By Adam Smith on January 10th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
TOME is a roguelike. It’s not a roguelikelike or a roguelite. It’s not a platform game with permadeath and procedural bits and pieces. It’s a top-down, tile-based RPG, with a variety of races and classes to master, and a mean streak wider than Rushmore Jefferson’s nostrils. You won’t have to squint at ASCII imagery or memorise a hundred key bindings to play it either – TOME has integrated tile graphics and a dapper interface. Here’s wot I think.
Almost a year ago to the day, I wrote a couple of hundred words about TOME, encouraging anyone who had never tried a roguelike to make it their first port of call. If you had already delved in Dredmor, I argued, TOME should be the next station on your journey toward a terminal case of Dwarf Fortress. Being a sage, I also had this to say: “It’s such a thrilling and potential-packed way to start what dunderheaded analysts are already failing to call ‘The Year of the Roguelike’, and it could mark the opening of a fantastic floodgate.”
Let’s revise a couple of things. I’m a semi-sage. There were certainly a lot of great games with roguelike elements in 2013 and the word seemed to appear in more blurbs and articles than I ever remember it doing before. The term wasn’t simply more common though, it was also applied to a far wider variety of experiences. It was often applied loosely – although I’m still waiting for a roguelike sports game – but many of the hybrids were strong and benefited from the aspects they borrowed, no matter how few.
If 2013 was the year of the roguelite, perhaps 2014 will be the year when we return to the roots. It was in the dying days of December that TOME finally arrived on Steam with a modest price tag. The immediately legible graphics and refined interface would make the game a decent enough alternative to the many longstanding big players – ADOM, Angband, Nethack and variants among them – but TOME has a tighter focus on tactical combat, with characters rapidly gaining a variety of hotkey abilities that overshadow the more usual inventory management and experimentation.
Instead of quaffing bottles of George’s Marvellous Medicine and hoping that the goopy mixture doesn’t cause you to polymorph into a chicken, TOME hands you a bar full of useful abilities and spells at the beginning of your journey. The most valuable items in the game aren’t equipment sets or legendary weapons, although they have their obvious uses. Instead, a successful character is laden with abilities, discovered when inscriptions are attached to a character. These add either a buff or skill, either passive or active, and dispense with the need for consumable items.
Rather than enforcing an eternal hunt for and long-term hoarding of healing tonics, staves or wands, TOME frees the player to concentrate on a character build, which remains customisable throughout the game. Few decisions are permanent and abilities can be swapped and changed, although slots are limited. This changes the entire pace of the game and makes a hero more than a miserable pile of potions.
It’s an enormous change to the usual formula that can feel limiting at first. We’re trained to be collectors in RPGs, filling our inventories with anything that isn’t bolted down, and I spent a few hours scrabbling around TOME’s enormous world in search of unusual and game-changing talismans. That can be a frustrating pursuit, with little in the way of thrilling discoveries, but that’s because it’s the equivalent of trying to find every piece of change down the side of your sofa instead of heading into town and going to the bank. TOME is about forward progression rather than hesitation and grind, and it provides plenty of quests to encourage exploration and daring journeys into abominable places.
Rather than being limited to a single dungeon, as is the most roguelikely course, TOME has a world map and the choice of race during character creation determines where the player starts on that map. Questing locations are varied and randomised, usually covering several smaller maps that increase in difficulty as they are traversed. Each character’s initial quest acts as a sort of tutorial, although without strong guidance, allowing the player to become familiar with their ability set while up against relatively tame opponents.
I do miss the excitement of finding bizarre items around every corner, not knowing if they will be a blessing or a curse, but TOME replaces those pleasures with intricate tactical combat. There are few unfortunate deaths, in the sense that most failures are the result of a mistake. Abilities have a cool-down and timing the usage of a regeneration power can spell the difference between death and glory. I’ve spent more than a minute between turns, mapping possible routes for escape, calculating the correct sequence of attack and shaking my head in dismay as I realise my overconfidence has backed me into a corner.
TOME is a more thoughtful roguelike than most. Those who can overcome the monumental challenges of its precursors may scoff at such a claim and it’s fair to say that they have thought about the difficulties of dungeon crawling far more intensely than I have. But there’s less of the slapstick and the pratfall in TOME. I think there’s a growing belief that Spelunky and the like brought comedic disaster to the roguelike model but it’s been there since the early days. Ascii may not convey farce particularly well but it’s the rare roguelike that doesn’t treat adventurers with comical disdain. TOME is a more serious proposition – every race and class combination is capable of heroic acts and there are few unexpected unfortunate occurrences.
The skill system differentiates TOME from its peers and predecessors, and the world outside the dungeons is littered with lore. Unlockable races and classes provide a meta-goal to aim for and Steam Workshop integration provides easy access to tweaks, additions and entire new modules. If you’re not interested in the Workshop integration or the ease of updating through Steam, TOME is also available to download for free – donations, or a later Steam purchase, support future development.