Temple of Elemental Evil

Bill Dungsroman 3/14/2004 

ToEE Jam

The Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE) is a study of contrasts. The focal point of the game, the eponymous Temple, is a rock-solid dungeon crawl. The outlying towns, however, are buggy pointless clusterfucks. The combat system is incredibly refined, one of the best I’ve ever seen in an RPG. Unfortunately, it’s criminally underused and severely hampered by the various tics and shortcomings of the engine and interface. In short, I’m hoping Troika gets to make a deeper, more involved follow-up game (with a better story) using an improved version of this engine (coupled with some significant tweaks to the interface) – it could easily be a latter-day Baldur’s Gate 2. In the meanwhile, you actually have to contend with a latter-day Baldur’s Gate 1 for the most part.

No Dice

The beginning of ToEE is mostly standard faire for a party-based D&D game: you roll up your guys and prepare to set out on the adventure du juor. Based on the newest iteration of the PnP D&D rules set, dubbed version 3.5, the character generation aspect of ToEE will be no doubt confusing to the uninitiated, which is most everyone. Character creation itself has its quirks. Choosing your character’s hairstyle is a kind of queer just this side of DOAX Beach Volleyball in any RPG as far as I’m concerned, but some of the options in ToEE are patently ridiculous. I had to pick a mullet for my paladin and two pigtails that stick straight out of the side of her head for my druid, just for the sheer absurdity of it all. A slider bar to set your character’s height (within the defined limits from the PnP rules) took far too long to code for to bother including, I’d wager. Voice options aren’t bad, but character portraits are terrible with the bonus of being limited as well. That is, unless you want to be an elf. And don’t we all, secretly? Troika thinks so. Also, be careful when selecting alignments for your characters; parties composed of incompatibly aligned characters are forbidden, so your True Neutral thief will not be allowed to join your Lawful Good paladin and vice-versa. I thought you could do that in the PnP game; alas.

Look everyone, it took me 1666 rolls to get my characterís stats! I am so FACED!
However, portraits aren’t the lamest part and choosing hairstyles isn’t the gayest. That dubious double honor belongs solely to stats rolling. You get two options for rolling your characters primary attributes. The "Basic" method is having the game literally roll your stats, so you get six randomly generated numbers to put into whatever category you’d like. The "Advanced" method is to start with all 8’s and then get 25 points to distribute however you want to improve those scores. Ah, but moving a stat from 17 to 18, for example, costs you 3 of those points. What does that ultimately mean? It means your Advanced characters will suck and die. Stick with Basic, because with Basic you’ll never roll a character as pathetic as the best one you can craft in the Advanced mode. Essentially this decision is simply a second-tier difficulty choice. The gay part comes in where the game tracks how many times you rolled to get those stats, and then brands your character permanently like the Scarlet Letter with the roll count on your character sheet. Just so – what? – when you multiplay everyone can snigger at the fact that it took you 73896 rolls (there are five orders of magnitude on the counter) to get your character’s stats? I’ll just click out and restart character generation until I get the stats I want in less than 20 rolls. I AM THE GREAT MIN-MAXER, YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME.

But First, Letís Play The Introductory Module, The Village of Hommlet.

ToEE is based (quite literally) on an old and supposedly great D&D PnP module of the same name. That module had a lead-in intro module for characters level 1-3, The Village of Hommlet. Wouldn’t you know I’d miss the fun and play The Keep on the Borderlands when I was a kid? The modules were written by E. Gary Gygax, and the brilliance of one of the first fantasy RPG modules ever written must certainly translate to modern gaming decades later, shouldn’t it? I mean, computer RPGs have essentially been doing storyline donuts since the days of SSI’s gold box games. Don’t get me wrong, it was a neat module twenty years ago. That module’s dark spooky cover and the TV movie Mazes and Monsters are what prompted my mom to ban D&D in my household, which made it about 1000 times more fun to play after that. But now...?

How stupid can this game be? Exhibit A: Here I am wondering aloud what the fate was of a woman whom I saw die in the opening scene.
But wait! You do not begin the game in Hommlett. First you have to fight a small battle with bandits or an assassin or whatever, based on your party’s alignment. See, that’s one of the things Troika was bragging about during ToEE’s development, how the game "changes" to provide "different" "storylines" for different alignments (it even has a generic name in your quest log, "Neutral Good Opening Vignette," all the more glaring since all the other quests have more creative names). The game half-forgets that encounter once you’re in Hommlet anyway. What you really get is a pointless battle that often kills or seriously wounds at least one party member before you even get a chance to stop and figure out what weapons and equipment the game gave you. My favorite: the game doesn’t have your cleric memorize Cure Light Wounds in the beginning. Then – before you get a chance to even loot – you are whisked off to Hommlet’s city limits. Excuse me, how the hell is this just like a PnP D&D campaign? Dudes run up and attack you immediately and you’re piffed off to some other town with no break or interim period in between? Who’s the Dungeon Master, McG? Rapid-fire editing did wonders for Charlie’s Angels; it does very little here.

Since Hommlet is based off one of the original PnP introductory modules, it’s boring as hell. Troika does its best to provide you with unique quests, but many are dull and of the execrable Fed-Ex variety (Unite quarrelling family members! Play Cupid for some lovelorn townsfolk! Convert people to religion! What is this, Touched By A Deva?), and are often broken and thus cannot be completed anyway. Some have to be done in a certain order (with no clues as to why or what order) or you won’t be able to complete them. Search high and low for some lost soul who you will never, ever find. Feel that all-too familiar sensation of disappointment commingled with frustration as an NPC once again fails to give you a vital dialogue option in order to complete a quest, seemingly at random. I would ignore most of the stuff in Hommlett beyond the merchants, the Inn, and the local temple (for obvious reasons) unless it’s to pickpocket. Another major town, Nulb, isn’t so stellar either, but it introduces the groundbreaking concept of having the game play change dramatically for arbitrary reasons. Simply walk into a tavern and you may be able to freely conduct commerce with the innkeeper, or you may be inexorably drawn into a large violent battle forcing you to kill everyone in the bar. The predicating factor: the class/alignment of whichever party member randomly picked to be addressed first when you entered. It enhances replay, but only in the immediate sense. I felt a paladin shouldn’t just waltz into a bar and massacre the joint, serving wenches included, so I reloaded. But what the hell do I know?

Ze Temple. Like new porn, it has its good and bad parts, you probably wonít last 5 minutes in your first encounter with it, and it ultimately gets pretty repetitive and boring.
As you may have guessed by now, my enjoyment of the game was at its lowest in the beginning as I wandered the bug-ridden Hommlet. However, the middle of the game was admittedly pretty fun, and shows how good this game could have been overall if it had been shipped finished with a few key design changes, or maybe if Troika hadn’t been the studio to make it. It has really nice graphics as well. Spell and combat animations are inventive. It’s tough to get over the initial bad taste of a game as you continue on through it though, as we all know. Combat can often become ponderous, bloated affairs, but the tactical slant turn-based combat (with a plethora of attack options) gives definitely adds to the depth and flavor of the game. A multitude of combat options makes for some interesting fighting styles and greatly expands the sort of characters you can create. The addition of combat moves like cleave, tumble, and attacks of opportunity add an element where the tide of a battle may (and often does) hinge on just one round. What’s bad is, you can never run away from a battle. There is no waging a war of attrition. Also, the high percentage of misses every character in the game seems plagued with draws out combat unnecessarily long. Missile weapons rarely hit, even with the relevant feats (which confounds the Root ‘n’ Shoot method somewhat). I’ll be the first to sheepishly admit we all got away with murder regarding missile weapons in BIS’ games (until IWD2), but the pathetically low hit rate for missile weapons in ToEE makes them practically useless unless your character is stocked with all the relevant feats. I stopped playing PnP D&D around the time the Second Edition rules came out, so someone will have to tell me if the PnP 3E sessions play like this. WHIFF DANG WHIFF DANG WHIFF DANG WHO WANTS HOT POCKETS? You’ll want your party to melee as quickly as possible, and you’ll want any non-mage party member prepared to melee for most battles. The Temple itself is big and is by turns fun and challenging, and overly repetitive and stagnant, depending on where you’re at in it and what mood you’re in for dungeon crawling at its most fundamental. Plus, it takes up the majority of game time. Sure, that’s no surprise, but it’s still boring. I’m no Hollywood starlet (sadly) but I’d still like to know what my motivation is for fighting my way through the Temple. Because it’s evil and hath risen again? Weak. The Icewind Dale games had attacking monster armies. Where are the attacking monster armies? Sorry, but the thrill of exploring a dungeon simply because it’s there wore off after my second or third PnP campaign back in junior high, and that’s why I think this notion of recreating an old (albeit popular) PnP module is overrated. In Baldur’s Gate 2, an evil mage throws you in a dungeon, tortures you and your friends (killing half of them), and ultimately steals your soul. That’s the sort of shit that gets me to load up an RPG, not some drunk NPC fighter who mumbles "Dis place is e-e-evil!" when we finally get there.

page 1 2