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Although by far the most popular TSR-licensed games were of this era were based on BioWare's Infinity Engine, there were other contenders: Stormfront Studio's Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor (2001) and Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure (2003).
Neither of these games were very successful, though at least the latter
achieved some fame for being the first computer game to allow gay
characters to marry.
Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, published by Ubisoft, is perhaps the most disappointing game in CRPG history. It's one of those games whose sheer wretchedness is hard to describe to the uninitiated, who assume the critic has some grudge or personal motivation for launching a stream of flaming vitriol.
No doubt, part of my own distaste for this game stems from its title, which represents a brazen attempt to lure unwary fans of the legendary Gold Box game to this uninspired, insipid, and downright unplayable travesty. Indeed, my contempt for this game tempted me to omit it entirely from my history. I'd heard about the game months before it was released, and counted down the days until I could re-enter Phlan and challenge Tyranthraxus once again.
down $70 and playing the game for several hours, I kept telling myself
that eventually it would get better. Just a few more battles with those
slow-mo skeletons, and surely my party would emerge from those drab,
look-alike dungeons and the game would start to get interesting.
Eventually I realized that it wasn't going to get any better, and that
I had wasted some twelve hours of my life that I would never get back.
What makes Ruins of Myth Drannor so terrible? Besides the utterly boring sameness to all but a tiny fraction of the gameworld, swarms of bugs (the game actually reformatted some gamers' hard drives!), and fatiguing, repetitious battles--this is one of the slowest games ever in a literal sense.
The turn-based combats quickly become agony as the characters and endless sea of skeletons lethargically plod into position. Heck, the skeletons look about as lively as the player! I was frustrated enough to download a hack to speed up the combats, which eased my frustration, but I can only blame my willingness to actually complete this game as evidence of masochistic tendencies.
I hereby grant Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor the
distinction of being the worst CRPG of all time. More importantly, it's
a grave insult to the legacy of its namesake, and I can only hope that
any gamers unlucky enough to play this game first will do themselves a
favor by playing the original. Even though the older game has
"obsolete" graphics and interface, it has one vital advantage over Ruins of Myth Drannor: It's fun.
Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil is a much better game, and was certainly designed with the old-fashioned CRPG gamer in mind. Troika had distinguished themselves in 2001 with the steampunk masterpiece Arcanum, but Temple turned out to be too "hardcore" for gamers weaned on Diablo and even Baldur's Gate.
Like Ruins of Myth Drannor, Temple of Elemental Evil is
a party-based game set in 3rd-person isometric perspective, and
features turn-based rather than real-time battles. Although it suffers
from a somewhat cumbersome interface, the pace is much improved and the
combat is sophisticated and challenging enough to keep players on the
edge of their seats. Unfortunately, the game is riddled with bugs, and
the lack of a really gripping storyline and interesting characters kept
it out of the spotlight. Indeed, even the surprising twist of allowing
two male characters to marry (see my earlier article Gay Characters in video games) failed to draw much attention to this title.
Obviously, not just any developer has what it takes to produce an outstanding CRPG out of a TSR license. Getting it right involves more than just having an outstanding engine; significant craft is involved in creating a compelling story that makes the player's actions meaningful. The best games (Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur's Gate II, Planescape: Torment) offer far better rewards than just experience points and gold coins. They draw the player in, suck away days of his life, and leave him desperately wanting more. On the other hand, games like Descent to Undermountain and Ruins of Myth Drannor demonstrate that these licenses are worth nothing without a solid team behind them.
There are several other worthy CRPGs released between 1997 and 2001, even if they do tend to get lost in the shadows of juggernauts like Diablo, Elder Scrolls, and Baldur’s Gate. One such game is Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper (1997), which turns the CRPG on its head by letting players assume the role of dungeon master. It’s a rare but startling instance of a developer making a game out of game development itself. Although Dungeon Keeper is probably closer to a strategy game than a conventional CRPG, it still offers an invigorating new perspective on the old dungeon crawl. How do those evil archmages manage to keep so many orcs and dragons fed and under their control? The game was praised by critics, and Bullfrog wasted little time producing an expansion, The Deeper Dungeons, later in 1997. Dungeon Keeper 2, released in 1999, borrowed the bulk of its gameplay from its predecessor, but was still popular among gamers and reviewers.
The Platinum Age also saw the end of three prominent Golden Age series: Krondor, Wizardry, and Quest for Glory. Return to Krondor (1998) brought players back to Midkemia, Raymond E. Feist’s fantasy world. This series is one of the more baffling in CRPG history, since the second game, Betrayal in Antara, is not actually set in Feist’s world at all. For various reasons, Sierra lost its license and had to generate an entirely new world in what felt like a last-minute affair. However, they were able to resolve their differences, and the next year Sierra published the third and final chapter in this disjointed saga.
Return to Krondor is often hailed as the best of the three, with a good story (as if you’d expect anything else from Feist) and lovable characters. Although more linear and straightforward than most CRPGs, players are still given plenty of room to develop their characters and decide which skills to emphasize. The combat system is a highly intuitive turn-based procedure that offers a nice balance of ease and precision. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a rather repetitive magic system that is poorly represented on-screen. A somewhat promising alchemy system is made redundant by a plentitude of pre-made potions littered about the game world. In short, Return to Krondor is a game with a great story and characters marred by a less-than-satisfying game engine.
With Wizardry 8, Sir-Tech was able to finish up its series smelling much rosier than Origin or New World had with their final Ultima and Might and Magic games. Released in November of 2001, Wizardry 8 finally let players squash their old nemesis, the Dark Savant, and for most fans represents the best game in the series, and it’s as fully loaded as a Cadillac. It contained a mix of sci-fi and fantasy themes, and let gamers make real decisions that affected the story. Like the late Might and Magic series, Wizardry 8 is set in real-time, with first-person perspective and fully realized 3-D environments. However, the party size was a full 8 characters, selected from 15 classes. It also offers real-time and turn-based combat modes, and a fairly sophisticated spatial system (i.e., the party can attack or be attacked from all sides). The production values are quite high, with excellent graphics, voice acting, and dialog.
What Wizardry 8 does well is gives the player a solid role-playing experience. If you’ve ever sat down with pen and paper dungeon and dragons, created your own characters, and led them into countless battles, this game will simulate that experience perfectly. – Scott Jelinek on Just RPG, c. 2001.
Unfortunately, even Wizardry 8 isn’t perfect, but suffers from some pretty nasty bugs caused by the infamous Safedisk “copy protection” program. This problem prevented several CD-ROM drives from running the game, and led to other less predictable crashes. Some reviewers also complained that the battles became repetitive after awhile, and slowed the game’s pace to a near stand-still. Nevertheless, it’s one of the last truly epic-sized party-based CRPGs, and a fitting end to a long and historically vital series.
In 1998, Sierra released the fifth and final Quest for Glory game, Dragon Fire. The previous game, Shadows of Darkness (1993), met with mixed reactions from critics and didn’t sell well, but fans pleaded with Sierra to let Lori Cole put an end to the much-loved series. Unlike the previous games, Dragon Fire places much more emphasis on conventional CRPG elements (such as a wider variety of arms, armor, and magic items). Critics tended to be kind to the game despite its dated graphics, occasionally bad voice acting, and awkward combat interface. Much was made of Chance Thomas’ musical score, which lasts over 3 hours.