Curse of the Azure Bonds
by SSI was the second installment in the legendary Gold Box
series, following the ground-breaking AD&D based RPG Pool of Radiance
The actual order and timing of the Amiga's releases is tough to pin down. Pool of Radiance (POR) was originally released in 1988 and sold enormously well on the Commodore 64, taking in over a third of all POR sales compared to all other platforms. According to most of the packaging we’ve seen, POR was released for the Amiga in 1990. However, some early packaging for Curse shows it was actually printed in 1989 (see the box cover scan found on this page). Odd, being that it was the second installment in the Gold Box series that it would seem to have had a similar or even earlier release date than POR. Either way, Curse of the Azure Bonds
(Curse) sold nearly as well as POR selling just shy of 180K copies in the US, generating millions of dollars in revenue. POR sold a total of 264K copies in the US.
The game is based on a novel by Kate Novak and Jeff Grub named simply Azure Bonds
published in 1988. It was the opening novel of the Finder’s Stone Trilogy
set within the world of the Forgotten Realms. There was also a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module released around the same time that follows the book more closely. The computer game is set in the same universe, but the story only has vague similarities.
The game mechanics of Curse closely maps to what we already experienced in Pool of Radiance but with slightly better graphics. The user interface borrows from Bard’s Tale when in first-person mode. But these Gold Box games offer a vastly different and very interesting battle mode where the tactics of your party must be carefully studied against the various foes and environments. It is this component of the game which sets these classics from SSI apart. To that end, Curse isn’t that different from POR mechanically speaking. It does provide a few enhancements here and there but nothing major.
There were several times during the course of the adventure where some battles seemed cruelly impossible. But after stepping away from it a new tactical idea would emerge, and the excitement to try it as soon as possible was incredibly addicting. And when it actually worked? It felt like I'd conquered a cleverly well-fortified castle with a vastly inferior army.
During the course of the game our party met four of the main characters from the book as NPCs: Alias, a female fighter and the main character; Dragonbait, a dragon/lizard humanoid with the powers of a paladin; Akbar Bel Akash, a mage; and Olive Ruskettle, a bard/thief. Story-wise, the game appears to take place after the events in the book. None of the NPCs are particularly strong or useful at all, and in Akbar’s case, his AI is so poor you eventually need to either let him get killed or kick him out of your party. Unless, of course, you don’t mind him casting spells against your own party during the heat of battle. You do glean some information at some point that Alias had suffered the same curse as we (the sigils on our arms that seem to control us at times).
The dungeons in Curse are fair and not too confusing most of the time - a nice change of pace from some of its 3D contemporaries. In addition, in my particular case I never once needed a Thief in my party, which was typically my favorite class during paper and pencil campaigns. Due to the difficulty of some of the earlier battles, I found the need to include two armor-clad clerics and a paladin. This allowed me to cure my party during and after battles. The beauty of this game is that there is no single right answer to glory. Persistence is key as is being creative in your tactical decisions.
For first-timers this is a game that requires lots of rebooting in order to restart the game at a previous save point. There were times when I thought certain foes were simply impossible to beat. In some cases within seconds several of my party would be killed once a battle began. It took trail after trial to understand some powerful monsters’ weaknesses and how to exploit them with the tools I had at my disposal. And yes - there was always a way. However, I did notice that due to the randomness of the game (a good thing), that sometimes a reboot would allow a different order to my party’s attack sequence, or I might receive different saving throws, or even the saving throws or hit points of the monsters would change. So, while the game is virtually on rails, there was enough variation to get through certain tough spots with enough perseverance. In the paper and pencil world, I simply would have been dead before exiting the first town. Reboots allowed the game to continue, albeit through a brute force manner.
This was the only way past certain tests - to reboot until you found just the right combination to succeed. It was slightly annoying at times, but interestingly during a reboot this allowed a moment for you to collect your thoughts on how to approach the game differently the next time.
The only downside with the game design is the economy. It’s beyond bad. After you get about a third of the way through the adventure you just start leaving enormous piles of treasure behind - it starts to affect your encumbrance (movement), which is totally fair. But to walk around with hundreds of gems and truckloads of jewelry, the coins you gain simply become useless dead weight. Other than that, though, Curse does a lot of things extremely right. And to be fair, the sloppiness of the economy isn’t unique to Curse, but to all of the Gold Box games.
The only other issue during the course of playing this game was an apparent plethora of bugs encountered during game play. But since there are 10 save slots, these bugs were easy to bypass by saving often. And since there was so much rebooting going on, swapping to a previous save slot was never a big deal.
Curse of the Azure Bonds is an extremely fun and rewarding adventure game and should be ranked much higher in the canon of CRPGs than it seems to be. It wasn’t the first of its kind so POR simply has to rank a little bit higher. But it deserves to sit fairly high. If possible, we'd rate this game at 4.5 out of 5, mainly due to the bugs encountered and lazy economy.
The artist who painted the iconic cover for Azure Bonds (the book, game and module) is Clyde Caldwell. He is also the same artist who painted the cover image for Pool of Radiance (apparently one of the few images he's created that doesn't have a busty woman as the focal point) as well as Savage Frontier. You can actually buy
a signed limited edition print (1/300) of the POR image for only $30, or Savage Frontier (1/500) for $40.
The ADFs offered elsewhere on this page were taken from non-cracked original disks printed in 1990. They are described as version 1.1 on one of the launch screens.
Review technical notes:
As mentioned before, I experienced two main bugs while playing Curse (it’s cursed!). The first was a major bug, the second was simply funny. The main bug was persistent screen freezes. I played the game on an original Amiga 2000 running WB 1.3. I had 2MB chip RAM and 10MB fast. I have two sets of original disks: 1 from the original printing in 1989 (version 1.0) and another set from a box published in 1990 (version 1.1). Both exhibited the same bug on my hardware. The game would seemingly freeze for no reason. Sometimes it was during the battle screens, and sometimes it was during first-person movements. It never occurred during the startup character sheet screens. The second bug was a pure software bug where, in one of the dungeons, if I picked up a cursed sword (which you can’t let go of due to the curse) it would cause mayhem with the character sprite. During boot up an SSI error message would appear, which I could bypass if I tapped ‘Return’ or clicked the mouse button four times. Once one of my clerics got the chance to remove the curse, the sprite glitches and boot up error went away.
If you have a moment, you should check out the fantastic intro music for the game, which I've recorded and posted on YouTube
. It's not the most technically impressive songs on the Amiga, but it is very good and buries itself into your mind every time you load the game across the several weeks or months you play this game.
Don’t read this part if you plan on playing the game and want to figure everything out on your own.
How to beat the Medusa and Beholder:
Use your mage to cast a lightening bolt against the medusa. This should kill her, or nearly kill her. Once she is dead, use your fighters to get to the beholder and hack at him. Even when you follow this tactic, his disintegration ray could kill a character. If that happens, reboot and try again. You can’t bring a disintegrated character back to life.
How to beat Tyranthraxus:
During the course of the game you will find things called ’Ioun Stones’. I had no idea what these were for, but when you see the final battle and how impossible it is, I started to Ready everything I had. I noticed that the red stone made one of my fighters Strength attribute shoot higher beyond belief - to 24! Next, there is another magical item you hopefully haven’t used called Dust of Disappearance. This will make most of your party vanish and become invisible to monsters. As long as you aren’t directly adjacent to them, they won’t even attack at all. You can have your mage fire fireballs all day (spells, necklaces, wands) against the army while your fighter on steroids can make his/her way to Tyranthraxus, who is in the form of some sort of giant. After whacking on him a bit, he’ll be toast.