s religions and work their way up in a temple by performing certain actions and enlisting more people into the faith.

In Dark Ages, players explored an isometric world where they ground out experience in hunting areas, engaged in PvP, and went on lengthy quests. But perhaps the most notable element of the game was its in-depth political system that allowed players to run their own towns, hold offices, and even change the rules for certain places.

Another neat feature was a nobility system, which was, in truth, a literal popularity contest. Actually, seven contests that are held on a regular basis. Players vote on others’ contributions to the game’s artistic scene, with categories for art, biography, history, literature, lore, memory, philosophy, and poetry. Contest winners are rewarded with progression in various aspects of the game, including working their way up into the nobility.

While other MMORPGs were birthed and killed in the subsequent decades, Dark Ages continued to quietly truck along with its quaint old school charm. In 2020, Nexon delivered a significant update for the game which increased the screen resolution and added more quality-of-life features. And while the population is reportedly very small, the team continues to activate events and promote the game.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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