Review: Tales of Maj’Eyal

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Wouldn’t it be nice to have an RPG you could just play forever? To have a huge, randomized world to explore, hundreds of enemies to battle, nigh infinite loot to find, and dozens upon dozens of characters to try? There are more attempts at just such perfection now but few have reached the heights of Tales of Maj’Eyal in scope or depth. As long you can get past some balance and aesthetic hangups, you might get your wish in this one.

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ToME, as I’m going to abbreviate it from here on, is a roguelike RPG of incredible scale. Right from character creation you have dozens of combinations of races and classes to choose from, with more to unlock as you explore the world. There’s plenty of exploring to do across said massive world as well, what with the layout of the continents and dungeons randomized each time. Enemies and loot are even more randomized, scattered throughout in ways that encourage you to explore every nook and cranny of every level of every dungeon. There are towns to visit and NPCs to take quests from, and though the main story quest is the same every time your start and some elements later are determined by your race and your class.

Every time you start a new character you’re in for a dramatically different adventure in fact, just as you would expect from a quality roguelike. Right from the basics there’s a huge amount of variance between the classes. You have everything from different flavors of warriors and archers to exotic professions like chronomancers and abominations. Leveling up gains you new stat points to spend, skill points in two separate classes of skills, and occasionally the chance to learn entirely new skills. Coupled with the ridiculous amount of loot to find there’s a lot of customizing to do, and dozens of skills to use on a single character between their class skills, racial skills learned skills, runes, infusions, and item-granted powers.

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If all this sounds overwhelming, it really isn’t because of how the game is played. ToME is turn-based at your pace, meaning things only happen when you move or attack. Attacking can be as simple as bumping into enemies to auto attack, or laying out combinations of skills over dozens of turns. And this is where the balance starts to become an issue, because for most fights you’ll be doing the former. Most enemies in ToME are little more than filler, assuming you’ve been diligent in exploring and leveling. Despite the vast array of enemies to battle, many present little challenge. It’s the rare unique enemies and ones with certain devastating abilities you have to watch out for, and in stark contrast with the rest of your foes these can end your life in one or two turns. Every single character I have lost has been to an unexpected boss or unique that wrecked me instantly after cleaving effortlessly through their minions.

To its credit, ToME has a wide assortment of difficulty settings, and the default level gives you several lives to experiment with before succumbing to permadeath. But it’s a band-aid on a much deeper balance wound. Most of the adventuring in ToME presents so little challenge you can run on autopilot, until suddenly dying to the one thing in the room that poses a threat. This creates a strange whiplash effect between mounting boredom and sudden frustration. And the methods for overcoming a challenging boss won’t always be clear thanks to the immense volume of stats and abilities that you normally don’t have to keep much track of. Even after a dozen hours it can be hard for me to tell what my character is ready for.

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The result is a game that’s not too daunting to get into, but presents a real challenge to master. Every attempt is a long and gratifying series of small discoveries and victories before the inevitable end comes. There’s plenty of unique items, new classes, and lore to uncover even if beating the game isn’t in the cards. I still haven’t come close to whatever the end is, but after 20 hours I’m still not tired of the meat grinder. Maybe I really can play this forever, and even if you can’t, you’ll get a lot of quality adventuring out of it.

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