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Written by  :  prymusferal (25)
Written on  :  Jul 04, 2008
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars

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All of the Ravenloft flavor, none of the D&D substance

The Good

The 1990s were not kind to SSI. After publishing the legendary Gold Box series, the developer ran into a series of snags (a.k.a. games that did not sell well) that ultimately led to their loss of the AD&D license. Though SSI's misfortune started a chain of events that resulted in an RPG Renaissance – starting with the release of the exceptional Baldur's Gate in late 1998 – the mid-90s were severely lacking in top-quality AD&D games. This is especially lamentable due to the fact that many of TSR's more interesting campaign settings, such as Dark Sun and Planescape, were released around the exact same time. Gamers were therefore treated to lackluster PC renditions of some of the most interesting AD&D game worlds, with some outright terrible entries (Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager) furthering SSI's downward spiral into obscurity. Not all of these games were terrible, however. In fact, two of SSI's last three AD&D games were not only set in one of the newer campaign settings, Ravenloft, but they were actually fairly decent RPGs for their time. (I stress “for their time,” however.) The first of these, Strahd's Possession, is perhaps the more memorable of the two, doing surprising justice to the Ravenloft campaign setting.

One of the most important elements of a video game rendition of any Dungeons and Dragons campaign world is the successful presentation of that world's tone. (One could argue that tone is one of the most important elements of any RPG period, but I digress.) Strahd's Possession does an admirable job of recreating the the mist-shrouded realm of Barovia. From the village proper, to surrounding areas such as the Svalich Woods and the Old Svalich Road, to the peaks of the Balinok mountains looming eerily across the Barovian skyline, the locales of the domain of dread are faithfully adapted to the PC. Furthermore, not only are the locales accurately depicted, but the feel of the land retains the Gothic horror roots of the Ravenloft setting. Doors are barred, villagers are incredibly suspicious of outsiders (i.e. the adventuring party), and the wind carries both the inhuman snarls of all manner of creatures of the night and the futile screams of their victims. When the sun goes down in Barovia, one would be well advised to clutch tight a holy symbol and be prepared to face terrors from beyond the grave – and Strahd's Possession conveys this feeling of terror very effectively through its well-crafted digitized sounds and eerily haunting music. NPCs were even fully voiced (albeit in a sometimes less than convincing manner), adding to the atmosphere of the setting.

Of course, the mood and terror of Ravenloft are just as much conveyed by the large number of creatures roaming the misty land. From all manner of lycanthropes to the walking dead, the bestiary is chock-full of all of the standard AD&D renditions of Gothic horror archetypes. On that note, no interpretation of gothic horror would be complete without its own unique heart of darkness – in Ravenloft's case, Count Strahd von Zarovich. The game does a magnificent job of depicting its titular antagonist, revealing his true nature and sinister scheme little by little. Starting with the party's first meeting with the Count, the player learns that von Zarovich's appearance – that of a dashingly charismatic yet oddly disturbing lord – is indeed deceiving. As a result, the characters find themselves on a strangely compelling quest to purge the land of evil, as well as to find their way back home from the Demiplane of Dread.

The Bad

Despite the game's excellence in adapting the feel of the campaign setting, however, there are numerous negative qualities that ultimately make the player's stay in Ravenloft an uncomfortable one – and not in the way intended by the Gothic horror setting. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Strahd's Possession is that the adaptation of the AD&D rules is nowhere nearly as effective as that of the Ravenloft setting. While the rules themselves are pretty much literally applied, they do not translate well to the game itself. All those interesting monsters in the game's bestiary, for example? Actual combat with them drags down into a simple carpal tunnel-inducing “point and click until dead” affair, due mostly to the game's real-time first-person perspective interface. There is little to no strategy involved in combat, a fact which becomes painfully apparent after engaging wave after wave of respawning undead fodder. Additionally, for reasons beyond comprehension, the game automatically assumes that the third and fourth party members are in the back row whenever the party is exploring a dungeon (in other words, well over two-thirds of the game), which means that those characters are unable to participate in combat unless they have a large weapon. This of course does not apply to the enemies, who can circle the party in groups of six or so with no penalty. For a game in which the only means of gaining experience is through slaying foes in combat, such an uninspired combat system is a grievous error.

A further example of the AD&D rules not meshing with the game's overall design lies with the level draining abilities of some of the more advanced undead creatures (vampires, wights, etc.). As per AD&D rules, a character hit by one of these creatures will lose a level of experience, and Strahd's Possession enforces this rule almost to the letter. The problem, however, is that the sheer number of level-draining undead thrown at the party at once makes it almost impossible to defend against such a ridiculously overpowered attack. Savvy AD&D veterans would know to cast “Negative Plane Protection” to protect the party from this level drain but, as per AD&D rules, the spell only protects its recipient from one instance of such an attack – a very meager line of defense for a party surrounded by four vampires. Add in the fact that there is absolutely no way to restore lost levels other than – you guessed it – killing enough enemies to regain them, and the strict adherence to AD&D rules proves a major hindrance for the game.

Gathering treasure – the other staple of a good AD&D-based game – is equally problematic. While there is certainly plenty of loot to be found scattered about the landscape (usually atmospherically placed next to the bones of some hapless adventurer to whom the loot most likely used to belong), actually finding out what it is often becomes an exercise in futility. As per AD&D rules (again), characters can only carry a certain amount of equipment before becoming encumbered. This would not be a problem by itself, but combined with the fact that it is literally impossible to tell whether many items are magical without the use of the mage spell “Identify,” it becomes overly difficult to know which equipment to carry in the first place. Of course, none of the mage characters in the game actually know this spell, and there is only one, maybe two scrolls with which to learn the spell in the entire game. Then again, this rule seems arbitrarily applied only to weapons and armor. The characters automatically know, for example, that a ring is actually a ring of regeneration, but a long sword +2 looks just like a long sword until identified. Combine this annoyance with the fact that many of those level-draining undead can only be hit by magical weapons, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Both of these elements – combat and treasure finding – are part of the standard AD&D dungeon crawl, and Strahd's Possession is full of dungeon areas to explore. Unfortunately, these labyrinthine plot devices are chock full of not only repetitive combat and unidentifiable, non-valuable treasure, but terribly contrived “puzzles” that are more frustrating and obscure than fun. In order to find the secret portal in the caverns west of Barovia, for example, the player has to chance upon a single tile that teleports the party to another area where they can find a key, and another teleporter to repeat the process. Furthermore, if the player happens to miss the Church Vestibule key that is arbitrarily sitting in the corner of a back room, they will be unable to progress to the next part of the quest, which naturally involves going to the old church outside of the village of Barovia. In fact, pretty much every new section of the quest is opened by finding an arbitrarily placed key in a previous area. Also, all of the locked doors in the game require special keys, which sadly makes rogue characters pretty much useless.

On top of its issues with implementing the AD&D rules, the game's interface is somewhat cumbersome in general. The first-person perspective mimics several of the successful PC RPGs of the mid-90s, yet manages to feel much less intuitive. For example, characters have to have an item in their hands to use it, which requires left-clicking on their portrait to go to the inventory screen, dragging the item to their hand, right-clicking to return to the game, then clicking on the item to use it. Of course, if the player has forgotten to remove that character's two-handed weapon from their hand, then the item will be grayed out on the gameplay screen because (all together now) AD&D rules state that they can't use the item if they don't have a hand available. Other features, such as the automap and spell memorization, are equally clunky.

The Bottom Line

The fact that Strahd's Possession is one of the best AD&D licensed games that SSI produced in the 1990s should serve as ample evidence of the company's steep decline from the glory days of the Gold Box. Though it was a decent enough game for its time (I personally have pretty fond memories of it), it has not aged well at all. A large part of its appeal stems from the faithful adaptation of the Ravenloft setting. Its tone and locales are accurately depicted and mostly pleasing to those familiar with the setting, and Strahd von Zarovich remains one of the more sinister of villains. Unfortunately, this sumptuous Gothic horror flavor serves only to mask a distinct lack of meaty AD&D gaming substance underneath. Though the rules of the system are applied, perhaps even too literally, they are limited by the game's design and ultimately make all of the appealing and fun elements of an AD&D game – glorious quests, tactical combat, and gaining both wealth and experience – monotonous and/or frustrating. As a Ravenloft game, it's pretty well done. As a Dungeons and Dragons game, however, it is sorely lacking despite its faithfulness to the tabletop rules.