Genre : RPG
Developer : Troika
Publisher : Atari
Release date : September 16, 2003
Buy 'GREYHAWK: The Temple of Elemental Evil': PC
You've gotta love a game that doesn't make any false pretenses about itself. The Temple of Elemental Evil is a throwback to the "good ole days" when Dungeons and Dragons was more about Dungeons and Dragons than going off to save the world. And it's a throwback with good reason: the Temple of Elemental Evil is based off the classic module of the same name, written by Gary Gygax (the original author of D&D). It's a dungeon crawl, pure and simple, with the added bonus of being completely faithful to the new 3.5 rules set. Most D&D games that have come out recently have treated the official rules as, well, more like guidelines. The reason for that is at its core, D&D is a complicated game, and most of these rules can hinder a CRPG. Because of this adherence, TOEE is a complicated game to play. If you are not a current pen-and-paper player of the 3.5 rules set you've got a learning curve ahead of you. Even for experienced D&D gamers, having the rules set finally faithfully reproduced in a computer game can prove a shock. Working within the rules set, specifically how many spells you can cast per day, really makes you think about every action. You definitely don't want to charge into a room; that's a recipe for disaster. How well you can think and strategize will be more important than how fast you can click a mouse. It took me about 3-4 hours of playing the game before I really got comfortable with the rules set and the interface.
Elemental Evil is a tribute to the D&D I fondly remember as a teenager, where the adventure most likely consisted of running a published module. This module usually involved a town that for some reason had a dungeon within a half-mile, occupied by a festering evil and your job was to go clear it out. Wasn’t it funny that life in the town continued on, even with an Evil Overlord scheming away just over the hill? The plot was usually thin, but the real fun was hacking and slashing your way through to the end. The depth to the game wasn’t measured in plot thickness, but by how many feet under the ground the dungeon was. Elemental Evil holds true to that formula: there is a thin plot to this game, and the side quests to add to it are little more than excuses to get needed xp. Compared to epic RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, the plot for Elemental Evil feels weak until you recognize for what it is: an accurate recreation of a module from D&D’s golden years.
The first thing you have to do in the game is create your party. Here you’ll notice that alignment matters much more than it has in previous D&D games. You must choose an overall party alignment and only characters of compatible alignments can join. Your alignment affects how the game begins and ends, as well as how NPC's react to you. I played through the game as Chaotic Good and I'm looking forward to going back through with a more restrictive alignment like Lawful Good. You can create a party of up to five player controlled characters, and hire an additional three henchman. Be wary of the followers though, some of them have their own agendas and all of them have the annoying habit of selling off their entire inventory when you go into a shop. Because of how restrictive the D&D rules are, simply building your party around the holy trinity of fighter, mage and healer isn't enough; you'll need to make some choices about what sub-classes you want. Each of the sub-classes has their own strengths and weaknesses. Do you take a sorcerer who and can cast more spells, or do you choose a wizard who can scribe the spells you've looted? This is important because the only time the sorcerer learns new spells is when they level. I swapped out the party members several times, and after many attempts I ended up with the following party: 3 pure fighters; 1 rogue; 1 wizard; 1 sorcerer and a priest. While the xp gain is less per character with the almost full group, I found that I had to re-load my saved games a lot less with this party. As with any game, your mileage may vary. At the end of the day, it’s really just personal preference as to the “optimal” group. One thing I didn’t like was that if you removed a party member, they are also removed from the pool, which means you can’t go back and re-add them. It would have been very helpful to be able to re-add a character after I found out a useful class trait they had.
The game begins with you learning that two people have gone missing near a small town named Hommett. Once you get there clues point you towards an abandoned moat house, which is the first dungeon of the game. As you continue your adventure, you eventually learn about the Temple of Elemental Evil where the rest of the game takes place. While it may seem like you reach the Temple (and the end-game) fairly quickly, don’t worry; there is a lot of game play in the Temple. In fact, the vast majority of the game takes place there. There is another town, Nulb, you can also visit along the way. Both towns provide plenty of short quests you can use to level up your characters.
TOEE is one of the more challenging CRPG's I've played. I've had my party wiped out, eaten by a giant crayfish and paralyzed by undead ghouls; all before I hit the first dungeon. At no point playing the game did I feel like an encounter was a breeze, and I found myself frequently going back to town to change out party members as I searched for an optimal party.
The combat in Elemental Evil is the first true implementation of D&D's turn-based combat in a computer game, which is probably one the biggest areas of potential frustration for people who are fans of “click-n-kill" games like Dungeon Siege. Combat in Elemental Evil is split into turns, during which characters have a set amount of time to perform their actions. The first time an encounter occurs, each character makes an initiative roll which then determines the order for combat. Depending on how encumbered your character is, they may not be able to charge across the room and attack at the same time, so you'll need to plan out each character’s actions. The combat is dead-on faithful to the D&D rules, something that their fans have been looking forward to for a while. Other than the combat, the rest of game happens in real time to speed up the game play.
The interface is very difficult to navigate at times. It’s based of off the same radial menu theme as in Neverwinter Nights, and it’s challenging to figure out where certain actions are located on the dial. To access the radial menu, right click anywhere on the screen and the menu will appear. From there you can choose generic actions such as how the characters defense is handled as well as class specific commands (casting spells, picking locks etc.).
The in-game maps are well done, but lack any sort of auto-naming feature so you’ll have to rely on your notes to remember where places like the inn are; in-game maps can be annotated, though. The maps are faithful recreations of the areas you see as you traverse them, including all of the lighting effects. There are two map views: the current view and the world view. The current view shows the area you are in and the world view is a neat little parchment map that notes towns, quest areas and, of course, eventually the Temple. The nice feature about the world map is you can click on a location and the game auto-runs you there, prompting you if there is a random encounter. You can choose whether you want to fight or avoid most of the random encounters.
The graphics are one of Elemental Evil’s strongest points. The game engine is an updated version of the one Troika used for Arcanum and I was very leery of how the 2D “backgrounds” were going to look in today's 3D world. I'm happy to report back that they look fantastic, and really set the mood. The settings, the dungeons in particular, look awesome and the lighting effects are done well indeed. There is one thing glaringly missing from full-3D games though, and that’s the ability to spin the map to change your viewpoint. Because of this, finding doors and items in certain areas, most notably items in shadows, can be a major pain. The character and monster models are all 3D and look great. The water is also 3D water, which splashes and ripples as you run through it. I was afraid that the 3hD characters would float slightly above the 2D background, and I was pleased to see that they interact together beautifully. When I loaded the game I was convinced if it wasn’t done in full 3D it would look dated. After playing it, I’m convinced the game wouldn’t have looked nearly as good done in full 3D. Troika only had 2 years to develop and release Elemental Evil, necessitating the re-use of the Arcanum engine. Rather than looking dated, it looks fantastic. The game also handles resolutions up to 1280x1024, but I found I had a hard time seeing the character models at higher resolution.
The sounds are hit and miss. For the most part, the ambient and combat sounds are well done, but the music that plays during combat is horrendous and very repetitive as an extra annoyance. The voice acting is done well, and is thankfully free of the “It’s meee… Imoeennn” NPC dialogue that quickly grated on your nerves in Baldur’s Gate. While the saying the characters make when you give them commands to get repetive, I didn’t find the voice acting too over the top.
There are bugs in the game and some of them are severe. I had 2-3 crashes to the desktop, a few blue-screens, and one saved game got corrupted. I also had one NPC get stuck in a state where I could not remove them from the party, and the game did not recognize them as an enemy. I could literally use this character to scout out entire dungeons without fear of attack. There are some bugs with the action cursors for spells too. The default action cursor during combat is to move your character. When you tell them to cast a spell, the cursor changes to a wand and you select the target for the spell. Sometimes the cursor doesn't change, making it easy to get confused about what about state your character is in. Most of the bugs are just simply annoying and are easy to work around; there are just too many of them. Troika knows about them and a patch is due out shortly after this review is published.
If it wasn’t for the bugs, this game would be a shoe-in for an Editors Choice award. Unfortunately, the bugs show a lack of polish and that the game was rushed out the door. What the game really needed was another 2-3 months of tweaking, and if it had had that time this would have been a much better game. I have certainly played bug-free games I’ve enjoyed less. The bugs aside, Elemental Evil is a welcome, faithful, adaptation of the D&D rules. No other game as yet has come as close to really feeling like traditional D&D as Elemental Evil does. I did enjoy playing it and once you get over the learning curve and the bugs, you’ll find an exciting adventure ahead of you!
More articles about Greyhawk: The Temple of Elemental Evil