Saturday, February 21, 2004

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (PC)

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Richly detailed graphics, great movies
Cons: Horrible interface, too much hack and slash

Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor takes place in the Forgotten Realms universe, and features Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rules. The rule set was released in the summer of 2000. It includes some neat new character classes such as a monk or barbarian, and lets you choose a half-orc as a character's race. The 3rd edition rules also allow characters to advance to the 16th experience level and cast 8th level spells.

Ruins of Myth Drannor is the second installment in the Pool of Radiance series, taking place ten years after the original left off. Deep under the city of New Phlan, the Pool of Radiance has been re-activated by some evil presence, causing it to spew forth an energy that turns anything it touches undead. This means you will certainly encounter a lot of undead monsters as you traverse the dungeons of Myth Drannor, where the evil seems to be coming from.

The grand wizard Elminster gathers a team of adventurers to travel through the portal to Myth Drannor, and find out what evil resides there. Unfortunately, they disappear without a trace. With Athan and his companions gone, it falls upon you to take up their slack and travel to Myth Drannor yourself. You step through the portal and see what remains of the previous expedition. Their corpses litter the ground just this side of the portal, and the orcs that put them there await you. By the time you finish laying the orcs to rest, the portal has disappeared and you are trapped there.

Unlike most traditional role playing games, raising levels takes a long time in Ruins of Myth Drannor. Having a maximum of 16 experience levels may not seem like much after playing the likes of Final Fantasy, but rest assured, it will take you a long time to reach that point. To reach the first level alone is 1000 experience points, and your lucky to earn a dozen for one battle. The main place you will end up gaining your experience is the story related experience given to you along the way.

This means the monsters you fight will be hard at first. That, I'm afraid, is often an understatement. There are no inns to rest at and replenish your health and magic power, you must make camp and rest along the way. There is nothing wrong with this, but the places that you can stop and rest are few and far between sometimes. You have a little tent icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. When it turns green, you can stop and rest. When it's yellow, you can stop and rest, but will most likely be interrupted by enemies and attacked. This is usually not a good thing, as your characters (unless they are immune) will start the battle asleep! If the tent is red, you can not even attempt to stop and rest.

You can start the game off with one character, or up to four characters. Along the way, you will also come across two more who will join you. After they join you, you have full control over them, and they no longer talk or have any other kind of interaction beyond the characters you started with. This is fine, except for when you are doing a quest which involves that character, and he just stands around like a bump on a log, not bothering to contribute his two cents to what's going on.

When you first make your characters, you should choose their stats wisely. Instead of re-rolling stats until you get some that look decent, characters start out with a set number that depends on their race and class. You then have a certain amount of points to apply to each stat as you see fit, so choose wisely, especially if you plan to multi-class your character later. Multi-classed characters have a much better variety of skills, but will not be quite as strong with those skills as a higher level single classed character.

The dungeons you must explore in Ruins of Myth Drannor are huge. They are full of twists and turns, and many rooms all look the same. This is really annoying sometimes, when you end up walking for 10 minutes in one direction, just to turn around and walk all the way back... just so that you can walk 10 minutes in that direction. It really makes no difference which direction you take either, because there is fork after fork after fork in the dungeon path, and each fork goes on for 10 minutes and forks off again.. argh. Suffice it to say you will spend countless hours wandering around in the first dungeon alone.

The map at least helps a little bit here. When you click it, you get a 3D map of every place you have walked before. Not only that, but it is actually helpful and easy to use! This is a big bonus, especially when doing an hour's worth of back-tracking to explore some obscure fork in a path you passed earlier. The map looks just like a miniature version of the screen, and can be scrolled in any direction. You can also set a little flag icon on the map, and type text into it. This is very useful for marking certain places that you do not want to forget about for a later time.

The battle mode is terrible. You spend more time hacking and slashing than you do exploring or solving quests. This game is a lot like Diablo or Darkstone in that aspect. It uses a hybrid battle system that features elements of both real-time and turn-based systems. It is turn-based overall, but each character has a set amount of time to perform an action. This time is represented by a green bar, that slowly empties. When it is gone, the character's turn is over. This presents a bit of a problem sometimes, as the interface does a lot to inhibit your ability to perform the actions you want. As you raise to higher levels and learning more spells and actions, you will find yourself missing your turn as you fumble through the pop-ups to select the correct action.

That's right, pop-ups. The entire interface consists of Windows-style pop ups. Right click on the screen to get a list. Select one of the options, and sub-commands pop up beside them. If you accidentally move the mouse off of a command that was under 10 pop-ups, you get to start over, and all the while that green bar is emptying away into oblivion. Great, I just lost another turn, and now the skeleton knight is going to kill my ranger.

Nope, I guess he missed. Again. Characters and enemies alike will miss nine times out of ten while they are fighting. They can be standing practically on top of one another, and still miss a half dozen times in a row. It is not at all fun to stand your characters toe to toe with the enemy, and proceed to exchange misses with them for twenty minutes. The characters and enemies both move extremely slow as well, so pray that they do not have any amount of distance to cover to reach one another once the battle starts.

The graphics are one of the better parts of this game. Everything is rendered with the beautiful 3D graphics engine, and richly detailed. You get a 3/4 view of your characters, but only one camera angle. This works though, as there is rarely an occasion that requires an alternate angle. When a character or an enemy's view is blocked by a wall, you can see a stick-figure of that character through the wall. The stick figure remains as the character moves or fights, and stays as long as the view is blocked. Little touches like these go a long way.

The only real problem I have with the graphics is the lack of originality and customization. Sure, your characters have a couple of different outfits to choose from, but they basically look the same anyway. Putting on armor changes your character's appearance, but every piece of armor is silver, so they all look the same anyway. The variety of weapons and armor is really lacking, and there is only one place to buy the stuff in the first place. Oh yea, speaking of buying things.. after you purchase the limited amount of decent things in the beginning of the game, there seems to be nothing to do with all the gold you earn during the last 95% of it. Go figure.

The movie sequences do a lot to set up the story line, and appear to be designed very well. They look sharp and crisp for the most part, with just a touch of grain to add to the dark effect. They sound even better than they look, with great background music and excellent speech by the voice actors.

The music in the game is appropriate, with a multitude of strange and eerie scores to keep the mood up. The sound effects are good for the most part, but you will easily tire of the "chink chink chink" sound of an armored character walking through the dungeon. There is a very limited amount of speech in the game, and while it sounds terrific, there just isn't enough of it to have bothered with. All of a sudden out of nowhere, you will hear one sentence of speech, and then the rest of what that character was saying will appear on the screen. Utterly pointless.

Ruins of Myth Drannor also features a Dungeon Master, who acts as a narrator, if you will. The DM explains a lot of important areas and key points in the game by making a text box pop up on your screen. Too bad he don't actually speak.

Ruins of Myth Drannor features a multiplayer mode via the GameSpy network. This allows you to chat and play with friends over the internet. There seems to be only one single player game, instead of multiple 'campaigns' or 'scenarios' like in other games. While some of the NPC interactions might change if you play through it again, depending on what you say to them, the overall game will be exactly the same.

There are four (yes four) patches available for this game from the manufacturer's website. These patches should really be installed, as they fix a multitude of bugs in the game. Most of the bugs are rather minor, but annoying none the less. The most notable is probably the horrible virtual memory management, which caused my computer to run like a crippled turtle.

Minimum system requirements: Windows 95/98/ME, Pentium II 400, 64 MB RAM, 3D video card with D3D support, DirectX compatible sound card, 8x CD-ROM, keyboard, and mouse. 56k modem or faster also required for multiplayer games.

I tested this game on an AMD Athlon XP 2200 with 512 MB RAM, GeForce 4 MX 440 with 64 MB of DDR VRAM, CMI 5.1 channel sound card, DirectX 9.0B, and a 48x CD-ROM under Windows 98 SE. My multiplayer gaming experience was less than stellar, but my 26.4kbps connection is only half of the recommended 56k minimum.

Overall, this is a fairly good game, though it could have been so much better. Don't grab this game expecting it to play like Baulder's Gate, when it will really play more like Diablo. I would only recommend this game to real AD&D fans, and people who have either played everything else or are extremely bored.

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