Yeah, I get it. You hate Rogue-likes. You hate just clicking on enemies until they die. You hate ASCII graphics, tilesets that look like they were made in MS Paint, and interfaces that feel older than you do. You hate the tedium of hauling around tons of equipment, just to find out most of it was cursed anyway. You hate juggling potions, scrolls, food, ingredients, and God knows what else. You hate managing hunger, rest, thirst, ennui, humidity, and how long it’s been since you last felt love’s sweet embrace. And most of all, you hate. Randomly. Dying. Over. And Over.
Well my friend, your prayers have been heard by DarkGod (really, that’s his handle). And he has answered them with Tales of Maj’Eyal.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As a distant but direct descendent of the esteemed Moria/Angband bloodline of Rogue-likes, Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME, or technically ToME 4) is still a Rogue-like in the most traditional sense. We’re not talking Binding of Isaac, Spelunky or FTL. No-no-no, my friend; this is a single-character, top-down, I-go-you-go, dungeon-delving RPG. Low on plot, high on procedural generation. What separates ToME from the likes of ADOM or Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup – or, heavens help you, NetHack – is that it does everything it can to strip out those elements of Rogue-likes that turn many people away from the genre. In that way, it is something of a paradox: a hardboiled Rogue-like with a steep learning curve, that is still somehow approachable.
There’s still plenty of randomness, but you have (almost) complete say in your character’s development. There’s still inventory management, but it’s been magnificently streamlined. You’ll still die. Over. And over. And over. But every time, it will be because you did something stupid. And you’ll learn from it, and next time, you’ll do better. There’s even modes that grant extra or infinite lives. You know, for those who have no respect for themselves as gamers. [He’s kidding. -ed]
Still not sold? Well, grab a lantern, and let’s get to delving.
Crawlin’ some Dungeons
“For the Iron Throne!” clamored Boggin the Dwarf, “For Norgan the Bold!” In his frantic escape from the depths of Reknor, he had laid low dozens of Orcs with his gleaming blade. But this patrol had proven especially deadly – invoking their runic magic to blind the Dwarf while they pelted him with arrows from afar. Finally, only the squad leader remained – a hulking figure who forsook weapons to fight with plated fists alone.
Boggin’s sword came crashing down – but with unfathomable grace, the Orc simply flowed away from its arc. The ugly, stinking creature smiled sadistically as he delivered a harsh counterpunch right into the Dwarf’s ample belly. The short warrior’s chain armor absorbed some of the impact, but it left him reeling nevertheless. Before he could recover, Boggin took two more rapid blows. “He thinks he has me outmatched,” the Dwarf thought to himself as they circled one another. “But if he believes me a simple warrior…”
The Orc launched his knock-out punch – a solid uppercut. But Boggin anticipated the blow, and activating his runic shield, giving him the window of opportunity he needed to deliver a counterattack of his own. With a savage roar, he spun, swinging his blade in a wide arc. As it found purchase in the Orc’s side, it surged with mana, delivering a crackling jolt of lightning. The Orc’s back arched in pain as the current rushed through him, and he crumpled to the floor – smoke rising from his charred flesh.
OK, I took some liberties with the description. In-game, that would be represented by 2D sprites bumping into each other. That core gameplay element will be familiar to anyone who’s played the granddaddies of the genre – hence why I hold ToME as a more “pure” Rogue-like. You walk around procedurally-generated environments, fight procedurally-generated monsters, and find procedurally-generated loot. The inclusion of an auto-explore button makes combing the dungeons and picking off straggling enemies a breeze. Along with the addition of a “Rod of Recall” which allows you to teleport back outside of a dungeon (after a 40-turn wait), ToME cuts down on the trudging to get you back to the bludgeoning.
Combat plays out in the time-honored I-go-you-go style. Each time you move once, you can generally expect everyone else to also make one move. This all happens simultaneously – no need to wait for everyone to take their individual turns. But unlike many traditional Rogue-likes, where combat often consists of walking your sprite into your enemy over and over, ToME features a lot of active combat abilities. We’ll cover that more in the next section.
Along with the assorted mooks (which can honestly cream a careless player), you’ll find an assortment of “fixed” uniques – usually zone bosses – and random unique monsters. The latter, in particular, can keep you on your toes with some truly hideous combinations of abilities. This dynamic is nothing new in the Rogue-like genre, but it’s done competently here.
As merciful as ToME may be (for a Rogue-like, anyway), sometimes you may find yourself in an unwinnable situation. There may be too many uniques too close together. You may find an enemy with a combination of abilities that you just can’t answer. Rarely, you may find yourself subject to an ability that can one-shot you no matter what you do – although these abilities are often removed from the bosses’ procedural generation tables if they get out of hand. But ToME gives you ample abilities, items, and strategies that will keep you alive as long as you stay alert, don’t press your luck too far, know what you’re getting into, and have a plan for getting out if things go awry. Compared to many Rogue-likes which often revel in slaughtering player characters, ToME takes a tough-but-fair approach.
That’s not to say ToME is easy per se. You’ll still rack up plenty of deaths on your way to greatness. Playing only on “Roguelike” permadeath status, I lost 14 characters before I got my first winner (that’s actually very generous for a traditional Rogue-like), and since then I’ve had three more winners with only one more death. And guess what – it was a stupid and preventable death of a character with a poor, experimental build.
For those who feel squeamish about permanently losing a beloved character, ToME features multiple levels of permadeath. In fact, the suggested mode actually gives the player several lives – with in-game justification and everything! Even on “Roguelike” (one life), a few very rare items and abilities can grant you an extra life. Those who want to experience the game but not worry about their life total can enable “adventure mode” with unlimited lives.
Outside the dungeoneering experience that is its core, ToME features an overworld map with cities, shops, quests, and optional encounters. It isn’t terribly complex or interesting, but it’s there (again, not always the case in Rogue-likes) and it’s appreciated. The shops in particular go a long way towards smoothing out the bumpy low-level experience by providing some decent baseline gear for a price.
Of course, as any good Rogue-like-er knows, the meat of the gameplay is in the dungeon delving. One of ToME’s strengths is the diversity of its dungeons. Some are underground mazes, filled with traps and stealthy foes. Some are open, expansive wilderness areas. There’s an evil wizard’s tower crawling with undead, a race against time through a blazing inferno, an underground network of sandworm tunnels, even a dungeon where the walls turn into enemies if you linger. While some endgame dungeons do start to feel a little samey and grindy, there’s enough variety among the environments – and enough existential threat – to keep things interesting.
A Question of Character
A horde of lifeless skeletons stirred and grudgingly rose to their feet. “Join us in eternal slumber…” said the necromancer as a bolt of lifeless cold shot from her outstretched finger.
“I don’t think so,” said Everiel. The fel projectile slowed and wobbled in the air, as if questioning what choices had brought it to this place in life. It struck the elf with only a fraction of its initial force, the rest dissipated by the solid stone wall of her will. At the same moment, a hammer forged of pure thought darted across the room, returning two of the risen skeletons to the shambles from which they arose.
The rest of the skeletons dashed towards Everiel, but she paid them no mind. “You’re getting verrrrry sleepy,” she crooned. Eyelids drooping, the necromancer mumbled something incoherent before passing into a restless sleep. Everiel smiled – her quarry held in the palm of her mind, it was only a matter of time before the dark mage’s inner demons surfaced, her anguished mind ripe to their insatiable appetites…
Most Rogue-likes these days give some kind of permanent progression even if the player fails to make it all the way through a game. ToME follows suit with unlockable races, classes, customization options, difficulties, and even whole alternate game modes!
For races, you have most of your fantasy staples, plus some unlockable exotic races. Each gets a small attribute bonus (extra strength, cunning, etc.), but they all have their own racial talent tree. While a few are lacking (I’m looking at you, Higher), almost all of them have at least one or two excellent abilities that can shape the way a character plays.
While the races are good, the classes are just plain awesome. ToME doesn’t just give you your standard warrior, rogue, wizard, priest. Oh no. Instead, it has 10 class archetypes called “metaclasses” (plus one unusual special metaclass) with as many as five classes per! You don’t just have Rogues; you have one that focus heavily on stealth, traps, and wits, one that augments its abilities with magic, one that focuses on long-range combat with slings, and one warrior/rogue hybrid.
But that’s a conservative example. You also have Wilder varieties that can summon fantastic beasts and those that take on the aspect of dragons. There’s a discipline of mages that specialize in temporal magic, manipulating the flow of time and drawing their power from the paradoxes they create. There’s a psychic class with a mind so powerful it can actually shape the world around it, turning its thoughts into summoned creatures and weapons, and mentally dismissing the damage it takes and using it to fuel some of its abilities. Tell me that isn’t amazing, I dare you.
On top of that, classes are customizable to a point. One character can’t take every talent – or even open up every talent category – and many classes will play very differently depending on how you develop your character. On top of your talent points, each character will get to pick two of a diverse array of enormously powerful Prodigies. Most classes have optimal build paths that are necessary for tackling the highest difficulty levels, but on Normal and even Nightmare difficulty, there’s a lot of room for exploring builds. (And many experts don’t even agree on the best builds.) Mercifully, ToME even lets you take out the last few talent points you’ve spent so you can try out an ability or see how it scales.
Players will also find a wide variety of powerful items on their adventures. Alongside your usual +Hit Points and +Crit Chance, there are a lot of original and thematic attributes. For example, a cloak “of the Voidstalker” gives the ability to teleport close to a nearby enemy, plus a temporal displacement effect that boosts defenses after teleporting. Along with the procedurally generated items, there are a number of artifacts with flavorful, thematic attributes. Each even has a nice little piece of lore to accompany it.
Speaking of items! Inventory management is a major sticking point for many prospective Rogue-like players – and even many RPGers. ToME goes to great lengths to take the hassle out. Players don’t have to keep hauling their loot back to town, as items don’t require identification, and the portable Transmogrification Chest can turn any unwanted items into gold on the spot. Instead of being used up, wands just require time (i.e. turns) to recharge. Rather than hauling piles of potions, players graft Runes and Infusions onto their bodies, which can be activated ad nauseam on a cooldown – which is both more convenient and way cooler. Food doesn’t even show up in the game. These tweaks to the formula go a long ways towards cutting down on tedium, maximizing the time you get to spend bashing skulls and saving the world.
“Welcome back, Master,” said the projection.
“I really wish you would stop calling me that,” said Yrivel for the third time since that morning’s breakfast of souls and grape juice. “Have we made any progress on translating the Sher’Tul murals?”
“Negative. Without the Staff of Absorption, their meaning will remain a mystery.”
“I figured.” Yrivel glanced grimly at the orange cat looking longingly at him. The Higher gazed back hungrily, but quickly dismissed the idea. With a sigh, he dropped his protective shield of human bone and bent down to scratch it behind the ears. “And the Farportal? Has it collected enough energy to get me to Urh’Rok?”
“The portal is operational, but there is no guarantee of that it would deposit you on the demons’ homeworld.”
“Well,” the human muttered, “anything would be better than this trash heap…”
The main adventure in ToME kind of comes in two halves. The first is a pretty traditionally Rogue-like in that it is almost entirely devoid of plot. The second, added after the game’s initial launch, decides that now it has something to prove, and in doing so pulls out all the stops, turning the “we’re all screwed” meter up to 11. Even so, the overarching storyline is about as generic “save the world” as they come, and not terribly memorable.
However, where the plot falls short, the backstory makes up for it in spades. The world of Eyal has an expansive, grand, intriguing history that stretches across worlds and millennia. From the ravages of the Spellblaze that sundered the fabric of the world, to the legacy of the Sher’Tul Godslayers, to the disastrous Age of Pyre, to the persecution of Mages and the formation of the zealous Zigur order of mage-hunters, to the tyranny of the Halfling Dominion (no, seriously, those Halflings will **** up your ****), to the Demons From Outer Space (again, seriously) who probably have the best backstory and motivation of any demons I’ve ever encountered.
All of this is revealed in snippets of lore you’ll find scattered throughout the world, or sometimes, just obliquely hinted at for players to put together themselves – or not. These lore drops are often delivered with a delightfully dark sense of gallows humor and schadenfreude, as ToME’s writers seem to revel in just how horrible of a place Eyal is. Fans who really appreciate good world-building will enjoy this aspect of ToME.
Those hoping for a tight narrative experience will not find that here. But if worldbuilding is your thing, or if you just don’t care and would rather have less talking and more killing, ToME may be right up your alley. So why not check it out? I mean, it’s not like it’ll cost you anything, right?
Oh yeah, did I mention ToME is free? Because I should probably mention that it’s totally free.
You can play ToME from start to finish at absolutely no cost on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. Those who support the game through donations will unlock a new class as well as a limited ability to transfer items between characters. Those who want to play on Steam will have to shell out a cool $6.99 US for the game plus the donator perks – or $15.99 for the game and both expansions.
Said expansions consist of the demon-focused Ashes of Urh’Rok, and the Orc-focused Embers of Rage. The former is smaller in scope, featuring a few zones, a new class, a new race, and a number of smaller changes, but the latter sports a whole new campaign along with three new races and three new classes. I especially recommend Embers, as the campaign is top-notch (with a much better story than the original) and the classes are inventive and great fun.
Alongside the expansions, ToME has seen a number of patches since its launch in 2009. (It’s an oldie, but a goodie. And remember, FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Anyway.) Most of the patches it’s received over the years feature some nice quality of life improvements, balance tweaks, and new minor content like extra lore and more enchantments for weapons. The major pushes generally also rework one or more classes. Often, DarkGod will incorporate community suggestions or even whole mods, which vastly improves the state of the game. (He even adopted a suggestion I made back in November to the 1.5.0 version!)
Speaking of the community, the main ToME forums are still active, as is the wiki. While the game itself is single-player only, it features an in-game chat system full of helpful individuals ready to answer any questions you may have.
Blue Writer Needs Heading Badly
“Yes, sir!” The commander stood at rapt attention, never meeting the eyes of his chief. “We found the intruder’s charred remains just outside the Room.”
“Very good, Baelzor. When you first approached me with the idea, I thought you were mad. But that Room has wiped out more troublesome meddlers than all of my finest mages combined. Simply marvelous.”
“Thank you, Chief.” Baelzor tried not to look too pleased at the praise. “Our cryomancers are hard at work bringing the beasts back under control and stuffing their chilled bodies back into the Room.”
“Excellent,” said Vor. “Now, let us turn our attention to the matter of the Sunwall…”
So there you have it: a fun, surprisingly approachable Rogue-like that bucks many of the genre’s most alienating conventions and that, despite its face-level simplicity, one can gleefully dump hundreds of hours into. It doesn’t have whiz-bang graphics or AAA production values – or even BBB values. But if you can get past the simplicity of the presentation and the initial learning curve, it can suck you in hard. Years after first falling in love, I still return every few months to roll up a bunch of new characters – sometimes taking one all the way to a win or to its grisly demise.
If you like RPGs and want to try out a more traditional Rogue-like, or if you’ve always bounced off games of the genre, go ahead and give the free version a spin. If you like it, consider kicking DarkGod a few bucks to unlock the additional content, and I’ll see you in chat!
TL;DR: Tales of Maj’Eyal is a rewarding, addictive Rogue-like experience for newcomers and genre veterans alike. It still takes some hours to really get into, but it shuns many of the more byzantine, antiquated, and/or alienating aspects of Rogue-likes while remaining true to the genre’s essentials. If you’re looking to add another notch to your Rogue-like belt, this is a worthy title. If you’ve been meaning to dip your toe into the water, this is a great place to start.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re looking for a strong, modern(ish) incarnation of the classic Rogue-likes
- You’re interested in the genre, but always bounce off the tedium and gross unfairness of many titles
- You love RPGs with a great diversity of classes, abilities, and builds
- Hunting unlockables and achievements is a big draw (seriously, there are tons of these!)
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You want strong story or characterization in your RPGs
- AAA production values are a must
- You get frustrated when your characters bite the dust
- The callous nature of RNG gives you fits
Ben has played 425 hours of Tales of Maj’Eyal, most recently on a custom-built gaming PC with Windows 10, an Intel i5-6600k processor @ 3.5GHz, 16GB DDR4-2400MHz RAM, and a Sapphire Nitro R9 Fury graphics card.