Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance

Version Reviewed: NES
Year Published: 1992
Publisher: FCI, Inc.
Developer: Marionette

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance for the NES is a port of a PC game released nearly four years earlier and happens to be the only NES AD&D game that is a true RPG in the traditional sense. All good sources claim this version is much easier than its PC forefather, but even with these efforts (whether they were intentional or because of system limitations), many players may find it too difficult, especially if what they are mostly used to is modern JRPGs. Fans of oldschool dungeon-crawlers, especially those familiar with AD&D rules, may fare better, as the game offers much to see and do, and is historically significant since it was the first video game adaptation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

You begin the game as a party of adventurers who have answered a want ad to clear monsters from a city that is gradually falling into ruin. You can either choose from preset characters or roll your own party from a pool of standard classes, like fighters and magic users (or combinations of such) and fantasy races like elves, dwarves, and humans. After a brief guided tour of New Phlan, you're given your first task of clearing monsters from the nearby slums.

Like many oldschool RPGs of this type, the game utilizes a first-person perspective and a grid-based system. While there are in-game maps for most areas, they're crude. Players may find it necessary to pull out some graph paper and make their own or use ones that can be found online.

Upon getting into your first battle, you'll learn pretty quickly the game's unforgiving nature. Since it runs off very oldschool AD&D rules, characters and enemies don't rely so much on a "defense" stat as they do Armor Class. The lower a target's Armor Class, the harder it is to hit. This means a lot of time is spent by characters and enemies attacking and missing each other. Over and over again. Until someone gets lucky and lands a hit, hopefully you, not them. Enemy parties are often huge and far outnumber your own. It is not easy to run, since battles also use a grid-based movement system and getting all your characters to the edge of the screen is the only way to even get the "Run" option, and it may not work. In fact, if a character succeeds in running away, but another one is killed, it seems to result in a lock-up.

Magic and magical items can be used to speed up battles since many spells hit multiple targets and they can't be dodged so long as the target is not immune to them. Spells that paralyze enemies make them unmissable, so hits are now guaranteed regardless of Armor Class. But as you could guess, magical items have limited uses and magic spells are cumbersome. You don't have MP in Pool of Radiance, spells get a certain number of uses, usually between 1-3. After that, the character has to memorize each use of the spell again and then rest to permanently learn it. Confusing and time consuming? Yes.

Resting also allows your party to heal, but apparently there's a mistake in the NES version's programming that causes each character to only gain 1 HP per 24-hour resting period instead of per hour. The good news is that when you find a safe place to camp (some areas won't let you; others you'll get interrupted by monsters), you can rest as many times in a row as you want. Of course, the more HP your characters gain as they level up, the more tedious this method gets. Healing items and spells become more crucial if you don't want to spend all your playtime literally snoozing. There is a "Quick" option in the menu you can turn on that makes resting go faster, and I highly recommend doing this. The Quick Mode also removes some of the other time-consuming fluff, such as the battle intro.

You can also save just about anywhere and there are two very important reasons this is definitely a good thing and you should save constantly. The first is to (obviously) avoid lost progress since you will restart from your last save if your entire party dies. The second is that you may want to restart from a save if any character dies, because resurrecting dead characters is almost impossible. It's extremely costly, to the point of not being feasible for most of the game, and Elves stay permanently dead. You may also want to restart from a save if any character is level-drained, although there is a Restoration spell that counters this.

All of this inconvenience surrounding the game's battle system leads me to believe that although it's required for certain things (bosses, mainly), it's intentionally meant to discourage you from fighting as much as possible. Indeed, since Pool of Radiance is an open-world game and areas can be explored and completed in almost any order, it turns out that doing things in specific ways may drastically reduce the amount of battles you'll encounter. Sometimes if the right conditions are met, you'll get a disguise or information that helps you bypass wandering enemy parties without a fight. You can also try talking your way out of battles, but it doesn't always work.

Rewards for random battles are often pitiful. You get far greater amounts of experience and money from completing quests and finding secrets. Always explore new areas with the "Search" function turned on. This makes each step take a few extra seconds, but the party will automatically search the square and find anything hidden there. Most weapons and armor you find in the field, even if their stats are poor, are worth a fortune. Keep your inventory lean so you can carry as much back to town as possible to sell.

Once you've saved New Phlan from its neighboring monster problem, the city council will start giving you other tasks that require you to branch out and explore the game's other dungeons. Most dungeons are linked to one another, but some can only be reached by boat or by finding them in the "Wilderness". The Wilderness is an overworld of sorts that is also grid-based and traveled by horse. By stumbling on the right squares you could uncover a secret dungeon.

Finding, exploring, and conquering the game's 20+ areas is the main attraction here, and since the battle system is a bit clunky and protracted, I'm betting it's what interested players will find the most appealing. There is always something to do and something to find. Boss fights are significantly more fun than normal battles because of the sense of accomplishment and greater rewards you'll get for beating them. While you can explore at your leisure, visiting only the places the council has assigned to you may yield better results, although often they give you multiple tasks at once, so figuring out a good order can be a matter of trial and error to see what is too difficult at your current level and what is not.

Storytelling is not the game's strong point, but the more you uncover, the more you'll get information suggesting most of the evil beings (monsters and humanoids alike) are being controlled by a single entity named Tyranthraxus - a powerful wizard who has taken the form of a dragon. The first six letters of this guy's name is a pretty good clue to what you're dealing with. He is attempting to recruit followers for an army in preparation of a massive invasion and conquest of New Phlan and beyond, all for the sake of an evil god called Bane. Most of your exploits are stopping his army before it gets started, either through force or diplomacy. Tyranthraxus has also discovered the rumored "Pool of Radiance", from which the game takes its name. Thankfully, whatever benefits he was supposed to receive by skinny-dipping in it weren't enough to prevent my party from defeating him.

The dialogue, though somewhat censored from the PC and Japanese versions, is serviceable and does not suffer from any poor translations as many NES games did. It is written with a slight sense of humor - an example being two giants who start a fight while arguing over the difference between frogs and toads. There are some NPC's that can join your party at various points who have minor roles in the story, but like most RPGs of this style, your characters don't have distinct personalities of their own. Strangely, there is situational dialogue for your party, but it is always spoken by whoever is in the lead.

Your adventures will take you to a good variety of locations, mostly brick towns and castles, but occasionally something weirder, like a hedge maze, a stockade, and a disturbing graveyard where it's eternally night and the maze walls are massive headstones. As expected, the dungeons sometimes have minor puzzles to solve, usually along the lines of finding secret passages, navigating via warp points, or making the right choice in a given situation. Keeping that "Search" function turned on will help you discover every secret they have to offer.

The game's non-linear design practically guarantees that many players will not have the exact same experiences when playing it, and if you were to replay it, things will likely play out a little differently. The ending is ultimately the same, no matter what you do, and you can even play past the ending in case there are any areas you missed or if you care to finish leveling up any non-maxed characters. Unfortunately, the character codes given to you at the end have no function as a planned sequel that would've utilized them was canceled.

Visually, the game is mostly competent, but there is a stark contrast between the first-person and overworld environments and the battle scenes. Character and monster sprites in battles are extremely tiny and lacking in detail. The backgrounds often consist of one ugly solid color brown and a few brick walls or trees scattered about. Just one more reason to avoid battles when you can. The game does somewhat make up for this in having colorful animated portraits of the monsters you encounter before the battle begins, as well as for the various people you meet, though the designs are all a little creepy.

Unlike the PC version, NES Pool of Radiance features a full soundtrack. Most of it's quite good, with "Stojanow Gate" being my personal favorite, but the battle music and the repetitive nature of some of the dungeon themes might make you grateful there's an option to turn it off.

Pool of Radiance is a tough recommendation because I feel that it's best suited to fans of very oldschool "Western" RPGs of this style, many of whom have probably already played some version of it. I have heard stories from people who said it was their first game or their first RPG and they ended up loving it, so maybe I'm being too cautious. I do think that if you're mainly experienced with JRPGs and you're curious about an RPG of this type, there may be better suggestions for easing into the genre. On the NES alone, I would say Might and Magic, which is similar, but generally more user-friendly. If, however, you're a fan of this genre and haven't played this one yet, by all means, give it a go.

Pros:

  • Huge, non-linear, open world to explore that gives you plenty to do without being overwhelming. Lots of treasure to find, bosses to beat, and puzzles to solve.
  • Good soundtrack and graphics for everything but the battle scenes.
  • Many possible party combinations, but if you find that too complicated, you can also use the default characters.
  • Good story with some interesting twists and humor. Just don't expect deep characterizations.
  • You can save almost anytime, anywhere.
  • In-game maps help a little with some areas, but if making your own isn't your thing, they can be found on various gaming websites.

    Cons:

  • The simplistic graphics and annoying music of the battle scenes, along with the sheer amount of time they take because of physical attacks constantly missing and enemies trying to run away may put off some players.
  • The nigh impossibility of resurrecting dead characters can be detrimental to progress, so save constantly to avoid this situation.
  • Rolling your own party is fun, but some classes are almost worthless. There is no reason to use a Cleric instead of a multi-class Fighter/Cleric, and the only reason to have a Thief is for one small optional part of one dungeon.
  • Due to a programming oversight, healing your party through camping is time-consuming. The plus side is that you can do it as many times as you want. While passing time does age your characters, I never encountered any negative effects from it.
  • The magic system is awkward. I personally never figured out how to scribe spells. Many spells are useless, too, so you may want to consult a guide for which ones to learn.

    Score: 3/4

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