The Dark Heart of Uukrul is a somewhat obscure little gem published back in 1988 from Broderbund. I had the fortune of stumbling across it in my youth, and to this day it remains one of my favourite RPGs.
The story is a variant on the standard "take out the evil overlord" plot, but it has some interesting twists. Eriosthe, the city of the ancients, has been taken over by a dark sorcerer named Uukrul. Uukrul has removed his heart from his body, making him effectively immortal as long as the heart is secured in its magical urn. The nebulous forces of good sent an army lead by a woman named Mara to confront him, but failed. Their last hope is a small party of four adventurers, entering Eriosthe from a little-used entrance and hoping that a small strike force might prevail where a large army would not. You must find Uukrul's heart, destroy it to make him vulnerable, and then slay the Dark Lord himself.
You may begin play with a regenerated party, or you may generate your own.
I personally find the character generation system appealing - there are no rolls or points to distribute, just a collection of questions you answer for each character. These are along the lines of "A strong fighter insults you, do you hit him, insult him, challenge him to a duel, or run away?" Different answers affect different attributes. Your party will always consist of a Fighter, a Paladin, a Cleric, and a Wizard.
Your Fighter is your front-line warrior. If you get him a decent weapon and armour, he can dish out some serious damage. If you can get him over to an enemy caster, he tends to eat them alive. Your Paladin is competent in melee combat, thought usually not as much as the fighter, but has the added ability to lay on hands, either draining an opponent of health or restoring it to an ally.
Your Cleric is mediocre in melee, at best, but has other abilities. The first is prayer to one of the four gods. Prayers in this game are interesting, as instead of telling you the effect of each prayer, the manual simply gives you the name and the translation of the actual prayer, leaving you to figure out exactly what it does. Also, prayers are not guaranteed to work, and the gods may even smite you for overreaching your station. That being said, even the most humble priest of a god can recite the greatest prayer - its just not likely to happen.
The cleric is also able to turn undead, either harming undead or causing them to flee. Finally, the cleric can summon an elemental to fight. Again, this is not guaranteed, but it is sometimes useful to have an extra "party member" to absorb damage and strike back. Your cleric will server 4 gods - Ufthu (War), Golthur (Physical Self), Drutho (Secrets/the Underworld), and Fshfoth (Spiritual Self).
Your Wizard is pitiful in melee combat, but has potentially some of the most destructive and helpful abilities. There are five "arcana" of spells - Fire, Frost, Protection, Healing, and Knowledge. As you advance, you become capable of casting more advanced spells within each arcana.
Both the cleric and the wizard share a similar advancement system in "rings." A cleric gains different ranked rings for each god as he advances in experience. Similarly, the wizard gains different ranked rings in each arcana. For the cleric, a higher ranked ring translates into a higher chance to be answered by the appropriate god. For a wizard, each ring allows a new level of spells to be cast within an arcana. The rings rank from lowest to highest as follows: Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Crystal.
The graphics are fairly good for the time. Exploration is handled with a standard "3d" view you'd see in games like Bard's Tale. Still, it's more refined than most, and it fits the atmosphere well. combat is a top-down view using animated icons to represent characters and enemies. Movement on the map is important, and walls/corners can block spells and other effects. This is a nice touch compared to some of the RPGs of the time, as it allows you to position your wizard or cleric behind your fighters, and take advantage of terrain. The combat maps do match the hallway/room you are in at the time, which is also a nice touch. The game automatically maps for you, though in strange, magically twisted areas the map does not always work.
The one somewhat annoying thing is that you have to worry about food in the game. There is a finite limit to what you can buy, but by mid-game you will be able to reasonably invoke a prayer that gives you food while at an altar. This lets you get food even above the normal maximum, so spending twenty minutes or so using this prayer and recovering virtue points (the cleric's version of MP) will usually get you enough food for several hours of exploration.
There are different named "Sanctuaries" in the game. Unlike most games, where the deeper into the dungeon you go (as in down stairs) the more difficult it becomes, in DHoU difficulty increases every time you leave a sanctuary on the way to the next one. West is always the way you first came, east is always the way of greater difficulty.
A nice touch in the game are the puzzles. They're interesting and different compared to standard RPG fare. For example, there is one dungeon section where the entire layout of the floor is a giant crossword puzzle, with each answer being the secret word needed to open a door elsewhere.
While there is nothing super groundbreaking about this RPG, it does manage to deliver a solid, enjoyable experience with enough unique flavour to make it well worth playing. I highly recommend this to any old-school RPGer who hasn't at least taken a look at it yet.
Written by: ~draoi