Dark Sceptre is a single-player fantasy strategy game designed by the late Mike Singleton (of Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge fame), and Maelstrom Games, and it was published by Firebird Software for the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC in 1987.
The aim of the game is to issue commands to a company of warriors who must compete with various factions in order to acquire the titular Dark Sceptre. The game is characterised by its large animated characters moving over scrolling backgrounds (and which have distinctive black outlines around them, to avoid colour clash), but the game doesn’t allow direct control the characters themselves – instead you must issue commands to them from the ‘Plan mode’ menu.
Gameplay is in real time but can be paused at any time. In Plan mode the command menu is accessed, and in Watch mode you can view the results of your actions as the characters go about their business. The main display window tracks individual characters as they move throughout the game world.
Dark Sceptre was a critical success at the time of release, but it was not a game for everyone. Some who played it were confused that they were not in direct control of the on-screen characters themselves, and others struggled to work out the objective of the game due to the rather obscure instructions. Lots of people were dazzled by the graphics, though, which were pretty amazing for the time, and for the Spectrum. But overall Dark Sceptre – as good as the game is – was a disappointment for many.
Playing Dark Sceptre now: it is still an absorbing and interesting game – if you are able to work out what to do. It is a pity that the game’s graphical engine wasn’t applied to something a bit more action-oriented, though. I think many people would have been excited by a Golden Axe-style action game with graphics like this, but that wasn’t to be.