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The Depths of Tolagal (PC) artwork

The Depths of Tolagal (PC) review

"Suffers from a lack of imagination."

The roguelike subgenre is becoming increasingly saturated with every passing month. Standing out among the crowd isn't easy, and The Depths of Tolagal does itself no favours with a tired, eye-rolling name and an unattractive visual style. Not the finest of first impressions. However, beneath the surface lies a genuinely interesting dungeon crawler. By introducing strategic, turn-based combat, The Depths of Tolagal manages to provide something relatively fresh. The execution falls slightly short, but the concept has real merit.

As in many games of this type, you're tasked with navigating several procedurally-generated floors - slaying monsters in your way - with the ultimate goal being to reach the bottom of the large dungeon in one piece. The story itself is superfluous (something about a butcher entering the fortress of Tolagal to rescue his kidnapped apprentice), and the flavour journal entries are a bog-standard and tame effort to breathe life into the world. But many of the core aspects expected from a roguelike are intact: equipment that should be upgraded whenever possible, tougher enemies as you progress, and permadeath that means survivability is paramount. Interestingly, permanent death can be deactivated if you wish, but this option goes against the procedural side of the title and I'd recommend against it.

The turn-based combat is implemented well, and when also bearing in mind The Depths of Tolagal's roguelike qualities, it forces the player to really think things through. As the butcher, you have a default three action points per turn. These can be spent in a number of ways, including moving to an adjacent tile, launching an attack, preparing a power attack with your primary weapon, and healing yourself.

Whatever action you take must be carefully considered. It's fine to unleash a flurry of hits on the nearest enemy, but the last thing you want is to leave yourself exposed and vulnerable like a sitting duck as soon as it's everyone else's turn to move. To reiterate, survivability is paramount, and a major part of this is anticipating the enemies' next actions and getting into the right positions to counter them. The butcher can't take too many hits, so you need to make sure you minimise damage taken, ready your shield and keep your health high when you can, and choose the opportune time to strike your foe.

In the first couple of hours, you'll learn what works and what doesn't. You'll figure out how each monster you come across behaves and the most efficient way of disposing of them. There is a small array of weapons to get your hands on and try out - hatchets can be thrown, which are helpful against ranged monsters, while maces will knock back enemies one tile when powered up. Some weapons come with advanced properties as well. For example, the polymorph property will transform the targeted enemy into a different monster. It could turn into a stronger or weaker foe, and that's a risk that you'll need to take.

The problem with The Depths of Tolagal, though, is the sense of repetition that quickly creeps in once you overcome the initial learning curve and get to grips with the game. Put simply, The Depths of Tolagal doesn't do enough with its procedural elements. Various aspects of the game are randomised, yet every playthrough still somehow comes across as rather familiar. Surprises are few and far between, which is disappointing. Where the top roguelikes design its individual parts to complement each other in such a way that ensures a fresh experience every time, the components here don't mesh together in a particularly exciting way.

Take the map layouts. They're very ordinary, mostly consisting of box-shaped rooms and corridors. Some walls can be destroyed, but rarely anything of interest is gained from doing so - there are no secrets, no real advantage from a strategic point of view (except in very specific circumstances), and they only open up alternate entrances to an already easily-accessed room. Some rooms have a slight twist like spike traps or deep water (the latter of which cuts the number of action points you have per turn), but these are infrequent and the majority of areas are bare and generic aside from boxes or furniture to break open.

The lack of variety in level structure means strategies for enemy encounters don't deviate much. This is not helped by the limited range of items at your disposal, something which I found particularly problematic and disheartening. The beauty of many roguelikes stems from the fact that the player must cope with what they have. But in The Depths of Tolagal, there is little manoeuvre to experiment. Defence is crucial to success, so a shield as well as some form of health recovery are both imperative to have on you. That's two of your three item slots taken up right there. Sometimes, I used a bow and arrow (which replaces the shield) to take care of ranged and magic enemies, but it was the only inventory management that felt worthwhile outside of which primary weapon I had equipped.

In addition, The Depths of Tolagal presents an overly generous abundance of opportunities to collect new gear - from crates and weapon stands to the occasional enemy drop. With the lack of varied items in the first place (I only came across two different types of shields and healing rings during my time with the game), you're ultimately going to arm yourself with the same or very similar equipment during each playthrough.

The predictable nature of the exploration and combat takes away much of the game's potential to deliver left-field thrills and scenarios which would have called for smart-thinking improvisation, particularly in the mundane first half of the fortress. The latter half and final boss fight are brutally unforgiving and challenging, but I would groan every time I'd have to restart after dying, because I could coast through the early stages on auto-pilot. There was very little keeping me on my toes as I made my way up to the exact same point with familiar gear. A lot of it felt like a waste of time. And even when I reached the tougher levels, upon repeated visits they didn't hold up.

On the bright side, passive talents you acquire along the way differ nicely between your various attempts. Each time the butcher levels up, the game draws two skills from a reasonably-sized pool for you to select from, and this is perhaps the only randomised part of The Depths of Tolagal that encourages a degree of experimentation. One skill increases the chance of polymorph turning an attacked enemy into a weaker monster. All of a sudden, polymorph is a more viable tactic in battle.

That's what The Depths of Tolagal needs more of: individual runs that offer their own, individual stories. It's a shame, because a lot of the potential here is squandered. The battle system is enjoyable at a core level, but it's not pushed hard enough by the surrounding parts. A roguelike should avoid becoming repetitive and easy to anticipate, two areas which the game sadly fails despite the novelty of the turn-based combat. The Depths of Tolagal doesn't force the player out of their comfort zone often enough, and it suffers for it.


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Freelance review by Freelance Writer (February 01, 2015)

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EmP posted February 07, 2015:

I knew I'd dodged a bullet farming this off onto you It's a shame that this game didn't pan out. Recently there's been a lot of interesting things done with Roguelikes and the genre as a whole is in resurgence because of things like FTL and recently Sunless Sea. I remember seeing (or reading; one of the two) that Tolagal allowed you to rescue people who would fight alongside you for a while and thought that sounded like an interesting mechanic. Guess not!
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- posted February 07, 2015:

Indeed, you can rescue people who fight alongside you. They're controlled by AI, though, and would always die pretty quickly if they took up arms. Never really had an impact on any of my runs.

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