Few will remember the age of gaming that brought the original Pool of Radiance. This legendary game was among the first to introduce the world of Dungeons and Dragons to the PC and is still heralded as one of the best despite its age. Naturally, quite a bit of anticipation was built up when Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor was announced. The elder PC gamers could not wait until they could re-embrace this classic, and the newer brethren knew that they could finally see what all these people have been raving about for years. Promising to use the newest Dungeons and Dragons rules, the 3rd Edition, it would seem as if the newest installment of Pool of Radiance would recreate its legend by bringing the newest rules to the PC just as it had done with the first. The earth practically stood still with anticipation…
…and then it came. And people bought it. And people played it. And people were confused.
You see, it did not quite become the legend that it was supposed to become. Former Pool of Radiance players were left wondering what went wrong, while the newer generation was still unsure about why the game had such a cult following.
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor became one of the biggest disappointments in the history of gaming on the PC. And while it did many things right, there were just too many problems that kept the game from holding the splendor it once wielded. Perhaps like a, "you had to be there" joke, the game received too much hype and was unable to live up to its unearthly expectations. Or perhaps Pool of Radiance just was not the game it could have been.
Santa Clause is coming to Myth Drannor
The story of Ruins of Myth Drannor pick up ten years after the original ended. The Pool of Radiance, capable of emitting an energy that transforms the living into the undead, has been reactivated. In an attempt to find out what went wrong, a group of the world's best adventurers have been sent to investigate. Not surprisingly, they turn up dead.
This is where you and your party of rookies enter the scheme. The game opens as your group enters the ancient city of Myth Drannor, now in ruins and scattered with the corpses of the adventurers who came to investigate earlier. Your job is to find the survivors along with a magical object and finish the job yourself. While this may be an interesting premise, what follows will make you wish that the game had just come to a close right here.
After a very short introduction to the game, you enter the first dungeon. And in this dungeon you must stay for 30 hours. Not game time; but real time. This dungeon is not only long, but monotonous as well. Granted, there have been several games that have been successes that take place in not much more than a single dungeon. Pool of Radiance just is not one of them.
The story does, thankfully, go uphill after the tiresome endeavor, but after already having suffered so much in the first 30 hours of gameplay, it was never able to fully redeem itself. The horribly slow beginning will segue into the mediocre end. And the game continues on.
The bulk of Pool of Radiance is spent with hack-and-slash style gameplay with a faulty battle engine (more on that later). Unfortunately, what makes Role-playing games fun is that you have the opportunity to play a role. In Pool of Radiance, however, you simply cannot. Mindless-monster-hacker is not a Dungeons and Dragons class regardless of what this game tries to say.
NPC interaction is painfully sparse, and members seem to care less about what they are ordered to do once they join your party. Even characters that seemed dead-set in accomplishing a task seem to forget about it once they join your adventure. Buying and selling items is a useless chore seeing that the equipment sold by the only merchant in the game is dwarfed by the treasure that you find almost instantly in the dungeon. Scrolls, magical weapons and armor, and coffers full of gold are thrown at you at almost every turn. It gets so bad that you reject a +5 broadsword because you "have enough already". Those familiar with the term, 'Santa Clause DM' know and hate this system. Treasures should be rewarded after undertaking a difficult quest. Unfortunately the difficult quest in question is "walk to the other side of the room and open the treasure chest".
The story of Ruins of Myth Drannor could have gone somewhere if only there were characters in the game that served to advance the plot. The entire game plays like a rookie's attempt at a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. And while the game does begin to improve as time passes, it is just too little, too late.
The "Two-and-a-Half" Edition Rules
Character Creation and Advancement
Custom character creation is often the highlight of any game based on Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, Ruins of Myth Drannor cannot deliver in this area either.
As the game opens, you are prompted to either create your own characters or chose from the preexisting ones. The obvious choice would be to opt to create your own, as no self-respecting Dungeons and Dragons player would ever settle for a cookie-cutter persona. However, since the pre-made characters are stronger than custom ones could ever be due to the fact that they are, for some reason, given more stat points, this may not be the best option after all. Seeing that I have too much pride to limit myself to a ready-made character, stronger or not, I still went the way of customizing.
First is to choose the race and class of your character from the standard array: Fighter, Cleric, Rouge, Paladin, Ranger, Monk, Barbarian, and Sorcerer…but quite surprisingly, not wizard. The Sorcerer, one of the new classes added with 3rd Edition Rules is used by Ruins of Myth Drannor in place of the wizard. The point, however, of adding this class to Dungeons and Dragons was to provide a magic user that is played in a different style than the typical wizard; NOT to replace him. While not a problem for most players, seeing a game that boasts the use of the latest Dungeons and Dragons rules not include something so basic rubs me the wrong way.
Once race and class are selected, you assign a handful of points to your statistics. And here, surprisingly, character creation stops. One of the major changes made with the implementation of the 3rd Edition Rules is the inclusion of feats, special abilities performable by the character, was done in order to give the player the option of making a more well-rounded and diverse character. But instead of grasping onto this capability of diversification, Ruins of Myth Drannor decides that it would be best to automatically assign these feats, in addition to weapon skills and starting equipment based on race and class. With this one simple 'addition', all ability to create a truly custom party is shattered. And it's too bad, too, since character creation could have been one of the fun things in this game. Instead, it becomes one of the things that contribute to the game's failure.
Character class levels go up to 16 with each level offering little more than the ability to distribute new stat points. Adding new feats to your repertoire is not allowed; the game will do that for you. How nice of it.
All in all, characters will be quite a disappointment for Dungeons and Dragons purists. We are missing druids, bards, and, of course, the wizard. Of the races, gnomes have also mysteriously vanished. And while the feat system is implemented, it is ruined by the fact that you cannot assign the feats yourself. Honestly, if you want to make a big deal about using the 3rd Edition Rules, you may as well use them all, not just pick and chose which were easiest to code.
Most of the game occurs in the semi-real time, tactical, turn-based, hack-and-slash combat. Which would not be too bad, except for the fact that battles occur much too frequently and progress far too slowly. Not to mention, the difficulty level is a joke. The ideal party is a group of sorcerers protected by a wall of tanks. Forget clerics, because you can rest after almost every battle and recover all of your hit points and spells. Thieves are also pretty useless as the only skills that really matter are combat-oriented.
Further removing interest and skill from battle is the fact that the characters must execute their moves in a given amount of time, represented by a green bar. During their turn, they can do a number of actions including moving, attacking, casting spells, or performing a special action. Higher levels, better spells, and more powerful skills are practically useless if your reflexes are not fast, and if they aren't, no strategy can help you. Dungeons and Dragons is based on thinking and using a balanced assault to win in combat, not by clicking faster than the computer can.
And as if the combat system was not boring enough already, the shear monotony of your foes will make it worse. There are a handful of different creatures and battles usually consist of undead types (ghouls and skeletons) and Orc-ish creatures. Most of which have insanely high armor classes, which potentially makes it almost impossible to hit and deal damage to your foes. Fortunately, though, you have the "Santa Clause" DM to bail you out.
The only way incredibly frequent combat could be bearable is if the battle system were well done and enjoyable. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ruins of Myth Drannor. On the bright side, however, the time spent out of combat is equally as unpleasant, so you will not be dreading battles as you would be normally.
Anyone familiar with the typical Dungeons and Dragons spells will have no problem getting accustomed to those found Ruins of Myth Drannor. The entire system of spells works exactly the same as they would in any Dungeons and Dragons-based game. You learn spells upon gaining a level in a spell casting class, and you must memorize them before you can cast them (the exception is with the sorcerer who can bypass this step). Once spells are used, they are not available until the spell weaver rests to rememorize the exhausted spell.
Having to rest often is the disadvantage to playing a spell caster. In fact, players of Dungeons and Dragons will recall having to conserve the spells of the low-level wizard so that he can use his magic when it is a necessity. In this game, however, you are able to rest after almost every fight, making it quite viable that a sorcerer can fling all of his spells during combat, knowing that it will be safe to rest and gain all of them back after the battle ends. This makes magic grossly overpowered and contributes to the overall lack of balance so prevalent in Ruins of Myth Drannor. I usually naturally gravitate toward magic-users in games, but this one really turned me off of them. Incredible power minus restrictions equals not fun.
The occasional diamond in the rough
The beginning of the game is incredibly promising as the beautiful surroundings of Myth Drannor spread out before you as a feast for your eyes. Then you enter the first dungeon, and your hopes and dreams suddenly shatter.
While outside locations, and the majority of indoor locations, are nicely done and very pleasing on the eyes, albeit a bit repetitive, the dungeons use such a limited palate and repeat the same, stale images over and over. This would be okay if it were not for the fact that you spend the greater majority of the game in dungeons. Honestly, if as much effort was put into designing dungeons as was put into designing outside landscapes, Ruins of Myth Drannor may have been a much, much better game. Never let it be said that good ambiance cannot enhance a game, because the shear number of screens with poor ambience cripple this game.
Enemy designs are well done, and many foes take on the daunting task of providing atmosphere in the severely-lacking rooms of dungeons. Animation is adequate, but mundane. Armors and clothes are uninventive and monotonous. It is unfortunate that the amount of work put into the monsters was not mirrored by the designs for items and dungeons, as the game could have been undoubtedly better with more inventive looks for both.
However, spell effects are quite stunning. From the simple spells to the more complex (and awe-inspiring) ones, the effects are quite visually pleasing. Watching a sorcerer's spell whiz across the screen was the one small pleasure that I could derive from combat. They are incredibly well done, but could, unfortunately, not make up for the other graphical oversights.
Turn it off; it is not worth the headache
It is a sad statement to make that the game plays equally well with sound on or off. In fact, I had to play the majority of the game with it off, as there were several audio glitches that would cause the game to malfunction. This is just one of the many bugs that plague Ruins of Myth Drannor, but it is quite a menacing one. The music lacked feeling and failed to improve the environment, and the sound effects were as stale and flat as the objects that were making them. While I can usually use the audio prowess of PC games to immerse myself in the game, I found it nearly impossible to let such a thing happen while playing this game. It is quite a shame, too, because with the crippling lack of immersive textures and atmospheres, sound was one of the few things that could redeem the failures.
When you quit out of frustration, it has already gotten too bad
As if it was not punishing enough already to force you to endure the endless dungeons and mindless combat, Ruins of Myth Drannor also makes it difficult to do. While the tactical combat system may work all right in theory, it fails in execution. The interface constantly gets in the way, and the pop-up menu driven command structure just does not work. I found myself clicking the wrong thing much too frequently, and often could not get the character to do what I wanted him or her to do. It is exceedingly frustrating to prolong the already lengthy battles due to improperly assigning a command. Perhaps if battles did not require you to click as fast as you can and rely on your reflexes to get you through the battle, all the while irritatingly reminding you that your time is running out for that turn, mistakes would not be as annoying.
In addition, the controls are incredibly muddy, making it quite difficult at times to move your character where you want him to go. Sometimes you will find yourself leaving characters out of a battle because they somehow managed to separate themselves from the rest of the party when combat is initiated. Cheap battles are one thing, but making the game more difficult due to evasive menus is simply poor.
Two wrongs does not a right make
The story is unappealing, the characters are flat and boring, character customization is out of the question, combat is incredibly monotonous, dungeon graphics are mundane, music leaves much to be desired, and the poor control is enough to frustrate even the most patient player. On top of all this, Ruins of Myth Drannor was released extraordinarily buggy. Granted, most of the errors have been patched by now, but there is no excuse for having bugs that can actually destroy a machine when uninstalled (the game would actually remove several vital Windows components). It is literally a time bomb when it comes out of the box, and only by applying patches can the threat be somewhat cured. There is no excuse, however, for a game to be so severely bugged at release that the developer's message board is so flooded with complaints that it had to be removed.
Any way you look at it, the game that was supposed to relive the glory of the original Pool of Radiance just is not fun. The biggest selling point, The 3rd Edition Rules, was butchered beyond belief, and many of the things that survived the slaughter were still done poorly nonetheless. It would have been nice to see Pool of Radiance return as the best game that ever graced a PC gamer's life, but unfortunately, such grandeur can only exist in the memories of those who played the first Pool of Radiance.