Pools of Darkness (PoD) was the fourth and final installment in a series of some of the greatest D&D games ever to grace a CRT in the late 80s and early 90s. So, in addition to discussing the game, this review will reflect across the entire set in some regard since they all are based off the same game engine.
Pools of Darkness concluded a story arc that followed in the historic footsteps of Pool of Radiance
, Curse of the Azure Bonds
and the somewhat forgotten Secret of the Silver Blades
. The tetralogy was created under the constraints of 1st Edition D&D rules with a sprinkle of 2nd edition here and there and … well, SSI “magic” let’s say. These adventures were all contained in the well-received Forgotten Realms fictional universe, which they helped to expand in popularity. In fact, the Realms found life across not just table-top adventure modules and 8-bit / 16-bit CRPGs, but even several paperback novels. In addition, the Forgotten Realms were later the setting in multiple top-shelf gaming brands, including blockbuster franchises like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
To follow the legacy and impact of the ground-breaking game Pool of Radiance was no easy feat for any of the subsequent chapters, but each held their own in various ways. By the time Pools of Darkness was released in 1991/92, however, the game engine was starting to show its technological age. PoD was also the poorest selling game in the series. In fact, Secret of Silver Blades was the last Gold Box game to sell over 100K copies. PoD sold just under 53K.
From a user experience standpoint the game had fixed several of the minor yet tedious annoyances found in earlier incarnations. For example, you could now easily quit a battle after all foes had been eliminated, or quickly re-memorize previously used spells or even “Fix” party members suffering from battle damage, or even resurrect them from the dead with the click of a button.
And, of course, some of the graphics improved along the way, too, but not as much as some might have expected. Regardless, by ’91/’92 PoD looked to be the absolute best the engine could offer, while it harkened more to an era of 8-bit gaming than 16-bit. This was no Jim Sachs masterpiece, to be sure, but it offered more cut-scene artwork that was pretty danged cool. And it did perform at a very high level for what the engine provided.
These games were never really about visual razzle dazzle, though.
They were intended to be immersive RPGs that exposed gamers to some of the best tactical battles an early-days D&D computer game could offer before the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Diablo were even a glimmer. And the fact you controlled up to six characters with so many potential abilities and skills was beyond satisfying, especially for the solo computer gamer dying for a traditional D&D fix.
With the appreciation that PoD is working off the same core engine as games made 4 years earlier, it’s still kind of stunning that some obviously deficient things simply never changed. Things that should have been changed.
Things like the graphically empty and visually monotonous dungeon environments, craptastic sound effects (especially the ubiquitous and cringey death scream every single dead foe utters, although some might argue it adds to the “nostalgic charm”), broken economy and surprising lack of role-playing choices in a role-playing game.
Also, and maybe this is just me, but the fact that the game - and entire series - requires adventurers to simply swallow the idea of walking around every single corner totally blind and dying instantly, then rebooting, and “buffing” their characters to prepare for nasty battles is … well, kinda lame. This is D&D, after all. Where’s our Dungeon Master guide? Or rather, isn’t that what text prompts and sound effects are for? I’m not talking about random encounters. I mean the big planned baked-in battles that are part of the plot intended to kick our asses. Can’t we get a little “multimedia” primer from time to time? One that allows us to start casting after reading a paragraph or two, not before the on-screen reading begins and we’re already trapped in the flow?
To that end there is no concept in any of these games of a Dungeon Master, which I do find a little bit odd. In PoD we get Elminster, who looks a lot like today’s concept of Gandalf. But he’s merely a sticker plastered to a wooden pole stuck in the same location throughout the game. He’s not a “voice from afar” or anything like that. Heck, we even had that precedent set with the child-friendly animated 1980s cartoon, but not the “serious” D&D SSI games.
But even if the game engine or story is supposed to take the place of a hand-wavy DM, can’t they at least tell us even occasionally if we hear some sounds around the corner that might encourage us to start casting some buffing spells pre-battle? Wouldn’t that be better than force us to walk into a persistent buzzsaw and reboot 30, 50, 80 times across a single game?
Maybe this monster-room “booby trap” concept was an offspring of intentionally unfair quarter-munching arcade games and early days rogue-likes. I’m not sure. But holy hell if the table-top paper and pencil game worked that way I wouldn’t have played D&D as long as I did. I might have even murdered my dear beloved brother, who always DM’d!
I guess we at least we have the abilty to start the game over. Over and over. And over. And thank goodness there are multiple save slots. I used those a ton, backwards and forwards.
But look. What these games do offer is so dang good, there’s a reason we keep coming back and playing them even today warts and all: they are deeply challenging and they are a lot of fun. At the end of the day they can be very rewarding and satisfying to complete.
And that’s what makes Pools of Darkness such a stand-out game from the pack, if for the wrong reasons. It’s the fact that it pissed on the well-established model that made all of the other games such a thrill to beat. And it crushes me to say that, because the first 85% of the game is absolutely hard core early days D&D and Gold Box engine utter bliss. And the environments and monsters are a total thrill.
I’ll save my overall “score” of this game for the Conclusion. But let me give a quick and up-front primer if you haven’t already gotten a strong sniff from the previous paragraph. If you don’t read everything you can get your hands on about this game before you start, which I didn’t - I went in blind - you have a very high chance of being brutally pissed off by the time you get to the final battles. And this, frankly, is a devastatingly horrible and tragic way to end such a great series of games. Because by and large the game is a really well-constructed swan song up until the final moments (for me, last few weeks of effort). But more on that later.
Going In Blind
I kind of procrastinated playing this game because I think I really didn’t want the series to end. Ultimately when I went “all-in” I still took my time. That being said, some areas of this game took me a LONG time to complete. From end to end, realizing I don’t play games as a full-time job 8 hours a day 7 days a week - I do it in my spare time - this game took me longer to complete than any of the previous games in the series. Total calendar time was between 5-6 months. Granted the pandemic was a massive distraction, but that’s still a long stretch for me to get through a game these days.
And you know what? I didn’t care for the most part.
Even though the world map I was presented with seemed to only point me in one direction (starting in the upper right corner and going counter-clockwise around the Moonsea) I absolutely loved the vast expanse of it all. This game felt absolutely enormous and I wanted to experience it all. So I didn’t care that it was taking so long to explore because it felt like that’s why I was here in the first place.
One of the really interesting choices the game designers made with this game was to let several of the previous bad guys “take a bow” one last time before it was all said and done. Bosses from earlier games resurfaced as “lieutenants of Bane.” But let’s be real. They were nowhere near as hard to defeat the second time around.
For the most part, most of the dungeons were logical and easy (and fun!) to navigate. And they weren’t oppressively gigantic like in Silver Blades. They were nice and tidy to work out.
In general, I very much liked the game world and most of its dungeons and monsters. There was only one that felt really ridiculous. I’ll talk about it later.
Note: Other than “sex sells” to male teenagers, the cover of the game box featuring a female Drow queen and some of her sexy ladies is, well, kind of stupid. It’s a nice painting, don’t get me wrong, but this WHOLE GAME is about the devilishly evil character Bane. Could we have gotten Bane on the cover, hm? After finishing the game, it just looks random and generic.
One of the unique ideas this game introduced, which I found really annoying, was leaving the material plane through the Pool of Darkness to access other planes of reality. A rule PoD introduced was you couldn’t take most of what you had in your inventory: no armor, no weapons, no magical items this or that except for some very rare exceptions. You had to land in these other realms essentially like the original Terminator: naked and steaming in the middle of an alley or dungeon with nothing to your name except… your name.
And anything you found in that realm you equally couldn’t take back to the material plane. So this created several mind-numbing instances of un-equipping and putting every character’s items into Storage whilst in Limbo. I’m OK with the annoying rule, but if ever there was a need for a new “GO NAKED” master button, this was it. Yet you aren’t given one. You have to do the clicking across all 6 characters. Over, and over, and over.
And good luck remembering - or caring - who wore what when you took it all off and need to put it all back on again. It’ll all just be glommed together in one gigantic list o’ crap.
I know for a fact I actually dumped highly precious items on at least 2 occasions out of pure spite and figuring, “Well, I’ll just replace it all at some point.” Well, maybe not. But considering I could pick up really good armor and weapons after one single battle, far surpassing anything I could ever buy in a shop somewhere in the lands, it made me simply not care about material possessions at some point. And, in the end, that attitude helped kick my ass even worse.
PoD wants you to be a bean counter. And like it. Lick up those beans, knave! No spoon for you! Hands behind your back whilst you eat, you mangy cur! (cr-ack! goes the whip)
So you better get used to the idea of not
getting used to whatever you win after battles. Oh! You have a 2-handed +4 sword and girdles of giant strength? Who cares; it’ll be put in a storage locker in about 30 minutes anyway and lost at some stage. Fuck it.
I think this was probably done as a way to discourage item hoarding. But frankly the whole process and concept drove me nuts over time. I dreaded the tedium of it all. And you do it a lot.
The Return of Moander, Kind Of
The main foe in Curse of the Azure Bonds - especially in book form - is in a supremely grotesque deity named Moander. I won’t give anything away, but it was some of the goriest reading I’d done since Clive Barker. And in the CRPGs it spawned “Bits O’ Moander” which were displayed as these giant heaps of oily rot.
Near the end of the game I flipped across yet another dimension via the Pool of Darkness and encountered one of the most creative and uniquely inspired dungeons I’ve ever seen: the gigantic floating body of Moander, in space (technically the Astral Plane)! His body is insanely massive, but it is in stasis such that he is unaware of your presence nor able to do anything about it. There are battle scars all over his body which presumably we caused in Curse of the Azure Bonds. And inside each hole or gash is a small dungeon filled with monsters or cultists. Totally trippy.
That’s right. His entire body is a massive series of unconnected dungeons. Enter through his eye duct, or his ear, or this wound in his belly or leg or arm or hair or whatever.
When I first came to this realm and realized what I was about to explore I was in total awe and momentarily blown away with the concept.
But the actual traversing of Moander was, unfortunately, not fun at all. It was a tedious pain in the ass! You get hit with random encounters every few moves - and they are HARD. But there are only (I think) two places where you can actually rest your party to reload spells and health. It’s totally insane. As soon as you learn something you have to stop and fight a battle to the death, wondering if you’ll need to reload. Will I make it to a place I can F’ing heal? Maybe, maybe not. Reload, replay - get used to it.
Impossible? No. But really annoying and hard. But that’s OK, I told myself. The ending is supposed to be hard!
But this wasn’t the ending.
The final dungeon in this realm takes place inside Moander’s heart chambers. That dungeon, and its puzzles, took me over 2 weeks to understand and defeat. I kid you not - I nearly quit. I was SO close to just giving up as the final puzzle, and the dungeon in general, is just mind numbingly hard. But I finally made it.
And I got that old-school HELL YEAH that the Gold Box games are so great in eventually providing. Whew!!!
Only to realize that it was but the first step in a multi-step ending. And it was the easiest step to take. The rest was just, you know, fun gaming, right? No. More like time to crush your soul and make you hate the game forever, right?
The Final Step (into Hell)
Once you get past the inspired yet awful Moander realm, it’s time to come back down to earth so to speak so you can get your schlong knocked hard down into the dirt, assuming you have a schlong. Welcome to the final dungeon.
Oh! And by the way, before I forget to mention it: You don’t have to finish one battle. Hah! No, no. That would be too easy. Two? Bwahahah!!! No, no, stop. My ribs.
You have to finish THREE F’ING BATTLES.
In a row.
With no Resting.
And at one point, no magic is allowed at all, either. Enjoy! Wee, what fun!
I did finally beat it. After 2 weeks of trying I discovered the only way my party could do it was to cheat, i.e. use the game engine against itself. It pissed me off to no end, but after working on and off for 6 months to get to this stage, I actually didn’t care anymore. Sad, but true. EFF you, Pools of Darkness.
[SPOLIERS, but who cares?]
Full disclosure: I played this game using my saved characters from Silver Blades (you know, the ones that beat that game). So they were pretty well-endowed to start off, so I thought. I’d read somewhere you’d get to keep your previous items, too.
This game cackled at items and ate them for breakfast.
After finishing PoD I’ve read A LOT about this game and how people beat it. “Those in the know” will essentially cheat at the very beginning and make sure all of their characters have 18 Dexterity at the start. Why? So they have a much better chance of winning initiative rolls for the final battles.
In addition to that, folks will grind until they max out all of their levels and abilities, which if I remember correctly is a ludicrous 40th level.
You have to cheat on character creation stats AND be 40th level to even have a glimmer of a chance?
EFF you, Pools of Darkness. But wait, there’s more.
Not only that, but you have to create a party with just the right character class choices at the very beginning before you’ve started to have a shot at the ending, too. None of the other Gold Box games were so lopsidedly stacked this way - none. You could eventually find a way. That’s what made them brilliant.
Did they have horrifically hard endings to beat? Yes, they did. But did save scumming eventually get you a few initiative rolls and a slight advantage to maybe win with at least one or two party members still standing without cheating or maxing out everything once you thought of some some new tactics to try? Yes, they did.
Pools of Darkness doesn’t give a shit.
I later read somewhere that it was possible to also “cheat” with items, too, and reload characters in such a way to refortify your character’s possessions you’d lost or stored. If you have to cheat with your items to play this game, something is really broken. I never did any of that.
In an effort to presumably thwart cheating (or convince some to find ways to do it even more!) as well as side-step their own creation of an ignored broken economy - to the point where your characters are leaving hordes of treasure and magical items behind after the first 2 hours of playing - PoD forced many to ultimately either 1) cheat with character rolls on Day 1, or 2) cheat with party creation (unless you’re really damned lucky) and/or 3) grind to max levels across all party members before entering the final battle and/or 4) doing what I did.
Which was hiding behind dungeon walls where the monsters couldn’t reach me and eventually being rewarded with winning a battle after non-action of 30 mins or so and gaining very little experience, if any at all. Whoopdee f’ing doo. I never once felt the need to do this in any previous game, ever.
And even still, I finished the game with only 5 of 6 characters still alive, after trying for two weeks.
It truly made me mad and also saddened me when I saw the somewhat weak final screens flitter across my screen. The journey to this point had been so great! Battles hard fought but ultimately won and remembered with pride. While tedious at times, the overall adventure was a really great one if at times a tad hard for me to follow. But I loved it.
And I would do it again. Maybe...
I’d only play Pools again with the knowledge I now have, and even at that I’d do it grudgingly because I’d be so inclined to cheat my party and stats on Day One. I’d create characters with stacked DEX values, knowing full well that it was an unspoken requirement only the experienced would ever know. I really loved the game up until I entered the Moander dungeon. And even then, the concept of the Moander dungeon was so mind blowing I have to give it bonus points for creativity. For execution, however, I’d have to deduct points.
Everything up to that point had been exactly what I’d been hoping for in a finale for a series of this magnitude.
But the final battle (x3) was such a flip of the middle finger to the fans, I still can’t entirely wrap my head around the reasoning behind it. Sure, the economy and items aspect of the games were broken beyond belief - but that was the world they’d made and frankly never fixed! Why they made the dedicated fans that got to the end take a head-snapper in the jaw, up against the ropes, just doesn’t make sense to me. And it doesn’t make me feel guilty one iota for finishing the game the way I did. You wanna fuck me over after 6 months of dedication? Well, take that, PoD.
And now, a time of rest.
Until… Treasures of the Savage Frontier, that is. I lost my party from Gateway, but I think I have read Treasures will take the characters from PoD. (Which, mine are still NOT maxed out to 40, which is fine by me thank you very much SSI.) I hope I can move them over later this year and keep that original good feeling flowing after such a weird dip in a toxic pit of oof. If not, I'm fine with starting a brand new party from scratch.
Why? Because, at the end of the day these games really are fun and up until Pools were always beatable, fair and square. They are supposed to kick your ass to the curb over and over, but eventually give you a narrow wobbly-stone path to glory.
The crevasse Pools of Darkness provides at the end is so anorexic it might as well be invisible butt floss only experienced PoD’ers know how to beat. Which really is a shame. It didn’t have to be like that.
But I won’t let it tarnish the overall experience. That, my friends, is mine to hold and keep as I wish. And for me, it’s priceless.