Curse of the Azure Bonds is a game I didn’t mean to either buy or play. But I did both, and I’m glad of it.
As I stated in my very first post, the whole point of this blog was to chronicle a project – I would buy no more video games until I finished my rather extensive backlog. It sounds like a good idea but one I confess I’ve broken – in particular when I was overcome by the strong desire to re-play Pool of Radiance from my Apple II days.
This being 2018 of course, Pool of Radiance came as part of a bundle – specifically “Forgotten Realms Archives – Volume 2“. And, me being me of course, I couldn’t just buy volume two. Oh no. I had to buy the entire 3-volume set. Which means that I am now in possession of all 11 of the vintage AD&D games from the SSI/Westwood era.
I have no regrets. These games rock.
I’ve previously posted about Pool of Radiance, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite its clunky system and poor UI. The time came to move on to its sequel, Curse of the Azure Bonds, when I wanted to play Ultima V but still didn’t have the time/space to do all the writing required to play that game. I will get to that one day.
So what’s the verdict on Curse?
It’s good. It is the closest I have seen to D&D-tactics. They tried (and failed) to improve the story-telling from Pool of Radiance, but easily compensated for that by making the combat much harder and tighter.
For those who are unfamiliar, let’s talk about the background to this game a bit.
The “Gold Box” series – a well-deserved place in gaming history
As I touched on it my post on Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds is part of a famous series of D&D games made by TSR in the late 80s/early 90s, most of which shared the same engine. They are commonly called the “Gold Box” games, in honour of their distinctive packaging (assuming no-one ever confused them with Zelda I or II).
D&D were surprisingly slow on the uptake with licensing video games, with Pool of Radiance being its first-ever* RPG video game. That’s doubly surprising when you realise that the whole freaking genre started as unabashed D&D rip-offs.**
When SSI finally made a licensed D&D (or “AD&D”) RPG, it was a massive hit that joined Ultima and Bard’s Tale at the top of the RPG tree, and (considering there were no more BT games) went on to found its own franchise, the “Gold Box series”, that replaced Bard’s Tale entirely (personally I preferred Wasteland, but more on that another time).
The games were used pretty much the same rules as 2nd Ed AD&D, which today makes them very stat-heavy and rather clunky, but also gave them a level of tactical depth that simply blew away the competition. Combat in Pool of Radiance was a top-down strategy game. In the contemporary Bard’s Tale III it was “attack/attack/attack/defend/defend/defend”: a combat system that was now 7 years old.
The inevitable sequel
Pool of Radiance must have been designed with sequels in mind, and Curse of the Azure Bonds was that inevitable sequel. And it many ways it, like Bard’s Tale II, was a lazy sequel. They made a few tweaks to gameplay but otherwise it’s completely identical to its predecessor.
In honour of this shameless repetition, I will now explain those mechanics by copy/pasting from my original Pool review, changing as few words as possible. Let’s see how I go…
Curse was written for the Apple II and C64 , and it shows. It has no mouse interface (despite the Apple II having a mouse) and its graphics, even on the upgraded PC version, are quite primitive.
It simplifies the AD&D rules somewhat, with only 6 classes (adding “Ranger” and “Paladin” to “Fighter, Thief, Magic-User and Cleric”). You create (or transfer) a party of 6 characters, doubtlessly influenced by Wizardry and Bard’s Tale.
You’ll notice there’s quite a lot of numbers up there, an approach that carries on throughout the game. Curse has a large range of weapons and spells, the attributes of which are spelt out in great detail in the manual.
Gameplay-wise the game continues its influence from CRPGs of the era…by having you move through 3D space in a “blobber” style (i.e. your party moves like it’s a giant blob).
The similarity to Bard’s Tale et al stops with combat. The perspective switches to top-down and each of the characters and monsters is represented individually. As we’ve seen with Wizardry 8 this can be both a good and bad thing – it makes combat far more interesting, but it also takes twice as long. A combat with 4 x 99 berserker would take a very long time.
Looking back, I think Curse was a bridge between the RPGs of the 80s and 90s. From the 80s it kept the 6-person party combat, the mazes (although to a much lesser extent) and the large lists of numbers and arcane rules, many of which were not explained to the player. From the 90s it had story – Curse probably has the strongest story of any RPGs from its era (although I haven’t played Ultima V). This is helped by the large amount of printed materials that the player would periodically be directed to read, but that wasn’t unique (Wasteland did the same thing). What was unique was the emphasis on events and conversations, and the more tightly scripted sequences of events.
The game had, however, its own share of problems. Most of these seemed to come from the fact that the system was ripped straight from 2nd Ed D&D without much thought for how that system worked in this particular setting. For example, while there are a large variety of spells, a lot of them are practically useless because the situations that would require them don’t arise. It also has some of the same problems as the 2nd Ed D&D system – yes, there’s a lot of weapons, but practically most of them are irrelevant because they’re inferior in every respect. The class system is also quite irritating; why can’t magic-users use shields? Why can’t clerics use swords?
There’s also very little tutorialising – you’d better read the manuals and be prepared to start over a few times as you learn the ropes. I can’t criticise this too strongly because that was common at the time, but I tell you what – the frist time you get wiped out in a random encounter…not fun. Also the UI is horrible; it would be so much better with a mouse.
I think I changed about 20 words, and most of that was replacing “Pool” with “Curse”.
Alright, so it’s a lazy sequel. Is it any good?
Yes. Yes it is.
While I’m usually down on “lazy sequels”, sometimes a few changes to an established formula can make for a very different experience. That’s what’s happened here – with the combat.
In Curse of the Azure Bonds, SSI nailed the combat. By drastically broadening the range of monsters and cranking the difficulty up several notches, SSI turned the fairly straightforward combat of Pool of Radiance into nailbiting D&D-Tactics.
Also your characters start at a higher level, there’s also a much greater emphasis on magic, which you’ll need to get to grips with if you want to proceed. They were also fairly good with series of combats where attrition became an issue – so the issue was (often) not just whether you won, but how many hit points/spells you lost in the process.
The net result was that the combat stayed not just interesting but gripping for the entire game. My personal favourite was the famous “Mulmaster Beholder Corps”, where you have to fight not one, not three but an entire room of beholders, plus their henchmen.
To put that in context, in Eye of the Beholder, the end boss of the entire game was a single beholder. Here, there’s a room of them.
Other significant yet less-successful tweaks
Curse takes a different approach to story-telling than Pool of Radiance. And while I applaud the intended changes, the end result was ultimately not that effective.
The plot of Pool of Radiance was very simple – a new town has being established, and you’re hired to kill the monsters who are either living where the city wants to expand, or who have the temerity to try and get their land back (let’s skip the obvious post-colonial interpretation on that one). You beat the monsters and everyone who matters cheers. The end.
In Curse, you are travelling about the countryside when you are ambushed and all pass out. When you wake up you have five magical tattoos on your arms. You soon learn that these tattoos are the symbols for five different organisations, each of whim can activate the runes to make you do whatever they want. You set out to find the five organisations, and force them to free you from <reverb> the curse of the Azure Bonds!! </end reverb>.
It’s an interesting setup, but one that raises more questions than it answers. Why are they doing this? Who put these tattoos on? Why are these five organisations working together? Why did they pick you? Each of those questions could have an interesting answer.
They could, but they don’t.
As the game progresses, you’ll meet each of the five organisations, each of whom have different goals and try to force you to do different things, from “kill the King” to “summon an ancient God”. But there’s no explanation of why the organisations are working together, who put the bonds on you or why they couldn’t have just achieved the same end by sticking a “help wanted” notice in the local tavern.***
SSI also made the game far more linear than Pool of Radiance (albeit with more optional side-quests), which is often a sign that the creator wants more focus on story, because it’s hard to write a good book if the reader is pulling the pages at random out of a hat.
But there is simply insufficient in-game conversation to pay off the more complicated set-up. For example, you’ll have almost nothing to do with each of the five factions who control the bonds, except for when they do an expository dump when you finally meet (and immediately kill) their respective leaders. It makes it hard to understand or care about what these groups are attempting to do.
Let me put it this way – can you imagine this scene ever unfolding in a James Bond film?
Evil Mastermind: And that’s my entire villanous plan!
Bond: I don’t care. <bang. Mastermind dies.>
Moneypenny: Wow! That’s the fifth time that’s happened this film!
There’s no tension, or reason to care, about the five unrelated nefarious plans.
The game also has an unfortunate habit of introducing people, places or even objectives without explaining what the hell is going on. Sometimes it’s obviously assuming that you’re already familiar with characters from the source material, and sometimes it’s just abysmal storytelling.
Special shout-out goes to…
One important feature that’s worth mentioning though is the way Curse handles imported characters from Pool of Radiance.
If you didn’t know, “importing characters into sequels” was not invented by Mass Effect. It was once standard, in fact Wizardry II didn’t even HAVE character generation, you had to import characters from Wizardry I. I’ve reviewed a few games now that have this feature, and usually it doesn’t quite work because of massive balance issues.
Curse, however, nails it perfectly through clever use of a level cap. Pool of Radiance has a level cap, so your characters don’t come into Curse already super-powered, and Curse has a level cap, so that by the end of the game both transferred and new characters will be about the same level. They also don’t allow you to transport equipment, which is where a lot of your PC’s power comes from.
You can also import characters to and from another AD&D game that came out about the same time – Hillsfar. When I finish Curse, I’ll see what it’s like.
Curse of the Azure Bonds is a worthy successor to Pool of Radiance. Personally I think it’s better, due to the far more interesting combat and some UI fixes.**** The story, while weaker, is still better than many other RPGs both then and now. So it’s recommended.
A word of warning though – the UI is still very clunky to modern eyes, so it will still take some getting used to. But personally I think it’s worth it. The fan-made Gold Box Companion can help a lot with that, although personally I preferred using it sparingly.
Release date: 1989
Purchase date: 17 April 2018
Complete date: December 2018
Time spent: Approx 40 hours
Director: George MacDonald
Developer: Strategic Simulations Inc
Publisher: Strategic Simulations Inc
Recommended for: RPG fans who can learn to use an old-style UI, people who want to see how D&D’s second edition rules worked, people who enjoyed Pool of Radiance.
Not recommended for: People who want a plot that makes complete sense, who don’t like unforgiving difficulty or people who can’t stand unintuitive UI.
* This is technically untrue, despite what Wikipedia may say (here and here). There was an earlier game called Treasure of Tarmin that came out in 1983. Mind you, while ToT fits the RPG definition, it’s such a different game to the other “RPGs” of the era that it feels wrong to plonk them in the same genre. I have not played ToT but it looks more like Hunt the Wumpus than Wizardry.
** See Wizardry, Aklabeth (“Ultima 0”) and Bard’s Tale. Pedantry disputing this broad claim will be silently acknowledged and publicly ignored.
*** There is one exception to this, which is where one villain (named “Dracandros”. Really.) gets you to impersonate members of a rival group, and then do things that might start a war.
**** Most notable of which is that you no longer need to manually memorise/cast/restore healing spells to get back to full health.