The Dark Heart Of Uukrul (aka Uukrul or TDHOU) was a joint project of Martin Buis and Ian Boswell while they were studying together at Auckland University (New Zealand) in the early 80s, influenced by RPGs of the time such as the Wizardry series, but giving it another perspective about the way of doing things. They did most things together, from programming to puzzles and content. An acquaintance of them travelling to USA was asked to present a demo to some publishers, including Broderbund, Electronic Arts and Activision. Broderbund was enthusiastic of the project, and signed them on instantly.
Broderbund was looking for an RPG to include in their library, to compete with other houses which had the already mentioned Wizardry series, or the popular Ultima series by Origin. The game would be released first on 1989, on the Apple II platform, but between the contract and the release, more than a year has passed. As the devs say in an interview, they missed the peak window of RPG popularity, which in turn affected how Broderbund marketed the game, which was little in favour of more popular genres. Other factors added there, such as being released at the end of the life of Apple II, and Broderbund not being known for RPG. Next year it was released for DOS (version by Mark Butler and Jean-Francois Pirus), but despite good reviews, it passed largely unnoticed. According to the devs, only about 5,000 units were sold.
Another factor was the generic, somewhat stale look the game had. With many reviews labeling the graphics “primitive”, and a too much used story of “must stop evil wizard from taking over the world”, it didn't have much appealing at first glance to gamers back then, with more attractive options around. However, as both players and game critics duly noted, the game had some notable features not to be missed, including the automap.
However, where the game excels, is in the gameplay. The puzzles and challenges are very well designed, and the combat was well balanced throughout the game. Maybe Uukrul wasn't a groundbreaking game, it had nothing really new. First person perspective was already done 10 years before in Akalabeth, for example, and while automap was well implemented, it wasn't a novelty either (although rarely seen by then). But it had good enough gameplay to be still fun and challenging to play almost 30 years later.
Also notable is the lore shown in the manual, and the items found in the box. These include the soul amulets, which act as copy protection. They were printed on dark crimson paper, making them extremely hard to copy. Also remarkable is a small piece of paper, giving a warning to travelers daring to enter Eriosthé. This piece of paper is rarely accompanying manuals scanned and attached to the game, and it has a small piece of information needed if you don't want to destroy all your efforts you've made on the game when you're near the end.
The story: evil wizard. Living in underground, almost abandoned city. Threatens to invade the lands that see the sunlight. A party of heroes is sent, but 18 months since the last notice of them, a new party is sent, lead by YOU. Not very original story, but that's only how the game starts. You have two goals, one is finding the first party lead by Mara, and the other is of course defeat Uukrul. Something that can only be done by finding eight hearts of stone to access and destroy his dark heart.
To do that, one must explore the huge underground city of Eriosthé, which still has a small areas populated with a few survivors. A market, the temples, the wizard order, and several sanctuaries along the path, left by the Ancients before they were vanished by Uukrul himself. The adventure is full of secret doors, hidden treasures, dangerous creatures, traps, evil riddles, evil puzzles and evil foes. There's even a teleport system to access different parts of the city, and sometimes maliciously used for riddles and puzzles that defy the mind. And that's only after you have managed to find and use the proper gear, weapons, amulets and materials for your party, to survive whatever the city or Uukrul throws at you.
The party consists of four heroes. The first one is the fighter, capable of using heavy gear and the most damaging weapons. Also able to use armor is the paladin, not as strong as the fighter, but capable of laying hands on foes for damage, or on allies for healing. On the support side is the mage, capable of summoning energies to defeat enemies, heal comrades, cast light, translate runes, open magic doors, and more. And last but not least, the priest can pray to four whimsical gods for similar effects, with the difference that the gods might ignore the pray, or even smite back the priest for disturbing their godly rest.
Gameplay is simple enough, all turn based on a grid; while exploring, there's first person perspective, and on combat it's top-down view, with the characters seen from a lateral view. Nothing happens until the player makes an action. The interface is based on the first letter of any available command, clearly shown. Where other initial-key based games had a somewhat clunky interaction with the game, Uukrul gave a less clunky experience on that regard. No long list of keys or commands to learn, everything was visible. Besides the 8-direction key movement, choices were often reduced to a very few select commands and keys.
Uukrul is one of those games that need several pages to describe all they have, so I'm stopping here. I'm only mentioning two things more: the automapping feature, something still quite new for RPGs, and described by a game critic as “the best automapping of any RPG I've seen”. And the copy protection scheme which is integrated in the gameplay as access to the sanctuaries is forbidden without the soul amulets provided.
While far from perfect as a game, the excellent gameplay made Uukrul gain cult status, bringing today the same gaming experience as when it was released, without needing flashy graphics. And while the interface is key based, it's quick and easy to use, and even today the game can be played without much trouble adapting to it. Fully immersive, fun, challenging, clever... And hey, you can put your own music while playing!