|Buddy! It's been too long!|
So far, Pools of Darkness has done a great job incorporating characters and themes from the previous games, and the way that it handled Tyranthraxus is just about perfect. It would have been too much if Tyranthraxus had been the "big bad" (again), or even one of Bane's lieutenants. I mean, my characters were able to defeat him at Level 6, so the game would have had to jump through some logical hoops to make him still a threat at Level 30.
Plus, Tyranthraxus is the ultimate example of a petty tyrant. He has this ability to jump between host bodies, which allowed him to take some powerful forms and exert some control over small areas. But he's not very bright, doesn't plan well, and is too influenced by emotion. The least convincing part of his character is in Curse of the Azure Bonds, when he calmly hangs out a the Standing Stones, directing the party to the next mission. It must have been all he could do not to whip off his hood the moment he first saw us, give some idiotic villain's exposition, and attack us with a party of whatever outcasts he was able to find in the forest.
|That might make a good subtitle some day!|
Thus, when I first encountered his name again in the ruins of Myth Drannor, I inwardly groaned. "This #*$@ again?" I said, at first intending to actually use that as my post subtitle. But it played out perfect.
On the outskirts of Myth Drannor, I ran across Princess Nacacia, whose impulsive elopement started off the story in Curse of the Azure Bonds. She's apparently taken on some responsibility in the intervening years ("weariness mars her once carefree face"), because here she was in charge of a contingent of Knights of Myth Drannor, trying to figure out whether the rakshasa that occupy the ruins are allied with Bane, or trying to resurrect Tyranthraxus, or what. You'll recall that in the finale of Curse of the Azure Bonds, rakshasa occupying Myth Drannor had an uneasy alliance with Tyranthraxus and the party could even talk them out of it.
|Thus begins our brief encounter with perhaps the best-fleshed-out NPC of the game.|
Rakshasa are master illusionists and shape-shifters. They're always depicted as tiger-men in the Gold Box games, but I guess they can adopt a number of other anthropomorphic animal forms. Not only are they powerful spellcasters, but they're completely immune to spells themselves. [Edit: Apparently, they're only immune to spells through Level 8. I could have been "Meteor Swarm-ing" them or using "Power Word: Kill. I got through the end of the game before I discovered this, unfortunately.] This means that in combat with a pack of them, you have to try to hit them all with physical damage as quickly as possible, hoping to limit the number of them that can cast spells. They particularly like "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt," so you want to immediately spread your party out--and get them away from walls. (Interestingly, their AI won't allow them to cast "Fireball" on top of themselves even though they're completely immune to it.)
|And they like pipes and smoking jackets, apparently.|
It was refreshing having a set of battles in which I didn't immediately go to "Delayed Blast Fireball." Another challenge was that many of the battles started with the rakshasa quite far away--beyond the range that I could charge in one round--so I found myself using missile weapons more often than any previous part of the game. Early in the map, I was given a crossbow and several "Blessed Bolts," which for some reason kill rakshasa immediately. These were naturally useful but there weren't many of them.
The map also had a host of basilisks, medusas, and dracolisks (encountered for the first time), so there were plenty of opportunities for more conventional "wipe-them-out-before-they-can-act" spells. Most of my party members had silver shields from the previous games, making them immune to the stoning gazes of these creatures.
Several screens showed rakshasa up to their old tricks, posing as elves or knights, but this time the game let me use "Detect Magic" to see through their illusions. (In Curse, I had to just guess.) It was one of them, captured, who told me that the rakshasa maharajah discovered how to "transfer life essence from one body to the next" and used the ability to re-animate Tyranthraxus with the souls of dead knights. Or something. This part wasn't very well-outlined.
|I'm too experienced with Myth Drannor to fall for this.|
As we proceeded through the ruins and found more dead knights, and even a rakshasa in the process of stealing the life force from one, Nacacia started to suffer a bit of a breakdown. Ultimately, over the bodies of several of them, she suffered a complete catatonia and wouldn't get up. I had options to "leave her," "comfort her," and "stand her up." The last option worked, and Nacacia re-joined the party with steely resolve. I'm not saying it's a huge amount of character development, but we're starting to see here some of the complex NPC characterization and role-playing options that would reach their zenith in the Bioware games in a few years.
|Nacacia suffers a heroic B.S.O.D.|
The map culminated in a temple where the rakshasa were finishing a ritual to resurrect Tyranthraxus. I expected to have to fight Big T again, but I was happy to find that I was able to interrupt the ritual with a "Dispel Evil" spell (glad I had one memorized). "The form of Tyranthraxus falls to the ground and disintegrates." There was a subsequent battle with 15 rakshasa, but my hastened characters wiped them up before they could get much spellcasting done.
|According to GameBanshee, all of these options result in the interruption of the ritual and Tyranthraxus's immediate death, though you get more experience points for the first two.|
I just love how this transpired. Tyranthraxus came back to consciousness just in time to see my party--who had already defeated him twice before--standing in front of him. Then he was destroyed before he could even speak. I like to think that my characters, after this game, will find a way to resurrect Tyranthraxus themselves, oh, once a year or so. They'll invite all their NPC friends from the Moonsea to a big annual party at Myth Drannor, cast the spell long enough to see his face again, laugh at him, and then return him to oblivion. Good times.
|Granted, we don't have much material to work with.|
Before we get to the next area, we have to review what we know about the dead god Moander, whose cultists appeared prominently in Curse of the Azure Bonds. In summary, Moander was the god of corruption and rot. Some elves found a way to seal him away from the material plane centuries ago, and since then, his fanatics have been trying to bring him back. One of these (failed) plots is recounted in the Azure Bonds book series.
In Curse, my party foiled a plot to return Moander to the material plane, and it resulted in Moander's death. Now, I guess, his body is just floating in a void somewhere, and his cultists are able to tap into his dead divinity to do things like animate bits of his flesh and trees.
|A typical battle in a Moander-inspired dungeon.|
Continuing my explorations, this time heading east along the bottom of the Moonsea, I next ran into a red tower. The tower turned out to be ruled by Marcus, the Black Circle mage from Secret of the Silver Blades, who in turn was in service to Tarental, one of Bane's lieutenants. As I entered--after fighting a bunch of "Bits o Moander" and walking trees--I was greeted by Marcus's aide, Petra, who wasn't happy to see me.
|The party is menaced by Anne of Green Gables.|
The tower turned out to be 11 levels up and one down. In the basement was a locked door, from behind which a voice claimed, "beyond this gate is the city of Phlan, entombed here by some mighty spell, and besieged by monsters that sally through this very gate." The voice urged me to find and free Shal, a "high mage captured from among us."
I soon found Shal and freed her from some mage and priest captors. She looked suspiciously like Petra, and she was just a fighter, not a mage. Her story indicated that she was an expert on the Cult of Moander, so the Black Circle tried to coerce her into helping them use the dead god's powers. When she refused, she said, "they, ah, robbed me of my magic and imprisoned me here." The "ah" was her way to eliding that they, in fact, split her into two separate beings, one fighter, one mage, and the mage side became Marcus's aide Petra.
Up we went through the tower, fighting battles with cultists and mages all the way. They were relatively easy, having no immunity to spells. At one point, we encountered some Drow who were keen to take revenge against Marcus for destroying one of their cities when he re-located Phlan. (As commenter Null Null recently pointed out, the armies of Bane sure do a lot of their own in-fighting. There were a couple of other encounters where I was able to pit the Marcus's mages and clerics against each other.) They wanted information about Petra, but I declined to tell them about Shal. Apparently, if I had, I would have had to fight them.
|I took this shot somewhere in the tower. I no longer remember what it was referring to, but it sounds like something you'd get at Dairy Queen.|
The levels were small and not worth mapping. At the top we found the Temple of Transformation, where pieces of Moander's flesh were cut away from his body and given life.
|Marcus, looking a little like Denethor.|
A final battle with Marcus introduced a new enemy called Minions of Bane. They come in two colors. Red ones went down so fast in melee combat I wasn't able to figure out what powers they had. Blue ones are surrounded by a lightning field that does damage to melee characters, plus they can breathe lightning. But the battle still wasn't very hard, and I soon killed Marcus despite him having buffed with "Mirror Image" before the battle.
|One of three clusters of enemies in the final battle. Marcus stands to the northwest of the minion.|
Petra and Shal re-united into a single being, I guess maintaining Shal's personality since her name was preserved in the final NPC.
Hovering above the tower had been some kind of "vessel" containing Moander's ichor and flesh, drawn through one of the Pools of Darkness. Now, for some reason, the giant cup started slamming against the tower and caused it to collapse. We had to jump from the tower to the disgusting cup to survive.
|This part wasn't well-explained.|
While we waited for the ichor to subside so we could access the Pool, Shal told us that Bane's lieutenant Tanetal, a powerful Glabrezu demon, could be found on Moander's dead body. Through the Pool we went, where Elminster seemed to know Shal. I guess she's a character in some of the Forgotten Realms books. She departed after telling me to "look her up" in Phlan and gave me a sword that turned out to be a vorpal blade, which sounds really cool but I forget what properties they're supposed to have.
|Elminster is apparently Scottish.|
Before continuing on to Moander's plane, I had Elminster return us to the Realms so I could finish investigating this silliness about Phlan. Elminster had a rope lowered from the portal to the ground, to take the place of the ruined tower. Soon, warriors from Phlan appeared and invited me inside. Almost immediately, we were attacked by a huge group of white dragons and black mages.
This frankly might have been the most difficult battle of the game so far. It took me 5 reloads to get through it with no deaths. The key problem was that there was no way to buff ahead of time. In a dungeon, you can buff one step before the battle, and because each step only takes one minute, the spells are still active when you arrive in the battle square. But in the wilderness, steps take 12 hours, so if you have an encounter that starts immediately when you arrive in a square (as here), all your spells are long expired by the time you reach it.
The white dragons were nothing; the problem was the 15 or so black mages, who started scattered in three clusters. Each one used "Lightning Bolt" as his go-to spell, and I had to get really lucky with some initiative rolls to ensure that my "Fireballs" hit the three groups before I got blasted with multiple bolts from multiple directions. Such bolts had a way of banking off walls and killing some of my lower-HP characters in a single round.
|A very hard battle despite the existence of all this "Phlanarian" cannon fodder.|
After I finally won that battle, things got pretty stupid. Phlan really had been lifted up wholesale and shoved underground beneath Marcus's tower. Its two maps were exactly the same as the two starting maps, with stores and temples all in the same places, and open for business. There was one extra encounter with some black mages holding a family hostage in a house, but otherwise the maps were indistinguishable from the opening areas of the game, including blue skies and clouds up above despite what was supposed to have happened to the city. How Marcus accomplished all of this is unexplained; I guess maybe there's a Level 10 spell called "Teleport Town" that I haven't received yet.
|The docks area was a little different.|
I figured there might be some quests associated with the city, but when I got to Town Hall, all Shal had to say was that Sasha had been kidnapped and "turned over to darkness itself" by someone named Gragnak Ulfim. She had no idea where to find her.
|It would be fun if, at the end of all of this, Sasha turned out to be some kind of demi-god.|
I returned to Limbo, stashed my equipment, and moved on to Moander's realm. This is perhaps the most unique "overland" map we've seen in an RPG so far. There are multiple openings in the corpse that lead to caves and whatnot, although the developers artfully positioned the body so as to avoid the party having to enter some truly unpleasant areas.
I had a visceral reaction when I saw it. I haven't been mentioning it all along, but I did play this game before, back in the late 1990s. Other than the game starting in Phlan, I didn't really remember anything about it, including whether I'd finished it. But I know I got at least this far, because the sight of Moander's corpse triggered some unpleasant memories. Specially, I remember spending forever on this damned map and hating every second of it. Next time, we'll see how well that memory holds up.
- When you successfully flee enemies in the wilderness, the ranger gets 500 individual experience points just for "leading the party past" the creatures.
- As I explored Myth Drannor, the game kept telling me that rocks were falling in narrow corridors. Oddly, only Nacacia ever got hit with them. Was it because she was in the last place?
- Although you spend 99% of the game looting ruins with no penalty, I've learned from experience that the titles treat slain Myth Drannor figures with a certain reverence, and looting their bodies is "bad." Thus, I declined in this instance to take items from the skeleton of an elf. I got experience for declining. Later, I checked out a spoiler site to see what would have happened if I'd taken the items. The answer is that I would have gotten another Girdle of Giant Strength. Damn it.
|Most of the time, you just find stuff and automatically go to the loot screen. When the game specifically asks if you want to take something, you know it's a trap.|
- "Haste" makes such a difference in combats that I've been using it more and more liberally, returning to Zhentil Keep to buy copious Elixirs of Youth every time my characters get over 35. Even though the elixirs cost 4,000 gold pieces each, I still have thousands of gems and pieces of jewelry.
- Having a Ring of Blinking equipped turns out to be a double-edged sword. My healers can't target the character for "Dispel Magic" or "Heal," either.
- You occasionally encounter random caravans selling goods in the wilderness. Here's what one of them had for sale. Really, what's the point?
|The next time I complain about the economy, remind me of the "money sink" that is these boots and belts.|
Time so far: 33 hours
Reload count: 35
Reload count: 35