Two years ago Troika Games developed Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, an interesting and complex role-playing game that sadly had sub-par graphics and an iffy combat system. Now Troika is back with The Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure, but it’s nothing like Arcanum. In fact, it’s the antithesis of Arcanum. TTOEE has great graphics and a pretty good combat system, but everything else is handled badly -- if handled at all -- and it ends up being one of the worst role-playing games I’ve ever played. (But it’s not the worst. Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor has that honor wrapped up.)
Now, if you’re wondering if you should keep reading this review since I seem to have already canned the game, take heart. TTOEE is a bad role-playing game, but it’s not a horrible game. That’s because TTOEE has excellent mechanics, and it works well as a turn-based tactical strategy game. It’s just that for some reason Troika decided not to go the Fallout Tactics route, and instead they surrounded the engine with the thinnest of thin role-playing games. And so there isn’t any story in TTOEE (there isn’t even a quest involving the Temple of Elemental Evil; you just go there because there isn’t anywhere else to go) and there’s barely any character development (you’re completely anonymous, and you only make it to level 10). There isn’t even anything for thief characters to do (I think there might be a grand total of 10 traps in the game). No, TTOEE is all about turn-based combat. If you’re looking for anything else, then you’re looking in the wrong place.
Luckily, the TTOEE engine handles combat well. Battle moves are fun to watch (fighting gelatinous cubes is especially cool), there are a bunch of different types of enemies to kill (including some fairly exotic creatures like lamias and leucrottas), and there are a lot of different combinations of characters you can have in your party, with numerous ways of developing those characters, giving you all sorts of strategic options for how you want to deal with enemies. Do you sneak around and backstab monsters, or splash them with spells, or just wade in with fighters and whack them to death? Plus, because you can have up to eight characters in your party, the battles are much larger than you usually see, and that changes strategy as well because you have to be more careful with how you manage your spells, and how you position your party. In some games you never have to heal during combat, but in TTOEE it’s almost guaranteed.
Better, TTOEE looks great. The character animations are excellent (and you can have everything from a 2’6” halfling to a 6’10” half-orc in your party), the locations are nicely rendered (what you might have hoped for but didn’t get from BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights engine), and even the spells look pretty good. The downside to the graphics is that TTOEE has some performance issues. I ran it on a newish 3.0 GHz machine, and it still ran jaggedly, even after I started turning down some of the graphics options. And some areas caused noticeably long pauses (up to a minute) just from scrolling the view. So if your computer is anywhere close to the minimum system requirements, TTOEE is game you might want to avoid.
Of course, you might want to avoid TTOEE anyway. It’s definitely not a friendly game. Among other things TTOEE doesn’t give you any difficulty settings (other than an “ironman” mode that only allows you to save when you exit), and Troika seems to have decided to emulate the Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5 rules as closely as possible, without taking into account whether the rules make the game fun to play or not. So, for example, there isn’t a friendly toggle to guarantee your characters get a good hit point role when they level. If you want to make sure they get close to their maximum, you have to save and restore a lot, which is boring. Also, every little potion and scroll in the game needs to be identified, but there isn’t any sort of lore ability to handle the task for you, and identify spells cost you 100 gold. That combination just seems mean and cruel. Plus, there isn’t any sort of teleportation system, so you have to do a lot of walking, and the game won’t cast any healing spells for you when you rest, so healing your party can be a long and tedious task, especially since there are very few safe places to rest in the game.
TTOEE is also a little boring. There are only two towns and two dungeons in the game, there is absolutely no story to drive things along (when I got to the end boss, I didn’t even realize who it was), and the quests are a joke. In fact, the quests aren’t even as good as a typical game’s FedEx specials. Mostly you just walk back and forth across a town talking to people, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you have to do something like heal a sick person or find a missing ring. I’m guessing most people who play the game multiple times skip the quests completely, just because they’re so inconsequential. And interesting dialogue? Forget it. The text is about as exciting as the quests, and the voice acting is terrible. The actors speak slowly and pause every few words, and that speech pattern gets annoying in a hurry.
Finally, apparently TTOEE had more than a few bugs when it shipped. However, when I played it using the recently released patch, I didn’t have too many problems. The game crashed a few times, but there weren’t any broken quests or corrupted save game files, and so if you were waiting for TTOEE to become “playable” it appears to be safe now.
Overall, TTOEE ends up being a disappointing game. I mean, Troika is the group behind wonderfully complex role-playing games like Fallout and Arcanum, and then they release a straightforward combat game. So, while TTOEE had its moments, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but serious power-gamers and fans of turn-based strategy games like Jagged Alliance might want to give it a try.