While most early computer role-playing games were essentially crude, unauthorized adaptations of pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, computer gamers weren't granted the opportunity to play a sanctioned translation of D&D until the 1988 release of Pool of Radiance. Pool of Radiance was an ambitious, pioneering game that offered an effective combination of first-person-perspective exploration and tactical combat from an isometric perspective. It spawned the acclaimed "gold box" series of D&D games, which is still mentioned reverentially by RPG fans. Given that pedigree, it's surprising that the design for its belated spin-off is so lacking in ambition. Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor features some good graphics and a decent adaptation of D&D's turn-based tactical combat, but the game is primarily an uninspired dungeon crawl, burdened by repetitive gameplay, a cumbersome interface, and some serious technical issues.
Ruins of Myth Drannor doesn't attempt to provide an expansive gaming world or varied gameplay. Instead, as the name suggests, the game is almost entirely set within the labyrinthine ruins of the ancient city of Myth Drannor, and gameplay primarily consists of tactical combat interrupted by brief spelunking interludes. Myth Drannor is one of the most famous cities in D&D's Forgotten Realms milieu, and early in the game's design the developers indicated that they were going to incorporate existing maps and other source material from tabletop D&D to flesh out environments. Those plans were either changed or significantly reduced in scope, since the game's dungeon layouts are simplistic and largely devoid of distinctive features. There are very few nonplayer characters to interact with, and no depth to your interactions with those characters. Since the skeletal plot is completely linear and there are no meaningful opportunities to role-play characters of varying alignments or motivations, the emphasis of the game is almost exclusively on tactical combat.
Many RPGs are combat intensive, but combat is virtually the entire focus of Ruins of Myth Drannor. Although this will disappoint those who were hoping for a more substantial RPG, at least the battles can be engaging, even if repetitive. While last year's Baldur's Gate II plucked a few elements from the new D&D 3rd Edition rules, Ruins of Myth Drannor is the first game to attempt to comprehensively adapt those rules. The combat and movement aspects of the rules were adapted relatively faithfully, so you can maneuver your characters to flank opponents, charge distant enemies, or be positioned to make attacks of opportunity against nearby foes that attempt to cast spells. The turn-based nature of Ruins of Myth Drannor also lets you more effectively cast spells than you could in the frantic, dynamic real-time skirmishes of recent D&D games, and the game's interface highlights each spell's proposed area of effect to facilitate precise targeting. Still, the fights in Ruins of Myth Drannor lack the complexity of Baldur's Gate II's mage duels and the variety of tactical options offered by other turn-based combat games, such as Jagged Alliance 2. You'll also fight each of the game's various monster types hundreds of times, and there's little variety to these engagements, once you master a few rudimentary tactical maneuvers.
The initial design for the game contemplated letting characters interact with a variety of objects in the gaming world. Early press materials for the game promised that characters would be able to tip over tables, push crates, block doors, climb objects, and otherwise interact with the environment to thwart opponents or gain tactical advantages. A variety of objects did make it into the game, but you can't do anything with them other than smash them. But unlike games such as Diablo that similarly stock their environments with breakable objects, there's almost never anything contained in the barrels, boxes, and tables scattered through the dungeon levels. Yet since your progress is dependent on finding a few key items, you'll likely be motivated by fear that you'll miss a vital item, or frustration when you can't find a particular one, to waste time fruitlessly smashing hundreds of hapless pieces of furniture.
There are other indications that suggest the developers were either unsure of the type of game that they wanted to make or were unable to adequately test their ideas. As in many hack-and-slash RPGs, your characters will acquire a mountain of gold and items, but that loot is almost valueless in Ruins of Myth Drannor, since there's almost no opportunity to actually spend your wealth. The dungeons are overflowing with healing potions and scrolls, and yet you can just rest to immediately recover all hit points and spells, making the utility of those items questionable. The game even highlights when you can rest without any fear of interruption, and a safe haven is almost always available every few steps. The ability to freely rest at almost any time also makes spellcasters far more powerful than in other D&D games, since there's no reason to conserve your available spells when you can easily recover them after every combat.
The game's menu-driven interface is cumbersome, at least until you assign hotkeys to each character's frequent actions. For instance, to use a magic item, you have to first either press "I" on your keyboard, or right-click on a character to bring up a menu of items and then select the inventory tab, and then you have to further select the magic tab to bring up a list of carried magic items, and finally select the desired item. As if that weren't burdensome enough, if you didn't use the same item in the previous turn, you then have to repeat the exact same process a second time before you can finally target the magical effect created by the item. If you happen to inadvertently move your mouse or release the button prior to making your selection, which happens far too frequently as a result of the intermittent slowdowns the game suffers from, you'll have to repeat the selection process.
The interface is flawed in other ways as well. You'll often encounter inconsistencies between the feedback provided by the interface and the actual actions of your characters. Characters occasionally won't move to a location you designate, even though the game's interface indicates that the location is accessible. In the middle of a character's turn, the game will occasionally seem to change its mind about whether or not the character has a clear line of sight to an opponent, preventing you from completing an attack with a ranged weapon or spell. Characters sometimes lose their ability to attack by failing to take a direct path to a selected destination. The game's isometric perspective makes it difficult to move characters close enough to, without inadvertently opening, doors or chests to search for traps. Since you can only move either a single character or the entire party, it's tedious to frequently change your formation or clear out the area near a doorway or by an object you suspect is trapped. Your party members are required to remain in very close proximity to each other, which makes it impossible to scout or search dangerous locations or objects and makes multiplayer games dull for players not controlling the party leader. You can elect to have your party either walk or run, but the walking speed is so interminably slow that it's almost unusable.
The 3rd Edition D&D rules are significantly different from their predecessors, and in many ways the developers of Ruins of Myth Drannor did a decent job of adapting those rules. Large sections of the game's manual, including almost all of the descriptions of skills, feats, and spells, are taken directly from the D&D Players' Handbook, highlighting the faithfulness of the adaptation of those aspects of the game. While some players will bemoan their inability to use simulated dice rolls to generate their characters, the point system used by the game is specifically sanctioned by the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide. Weapon traits, including the new system for calculating the likelihood of landing a critical hit, were accurately imported from the tabletop rules. Spells were adapted particularly faithfully, and the graphical effects attached to some of the spells are easily the single best feature of the game. With a couple of very minor exceptions, instead of inventing their own spells, skills, or feats, the developers stuck exclusively to the core rules.
The game also perfectly adapts the new flexible multiclass rules, which generally let you gain levels in different character classes without having to designate which class you want to advance in until you're ready to gain a level. Character-level advancement is rapid under the 3rd Edition rules, at least relative to the older D&D rules, but because the developers elected to stick with experience point awards that are consistent with the rules, level advancement is ironically slower in Ruins of Myth Drannor than in most RPGs. Characters can reach up to level 16 in any character class, and since that cap is level-based, it can be reached in more than one class, which is more relevant in multiplayer where you can continue to take characters on randomly generated adventures.
Unfortunately, some of the compromises made by the developers in adapting the 3rd Edition rules dilute some of the principal advantages of the revised rules. In pen-and-paper D&D, the 3rd Edition rules provide you with the ability to customize the development of your characters, by selecting special abilities (called feats) and skills, in a manner similar to the "perks and skills" system used by the Fallout games. Under prior iterations of the D&D rules, there were few opportunities to meaningfully distinguish characters, and each character class and race was somewhat arbitrarily limited to certain development paths. For example, spellcasters could use only a handful of basic weapons--but in 3rd Edition D&D, spellcasters can optionally use skill points to acquire expertise in swords, halberds, or any weapon. But in Ruins of Myth Drannor, you can't choose the skills and feats given to your characters, and as a result the developers have essentially reintroduced the rigid class restrictions imposed by the old rules and removed the ability to customize character development. Spellcasters, clerics, and even rogues are limited to using basic weaponry, which makes the Ruins of Myth Drannor system even more punitive than the old tabletop D&D rules. Even worse, the only decent ranged weapon that such characters are normally entitled to use, a crossbow, doesn't exist in the game. You also have no control over the operation of some of the most interesting skills, such as a rogue's stealth abilities. Metamagic feats, which let spellcasters further personalize their magic, likewise aren't available. The handful of chosen skills for each character class, and their ongoing development, often don't make sense. Fighters are given the "concentration" skill that prevents spells, which they're unable to cast, from being disrupted. Clerics focus their development points, and automatically choose a related feat, into "spellcraft," a completely worthless skill that lets characters identify what spells enemies are casting against them.
There are other notable variations from the core 3rd Edition rules. The developers didn't incorporate D&D's traditional spellcasting system, which requires characters to select and memorize their spells in advance of casting them, and instead gave all spellcasters 3rd Edition's new sorcerer class's ability to designate their spells at the time of casting. Bards, druids, and traditional wizards aren't available as character classes, and gnomes aren't available as a character race. Character alignment is meaningless in the game, other than as a prerequisite for certain classes. The developers have justified these omissions on the grounds that they inherited some design decisions from founders of the project who didn't remain on the development team, as a result of several recent corporate reorganizations. While some gamers may be sympathetic to the justifications for the omissions, the game would undoubtedly be better if the compromises hadn't been made. Several aspects of the game just seem to be missing, such as the ability to create female characters for each race.
Aside from the points already mentioned, there are other examples that suggest that the developers were unable to fulfill their intentions or otherwise disregarded gameplay balance issues. While it's admirable that the developers gave spells the same durations that they are given in the tabletop D&D rules, the value of having a "charm monster" spell last for a full day is completely eliminated by requiring you to remain in combat mode while the spell is in effect. Charmed creatures won't even follow your party, and since it's impossible to ever retreat from battle, you're forced to heartlessly slay your new ally to continue playing the game. Since some character classes had more of their special tabletop D&D class abilities included, those characters are more powerful than others. Because the developers didn't incorporate dual weapon wielding, rangers are much weaker than any other type of fighter class. Rogues gain experience points considerably more rapidly than other classes because they individually gain experience points for disarming traps. Spells up to eighth level are incorporated, but clerics are given only one spell for each of their last three levels, while sorcerers are given a total of ten. The game's flexible multiclassing system somewhat alleviates these issues, but the relative strengths of the classes are unbalanced.
Perhaps worst of all, the game shipped with some egregious technical problems. While there aren't necessarily a great number of bugs, the ones that do exist are particularly serious. At one point the game consistently crashed when it saved, which required the game to be reinstalled. Even if you designate a different directory when running the game's installation utility, the game will always be installed to your program files directory on your C: hard drive. While we were able to uninstall, and reinstall, the program uneventfully, others have reported that uninstalling the game deleted their hard drives as a result of this glitch. Gameplay frequently slowed down to a snail's pace, suggesting the game suffers from memory leaks or is otherwise incompatible with certain hardware. There are also reports in newsgroups and on message boards indicating that some retail packages of the game shipped with missing discs.
The game features painted backgrounds like those in the BioWare Infinity Engine D&D games, but the background graphics aren't nearly as detailed or interesting as in those games. The 3D character and monster graphics look great, however, and spell effects are outstanding. Creatures are well animated, and larger monsters such as the scorpion-like arraccats look particularly good. On the other hand, the music and sound effects are generally forgettable. Some of the music in the game is very similar in quality and style to the melodies provided with SSI's original series of D&D games, which isn't a good thing even for nostalgic fans, given the age of those games. The game is very difficult at the beginning, since first-level characters can't take much damage and your party initially consists of only four characters, but once your characters have gained a level or two and acquired some magical equipment, the game becomes much easier and more interesting. The multiplayer game won't be as much fun for those who aren't controlling the party leader, since other players can't always control their own characters and can never stray far from the party leader, but the random dungeons do give the game good replayability.
The core combat can be enjoyable and gets more interesting as higher-level spells became available--it never gets old using chain lightning and fireball spells to clear out a room. Yet even if you're just looking for a dungeon crawl to hack and slash your way through and aren't looking for a deeper RPG, you're unlikely to be entirely satisfied with Ruins of Myth Drannor. D&D fans may enjoy experiencing some aspects of the game's rendition of 3rd Edition D&D combat, but they're also likely to be frustrated by some of the game's compromises. And those expecting Ruins of Myth Drannor to be an epic game of comparable scope to Baldur's Gate II will be sorely disappointed. While it's refreshing to see a D&D game by a publisher other than Black Isle Studios, Ruins of Myth Drannor doesn't measure up to recent D&D role-playing games, or even its predecessor.