"As any fan of retro role-playing games can tell you, the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System were the originators of the console RPG. Games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES and Phantasy Star on the SMS became inspirations for multitudes of games spanning generations of systems. "
As any fan of retro role-playing games can tell you, the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System were the originators of the console RPG. Games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES and Phantasy Star on the SMS became inspirations for multitudes of games spanning generations of systems.
But, not all role-players back then were created specifically for a console. A number of the earliest games in that genre were computer ports, with the NES laying claim to a number of well-known PC titles. From the involving military strategy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the dungeon-crawling of Ultima: Exodus, fans of computer role-playing also were able to indulge in their favorite games on the NES.
But one such computer port always has stood head-and-shoulders above the pack in my eyes. While slightly simplified from the many computer versions, a Forgotten Realms Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game by Strategic Simulations Inc. titled Pool of Radiance was able to draw me in from the moment I first inserted the cartridge into my NES and refused to release me until the final credits had rolled.
And you know what? To this day, it is impossible for me to put my finger on any one thing that stood out about this game. For, you see, Pool of Radiance is truly a game where the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. A simplistic story, ugly graphics, bland music, frequent battles that often get tedious, cheap AD&D monster attacks that serve to immediately cause the player to hit the reset button — that is what this game delivers. And I loved every minute of it.
Perhaps the amount of my life that I’ve spent watching little video game characters under my control die over and over and over again has turned me into a twisted, masochistic soul that craves harsh and unforgiving punishment, but I still find Pool of Radiance to be an addiction.
Perhaps it’s because of the AD&D world’s dramatically different philosophy towards building up characters. Regardless of your class (Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief or a combination of two or three of the above), you can advance no farther than the ninth level of experience. As your characters get closer to their maximum level, it can take an eternity to collect the necessary experience points to advance. So, collecting magical items, weapons and armor becomes of the utmost importance. Maybe the leader of an evil fortress of soldiers holds a better weapon than your fighter....maybe a well-hidden trapdoor will reveal that magical Plate Mail you were looking for or a wand with the ability to shoot fireballs. One great batch of treasure can benefit a party as much, if not more, than an extra level or two of experience — something that really gives the player a reason to explore each and every musty corridor and dead-end room.
Perhaps it’s how each and every battle can be a challenge. In most RPGs, it is common for players to simply tap the attack button for the duration of a battle — a tactic that will be repeated for a good portion of the game. Try that sort of stuff here and you’ll be in trouble. While most of your exploring takes place in a 3-D maze setting, battles are fought in an overhead, turn-based strategy setting — with the key word being strategy. Some enemies have accurate ranged attacks. You’ll want to move a Fighter up close and force them into melee combat. Giant-class enemies have brutal melee attacks, making it imperative to soften them up from a distance. Scorpions, wyverns and many undead have very negative status effects, giving you a very good reason to be very careful in battle with them. At times, you’ll be in multiple battles with no break in between, forcing you to conserve spells and potions for when you absolutely need them. Pool of Radiance's battles offer a multitude of challenges spread throughout the entire game — few RPGs can make that same claim.
Perhaps it’s the variety of quests you can embark on. One day, you might be killing everything you run across to liberate one of the many regions of Phlan, the city that much of the game takes place in. The next day, you’re leaving the city walls to convince a group of nomads to not side with the forces of evil. While this game is somewhat lacking in plot, what story there is gets wonderfully told through your adventuring and the actions you take during the course of play.
Do you think a game like this might appeal to you? Well, let's take a brief tour of Phlan to find out.
After creating your five characters, a tedious task accomplished by spending eons forcing the computer to roll and re-roll base stats until you get numbers you can live with, you’re dropped off in the city of New Phlan. Why New Phlan? Well, that’s the only friendly area you’ll find in the entire world of Pool of Radiance in the early going. It seems that some great evil force has been gathering all the minor evil forces in the general vicinity to its side and putting them to good use. At this point, the 16-by-16 block of New Phlan is the only area left unconquered. It’s up to you to reclaim the rest of the city.
And that’s the plot. Sure, there are a couple of subplots, one involving a treacherous council member, but your basic goal is to simply liberate Phlan. By speaking with the council clerk, you’ll receive quests and rewards for completing those missions. Shrines will heal you, inns will give you the opportunity to re-memorize spells you’ve cast, stores will allow you to buy and sell equipment and items, taverns may give you information and the training hall will allow you to advance levels after you’ve gained the experience. Now buy some equipment and start killing stuff!
Odds are you’ll start off by going to the Slums, as that section of town is adjacent to New Phlan. Walk aimlessly through the maze and you’ll eventually encounter some sort of unfriendly chap. Enter into battle and you’ll understand why I’m critical of the game’s graphics. You’ll see your five characters, represented by five vaguely humanlike blocks. Next to them, you’ll see a small number of enemies, also represented by blocky shapes that may or may not actually bear any resemblance to what you’re supposed to be fighting.
“Yeah, but all those old NES role-playing games looked like crap,” you’ll say. “What matters is the actual gameplay.”
And then you’ll watch a battle between your five characters and three kobalds take an eternity to complete because low-level party members and weak monsters have one very important thing in common — they can’t fight worth a damn! You’ll attack and miss. The enemy will attack and miss. Wash, rinse, repeat. The sort of battle that would take roughly 10 seconds in a Dragon Warrior game winds up taking 10 minutes in Pool of Radiance.
“Guhhh.....yeah, this is a bummer,” you say. “But, things will get better. As I get more powerful and start getting better weapons, I’ll hit more often and with more might. Those battles will soon be over with in the blink of an eye.”
Good thinking, Sherlock, except you won’t be fighting kobalds and their ilk for very long. After a while, you’ll be fighting high-level warriors, trolls, giants, vampires and other powerful monsters. These foes have better armor, which means you’ll still be missing and missing and missing. The better armor you get means they’ll still be missing and missing and missing. While things do seem to gradually run more smoothly as time goes on and characters get tougher, you can count on enduring lengthy battles for the duration of the game. And since Pool of Radiance has nearly two dozen regions to explore (both inside and outside the walls of Phlan), you’ll be spending no small amount of time wondering how a group of people expected to save the day can be so utterly inept in a combat situation.
And that is what will drive many casual RPG players from picking up Pool of Radiance. It is not an easy game. You can’t just muscle through battles. You have to use spells to render those heavily-armored warriors defenseless for an easy kill or to cause automatic damage to a large group of foes. You have to explore every nook and cranny for secret treasure. You can’t leave any stone unturned. And that still might not be enough.
There are a number of brutally difficult encounters that will NEVER be easy, no matter what you do. You'll fight monsters that automatically eliminate a character from battle with poison or petrification attacks. Monsters that drain hard-earned levels. Monsters that attack in multiple waves, first wearing down your party and then wiping out your depleted troops. If you aren’t blessed with skill and luck, you won’t stand a chance in hell of finishing the game and getting the worthless passwords designed to import your characters into a sequel that never would be ported to the NES (yes, your final payoff is a reward that never transpired).
For many people, that style of gameplay would be a turn-off, but for me, it was a blessing. Finally, I was able to call beating an RPG a true accomplishment, rather than the inevitable climax of power-leveling my characters until nothing could stand up to them.
But I can understand how this game wouldn’t be for everyone. After all, it’s hard to overlook extremely blocky graphics in this day and age. And it’s tough for a newcomer to get accustomed to the low success rate of their attacks, the excessive length of some battles and the extraordinary challenge provided by a percentage of said encounters.
Because of those problems, this game is as tough to rate as it is to beat. To force a low rating upon it would be akin to calling the Mona Lisa a drab and boring painting, but it doesn’t have the universal appeal to warrant a perfect “10”. This is a “niche” game, as only a small percentage of gamers will likely ever fully appreciate the majesty that lies beneath Pool of Radiance's drab exterior. However, to simply say that this game is unappealing to the unwashed masses and hand it a mediocre rating would also be an injustice to it. A work of beauty should not be denigrated solely because it can’t be appreciated or understood by everyone who gazes upon it. I’ll give Pool of Radiance a small deduction because of the tedious nature of the battles (a flaw that even wears on me after a while), but the overall positive feeling this game generates in me outweighs the negative factors by so much that I don't have the heart to give more than that slight deduction.
Community review by overdrive (April 21, 2004)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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