|I have to admit I'm one of those gaming geeks. You know, the weird guys who play those table-top RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: the Masquerade, spending nights in at someone's house instead of going to the pubs. I'm hopelessly addicted, and I'll be playing until my nurse at the convalescent home refuses to roll my dice for me. So naturally, I enjoy Pool of Radiance a lot. I still play it to this day, creating a party and busting some orc and goblin heads from time to time. This game, from what I know, is a port of an old SSI computer game of the same name(and cover art). I still get lost when I'm in the final castle, though...
The primary view of the game is of a first-person perspective as you travel through the towns or dungeons. Unfortunately, the only difference between when you're in a town or in a dungeon is the frequency of random monster attacks. Instead of a vibrant cityscape, or even an occasional window or door passing you by, you see featureless, brown walls. Some of the different dungeons offer a few changes here and there as far as scenery, but not much to write home about except for different main colors.
A great boon to this game's graphics rating are for the ""miniatures"" that are displayed during combat. Your party members will look different, depending on their class and gender. They all have little animations when they cast spells or cloober enemies. And the enemies are diverse and detailed as well. For all of you tabletop RPG fans out there, this game sort of puts it into perspective when your puny characters are facing that wyvern for the first time, or a platoon of hill giants. Also, you will come across ""cutscenes"" as well, displaying a monster, party member, shop owner, or other supporting character in either portrait form or a short animation of perhaps two frames. Those add a little variety to keep you interested, especially when the monotonous walls of the maze are putting you to sleep.
And just wait 'til you get to the wilderness adventure part--travelling across the plains of the Forgotten Realms is quite a treat for the eyes when you first see it all at once.
I really like the game's music. The title screen music sticks with me the most. It's very catchy and easy to hum along to; it's a shame that you don't hear it more often. But each area the characters go into has a separate music score to go with it, wheter you're in the busy town, the graveyard, or hunting down Norris the Grey in Kuto's Well (one of the quests you undertake). There are seperate, identifiable sounds for attacks and spells in combat as well, or when your characters spring a trap. This is one category that was worked with quite extensively, and it pays off in a game that can get pretty visually narcoleptic.
A wealth of options are open to the player when they create their adventuring party. The class selection system is quite extensive, and allows you to assemble a diverse and balanced crew of adventurers. Unfortunately I was never able to create the halfling fighter I'd always wanted...Some class-race combinations are left out in order to streamline game design, but that's tolerable. You can still put together a party of only fighters, or only mages, or any combination of up to five characters. My choice for a perfect party? A fighter, a fighter cleric, a cleric, a fighter-mage-thief, and a mage. You'll have plenty of smackdown power, and more than enough healing and offensive magic to get you through the rough spots.
Combat is clear and concise, allowing you to do any sort of actions you may want in the space of a combat turn. You can move, attack, cast spells, use items, or wait for the enemy to move into position in the space of one turn. Surprise can factor into some encounters, making who goes first in battle a wild card--this can mean life or death during any point of your adventuring career when you're dealing with some major enemies. The ""death's door"" rule, familiar to some gamers, is present in this game as well, so if one of your party members falls in battle be sure to have someone else bind their wounds before it's too late. Otherwise, you'll be down a party member for the rest of the game!
The game itself sports a wide-spanning campaign, fairly linear in design but ultimately giving the player a lot of freedom along the way. Though all the subplots must be completed in order to get to the final quest, you don't necessarily need to accomplish them all in the same order they are given to you. You can spend as much time just wandering all over the place you want, building up experience and maybe gaining a little treasure or some magic items along the way. If you want to investigate the lizardman castle right away, however, be forewarned that you need to clear out Sokal Keep first; that's the only way you can free up the docks that allow you travel to other places. Your characters can advance to sixth level at the most, which by many players standards is pretty weak, but with a balanced party you should be able to face any challenge that comes your way, especially when you've got a mage that can blast out two Fireballs or Lighting Bolts in one battle.
This may seem like an odd score at first, being the lowest of them all, but let me explain. It has the potential for hours and hours of gameplay (I'm living proof of that) if you're willing to invest some time in character creation, and the campaign lets you steadily see your party's strength grow over time. There's a definite sense of accomplishment that comes when your high-level party is able to clobber a score of kobolds in the wilderness that would have made you wet your armor when you started your adventures as measly first-level peons. The quests are varied and you work towards a number of diverse goals.
What's the downfall of this game? Well, I have to look at the game's source material for that, since the words AD&D are splattered all over it. This game, like all the rest of these video RPGs (I am firm on this belief, so don't even try to sway me on it!), has the limit that no tabletop RPG has ever had to deal with--it's too linear. Ultimately you never stop working towards that pre-determined main goal. You can't branch off later on your own little ideas or quirks, the characters are little more than a portrait and some numbers, and you can't do so many of the incredible things a good tabletop RPG offers by default. Maybe I'm just looking for the wrong thing when it comes to video games, or something. Even so, this is a good choice for those of you who don't have any gaming nerd friends nearby to get a good game going. It's got enough high adventure to hold your interest for a long time. I mean, it's still got me hooked!!!
The definitions of 'RPG' and 'action game' have always been debatable when it came to computer and console ""RPGs,"" and Pool of Radiance is no exception. I'll state this--though it has some elements of a role-playing game as its source material, this is an action game. Think of turn-based Diablo, and you got it pretty close. The limitations of today's computer and console RPG gaming are currently in a state of flux...Internet play was a wild dream when this game was conceived; nowadays, there are internet-based multiplayer action games all over the place. But if you're in the mood for a nostalgic, solo-fantasy experience, go for this one; you won't be disappointed.