Pool of Radiance (1988)

Pool of Radiance (1988), published and developed by SSI

Back in the murky past of my youth, Pool of Radiance was the first CRPG I ever played as well as the first thing related to D&D. Not that it made me particularly keen to actually take a glance towards the genuine pen and paper RPG experience, but it did introduce me to the first ever widespread RPG system. And, back in the day, I almost even beat the game fair and square, but thanks to some little bug I never did manage to get to the main baddie, Thyrantrax. As this was somewhere in the early 1990s, you can do the math on how long it took for me to finally push the game through. And sadly enough, I must admit, I cheated a bit. Not that I actually feel sad about it, as Pool of Radiance is, thanks to its turn-based combat system, a time-consuming game.

Pool of Radiance was the first of the so-called gold box games from SSI. The name is a term which is used to reference the series of games using the same engine as Pool of Radiance, but it also comes from the fact that the games themselves were often sold in gold coloured boxes. The later games got audiovisual improvements after the engine gained support for VGA graphics and sound cards, at least as far PC versions went, as at least Amiga version already had music as well as a bit better colour depth. But otherwise, the games had similar gameplay.

The very first thing you need to do is to create yourself a party. You can try with a single character, but that way you need to hire nameless people from the guild to give you a hand. By creating a team, you can make sure, that you have the kind of a party you want and not rely solely on the offerings of the guild.

I recall, when I played the game the first time, I created only one character and used the guildlings as cannon fodder, whom I dumbed as soon as they died. For long-term, that wasn't a solid plan, as I never did end up having a solid enough of a team, so making a team and going the whole game with it is just a smart thing to do.

The game begins with your party arriving at New Phlan, a civilized part of the larger city of Old Phlan, that has fallen under ruins and is occupied by monsters and other unsavoury types. The ruling council has made it worthwhile for adventurers to risk their necks in trying to get rid of the riff-raff as well as Thyrantrax, the main evil of the story, who is giving his guiding hand to the not so civilized part of Phlan.

The first task you get is to clear the slums of wandering monsters. After that, you begin to get new missions, which even take you outside the city for a spell, but most of the quests take place on the relatively big area of Phlan itself.  At times you need to retrieve something important but most of the times, you just need to kill a lot of enemies, which at times can mean combats that can take hours, hence why I resorted to cheating, as the battles really do make the main bulk of the game.

Completing these quests, exploring the old city as well as killing the monsters gives not only valuable experience you can use to level up but money and better equipment as well. Money can be used in the New Phlan to purchase items, pay off the training in the guild hall and get much-needed aid from the temples if you happen to get cursed or your team members kick the bucket and are in need of resurrection.

Levelling up is a simple fair. After you've gathered enough experience and are in the money, you just talk to a correct trainer, who grants you a new level. And that's that. Depending on your stats and luck, you even might get the maximum boost of HP. For mages and clerics, levels grant new spells and spell slots.

There is narrative as well, don't get me wrong. Some of it is told within the game itself, but most of the narrative is given through the games manual, partly as a means of copy protection, but as well as because of the limited disk space of 1988. The way this works is, that the game gives you a reference number you can check from the manual, which is filled with fully unrelated passages just to make it harder to just read it all beforehand and spoil the game that way. This way the game gives you clues, passwords, maps and other information the developers couldn't fit in the game code itself.  This itself was standard practice with more text-heavy CRPGs of the era, as it made it was less limiting to be more verbose with the game text. What this also means is, that if you don't have the manual in some form, you will miss a lot of the narrative as well as vital clues you need to get to the end, if you aren't using a walkthrough.

Like many of the older CPRGs, it is very somewhat hard to recommend Pool of Radiance for people who aren't accustomed to this kind of gameplay. In many ways, it is very bare bones and expects you to learn things by trial and error as well as constant manual referencing what comes to weapon, armour and other statistics. The use of mass effect spells as an example always means that you need to mess up a bit by aiming wrong, which might end up damaging your own team members as well as the enemies.  At times, it is also hard to recognise friends from woes, especially if your allies happen to be monster guided by the game. The only way is to try to attack them, which luckily leads the game to ask if you really want to attack an ally.

As such, Pool of Radiance is more of a relic than a game I'd truly recommend people to play unless they are willing to put up with punishing gameplay and are interested of figuring out the mechanics the hard way. Some people might enjoy that but for a lot of modern gamers, this kind of archaic gameplay might just be a tad too frustrating instead of fun.

The only digital store selling the classic Gold Box titles is GOG, so if you're interested in getting a hassle-free version of the game head there. The package it's in contains the other games in the series as well if you flat out get sucked in by it and feel like venturing further.


  1. It took ages to install on the PC ... everything was compressed and you have to spend forever swapping floppies.

  2. If my memory isn't fully failing me, you could play it from disks as well. You just had to make a separate character disk.


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