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Monday, February 27, 2017

Fountain of Dreams

An EA-produced spinoff to the cult classic CRPG Wasteland, which copies its gameplay and overall design on many fronts.  But is this obscure PC title a hidden gem, or does it remain unknown for a good reason?

In the late 1980s, Interplay made a splash on several home computer platforms with Wasteland - an RPG with a quirky sense of humor and some challenging gameplay set in a post-apocalyptic Nevada.  The game amassed a considerable cult following and continues to maintain one to this day, and also served as the primary inspiration for another Interplay hit in Fallout (created because the Wasteland license was in EA's possession at the time and they showed no interest in relinquishing it).

Years prior to Fallout's debut, however, another game attempted to continue the Wasteland legacy by mimicking its overall style.  That game was the EA-produced Fountain of Dreams, which took place in a strange post-apocalyptic landscape and even featured a very similar game engine.  In this case, the game took place in Florida (the rest of the United States having been destroyed by nuclear war) and the primary antagonists were the various gangs that had overrun Miami, as well as a seemingly never-ending horde of mutant clowns (with strong design inspiration from the film "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" - so much so that I'm surprised EA never got sued over it).  The player's goal is ultimately to unite the clans of Miami and seek out the Fountain of Dreams, said to be able to cure the bizarre mutations that plague Florida's population.

That's a decent enough setup for an RPG of the era, and the game makes a good first impression as it is better designed than Wasteland in some ways.  All of the weapons one can find are now relatively balanced and useful (especially in contrast to the first game, where Brawling was far more powerful than any firearms one could find until assault rifles came into play).  The game also shows a surprising eye for detail by having businesses around Miami open and close their doors at set times, and there are more than a few NPCs to interact with, several of whom will join the party when asked (and each of which bring their own skill sets to the table).  The skills available in the game are also much more focused than Wasteland's, with very few that are outright useless.

A new mechanic is present in the game as well.  As per the storyline, a mutagen has been introduced to Florida, causing those it affects to slowly mutate into less-than-human forms.  The player characters can be infected as well by all manner of enemies, and after a short period, the player may get a message about how their character is changing, which can cause a number of abilities to manifest - some useful outside of combat (shapeshifting, which allows one to fool handprint scanners) and some in battle (a touch that can cause paralysis or a Shriek that can stun enemies, for example).  The tradeoff to this is that it temporarily disrupts the character's ability to recover HP over time, which can prove to be a pretty nasty disadvantage when you're deep into a dangerous area with numerous enemies around.  The negative effects of mutations can be temporarily suppressed by drinking alcohol (which also has the side effect of making the character stumble randomly) or by drinking "purple water", though these are very limited in supply.

Once the main quest properly begins, however, things quickly go downhill.  Unlike Wasteland, there is virtually no attempt made to balance out enemy encounters throughout the game - the moment the player exits the opening compound, they can easily run into a huge group of punks or even Killer Klowns, which they will likely stand no chance against until the late stages of the game.  Basic enemies can also irradiate, poison and infect players with mutagen, which can put them at a substantial disadvantage (moreso because there are all of two healers in the game, one of whom is killed off by the Klowns a week after your first visit).  The game also inexplicably retains the save feature from Wasteland despite coming out years later, IE the game's state auto-saves each time the player leaves the current map to the only save slot available.  Thus, if the player is badly injured, exits a map and is unable to reach a healer in time, they'll likely have to reinstall and restart the entire game.  Forgivable for a game initially completed in 1985 that ran directly off of floppy disks, but for a 1990 release in a time period where hard drives were becoming standard in computers?  Not so much.

Some puzzles in the game are also questionable.  For example, at one point you need to get a key from a fountain full of piranhas; any attempts to simply reach into the fountain (or walk into it) will get you attacked by the fish.  The solution isn't to drain the fountain or fight the fish, but to pour alcohol into the fountain to get them drunk so you can grab the key uninterrupted.  That's a bit obscure, but certainly no worse than some of the puzzles seen in games like King's Quest or Gabriel Knight.

Less excusable, however, is the fact that some puzzles simply don't work as the developers seemingly intended them to.  To enter the Killer Klown Kollege, for example, the player must bypass two guard towers that can shoot at them from a long distance away.  The player can throw explosives into the guard tower to defeat the enemies within (even getting a message confirming its destruction), but the barrage continues regardless of whether or not they do this.  Thus, the seemingly intended strategy of bombing the towers, then retreating to heal up before entering (each step in the danger zone doing a high amount of damage to your party) instead becomes a tedious affair of rushing to the gate and hoping you don't get shredded by gunfire before you can enter the compound.  To say nothing of many of the other bizarre or just plain broken encounters in the game, many of which simply require pure luck to bypass (and may require a full restart if the player does them incorrectly).

In short, Fountain of Dreams is just another title emblematic of Electronic Arts' less savory business practices - acquiring the rights to someone else's work, putting out a substandard followup with little to no involvement from the original creators, and sinking a promising franchise for years to come (if not permanently).  It certainly has its strong elements - the bizarre setting, the detailed and often grotesque character portraits, a clever sense of humor at times, as well as being an interesting and obscure piece of history, but as a complete gaming experience it simply falls flat due to its rushed and unfinished nature.  Hit up an abandonware site and give it a go if you're curious, but I simply can't recommend paying any amount of money for it when there are so many better CRPGs legally available at greatly discounted prices, or even for free.

Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: MS-DOS
Released: 1990
Recommended version: N/A