The Temple of Elemental Evil Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Atari
Developer:Troika Games
Release Date:2003-09-16
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
I'll say this outright. I've played many computerized and PnP RPGs over the years, but it's seldom I've encountered one whose good and bad qualities were as distinctive as TOEE. Depending upon what aspects of RPG gaming are individually rated the most significant, it's likely that this title will attract extreme reactions from players, Please bear this in mind while I attempt to explain what I find positive and negative about the game. You may come away with completely different conclusions than I have about any aspect of TOEE. But I hope you will extend me the courtesy of belief when I say that I've thoroughly played it, and without preconceptions concerning its quality. I have my own standards for what I expect from a computerized RPG, but I didn't approach this product either with guns blazing, or in an effort to sing the pre-printed praise of public relations.

TOEE belongs to that family of RPGs that lets you create an entire party, rather than focusing on one character and acquiring others as you travel. The creation screens let you design and maintain a raft of individual characters, rather than a single party with fixed members. You can use the point buy system for ability stats (the usual Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma), or roll up a character. The latter offers an excellent chance of getting more stat points and higher scores, which you can distribute at will among your different abilities. Eleven classes (including monks) are available, and seven races (including half-orcs): no surprises, there. Feats, skills, spells, portraits: again, these are all basically familiar, if you've played recent RPGs such as Icewind Dale 2. If you haven't, however, you'll want to consider carefully what feats you give your party members, since they can only reach 10th level in TOEE. It's an understandable limitation in the game, designed to properly scale combat and keep godlike parties from developing, but it does put those few feats some of your characters get at premium value.

Alignment is also important during TOEE's character creation. It limits the selection of characters you can have in your party; so that a Neutral Good group can only contain that alignment and adjacent ones: Lawful and Chaotic Good, and True Neutral. This determines where your party starts up and the selection of quests you receive. In all honesty, though, some of the changes were merely cosmetic, a matter of being sent to the same area and fighting the same monsters for different reasons. Some quests are only available to some alignments, however, and the game length could vary widely, as a result. Once in the TOEE module, alignment has no effect, at all. You aren't faced with moral dilemmas and dialog/action choices whose outcomes can shift this factor.

TOEE employs a hybrid system of 2D backgrounds and 3D foreground figures. The backgrounds resemble many other third party RPGs over the recent years, in particular the IWD and BG series: they're pleasantly drawn without stirring much enthusiasm. As much can be said for the portraits that appear when you speak with NPCs, though I'm glad these were added to the game. Troika's last title, Arcanum, lacked portraits save for you and your followers.

It's those foreground party figures that are so much more appealing. You can actually watch smaller races peddle those little legs faster to keep up; and unless it's my imagination, they actually take longer to arrive at any destination you choose. (The location marker you plant on the background, signaling a movement to your party, also takes the form of six circles, sized according to your respective party members: a small but nice touch.) Animation of all figures, your party members in particular, is excellent, while animation of magical effects in general is spectacular. It's safe to say that after seeing the way Magic Missiles arch along their extended trajectories in TOEE, you'll never be able to accept the way they've appeared in any previous game, again. Not everybody in the RPG development community wants to go the complete 3D route for multiple character parties, as Bioware did in KotoR; and for them, TOEE points to a viable, attractive alternative. It may just extend the life of the 2D RPG engine for a few more years.

Praise is due as well for the ability to give each party member up to four different configurations of weapons, armor and items, which are stored in memory. Character images are linked to their paper dolls, so changes you make to a character's appearance are accurately reflected in the game world.

On the downside, the game looks dark with my current card, an admittedly ancient (by current standards) ATI Radeon. This is especially so with interiors. If your video card lacks a gamma/brightness control, you're out of luck, at least, for now, since game options include no way to brighten the product. One would think Troika ought to know enough to include this. After all, it was in the initial release of their last title, Arcanum.

In addition, for all its wealth of animated detail, TOEE actually contains far less background that's interactive than several other recent RPG releases, such as Divine Divinity or Icewind Dale 2. It's so much like wallpaper, in fact, that it's easy to miss the very occasional times when an object (such as a cabinet) truly functions as a container.
There's a been a lot of arcane discussion on various boards about the new 3.5 D&D rules, and their partial implementation. Partial it may be in TOEE, but it adds a level of combat detail that's unparalleled in PC RPGs, at least since Origin Systems' GURPS-based Knights of Legend (1989). There are an array of feats, and a host of defensive and offensive actions that make any battle seem so much more extensive than a simple (cast/hit and kill/die) of the past. Attacks of Opportunity, charges, feints, trigger actions, the Coup de Grace, and aiding another party member (which involves giving them a +2 to their attack rolls) are just some of the examples of what TOEE has to offer. I can't emphasize this point enough, particularly given the heavy emphasis on hack-and-slash in TOEE.. For some players, it may just make the difference, and be sufficient to gain their commitment to the title whatever other reservations exist.

Troika at one point considered implementing prestige classes, but that was dropped before the game appeared. However, you can select from a host of gods for your clerics to worship, providing them with domain as well as generic clerical spells. (Other NPCs you create can select gods, too, but in my play time I noticed no advantage to doing this.) Spells in some cases require ingredients: each cast of Identify requires 100 gp, while a paladin's Bless Water uses five pounds of powdered silver (worth 25 gp). Fortunately, the game world offers plenty of opportunities to make money, and your party starts out life with a goodly sum. Unfortunately, the game doesn't inform you when a spell uses something you have on hand. In my first few sessions, I conveniently forgot about the new Identify cost, merrily sleeping and casting on various unknown inventory items until a dark red message flashed too briefly to be read and my spell fizzled. After trying it half-a-dozen more times, I finally realized I'd just spent 400 gp, the entire contents of my party's purse. My fault, no doubt about it; but still, couldn't TOEE have managed the simple task of letting me know when an item money, in this case was vanishing from my party, through my own actions?

This brings up the matter of that which hinders or aids your interacting with TOEE's world: the interface. With its radial menus that shoot out spokes and sub-spokes for party member activities, I can't claim it's particularly pretty; and it's certainly more clunky than BG2's efficiently grouped rows of spell and activity icons. I'm not quite sure why those colorful, well chosen icons were ignored in favor of text, or why you weren't given the opportunity to chose between text and icons, or perhaps both. (Options in TOEE are extremely limited.) Our brains, such as they are, recognize images far more swiftly than we interpret language. As a result, it's much quicker to note and click on spell icons for your mage to learn, than it is to read through a list of spell names for the ones you want. It's also more pleasing to the eye.

But it has to be said that the text-based radial menus are both thorough, and effective unless you forget that you can right-click to bring up a radial menu for any PC in the middle of the screen, and call one up at the edge near a character. Then, the spokes shoot out of view. Why this wasn't automatically compensated for before release must remain a mystery.

TOEE's quests are uninspiring, to put it mildly. The succession of quests you receive in Hommlet and Nulb may be extensive, but they're simple and mindless, involving no more decision-making than asking B to do something for A. Far worse, still, is the fact that in Hommlet's case they're almost all linked together in a daisy-chain. Not only are you asking B to do something for A, but B requires something from C, who in turn needs something first from D, who can't do it until she receives an object from E, etc. More than a half-a-dozen quests are joined in this fashion. It might almost rank as parody, if it wasn't done so half-heartedly. There's no personality to the various individuals you encounter as you slog over the pretty terrain and no running or waypoints you can set in TOEE to make travel that much quicker.

Difficulty-wise, Troika's quests are ever-protective of our low intelligence. One character says he can't perform a quest-based action, for example, despite having a scroll in the very same room where he remains that can do what is required. You find it, use it; boom: instead success! Quest completed: what a genius! Another character promises to religiously convert (a quest goal, as if you didn't know) when he sees a (miracle,) and does so after you heal a relative of his with a scroll as though he'd lived all his life in a town that lacked mages, clerics, monsters, potions, wands, etc. While these are some of the worst examples, they are not atypical of quest plotting in TOEE. They represent an imaginative void, a complete absence of ideas, and suggests that Troika put all their development time and resources elsewhere. The results are a game whose visuals and combat system draw me into their illusory world, and whose writing then kicks me out with complete disbelief.

Linearity is another issue, at least, for some of us. Of course, all RPGs, whether pen-and-paper or computerized, are ultimately linear, but some games (and some DMs) do a great job at disguising that fact. Wizardry 8, Morrowind, and Troika's own Arcanum offer enormous lands to explore, revealing key, plot-advancing quests only when you employ specific triggers. Others titles, like BG2, cleverly hit you with a large variety of carefully gradated quests as soon as you leave the relatively linear trainer dungeon, all of them beautifully justified in context. However, TOEE is based on an extremely linear module, and Troika did next to nothing to hide that fact. In this respect, it's like the Icewind Dale series, though some of the Icewind Dale characters leap out at you from the game, as potent in their flavor as the endless, well-structured battles.

And speaking of characters and story, TOEE is very ordinary. There are no distinctive personal touches that remain in the mind afterwards, like passion-dead Irenicus (from BG2) trying to recall the emotion with which he loved his long-dead wife, through keeping her old bedroom exactly as it was when she last used it. A very occasional follower adds personal interest such as Zaxis, the bard who sings every comment he makes, whether looting or expressing his cowardice. But by and large, the inhabitants of Hommlet, Nulb, the Temple and the surrounding areas, come across as either markers for quests, merchants, or stock villains for the killing: vanilla-flavored, regardless.

I'm a veteran and avid fans of Microprose's Darklands, which took eight patches before it was fully playable; and remember Ultima IX? So I'm familiar with bugs, and even rather blasé about their appearance. I expect a certain amount of bugs in any new release, given current product complexity. But I have never before seen an RPG which had as many playable bugs as TOEE. Leaving aside its fine share of game-crashers, it simply amazes me that a title was pushed onto the market in this state. Quite a few spells, like Entangle, don't work as they should. Other spells don't work at all, or can't be memorized, or vanish suddenly from memorization. Weapons have the wrong reach, wands weigh ten times as much as they should, and some skill and spell checks aren't made. Feats are inaccurately described, or don't perform correctly. Combat mechanics are mishandled in numerous respects. Even some ostensible (features,) such as the overlooting by followers you can hire that renders them heavily encumbered, sound pretty much like exasperating bugs. None of this prevents TOEE from being playable, at least much of the time, and on most computers, but the sheer massiveness of the bug load is awe-inspiring. A couple of personal friends with far too much time on their hands have already compiled a bug list I've seen. It's more than three pages long.

Any reasonable quality checking department, given sufficient time, could have reduced these problems to a manageable level. The obvious inference is that Q&A didn't get the product, or didn't get it long enough, or performed poorly. The result is just not suitable for primetime, in my opinion. A patch is in the works, according to Atari, but Troika has unabashedly stated that it's collecting data for the patch from player reports. We apparently paid our money for the game (and yes, I bought my copy) for the privilege of being a developer's baseline beta testers. Makes you feel warm all over, doesn't it?

In short, even if you passionately like the kind of RPG described above, I would suggest holding off the purchase of TOEE until the patch is released and check forum websites like GameBanshee to make sure it addresses all the problems.