SSI’s reputation for CRPGs and tactical wargames didn’t make it an obvious go-to name for horror which makes their publication of 1993’s Veil of Darkness a surprise. This came out for DOS PCs including the FM-Towns and PC-98. Developed by now-defunct Event Horizon Software (who later became known as Dreamforge Intertainment), this isometric adventure attempted to blend RPG elements in with a straightforward click-fest of horror-themed monsters.
Players were cast into the role of a cargo pilot who crashed in the Carpathians within Romania ending up in a valley that has ignored the march of time in the outside world thanks to the vampire lord, Kairn. For centuries, the valley has existed as it did when he killed his father and brother for the promise of unspeakable power, a medieval-like place where he brings newcomers such as the player in to toy with at his leisure. But by making your plane crash, he’s also set into motion the prophecy that spells his doom.
Veil of Darkness is an interesting blend of RPG and adventure game elements. It has an inventory to manage, combat against a menagerie of horrific monsters, hit points, and even encumbrance. Adventure elements included many NPCs to converse with and even a parser in which you could punch in “key words” learned in conversation, something that CRPGs such as the later installments of Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series had done, opening up additional dialogue and even gift the player with the clues needed to ultimately destroy Kairn.
The game was set up in an isometric view and using either the keyboard or mouse, players moved around an automapped world — which could also be printed out for a handy reference — as they explored the eternally dark valley. In some ways, this was similar to Beam Software’s isometric tilt on Shadowrun which was also released in ’93 for the Super Nintendo System.
The manual was chock full of lore. A staggering 30+ pages were dedicated to introductory fiction alone telling the story of how Kairn had become the vampiric terror that he is and a bestiary at the end described the monsters you’d be going up against. There’s even a “Designer’s Notes” section with a word from Chris Straka describing the process he went in with in designing Veil of Darkness. Copy protection also made use of the manual — the game would ask for you to look up a page in the manual and then pick the appropriate face icons to keep playing at certain points.
Combat was a click-fest and the mode was determined by the player at the start and cannot be changed when the game is started, an old standby that a number of modern games take after such as Arkane Studios’ Dishonored with its chosen difficulty levels. But what the modes did was to either make combat easier on harder on the player by affecting their hit point total and whether or not they have certain active bonuses. Those preferring full combat won’t get as many hit points and will need to scavenge for items to keep them alive. Those picking “easy” will find themselves buffed with a number of bonuses with combat being a simple walk in the park – “Ninja Dog” mode for those familiar with Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden.
But it didn’t seem to be very exciting stuff. You clicked, you attacked, you went back to town for healing, but the only reason to fight was to defend yourself. There didn’t seem to be a reason to fight monsters other than that could make combat a repetitive exercise in boredom. Inventory management could also get a bit silly with stacking containers, like bags, inside one another. On the other hand, you were relatively free to explore, and get killed, as often as you wanted.
Unfortunately, Veil of Darkness seems to be one of those games that didn’t quite make the classic cut. Other complains outside of the combat ranged from the simplistic storyline which apparently doesn’t come close to what the manual had already done to the boring combat and exploration. But it wasn’t a terrible game, just not the kind that wowed players the way a full-fledged horror-themed CRPG like Elvira or her sequel did prior to this one.
But it would give Event Horizon Software some experience with horror in general, especially when they later changed their name to Dreamforge and worked with TSR’s Ravenloft license for SSI featuring another vampire antagonist in his own game. In 1994, they would come out with Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession in which Chris Straka would also lend his talents to, a party-based CRPG using a first-person view set in a dimension of gothic horror.
Today, Veil of Darkness can only be found either on sites that cater to abandonware or on auction sites like Ebay. It hasn’t yet enjoyed the kind of digital distribution second wind that others have, though it might only be a matter of time before it does. In the meantime, DOSbox stands ready to lift the veil off from over this rare horror gem from SSI’s dusty archives.