This is the game that caused me to miss three days of daily completion in Guild Wars 2. In a row.
And I barely cared. Which is rather surprising for someone of an OCD nature who was previously having a kick out of incrementing the meaningful-to-no-one-but-oneself ArenaNet point number.
Play an action-based, movement-oriented, real-time game for too long, and one suddenly finds oneself craving a change.
Tales of Maj’Eyal or ToME4 is that amazingly refreshing change.
It’s a roguelike with an interesting history. I vaguely remember encountering it when it was still an Angband variant, but ran afoul of some copyright issues, causing them to change name and direction to Tales of Middle-Earth. I think it was notable even then for a persistent world map, with dungeons in roughly the same locations as prior games. Memory fails me.
I recall I played it then, but found it brutally hard, often dying to a quest given at the start of the game (I’m never going to learn how to put those off, I just expect the game to play fair somehow) or an overland encounter or just starving to death because I ran out of food and couldn’t afford any more from extortionist shopkeepers.
All that innate frustration of the roguelike genre has been lovingly polished off in its latest incarnation.
This is a roguelike that belongs in this decade. On start up, one is greeted with a very pleasant graphical loading screen, oddly reminiscent of Legend of Grimrock, rather than the typical ASCII titles of yore.
The next thing one realizes is that you can actually create online profiles, which save your characters and unlocks and achievements and so on to a server and allow you to retrieve them from another computer, and also links you to a chat channel of other players, for that MMO feel. You could ask them for advice, link items to show off or fearsome monsters to brag or worry over, or just listen in on conversations to pick up tips and not feel utterly isolated, or just take delight in the background noise of other people gaining various achievements and getting gibbed horribly by all manner of strange creatures.
It’s optional, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, you can also log right off the online profile and play it offline in guaranteed peace and quiet.
Best of both worlds, really. I started offline, since I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy the game, and after getting hooked, went online to check out its other aspect. I can see myself switching between both as desired – I find the online one a bit more distracting with the chatter, but being connected is sometimes nice.
On starting a new character, there’s a lot that jumps right out at you.
The graphical interface for a start. It’s really pleasant and polished for a roguelike.
As I played the game further, I can confidently say that ToME4 has pretty much nailed it for a user-friendly interface. Players of MMOs and Diablo-style affairs should feel right at home. The mouse is usable for all kinds of selections, and it has a nice context-sensitive right-click menu bar for extended options.
Explanatory popups on mouse-over are all over the place, which is extraordinarily useful and make the game much easier to learn than the typical ancient roguelike method of forcing one to navigate an archaic keyboard help system to read long text essays just to find out about races, classes, or the appropriate keyboard command to do something.
The other atypical thing from ‘normal’ roguelikes? EXTRA LIVES.
See that adventure mode? You get a few more chances at not blowing it. But you have to earn them.
This is a game mode that works really well, in my opinion. It’s more forgiving for roguelike newbies, who may not be accustomed to the casual brutality of the roguelike genre to knock off your characters permanently on dying. Even for players who are used to permadeath roguelikes, some leeway in being able to avoid the really stupid deaths or foolishly venturing into a place too high leveled for you is nice. The tension still ramps up as you run down your lives counter, and eventually, that final life is also used up and your character dies for good, but at least he/she had a decent run and a few chances at it.
Oldfashioned masochists can still choose an option with only one life. Which works fine as an ironman or hard mode type of difficulty level. An added challenge, rather than forcing everyone to adapt to it from the get-go. (I’m fine with one life roguelike permadeath, personally. I’ve played too many variants and am used to it by now, but I know it’s a bit of a hard sell for players new to the idea.)
The last interesting thing is the concept of unlockables. Rather than throw a surfeit of choices at a confused player starting for the very first time, one is limited to the easier options at the beginning to get one’s feet wet, and as one plays through the game, scoring various achievements, your birth options open up with more variety.
Besides taking a page from MMOs and getting some of that fun buzz from “Achievement Unlocked” announcements, it also cushions the blow of the inevitable death, because there’s more new stuff to try next time. Some more intricate than others too.
Again, if some people find this unfun, there are ways to ‘cheat’ around it by editing some files and get everything unlocked at once. But I enjoy the concept personally, it gives something to strive for and work towards.
For this post, I’ve decided to create a Higher (human) Alchemist.
(I’ve mostly been playing with the melee Berserker and Bulwark warrior types, so this will be new to me too. I fully expect to die horribly within the next hour. I’m not terribly good at mage-types.)
The character creation screen is amazing, for a roguelike. It may look strange and confusing, but it’s pretty accessible with the mouseover tips, and shows off the significantly more usable graphical interface very well.
Stats are on the left, strength, dexterity, constitution, magic, willpower and cunning. Clicking on them allows you to assign points and increment them on leveling up.
Class-based talents and spells are in the middle. Again, mousing over them brings up context-sensitive explanations of each skill, and clicking on them allows you to assign points and ‘buy’ them or improve them.
I especially like that ToME4 has plenty of active skills to fire and activate for all classes. Even the melee types get exciting skills to stun or cleave or strike a bunch of people adjacent to them or knockback stuff or whatever. It’s a lot more reminiscent of hotkey style MMO combat in that sense, with skills going on cooldown, and being able to use stuff to cleverly survive battles, rather than just relying on bulking up with gear and a good weapon and autoattacking your way to victory or more likely eventual death. The only difference is that it is turn-based, so good tactics become a lot more important and one gets a chance to take as long as you like to think through your next move. (Not to mention, you can get up and go to the bathroom at leisure without fear of getting jumped and dying while you’re not looking. ToME4 will be happy to pwn you only when you’re staring at the screen. Disclaimer: If you have a cat, then all the above goes out the window.)
I picked a few skills that sounded good, since I’ve no idea how alchemists work at the moment. Stuff like Throw Bomb (alchemists get to infuse gems with magic and throw ’em like bombs, apparently) and Extract Gems (to get said gems out of melee weapons and armor). I also buffed up the golem’s first skill.
Yes, apparently alchemists get a golem as a pet.
ToME4 has a very nice set of graphical tiles as the default. I think this makes the game immediately more accessible to those who hate ASCII graphics, and puts it into a class of roguelikes similar to Dungeons of Dredmor.
Ignore the funny-looking “@.” That’s me. Somehow, after switching to ASCII graphics and switching back to Shockbolt’s tileset, it doesn’t want to convert back nicely.
I played for a while with the graphical tileset and enjoyed my time with it. It definitely makes the game look better, and more ‘immersive’ in a sense.
The only flaw that had me retreating back to the ASCII tileset was that it got -too- immersive. When stumbling across, say, a roomful of snakes or ants, I found it extremely hard to think tactically when looking at a swarm of graphic images of snakes, rather than facing simple “J”s like so.
Going back to ASCII allowed me to fit more tiles into the screen, giving me wider situational awareness and a better top-down view of things.
I found it easier to spot diagonal paths of movement, whereas the graphical tiles tended to block that view a bit, especially with the trees. This got especially obvious when I wandered onto the world map and was trying to spot the way out of an elven town with two starter dungeons (Norgos’ Lair and Heart of the Gloom) nearby. They look nice. They look realistic. They just… made it a bit too unnecessarily difficult for me, playing guessing games of “can I walk here?” so I switched.
For the sake of this post though, I’ll play on graphic tiles so that the screenshots are more immediately readable.
Anyhow, back to the alchemist:
ToME4 is amazingly easy to customize. Hitting “M” brings up the screen that allows you to rebind all the talents to hotkeys 1-9, ctrl 1-9, etc. Very familiar in style to those of us who play MMOs. Note the friendly hotbar below with graphical icons to help us keep track of our talent cooldowns.
Hitting “Escape” and selecting “Key Bindings” also allows one to customize all other key binds as well.
After taking a few minutes to get everything bound comfortably (which is also a good time to read through all one’s abilities), I turn my attention to the actual game.
As a human, we start in a forest called Trollmire. (Different races have different starting locations, which is quite fun.) A look above at the previous screenshot will show a white worm mass. Mousing over it shows it has 8 hp. Should be easy peasy.
I decide to ‘wait’ a few turns by hitting 5 on the numpad to stay still. I want to see what my golem does. It should spot the worm mass and attack. Sure enough, it does. It even “Rushes” which is a skill that allows fighters to charge through several squares in a single turn. I’m more used to doing that myself as a Berserker. The golem kills the white worm mass in a single hit…
…Revealing a wolf lurking behind it.
68hp wolf. It’s a good thing I was a coward and stayed behind.
I decide to approach it by one square and see what my golem does. Numpad arrow up one square.
(You can also click to move with the mouse, by the way, which is why ToME4 is so amazingly accessible in its UI. I like to use it to speed run to a safe location, and keyboard for finer turn-based control.)
The golem shields itself. Cool. Then it hits the wolf for 17 damage. The wolf hits it for 0. Nice tanky golem.
I suppose it might eventually kill the wolf by itself. But I feel like helping out. Got to try out what I’m capable of, after all.
I try out my first skill, Channel Staff, which uses mana, and apparently is able to shoot right through friendly targets without hurting them. I do 10 light damage. The golem also helps me hit the wolf again. A few more exchanges, and the wolf is dead!
Walking around incautiously led me to bump into a snake. Aaah!
My golem is behind me, dammit. The snake’s got 28hp, and I’m not especially keen on tanking as a mage type. It may also poison me, though poison here is less lethal than other roguelikes. You can generally tough them out (in my newbie experience anyhow) and there are other ways around it.
Time to try out the other skill I have. Throw Bomb. It apparently does 45ish fire damage, so that might finish off the snake in one hit.
I can’t help but notice it’s an area of effect when I trigger the skill, so I quickly mouse move it away a square, rather than center on the snake (which might hit me in the process.)
On clicking, the bomb is thrown. The snake lights up on fire. I hit it for 23 fire damage. It hits me for 5 physical damage. Then I hit it again for 8 fire damage (which might be it burning since its on fire.) I dunno. All I care about is that the snake is dead. Whee.
One move later, and joy. Rodents. There’s also an interesting looking staff on top of the brown rat. Both rodents only have about 17 hp, so they probably aren’t much of a threat.
Still, it’s a good time to practice safer fighting techniques. In roguelikes, one generally doesn’t want to be hit in multiple directions by different mobs. So a basic tactic is to try and retreat down a corridor where only one at a time can get at you.
This forest layout makes it trickier. Still, I retreat a couple squares, which conveniently puts the brown rat out of sight (it may or may not have seen me) and my enthusiastic golem rushes out at the white mouse. I get ready to help it with a Staff Channel.
The mouse is dead, but now more enemies show up.
Good thing I’m way back here. I’ll help my golem out from range and let it do the dirty work.
A couple of staff blasts later, the green worm mass is dead (after it multiplied itself once) and the midge swarm is also gone. But two 104hp trolls show up. It IS the Trollmire, after all.
I want to cry. A couple of staff blasts and a bomb later, the troll that has gotten immediately adjacent to me is on 19 hp, but his brother is still perfectly healthy. My golem is dozing off in the middle of nowhere.
I could try to run, but I decide I want to see just how tough (or not) an alchemist is in melee combat. So I take a swing at the weakened troll by moving into it (or clicking on it) and I hit it for 14 fire damage.
(I figured out that I could make my staff change damage types with Command Staff, which was fairly cool, and everyone knows trolls are weak to fire. If you don’t, there’s always that helpful context sensitive mouseover to show you the -50% fire resistance it has.)
My golem helpfully rushes back and whacks it for 20 damage, and the troll is dead. Heck, it could have killed it without my help, but how was I to know?
Some frantic exchanges of staff whacks and a bomb blast later, the other troll is down (and the brown rat which wandered in and got squished by the golem) and I’m a little worse for wear with half health remaining. The troll’s left a bit of gold too.
Good time to collect it, then attempt to rest up and heal by hitting ‘r’ to rest until healed. No enemies are nearby, so this works as planned.
After those exchanges, I’m 34% of the way to level 2.
Time to go looking for more trouble…
I could continue on, but it’ll make for way too long a blog post. Suffice to say that I’ve barely scratched the surface of ToME4 in this show-and-tell.
Every class plays at least a little differently, the monsters are different, there’s a lot of room for tactical thinking and interesting decisions. It’s incredibly beginner-friendly with a user interface that ought to be copied by more roguelikes. It’s fantastic, and it’s free.
What’s not to love?
I should be back in GW2 in time for Wintersday.