This is mostly an expression of my own thoughts on what's good about ToME4 and what makes it stand out, and a reflection on how dramatically the game has changed since earlier betas. However it may also provide a focus for future development to play on the game's strengths, and serve as an example to other games which wish to have the same features of ToME4. It also includes points of reflection on things that should change.
The Defining Features of ToME4
A staple for roguelikes, ToME4 randomly generates dungeon levels and places enemies and items randomly. This helps improve the replayability of the game.
Exceptions: World map, certain static levels (though this is quite normal in the genre).
Problems: Disconnected levels. Many samey dungeons. More variety of generators may help. Another issue is a linear and predictable feeling to some areas, since there isn't that much randomisation to enemy types and bosses. Enemy egos could help.
Dying makes you lose a life, or ultimately makes you fail the game. There is no reloading from a save game. This combines well with the procedural content to encourage multiple playthroughs. The rigour of punishment for death enforces a much stronger learning mechanic. The variety of starting options lets you try something new each time you play.
Exceptions: Infinite lives is available for donators, though arguably this doesn't impact on the normal game modes.
Problems: Some players may find that the amount of time and thought put into building a character feels too wasted when they lose everything. But this is a minimal issue, since it's a roguelike, and if they want to play something different they can pay for the unlimited lives version...
No regeneration of content
Levels are constant once generated, and do not respawn items or enemies over time. Shops only restock under certain circumstances. You cannot easily "scum" areas to indefinitely improve your character.
Exceptions: World map encounters and farportals, though the latter is limited by gold. The former is not easy to scum, especially as they become very powerful later on. However perhaps to make them even less attractive sources of xp/loot they should give no xp and drop sub-standard equipment.
Problems: None, I'd say. There is sufficient experience and items in the game to be harvested without the need for scumming.
Minimal resource management
There are no food items, no non-unique potions, no other little things to worry about. Between each fight you are pretty much the same, leaving decisions of strategy to be focussed purely on build and eq choices, and decisions in battle based on clever use of replenishable resources that go on cooldown. Timing plays as big a part of battle as worrying about resources. Most class resources are easily to replenish, whilst some abilities are purely cooldown restricted.
Exceptions: Quite a few actually, some of which should be considered closely:
* Stamina - it is not easily restored, even between battles
* Hate - again not easily recovered, but this is a class feature
* Negative/positive energy - awkward to recover between battles since it degrades
* Ammo - it's been suggested that ammo be removed before and extra egos put on bows/slings. This would be good I think, since ammo as it stands feels very out of place.
* Alchemist gems - not played alchemists enough to comment on these
* Wands - as I've said before, these should go.
* Some long cooldowns (maybe they should be toned down?)
* Gold - it has never been balanced well in the game, with players having either too much or too little. It still feels out of place as of b34, and yet it feels like it can't be removed either.
Problems: If you use up your resources mid-battle then you may be left with zero abilities open. This can make protracted fights very difficult for some classes, especially if there is little room to manoeuvre/escape. This is most problematic in world map encounters and vaults.
The classes in ToME4 are not what you'd normally expect in other games. Some are incredibly unique, with their own odd mechanics and weird resource bars. Most classes have a cohesive feel to their skills, with many complimenting abilities. There is no simple fighter class, with even melee classes relying on careful use of sustains and ways to debuff enemies. Each class type tends to have its own unique resource which is thematic with the class and used in interesting ways. There is a small element of multi-classing through the attainment of generic trees, but this is rare.
Exceptions: None. All classes offer something quite unique amongst roguelikes.
Problems: A bit weird for outsiders to get used to perhaps, but also very exciting for those that appreciate this sort of depth.
Abilities are gained through talent trees, which themselves provide the vast majority of complexity to the game. Other roguelikes tend to have complexity through item interactions, but ToME4 builds its variety with talent trees. The trees themselves are shallow with fairly light restrictions, meaning that you're not railroaded down a specific build (other games that use talent trees tend to require a long path to be followed before reaching some of the higher abilities). Though equipment can support talents they ultimately are not necessary. Most classes have enough variety of trees to allow for numerous build types.
Problems: Early game you will have few abilities and more restricted tactics. Later on you can have too many, or feel the need to pick up too many, making the game more complex and potentially harder to play. This is ultimately an essential part of the game, but new players could benefit from having more guides on how to build certain classes to help them advance in the game.
Advancement restricted to discrete points
All advancement comes in the form of stat points and talent points, and there is a maximum number you can have of these in the game, mostly through level progression. Thus you can't do everything - hard decisions must be made on where and when to invest your points. There is also a flat cap on how much you can invest in any one talent or ability, preventing extreme builds.
Exceptions: Equipment provides further boosts and the ability to use certain extra abilities. Certain talents also can be used to boost stats beyond more regular limits, sometimes imbalancing the game.
Problems: Some enemies can get to levels in stats or talents far beyond what the player is capable of, potentially breaking certain game elements. Some classes struggle to invest points well due to a large number of trees or many relevant stats, but this is part of the game.
Races distinguished by racial abilities
The defining feature of each race is its talent tree. The other stat bonuses are almost irrelevant, though the hp per level difference can have a significant effect. These talent trees compete with other generic trees for attention, and can compliment other talent trees in interesting ways.
Exceptions: Cornacs, who get a category point instead of a racial tree.
Problems: Little difference in races early on. Some racial abilities are of little use, and should potentially be looked at. Some racial trees are too focused on niche stats, limiting their usefulness across classes. Initial talents on racial trees don't scale with talent level, discouraging investment.
Player as monster
Whatever a player can do, a monster can do, and vice-versa. Well, for the most part. Stats are the same between them too. The generic nature of the engine makes for easier design of player and monster abilities, whilst also allowing for many interesting combinations. It also gives the player a deeper understanding of how monsters operate without having to learn about abilities unique to certain enemies. This feature is most seen through fights against adventurer style characters, the shade boss, and in controlling other NPCs.
Exceptions: There are certain monster-only skills, and some player skills that the monster AI can't operate.
Problems: Balance can be an issue, as a cool player ability can be game-breaking in the hands of the enemy, especially when they get them at high talent levels.
There is no medusa gaze or cockatrice petrification or death ray that will kill you instantly. Likewise there's few abilities that kill an enemy instantly. Death comes purely from loss of hit points. There are also no status effects that leave you completely defenseless leading to an unescapable death. This gives a feeling of fairness to the game that is lacking from some other roguelikes. It also lets you venture into unknown areas with some confidence that defensive play can at least let you survive.
Exceptions: Disruption shield and a few other talents can cause crazy amounts of damage and potentially need looking at. Some statuses can also be very restrictive.
Problems: Later in the game high damage attacks become regular, so although you may not be one-shotted there is a significant risk of being two or three-shotted.
Transparency of content
Enemy stats are laid bare, the exact amount of damage exchanged is clearly shown, and items are automatically identified. You can also see exactly what statuses are impairing you and how long until they wear off. This wealth of information lets you make informed tactical decisions.
Exceptions: Combat mechanics are still very obscure, and status effects on enemies cannot be seen clearly. The actual abilities of enemies can also be a mystery.
Problems: Some might complain of information overload and too many stats in the game. I'd also argue that the identification system is a bit obsolete now, especially since you can't even speak to Elisa in her house (and Anorithils get this magic orb too?) Occam's Razor suggests the identification abilities should just be removed.
The introduction of Shockbolt tiles has revolutionised the aesthetic goals of the game. There has been a lot of excellent emphasis on improving the general look of the GUI, including fancy borders, talent icons, nice backgrounds to menus, and so on. It is, simply put, the nicest looking roguelike ever made. The game also supports full mouse control, including the binding of talents to mouse buttons which get contextually used. These all help attract new players to the game and the genre. It also gives the great impression of this being a professional quality game, making it more likely for people to donate.
Exceptions: There is still some glitchy tile behaviour here and there, and we're still lacking status effect icons. I think we could do with icons to replace the resource bar labels too (a picture of a heart instead of the words "Life" for instance). We need to look very critically at all aspects of the game to consider where even minor improvements can be made to bring it further up to the level of AAA games. One major improvement needed is new sounds and more music.
Problems: Some tiles are actually impractical, getting in the way of gameplay, which goes against the whole roguelike ethos of gameplay over graphics. Some work needs to be done to ensure graphical elements don't obscure important gameplay features. Also some tiles, especially items, are hard to see against the backgrounds. There are also the odd sdl problems that crop up from time to time for some users.
Even with the fancy mouse gestures and the stunning graphics there is keyboard support and ASCII graphics. Keyboard controls are in fact much faster for many playstyles.
Exceptions: No terminal support, which some old-schoolers consider essential in roguelikes. There are also some mouse commands that have no equivalent keyboard command.
Problems: Maintaining two interface types can lead to trouble, such as some things being made the same colour as the background, but thankfully we have many ASCII players willing to point these problems out.
Sine the departure from Tolkien the game has been given its own universe, with its own spin on many races, some unique races and a relatively deep background history. Much of the detail behind this is in lore pieces, found randomly or in special places, and these are generally optional items for those that want to just dungeon crawl.
Exceptions: Some little outside references here and there, though generally in theme with the setting. The game doesn't go overboard with jokey elements and pop culture references.
Problems: The setting is perhaps not entirely engaging, with little interaction with actual people in the game apart from for sidequest purposes. There's room for a lot more lore to be delivered through NPCs in town, and through more lore in libraries that players can browse at their leisure. I'm very open to suggestions from others in that regard ;) There are also some issues with consistency of setting - chronomancers and celestials especially jut out a little, but ultimately add more to the game than they detract.
And... that's about it. Comments and discussion welcome of course.
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