Dark Seal, huh? Well, that's a pretty generic title. Unless... is this a game about a young seal cub forming a dark pact with Lucifer to gain boundless infernal power, so that he might avenge the deaths of his parents who were clubbed to death for their pelts? No, of course it isn't. It's actually Data East's 1990 arcade attempt at a Gauntlet clone, with no malevolent Arctic mammals to be seen. Disappointing, I know.

Also known as Gate of Doom, Dark Seal is an arcade game that has been boiled down to its simplest terms: if you've ever played Gauntlet, you'll know what to expect. Before we get into the Dungeons & Dragons-flavoured innards however, let's find out why we're here in the first place.

Well, that's nice and clear. Condensing the story into a single sentence shows a clear-minded efficiency which I'm sure we can all appreciate. Okay, so there's a little more to it than that, but not much - some Black Knight has stolen the relics required to seal the Gate of Doom, and as one of the four fabled heroes you're stuck with the task with closing yon gate before evil seeps through like so much acid from a bootleg Chinese battery.

There are four heroes at your command, almost all of them in the typical Dungeons & Dragons mould (right down to the alignments) and all of them ready to, you guessed it, fight evil.

First up, the standard Knight. He's big, he's powerful, he should have a name like Gadwain or Gowufric but instead he's called Carl. His handsomeness is almost certainly assured, with a jawline so rugged mountaineers are forever trying to climb it and flowing, golden hair. It actually lists his hair colour as "gold" in his bio. Not blonde - gold, as though it were spun from the very rays of the setting sun.

His weapon is some kind of novelty lance which deploys a morningstar from the end when he attacks. I can't imagine he invented this himself. He looks dumber than a binbag full of haddock, but at least his heart's in the right place.

Representing the fairer sex is the Freya the Wizard. I say Wizard, she only knows one more spell than the other characters. Can you even legally call yourself a Wizard with that slight a knowledge of magic? The Wizard Licensing board needs to look into its entry criteria, because they've got the magical equivalent of Dr Gillian McKeith on their hands.

The one spell that she does have to herself is a fire-blast that she uses as her main attack. Summoning hellfire is impressive and all, but its limited range is something of a worry. You'll just have to hope that the villain hasn't recruited any archers, or at least not ones that are intelligent enough to stand just outside her range and fill you full of arrows.

Fucking bards, man. They're always useless, and until some invents an RPG that revolves around boring people at an open-mic night they'll always be useless. Whenever I play Talisman I always seem to get stuck as the goddamn Minstrel, which is the same as a bard but with a name that reminds you of racism, and he's useless too.

Just look at this mincing fool! Why would you ever choose him over a Knight or a Wizard? The answer is you wouldn't, unless you had recently received a large grant from the Bard Promotion Council. Ah, but he can commune with the animals, you say. You know what else can commune with the animals? My warrior's sword, that's what.
What I'm saying is that here's just no reason to send a bard into this kind of combat situation. Why do you think Shakespeare wasn't running around killing dragons? Because he had more important things to do like writing plays about teenage romance and dudes turning into donkeys? No! He was simply intelligent enough to realise that he didn't have the correct skillset for this line of work, so like a sensible person he stuck to writing and other such, dare I say it, bard-related pastimes. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Well, maybe, but first just let me stab this dragon real quick". It's just not going to happen, and the sooner the bard learns his place the better.

Also, his weapon is listed as an "Elastic Spetum". While that may sound like a particularly stretchy glob of phlegm, a spetum is in fact a real weapon. It's sort of a spear with some more spearheads stuck to the end. Would you care to take a guess as to the Bard's combat effectiveness with said weapon?

And finally, there's a Ninja. For some reason. Yep. Frankly, the Ninja doesn't fare much better than the Bard. Ninjas are all about the stealthy assassinations, but here he wanders in through the front door in his blue smock. Maybe the King told him it was a standard ninja mission and this gullible shinobi sap bought it. "Yeah, it's a simple assassination job. You'll only have to fight, like, five or six dragons. Seven, tops." Personally, I think Ninja is just pleased to be invited into this Dungeons & Dragons­-esque party for a change, happy to be away from the Samurai and his interminable yammerings about bushido. Blah blah way of the sword blah blah honour blah blah blah.

This has all just been preamble for the main event, though. No, not the gameplay: that's really nothing to get excited about. I'm talking about Dark Seal's crazy cavalcade of voice clips. The characters like to announce themselves when you select them, you see, or when they cast a magic spell. Here, give them a listen.

Amazing, simply amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I'm having trouble choosing a favourite. I like the Knight's almost Ralph Wiggum-esque cry of "I'm the Knight!" he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but by God he loves being a knight. I like the Bard's "magic" noise, the least powerful and most disappointing sounding utterance of the word "Power" outside a White Power rally. I love the Ninja's bold, dynamic and extremely Japanese take on the phrase "I'm the Ninja!” In the end, however, I think I have come down on the side of the disinterested Italian king, who is so distracted by his kingly duties that he trails off in mid-sentence. Simply beautiful. Over all, a solid B+ goes to Data East's voice acting department. For a sense of scale, A+ would be House of the Dead 2.

Okay, I admit it: I've been stalling. I was also overcome with my semi-rational hatred of bards, but I've definitely been stalling, because there's really not that much to say about Dark Seal. As I mentioned, the gameplay is very simple. You move around with the stick, press a button to attack and hope that you're pointing in roughly the right direction so your attacks might actually hit something. You travel through the stages, killing monsters and collecting treasure, until you reach a boss. Kill the boss and it's onward to the next stage.

One thing I will say for Dark Seal is that it has a whole bunch of dragons in it. Red ones, blue ones, Western ones, Chinese ones: if you like dragons, then Dark Seal is the game for you. Assuming you also like overly-difficult Gauntlet style run-'n'-gun games with a D&D flavour, that is.

Aesthetically, Dark Seal is okay: it's competent, but never really flashy. The player characters look decent (except the Bard, naturally), but more disappointingly the enemies and stages are all a bit generic. There's a castle stage, a fire cave, an ice cave, yadda yadda. The enemies are a group of familiar Tolkein / D&D-inspired fellows, with the aforementioned dragons as well as skeletons and orcs and slimes, all of which will be familiar to you if you've ever played any videogame with a fantasy setting ever. Oh, and one of the bosses is a Beholder.

He looks like he's stealing a longing glance at the Bard. Now's your chance to be useful, Bard! Distract the beast by making out with it while we head onward to the Dark Knight's castle! You're noble sacrifice will not be forgotten. Except, we no longer have a bard to recount the tale of your heroism, so I guess it will be forgotten. Sorry about that.
At least the music's good, and I'd go so far as to say that it's the game's best feature. Again it doesn't stray too far from the clich├ęs of the genre, but it's nicely atmospheric and well composed. Here's a sample - the theme of the first and third stages.

The only other gameplay feature besides the standard attacking of monsters is the magic gauge. The rainbow-coloured bar on the left of the screen fills up as you kill enemies, and once it's full you can activate a magic attack.

The unusual thing is that instead of working as you might expect, with your hero performing a more powerful version of their standard attack or clearing the screen of enemies, you actually transform into a different form, as indicated by the continually-turning pages of the spellbook, for a short while and gain access to a new set of attacks. As you can see in the picture above, the Knight has transformed into, um, a swarm of rats. A swarm of rats!? I can't see the Dark Knight losing too much sleep over that one. It's hard to fear an opponent who can be defeated by a hungry cat. And the rats are one of the better transformations - the worst is probably the rock, which turns you into a rock. You move and attack by hopping around, trying to land on enemies with your newly weighty body, except most of the time you end up hopping off the edge of the stage and into a yawning chasm or lava pit. Worst of all, you can still be hurt in your magical form, and being a rock appears to give you none of the defence bonus you might reasonably expect to come from being a fucking rock.
I suppose you could argue that being turned into the defenceless pig is the worst spell...

...but he's just too adorable to dislike. Oh, and you can become a Medusa Head.

Aha! Sweet revenge for all those years spent getting knocked into pits in various Castlevania games! Look out evildoers, because heroism has a new face: the face of an ugly old woman with snakes for hair. I'll take them all down! It's going to be a non-stop barrage of pushing people down clocktowers and causing infuriating petrification-based status ailments! I'll be unstoppable, invincible, undefea... oh, it's run out. That didn't last long.
That magic attack is at least a little interesting, then, although the effect is not that helpful and somewhat underwhelming. Seeing your Knight crackling with a powerful mystical aura, holding his lance to the heavens, exclaiming "EXCALIBUR!" and then turning into a cloud or something equally dismal is disappointing to say the least.

Dark Seal's major problem isn't its lack of imagination or ability to turn you into a rock. No, it's simply too goddamn hard to be much fun. The early stages aren't so bad, but eventually you'll just be constantly overwhelmed by swarms of powerful enemies that you simply can't cope with. The difficulty level is due partly to bad game mechanics and partly to some sadistic level design and enemy placement. The isometric viewpoint makes it difficult to tell if an attack is going to hit you, especially when it comes from a diagonal angle, and attacks that you thought you were safe from seem to cause damage more often than they should. Along with that, the characters and so incredibly slow that any kind of evasive manoeuvres are pointless because you simply cannot move quickly enough. Well, most of the time the Ninja can because having the fastest movement speed is his whole gimmick, but that just means if you any to have any chance of completing the game without spending a pile of credits the size of small pony you have to ignore the other characters and play as the Ninja. This is a shame, because besides his quick feet the Ninja is rubbish.

Later in the game, Dark Seal throws any pretence to fairness out the window and begins a continual barrage of pain aimed squarely at your pocket. Here's the final boss, a giant skeletal sorcerer who is apparently quite shy. He wouldn't drop his hands long enough that I could get a picture of his bony face, that's for sure. He fires out a boatload of attacks, including a great many status aliments that I suppose could be avoidable if you completely gave up on trying to attack him and dedicated your life to evasive tactics. He can also turn you into a pig seemingly at will, which makes the fight even more tedious than his giant health bar as you wait, defenceless, to transform back into your non-porcine form. I wouldn't mind the difficulty so much if the fight was at least interesting, but all Bones here has to offer is the thrill of watching him stand still while he bombards you with death-magic.

Okay, I lied. He's not the final boss - that honour goes to the Dark Knight. What a twist! I certainly didn't see it coming.

While he's at least a little more interesting to fight than the necro-wizard, he's not any less irritating. He spends around 90 percent of the fight spinning around with his sword out like some armour-clad ballerina, during which time he's completely invincible to your attacks and almost completely unavoidable. I once spun around like that with a stick that slipped from my grasp and smashed the bathroom window, so I know it can be an effective technique: that doesn't make it fun, though. My mum didn't think it was fun, at any rate.

If you can summon the patience to defeat him, the Princess appears and seals the frankly underwhelming-looking Gate of Doom, the kingdom is saved and I can go and bathe my throbbing thumb in some ice water.

Dark Seal isn't very good, really. It's a shame, because I really wanted to enjoy it. There's the basis for something fun here: the graphics are decent, the music’s good and the characters do feel different, even if one of them is a bard. It's ruined by the lack of anything new and the punishing difficulty level which turns what could have been a hectic, challenging and fun game into an interminable slog that I really had force myself to finish. At least there's that voice acting, which was just about worth the pain inflicted by the game.

Data East's patchy track record continues, then. I just hope that if I ever find myself amongst a large group of Japanese people, I can resist shouting "I AMMU NINJA!" like I have been doing ever since I played Dark Seal.

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