The last big sidequest I wanted to complete before accepting that box social invitation from the hill giant shaman involved…well, more giants. I can’t seem to get away from these guys. This time, we were investigating a fortress called Taydome’s Keep in the plains of Thar. An enchantment had been placed on the keep that bewitched any giants within, placing them under the command of some half-baked wizard named Kimarr, who was feuding with another wizard named Quil, and had taken our good pal Sasha hostage. Kimarr had bent a good number of hill, cloud, and fire giants to his will, along with some ogres. Since they were reluctant servants to Kimarr, we were hesitant to fight them (well, all of us except for Veda), and tried to make our way through the keep as stealthily as possible to avoid the patrols.
It occurred to me that I haven’t really discussed the basic gameplay mechanics of Pools of Darkness, and that might give you a better idea of the flow of the adventure. Exploration is done either by roaming free on a world map, where the party is depicted as a tiny dot. When at a specific location, exploration takes place in first-person view in a three-dimensional space with north-south-east-west movement. Here, the party searches the area for treasure, encounters with enemies or NPCs, shops and taverns (in towns, mostly), the always-important safe resting spots (where the party can recover hitpoints and rememorize spent magic spells), and events that progress the plot. Most of this is depicted in text at the bottom of the screen, and depending on the situation, you’re often given a prompt as to what to do next, such as deciding whether or not to steal from a church. It helps to read these prompts carefully so you don’t make bad roleplaying decisions or fail to talk your way out of a fight with absurd numbers of enemies that could have easily been avoided.
When the party encounters enemies, unless they can flee or talk their way out of it, combat begins, which takes place on an overhead battlefield. Combat is turn-based and tactical, which means you engage the enemy by moving your characters around the battlefield into advantageous positions to use ranged or melee attacks or magic. Ranged and magic attacks have different minimum distances from which they can be used, and require line of sight to the target, so positioning is important. The combat is not super advanced or anything, seeing as this is a game from 1991, but it is immensely satisfying. Wiping out nearly an entire screen of enemies with a fireball or casting haste on a warrior so she can cut down three or four foes in a single turn absolutely never gets old. If the party wins combat, they get experience and (usually) treasure, and exploration resumes. If the party loses combat, you get knocked out to the main menu where you can load a previous saved game. The only useful mechanic the combat system lacks is the ability to load a game mid-fight. If you biff a fight real bad and need to start over, you’ll either have to get all your party members killed on purpose and load from the main menu, or quit the game altogether and restart to get back to the main menu, whichever is faster.
Anyway, that’s how the game works. Useful information, probably. Back to the action!
The winding corridors of Taydome’s Keep were full of secret doors, so many that they often went in circles, eventually leading us back to our original location. Whoever designed this keep was impossibly drunk, a certified genius, or an authentic wacko. Eventually, we came upon some Drow (surprise, surprise) looking to have an audience with Kimarr, found and rescued Sasha (who was whisked away to safety by Quil), and had a final confrontation with Kimarr and his personal guard. Kimarr assumed the form of a blue dragon for the fight, but was brought down almost immediately by one of Sonia’s Delayed Blast Fireballs, hands-down the best spell in the game. We mopped up the rest of the giants, and Sasha found herself with a new base of operations in the newly liberated Taydome’s Keep. She let us stay long enough to rest up and memorize spells, then hurried us on. That lady is all business.
After all that, it was finally time to go meet the hill giant shaman. Some of his goons pulled us through a locked door in the back of the steading, and into the inner sanctum, where they told us the shaman wanted to see us in the northwest corner. Almost immediately, we had a bad feeling about this whole arrangement. Not only did giants and mercenaries keep attacking us on our way to the shaman’s chambers, but we also found Kardal—Sasha’s agent from my previous entry—near death and at the mercy of some of the shaman’s nastier henchmen. We came to Kardal’s aid, but we were too late. However, before he died, he let us know that this rumored “Gathering” was of dragons—untold numbers of dragons ready to descend on the realms and wreck shop. Speaking of dragons, we stumbled upon a few of them in the sanctum, as well. Advance scouts for the dragon assault, or just there for the same party we thought we would be attending? A bit unsettling, either way.
After wandering corridors for quite some time (and finding a concerning lack of bathrooms along the way), we finally emerged in the shaman’s chambers, where he immediately taunted and attacked us. What happened to this whole “audience” thing? I guess we pissed him off doing all those sidequests, first, or maybe he was mad that will killed all his men. He wasn’t even that tough—one Delayed Blast Fireball and one good hack from a long sword +5 finished the brute off. He was hardly the local power the community made him out to be.
We found a journal entry in the shaman’s ready room in which he expressed concern about the increasing violence of the fire giants, and that their leader, a fire giant mage, was attempting to outwit Thorne, Bane’s dragon lieutenant, and earn favor with the big bad, himself. We found this curious because, when we cleared out a den of assassins in the steading earlier, we found some paperwork there that seemed to indicate the fire giant mage wanted the hill giant shaman assassinated. Giant drama! Conveniently, there was a back door out of the steading that led directly to the fire giant mage’s cavern headquarters, so that appeared to be our next stop. Seems kind of weird that these two factions of giants would have headquarters that are attached to each other. Maybe they used to be on better terms.
But first! More training, and a tough decision. Scholtz’s class change was going well. He was already nearly to level 15, where he would regain his fighter abilities. I thought it might be time to change the classes of a couple more characters to maximize their usefulness by the end of the game, which includes a notorious 3-part final battle. I didn’t want to class change everybody at once for fear of rendering my party too weak, but two at a time seemed like a safe number.
I decided to reverse the roles of James and Vincent. James would become a cleric, and Vincent would be a paladin. However, because Vincent is neutral good and not lawful good, he wasn’t eligible to be a paladin, so I changed him to a ranger, instead. Clerics aren’t too useful on their own offensively, but by the time James regains his original paladin abilities, he’ll also be a capable warrior. Likewise, when Vincent regains his original cleric abilities, he’ll be a ranger with tons of healing and buffing spells on top of fighting ability.
It seemed like a safe time to class change, but I overlooked one important factor: by class-changing my cleric, I lost access to Vincent’s deep repertoire of healing arts, and by class-changing my paladin, I lost access to James’s Lay on Hands ability. Whoops! My party was stuck with basically no healing powers. James was able to quickly learn some fledgling healing spells after a little bit of level-grinding outside the steading, but we blundered through the entirety of the fire giant mage’s cave with only a few casts of Cure Light Wounds available. Needless to say, the party had its fair share of panic-stricken sprints back to safe resting areas between intense battles with fire giants. The fact that many of the corridors in the cave were bewitched and spun around us, disorienting us and making us lose our sense of direction, certainly didn’t help matters.
All right, let’s talk about this fire giant mage. When we arrived in her cave, she threw a reward at our feet for dealing with the hill giant shaman for her, and then warned us go no farther into her cave, or that we would be dealt with “harshly.” First of all, I’ve bested dragons, liches, bits of Moander (a god composed of rotting plant matter—it’s a long story), that guy at the end of Streets of Rage, and other horrors. A fire giant mage, who basically amounts to a regular enemy with moderate magical ability, isn’t going to intimidate me, a seasoned nerd. There were like four fire giant mages in the Kimarr fight earlier. Second, our “reward” consisted of a handful of platinum and a cursed ring. I felt insulted, but we are dealing with a villain, so I’m not sure what I was expecting.
It was a tense trek through the cave, ripe with fierce struggles against the fire giants and other fire-themed enemies like salamanders and maybe even a few fire elementals, if I’m remembering correctly. Finally, we cornered the fire giant mage somewhere in the back of the cave. The battle against her and her large personal guard (both in size and in number) was perilous and threw us off our game, so maybe I underestimated her a bit. My party’s primary weapon, the mages’ Delayed Blast Fireball, was useless against fire giants. So, we had to depend on less effective spells, like Ice Storm and Hold Monsters (a spell that freezes monsters in place and opens them up for a killing blow, but works less than half the time), as well as Veda and Vincent’s ranger-versus-giant double-damage bonuses to get us through the fight. Thus far, the ineffectiveness of fireballs hadn’t been that big of an issue throughout the cave, but the sheer number of fire giants and Fire Knife assassins in the climactic battle was almost overwhelming. It was definitely the toughest encounter of the game up to this point, but we prevailed.
Unfortunately, the horrors of the fire giant mage’s cave weren’t quite over, as we came upon another back door! Guarded by dragons (not immune to fireballs, for the record), the back door led to a dragon’s aerie. Could this be where the Gathering would take place?! Perhaps we’ll find out next time!
Want to play Pools of Darkness yourself? Get it and the rest of the Gold Box games on GOG.com! No, I’m still not being paid to tell you this.