Shattered Lands takes place in and around the city-state of Draj, ruled by the sorcerer-king Tectuktitlay, in the planet known as Athas. After many thousands of years, powerful mages found ways to gain power through draining the planet's vitality. These evil wizards caused the sun to turn into a raging crimson fireball, which transformed the once-fertile lands into endless deserts. The creatures of Athas were twisted by the free use of magic, and now the only stable concentrations of humanity are in tightly-controlled city-states. These kings call themselves gods, rule through a religious organization known as the templars, and enslave many citizens. Your party comprises of four slaves, and your immediate goal is to escape to one of the villages founded by escaped slaves. The game begins in an arena, where you are forced to fight hideous beasts to the death.
As an AD&D game, Shattered Lands faithfully follows concepts and rules that AD&D fans will recognize, such as die roll to determine starting statistics, THAC0, alignment, and multi-classing rules. The plot is standard fantasy fare, but with many non-interruptible interludes that happen within the game screen to move the story along. To its credit, though, the designers of Shattered Lands boldly introduced a novel mouse-based interface that is reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games, but work extremely well here (despite the fact that sometimes it is frustratingly difficult to select different action icons when your characters are obscured). The game also sets a new standard in graphics and spell (or psionics in the game's context) effects, although it is still limited by the somewhat awkward bird's-eye-view perspective that is left over from Al Quadim: The Genie's Curse, the engine from which Shattered Lands was based on. The game's phased turn-based combat is also very well implemented: although the enemies cannot attack while it is your "turn" to issue command, you only have a minute or so to give orders to your party, after which the computer's turn will begin automatically. This adds a sense of urgency to the game without discouraging RPG purists who are not arcade experts, and forces you plan quickly and effectively.
Overall, Shattered Lands is an admirable, bold attempt by SSI to make a brand new RPG that breaks the Gold Box mold. It has many weaknesses, such as limited inventory slots, poor writing, weak automap, and frustrating drawn-out battles with impossible odds near the end of the game that are more boring than fun. Still, the game deserves a second chance by AD&D fans as one of the most innovative titles of its time, with a new premise and some very interesting monsters. Just make sure you grab the latest patch from Games Domain or The Patches Scroll (see our Links page) before you start the game.