Tales of Maj'Eyal
for PC (Linux)

Mr Creosote:
Alternate Titles: TOME4
Company: Netcore Games
Year: 2012
Genre: RPG
Theme: Fighting / Sword & Sorcery / Text-based
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 5928
Review by Mr Creosote (2021-07-17)

Tales of Ancient History

Moria, in the early 1980s, introduced the (unlicenced) use of Tolkien's Middle Earth setting into the Roguelike genre. From it came Angband (1990), greatly expanded and still going strong today. In gameplay terms, ZAngband (1994) took another major step forward by introducing a whole world to be explored outside the regular town + dungeon setting (while also moving away from Tolkien). On this basis, someone had the bright idea to take all these improvements back to Tolkien, creating Tales of Middle Earth – or TOME for short.

Though then, having been hit by accusations of use of non-licenced material before, that same developer decided to move on again and create his own, original world. And modernize the whole game in the process. Such fundamental rewrites, of course, usually end nowhere, spelling the dragging end of any formerly popular piece of software. But TOME refused to die and made a triumphant comeback in 2010 as Tales of Maj'Eyal. Winning the prestigious award of Roguelike of the Year three times in a row. Now, some ten years later, all this is history again. Time for us to revisit this good-old, modern classic!

The Game

What made TOME4 so incredibly popular in those years was its size and polish. In a genre where the usual game consists of just a dungeon with n levels, it was on par with ADOM in terms of scope. It offered an unprecedented amount of combinations of player race and class (more on that later). And, in a genre where most games to this day use character-based graphics, it offered a fully graphical display and an elegant mouse interface.

One special feature noteworthy to this day indeed lies in the player character definition. Initially, not all classes are available. In-game, this is explained insofar that some people (such as mages) have simply disappeared from the world and need to be found again first. I.e. each run opens up new possibilities for the next one. Out of game, this is a clever way to guide newcomers to try straightforward ways into the game first, and also keep players motivated to try subsequent runs. Particularly since the introduction into the plot is a different one depending on player character definition.

There's still things to discover

In the same vein, options of in-game character development are quite extensive. Based not just on basic character stats, but also a number of specific talents, many specializations are possible. These lead to different possibilities to approach the core game challenge, the fighting. Where the regular encounter with a random monster may be easily won just by repeatedly bumping into them (simulating a standard melee attack), as soon as bosses or larger groups of enemies pop up, applying special moves, contemplating very well what to do, in what order and reacting to which moves made by the enemies becomes absolutely crucial. Needless to say, with your next character (of another class), there will be new challenges, but also new strategies again. For sure, the strongly tactical battles are one of the biggest strengths of TOME4.

Though then, its long heritage and tradition does not only work in its favour. One typical effect of long legacies shows its ugly head here as well, namely the over-abundance of different systems inside the game. Whereas more recent genre entries usually focus on doing one thing right, the combination of developers getting bored and expert audiences demanding new features often leads to uncontrolled growth.

TOME4 primarily suffers from the huge amount of equipment objects found in practically every level. For sure, strong attempts have been made to make the choices of what to equip hard; it's rare to find the ultimate weapon or armor which is clearly superior compared to the player's current gear. This is due to damage dealt / prevented etc. is multi-dimensional, through many different damage classes, countless other special abilities etc. Though this is also where the issue lies: there's just too many factors to consider to really master it all. Combined with the over-abundance of objects overall, the player choice what to use, which is supposed to be interesting and difficult, is quickly rendered completely meaningless.

Yup, I found all that on one level. And there's a scrollbar.

Yes, the game avoids the player being forced to take long trips to towns to sell superfluous equipment by introducing a special item automatically transmogrifying everything not wanted anymore into the equivalent of gold. Though the fact alone that the developers considered it necessary to make such an item, which finally is nothing but a workaround, should have told them there is a deeper issue just waiting to be solved.

Finally, there is the game's plot to be discussed. This is where things enter into even more subjective areas. The big initial mystery revolves around the question of what has happened to this world. Why have the mages disappeared? What are those artefacts found occasionally? What are the orcs up to? Honestly, as a personal observation, I found myself only skimming across those bits and pieces of lore, with clearly decreasing attention and interest. It's all bog-standard fantasy stuff about ambition gone wrong, sinister motivations and so on. This certainly has its dedicated audience, though it's not for everyone considering the amount of text to be stomached in the course of a typical playthrough.

Better think well before acting

In hindsight, TOME4's immense historical importance must be apparent to everyone. Its success lead to a strong resurgence of the roguelike genre in commercial and non-commercial terms. For insance, without it, the by this point already legendary ADOM wouldn't have received its makeover. Yes, TOME4 is a good game. Though speaking of ADOM, that one managed to overtake TOME4 again. Its graphics are simply more appealing and polished in its much more distinctive style. Its interface has caught up, convenience functions added. And while it also has its own share of feature creep, the self-conscious, semi-ironic tone (inherited from NetHack) helps tolerating some of its inadequacies. TOME4, in the tradition of Angband, takes itself quite seriously, potentially making it rather dull on the story front to those not strongly invested.

At its core, there is an excellent, expansive game to be found. It's just that maybe, just maybe, it tries to please too many people at once.

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