If you enjoy the earlier incarnations of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game ruleset — particularly the second edition “Advanced” variant — then there’s a wealth of retro fun to be had. The classic D&D PC games from the ’80s and ’90s mostly hold up remarkably well today — and while Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession will undoubtedly be a bit more of an acquired taste for some, it’s still a retro RPG well worth checking out today.
For the unfamiliar, Ravenloft is one of the popular campaign settings for the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset; it was especially popular around the time of second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a Gothic-themed setting that combines the high fantasy of the even more popular Forgotten Realms setting — which it’s often shown to be “connected” to — with plenty of classic horror elements. Be prepared to fight a lot of undead, with everything that entails in AD&D.
In Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession, you play the role of a duo of adventurers who are responding to an attack on your local lord. A magical item has been stolen from him in the attack, so you are sent to chase down the assassin, retrieve the object and return it to your lord, who is just about clinging on to life. Unfortunately, as soon as you beat the snot out of the assassin — which occurs within the first five seconds of the game — you get sucked into a strange other world the moment you touch his possessions, and it becomes abundantly clear that returning the magic item will not be at all easy… particularly since you don’t have it any more.
From hereon, it’s up to you and your partner to figure out where the bloody hell you have ended up this time, get yourself into a position where survival isn’t a roll of the dice, and see if there’s any way to get back home.
Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession eschews the tile-based “gridder” structure of the earlier Dungeons & Dragons games in favour of a real-time 3D engine. It’s fairly primitive — all Wolfenstein 3D-style 90-degree walls and flat planes — but it does at least allow for a few advanced effects for the time such as lighting (of sorts), hazing and walls of different heights. Considering Doom came out the previous year, though, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession looked a bit dated even when it originally came out — even if it did run in a fancy-pants 320×400 “enhanced VGA” mode for slightly higher resolution visuals than normal.
Using either keyboard or mouse controls (the latter of which are unbearably cumbersome), you can move freely around the game world. There’s an odd sense of momentum to your movement in that you pick up speed as you continue to move in the same direction, and it also takes you a while to stop. And interestingly enough when compared to other D&D games of the era, movement is critical for more than just navigation — it can often mean the difference between life and death in combat.
Ah yes, combat. Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession adopts a similar take on combat to the Eye of the Beholder series, in which you click on your weapon to swing it, after which it will dim out for a moment until it is ready again. Alternatively, in Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession you can actually click directly on an enemy in the 3D viewport in order for all your party members to attack in sequence using the items they have in both hands. Inevitably, combat comes mostly down to frantic clicking in the hope that you kill the enemy before they whittle away your hit points.
Movement is important in that it theoretically allows you to avoid incoming blows; the combat is clearly designed in such a way that you’re supposed to do things like circle around your enemy, rush up to them and hit them, then step back to avoid their attacks. Trouble is, the movement is so sluggish that it’s hard to feel like you’re really achieving much; often it just feels easier to click-click-click as fast as possible and hope all the dice rolls going on behind the scenes will be favourable to you.
The real-time nature of the combat also makes magic quite tricky to use, since while you’re being pelted by enemy attacks you’re expected to click an icon above the caster character, choose a spell level, choose a spell and then click on a target. Since you’re clicking on menus, the other characters in the party won’t be attacking while you do this, leaving you at a distinct disadvantage — and the “active pause” system seen in later D&D games wouldn’t be pioneered until 1998’s Baldur’s Gate.
With all this in mind, expect to die in Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession. A lot. Especially in the early hours of the game. Especially right at the very beginning, where you’re poorly equipped and have no idea what you’re doing. This can be inordinately frustrating — particularly if you hadn’t saved the characters you’d created before getting into your first fight — but once you get a feel for the fact that the game really isn’t messing around with regard to difficulty, you can prepare accordingly.
And you should, because once you get into the overall vibe of what’s going on, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession is a distinctive, highly memorable entry in the long line of official D&D games. It’s an excellent adaptation of the source material, featuring a genuinely menacing atmosphere created through both its muddy visuals and its spooky soundtrack, and the narrative is rather compelling, with some delightfully flowery dialogue. It’s reasonably straightforward to follow through, too; while many D&D games feature a barrage of sidequests that inevitably distract you from the main point of the experience, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession is reasonably linear.
It’s a game that is tricky to get on board with in its early hours, but once you let it draw you in there’s an excellent horror-themed RPG experience to be had with Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession. It may not be quite up to the standard of the excellent “Gold Box” games from a few years prior — but it’s definitely a worthwhile adventure to take, so long as you don’t mind it fighting back a bit. All right, a lot.
Pro tip: bring a cleric. You’ll thank me later.
Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession is available via GOG.com.
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