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Atari Black Friday
Written by  :  Lukasz Gorski (13)
Written on  :  Dec 16, 2009
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  2.5 Stars2.5 Stars2.5 Stars2.5 Stars2.5 Stars

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An oftentimes irritating, but nevertheless rewarding experience

The Good

Despite the extensive "bad stuff" list below, I really enjoyed the game. It has a unique pen-and-paper feel to it – different from other classic romps of the 1908s (Wizardry, Bard's Tale, Might&Magic) as well as from modern cinematic RPGs. Everything is conducted as if it was an actual tabletop AD&D campaign: the monsters' pictures are straight from the Monster Manual and so are their statistics as well the items and money they drop; money comes in different coins to be carried separately until you exchange them in a shop; you get classic random encounters in the wilderness with the possibility of stumbling into monsters' lair with some extra items often being found inside; many situations you come across while exploring feel as if they were presented to you by the DM, you get all sorts of info, council proclamations and tavern tales that are "noted" in the paper "Adventurers Journal" (to save the game's memory); you get to use a code wheel to translate elvish and dwarven runes; and at the end of the game your characters can even vote what to do just like real players (not that it isn't obvious, but it's a nice touch). It has to be remarked, however, that such a strict adherence to pen-and-paper AD&D resulted in all sorts of issues and problems (see below), because a computer game governs itself by its own rights and certain liberties and adjustments should be made (as the Infinity and Aurora games showed). A strange but beneficial option is to maximize each character's statistics after creating them (making them all 18 or the racial/gender top limit), allowing you start out with a bunch of uebermenschen.

In spite of its many shortcomings, PoR is really riveting and over the time gains an epic swing with your party fighting giants and obliterating the whole armies. The plot is intriguing and mutifold as not every major foe you'll fight will be related to the main big baddy (side quests are obvious now, but not so much back in the day). You'll experience politics, treason, war and romance (well, OK, no romance) and explore quite a fragment of the Forgotten Realms' Moonsea region. The tactical battles were a novelty at that time and they stood the test of time pretty well, being challenging but fair and (mostly) intuitive. Apart from that, I liked how the game handled the character's icons that are completely modifiable according to your imagination of what the armors and weapons the characters utilize look like (at least their colors); you can also choose a "head", but the selection is somewhat limited.

The game is fun. It's really, really fun and rewarding. So don't get discouraged by "The Bad" section.

The Bad

Well, a lot. First off, the game is overridden with small but pesky bugs and interface issues. It uses a strange main menu system that is combined with character creation and character training in a training hall, the result being that some changes you apply have a small chance of becoming global and irreversible, apparently at the game's whim. Also, if you remove some characters of your party while in a training hall and quit the game, there is a good possibility that you won't be able to add them again once you load up. If your multiclass characters exceed the amount of XP needed to gain a level but don't train until they gain XP needed to advance to the level after that, they might be cut down in experience when they attempt to train for any class (e.g. a fighter/thief is legible to train for level 5 of thief but waits until he can train for level 5 of fighter, which needs much more XP, and in the meantime he collects enough XP to become a level 6 thief; if he tries to train as a thief, the amount of XP will be so reduced that he would be again unable to train as a fighter). All that said, I used DosBox for running PoR, so maybe originally there were no such glitches (speaking of which – the game's installation process can be such a pain in the butt that some folks were unable to launch the thing at all; it may depend on which version you manage to obtain – I had the Forgotten Realms bundle from 1997 or so and it installed and ran it under DosBox flawlessly). As for the interface, it could have been better. I can get used to not using a mouse (although in 1988 they could have thought of implementing the option), but I hate it if I have to make my way through a number of sub-menus to memorize spells or change weapons readied. Every time you want to cast a spell off the scroll or use a wand you have to actually go into your inventory, unready your weapon (and in case of scrolls also a shield), ready the item you want to use and USE it. Then, you must remember to ready the weapon and shield again, because the icon representing your character in a battle doesn't change to inform you that you're trying to bash and bruise your enemies with e.g. a scroll parchment. Quite a few times I had fought several battles with no weapon or shield readied before I realized the fact. Memorizing spells is a tiresome process that you have to repeat from the scratch every time you rest. There is no way of presetting spells to memorize like in later D&D games, nor is there a possibility to show what spells you still have memorized while you are choosing from the list; you need to first see what spells are left, remember them and then go to the memorizing screen and choose those that you recall are missing – sounds boring enough? In some areas – usually in the wilderness – you have no access to the overhead map, and since there is no automapping, you have to draw one yourself (which I hate with passion). Oh, and to load the game you have to quit it, because it can be done only from the start menu (it is also possible to load in a training hall after you've removed all the characters, because you basically come back to the main menu then). There is also a stupid copy protection that requires you to use the code wheel EVERY time you start a game (in other words, every time you must load it); fortunately it is easily removed with a proper patch.

Then, there are a lot of dull limitations, some of which are connected with the licensed RPG system (AD&D 1st Ed.). Only humans can advance infinitely, other races are capped on different levels (excluding thieves). This isn't such a great problem in PoR (there is an overall level cap), as it is going to be in Curse of Azure Bonds where the discrepancy between humans and non-humans can reach even five levels. Moreover, the game doesn't throw enough at you to let all your characters reach their maximum level by the grand finale – you will have to do A LOT of tedious random encounter battles to gain enough XP. Secondly, halflings and gnomes are totally useless, being able to become only thieves or warriors; thieves are generally useless as there is no stealing or hiding in shadows in the game, backstabbing is severely limited, every locked door can be bashed open by a strong character (and you would be silly not having a human fighter with 18/00 Str in your party) and traps are few and far between. You will need only one thief, preferably multiclassed with a warrior, for which you'd rather choose a dwarf as he can be stronger than a halfling or a gnome. Female characters get penalties as to the maximum strength and no bonuses to make up for it, so there is no reason to have women in your party at all (bummer). Only humans and half-elves can be clerics, and only humans can exceed level 5. Only fighters can use ranged weapons other than darts (meaning there is no bow for your single-class thief and no sling for your magic-user or cleric). The good thing in all this mess is that your multiclass magic-users can throw spells in armor, and your multiclass clerics are not restricted to bludgeoning weapons (so you can have a fighter/cleric/magic-user with a plate mail and two-handed sword, casting fireballs). Oh, and there are only four classes in the game, although if you use the hex editor, you'll see that there were supposed to be more, but they were inexplicably left out.

There is a lot of useless stuff in the game. Some plot-related actions you can perform yield no results whatsoever (like purifying the vampire's coffin). There are too many polearms that differ little form each other; all bows deal the same amount of damage (no matter whether short or long composite). Some items have no purpose, like the ring of feather falling (there is one situation in the whole game when you actually fall from somewhere and it didn't save my character anyhow) or holy symbols of various gods to be bought in shops. There is an infamous case of a manual of bodily health that is supposed to raise a character's condition but simply doesn't work (or, as some sources point, it DOES work, but doesn't kick in immediately, only after you’ve completed another quest; needless to say, there is no information on that to be found in the actual game). Rings of protections don't work together with magic armors (yeah, I know it's the AD&D rules' fault, not the good folks from SSI, but still). You're given many AD&D spells, but a lot of them are totally useless in the context of the game. Why "resist cold" if you never get attacked with frost? Why "cure blindness" if you never get blinded? Why "protection from good" if you are unlikely to ever battle good creatures? "Detect traps" is only good if you have no thief in the party, "burning hands" deals a laughable amount of damage (ONE hit point per level of the caster), "shield" doesn't seem to do anything if the magic-user has already a low armor class, "animate dead" does not let you create zombies and skeletons at will, but only zombify a fallen party character or an accompanying NPC, "invisibility" sometimes fails for no reason, "bless" does not affect characters who are already in the melee, "strength" is less useful than "enlarge" even though it is one spell level higher etc., etc. Some cleric spells double as mage spells, but even the official cluebook suggests employing only the cleric versions to save the precious magic-user spell slots – so what's the point of introducing the mage versions at all?

Some other spells are a bit overpowered: "hold person" and "stinking cloud" very often affect even high-level (human) enemies and allow you to kill them with a single blow (where is the dramatism, if a buccaneer captain with 110 HP, a longsword +4 and plate mail +3 can be incapacitated with one lousy second-level spell and slain with one stroke). You have to be careful about the maximum range of each spell and calculate it yourself, because if you attempt to throw one and it turns out that the potential target is too far away, you have no choice but lose the spell completely (the game does not allow you to backtrack and save it for another occasion). You also need to figure out the exact effect area of area spells like "sleep" of "fireball" as there is no exact info in any of the game manuals or even in a cluebook (trial and error with a fireball can be a painful experience). Also, the area effect of other spells is given in feet, as in the original pen-and-paper game, instead of squares, which would be much more sensible. Quite a few aiding spells like "bless", "invisibility 10'" or haste" have a very limited 1-square area of effect; the problem is that at the beginning of a battle your characters don't stand next to one another, and even if they do, the two rows (of three characters each) are a little tilted so that no such spell can encompass all six characters. You need to manually move your characters next to each other, and often before you finish, the enemies are already pounding at you, rendering bless only half-effective (no characters in melee can benefit), haste too late (kicks in only the next turn after castes), and invisibility useless (it stops working after you try to fight, and there is little more to do if you are already next to the opponents).

A some point of the game you'll stop collecting money at all, because it weighs and encumbers your characters. You can exchange coinage for precious (and light) jewelry, but it takes up space in your backpack, and if you try to sell it again, you'll get only half the price you paid. Not that it matters, because there is nothing to spend your money on! During the game you'll acquire tons of it, and there are no magic items, spell scrolls or even stupid potions to purchase in the town. Everything you have to gain while adventuring. The only things you will need money for is training (1000 gold every time) and healing in temples. Never before had I shunned 15000 gold pieced I got after battling a group of giants, simply because I had nothing to do with it.

You can hire NPCs to help you, but you have no control over them in battle and if you give them some equipment there is no way of taking it back. The battle AI sucks anyway. The most idiotic aspect is if a character has a melee weapon that can be thrown (hammer, hand-axe or spear). The first thing AI will do is throw it at the nearest enemy (even if it’s a powerful +3 artifact) and then proceed with fighting with bare fists. This is a huge problem if you want to temporarily give the AI control over your party in a tedious battle against weak foes.

Generally speaking, the game doesn’t tell you much. I'm fine with he fact that most of the plot is conveyed via a printed "Adventurer's Journal" due to memory limits (during the game you are given entry numbers to read in the book); but why so little info on the actual gameplay? Magic weapons and artifacts are not described at all, with the latter being sometimes obscure in purpose, and the former being degraded to "+digits". There is too little background information provided aboutto specific areas– this is fixed only in the cluebook that, of course, did not ship with the original game back in the 1988 (so I count it as a downside). The ending is anticlimactic and fails to actually explain the whole deal with the pool of radiance; you're not even treated to a written outro text in the "AJ", just informed that you can play on if you wish (what for?). It is ridiculous, given how much paper was wasted to false journal entries and non-existent council proclamations (I take that it was supposed to prevent gamers from reading the "AJ" before prompted by the game – a diabolical masterplan indeed).

The Bottom Line

Get it if you have the chance, it's really worth your while. But it can be quite demanding on your nerves sometimes.

Atari Black Friday