By 1994, SSI and TSR’s partnership had lasted six years spreading AD&D and its worlds into a broad spectrum of genres spanning traditional CRPGs to an action packed dragon flight simulator. It had also given SSI’s marketing team one of the greatest excuses to publish some of the nicest looking gaming ads in any magazine thanks to TSR’s vast collection of art created for its many PnP products.
It would also be the year that would see dramatic changes for SSI. First, it would be acquired by Mindscape in October. Then, in January, 1995, would announce changes to its partnership with TSR. No longer would they be the exclusive rights holders to all things AD&D. SSI could still “develop, publish, and distribute” games based on TSR’s properties, but now it would be on a title-by-title basis instead. A lot of CRPGers, however, would notice how dramatically SSI’s output of TSR sanctioned material had simply evaporated after this year.
A sequel to Dark Sun: Shattered Lands had also arrived in 1994 taking players back to the ravaged world of Athas, a place where magic sapped the very life of the world in the hands of defilers while maintaining a tenuous balance within those of the preservers. I covered the back history of Athas in Shattered Lands, but as a short and brutish summary, this is a post-apocalyptic Dune-like world whose ecology was literally annihilated when defiling magic ran wild in warfare.
Now, cities sprout amongst the wastes and seeing any kind of greenery is akin to a miracle. Steel or iron based weapons and armor are more valuable than gold. Ceramic chits are the basis for money. Life is harsh, the ancient sorceror-kings who rule over this land maintain power as godlike beings, and living to see the next day is a victory in and of itself. Magic is something to be feared and even reviled for what it has done to the world, but it is still used by those who know how to conceal it, balance it against the needs of the land, or who simply are powerful enough to use it openly such as the sorceror-kings and their servants.
Wake of the Ravager seems to take place during the Prism Pentad series of books by Troy Denning from 1991 – 1993 where huge changes rocked the Dark Sun world. One of those was the death of Kalak, the sorceror-king of the city-state of Tyr, which is where the game picks up with. The player’s party are asked by a member of the Veiled Alliance, an underground group of preservers who actively work against the sorceror-kings and strive for Athas’ restoration, to explore Kalak’s pyramidal palace for an update on what is going on there now that the master is dead.
That’s only the first piece of an even longer journey that will eventually pit the player against the Lord Warrior, one of the Dragon’s lieutenants. The Dragon of Ur Draxa is the most powerful creature on Athas and is as much a relic of its past thousands of years ago as its oceans. And the Lord Warrior is preparing the way forward for his arrival now that he has stirred with the death of Kalak. The Lord Warrior also wants out of the binding curse that has enslaved him to the Dragon and the plan he is setting into motion might do just that — and destroy the rest of the world in the process if the players don’t stop him first. No problem at this point, right?
Like Pools of Darkness, The Dark Queen of Krynn, and a number of other Gold Box sequels, this one doesn’t break tradition by letting up on the player. It assumes that they’ve gone through the first game and ramps up the difficulty making it a reportedly brutal hack ‘n slash slog. CGW’s Scorpia notes that imported parties start the game at the highest difficulty, “hideous”, even if you create a new party and use one imported character with it. Difficulty cranks up how much of a hit point sponge critters are and the good news is that it can be adjusted whenever you want which she suggests.
Ravager uses the engine created in the first game and veterans will immediately feel at home with the mechanics which didn’t change aside from a cosmetic change or two. It’s top-down and mouse-driven with everything accessible with a few clicks. Characters can be rolled up fresh at the start, races chosen from Dark Sun flavored races such as muls (half dwarves) and thri-kreen (insectoids), stats maxed if you so desire with familiar AD&D crunch, and off your four-member party goes. Imported parties will get a leg-up on the difficulty allowing players to wade into combat with a better chance of getting out alive.
Getting around the game-world was as simple as clicking around the map with the cursor, moving your party icon around to talk to NPCs, find their way through mazes, and collecting loot from the dead. When combat starts, it doesn’t transition over to a separate screen as it did with the Gold Box series — it seamlessly starts wherever you are as your single party icon splits into separate characters.
Combat was also click friendly. If a character was close enough to an enemy, clicking bashed them. Spells were picked from icons, targeted with the mouse, and unleashed with a click. Character sheets were only a click away and talking to an NPC was as easy to do. It was a very simple game to get around in though actually being able to survive and solve its mysteries along the way were something else.
Ravager was loaded with side quests and game stopping bugs. Really bad ones. According to CGW’s Scorpia, earlier versions of the game prevented a number of things from working such as poisoning a dinner room of illithids instead of having to fight them all or a secret door that no one can pass through that is required. There was also a real-time puzzle in one of the quests that could catch players off guard and actually be difficult to finish depending on the speed of their PC. That last part was even mentioned in the strategy guide as a warning.
Ravager wasn’t the last Dark Sun game that SSI would create. The MMO they would create and then release in 1996 would give the world one last curtain call in Athas’ blasted wastes. But as a single player experience, Ravager was it for the series much like Matrix Cubed was it for Buck Rogers’ adventures in space from SSI. Afterward, SSI would focus on its own strategy titles including a venture into its own CRPG series.
The game was released exclusively for IBM PC MS-DOS machines. This time, the ad didn’t even advertise any other platform such as the Amiga the way ad for Matrix Cubed and Treasures of the Savage Frontier had done. It was repackaged in 1996’s “AD&D Masterpiece Collection” but exists as abandonware today like the rest of its brethren, ready for anyone with a DOSBox setup to dive back into the shifting sands of Athas’ dying world.
It’s too bad that Athas’ adventures ended in this way on PCs — the next chapter might have seen the players go up against the mysterious Ur Draxans or even the Dragon, though the books tied up everything in fast order via the heroes who overthrew Kalak. There is a text-based MUD out there, Armageddon, that may be as close as anyone might get to Dark Sun as an MMO incarnation long after the graphical version had died. It’s not Dark Sun, though, only heavily inspired by it and a number of other influences — but it’s out there for anyone up for a hardcore survivalist experience featuring permadeath and role playing and the kind of oppressive atmosphere that Athas had striven to provide for its players.