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13 August 2015 @ 05:57 pm
Game Review: Tales of Maj'Eyal  
I've been playing roguelikes for years, ever since I found a copy of Moria on one of those old DOS shareware CDs that went around in the mid-90s, but I've never been very successful at them. I played Angband for years and I don't think I ever got past the tenth level of the dungeon legitimately, my Ancient Domains of Mystery games went much the same--it's only in the last year that I've managed to get to the pyramid and the dwarf village quests consistently--and even though I somehow figured out how to hexedit my Rogue save to max all my stats, I still never won. The only roguelike I've ever won until now was DoomRL, which is an amazing game but doesn't quite have the depth that the previously-mentioned roguelikes do. But today, I won Tales of Maj'Eyal.

I first encountered ToME back when it was called Tales of Middle Earth, and the main thing I remember is that it had almost nothing to do with Middle Earth. Playable ents? Eagles of Manwë flying through dungeon corridors killing orcs? Noldor oozemancers? Starting in the halls of Mandos as a shade and having to fight your way out? I'm not a Tolkien purist, but it seemed about as Middle-Earthy as Angband was, so I shelved it and didn't think about it for years. Later I heard the whole game got a new engine and a new setting, and when it came out on Steam I bought it. And 72 hours, one expansion, and one heartbreakingly close run where the final bosses killed me, I finally won.

It's a good thing it was after the expansion, since I used an expansion-added class to win. When ToME went from Tales of Middle Earth to Tales of Maj'Eyal, it kept most of the odd classes like oozemancers and solipsists and arcane blades, but refluffed them to fit the new world. I put hours and hours into trying to get an arcane blade further than the early game, but I never succeeded. I just ended up spreading my points too thin and couldn't get a successful build together. And I couldn't try some of the more interesting classes because they were hidden behind achievement unlocks, so I'd load up the game, die repeatedly, and then forget about it for months.

It wasn't until I saw a description of the doombringer class that I came back in any kind of sustainable fashion, and while I had better luck there, I still couldn't get past the second tier of dungeons (my arcane blades rarely made it even that far). I'd reach a point where I could easily kill most normal enemies, but I'd sometimes run into a rare enemy or a boss that would annihilate me with no idea what I had done wrong. It wasn't until I stumbled on a forum thread where commenters pointed out the OP's low accuracy that I realized the significance of all the missing I'd done with my special attacks, moved a few points into combat accuracy, and proceeded to steamroll the rest of the game.

Mostly it went like this.

I know talking about "builds" is enough to make some people run screaming, but it's really the aspect of ToME that sets it apart from other roguelikes. Traditional roguelikes are all about gear, either in the gear that you wear, the spells that you find, or the monster corpses that you eat so you can teleport at will or read minds or take baths in acid. ToME has gear just like Angband or Crawl, but it also has talent trees. Each class has access to around a dozen, some of which start locked by can be unlocked as you level up, and you'll need to figure out what kind of character you want. Do you want your archmage to just blast out with multiple elements, or focus on a single element? And which element? Different talents lead to different gearing requirements and different playstyles, so unlike Ancient Domains of Mystery, not all paladins will play the same.

It's the best part of Diablo II ported over to a roguelike (though insert Hardcore Mode disclaimer here). My favorite part of the game in the years that I played DII was finding interesting talent builds that were still viable: meleemancers and rangers and singers and so on. I haven't done that in ToME, but in some ways the diversity of classes and talent trees makes it less necessary. I don't need to try to bend a sorcerer into a melee character when the doombringer teleports around and causes fiery explosions with sword swings. And I have seen someone who won the game the other way--they put their points into shadowflame and fearfire and hexes and went through blasting everything with demonic fire with nary a sword swing in sight.

Of course, with builds comes screwing up your build, and that's what kept me from progressing for so long. You can respec the last four points you placed, and some popular builds make use of these floating points to use one skill for a few levels until another skill unlocks, but the sheer variety of skills and combinations means that figuring out why you died can be very difficult. I didn't realize my accuracy was a problem until I found that forum thread, despite losing probably a dozen characters due to what I now know was low accuracy. Roguelikes already have a reputation as inscrutable, and ToME doesn't help any.

Here's the armor I was wearing when I won, as an example of what you have to look through to make item comparisons.

I should mention that part of it is my unwillingness to play on an easier difficulty setting. ToME offers both a traditional difficulty setting, where the player does more and takes less damage on easy all the way up to Madness, where every monster knows exactly where you are as soon as you enter a level and immediately runs toward you in a murderous frenzy. On a separate access is how that most roguelike of traditions, permadeath, is treated. The default is Adventurer, where you have a limited number of lives and once they're gone, they're gone. Below that is Exploration, where you can die an infinite number of times, and above that is Roguelike, where eagles dare. I've stuck with Adventurer so far because of ToME's complexity and have been treating death as a sign that I'm doing things wrong and need to change my strategy. A bit like Dark Souls in that regard.

I know there are people who would say that it's not really a roguelike without permadeath, but even on Roguelike difficulty there are ways to get extra lives. If the concept of dying in a roguelike and coming back mortally offends you, well, you're probably not playing ToME anyway because it's not ASCII and all items are automatically identified when you pick them up. Potion roulette is fun and all, but not every game needs it.

Though Tales of Maj'Eyal doesn't have consumable items anyway, so there's another few flecks of spittle from the Berlin Interpretation people.

The source of many of my deaths...

The variety of skills meant that the normal problems of warrior classes in roguelikes, namely that all combats are just bump-attacking until the enemy dies, were never in evidence. As a doombringer, I’d start out with Fearscape Shift to teleport closer to the enemy while setting the ground on fire to both heal me and hurt my enemies. If there was a single opponent, I’d follow that up with Fiery Torment to reduce the enemy’s fire resist, and if I had teleported into a group I’d use Obliterating Smash to hit several of them, or Destroyer to activate my demon form and then Obliterating Smash to hit more. Then I’d use Reckless Strike if my vim was high enough and Draining Assault if it was not, all the while keeping an eye on my health and stamina and preparing to use Cauterize Spirit if either got too low. The variety of talents and cooldowns available provides plenty of tactical choice that's normally taken up with wands and scrolls and potions and so on.

The biggest problem is that ToME's complexity makes it very difficult to determine where you've gone wrong. Like I mentioned above, I had to look up forum threads before I realized that my low accuracy was the problem, and enemies doing bizarre and inexplicable things to you is a really common event. You can right-click them to inspect them, and you can comb the combat log for what ability names are, but unless you know how to match the talents on their character sheet to the abilities they attack you with--and since ToME has 26 classes and over 400 talents, good luck with that--most of the time you won't be making an informed decision, and especially at the beginning you'll die without knowing what you did wrong or how to fix it. This is a problem in any complex roguelike, but it's especially bad here.

This is one fourth of the information available about an enemy.

The lore is mostly borrowed from elsewhere--elves becoming naga is taken from World of Warcraft, and the whole backstory of the Sher'tul fighting the gods seems pretty directly lifted from the Valheru in Raymond Feist's Riftwar books--but there's a relatively good effort made to make it all fit together even if it's cliche. Yeeks are in the game because they've been in roguelikes since Moria, but they're in ToME because they live on a tropical island off the coast and spent centuries as slaves to the halflings. Ogres are a race of supersoldiers who need magic to avoid collapsing under the weight of the square-cube law. Most of the weird classes are small cabals headquartered in a single place who are playable just because it might be fun. Strictly speaking, shalore oozemancers or ogre anorithil probably don't exist, but you can play one because why not?

It's also noteable how much of it there is. Every artifact has a paragraph or two of history and description, there are notes found in most of the zones, some enemies have their own personal descriptions, and you can buy books in shops that explain some of the world's backstory. Apparently a lot of it was written by Darren Grey, one of the hosts of Roguelike Radio, which I can recommend for roguelike fans.

The problem is that actual gameplay is a mishmash of random enemies and classes with very little attempt made at rhyme or reason. The anorithil are a small group of wizards that draw on the power of the sun and moon--and I just now realized why they're called that, from the Sindarin anor ("sun") and ithil ("moon")--who live in the utter East, but you find a lot of them in the West where you start. And because monsters can have classes, you can fight snake anorithil who blast you with searing sunbeams, or ooze solipsists who have frightening mental powers because they think the entire world exists in their imagination. And in terms of monster distribution, it's usually anything goes, with foxes and bandits and sandworms on the lower levels of undead-infested ruins. Some themed zones have specific monster subsets, but this is the exception rather than the norm.

I mostly just ignored the story and clicked past all the lore after reading it once. Some science fantasy parts like the Sher'tul fatportal network were pretty neat, and psychotic warmonging slaver halflings was sufficiently different from the norm that it stuck out, but otherwise the gameplay undermines the lore. And since I'm here for the gameplay, well...

Probably my favorite lore note in the whole game.

I'm tempted to jump right back in, but I have a lot of other games to play and Tales of Maj'Eyal is not a quick roguelike. The game I just finished, knowing everything I had to do and everywhere I needed to go since the previous run got all the way through to the final bosses, took me 16 hours. That's an entire game's worth of time, most of which was me absolutely slaughtering the opposition without any difficulty whatsoever with only the occasional unique giving me any trouble. Part of me things that ToME should have a No Time to Grind option like Dungeons of Dredmor does that turns it into a series of battles against uniques and cuts out 95% of the trash mobs that stop being challenging about two hours into that 16 hour playtime. Maybe ToMe should look more at ADOM, which is the roguelike it's probably most similar to in terms of flow (set locations you visit game after game, quests, and so on). ADOM has no random uniques, but the regular enemies are never something you can discount.

I do appreciate that it's quick to get into, though. Graphics instead of ASCII and entirely mouse-driven controls with hotkeys make it easy to get into, and as long as you have the roguelike mindset and don't mind dying a lot, ToME is a pretty good introduction to the more traditional roguelike set. And like I said, if I had been willing to set the lives to Explorer, maybe I would have figured out some of mechanics without dying so much. But what fun would that be?

If you want to see my winning character, here's the dump.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
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