SSI’s Forgotten Realms arc came to a climactic close in 1991 with Pools of Darkness with an epic conclusion of incredibly brutal proportions.
This was an adventure only for the toughest of the tough, veteran characters and players that may have been with the series since the Gold Box debut of Pool of Radiance in 1988, broke the Curse of the Azure Bonds in 1989, and saved the village of New Verdigris in 1991’s Secret of the Silver Blades. Pools of Darkness would come out a few months later in the same year with the biggest chapter yet, taking players through the planes and mysteries of the void in as much as the chase after the Mad God Tarjan had done with Interplay’s Bard’s Tale III in 1988. The meek, low level party that had faced off against a possessed bronze dragon at the end of Radiance are now challenged to scrape their way to the pinnacle of power up to level 40 in Pools of Darkness — literally turning them into walking demi-gods or better according to AD&D rules.
This wasn’t a mistake — Pools of Darkness assumes right from the start that you know what you’re doing. Even if you roll a new party, they start out at level 14 with +3 equipment which CGW’s Scorpia had noted as a hint to expect what was to come. She wasn’t kidding.
So tough was the challenge of the game that non-human characters were seen as a liability both by Scorpia and by this fan who wrote a walkthrough for the game. Unless they were a thief class, or had multi-classed with it, they wouldn’t be able to hit the max level of the game to give them the best chance of living through to the end. While a number of RPGs on both consoles and PCs make allowances for any race to achieve that kind of greatness back then and today, Pools of Darkness’ challenge apparently made it clear that only a specific kind of party mix was considered “optimal”. Even the official strategy guide backed both Scorpia and the walkthrough author above on that count, strongly suggesting that importing or using non-human characters will make the game much more difficult to complete.
Pools recycled the same engine and GUI that the previous games used, something which reviewers began beating on as being a bit long in the tooth after three or so years of sequels and spinoffs. It was still functional and lent that kind of familiarity to each game allowing players to leap right into the jaws of adventure, and it probably wasn’t the years that wore it down as much as the prolific, and highly profitable, development schedule SSI had embarked on with TSR’s license.
In today’s world where where players would need to wait a year or more for a sequel to their favorite RPG, SSI banged out as many as two or three in one year alone related to AD&D. For example, SSI published Pools of Darkness, Secret of the Silver Blades, Eye of the Beholder, and the first Buck Rogers CRPG in the same year, 1991. That, and a boatload of their strategy titles.
Of course, helping to make that possible was how often the engine was recycled and retooled for most of their CRPGs and after so long, with others getting into the CRPG mix and taking advantage of new display technologies such as VGA graphics and streamlined GUIs, it started to look a little dated.
So in some ways, Pools of Darkness was the kind of swan song that the Gold Box series would culminate in. It was a massive, sprawling adventure that took place ten years following Pool of Radiance when the city of Phlan was saved from destruction. But now a new evil has arisen in the form of the god, Bane, who has moved against the Realms in a bid for ultimate supremacy. Spirited away to safety by Elminster, the Sage of Shadowdale and one of the Realms most iconic personages, he asks for the party’s aid in saving the world. This is what it all finally comes to!
Pools doesn’t add anything glaringly new to the same formula that had been used with its predecessors. The game is still divided between several views — a first person exploration view, the overworld map for travel, and the isometric “miniatures” view for when combat is initiated. Characters still need to train up at appropriate locations when they have enough experience to spend, memorize spells to load up their heads like ammo clips the Vancian way, and camp out in the midst of danger when they can grab a little rest to patch themselves up far away from home.
The same staples from the classes to the races drawn from AD&D’s Forgotten Realms setting are all here along with the massive amount of statistics tying it all together with experience tables. The newest additions lie in what happens when players reach uber-high levels of power with 9th level spells awaiting the most accomplished of mages, even more attacks per round, and the gear to go with it.
Hopping around the multiverse also introduced players to a wide variety of highly imaginative locales such as the body of the god Moander which becomes a dungeon to a mirror version of Phlan itself as seen from the darkside. Populating this adventure and its many side quests were some of the deadliest horrors from AD&D ranging from Death Tyrants, dracoliches, to the denizens of the Abyss itself heeding the call of the god, Bane, and his lieutenants. It’s a merciless parade of punishment.
It’s also probably why Pools received something of a mixed reception. Some found it old and dated, heavy on the combat, and not much else ending the series with a whimper. Others, like Scorpia, found it to be the best of the series despite some incredibly bad design decisions such as forcing players to dump all of their magical gear in storage prior to traveling through one of the Pools taking them to another dimension.
The reasoning is that these items wouldn’t be able to pass over, though equipment could be found on the other side to make up for the loss. But when it comes time to return home through the portal, that equipment has to be left behind, creating what Scorpia considered to be an artificial way of inflating the challenge of the game. As she noted in her look at the game: “Fortunately, there are only four times in the game where you have to endure this idiocy.”
It also had what she considered to be a “lame” ending which sees the players retire into the sunset or quest an optional super-dungeon challenge. But the lame part for her was in turning the players into unsung heroes. At the end, when these valiant crusaders save the world, the forces of “good” turn back the clock to reverse the damage that Bane had done (but not his forces’ defeat, apparently) leaving none the wiser except for themselves, the gods, and good old Elminster.
No additional roaming around, no new quests, just a thanks and goodbye for their service. In a way, it’s something that does make sense and I’d be okay with this humble take on victory, but at the same time, I can also see how much potential was probably wasted in cutting things short like this. After three years and four titles, surely there could have been something more? And Mass Effect 3 fans thought they had it bad.
Despite the divisive criticism over Pools and its place in the CRPG firmament, there’s little question that the engine behind it that had driven the series to golden heights was starting to wear thin. SSI would continue to experiment with different ways on how to keep the excitement going, especially when it came to exploring 3D with titles such as Eye of the Beholder and later, in 1995, their own short-lived CRPG IP, World of Aden: Thunderscape. But by that time, a small company called Bethesda Softworks had planted the seeds for the Elder Scrolls series and SSI’s fortunes began to wane along with others in the face of increased competition from the console space and the rapid ascent of 3D action games among other factors.
Pools of Darkness arrived on a small list of platforms that included the Amiga, IBM PC and compatibles running MS-DOS, Japan’s PC-98, and the Apple Macintosh. Today, the game is largely abandonware like the rest of the Gold Box line with hard copies found on Ebay as part of a collection or floating in the digital ether. Pools was brazen in its brutality, unrelenting menagerie, and positioned as humanity’s greatest moment with non-humans taking a back seat. It might not have been the epic ending to the series that it deserved, but it certainly wasn’t because of a lack of challenge.