DARK LAW 〜Meaning of Death〜, released 3/28/1997, released by ASCII
ASCII is responsible for a lot of the late Super Famicom RPGs. This one fits in to a kind of “spiritual trilogy” with Dark Lord (for Famicom) and Wizap! When I played Wizap! I found it difficult to play, with a rather inscrutable system and annoying gameplay. I have the same feeling about Dark Law. It’s interesting that even the positive reviews of the game (both in English and Japanese) spend most of the review trashing the game but then say that “despite this I enjoyed it” or “you will feel accomplished if you beat it.”
The story involves two gods that are normally in balance, but the evil god has gained too much power, and now in the land of Rayfoll, monsters have appeared. You begin by creating between 1 and 4 characters (just names, genders, and assigning stat points). You can use up to 3 of them at a time. None of them have any story.
There are basically two things you can do in the game. The first is go to a cave outside of the town where you can explore a large-ish dungeon, fighting monsters and finding treasures. The second thing is to find quests to do in town — there are a fairly limited number of these, and they depend on your level to appear. You get good XP awards from the quests, but not enough that you won’t also have to do some grinding in the dungeon. I believe that all the quests are optional except the final one, which you need to be at level 13 to access.
The first character you create begins in an ancient temple with no memory. She heads to a nearby hut of a farmer Oriona and his daughter. After doing some hoeing for the farmer, evil troops come by and burn his house, kill him, and (possibly) abduct the daughter. Your MC heads to the nearby town to tell the King about what happened.
Once you talk to the King it’s basically freedom until the end. The first huge barrier you run into is the severe money limitation in the game. It is very difficult to get money even to buy the most basic equipment for your characters. You get some money from clearing certain quests. When you level up, you get money from your characters’ jobs (which you assign to them at a building in town — the money listed there is the money you get, not the money it costs to take the job). You can also sell some things you find. However, the money you get from these three sources is nowhere near enough. Maybe some people like the idea of sweating over the purchase of even the weakest weapons and armor, but I didn’t find it particularly fun (and this is a frequently criticized area of the game).
The quests feel very much like a tabletop RPG — I think they were going for a similar feeling to a game like Sword World SFC. However, that game was far superior to this one. A big problem with the quests is that so much of what you have to do is counterintuitive and mysterious, often requiring you to check things 3 or 4 times. One particularly egregious section is where you are trying to get a prism out of a wall. You are told “The prism is impossible to move” but you just have to keep hitting circle several more times with that same message, and then the encasing will break and you get the prism. (This is even putting aside the fact that getting the prism is not an obvious way to advance in the first place). Other places you just have to keep wandering around talking to people multiple times and examining seemingly unconnected areas of the map.
The stories in the subquests are interesting, although frequently tragic and sad. The first one involves the sighting of a mysterious wolf being in the forest. The second involves a dog who seemingly dies of old age but then returns to life the next day. The third involves the visit of a grim reaper to someone who shouldn’t be ready for death. These little stories are definitely the high point of the game, but they’re embedded in a virtually unplayable system that makes them unrewarding to see through to the conclusion.
The combat is done in a TRPG style. Each character has an action point meter that depletes when you move. You attack by facing an enemy, and if you have enough attack points the enemy will flash and you can attack. It’s a workable system, but healing is so expensive and spells so difficult to get that it seems like you want to have missile weapons on all your characters so they can avoid as many attacks as possible.
There is a magic system in the game, but you either have to buy the spells (at great cost) or make them yourself using a character with the “scroll” ability (they still cost money and you have to know some formulas; I used a walkthrough so I don’t know how you’re actually supposed to know the formulas). However, getting the scroll ability is random on level up, and levels are very limited.
The last sentence brings up another huge issue with the game — the incredible amount of randomness. Your hits may do 1 or 15 damage. Level ups vary greatly in how good or bad they are. Certain screens have potential random encounters that are devastating. You can save at any time and there’s even a “reroll luck” in the status menu when shows (I guess) that the designers recognized how swingy the game is.
In the end, I just found very little to enjoy about this game. I played the first three quests but when I realized I was going to have to grind over 1000 XP in the cave to access the next quest I decided that was enough — fortunately there is a translation patch so I can move on. I do like the idea of the tabletop-like atmosphere, which is one reason I enjoyed Sword World SFC so much despite its problems. But this one just had way too many problems for me to continue.
Next up is Solid Runner, the final SFC game! (I’ve actually already finished it)