Tower Of Time is a splendid RPG with tactical real-time combat

You have to respect clever, and clever is oozing out of Tower Of Time [official site]. Not just an RPG with the guts to try its very own combat system far more intricate than us dungeon crawlers are used to, but also the use of Early Access in a way that makes it seem like an advantage to the player rather than the developer.

Tower Of Time is, at first glance, a traditional isometric-ish RPG, presented in beautiful swishy modern graphics. Click the mouse to move, click on things to interact, attribute skill points and skilfully assign attribute points, and worry about your armour. On top of that, and perhaps a touch crucially, it’s also good at these things. It takes place in a familiar fantasy setting featuring a rural human world where cataclysmic events leave almost no sunshine, in which societies are falling as food becomes scarce, and a hero whose childhood marking by a hidden magical throne might make him the one who can change the future. Soon you learn of other regulars, the elves, the orcs, and so on. The writing is a touch purple in places, and definitely leans heavily on the old “for it was to be”-type fantasy stodge, but the atmosphere is immediately established and the characters likable.

Set in a magical tower, buried upside down in the ground and forgotten by generations of humans, you play a character that – for plot reasons – you don’t actually see much. Instead you control a gang of his chums, who explore and descend, with the intention of finding and wielding these unknown and potentially dangerous powers in the hope of rescuing your dying world. But it’s during your first combat encounter when you realise that this is also rather different.

And, if I’m honest, at first a little disconcerting for me. Because I am not Mr RTS. In fact, Mr RTS is my sworn enemy, and the two of us rarely speak. While obviously multiple RPG games have attempted to implement RTS combat in the past, perhaps most famously the Spellforce series, I’ve not seen it done like this before. Far smaller scale than Spellforce’s fields of battle, this is more of an extension of the pause-based combat of latter BioWare games, taken to its natural strategic conclusion. Enemies move in real-time, and while you can slow time down to issue commands, you must think on the fly as you play your characters’ abilities and unique skills to deduce the correct methods of attack.

Borrowing the JRPG concept of having fights take place in a special playing field rather than on location in the main game affords the combat an almost sports-like set-up, where the pitch is pre-defined (albeit with semi-randomised layouts of walls, spawn points and so on so the fight is different each time), and how you use it up to you. Different enemy types have very different approaches to attacking you, and rather than simply choosing who to hit and with what, you’re asked to think slightly further and work out ways to manipulate enemy placement or movement. Maybe you’ll try to split them up to make them weaker while defending your more fragile ranged characters, or perhaps you’ll place too-temporary magical walls across the battlefield such that your tanks can rush in to absorb blows.

Enemies come in waves, and from a number of spawn points, which also dictates how you position your characters, and how you attempt to approach any battle. You can see what percentage of the attack you’ve countered so far, but you don’t know what’s coming next beyond the hint of the enemy types spied before the battle begins.

The complexity of this is designed to become more important the higher you set the difficulty, with a Story mode for those who don’t want to worry at all, Easy for breezing through it, Normal for me to struggle with because that’s the mode you’re supposed to play when reviewing, and then a couple of levels above for those who want to test themselves. According to the game, at the highest difficulty the developers say you’ll have to somehow work out the exact right set-up of your own fighters to match the attack and perfectly execute your moves. Eek

For me, on Normal, I’m managing! I’ve lost a couple, but won them on the next try, and felt bloody great about it. I guarantee this means that anyone who cares about real-time strategy, or even their advanced RPG tactics, is going to find Normal too easy. I know this from decades of reviewing RPGs, commenting, “Cor the combat’s tough on Normal!” and being met with varying degrees of “huh?” from harder types. The tougher levels are there for you, but for those like me, rest assured this is – so far as I’ve reached – manageable. And indeed you can switch the difficulty down at any point.

Which brings us to that other Clever. An RPG in early access is perhaps often to be avoided. Who wants to play an incomplete story-driven game, right? But in a Larian-like fashion, newbies Even Horizon have very smartly released with the first third of the game feature complete. The second third is due later this year, and the final portion on full release early next. The early access is being used to see how players respond to the combat system, to test it in fire, and to tweak accordingly, such that on the release of the complete game they should have the encounters neatly balanced. So sure, going in now might mean you hit combat spikes or plateaus, but you won’t be playing a game that’s still covered in scaffolding with half the rooms undecorated. It’s rough in places, absolutely, but it feels solidly playable.

There are, it shouldn’t be any surprise, areas that need a good deal of work. And it’s mostly in feedback, both major and subtle. After a while pootling around, completing the pleasing array of missions on the first floor of the dungeon, I experimentally took a trip back to the surface whereupon I discovered – by accident – that I could qualify for an upgrade. Upgrades are very unusual here, not reliant on gathering XP, but rather gold and blueprints. I didn’t notice the game alerting me that I had all I needed for this if it did, and then to be able to train my characters to a new level I had to visit the Armory to buy the ability, then visit the Barracks to spend even more gold training each character up to level 2. What a muddle. After this, more skill points are available, which is pretty essential for the ramping difficulty in the tower.

More subtle feedback issues come with the lack of any sense of impact of a job done. Make a new item in the Blacksmith and there’s no “clunk” or “tada” or anything. So much so that I accidentally made two identical breastplates because there was no sensible indication that it had been done. What a waste of crystals!

Combat, which is of course the reason it’s presently in early access, could do with some significant work too. Most immediately, with the addition of some AI scripting for your characters. Each has an array of abilities, but left to their own devices will just spam their most basic attack on the enemy nearest. It’d be splendid to be able to instruct your bowswoman Maeve to sling some fire arrows on occasion, or have druid Aeric think to plonk down a healing totem when another hero’s health is dangerously low. Micromanaging the crew is, of course, a big part of the point, but when you’re directing tank Kane to taunt a mob to distract it, and then having him throw up a magic wall to prevent attacks from another side, you physically can’t also be getting Maeve to place a Hunter’s Mark down on a busy spot of enemies. To be able to pre-program a few conditional attacks or defences would make a big difference.

Also, good gravy, it needs a quicksave. The game is heavily reliant on your saving to maintain progress – get into a battle you’re simply not capable of winning yet (and not all fights are player-initiated, there are ambushes), and you can either endlessly, pointlessly repeat it after every defeat, or go back to your last save. If that was a good while back, then oof. That to save involves Esc, Save, click slot, Save, Back, Back is perhaps a little much when there’s an F5 key sitting around doing nothing. Oh, and the other minor tweak I crave is a button to press to reveal interactive items. Not for treasure, as I get that this is a bonus gained by scraping the hidden corners with the cursor, but for important story items and the like, it’d be nice not to miss them.

It’s very pretty, too. The tower, upside down as it is, is also very magical, and the gaps between the floors are great dangerous stretches – that’s something neatly displayed as you walk the sometimes-impossible ceilings. Battles are often extremely lovely to look at too, especially the neat colour choices for slowed time, versus the traditionally ARPG bright purples and greens of full-speed battle.

There’s an airy arcadey quality to the exploration, but the depth pours in via both the details and the combat. Where it sorely lacks is in establishing the characters you control. An extended opening sequence sees you play as a young boy, then that guy as an adult, and then suddenly he’s just sat in a chair unseen while some friends it doesn’t even vaguely introduce are the ones you play. You get to know them a bit as they chat, but it desperately needs to make the player care about them at all from the off.

But more than anything else, I’m constantly bowled over by just how complete and solid this feels. At one point, nosing around a library, I chanced upon a book that when clicked on offered a few minutes-long animated, voice-overed cutscene! There’s piles and piles of lore here for those who want to read it, and for those who don’t there’s still a decent surface story with intriguing themes of magic being an alien property to this fantasy world, and its impact on society.

I’m totally sold. I love this. It’s a superb mix of easy-going exploration and smart-but-possible combat mechanics. And I’m loving it in a “right now” way, rather than in a “I can see how this will be great when…” way. I think some will find it too light, but honestly, there’s enough games for those some, and goodness knows how hard it is when you ramp up the difficulty – I’ve no desire to find out. I think there’s no greater accolade I could afford it than to credit it with exciting me about combat tactics – something that usually sees me running from a game with my arms flailing above my head.

This is a huge, deeply developed, beautifully crafted RPG, novel in all the right ways, and it’s not even finished.

Tower Of Time is out on Early Access for Windows for £11/$15/15€ via Steam.

29 Comments

  1. sagredo1632 says:

    Quoting: “…commenting, “Cor the combat’s tough on Normal!” and being met with varying degrees of “huh?” from harder types.”

    That’s a lot of four letter words compressed into a single 3 letter word. I applaud the concision of your writing Mr. Walker.

    More seriously, I’m generally allergic to Early Access (aka Beta testing for the masses), but I’ll have to give this one a look. Always did like the arena-esque combats of some of the better HoMM games. Looks like this is a clever spin on that with more emphasis on character/stat buildup rather than army buildup.

  2. Captain Narol says:

    To be honest, I’m quite fed of devs trying to introduce real-time in their RPGs or Strategy games, probably in the unconfessed hope of attracting to their games the low-attention crowd which usually don’t play that kind of games.

    There is practical reasons why so many experienced gamers prefers turn-based for that sort of games… Does any of the devs with come with such real-time “new” approach have kids, for example ?

    For me, it will be a pass, despise RPS recommandation.

    • LexW1 says:

      What an utterly ludicrous sentiment.

      Are you joking? Surely you are joking?

      “Trying to introduce real-time in their RPGs or strategy games”.

      Trying? What the devil do you mean trying? Real-Time Strategy games have been around on PC since 1992 with Dune II at the latest (and I know I played them earlier, with Herzog Zwei on the Megadrive). RPGs have had real-time elements for even longer, but the first real-time RPG I played was the utterly wonderful, undeniable classic Dungeon Master, in 1987.

      So to paraphrase Yoda – “There is no try, only do”. No-one is “trying to introduce real-time”. It was introduced decades ago! Possibly before you were born, even if you’re old enough to have kids, because I know Herzog Zwei and Dungeon Master were not the first in either genre. Real-time strategy and RPGs are both long-established, successful, storied genres. Many of the best games in both the strategy and RPG genres are real-time. The idea that “experienced players prefer turn-based” is ludicrous. I’m 39 and I’ve played CRPGs for about 32 of those years, and I certainly don’t “prefer turn-based”, nor does my peer-group. I like both. The same goes for strategy games. Pause-and-select is usually more fun than pure real-time for strategy, but both have their charm.

      • Unclepauly says:

        I’m almost 100% satisfied with your reply. Just a tad more “he’s wrong” woulda done it. :D

      • aepervius says:

        While the delivery was not good, he has a point. If you add real time to strategy or rpg, you remove an element if tactic in favor of an element if reflex , ir if you have manual pose a la bg/bg2 you have a fight which suffer in its timing at the expanse of strategy. There is a reason the most successful single plaxer tactic game/strategy game of the last decade, is xcom and xcom2, something which is NOT real time.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Ignoring the delivery, he’d have a point, if we lived in a world with very limited room for games. But we do not.
          Hell I strongly PREFER turn-based myself, but I’ve still enjoyed and been glad of the existence of enough real-time RPGs that I can see that. It’s not hard to understand.

        • LexW1 says:

          No, that’s absolute gibberish. By that logic, real combat, which is always in real time, does not feature tactics, just reflex.

          Some people just hate being forced to think on their feet, I would suggest is the real problem. Even in many turn-based games you don’t have infinite time to consider your decision, rendering them effectively a kind of “real time”.

          As for XCOM1/2 being the “most successful single plaxer” (sic) strategy/tactics game of recent years, by what possibly logic do you decide it to be “the most successful”? It’s definitely not sales. It’s definitely not metacritic, so what is it? Your opinion, I suppose?

          I like turn-based games but, this is just a totally risible argument. The first guy made the most ridiculous claim possible (“They have cars powered by PETROL now, it’s like they’re trying to abolish steam-power!”), and now you’re making a ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim with XCOM! It’s not even the most important strategy game of recent years (that’d be CKII or something).

    • Michael Anson says:

      They probably do it because of the position of the Infinity Engine games as icons of CRPGs, trying to capture the magic without really considering what made them great.

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      teije says:

      Sounds promising. I have a big preference for well-designed TB combat (e.g. Divinity Original Sin), but RT combat hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly enjoying Pillars of Eternity, or the BG games, or all the others I can’t be bothered to name. Although I really need an auto-pause system, otherwise it feels too frantic for my tastes.

      • Zenicetus says:

        BG and Pillars of Eternity are realtime-with-pause, which has a very different feel from forced realtime (or realtime-with-slowdown). The former puts the flow of combat entirely in the hands of the player. The latter has the game rushing the player to do things, so the flow is out of your control. You’re forced to make quick decisions, with less time to study the battle and come up with a plan.

        I know there are people who enjoy that feeling of being on a timer for the added challenge, but it’s just not something I enjoy in a game like this. Maybe I’ll try it anyway.

    • UncleLou says:

      I am 45, gaming since around 1982, RPGs are my favourite genre, and the older I get, the less I like turn-based for a whole variety of reasons.

      So there you go.

    • Captain Narol says:

      I expressed my feelings without filters, and I’m sorry if I offended those of you who feel otherwise.

      A feeling, by nature, is subjective. There is no “Right” or “Wrong” on those matters, only personal sensibilities.

      I know that some people prefer real-time, but I also know for sure that I am not the only one to feel that way.

      I’m 50 and I’ve been gaming on computers for more than 35 years, starting on ZX81 then on Amstrad CPC464.

      Of course, I am aware that the trend toward Real-Time in Strategy and RPGs is not new, it’s just that over the years I got more and more fed up of it.

      I enjoyed in the past games like Dune 2, Warcraft 1-2-3 and Baldur’s Gate despise Real-Time.

      However, after some time and when situations reaches a certain level of complexity, Real-Time felt more like a nuisance than a progress.

      Games are supposed to be a leisure. I personally appreciate to have the time to analyze quietly the complexity of a situation, the way Turn-Based systems allows you, rather than facing a permanent trial of reflexes like in Real-Time games.

      Real-Time with Pause is less annoying for me than Real-Time without Pause, but you still have to Pause at the right time if you don’t want to miss tactical opportunities and get time to think about them before it’s too late.

      “Tower of Time” is probably a great game (it has RPS seal of Approval), but I just feel it won’t be my cup of tea because of its real-time approach of tactical combat.

      Your mileage may vary, and your tastes too. That’s just my feelings and nothing else, and especially not a critic of that game.

      • LexW1 says:

        Your feelings are not the issue.

        Ridiculous claims like “People are trying to add real-time to RPGs and strategy games!” are the issue.

        You’re entitled to prefer turn-based. You’re not really entitled to claim this is some shocking new trend, or to imply that there aren’t plenty of turn-based RPGs and strategy games. Ten years ago, you could have claimed that – there were few. But this 2017, not 2007, and there are loads of turn-based RPGs and strategy games everything.

        As for “games are meant to be leisure”, that’s rather playing with the definition of leisure, which does not necessarily imply “leisurely”. Many people prefer, for their leisure, to play quite time-constrained games, whether it’s tennis, soccer, SC2 or PUBG or whatever. So games being “meant to be leisure” has literally nothing to do with whether they are real-time or not.

        If you changed the wording to “games are meant to be leisurely”, which would imply the slowness and particular kind of relaxation you mean, then obviously that would be untrue.

      • Captain Narol says:

        I’ve never claimed that going Real-Time is a new trend, just that I’m more and more fed up of it.

        When I look at recent games like “Might&Magic Showdown” or “Wartile”, I can’t help thinking they would have made great Turn-based games if the devs did not choose to introduce real-time in classical tabletop turn-based mecanisms, and I am not the only one to think that if you look at the steam forums discussions about them.

        On a more philosophical level, I think that our obsession with time and the time pressure that it generates are some of the biggest flaws of our modern civilization and I hate to find it back in games that I play for my pleasure.

        • ZippyLemon says:

          I rather think that people griping about things that don’t concern or interest them is a more pressing problem in our modern culture. It leads to bad moods, heart stress, and lots of time spent arguing semantics and trivialities with strangers on the internet that could be better spent doing practically anything else :D

          *puts on sunglasses*
          *remembers sunglasses hamper enjoyment of the miraculous spectrum of human vision and takes them off again*
          *strides away coolly nonetheless*

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      Neurotic says:

      Are you Captain Narol, who lives next door to Captain Lipsko?

  3. Zenicetus says:

    I dunno… everything about it is appealing except for the realtime combat. So, there is no full pause, just a slowdown? How much does it slow down? It sounds like the answer is “not enough” with that description of trying to micro more than one character in the party.

    Would it have killed them to add a full pause option?

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      John Walker says:

      Yes, because it’s the point of how they’ve designed their game to work?

      I cannot emphasise enough how much of a real-time combat person I’m not, and I’m really enjoying the combat.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Okay, the current price is a very reasonable $14.99 for Early Access, so I’ll try it over the weekend.

        To be clear, I’m fine with realtime hack & slash when the game is designed for that, like Diablo and its clones. I played through Diablo 1&2, and Torchlight 2 with my wife and we both had a blast. But an “action” game like that is designed with limited choices to keep up with the pace. Smash hammer on ground, throw a spell, run around to dodge AOE’s or ranged fire, rinse and repeat. It’s not party management, and it looks like this game has up to four party members? For that, I like turn-based, like the BG series and Divinity Original Sin.

        Anyway, I’ll give it a shot, thanks for the feedback!

  4. left1000 says:

    Another real time combat with pause but oh no let’s remove pause?
    I really hate this sort of thing, and it’s nothing like spellforce.

    Spellforce is an rpg-rts hybrid, the reason you couldn’t pause is that you built like 40 orks in your base, you had heroes to rpg with AND an entire rts game going on with it.

    If you’re gonna remove the pausing from rpg real time with pause combat you’ll be left with something a bit like dragon age inquistion.

    aka you have to dumb down combat a ton. You can’t read tooltips for dozens of spells without pausing.

    I definitely think the dev’s didn’t think this decision all the way through. Spellforce gets away with it by giving you an actual rts. That one funny game that is controlled entirely via voice commands? well yeah that gets away with it because of the gimmick of voice commands.

    There’s no deeper mechanic for thought than pausing. Anything else can at BEST hope to be a gimmick that interests a few people.

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      Waltorious says:

      Well, John does say in the post that he generally dislikes real-time combat, but ended up loving this game. So maybe the devs did actually think this through and designed a really fun and engaging real-time combat system. Perhaps give it a try before passing judgement?

      • Ghostwise says:

        [blockquote]Perhaps give it a try before passing judgement?[/blockquote]

        Can one truly call themselves a gamer if they do that ?

      • Someoldguy says:

        He also criticises the combat, which is what most of the less enthused posts are doing.

        I don’t mind real time if I’m handling one character (Witcher etc) but it becomes much more of a pain in the ass when you are supposed to be the single collective hive-mind for multiple people that act like total zombies when you’re clicking on somebody else. It can rapidly stop the tactics being the most important part (I’ll lure the enemies onto the bridge, then destroy the supports as soon as my troops have reached safety) and become the hand-eye coordination necessary to flick between the multiple morons in your charge and get them to implement the plan. Some better tools to enable your control would be useful so that the planning remains more important than your fine motor skills.

    • popej says:

      “aka you have to dumb down combat a ton. You can’t read tooltips for dozens of spells without pausing.”

      Did you keep a straight face when you made this comment to denigrate the game you’ve never played?

  5. Billtvm says:

    Is it like Dawn of War 2? I suppose for real time combat with RPG elements, DoW2 would have been a good point of reference, but the review does not say anything in that regard?.

  6. toastmodernist says:

    Purchased on strength of review. I generally dislike rpg’s with realtime combat because i’m usually half watching a show at the same time but it’s not a hard rule.

  7. TotallyUseless says:

    RTS RPG where have I seen this before. Ooooh yes, Dawn of War 2. :P

    • Zenicetus says:

      IIRC, Dawn of War 2 released with a full pause. Then at some point it was removed, either for multiplayer or for “balance” (to help the AI). Many weren’t happy about that on the forums, as I recall.

      Anyway, I bought this and took a quick look over the weekend. As expected, the realtime combat is annoying for issuing party orders, but the slowdown helps. I suspect that, as with DOW2, the lack of full pause is to make up for not-too-bright AI enemies.

      The writing seems very fantasy/generic, but maybe it gets better. The art style is lovely, especially the lighting and shadows. I wish Divinity Original Sin looked this good.

  8. bill says:

    Wow. There are a lot of RPG-heads who really dislike the idea of real-time in their RPG huh?

    Actually, I do kind of get it. Old RPGs used to be mainly turn based, then developers tried to make them a bit more exciting and accessible by making them 3d and real time, and mostly did it in a crap way… so everyone decided it was better to go back to remaking infinity engine games forever.

    But, imho, the problem was mainly that they did the real-time combat in crap ways, rather than that the idea itself is bad.
    We seem to accept single-character RPGs with real time combat, but not party based ones. I guess because it’s much harder to make a combat system that lets you manage a party in real time without it turning into an RTS-style clickfest.

    But limiting the party to 3-ish members, with a reasonably simple set of moves and a readable arena seems like it’d work pretty well.