Saturday, June 11, 2011

Great Games #5: Pool of Radiance

Pool of Radiance (1988) was the first of SSI's classic "Gold Box" games, and the first computer adaptation, apparently, of TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.

I loved it. I never completed the game - I rarely complete any game - but I played the early part of the game several times over the years. And the CRPG Addict's recent play-through brought it all back. (Note that the posts are shown in reverse order there, with the last post on top. To read them through, start at the bottom.)

The above video is his, too, and shows a very tough battle early in the game. I remember it well, since I had to fight it several times before finally winning. But before I get to that, let me first explain the setup:

This is a party-based, turn-based RPG. When the game begins, you create up to six characters of your choice of race, gender, and class. I always liked that, creating just the party I wanted from scratch, since there's a lot of strategy involved in it. Unfortunately, that kind of game is getting harder and harder to find, these days.

[Ironically, better computers have been a big part of the problem. When game developers spend a fortune on detailed graphics, they need to know what the characters will look like. When they spend a fortune hiring actors to speak lines, they need to know which characters will appear in a game, and what their personalities are like. So big-budget games become more like movies, where gamers passively accept the developer's vision, rather than actively choosing these details themselves.]

Your characters in Pool of Radiance are rank beginners, answering the call for assistance from Phlan, along with other adventurers who also hope to make their fortunes in the city. There are a couple of things I like about this. First, I like the fairly mundane assignments, since it seems more plausible that a city would hire random mercenaries for such things (and that my characters would accept odd jobs while working for them).

But second, I really like starting at the very bottom in an RPG. Low-level characters generally need everything they can find, so even the most minor loot is valuable and very welcome. Everything matters to low-level characters, which makes it all great fun. And when they do level-up (that's how you increase skills in this game), or just find better equipment, it makes a huge difference, since they're starting from such a low baseline.

High-level characters usually only improve incrementally. A better weapon is usually only slightly, not significantly, better than what they had before. And better skills don't make such a big difference, either - not as they do for low-level characters.

Anyway, your first assignment in Pool of Radiance is to clear the monsters out of the slums, part of Phlan's project to restore the town. The above video shows part of that. There are fixed battles in most of the rooms there, and the monsters don't re-spawn afterward. There are also random battles, as your characters proceed through the area, but only to a certain extent. Once you've fought enough of them, they don't occur again in that area.

You really are clearing the slums here. That's exactly what it feels like. And when you've finished, the whole area is safe. You can walk through it, or even camp there, without risk. (Unfortunately, that's the only result you see. I'd always hoped that the townspeople would start moving in, once I'd cleared the slums for them. But that never happened. In fact, it almost never happens even in modern games. That's always a disappointment.)

As you can tell from the video, the corridors and rooms look completely bare. When you first enter a room, you generally get a good description of it, but you never see any of that (and you only get the description once). Well, that was one of the limitations of computer games back then (basically the result of limited processing power). Graphics and sound are very basic.

The battles, though, felt like a huge advance from earlier games, because tactical positioning was so important.. Unlike games that just abstracted all that, Pool of Radiance set the battle in your current location, and tactical positioning was critical. And that kind of combat is still my favorite.

The above battle, for example, was fought in a long corridor. That meant that heavily-armored fighters could keep the enemy from getting to your more vulnerable characters in the rear. And those trolls in the back, without ranged weapons, couldn't attack at all until they could move up, after some of their number had died. In a more open area, the heroes might have been surrounded.

As I say, this was a really tough battle for low-level characters. Notice how both sides kept missing? Well, low-level characters do miss a lot, and you really need the monsters to do the same. When trolls or ogres did hit, they hit hard. And their opponents went down, because none of the adventurers had many hit points yet.

The CRPG Addict was lucky enough to put an ogre to sleep right away, when his mage cast a spell. Sleeping creatures are sitting ducks, easily killed with a single strike from any weapon. And he was lucky enough - or skilled enough - to finish the fight before the trolls started regenerating. (After awhile, if you take too long, they'll stand up again, with full hit points!)

Notice how the last two trolls tried to run away? Running creatures are easy to hit, and if they turn and run from a character, that character gets a free melee strike. Again, the terrain matters here. If the trolls could have run to the edge of the screen, they would have escaped. But they were in a dead-end corridor, so they were quickly killed.

Obviously, the graphics and the sounds seem very primitive these days, but that doesn't affect the gameplay. The worst thing about the game, certainly by today's standards, is the awkward interface - not just during battles, but afterward (especially when needing to heal your characters), too. Well, games have improved in that respect.

But games have diminished in other respects. "Real-time" games can be fun, certainly, but I still prefer these old party-based, turn-based games. There's a lot of strategy involved, in selecting and preparing your team, and the combat is very tactical. And as the CRPG Addict points out, turn-based combat lets you see everything that's going on. That's lots of fun.

It's slower, true. And in these really old games, it's slower than it should be. Really, the interface is not great. And I get tired of nothing but combat, anyway. It's not just this game, but all of them ("real-time" games, too). They're fun at first, but I tend to get bored after awhile. I'd really prefer less combat and more exploration, I think.

So I never did finish Pool of Radiance, though I still have fond memories of it. But, heck, it's a game! It's supposed to be fun - and it is fun - but I have no interest in turning such things into a chore. When I get a little bored, I move on.

If you're curious about the rest of the game, check out the CRPG Addict's play-through. He does a great job with it. It certainly brought back a lot of great memories for me.

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