SSI’s Gold Box series had a great run. After four years and twelve single-player CRPGs (not counting Unlimited Adventures’ construction set and AOL’s Neverwinter Nights MMO), the engine was finally running out of gas.
It had carried the AD&D license from the Forgotten Realms to the depths of space with Buck Rogers and Spelljammer, but it was beginning to lose critical ground in the face of flashier competition in the form of titles such as Silmarils’ Ishar series, Origin Systems’ Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII, or SSI’s own Eye of the Beholder trilogy. These were games that looked and sounded great while providing plenty of challenge, even if they didn’t have as much crunch as the Gold Box series did.
Treasures of the Savage Frontier came at the tail end of the Gold Box engine’s popularity as did a number of other last minute farewells in 1992. It was essentially a carbon copy of the first game in everything but story, although it had one or two new notable additions one of which was romance. The surprising success of Gateway to the Savage Frontier the year before had spurred the development of this game by Stormfront Studios allowing SSI to focus on the work being done for the upcoming adaptation of TSR’s Dark Sun setting.
The story picks up right after the party’s presumed success in the first game over an evil Zhentarim plot to take over the Savage Frontier, a large region set between the Sword Coast and the desert of Anauroch. But the Zhentarim aren’t finished yet — they still have a foothold in Llorkh where dwarves desperately try to drive them out. Not only that, but they have also put another plan into motion to shatter the Lords’ Alliance and pave the way for their own forces to step in. And then there are the rumors of an ancient dragon awakening from a long slumber and a powerful relic that it may have in its lair…
This time, players can import a party from the first game to give themselves a slight edge when starting out or roll up a customized party of six based on classic AD&D races, professions, and crunch. To veterans, this is routine stuff. To newcomers, this is the kind of statistical smorgasbord that older CRPGs reveled in — and which the changing audience might find more than a little intimidating when compared to the simpler gameplay mechanics of an Eye of the Beholder title or Ultima.
Tactically, however, the game still had an edge over its simpler cousins despite how dated the visuals were. Aside from the first-person exploration mode, when combat was engaged, the game would go into an isometric tactical display showing enemies and party members represented as icons. Sure, it was ugly stuff compared to the graphical polish of other games, but mechanically, SSI’s approach continued to offer a lot of other options that they didn’t match when it came to party-based combat.
It would also be a tactical angle that later titles, such as Black Isle’s Fallout, would further develop and polish and others, such as Microprose’s X-Com, would explore with even more options for strategy. The unit-based combat systems adopted and innovated by SSI’s long tradition of tactical sims would continue to be refined by many others well after the Gold Box series had declined in popularity.
Romance was a new and important factor in the game as well, beating out BioWare’s own concept by several years especially in how it affected the party. At one point in the story, the lead PC (player character) in the party may have the opportunity to romance an NPC. It doesn’t matter if they are male or female, although the only choice available for both will be a member of the opposite sex and only if they join the party.
That said, instead of being story driven, the romance mechanic seemed more focused on party dynamic as it pertained to performance. If the lead PC tends to act ‘cowardly’ in combat before the opportunity presents itself, such as hanging back and letting everyone else do the fighting, then it might never happen. The same goes for certain choices made during the game if they happen to be less than ‘good’ aligned. When love springs, several new factors come into play.
One of the first things that happens is that they will ask the party for their blessing. If it’s given, great. If not, the rejected NPC will be dead weight and fight poorly to reflect the demoralizing effect it had. Should the player take the PC in love out of the party for whatever reason, their NPC paramour will also be a lot less efficient in combat. If they fall in combat, the NPC will go nuts making them uncontrollable until the end or if they go down. At the same time, if both are alive and well, they’ll also benefit by being a bit deadlier in combat.
Quest mechanics have also been tweaked with a different type of challenge. The enemy plans are hidden in “plain sight” requiring the party to eventually confront and battle members of the factions responsible to collect three special crystals. Once these crystals are found, ten “Lucky Papers” must then be gathered up and decoded using them. The Papers are ‘lucky charms’ that are passed around but are, in reality, the ‘hiding in plain sight’ part of the evil factions’ plans.
Side quests, such as defending a tour boat against pirates (or not, though people might think less of the party if they abandon it) are also scattered around including a visit to key locales such as Waterdeep and Neverwinter. Weather also had an effect on party performance. On the whole, Treasures of the Savage Frontier had also served as a kind of grand tour of the Sword Coast although veterans might find the familiarity a little stale at this point aside from the new mechanics.
The C64 wasn’t on the list of platforms that Treasures arrived on so players that had enjoyed Gateway there wouldn’t get a chance to transfer their party to this one. Only IBM PCs running MS-DOS or the Commodore Amiga crowd would get to play here. Years later, it would be re-released in a compilation but like the rest of the legendary Gold Box series, eventually be cast away into the ‘net as abandonware.
Treasures wasn’t the best Gold Box game, nor was it the only one released in 1992 using the aged engine to meet criticism over its dated appearance and stale gameplay, though some might argue that people have been playing PnP AD&D for years without the same complaints. Indeed, a few other critics with that in mind gave it a more positive assessment such as those at Dragon magazine.
At the same time, the dungeon masters at SSI couldn’t vary their world or their mechanics as easily as the boundless imagination required for the PnP and others in the field did inject just enough pizazz, flash, and a little crunch to offer alternatives promising a switch from the Gold Box norm. For a lot of players, that was enough sending a message to SSI that a change was finally needed to revamp its CRPG efforts to keep up with the times ahead. And they were working on just that.