[If you are unfamiliar with roguelikes, consider reading my introduction to the genre. You can read previous Roguelike Highlights here. As always, click on screenshots to view bigger versions.]

In the year when Dungeons of Dredmor was released to critical acclaim, topped the Steam sales charts for a while, and introduced a whole bunch of people to the roguelike genre, I was somewhat surprised to discover that it did not win the ASCII Dreams Roguelike of the Year award for 2011. Instead, a game I had never heard of took the prize: Tales of Maj’Eyal, a.k.a. ToME 4. Upon further investigation I discovered the the award is simply given to the game that receives the most votes from its fans, and that indeed one can easily vote twice or for several different games. Still, the fact that ToME 4 took the prize for the second year running indicates a very devoted fanbase, so I decided it was time to check it out.

I’m glad I did, because ToME 4 is actually one of the more unusual roguelikes out there, with quite a lot of ideas and mechanics I haven’t seen in other roguelikes. It’s not just a game, but also an engine, providing building blocks and tools for players to construct their own roguelikes. The game itself demonstrates the versatility of the engine, which is able to handle both traditional and non-traditional mechanics, as well as sound effects, music, and fancy sprites and graphical effects if desired. I haven’t poked around with the engine myself, so I’m not sure how easy it is to use, but it’s certainly powerful.

Doing a little more research, I discovered that ToME 4 actually has some traditional roguelike history behind it. Originally known as Tales of Middle Earth, it was a Tolkien-inspired variant on Angband, one of the earliest roguelikes that was itself inspired by Tolkien. While Angband was simply set in Middle Earth, however, Tales of Middle Earth actually followed the plot of The Lord of the Rings, seeing the player carry the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it (while getting distracted by numerous other quests on the way). According to the history page for ToME, the Tales of Middle Earth version also somewhat evolved from PernAngband, an Angband variant that introduced elements from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. Future versions removed or renamed the Pern elements, and with ToME 4 the new fantasy setting of Maj’Eyal was introduced, severing all ties with Tolkien’s fiction.

ToME 4 also bears little resemblance to Angband anymore, either. There aren’t many key commands to remember; movement can be done with the keyboard and mouse, all the menus, stat screens, and the inventory can be navigated with the mouse, and character special abilities and spells are all organized on a clickable action bar inspired by those used in MMOs (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online games, for those non-gamer-savvy among you) like World of Warcraft. In fact, ToME 4 borrows quite a bit from World of Warcraft, although I should note that I haven’t actually played World of Warcraft myself so I’m going off of what I’ve read about that game. Classes in ToME 4 are very important, determining which of the special abilities (divided into “talent trees”) are avilable to a character, and even determining which type of resource the abilities use (mana, stamina, etc.). A berserker, for example, specializes in two-handed weapons and gains many special attacks that can be accessed from the action bar. These attacks both drain stamina and take several turns of cooldown before they can be used again. Even spells are subject to cooldowns, although the standard ones are fairly quick.

Different character classes play in vastly different ways, and the special abilities ensure that even simple classes like melee fighters have many tactical options other than simply spending a turn doing a standard attack. My best character so far was a Bulwark, a fighter specializing in using shields, and at higher levels she was able to perform a super-powerful melee attack that guaranteed two critical hits in a row but had a long cooldown, a simple shield bash that could stun enemies, a charge attack that would push enemies away, a rush that closed the distance to an enemy in an instant, and a leap ability to move back out of melee range, among others. The downside to this versatility is that character development can be a little overwhelming. When leveling up I was presented with a paltry few character points to spend on a large array of talent trees, all with stat requirements and prerequisites. Should I level up one of my current talents or unlock a new one? Which new one should I unlock? Which stats do I need to bump in order to qualify for the best new talents? Answering these questions meant poring over the character screens for a while.

In an interesting move, many of the character classes and races are locked at the beginning, and players must unlock them by finding specific things in their playthroughs. At the start, for example, there’s no pure mage class avilable (although it is fairly easy to unlock). I understand the philosophy behind this — players are encouraged to learn the game with the simpler character classes before attempting more complex varieties — but it will probably annoy some players who want to try all the options right away. The unlocking system works mainly because ToME 4 is far less randomized than most roguelikes. The world map is fixed, and always contains the same dungeons and other dangerous areas to explore. These areas, which are usually 3 to 5 “floors” deep, are often associated with specific quests, which are also not random. Each area also has unique boss enemies that will always appear. Pretty much the only things that are randomized are the specific level layouts and standard monster encounters, and the loot. The loot deserves special mention as it’s clearly a major focus of the game. There’s tons of it, it very rarely needs to be identified (and when it does you can simply use an inventory item to do so, repeatedly), and it comes with all sorts of stats and buffs. The loot is very much in the vein of games like Diablo, even using the same colored tier system to indicate relative quality.

When so little else is randomized, it’s a good thing that ToME 4 takes advantage of its pre-designed aspects. The unchanging world map means different character races can start in different places, complete with their own introductory quests (although you can still travel around to a different character’s starting area and clear that out too). Bits of lore are scattered around that uncover new quests and new areas to explore. The quests themselves can be relatively complex, multi-stage affairs with different possible outcomes. But this design also means that it’s easy to wander into an area that’s too dangerous, and with limited options for escape, a character can easily die simply because the player didn’t know how dangerous a quest would be. Fortunately, the default game setting gives a character a limited number of resurrections, rather than the more traditional perma-death (although that’s an option) and in the case of ToME 4 I’d recommend taking the extra lives. I found ToME 4 to be more tedious to restart than many other roguelikes since so much of it was pre-set. When a character died, I did not particularly relish the idea of exploring the same starting forest and killing the same troll boss yet again. Other character classes ease the pain of restarting a bit with their own playstyles and starting areas, but I was only able to unlock a few of them, with many still blocked off.

Still, ToME 4 is definitely a very interesting design, and it isn’t afraid to shrug off some roguelike traditions and entertain ideas from other types of games. I’ve still only seen the beginning parts of the game, so there’s plenty more content waiting to be discovered should I feel inclined to try a new character out. It’s still in beta, so there are a few niggles, but overall I was quite impressed with the level of polish. The rough edges were most apparent in the title screen and mouse-based menus, where resolution-switching and other settings caused a bit of jittering before the game settled down. Once in the game proper, however, everything ran smoothly with only occasional pauses and sutters. No crashing or freezing to worry about.

If ToME 4 sounds like something you’d want to try, you can grab it for free here. It comes packed with the T-Engine, if you want to mess around and try constructing your own game too.