Curse of the Azure Bonds is the second game in the four-part series started with Pool of Radiance. It is part of SSI's Gold Box series of games based on TSR's 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset.
The game is identical in play-style to its predecessor, although as with most iterations of the same formula, features significant changes:
- Improved graphics
- Paladins and Rangers were added as playable classes
- The "Fix" command was added to the Encamp option, speeding up (automating) the healing of injured characters as long as there was a cleric or paladin in the party capable of using healing spells
- Players could import characters from Pool of Radiance, Hillsfar, or characters taken from this game who had adventured in Hillsfar.
Players starting fresh with this game did not need a previous party to enjoy it. A pre-made party was available for them to use an new characters start out with an experience bonus to boost them up to the recommended minimum level required to survive the initial challenges.
The game continues to use the grid-based, 3D system wherein the world is viewed from a first-person perspective with 90° turns and movement spaces. As with nearly every Gold Box game, party members were displayed in the upper right hand corner along with hit points and armor class. Random enemy encounters would provide combat opportunities within the game against mixed groups of foes, providing experience.
When combat would start, it would become a tactical turn-based system with the battlefield viewed from an isometric perspective. Every member of the party including each monster were shown as individual icons that had a limited number of moves onscreen. The player was challenged to maneuver their party on the map, take cover behind obstacles such as wells, or even block doorways and act as tanks in order to protect their spellcasters.
The game continues the use of the translation wheel copy protection that Pool of Radiance had used. The player would occasionally be challenged by a set of Dwarven or Elvish runes onscreen and be required to use the codewheel to translate them and answer with the correct word. Losing the code wheel could render the game unplayable. The code wheel was seen by some as a cumbersome method of copy protection and would eventually be dropped from later installments of the series.
As with the previous games, there was an extensive amount of documentation included with the package:
- A basic manual with setup instructions
- An Adventurer's Journal that went into detail on the races, classes, and the magic system of the game
- A Quick Reference card for commands
- The copy protection translation wheel
Additionally, Azure Bonds features an Overland travel system allowing characters to randomly run into encounters or explore cities and dungeons within the region that the adventure takes place in. Several towns and cities are reachable from the Overland map along with corresponding side-quests for extra experience and treasures. Even Phlan can be revisited, although not in the same extensive form as it was in Pool of Radiance.
Certain dungeons and events are locked from exploration until the party completes another event first, but this expanded the scope of the party's travels greatly over that of Pool of Radiance.
Seeking adventure, the party's journeys take them to Tilverton. Unfortunately for these experienced heroes, they are suddenly attacked and overcome, captured, and when they awaken find that they have been bound with five glowing sigils on their sword arms. These Azure Bonds have cursed them into being puppets for whoever they are bonded to, allowing unseen masters to override their wills for when they require their services.
Robbed of their items and gold, they try to discover just who is responsible in Tilverton, eventually finding some answers. However, they are forced against their will to attack the King's Carriage as it passes through the city and eventually seek the aid of the local Thieves Guild. Discovering that the Fire Knives' leader was one of those responsible for one of the bonds on their arms, they go off in search for their first clues.
Over several adventures, the party discovers that a group of evil puppet masters, the New Alliance, are the ones responsible for the bonds on their arms. Each group intends to use the party towards their own evil ends and it is up to the party to stop them before that happens. After the Fire Knives, the party goes on to destroy the master of each bond after following further clues.
They confront Dracandros, a rogue Red Wizard of Thay, who intends to use them to provoke a Flight of Dragons thus laying waste to everything in their path. Mogion, High Priestess of the dread god Moander, intends to use them to open a doorway that would release the god into this world. The Black Network of the Zhentarim intend to simply use the party to spread evil with their master, Fzoul Chembryl, pulling the strings.
As they defeat each of these masters, their corresponding bonds disappear from the characters' arms. After all of these masters are defeated, the true leader of the New Alliance is revealed: Tyranthraxus, the demonic spirit that had escaped at the end of Pool of Radiance.
Confronting Tyranthraxus at last within the ruins of the ancient city, Myth Drannor, the demon reveals his plans to take over their bodies through his own bond with them. After a tremendous battle, the party emerges victorious as they close the Pool of Radiance and destroy Tyranthraxus for the final time.
Curse of the Azure Bonds is a follow-up adventure to Pool of Radiance, although experience with that game isn't necessary to enjoy this one. The same Gold Box engine that was created for Pool of Radiance continues to see use in this game with few changes outside of cosmetic fixes, the introduction of two new classes, and an entirely different campaign than that of its predecessor.
The initial city, Tiverton, contains all of the essentials to help the party recover from their ambush. Even if the party is imported from Pool of Radiance or Hillsfar, they lose most of their equipment and gold as a result of the attack, a mechanic that has been used in other titles (such as a magical storm resulting in the loss of valuable equipment in Ultima VII: The Serpent Isle) in order to start the party out fresh for the challenges ahead without making it too easy.
The most notable change is the introduction of an Overland option. The player could take their party out into the wilderness and explore certain locations comprising the southwest region of the Moonsea as their adventures will take them much further than one city. Various dungeons such as sewers, caverns, and wilderness locations all provide valuable opportunities to earn treasure and experience.
All of the gameplay mechanics are based on the 1st edition of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, otherwise known as AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) from TSR.
Six races are available for players to choose from and is the first step in creating a new character and a party of seven adventurers with which to go out and save the world. Players can now select what kind of sex their character is which has no effect on their abilities, only in their appearance for the character portrait.
The races did not undergo any significant changes and had been presented in the same way as before in Pool of Radiance:
- Dwarves: Excellent warriors and often considered the best blacksmiths within the Forgotten Realms, they also harbor a strong hate for giants and their diminutive nature allows them to dodge their attacks much easier. They are also a hardy race and able to resist the effects of magic and poison.
- Elves: Long lived and resistant to sleep and charm spells, elves are often considered among the best spellcasters in the Realms although they are also skilled with a sword. They cannot be resurrected, however, but they can multi-class in many more different combinations than others.
- Half-elves: These share the hardiness of their human half along with the sleep and charm resistances of their elven parent, but not their long lives. And like their elven parents, are capable of noticing things out of the ordinary.
- Gnomes: These are treated as shorter and slimmer versions of dwarves in the game, although they tend to be a little better as thieves.
- Halflings: Resistant to magic and poison, they are about half the size of humans and can make decent fighters and thieves.
- Human: The most common race in the Forgotten Realms, they are average in most respects but have no major weaknesses, either. Capable of dual classing.
Each character has a set of basic attributes that affect various abilities, such as combat prowess and how many spells a magic user can memorize before they must rest and re-acquire their spells once again. During character creation, the player may re-roll as many times as they want. Prime requisite attributes are those that are a requirement for certain classes. For example, Fighters must have a good Strength score in order to be effective.
The natural maximum for any attribute is an 18, although it can go higher depending on factors such as race and magical effects. Throughout the game, unless it is due to an outside intervention such as a spell or a piece of equipment, these attributes never change even when a character levels.
- Strength (STR) - determines physical power and damage with weapons; also affects encumbrance in combat
- Dexterity (DEX) - reflexes and the ability to remain hard to hit in combat; affects ranged weapons such as bows as well as a thief's abilities
- Constitution (CON) - a character's health is determined by this and hit points are derived from this score and a bonus calculated against it with every level. This also determines a character's chances for coming back to life with a resurrection spell, but in the process, a point of constitution is permanently lost.
- Charisma (CHA) - affects the perception that others have of a character
- Intelligence (INT) - affects the ability to reason and think. This is an important score for magic users as it determines how many spells they can memorize and use per level.
- Wisdom (WIS) - this is important to clerics and determines how many spells they can store in memory and use
Attributes, such as Strength and Dexterity, are also affected by the selection of race and certain bonuses and minuses are spread across them as a result. For examples, dwarves are inherently stronger than the other races and, thus, have a bonus to their Strength and Constitution scores.
AD&D's alignment system determines what a character's outlook is. Players can choose what alignment their character starts off with, although actions within the game can slowly shift it. Certain character classes are very much restricted to certain alignments.
The alignment system remains unchanged from its previous implementation in Pool of Radiance:
- Lawful Good - Characters that are based on this alignment strictly interpret the rules and respect order above all else for the benefit of everyone
- Lawful Neutral - Moderation is far more important than the extreme, balancing their decisions between good and evil
- Lawful Evil - The strong survive to enslave the weak, but one must rule in order to conquer and order must keep those that follow this character in line. An army is always stronger than a mob.
- Neutral Good - Some rules are needed along with the freedom to decide what is best depending on the situation at hand
- True Neutral - Everything must be balanced; both good and evil have their place and neither must overcome the other
- Neutral Evil - Law and chaos aren't as important as the results in bringing evil to the world
- Chaotic Good - Random actions and the freedom to implement them are more important than the rules in valuing life and ensuring the welfare of others
- Chaotic Neutral - Randomness and chaos are more preferable to being evil or good
- Chaotic Evil - This character will go to any lengths to grab power and influence, disregarding anything that may make sense or in cooperating with others to achieve their goals. Unpredictable and ruthless.
As per 1st edition D&D rules, female characters were actually penalized in this game; their maximum strength score can never be as high as that of a male character. Race plays a major part in determining what classes a character may be restricted in playing as. The game allows dual and even triple classing among characters depending on certain options such as race.
From the stock of basic classes, players can pick from certain combinations, although experience is divided among the classes that a character belongs to. As a result, they level much more slowly than a character dedicated to a single class.
Two new classes were added to the game: the Paladin and the Ranger. These classes were previously unavailable in Pool of Radiance.
The basic classes are:
- Fighters - They can fight with any armor or weapons, but have no magical ability. When they reach 7th level, they can get an extra attack per round.
- Paladins - These are holy fighters whose faith gives them resistances to spells and poison. They can also turn undead creatures as a cleric can at two levels below their current level. They have an aura that repels evil much like a Protection from Evil spell. They also gain the ability to Cure Disease once a week and can heal themselves of two points of damage per day. They can also use cleric spells when they reach 9th level. However, they must be Lawful Good and have more attribute restrictions than a fighter does.
- Rangers - They are a fighter and can defend themselves without the need for armor and weapons if need be. They do bonus damage against giant-sized creatures and must be of good alignment.
- Thieves - They can disarm traps, undo locks, and help themselves to anything that isn't well protected. They can't wear any armor heavier than leather, but they can backstab in combat for critical damage.
- Clerics - Fighting priests that can wield a mace, but no edged or pointed weapons, as well as use armor. They pray for their spells and automatically memorize any of the spells available for a level when they reach it.
- Magic Users - Powerful spellcasters are always welcome in any party. They start out weak and remain physically fragile throughout their careers, but the powers they command at higher levels can rend parties of monsters apart in the blink of an eye. Nothing like a little human-sized artillery to bring onto a battlefield.
Non-human characters can multi-class with a mix of these to enhance their abilities by sharing skills across them, although they level up at a slower rate because of the experience distribution across different disciplines.
With the introduction of the Overland map, the world of Azure Bonds is much larger than that of Pool of Radiance, introducing a series of new dungeons in a variety of settings consisting of more than city blocks. However, the cities and towns that are offered on this map are not as detailed as Phlan was in the previous game and often visiting one brings up only a menu listing the locations that can be visited.
Most of the towns and cities on the Overland map have the following services:
- Inns - These provide a safe place to rest although it will cost some coin.
- Shops - A variety of supplies such as armor, healing salves, and nearly anything else that the party may need can be purchased here. Inventory changes from time to time.
- Temple - Where healing and resurrections can take place if the party has enough coin to donate. Resurrections are particularly expensive.
- Bar - Visiting one of these allows the player to catch up on the latest news and gossip within an area
Traveling across the Overland map along certain routes, such as between Voonlar and Yurash, can also confront the party with set encounters depending on certain factors.
In addition to these, there are also a number of locations that are famous in regards to TSR's Forgotten Realms campaign setting that will be visited during the course of the adventure:
- Zhentil Keep - A city steeped in evil and darkness, one of the Bonds' masters dwells here
- Hillsfar Ruins - Visiting Hillsfar with the Zhentil Bond still active will make everyone unfriendly towards them as the city is at war with Zhentil Keep.
- Ruins of Myth Drannor - This ancient city was once the heart of a vast alliance of kingdoms and a shining example of unity, boasting expertise in the arts, magick, and forge. It fell to a massive alliance of evil intent on destroying this beacon of glory to the world and ever since then, has been the home to beasts and those hidden pieces of fantastic treasure that may still lie within. This is the final dungeon of the game and where the main enemy awaits the party.
The Gold Box RPGs had standardized themselves with a basic system that was shared across most of the party-based entries. The interface both for party management and information display were similar across titles such as this one making it easier for veterans to get into the game and creating a similar look.
Fighting in the game continues to be handled through random and set encounters wherein experience, items, and gold are earned. When combat begins, an isometric view (the combat map) is presented with every member and attacking monster shown as an icon.
It is a turn based system with each side taking their turns to maneuver and issue commands. This tactical approach, in conjunction with the obstacles present onscreen such as walls and doorways, allowed the player to create their own strategies.
Initiative played an important role in determining who goes first. Each round is divided into ten segments and every character and foe act on a specific segment determined by their initiative. Actions can be delayed and held until the end of round and the computer can fight for the player using the Quick command.