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Tales of Maj'Eyal: A Newbie's Review

So I don't have a long history with roguelike video games. Not to twist the knife for any geezers in the audience, but I was not yet born when Rogue was first released. I've played plenty of games that take place in dungeons - Diablo, Diablo II, Path of Exile, just to name a very few - but top-down, turn-based, single-character dungeon-crawling games haven't been incredibly common in the past fifteenish years. Oh, sure, I could have sought out the old-school ones, but I didn't. I'm explaining all of this so that when I talk about how great some features of Tales of Maj'Eyal are, my gentle readers will understand that I don't actually know whether those features were common in roguelikes of the mist-shrouded past.

Anyway, the point here is that I've been hugely enjoying Tales of Maj'Eyal, which I purchased on Steam some time back. Frankly, it's been addictive as hell for me, when a lot of action RPGs hold my attention for only the briefest span. Turn-based play is a big part of it; I don't have a particularly zippy reaction time in video games. But the most basic function of ToME's melee gameplay wouldn't hold my attention for long - it's just moving onto the same square as an enemy. This is my main problem with a lot of action RPGs - just clicking on the target over and over again loses its charm. ToME has combat options that look more like 4e D&D, if you squint a bit - you can make a basic attack, but most classes and builds seem like they have a decent range of activated powers.

I want to talk a bit about what ToME isn't as well as what it is, but the most important thing to take away from it is how content creators can make their games more interesting even with a limited number of verbs.

What It Isn't

The game isn't about its graphics. We're well past the days of ASCII monsters and heroes, but ToME's graphics are still consciously plain - this is common for indie titles, so let's not act all shocked. If you like indie games in general, you probably won't care. The really special stuff has unique art, and within its context it's clear that the item or monster is super cool.

The game's mechanics aren't simple, and the game itself doesn't care about teaching them to you. You don't have to understand how they work to make reasonably good choices - big numbers are better, and you can take that to the bank. That's complicated by mechanics with diminishing returns and comparing Mechanic A to Mechanic B, and so on. Cerulean Stag Says: shit be complicated and I haven't done the reading to make good judgments. I have the same problem with a lot of games with RPG mechanics - Path of Exile's passive abilities table is especially terrifying - but ToME has a very high level of transparency in enemy stats and permadeath, so there's a lot more pressure on the player to grok the stats and make optimal decisions.

Some of the classes are not at all intuitive to play, and even the most basic skill purchases feel like they might be barking up the wrong tree for how I play that class. I like for classes to have more than one way to play, but I look at the mechanics and can't really put together what playstyle they represent. This isn't true of all classes - I may not make all the best choices for a Bulwark, for example, but I don't think my choices are wasted or in great danger of being objectively wrong.

It isn't easy. I'm playing on Normal/Adventure difficulty, which gives me a limited number of lives, and I've only had one character make it to 20th level (still alive). 20th level isn't particularly far into the game - which is why the title of this post is A Newbie's Review. I've played the low-end content many, many times, and haven't touched the high-end content. Or the mid-range content, for that matter...

Okay, that about covers it for this section of the review. Let's move on to the interesting stuff. Oh, and there are going to be some SPOILERS; I enjoyed a lot of initial reveals, and if you care about enjoying reveals, stop here. Another word from the Ruminant of Impatience: I like this game a lot, and if you have ever struggled with keeping content fresh and different when you have very few verbs to play with in a game, this game has some lessons to teach.

What It Is

The game starts by presenting itself as an entirely typical fantasy setting: there are humans, elves (two flavors), dwarves, and halflings; there are fighters, rogues, and mages. Each class is divided into a few different subclasses. There's a promise of something more unusual in store, though - there are two races listed as LOCKED, and a whole mess of LOCKED classes and subclasses. So... intriguing, but most of the time that I play video games, I start one character and expect to go all the way through with that one character.

Let's say that I've been disabused of this notion.

The first unusual things you see are in the newbie zones, as the elf starting zones murdered my poor rogue right in the face with crystalline creatures that project energy attacks. On which note, enemy projectiles have a movement speed, and if you're not super close to them, many projectiles are still traveling during your turn. If you get out of the way, or force one of your enemies or your own minions to interpose themselves, you don't take the hit. It isn't true of all ranged attacks, but it adds some interest to playing the more fragile ranged characters, especially the summoner.

The first couple of zones aren't all that wild, except that there are some really neat things that can happen. There's nothing revolutionary about procedurally generated maps, but ToME goes deeper: at the time the zone is generated, the game randomly chooses from a table of Big Changes. Sometimes the Trollmire is a nice relatively dry forest, with maybe a small water feature; other times it's ankle-deep water. Sometimes the Old Forest is a hellish, blasted wasted because a meteor has burned most of it to the ground. I have to admit, I was blown away the first time I saw a zone look and act (the monster generators change too) completely different than what I'd been expecting.

Thanks to... some encounter or other that didn't seem super-important at the time, I unlocked the Summoner class, the first of the Wilder classes. This is another signpost of how the game is doing its own thing: the summoner, and all Wilder classes, are nature-directed psions. One of the setting's main stories is about how mages wrecked the world in the Spellblaze and got hunted to near-extinction thereafter. It's a story we've heard before in Dragon Age and elsewhere, but it's handled pretty well here: the enemies have more going on than just hating arcane magic. A small percentage of the loot is specifically empowered by anti-magic, which doesn't seem all that special until you look at the adjectives in the item's name that signify anti-magic. Slimy comes up a lot, as does cleansing. I don't know about you, but my thesaurus thinks those are pretty close to antonyms. I haven't really pursued that plotline to find out more - I haven't played a character where I really wanted to side against the mages yet.

The game communicates story with a large number of small lore dumps. Artifacts a grade (the highest grade, of course) of magic items, and every artifact gets a unique model and a small lore passage. There are also bookstores in several towns, and dungeons are littered with text props of varying sizes. The lore focuses on dropping proper names and strong relationships that it wants you to remember for later, though I haven't yet seen anything where the lore would change a decision I might make. Well, other than siding with the mages over the anti-magic dudes based on the lore. A surprisingly small portion of the lore is silly or based on pop-culture references, though the fez that I found a couple of days ago was... unsubtle. There's another thing that might or might not be a reference, but it's awfully close to being this sword. It's a little late for me to start giving people shit about slanted references to Dragaera, though. (For all I know, it was actually a reference to a totally different sword.)

Then there are the more outlandish dungeons. I really appreciate these, because RPGs don't take enough risks these days. An underwater dungeon with air bubble nodes (that can be exhausted) has shown up in other games, but I can't specifically think of a time I've seen a dungeon made of sandworm tunnels, so that the tunnels collapse a short time after the burrowers create them. If they collapse on a character, the character starts to suffocate. The burrowers aren't hostile, so you just follow them around from one permanent cavern to another. Even this dungeon sometimes has major variations - every once in awhile you get an unbelievably oversized sandworm, the largest creature I've seen in the game so far, that creates massive tunnels. Then there's a timestream plot where things get really bonkers, but by that point the game has established enough of its own context through visual cues that it makes sense.

Lessons Worth Learning

ToME has some interesting lessons to teach. The quick summary is that all a story really needs is an established default followed by the introduction of a change. If the latter differs from the former in clear, meaningful ways, you raise questions that draw players in. You don't have to have a convoluted series of betrayals, lots of talky cutscenes, or even a whole hell of a lot of dialogue. Sometimes you can blow my mind by having a trip through an Old Forest lead to ancient Underwater Ruins... and below the underwater ruins there's a cosmically-powerful fortress. I... did not see that coming! At the same time, the game did foreshadow that there was something strange up ahead. The game does a great job of combining text and visuals to tell its stories.

Giving zones an alternate form so that this playthrough is different from the last one is a massive boost to replayability. Depending on how your level designers work, this may be contrary to a hand-crafted style; this might not generalize to other game genres, if you feel compelled to do anything more than a re-texture.

Procedural generation of levels fits nicely with giving some zones an additional randomized area - sort of a secondary optional dungeon. ToME does this consistently, often with big flashing warnings that the optional area has a difficulty spike. Optional content is a thumbs-up with me. Optional content that randomly crops up as part of dungeon exploration or wandering around the overworld is even better.

If you're going to include a kind of weird mechanic that is necessary to make gameplay less onerous, do everything in your power to spruce it up with some in-world story and justification. ToME hands out massive quantities of loot, entirely comparable to a zone in Path of Exile. If I could only sell off what my Encumbrance score allowed, the game would suck, and Strength classes would have an overwhelming advantage. Instead, you get a Transmogrification Chest early in the game (and once you get it on one character, all future characters get it automatically). Items stored in the Chest have no weight, and they are not transmogrified into gold coins until you transfer out of a zone. (The game also remembers to make absolutely sure you mean to transmogrify all of these things before it does so.) I probably would have just let this go as a weird mechanic they were obliged to introduce, but it turns out that there's something more interesting going on. So, thumbs up there. I think most games do know this, but it's still a good reminder.

The more vanilla-fantasy things look on the surface, the more you should have going on just below the surface. Drop some hints that there are a lot of unseen things, and reveal the first one in the player's first play session. At this point I know about arcane magic, nature-psionics, time magic (with a Bright Wizard-style Paradox mechanic - Paradox juices up your spells but also increases their catastrophic failure rate), celestial chants (?), something that is basically revenant curse magic... there's a bunch of crazy stuff out there, and there's something you could reasonably call plotline support in its dungeons.

Using the FACE rating system, I'd give Tales of Maj'Eyal three (3) smiley faces. (For those unfamiliar with the FACE scale, this is a solidly positive rating.) I bought the game on Steam on a lark, and I've gotten way more than my money's worth out of the game so far. There have been triple-A titles that don't get as much of my time and mental cycles as ToME does. Even better, the game is free-to-play, with two very minor upsell features that would be nice, but you won't miss them if you don't have them.

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