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Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Pool of Radiance Review

Developer: SSI Publisher: FCI
Release Date: 1988 Also On: Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, Macintosh

Phew, after that run of three awful Dungeons and Dragons titles, I was expecting the worst. Actually, no, I’m familiar with this game enough to know I was in for a bit of treat, though I wasn’t certain how much since I never really sat down to play it thoroughly. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Pool of Radiance was the first in the line of SSI titles that carried the franchise on PC, something of a risk at the time. SSI would release several titles after the success of this one, and with good reason, it’s one of the greatest RPGs ever created. The NES version, thankfully, fares very well, but it should be noted that this type of game is for the hardcore, true gamer. Casual players of RPGs need not and should not apply.

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The most unfortunate thing about Pool of Radiance on the NES is this category, the graphics. These are some of the worst, most atrocious images I have ever seen on the NES. It was still a bit early in the life of the console, but when you have games out at this time such as Blaster Master and Double Dragon II: The Revenge, seeing something like this is disappointing, especially when one considers that the version released for home computers had a heck of a lot more detail and a greater color scheme. This version, however, has little detail. The only time you see anything worthy of this title are during segments when you talk to characters, shop keepers and so forth, otherwise you don’t see much of anything. The walls all look the same, doors confuse you when there are several of them in a row because you almost seem to be going nowhere, and during battles sprites have been reduced to small, blocky, one-colored messes. I’ve read the NES was incapable of pulling off what the Amiga did, but I don’t think that’s true, at least not this true. To add insult to torture, Pool of Radiance has probably the worst color scheme I’ve ever seen on the system. You have brown, yellow, blue, white, green and black. It’s the most drab thing I’ve ever seen. Really a shame, but thankfully things get much better from here…

One of the great things about this game is the sound. The musical scores are programmed quite well with some really catchy themes. What’s even better is that the music here was made specifically for this version and it’s the only one you’ll find it in. Great opening track, excellent town music, excellent battle music, everything. There aren’t really any sound effects and there in fact never are in most old RPGs simply because the majority of the gameplay involves text, which is thus overscored with music. However, there are a few effects here and there, but some of them sound quite strange and they would have done better without them. Whenever someone or something misses an attack, for example, you hear this odd sound that resembles a dog barking, perhaps with a sore throat? Very strange, but for the most part the majority work well when you hear them. The real beauty here is the music, top notch, the final stage was so good I recorded it as my cell phone’s message.

Pool of Radiance, however, really shines in the category that needs it the most, the gameplay. Now, before I continue, let me say something important that I hinted at above. This game is not for the casual RPG fan; the loser who thinks Skies of Arcadia is challenging or Final Fantasy is complex. Pool of Radiance was a game built for the true gamer, someone willing to sit down and put in a ton of effort. This game is one of the best Advanced Dungeons and Dragons titles I’ve ever played, but if you’re not too into RPGs to begin with, it’s not for you. This game has a ton of elements from the actual table top version and the most complex system for its time. I don’t have enough space to go over everything, but let me give you a quick sample. You’ll find here: every race except half-orcs, alignment, a huge overworld map, all the regular statistics, tons of spells, every class including a few multi-classes, an incredible interface, hordes of special items and so forth. If you’re familiar with the actual game, expect to see pretty much everything reproduced here, just done for you with a computer.

So basically the game is you make your party of up to five characters (you get NPCs and random additions to your party depending on quests) and then you go to New Phlan. Phlan was an ancient city that progressively fell apart and is now overrun by monsters. You have to clear everything out and then take out the final boss and that’s it. The basic plot is just that, basic, but is just what you’d fine in a real D and D adventure. What you have to do then is get familiar with the city finding your inns, weapon shops, comission center and so forth, and then you begin adventuring. You are given your quests from city hall, which include things like clearing the cemetery of a vampire, getting local nomads to join the cause to fight for Phlan, finding a kidnapped member of the nobility and so forth. I didn’t count, but there are probably twenty or so huge quests in all before you finally retake the castle and take out the final boss. Each quest gives you more secrets about Phlan and you eventually learn about its history and what happened to it and how the end boss plays a part. One of the strong points for Pool of Radiance is you have to really be aware of how your characters, spells, weapons, items, armor and so forth work in play. It takes a lot of careful thinking and timing to figure everything out, as well as occasional mapping in difficult areas like the torturous pyramid that has a number of teleporters. At any rate, there is too much here to go into detail, suffice to say there are only a few problems with the gameplay that really effect anything.

First off, the graphics sometimes effect the overall feeling of the environment and furthermore can make mapping more difficult because an occasional slip of direction will lead to utter nonsense since you can’t tell the difference between anything. It’s not that hard to get used to, but the lack of detail makes it difficult at times to really feel the game, but considering that Dungeons and Dragons is essentially all in your head anyway, I guess they got that down pat. Second, gamers who actually want to play this will be pretty frustrated at first due to the complexity and the ridiculous amount of random monster battles to deal with, sometimes which lead you to being completely obliterated and out of luck. However, this is sidestepped by the ability to save in any area at any time, so it’s not much of an issue. This then is the third and final problem. Some of the intensity and anticipation is missing from Pool of Radiance because of this save feature. Instead of having the save feature only when you exit a cave or something to that effect, you can simply save, heal up, rest, save again and otherwise make sure your characters are complete beasts 90% of the time all the time. If you come across a random moster that destroys you, simply press reset and you’ll start right where you left off and don’t have to worry about it. So in a way it’s cool to be able to save wherever you want, but it is also the game’s major fault because it makes it a bit easier, especially during boss battles. Takes away that element of real life that the game was so famous for. Plus, you get so much experience from finishing certain quests it almost makes it unnecessary to fight monsters other than those you need to kill to complete the game, so just save and move a few steps, save and keep going. Still, this hardly ruined the game for me and didn’t really matter. Made it a bit easier, but Pool of Radiance still has more depth and intensity than any RPG made from the NES.

Pool of Radiance is a port, but they threw some different things in here including an awesome soundtrack. Some things, however, have been removed, such as the detailed graphics (big minus!) and something that made the original rather interesting. You’d have these randomly generated monster lairs that would pop up in the overworld map now and then, and you only have one chance to enter them or they’re gone. Gives the player a relief from all the random battles, but it’s not like you’re really missing too much because it’s not there. What I really like is that someone decided to release a game like this for the NES. Games like this are rare, but were very popular back in the early PC days when hardcore gamers were looking for a way to play games like D and D or games from Avalon Hill without having to set up boards and such. In a time when the system was mainly being marketed towards children, teens and creepy middle-age freaks, it’s refreshing to see such a leap of faith. I’m not sure how well it did, but it’s excellent to see such a great game with such depth for the system.

This game took me around three whole months to beat and considering I had surgery and a lot of time to sit around and you may not expect to be playing this for a long, long time. That’s exactly what you want to see for this kind of game, and what gives it its initial replay value. I can definitely say I’d play this again in the future, trying out different classes, some I didn’t use for example which did not allow me to access certain areas of the game even though I beat it. Plus, you have important quests that can only be completed in one of several ways, choose one and you can’t do the others ever again until you play through one more time. There’s a lot here so expect to be coming back to it often and then coming back again, even after you complete it.

As I already mentioned, it’s great to see a game like this on the NES because there really wasn’t anything of this caliber at the time, RPG or otherwise. Adults were rarely given anything since nearly every title was aimed at younger audiences, so this is one of the few cases where programmers were trying to appeal to an older audience. It could have worked too, but something tells me the sales weren’t as high as they may have anticipated. What’s sad is that when you beat the game and get the really strange ending, you have the option of pretty much dominating the entire world. That’s fine, but not really necessary since you have level caps and can only advance so far. However, it seems that this was intended to be followed by the sequel ‘Curse of the Azure Bonds’ since the game provides you with character codes at the end. This would have made it even more enjoyable and tied it with a completely different game where you could actually import your characters using the codes, as it was done on PC. It seems they decided against it, which is a shame and proof that oftentimes taking a leap with a niche title such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Pool of Raidance is usually a one time deal. It’s a shame, because had FCI tried to go further instead of releasing suck like Heroes of the Lance, the NES may have seen an even better RPG library. Regardless, if you’re a fan of a true RPG, this is the game for you, you’ll be thoroughly impressed and absorbed.

Graphics: 2.5
Sound: 9
Gameplay: 9.5
Creativity: 9
Replay Value/Game Length: 10
Final: 8
Written by Stan Review Guide