As a conventional isometric dungeon crawl, Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor is not a terrible game. But as a computer translation of role-playing's most important and familiar system, which also brazenly claims the heritage of the original "Gold Box" Pool of Radiance, this release fails soundly. While Ruins of Myth Drannor arguably follows the official 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, it tends to bring out the weaknesses of pen-and-paper play instead of enhancing or simplifying the experience for a single computer gamer. Most significantly, Ruins of Myth Drannor does not accomplish the depth of story, the detail of character customization, or the engulfing campaign world that made the original Pool of Radiance such a memorable adventure.
When the game is running smoothly, it does have some appeal. The graphical technique is oddly reminiscent of The Sims, featuring 3D-modeled characters and objects against an essentially 2D backdrop. The characters look quite good, fluidly animated and delicately shaded, and their appearances change according to the armor and weapons equipped. Ruins of Myth Drannor also features several impressive visual spell effects, with colorful bursts of light and tumbling, wispy fogs. The quality of the backdrops is mixed, as some of the overland locations show careful craftsmanship while many of the underground areas are inorganically angular and feel very computer-generated. The audio is decent, with some excellent monster noises and good ambient sounds. Unfortunately, like other aspects of this game, the various graphical and audio styles don't always mesh and the overall presentation often feels disjointed.
By its very title, this game demands comparison to the Gold Box original. Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor is not blatantly irreverent in its renovation, but it never approaches the unified experience of the late-'80s classic. This newer game is set about ten years after the events of the original adventure, in which the soul-stealing evil of the first Pool of Radiance was silenced and the city of New Phlan set free from its power. A new Pool of Radiance has appeared now, far away in the deserted ruins of Myth Drannor. Most of the adventure takes place in these ruins, removed from the city and any sense of cultural depth it might provide. Though the story has a few bright spots, plot development is linear, sparse, and often awkward. Gamers may find themselves paying attention to the text simply to figure out where to go next, instead of truly playing the roles of their characters in the adventure.
It is also appropriate to compare this official Dungeons & Dragons game to contemporary releases, in terms of its mechanics if not its narrative elements. Baldur's Gate (1998) and other D&D-based games fashioned on the Infinity engine use a computer-enhanced yet ultimately more accurate method of translating the Dungeons & Dragons combat system to video gaming. Though diligent in its adherence to the twisting arithmetic that drives the D&D rules, Baldur's Gate allows the player to break down party combat into the smallest possible time units and it simultaneously applies the actions of all characters and monsters in a real-time stream. Baldur's Gate can be paused to give the player an opportunity to think through each character's actions, allowing for coordinated group attacks and thoroughly believable defensive strategies. Of course, most tabletop D&D gamers don't play through their battles instant by instant. Such an approach would require so much time and effort that it would distract from the reality of the experience instead of enhancing it.
Ruins of Myth Drannor features a more traditional application of the D&D combat rules than Baldur's Gate does, offering a style of play complete with all of the unfortunate compromise found in the battles of many pen-and-paper D&D sessions. Combat actions in Ruins of Myth Drannor are discrete and sequential. Each character and monster takes his or her turn, one at a time. While this is indeed very similar to the way that groups of friends play at kitchen tables with dice and miniatures, it looses a crucial sense of immediacy and drama when translated to the single player's computer monitor. Done well, turn-based combat can be extremely rich and involving but this particular system is shallow, flawed, and inferior to that of the original Pool of Radiance. The combat design in Ruins of Myth Drannor occasionally produces some interesting situations, but it also encourages tactics that would seem impractical or impossible in a "realistic" fantasy combat situation. Characters can cast spells with no real threat of a ranged attack interruption. Monsters approach one at a time, making it easier to take strong positions and concentrate on the greatest threats.
There are additional factors that may push one to play this game "by the numbers" instead of "by the story." Wounded or spell-spent characters face no penalty in resting for a complete recovery after each and every encounter. A distractingly handy color-changing icon even indicates the many areas in which a few hours of sleep or meditation will be completely safe and, no matter how badly they are wounded, characters seem to heal to their full hit points after each rest period. Other elements of movement and party management are more frustratingly unrealistic. When not engaged in combat, all of the characters in the party are forced to remain relatively close to one another. This prevents the rogue from scouting ahead down a dark hallway or the sorceress from positioning herself at a comfortable distance when a possibly trapped treasure chest is examined. The field of view is unnaturally determined by how far the player can scroll around the backdrop while the characters remain visible on screen.
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor boasts that it is the first computer game to use the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. If there is an overall theme to the 3rd Edition's amendments, it is of customization. The core rulebooks feature many alternate statistics systems, disparate variations of possible character types, and insightful advice for balancing play in non-traditional games. Instead of listing immutable details such as which races can be of which classes and which of those are available to players (as earlier D&D editions do), the 3rd Edition lays out a more theoretical foundation and then offers suggestions as to how to build upon it. Balance and purpose are emphasized over statistical or topical specifics. The books preach that while no single campaign is suitable for every variation of play, a good game can be built around any variation of the rules as long as it's done in the proper spirit.
It is in abuse of this authorization that Ruins of Myth Drannor haphazardly interprets the D&D system, making substantial allowances in some regards while completely forbidding other, more established options. The half-orc race is available for play but gnome characters are not a choice. Certain race and class combinations offer character models of only one gender. The game allows for no traditional mage characters at all, squelching any chance for arcane study or spell book development. Just one relatively conservative method of attribute generation is supported in spite of the aggressively paced campaign. Most importantly however, little or no explanation is given in the context of the game world as to why these particular limitations and allowances are made.
Theoretically, any combination of the basic Dungeons & Dragons rules could be applied with success, but only when done with an honest, encompassing rationale. The interpretation of D&D offered by Ruins of Myth Drannor is a mishmash, seemingly governed more by what would and wouldn't work within the game's programming limitations as opposed to any consideration of theme or setting. Good or bad, the elements of play that emulate the tabletop experience are held forth with pride, while aspects that do not live up to the game's lofty aspirations are clumsily hidden or ignored altogether. It is true that this release uses the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, but it uses them poorly. The result is a game that focuses almost entirely on combat with no truly compelling elements of history, story, or character development. Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor is most disappointing not for what it is, but for what it could have and should have been.
Graphics: Character animations are quite good and some of the aboveground backdrops show a lot of artistic attention, but the style has been better done by earlier games and the graphics here demonstrate nothing worthy of the required 3D acceleration.
Sound: Sound effects are directional and believable. Some background noises are subtle and moody. In the initial unpatched version of the game, music and sound effects seem to contribute to occasional slow-down or other technical difficulties on some systems.
Enjoyment: Very little is done to encourage the gamer to actually role-play his or her characters. The game is best enjoyed through some abstract appreciation of the traditional combat system. Numerous battles lack variety and urgency.
Replay Value: Though multiplayer games can be randomly generated, there is not enough diversity to inspire continued play. The game is monotonous enough the first time through.
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