Tales of Maj’Eyal – A Review on Whether It is a Good Game

I’ve been playing roguelikes since the late 80s, early 90s, starting with Nethack when I was a young girl. Later, I discovered ADOM, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. It took me a while to warm up to Angband and its variants, cause I was used to “Hacklikes”, which are fundamentally pretty different games. I’ll be using the terminology “*Bands” to refer to the latter, the * meaning put whatever you like there. Games like Angband, Zangband, Cthangband, Animeband, Hengband, etc. I’m going to do some comparing, because in order to understand why you should play ToME, some history and context is useful. You’ve gotta know what you’re getting into, here.

Comparing Hacklikes to *Bands is a lot like comparing X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter to X3. Roguelikes aren’t generally “fast-paced” (with the exception of some wonderful titles like Crypt of the Necrodancer), but when I say that Hacklikes are faster than *Bands, what I mean is the planned length of a successful game is much shorter. You can beat Nethack in a determined afternoon if you know exactly what you’re doing and get a bit lucky. *Bands are designed to be played for hundreds of hours before completion. This distinction wasn’t apparent to me until I got a bit older and explored the *Bands more thoroughly, because at first I just found them boring and samey.

Tales of Maj’Eyal (and how do you even say that out loud?) is, historically and in spirit, a *Band game. It used to be called Tales of Middle Earth, and was based on a game called UMoria, which is in turn an Angband variant. For ToME 4, they discarded the Tolkein and created all new lore from scratch, and changed a LOT of features. This is largely the ToME that you’ll be playing if you buy this game.

So, what characterizes a *Band, and ToME in particular? What kind of games are these?

Whereas in Hacklikes, you are pressed forward by limited resources and infinitely spawning monsters, in a *Band, the game flow is based around infinite resources. Take food, for example. In most if not all Hacklikes, your character becomes hungry over time at a pretty good clip, and you have to find food or you will die. So, much of the early game becomes about knowing which monster corpses are safe or even beneficial to eat, as well as locating non-perishable foods such as rations (which are in turn quite heavy in bulk, necessitating inventory management of very limited space).

In *Bands, you also get hungry, but the rate at which you do is very very slow compared to Hacklikes. Monsters generally don’t leave corpses, and you can always buy rations in town, which you can always get back to easily with a scroll of recall. Hacklikes generally have no such spells or scrolls (if they have towns at all), and shop inventory is very limited and, depending on the game, usually does not restock.

Hunger is, however, a mechanic that later on becomes almost a non-issue in winning Hacklike runs. There exist items that can slow digestion or produce infinite or near-infinite food in most all Hacklikes, such that the hunger mechanic mostly kills off early characters or very unlucky midrange characters. And in *Bands, I’m a relative noob, but I’ve still never lost a character due to hunger.

So, why even have a hunger mechanic, then? The developer of ToME probably asked himself that very question, and did away with hunger for ToME 4. This is only one of many smoothed out, streamlined mechanics that fully embrace the *Band / infinite resources heritage of ToME and make it more accessible for newcomers. There are also no unidentified items, for instance, and the game offers you an “adventure” mode where you have more than one life, or an “exploration” mode that’s unlocked and visible right from the start, with infinite lives. Of course, I’m bullheaded and old-school, so I only play on “roguelike” mode, where dead is dead. But you might find you have wiggle room in other modes to learn more per character.

You’re still going to die a lot, especially if you play anything other than a Bulwark. But the classes are very interesting, and the lore is very well-written and interesting. You gradually unlock more birth options (for new characters) as you play and find certain sidequests, but nothing else is persistent between runs, unlike many of the rogue-lites and mystery dungeon type games that have been popular lately. This is a very hardcore, old-school roguelike of the *Band lineage. You’ll be playing any particular character for a very long time, growing attached to them and overcoming many challenges before dying horribly 100 hours from now because you got stupid for a second. And then you’re going to start over, because it’s insanely fun.

Alchemists in particular are probably my favorite class so far: You get a golem that you can equip and that has laser eyes and charges into battle to take hits for you while you throw grenades from the back lines. I like to name mine after my boyfriend. Summoners are also a lot of fun: you can throw wolves at peoples’ faces, and summon dragons and minotaurs to kill things while your turtle tanks for you. But I really recommend playing Bulwark or maybe Berserker to start: they’re much less flimsy (Bulwarks in particular, they’re the sword/mace/axe and board characters) and will let you learn more and accomplish more birth unlocks per run.

Healing is accomplished through cooldown abilities rather than limited items, and you have a lot of options for talent specs to build even a particular class in very different ways. Different races have very useful and interesting bonuses and penalties and racial skills, and as a woman I appreciate that there’s no in-game difference between playing female or male. Roguelikes aren’t the games to do gender political commentary, lol.

So, if you get ToME (and you absolutely should), you’re basically getting what games like the Elder Scrolls series aspire in their most ambitious moments to be: a long-term playfield where you can go on adventures and explore dungeons and become strong from nothing. Most modern crpgs try to achieve what roguelikes, and *Bands in particular, already had nailed a long time ago, and if you play this version of ToME, you’re getting the best of any game I’ve seen so far in this already-amazing and venerable genre.

One last thing: this game includes a chat feature that lets you talk to other players as you play on a few different channels, and I highly recommend you use it and get to know some of the other people who know a lot about the game. Your mileage may vary of course, but in my experience the community for this game is both dedicated and very welcoming and helpful. The chat is a fantastic feature.

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