After being in the mood for some turn-based CRPG gaming for a few months, and listening to the latest Armchair Arcade podcast that had a recap of the SSI Gold Box series, I decided to fire up my Amiga 500 and start Pool of Radiance from scratch. It's a game I played on the c64 back in the day, but I never got very far. I know I never finished it. I don't even know how I got the Amiga disks, but there they were... it's the only version I haven now, so I thought it'd be fun to give it a shot and see how my memory of the game matches the 2011 reality. What holds up well? What's really annoying?
I thought I'd blog about my experience playing this classic and look at both what still works, and what could have been done different. Sometimes I'll reference modern games, sometimes I'll compare it to peers. And awaaaay we go...
I'm playing on an Amiga 500 with 1 meg of ram, one disk drive, and a Commodore 2002 monitor. I do have a second drive for my Amiga, but it seems to have died. The disk swapping isn't too bad - once you get the game going you really only have to swap when saving the game, and that makes sense. During character creation, there was a lot more swapping but not unbearable.
The initial load time was a little long, but for an RPG like this I didn't think it was too bad. I had to find a code wheel online, because I no longer have it. Fortunately, www.lemonamiga.com has all the docs, although it took a few times to get used to reading the PDF instead of an actual code wheel to find the symbol combination properly. Man, I don't miss code wheels at all. Better than modern DRM, though? Hm... that's another story...
Even though it seems antiquated and no games do it now, I actually liked the simulated dice rolling, waiting to get good scores for my characters. I look at it like a minigame. Do I accept the guy with 17 STR/17 CON, or do I keep rolling to try to get an 18 STR. And if I get that fighter, do I accept a low CON and DEX? Or do I hit it big and get a couple of 18s? I didn't like that I kept rolling 18 INTs when I was trying to make my thief, though. I wish you could pick class AFTER you rolled the scores, since that's the time consuming part.
One thing that kind of sucks about Pool of Radiance's character creation was picking your portrait heads and bodies. It didn't filter based on race & gender, so when I made my male half-elf fighter/thief I had to scroll through a bunch of female wizard options. And the load times for each portrait part (head and body) was just annoying enough to get on my nerves. Not terrible, just annoying.
The icon customization was pretty tedious as well, but also kind of fun. I wish there was a little bit better interface, having to click (or type) all these options several menu levels deep was less than ideal. In general I'd say my biggest gripe with Pool or Radiance is the clunky menus. Compared to other games it makes you jump through a lot of hoops to do stuff.
PRINT MANUALS +1
I printed out the adventurers' journal and read through the whole introduction - the history of Phlan, basically, and it added a lot to the experience. The involved setup for the story in print was much more satisfying than the few minutes of FMV for, say, Dragon Age, who's plot was full of holes from square one. You can just do a lot more with a few pages of text, and the backstory and history really sets up the game. And I don't want ot read pages of text on a monitor, it's just uncomfortable. It does seem odd to have to look up journal entries, though. I'm sure there was an issue putting that text in the game, but from a user's perspective 20 years later it seems a little odd because each entry is short enough to be comfortably readable on the monitor. Some journal entries have maps, too, so I guess that's better suited to the manual.
INTO THE GAME
I could be missing something, but once I created my party I didn't see a way to replace the characters I originally chose with new ones. I actually ended up starting the game from scratch, remaking all new characters because the party I first created wasn't ideal. I wish I could have kept some of those guys and replace them with others, but I didn't see a way to do that. Again, maybe I missed that. If so, please let me know!
One thing I wasn't looking forward to was mapping. But to my surprise (and fault memory), Pool of Radiance has a map mode of each area ready for you - just hit 'A'. At least, there's a map of Phan and the slums. Not sure about other areas yet, but so far the automap is nice.
Now, onto the meat. I still love the turn-based combat. Compared to modern RPGS like Dragon Age, where you have to really be on your feet, turn-based RPGs are a lot more fun for me. The top-down style perspective adds a layer of depth that "3d" contemporary RPGs like Wizardry and Might & Magic didn't have. You can strategically place your characters. Without that level, combat isn't as satisfying or... visceral. You really see what's happening to your party since you see them. I do wish there was an easier way to scroll around the area to see the position of everyone, especially when you surprise a group of monsters and they're a ways away from your party. You can try to target them by cycling targets backwards, but it's not as convenient. I can't wait until my magic user gets higher level and I can start playing with area spells (I did put half my party to sleep once because I didn't target correctly, heh). In all, after a few hours I dig the combat just as much as I remember. It's a style we haven't seen much of lately, and I miss it.
So far I've fought a few parties of orcs, kobolds and goblins. I've had some success, and had some characters get knocked unconcious. The difficulty seems just about right for the start of the game, although I wonder what will happen when I run out of platinum pieces to rest up at the inn? I guess I'll have to take my chances camping in the slums or outdoors...
Okay, that's some good. Here's some bad: my biggest, and virtually only gripe is with the interface. Lots of keypresses bringing you through several layers of menus to do things like memorize spells, or buy equipment for your party. This should be pretty automatic, but you've got to press a lot of buttons to get your whole party ready to rest. Same for switching weapons in combat - you have to 'V'iew your character, then choose 'I'tems, then un-'R'eady your current weapon, then scroll down and 'R'eady the new one. Then 'E'xit, 'E'xit, 'Exit' to get back to the fight. Finally, the Amiga version really should have supported the mouse more. You can select menu options with the mouse instead of typing the letter, but you can't do things like pick targets during combat. None of this is a dealbreaker for the game - I got used to it after an hour or two - but it is one area I think games have really improved in. It seems to take a long time to do anything. Hopefully I'll get automatic with this the more I play.
GRAPHICS AND MISCELLANEOUS
Graphically it's not winning any Amiga awards. You can tell from the presentation and the interface it's a port. That said, it gets the point across. I liked some of the animated monster intros when you run into them. I do not have speakers hooked up to my Amiga, but I hear the intro tune is good. Like I said earlier, the only disk swapping is when you save, and that's not bad compared to some other Amiga games I've played recently. The load times between various map sections isn't bad, either.
Okay, that's it for my first impressions. I played the game a few times over the course of a couple hours, so I'm really early on. I still haven't finished clearing the slums. It's a time consuming game and my free time is limited, so I'll be updating whenever I have something interesting to post. It's definitely addictive. If I didn't have a toddler at home and a demanding day job I could easily see playing this all night.