The Lords of Midnight: Night has fallen and the Foul are abroad!

The Lords of Midnight‘s manual opens with what ordinarily would be described as some self-important trumpet blowing: “Welcome to the World’s first-ever Epic game…” it boldly declares, weary 21st Century eyes reflexively performing a well-practised roll at the sight of such easily ignored waffle.

The thing is, between the game’s advanced age (at the time of writing it’s about thirty-eight years old) and the mind-boggling level of ambition on display here – ambition that’s still immediately obvious even today – there’s a very good chance The Lords of Midnight’s enthusiastic opener might actually be telling the truth.

The manual does at least seem to believe its own grand claims, continuing as it does not with helpful instructions or key commands (those come later) but a five chapter story for you to peruse while the tape loads, serving as a lightly sketched prequel to the game. By their own admission these twenty-ish pages of mock Tolkienistic fantasy aren’t required reading, but they do help set the “fantasy epic” tone the package is aiming for.

The manual’s literary aspirations pale into insignificance when compared to the incredible panoramic views present in the game itself, filling the screen with vibrant blues and crisp whites stretching all the way to the horizon. All four main characters (that’s Luxor the Moonprince, Corleth the Fey, Rorthron the Wise, and the conspicuously un-the’d Morkin) begin the game standing at the Tower of the Moon in the Forest of Shadows, looking out in different directions across Midnight’s choking blanket of snow and ice – a land that always looks the same to you as it does to them, as everything you see in any of eight directions is an astonishingly accurate representation of your currently controlled character’s point of view.

This visual accuracy is key to your survival as the only long-distance navigational assistance Midnight ever gives you comes in the form of an illustrated map on the back cover of the manual showing the location of many, but not all, major geographical features. It’s up to you to use this alongside the game’s own imagination-sparking text descriptions, such as “He stands on the Plains of Ogrim, looking North to Lake Toomog” as well as what you can actually see to work out where you are and which direction you need to head off in.

Remarkably, this incredible technique – one somehow brought to life on a home computer with a mere 48KB of RAM – honestly works. Is that a ruin just off to the east of those mountains in the distance, behind the lake and near a village? Yes, it is, and as you flip-screen walk towards them, these details will grow in size and shift around your field of vision accordingly. Ancient henges can be glimpsed between patches of forest, wizard towers peeked over distant mountains. War banners can be seen right up to the horizon, and when you’re within fighting distance of Doomdark’s forces they stretch across the screen, Lords of Midnight even making the effort to visually distinguish between units on foot and horseback.

None of this is merely for show. Ruins and other forgotten places may hold magical swords (there are two types – a Dragonslayer and a Wolfslayer, both guaranteeing victory over the relevant enemy type), remote villages can provide much-needed rest your leader and their troops, and units on horseback are stronger and capable of moving further than their infantry counterparts.

This depth of detail is found just as readily in more mundane terrain too, even going so far as to take into consideration the affiliation of the character travelling through them. Take forests, for example. The Foul are greatly hindered when traversing these regions as unseen Fey are using their innate magical connection to these arboreal areas to actively hinder the Foul’s progress, whereas the Free (that’s us) are only slightly slowed by more passive trees.

Sometimes this knowledge can be a tactically-minded life-saver, allowing you to put a little distance between a vulnerable character and nearby troops without having to get into a fight you might lose. More often though this knowledge gives the land a tactile sense of reality even when it’s not working in your favour, a ring of mountains around an enemy citadel or hidden village an imposing but not impassable barrier that makes the gentle plains elsewhere feel inviting and easily travelled.

Again, this matters beyond simply recalling fond feelings of a certain ring-based fantasy novel. Every character gets several hours per day to move around the map as they please, with difficult ground naturally taking longer to pass through (these hours are tracked on an individual basis, so you can move one character until their “night” then select another who will be back at the beginning of the “day”, or go for any mid-switching combination of your choosing). Once it gets dark they have to stop – no matter where they are or how surrounded they might be – and this is when Doomdark’s troops get move about the map and all army-to-army battles are calculated, with any updates reflected in everyone’s changed positions and/or deaths (on either side) the next day. Time is tracked with such care that these calculations even take into account the hour of the day another troop enters the fray in the case of multi-force conflict; initiating combat against an all-powerful force in the morning and not getting any help to them until hours later, even if that help is overwhelmingly strong when it does arrive, isn’t going to make any real difference to the first group’s chances of survival.

There are two different ways to release the land from Doomdark’s icy grip and win the game. The most straightforward involves guiding Morkin to the Tower of Doom in the distant north so he can steal the Ice Crown and then take it elsewhere to be destroyed forever (there are several ways to accomplish this task, some of which involve seeking help from others), whereas Luxor’s is more of a grand war campaign, recruiting other generals to your side and crushing the armies of the Foul as you try to capture Ushgarak while protecting your own city of Xajorkith in the distant south.

As Morkin’s adventure sounded the simpler of the two I thought I’d attempt that first, cheekily sneaking past enemy armies and treating terrain as merely decorative, seeing as nothing else really mattered beyond reaching one specific goal. This is when I found out the hard way that physically challenging marches through hostile lands don’t just take longer, they make characters tired too – so tired they might not be able to move, not even when there are plenty of daylight hours remaining. Rest is far more than something you need to do to keep the Free’s energy levels up, it changes your whole relationship with the landscape: Even when you know exactly where you are and where you want to be you can never think “Oh that’s five tiles west and ten tiles north from where I’m standing“, you instead have to stay on the lookout for little villages and friendly outposts able to offer shelter to your weary team of would-be heroes.

In contrast to Morkin’s Baggins-y trek, Luxor’s pits him against Doomdark’s intimidating, but not infinite, armies, hopefully pushing him and any allies he can recruit ever-northwards until he’s able to take the citadel of Ushgarak. Doomdark’s forces – each one a specific group with their own orders and predetermined troop numbers – are equally proactive, some guarding vital strongholds, others chasing specific members of the Free, and the remainder trying to make their way down the map, overtaking locations and killing people off as they go.

Aiding them is the ice-fear, an invisible malevolent force stemming from the Ice Crown able to sap the courage (and by extension, the fighting ability) of the Free – under extreme circumstances it can even cause armies to defect to Doomdark. The effect is not a blanket modifier but one that ebbs and flows throughout the game – it can become stronger as the Foul eradicate their foes, and if Morkin is able to move closer to the tower where the Ice Crown’s held it will bend its efforts towards him, freeing others from its influence.

Luckily for us Morkin is immune to the ice-fear (which is why he’s the only character able to go after the crown), but everyone else – even Luxor – will feel its chilling grasp from time to time. The Moon Ring he carries with him eases the impact it has on him and those around him, although whoever wields the ring has the not insignificant disadvantage of Doomdark knowing exactly where they are at all times.

Part of what makes Midnight so special is that it makes no distinction whatsoever between these different ways to play, all victories – and defeats – unfolding at the same time. This can lead to some fascinating games as you try to keep Morkin safe deep behind allied lines only for his father to fall late in what you had been playing as a war game, leaving you with the difficult choice of either rushing to the Ice Crown or alternatively have the child take his deceased father’s ring and command his allies, although the manual warns that just like his father, wearing it means Doomdark will always know exactly where he is.

As expected the opposite situation is just as likely, Morkin dying unexpectedly at some point on his difficult journey, leaving you with an underpowered force too late to stop the Foul from marching across the land. So it’s best to not treat the game as separate either/ors but instead blend the two contrasting play styles together, Luxor’s armies drawing the attention of Doomdark’s forces while Morkin tries to keep the ice-fear at bay, two complimentary approaches always trying to secure their own victory while still assisting the other as best they can. It’s in these moments you see how honest Midnight’s manual was when it described the game as “Epic” – there is truly no better word to describe it.

The incredibly well-made official remakes of The Lords of Midnight and its sequel, Doomdark’s Revenge, are available for free over at GOG!

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