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Tales of Maj'Eyal (PC) artwork

Tales of Maj'Eyal (PC) review

"The story of how one man finally found a rogue-like game he truly enjoyed."

When you’re a geek for RPGs like I am, the rogue-like genre ought to be the perfect time waster. After all, each game is a new experience, thanks to the randomly generated dungeons. That should be ideal, right? Until I discovered Tales of Maj’Eyal, though, the reality rarely matched the theory.

On impulse, I purchased Tales of Maj’Eyal about a month ago. I then spent the following weeks doing very little in my “couch potato” time that didn’t involve leading my human archer through the game’s vast array of dungeons, defeating monsters, collecting loot and better equipment and, of course, dying like crazy. That two people could make such an absorbing game is quite the accomplishment …

Even if you’re not particularly proficient at rogue-like games, Tales is accessible. As in most titles of this sort, you operate under the "only one life" philosophy that means when your character dies, you have to start over from the very beginning. Unless you don't want to, that is, in which case you can choose from a couple other options such as starting out with two lives and gaining a handful more as your character gains more experience and reaches certain levels. Donators (and people who purchase the game off Steam) can even select a mode with infinite lives. To help novices, there also is a difficulty level wherein you take substantially less damage from attacks, while healing abilities are much stronger. That cushion all comes at the cost of having achievements disabled for that playthrough, however.

To keep the player from becoming bogged down by the sheer number of classes and races available, the developers sealed most of them away until you unlock them by completing various quests. You start with access to 7 of the 25 classes, along with 6 out of 9 races. In essence, the more you play Tales, the more possibilities you have.

I started the game using the aforementioned archer, which gave me a huge advantage over foes. In the early dungeons, most of the enemies I encountered were various animals and undead creatures that had to walk up to me in order to mount an attack, so I stayed at a distance and pelted them with arrows or used a couple of skills (such as a special ability that allowed my arrows to occasionally deal more damage than normal). As I leveled up, I was able to improve those existing skills to make them truly lethal and also obtained new ones that allowed me to hit multiple enemies at once, while also increasing the rate at which my stamina regenerated (since each skill depletes it by a certain amount). As I grew more powerful, tougher enemies naturally started appearing. Dragons with fiery breath, mages with debilitating spells, and powerful combatants able to come within range in a single turn provided stiff challenges.

By the time a player reaches that point, more than mere skills are needed to survive; adventurers also must possess familiarity with the various goodies Tales also places in their hands. Infusions and runes are but one example. A character can have a few of these grafted onto them in order to heal damage, remove status effects or--when things get too hectic--teleport out of range (and hopefully not directly into another hornet's nest of nightmares). Discretion is important, though. Every time you use a skill or rune, it enters a "cooldown" state and remains inaccessible for a set number of turns. Knowing the right time to bring out the special attacks and moves often means the difference between life and death.

At least, it does for a little while. This game will kill you eventually, and then again, and again, and-- you get the idea.

There are dozens of dungeons to explore in this game. While many of them are optional, some contain rewards that nevertheless make them worthwhile, leaving a short list of places that a player would truly wish to avoid. The “Hidden Compound” is one example of an optional location worth seeking out, because it affords you the opportunity to participate in pit fighting competitions on the third floor that ultimately unlock the Brawler class. That class chains grappling and striking attacks to deliver hard-hitting combos. What’s even better is that my reward for victory was a special ring that allowed me to occasionally drain health from enemies after landing a blow, which is a great secondary method of regenerating life while waiting for a health infusion to leave the cooldown phase.

On the other hand, there is a potential destination known as the Dark Crypt that randomly appears once your character reaches level 24. You have only one opportunity to enter. If you refuse the call once you discover it, you can’t change your mind until you come through with your next character. Unless you're extremely confident or looking to suicide your guy, though, odds are good you'll quickly choose to pass up this optional dungeon. It's loaded with all sorts of powerful mages. Your visit culminates as you attempt to rescue a damsel in distress and escort her through a gauntlet of powerful mages who are all trying to kill her using high-damage, long-range assaults. Even while taking advantage of the concessions made by the more lenient difficulty settings, I tried to save the girl and always failed. Never again…

At times, the game doesn't even feel like a true rogue-like. Partway through the game, a plot more complicated than "get a bunch of treasure while trying to survive" manifests itself. The game's world is soaked in lore that is detailed in various scrolls found in dungeons or bought in stores, much like you would find in an Elder Scrolls game. Instead of simply trying to create an alternative to NetHack, the developers essentially melded the rogue-like genre to a more traditional RPG to provide an experience that, if not unique, was at least unique to me.

Well, except for a handful of minor frustrations that seems impossible to avoid in games of this nature. As I've said before, you'll die a lot and if you're playing with any limit to your lives in place, and that means you'll be starting from the beginning many times. I finally decided to make a run with unlimited lives, just to see challenges from later portions of the game. I was tired of running through Trollmire, Heart of the Gloom, Ruins of Kor'pul and the other early-game dungeons time and time again, only to get slaughtered in the next tier of locations. In an attempt to lessen this issue, a lot of the places you'll explore early in the game do have alternate (and often tougher) versions that can potentially appear in place of the usual dungeon, but still, after advancing far enough to power-up your starting skills and gain a few more, it’s a bit of a kick to the stomach to find oneself constantly starting from scratch.

But that's life in the world of rogue-likes. You will die and you will die often. What’s important is to learn from those deaths so you can avoid making the same mistakes as you slowly grind through Tales of Maj'Eyal one dungeon at a time. In this case, though, it really is the journey that is the point, not the destination. Those negative aspects of rogue-likes I've touched on might keep this game from being much more down the road than a diversion to fiddle with from time to time, but it’s a diversion I plan to revisit often.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (April 22, 2014)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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