Sometimes a game becomes known for all the wrong reasons. When Stormfront Studios created Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, they probably had high hopes that it would bring back fond memories of the gold-box role-playing games (RPG’s) of the late 80’s and early 90’s (including the original Pool of Radiance), if not challenge BioWare for supremacy of today’s RPG’s. But now that the game has been out for a while, it’s much more likely that Pool of Radiance will be remembered for two things: that it shipped with an uninstall bug that could delete system registry files, and that people discovered the bug (and thus were already uninstalling the game) well within a week of its release. There’s a reason why people were uninstalling the game: it’s bad, and its myriad problems are obvious right from the word go.
In Pool of Radiance, you play... well, you don’t play anybody in particular. Stormfront Studios, either in a nod to older RPG’s or because they were lazy, set up the game so you control an anonymous band of six adventurers. You get to create up to four characters when you start out, and then you can find other potential party members as you make your way through the game. But those party members don’t add anything to the story after you talk to them for the first time (even in situations that just scream for them to comment), and Pool of Radiance wouldn’t have played any differently even if Stormfront Studios had allowed you to create all six characters at the beginning.
But the anonymous party works out well enough because Pool of Radiance also doesn’t have much of a story for them to play a part in. Pretty much there’s an evil pool, an evil dracolich, and an evil sorceress, and they’re planning evil things simply because they’re evil. (Think of Pinky and the Brain, but with a sorceress and dracolich instead of mice.) Then the story, such as it is, involves you fighting your way to them and killing / destroying them. Ho hum. If you’re looking for a game with, oh, motivation or character development, then this isn’t the one for you. I think Diablo 2 has more of a story than Pool of Radiance, and that’s saying something.
However, Pool of Radiance isn’t trying to tell a story. It’s trying to be a hack-and-slash RPG, much like the aforementioned Diablo 2. Unfortunately, combat in Pool of Radiance is terrible. Or maybe “terrible” isn’t quite the right word and other choices such as “slow” or “repetitive” or “boring” are. (Or you could select E, “All of the above.”) Now, Pool of Radiance employs a true turn-based system, so its combat is never going to be quick or action-packed, but Stormfront Studios barely made it playable. For starters, combat is just plain slow. There isn’t a quick-move option, so you have to watch enemies slowly shuffle into position (or wander around aimlessly when they can’t find a target), and enemies always take five seconds to decide what to do. Those two problems don’t sound like much, but when your characters miss 75% of the time (as they will early in the game) that leads to lots of rounds of combat with lots of associated shuffling and pausing, and each fight takes 10 minutes or more. One time my party got stuck fighting 17 orogs (orc-like things), and the battle lasted 45 minutes, and I spent most of that time twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my characters to be able to take their turns.
But long fights aren’t necessarily bad -- unless the game focuses on combat and dishes out hundreds upon hundreds of random or meaningless encounters, like Pool of Radiance does. Then long fights just drag the game down into a morass of slowness, where you’re thrilled to explore an area and find empty rooms rather than creatures waiting for you. Plus, there are only about 10 types of creatures in the game (with variations on each), so not only do you have to fight long, boring battles, you have to fight long, boring battles against the same things over and over! Oh, fun, fun, fun.
Along with the combat, the pacing of the game is terribly slow. The game’s world is basically made up of nine areas -- the surface of Myth Drannor and eight dungeon levels -- but the dungeon levels are way too big. It’s like some level designer heard the phrase “bigger is better” and went out to prove it wrong -- and succeeded marvelously. So it takes too long to slog through the dungeons (and fight those endless battles) and advance the story, and Stormfront Studios even compounded matters by using the same tile set for all the dungeons (so they’re boring to look at) and by making the dungeons difficult to navigate (so they’re annoying as well as boring).
Plus, not only is it slow to progress through the game’s world, there isn’t anything else to drive the player on. The story is non-existent, the equipment is relatively boring, and even character development has problems. Stormfront Studios found that if they gave players the proper experience for each kill, players would max out their levels well before the end of the game, and so they drastically reduced experience -- with the result that your party might take 10-15 hours to reach level 3. That’s just too slow.
Even the interface has problems. For some reason Stormfront Studios got caught up in making menu systems for doing things and forgot about hotkeys. Well, the menus have problems because they appear over the animations on the screen, and so they often perform sluggishly. And while Stormfront Studios did create some hotkeys, they used things like the left and right alt keys, the left and right shift keys, and the numpad enter key, and so not only are the key bindings not intuitive, they’re spread out all over the place so they’re not convenient either. Plus, there isn’t any way to configure the hotkeys (so no alt-tabbing to other applications), and too many commands don’t have hotkey options at all.
Fortunately, the graphics in Pool of Radiance are pretty good. Character animations are fluid and detailed (and nagas look especially good when they slither), and the surface of Myth Drannor looks excellent. The only real problem with the graphics involves a design decision, that 90% of the game should be spent in the dungeons and that the dungeons should all look alike. If Stormfront Studios had applied the same sort of variety and detail to the dungeons as they did to the surface of Myth Drannor, then Pool of Radiance would have been something to behold. But as it stands now, the graphics are good but don’t match the quality found in BioWare’s RPG’s (like Baldur’s Gate 2).
The sound is also pretty good. There are all sorts of characters who have lines in the game (although they don’t say much), and all of the voice acting is convincing and well done. The ambient sounds and other sound effects are also solid, but the background music is truly background music, and while it isn’t bad or anything, it’s not memorable either. The only thing Stormfront Studios needs to work on in the sound department is the battle background music. Right now they’re using about 30 seconds of looped material, and that gets really old during 20-minute fights.
Overall, Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor is a game you should definitely avoid -- especially these days when there are so many good RPG’s on the market. The game just has so many problems that I don’t think future patches will help it any (or at least enough), but hopefully Stormfront Studios can learn from their experiences here and make a better game in the future.
[ 15/40 ] Gameplay
[ 12/15 ] Graphics
[ 12/15 ] Sound
[ 05/10 ] Interface
[ 04/10 ] Story
[ 04/05 ] Technical
[ 03/05 ] Documentation