Dark Souls is the only other game that has made me think about shields quite as much as I have over the last two days. In most games, once the blasted things have been equipped they'll merrily absorb damage until the end of time. Not here. Not in The Depths of Tolagal. Deceptively simple in appearance, Tolagal has some of the smartest turn-based tactical combat I've ever seen in a fantasy hack 'em up, and that alone makes it worthy for consideration as one of the great modern roguelikes.
One of the games I played and loved more than any of the others in 2014 was Hoplite. It didn't make it onto our Bestest Best list because it was released in December of 2013. On iOS. It's a single-screen turn-based tactical game with a handful of enemy types and special abilities that can be played to completion in less than half an hour, and it has one of the tightest and smartest rulesets in existence.
The Depths of Tolagal, a commercially released expanded version of a free browser game, is a full roguelike experience with some of Hoplite's tactical trickery threaded through its design. I could spend thousands of words on Hoplite without properly articulating its genius, but, in part, it's a simple case of the challenge being perfectly pitched. As soon as a level begins, everything is predictable - every movement of every enemy and every hitpoint lost or taken - which means that failure can always be traced back to one of your decisions.
In the randomised world of a sprawling roguelike, The Depths of Tagliatelle manages to achieve something similar, which is a remarkable feat. There are two modes: a story with randomised maps but a sense of pacing in the reveal of enemy types and locations, and an infinite mode that is defiantly oldschool roguelikey. Permadeath can be disabled during story mode but infinite mode will kill your characters good and hard.
The Depths of Tolagapalooza doesn't have an enormous amount of stuff to play with, as some of the best roguelikes do (NetHack has kitchen sinks, fer cryin' out loud), and its dungeon layouts aren't particularly notable. It's a game about combat rather than exploration and the brilliance of that combat is the reason it deserves attention and rewards it with a tremendous tactical experience.
Everything is communicated by way of crisp, clean graphics and a user interface that works as well with a mouse, a keyboard or a combination of the two. You need to understand movement in four directions, the use of a main weapon, an off-hand item (second weapon or shield) and an auxiliary item, usually in the form of some manner of magical healing doohickey. Inventory management is limited to those three slots and two backpack spaces that allow for switching between sword and shield, and axe and bow, or other combinations.
You move, you hit monsters, you fire arrows and you look for the stairs that take you down to the next level. Along the way you'll drink the occasional potion - although without the need to identify them through experimental quaffing - and find a magic item or two. Where The Depths of TolagaLaLaLand stands out from the crowd is in its approach to combat. The game is turn-based but each turn is further subdivided when combat begins, with every entity involved able to act multiple times within a single turn, using up action points as they go.
This means that you can dance around a hulking great troll that only has one action point, stabbing and cutting. But while that single action point might mean the monster moves slowly, it does have a charge attack that allows it to advance several squares in a straight line, striking at the end of that charge. As in Hoplite, you need to be aware of each enemy's capabilities and calculate how best to survive an encounter.
Managing your own action points makes combat tense and compelling. If you have a shield, you'll need to raise it to absorb damage, and weapons can be readied, at the expense of an action point, in order to use their 'power' attack. The precise nature of that charged strike varies from one weapon to the next, sometimes simply causing more damage, sometimes knocking an enemy back or absorbing hitpoints to heal the player character. It's a beautiful system, requiring careful attention to the layout of a room, the position of each enemy, and the expenditure of action points. Essentially, the system subdivides each turn into fractions, allowing for simple but detailed control of each piece of equipment.
I'd love to see the game grow, with new areas and enemy themes, but every entity currently included serves a specific purpose. There's very little that exists simply as filler or to add colour, apart from some story-based texts that are scattered about, usually on the corpse of a flalen enemy. It may seem a somewhat lean offering, particularly given the roguelike tradition of quantity along with quality, but this isn't a game that relies on mystery and discovery to keep players invested. Instead, it relies on its clever and efficient take on turn-based combat to keep each encounter interesting.
It's not as beautifully precise as Hoplite but I get the same feeling of success and failure truly earned. There's a complexity to combat, particularly when companions and various abilities are in play, but the systems are explicable and predictable. I often crave more chaos in the games I play but every now and again something like this comes along and reminds me how much I admire a finely tuned machine.
Top-down roguelike fantasy adventuring it may be, but The Depths of ToejamandEarl isn't quite like the rest. Despite that generic and forgettable name, this is a smart game that differentiates itself by exploring one central feature from many angles and building a structure that supports that system. If you're not convinced, try out Return to Tolagal, which is a free, earlier take on the same ideas. It's a great demo for the Depths.
The Depths of Tolagal is out now.