"Pool of Radiance not only manages to deftly avoid the poison spike-lined pits of suckery, but has the further audacity to send us on a stunningly deep quest that’s full of brilliant combat and actually faithful to its source material!"
Set the torches ablaze, lads! Hold on to your codpieces, start flourishing those short swords of sharpness, and get ready to gather ‘round the wet dungeon walls – another Dungeons & Dragons review draws near, and the pungent stench of mildew emanates! But for those of you keeping score at home, I’m afraid that this isn’t going to be anything like my scathing commentary for Hillsfar. No, POOL OF RADIANCE not only manages to deftly avoid the poison spike-lined pits of suckery, but has the further audacity to send us on a stunningly deep quest that’s full of brilliant combat and actually faithful to its source material!
Admittedly, this awesomeness isn’t going to valiantly spring forth from the cartridge and immediately proceed to rock your face off – Pool’s graphics are decidedly substandard, particularly the hideous character portraits, and at best the music won’t grate on your nerves. Not overly much, anyway, what with its “DOOO DOOO DOOO DOOOO (diddi diddi diddi diddi diddi diddi diddi diddi)” habitually ringing in your ears. Your tender band of novices embark upon their initial adventures in a pretty embarrassing state, at least for a while. And while the game’s authentic usage of the official AD&D rules is a breath of fresh air, they’re such a radical departure from those employed by most console RPGs that I can easily picture them overwhelming someone who isn’t at least passably familiar with its pen and paper roots. Most NES fans, however, probably didn’t even get as far as taking the box down from the shelf, as it was released extremely late into the system’s lifecycle and suffered the additional misfortune to find itself sandwiched between two slices of utter crap: on one side, the infamous Heroes of the Lance – and on the other, the aforementioned wretchedness of Hillsfar. (Man does that game suck!)
Unlike those two colossal disappointments, here it can take well over an hour to roll your characters’ ability scores over and over again, because here it’s well worth the effort as they have a significant effect on your party’s manly might. A high strength score will predictably increase the damage one can inflict and make it easier to hit your countless foes as well, while dexterity will bolster not merely defense but also one’s deadliness with a tawny elfin longbow. Perhaps most importantly, a hardy constitution will net you more hit points every time you level up, which can literally decide the fate of a desperate melee when the lightning bolts start reducing your companions to ash left and right.
You need all the help you can get, so the game lets you create a party of five stalwart studmuffins or chicks in chainmail, and choosing just the right overall mixture of muscle and magic is absolutely vital to your success. All of the basic classes are accounted for: the bone-cracking tank of a fighter, the nimble thief, the portable first-aid kit that is the cleric, and of course the pointy-hatted wizard. You won’t find any of the special character types (fey bards, kickass rangers, snooty paladins . . . ninjas), but you are allowed to create combination characters like the fighter/mage. This dabbler can freely make use of both classes’ abilities, but divides his experience equally between them and only receives half the usual number of hit points for each, meaning that such a character will lack the staying power of a pure fighter and always lag behind the rest of your party in terms of his or her current level.
These would-be heroes start out unarmed and unloved within the walls of New Phlan, a fledgling city that’s dwarfed by the immense monster-infested ruins surrounding it. Most of the original Phlan was razed by dragons long ago, and now these itinerant monsters, led by a mysterious figure known only as The Boss, have begun to organize themselves; they’re also recruiting outside forces to their cause and threatening to finally overwhelm the last vestiges of good-aligned civilization in the region. But although there are a few plot developments to give you an overall picture of these events by the end, for the most part you merely set out to forcefully reclaim Old Phlan piece by piece by inviting the current occupants to experience the wonders of the afterlife firsthand. An important life lesson, that: to be a real man, you should foster heroic genocide wherever you go!
Your adventures will see you from the city’s adjacent slums to an eerie graveyard locked into perpetual night and crawling with the walking dead. Yes, over twenty quests await across a wide variety of dank lairs and abandoned complexes; many of these areas are actually connected to each other, giving you a real sense of exploring what was once a thriving metropolis. You’ll find a ton of planned encounters to stumble into and these quests offer all sorts of different objectives: retrieving ancient tomes from a forgotten wizard’s library, clearing out a manor house inhabited by traitorous thieves and their cunning traps, even simply walking around in search of random monsters to slay until the rest wisely move on. While there are a few missions that first require a prerequisite to be met before they become accessible, you can accomplish nearly all of them in any order you want; the only thing that’s preventing you from braving a certain block is weighing the strength of the monsters dwelling there against your own current fortitude . . . or lack thereof.
As I said, the visuals are hardly impressive; besides a few graphics that pop up for special occasions, the indoor architecture consists almost entirely of palette swapped hallways, doors, and empty rooms. However there’s plenty of interest to be uncovered in every place you go, it’s merely displayed in lines of descriptive text rather than feeble 8-bit sprites. So suck it up, this is a game of the IMAGINATION! Everything’s displayed in the typical first person perspective, but unlike most dungeon crawls, this one doesn’t force you to plot your own stupid maps on grease-soaked graph paper. It doesn’t even use auto-mapping to chart the places you’ve already been; by using the “area” command, you can walk around on a complete map of the entire dungeon from the very start. Sure, this might make navigating around incredibly easy (the bastards!), but it’s a sweet change of pace to play one of these first person maze games and be able to focus on heroically cleaving through pig-snouted orcs rather than getting hopelessly lost all the go!@#$! time. Of course, the “area” function temporarily disappears if you flee from an encounter like the UNHEROIC coward that you are, and there are exactly six areas with no map feature at all (and they can be pretty nasty) – besides, you can always ignore it if you’re one of those masochistic purists.
What you shouldn’t ignore is that there’s often more than simply one method to overcome the task presently in front of you. When you’re ordered to prevent a tribe of lizardmen from going over to The Boss, you can fight a duel to the death against the leader of the “evil” faction provided that you rescued a few of their people in a previous mission, or callously stalk the depths of their subterranean lair and hunt them down one by one. After sneaking into a slavers’ camp hoping to rescue the son of a nobleman, you don’t have to foolishly wade through an army of increasingly savage buccaneers and let them soften you up; you could instead arrange a meeting with their leader to catch him and his bodyguards by surprise (alternatively cutting a deal if you’re too much of a wuss), or simply cause a disturbance in the stables, allowing you to pull off your rescue attempt without a single fatality. In one mission you’re dispatched to reclaim the lost treasure of a shady councilman from his family’s old textile house, now overrun by hobgoblin cultists and famished ghouls; if you have a rogue among you, she can descend into the local thieves guild and have them open the strongbox for you while subsequently forging a new seal so that no one will ever notice your sticky fingers.
A simple method for parleying also gives you a chance to fast-talk your way out of a fair number of fights, including the bulk of random encounters. By selecting the right tone of voice (ranging from nice to abusive), a charismatic spokesperson can either fool a troop of The Boss’ men into leaving without incident, convince horrific driders to leave you alone, or bully a group of cowardly goblins into licking your boots like the toads they are. You’ll miss out on the experience award for slaughtering them indiscriminately, but it’s quite helpful if the monsters in question are great in number but practically worthless. It also allows you to avoid a potentially tough fight, thus conserving your party’s strength and resources for those upcoming battles that really count. But whichever path you choose, fear not – you’ll have more than enough opportunities to make base villains taste cold steel!
And this is a wonderful thing, because the game’s turn-based combat system is often incredibly lengthy, but absolutely fantastic. Unlike most entries in this genre, combatants don’t merely spring forth and swipe at an enemy located on the opposite side of the screen before hopping back to their original positions – they wage war across huge battlefields and strategically situate themselves to drive devastating cracks into their opponents’ ranks! Not only do these scraps take place on an expansive overhead map, but when unmitigated violence breaks out inside a dungeon, natural cover is provided by the stone walls that often snake throughout the room to allow both you and your opponents to seek refuge from missile weapons and spells or to corner them into a tight spot. The great outdoors offers its own benefits, as you’re able to cower behind the trees and boulders that often dot the landscape.
Whip out a bow and one of your characters can safely target an enemy from behind a protective barrier formed by his hardier companions, taking out distant enemies with total impunity before they can even have a chance to step up to the vanguard and retaliate; just don’t forget that the monsters can have projectiles of their own. Similarly, by surrounding a lone enemy powerhouse from all sides you can cut him off from his allies and then have your melee specialists pound him into oblivion while simultaneously pelting him with arrows from afar. Non-multiclass wizards will need to be kept under heavy guard as they often have to inch into the fray; spells have certain ranges, some affecting only a small area right in front of you, others hitting one specific target a mile away.
Of course, people in heavy armor aren’t able to cover as much ground each round as those in lighter garb, and anyone who’s adjacent to an enemy and tries to move away leaves himself open to a free hit from behind for his troubles, which makes any attempt to retreat from the front lines a risky proposition. That’s why when you’ve killed the enemy leader and things clearly begin looking hopeless for them, it’s common for your remaining opponents to surrender in droves. On the opposite side of the coin, when you wish to flee in terror once combat has started and you realize that you’re badly outmatched, you’ll have to move each of your characters all the way to one of the screen’s edges. Then you’d better hope that everyone is lucky enough to eventually roll a successful getaway, but any fallen companions you should leave behind will be lost forever. Fortunately the bony grip of death is otherwise quite avoidable; when one of your party members is reduced to exactly zero hit points, he’s merely knocked unconscious and you can revive him as soon as the battle is won. Should he be reduced to negative numbers, however, you can save him by having someone else forgo a turn to bind his wounds before it’s too late – though any character who’s low on health and takes massive damage from a single attack will probably be slain outright.
Being slain would be a bad thing, thus the need for proper strategy should quickly become apparent: the incredibly diverse slew of enemies in this game are brutal. Wyverns, giant scorpions, and even lowly frogs can take down one of yours characters instantly with their venom, while the basilisk can turn people to stone with a mere gaze, and ankhegs spew a stream of searing acid from a mile away. Trolls are a spindly, foul lot that can inflict major pain with their scabrous claws, and they regenerate lost health every round unless it’s by way of fire or magic. All but the hardiest will buckle under the cruel assaults of massive two-headed giants and their vicious blows, which are almost as punishing as fending off the amorous advances of seven black ronsos. (NO! NOT SEVEN BLACK RONSOS!) It’s the undead, however, that are the most fearsome opponents by far; a single touch from one of these lifeless husks can drain your experience levels clean away, forcing you to earn thousands of points over again, and prompting you to reach for the reset button as not even senior priests can restore it completely. Even the more mundane opponents like brutish ogres, lanky gnolls, and armored human soldiers often appear in vast numbers, forcing the need to fight intelligently if you want to emerge victorious.
In certain areas you’ll even fight multiple waves of murderous beasts immediately after one other, as in the kobold cave. You’ll engage swarms of the little pests, only to be pounded by catapult fire and then drawn into more clashes with trolls, wild boars that get back up after being slain, and a pair of human warriors before finally blundering into the king’s elite guard. Even when you do get a breather in between attacks, you can’t just plop down in the middle of a hostile dungeon and rest, as you’re sure to be ambushed by a group of wandering uglies.
Fortunately you can make camp without fear of attack in most rooms that once held a set encounter, whether it was that pack of vile trolls that nearly tore your heads off and kicked them about for sport, or simply a message telling you that the room was very dirty and smelled. These areas are more or less the only place you can replenish your stores of magic; mages and clerics must memorize their spells in advance, which then disappear once they’ve been cast, so you can’t afford to squander your arsenal if there’s nowhere to rest up nearby. And more than anything else, spellcasters often greatly turn the tide of a battle; a well-placed sleep spell can immediately put down nine humanoid creatures, rendering them completely helpless so that you can effortlessly slay them at your whim. Likewise, hold person might instantly paralyze a trio of high-level enemy fighters and spare you a great deal of time and injury trading blows until someone goes down. Magic missile, on the other hand, dishes out thaumaturgic pain relative to your wizard’s current level and always hits its target, while fireball wreaks sheer scorching havoc on anything standing within a startlingly wide circular radius, decimating everything in its path and aptly demonstrating its status as one of the best known spells in the AD&D universe.
Pool’s experience cap only lets your characters make it to ninth level at best – it’s frequently lower depending on their classes; to give this some perspective, the highest rank possible according to the rules is traditionally 20. While this means that your individual members (especially the cleric, who plateaus at only sixth level) will never reach even middling status, it also flows well with the non-linearity of the game and emphasizes the strategic importance of using your entire team effectively in order to thrive. The experience points handed out for completing missions (and causing an untold number of bodies to pile up in the process) are also quite well balanced; assuming that you’ve successfully completed all the other quests, by the time you’re ready for the final castle most characters will have only just maxed out or be fairly close to doing so.
But I do have to admit, this game does suffer from a few flaws. “Deceit!” I hear you cry – but alas, it’s true. Your finances are pretty strict at the very beginning when you want to advance your characters to their second experience levels, but once you start selling off obsolete magical equipment things quickly take an abrupt about-face and enter the realm of the truly absurd. See, as your explorations continue you’ll rack up increasingly massive heaps of hard coin, but other than leveling up or major healing there’s absolutely nothing to spend it on. By the time your party’s ready for the final battle they’re likely to be carting around over 250,000 pieces of gold (how, I don’t know) in addition to about a thousand salable gems, which just makes the entire concept of money feel pretty useless.
This illogical capacity for wealth appears even more absurd when one takes into account the minuscule inventory space you’re proved with. Each of your characters can carry only eight items at any given time, and what with all the glittering hoards of swag lying around, you’ll be hard-pressed to cart it all back to town. That is, unless you want to pick and choose like a miser, because once you decide to investigate a particular cache anything you leave behind is lost forever. More likely you’ll have to make several lengthy trips back and forth to identify it all and then retain the worthwhile stuff, which interrupts the adventure with needless backtracking. This situation would merely be an annoyance save that it occurs constantly, particularly as your team begins stocking up on more and more gear that they’ll want to be carrying with them at all times, like the gauntlets of ogre power; throw in a weapon or two, some form of armor, and possibly a shield, and your empty slots dwindle considerably. As such, I highly recommend creating a few dummy characters and leaving them behind at the training hall to store all that excess plunder you want to hang on to. You’ll also be restoring a saved game if you ever accidentally loan a piece of equipment to a temporary NPC companion (like the nomad princess Fatima or that brawny hunk SKULLCRUSHER), as once they accept something you won’t ever see it again, not even if you attempt to wrest it from their cold, lifeless hands!
Of course, all the treasure you ever find is magical and they’re worth a good amount of experience points whether you pick them up or not, so don’t worry – even if all those longsword +1s you seem to keep coming across are completely superfluous when everyone in your party is packing something bigger, badder, better, you do at least get a nice bonus merely for glancing at them. And there’s plenty to glance at; I like ample booty and believe me, this game does not disappoint. Ponderous mounds of treasure are all over the place just awaiting your greedy hands, though seldom in plain view; more often it’s being used by your enemies, or carefully hidden so that you have to actively search for it in what you feel is a suspicious location.
It’s definitely worth it, as finding the right upgrades will make your party into a force to be reckoned with, and it’s what really gives them a fighting chance when they set out to tackle the deadlier regions of the game. Not only do the expansive array of enchanted weapons and armor greatly enhance one’s fighting ability, but you’ll also discover healing potions and scrolls that allow your mages to learn new spells. Then there’s invaluable items like the necklace of missiles, which holds a limited number of fireballs and thus allows anyone carrying it to instantly send everything nearby straight to the depths of Gehenna in a pinch. The actual contents of all these troves is fairly random; couple that with the branching tactics as well as all the different party combinations you can make, and you’ll discover there’s plenty of variety remaining on your subsequent playthroughs – which there will be.
You know, I was going to start talking about the sprawling, untamed wilderness, but this review has managed to become one; there’s just that damn much that’s noteworthy about this game! Of course, it’s still no substitute for the real thing; there isn’t any heated nerd-bickering over the rules, nor any “miraculous” rolls of the dice when the referee’s back is turned, not even some hearty quaffing of Mountain Dew. But trust me on this – if you’re looking for a bounty of Nintendo role-playing awesomeness, Pool of Radiance is almost as righteous as swinging a double-handed adamantine battleaxe whilst surrounded by the acrid smoke of a fiery-breathed elder wyrm, several nubile vixens in chain bikinis languidly stretching about at your feet.
Staff review by Sho (July 12, 2004)
Sho enjoys classic video games, black comedy, and poking people until they explode -- figuratively or otherwise. He also writes a bit.
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