Fountain of Dreams
Electronic Arts (developer and publisher)
David Albert and Robert Hardy (design and programming)Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 5 December 2014
Date Ended: 8 December 2014
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 35
Ranking at Time of Posting: 110/165 (67%)
Final Rating: 35
Ranking at Time of Posting: 110/165 (67%)
Well, Fountain of Dreams got measurably worse before the end. Or maybe it was always really bad, and I was just so desperate for the CRPG experience again that I viewed my first session more charitably than normal.
The plot dissolved into something so nonsensical that even a day after finishing, I can barely recall what happened. Stymied by the lack of anything else to do in Miami and unable to survive the mortar-filled steps to the Killer Clown Kollege, I decided to roam around through the Everglades, figuring that there must be something there. Eventually, amid razor grass that sliced up my characters every step and occasioned a lot of reloading, I found an intelligent frog named "Roger Ribbet." (This momentarily confused me, as I could have sworn Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was in theaters like 10 years ago at most, but apparently it's over 25 years old. The relentless, unforgiving nature of time's arrow makes itself known once again.) He was accompanied by an Obeah Orders man named "Wilfred" who joined my party and insisted I take him to see "Big Daddy."
|An NPC who skirts the edge of the culturally-sensitive.|
I brought him to the OhOh temple, where Big Daddy was overjoyed to see him. Wilfred related that he'd been kidnapped by the Beachcombers and traded to the mutant frogs in exchange for Dream Water. Apparently, since the Dream Water temporarily reverses the effects of mutation, the mutants need human slaves to bottle it (if they touch it, they forget how to talk or something). Meanwhile, the humans in Miami want it to prevent their own mutations, so they buy it up. Why the two groups just don't trade places is unexplained. Apparently, the mutants contracted with the Beachcombers to kidnap OhOhs specifically, because, and I'm quoting Wilfred here, "dey no can use Bahia punk or dey no can use General Store." Wilfred's solution was to convince the local healer, Docotor Brewhoe, to sell Dream Water directly to the Beachcombers if they'd agree to end their deal with the mutants. This worked, I guess, and I kept getting screens where instead of getting attacked by OhOhs or Beachcombers, they gave me high-fives and thank-yous.
In the meantime, however, was a bizarre sequence in which Big Daddy put my party through an obstacle course, for no reason that I could understand. This was one of two obstacle courses used by the game--the second was in the Clown Kollege--and both were just frustrating excuses for trial, error, and reloading. I don't know if there was supposed to be some way to suss out what objects, doors, and floor panels were trapped and which were not, but I never figured it out and I simply got through with a lot of save-scumming.
After this episode, there seemed to be nothing left to do but to assault the Clown Kollege, although I didn't have any particular quest that would take me there. Entering the Kollege requires getting pounded by artillery at least three times, for up to 30 hit points' damage per hit, so my 60-HP characters couldn't survive. (Seriously, if there was some way around this, someone please tell me because it drove me crazy.) This is normally where I'd settle in for a bit of grinding, but grinding is complicated in this game by a few factors. First, leveling slows to a near-standstill after Level 8 or so, no matter how much fighting you do. I suspect this is because the experience point requirements double between levels, but this brings me to the second problem: there's no way to tell how many experience points you need for the next level, or indeed how many you've already earned. It simply doesn't show up as a statistic.
Third, there really aren't any good enemies to grind against. The Clowns are too hard. Everything else is the same enemy you've been fighting since Level 1. Fighting mutated animals brings the risk of getting exposed to mutagens (and you get no money, which is as important to grind as experience), but there aren't many groups of human enemies to fight--especially after you mend fences between the OhOhs and the Beachcombers. Eventually, I found a part of town that would reliably deliver large Beachcomber fights (some nonsense about the people in the area not liking people who peer into windows), but combat is slow and boring in the game at the best of times, and I only rose a couple of levels.
|Improving "evasion" in a battle against Beachcombers.|
During this process, I did find something interesting, however: the "evasion" skill levels rapidly as large groups of enemies miss you. After a couple dozen battles with Beachcombers, I reached a point at which they stopped hitting me. Ever. This proved vital for the endgame, as high "evasion" is the only thing protecting you against Killer Clown attacks that can wipe out even a high-level party in a few hits.
|Failing my evasion check.|
Eventually, my characters had hit point totals closer to the 80-100 range, and I decided it was time to try the Kollege again. It still wasn't easy. I had to reload a few times before the damage rolls were low enough to get me through the door alive.
|This whole area of the Kollege had no purpose that I could discern.|
The Kollege was large and nonsensical, as you might expect. It was full of areas in which I was sure I was missing some kind of encounter or opportunity, including an entire garage full of cars that seemed to have no purpose, and numerous locked chests that no amount of lockpicking would open. For the first time, I encountered chests trapped with bombs, only to realize that no one had the "disarm" skill, forcing me to ignore them. Occasionally, I'd get unlucky with the hit rolls in a random Clown attack and have to reload. Sometimes, I'd just reload to avoid going through a random encounter at all. I was basically scumming my way through the game at this point. (Later, I was amused to read Scorpia's review and see that she did the same thing.) Even with high evasion, I found that the only way to reliably survive Clown attacks was to lob explosives (which damage every enemy) every round. These are pretty expensive, though.
At one point, I freed a Clown from a cage, and he told me about the Kollege's leaders, including the seemingly-immortal Kermit Eli, the founder, and his second in command, Kiwi.
Towards the end of my experience, I wandered into a house where I got captured by some Clowns (the alternative was to fight 2 dozen of them) and relieved of all my weapons except some .45 pistols. This triggered the next obstacle course, which had things like an electrified floor, an exploding phone, an alarm clock so loud it damaged eardrums, and a giant eight-ball that went crashing through numerous walls and opened up the exit. Again, a lot of trial, error, and reloading.
|Honestly, what kind of choice is this? When the results of such decisions just have random effects, it simply annoys the player.|
I got out and made my way upstairs to something called "Kermit's Big Top," a ring where the Clown's founder first sent two tigers at me (they were easy), then attacked me himself, only he turned out to be a robot, then attacked me for real. None of the combats were terribly difficult.
Later, wandering through a house, I discovered "Granny Astor" imprisoned. My guess is I was supposed to get a quest to rescue her from Gramps Astor back in Miami, but I never did because he refused to speak to me after BL Astor died in my party. Anyway, Granny joined and I returned to Miami to bring her back to her husband. This triggered the endgame sequence.
|I assume "N" makes the game unwinnable.|
Gramps had me take Granny to the Miami Police (the building stopped giving me quests and just became an NPC dropoff point about midway through the game) and told me to make room for him and Doc Brewhoe. This meant that I had to also get rid of longtime NPC Enrique Ochoa. When my party, Gramps in tow, got to Doc Brewhoe's house, they said it was time to go see the mutants in the Everglades and "put an end to this mutation business."
Through more razor grass we trekked, back to Roger Ribbet and his intelligent animals. Ribbet claimed that Gramps "betrayed" him and threatened to detonate a nuclear bomb, but Gramps relayed how our party wiped out the Clowns and brought law and order to Miami. He offered the same peace to the mutants, saying, "We'll forget about your slavin' if'n you but forsake doin' it and join up with us. We wont' try to make you drink the Water and be voiceless again. But you got to show us where the water comes from so's we can save our race."
|Why does the mutated frog appear to be wearing a police uniform and riding a bicycle?|
The frog relented and told us that the Fountain was two paces to the north. Of course there was a final battle, against Kiwi Eli and some of the remaining Clowns. It was bloody impossible. Even with my high evasion skills, they wiped us out in the first two rounds every single time. It didn't help that the razor grass had sliced my characters to half hit points before the battle even started. I don't think there's a way to avoid this.
|Fountain of Dreams is probably the only RPG where the final battle is against a clown. Let's give credit where it's due.|
Eventually, I reloaded, went back to Miami, and stocked up on grenades and plastic explosives. I had to swap out NPCs and sell all the equipment from the extra NPCs to even be able to afford it. Back in the Glades, I finally won the battle on the fourth or fifth attempt by having every character throw explosives every single round.
|An earlier version of the battle equipped with "Clown Mega-Uzis" and melee weapons went poorly.|
Here's the endgame text:
Before your eyes is an astounding sight. Out of the sheer rock a strea of bright water pours into a pond. The healthiest creatures you have ever seen frolic on the shore. Brewhoe wades into the water and drinks deeply. When he emerges, he is a young man. Gramps grins and says, "I always suspected it was the Fountain of Youth. The bombs must have brought it to the surface. My friends, there may just be some hope for the human race after all." His smile is as warm as the clear, tropical water itself.
Cue the image at the top of this post, a quick "See you later....!," and the DOS prompt.
|The smile of a minor, barely-explained NPC is all the reward I need.|
Let's get on with my first GIMLET for a long time:
- 4 points for the game world. Absurd, sure, but you can't say that it's not original. It's the only RPG I know that's set in Florida (I'm sure there are others; I just don't know what they are), and it clumsily attempts to blend elements of Florida history, legend, and culture. It all would have worked in the hands of better story-tellers. I also give the game a little credit for how the world evolves in response to the players' actions, though it's not big enough to really take advantage of this.
|I love the idea that a nuclear apocalypse somehow made Miami more ordered and lawful. The game could have done a better job with this theme.|
- 4 points for character creation and development. The skills system is probably the best part of the game, but just like everything else, the creators bungled it a bit. Leveling was badly balanced and skill development was horribly uneven. My "gunsmith" skill increased every single time I used it to unjam a rifle, but "lockpick" and "medic" stubbornly refused to increase, and I ended the game at Level 3 in both. The system of mutations is at least interesting, though I confess I kept forgetting about them. They might have helped in the final battle.
|Towards the end of the game, this was a rare but welcome message.|
- 4 points for NPC interaction. Again, they're dumb caricatures, but the system isn't so bad. You learn a lot from NPC conversations, there are cross-NPC relationships that affect the gameplay, and you can enlist a surprising number of them into the party.
|I give the game credit for NPCs who respond in various ways to the party's actions.|
- 3 points for encounters and foes. There really aren't enough types of enemies. Most are uninteresting. The non-combat encounters sometimes call skill and inventory use into play, but most are illogical and don't offer any role-playing opportunities the way they did in Wasteland.
- 3 points for magic and combat. I have never found Interplay's approach to Wizardry-style combat--used in The Bard's Tale, Wasteland, and Dragon Wars--to be very good, and this game copies it exactly. It's slow, boring, and mostly bereft of tactics except deciding whether to expend an entire clip or just a burst. Games that don't feature magic need more weapon and defense options to compensate, but neither Wasteland nor this game went far enough.
|I don't think I've had many pictures of non-human enemies, so here's one.|
- 4 points for equipment. Decent selection of arms, armor, explosives, and such. Much like in Wasteland, I ended up carrying a bunch of items around that never seemed to have any purpose, like canteens, empty bottles, ropes, and various toolkits.
- 4 points for the economy, which was surprisingly strong. Cash disappears quickly enough that I was grinding even towards the end of the game to afford an extra grenade or two. It would have even been tighter if the game had let me purchase some of the skills offered by NPCs, but every time I tried, I was told that it was "unavailable to you at this time."
- 3 points for quests, which consist of a main quest with several steps, although generally I was confused most of the time as to what they were, and I made my way through the game just by bumbling around until something happened.
|The PCs' home gets destroyed at some point during the game. I forgot to mention it along the way.|
- 3 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are just okay, stuck in that awkward phase between decent abstract graphics of the mid-1980s and decent realistic graphics of the mid-1990s. There is virtually no sound except an occasional random beep. The controls were intuitive enough.
- 3 points for gameplay. I give it one for being somewhat nonlinear, though in a game world too small for that to matter. I also give it one for being a bit "replayable" in the sense that I think I missed a lot of stuff and it would be interesting to try again with a walkthrough. It gets one final point for not taking forever to finish. But I can't give it anything on the difficulty scale. It's way too hard--and in a completely random, unpredictable way.
The sum is 35, the score that I generally consider the cutoff between recommended and not recommended. That reflects how I feel. The particularly annoying thing about Fountain of Dreams is that there's a nucleus of a good game here. The story is mostly nonsensical, but it has some decent elements, and it could have been turned into a compelling and interesting plot. The Wasteland-inspired engine and skill system is mostly solid, just poorly used. As such, I must concur with Scorpia's comment in her January 1991 review: "It is the perfect example of grasping the form, but not the substance, of a superior product, and coming up a loser."
I'm having trouble finding an original advertisement for Fountain of Dreams, and I'm very curious how EA marketed it. If they intended the public to see it as a sequel to Wasteland, they were certainly quiet about it, as there's no reference to the previous game in the Fountain manual, on the box, or in the gameplay. My understanding (and this comes from poorly-referenced online sources) is that EA held the copyright for Wasteland--that's why Interplay named its sequel-in-everything-but-name Fallout--so why wouldn't EA have slapped a bit sticker saying "sequel to the #1 hit of 1988!" right on the box?
The game is credited to David Albert and "Banjo" Bob Hardy. Albert has some solid RPG creds. He's listed as the "producer" of Wasteland, so it's not like he had no connection with the previous game, and he was apparently on staff at Origin in the 1990s, with minor credits on Autoduel, the re-release of Ultima I, and Ring Quest. Most important, he wrote the Book of Wisdom for Ultima IV, so it's not like he didn't know how to tell a decent story. I can't find him credited as a programmer or designer on many games, however. Penguin Software's 1982 Transylvania is the first (and he was just one of three); Fountain of Dreams is the second; and there are only a handful after it, none of them RPGs. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he moves to a more executive/management role, with credits all the way through 2007, though never another RPG.
"Banjo Bob" has a shorter c.v., with conversion credits for a series of Penguin Software and Origin games before Fountain of Dreams appears as the first project on which he seems to have taken a lead. Afterwards, he shows up as one of the programmers on the Sega version of Doom, and that's it. In both cases, a lack of strong RPG design experience plus a lack of strong experience as a primary developer or programmer suggests that both developers might have been slightly out of their league when it came to crafting a Wasteland sequel. But this is all just speculation, and I'd love to see a source that describes the design process in more detail.
|Between the two of them, do you agree that it's more likely the one nicknamed "Banjo" who came up with this?|
It's not going to be long before we see a second attempt to make money on the Wasteland engine: EA's Escape from Hell will be coming up within a few months, designed by a completely different team (although with Albert as a producer). It will, alas, be a long time before we come to an actual sequel--either Fallout (1997) or Wasteland 2 (2014), depending on how technical you want to get.
For now, we're going to have a one-shot on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasures of Tarmin (1983) before moving on to another low-rated RPG of 1990, MegaTraveller I. Is there any light on the rest of the 1990 list? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.