Someday, somebody will explain how it came to be that Troika and Atari decided to release Temple of Elemental Evil six months before it was finished. Conspiracy theories abound -- Did big, bad Infogrames, er... "Atari" force the little developer to release early? Did Troika simply get tired of the project and itched to work on their upcoming Vampire game? Did both parties think they had a dog on their hands and rush the game to market to recoup some of their losses? Whatever the truth, it's a little sad to see a potentially classic game this pink in the middle, leaving many gamers wanting to send it back to the kitchen for a patch and some more seasoning.
Gameplay (8 out of 10)
The gameplay here is deep. It's as close to playing an old-school D&D module as you're going to get. The tactical combat is turn based and every detail from the 3.5 D&D rule set has been implemented. Combat is a mini-chess match -- you can have your fighters clog a hallway, readying themselves for an approach while spells are cast behind them. Or they can roid themselves up and rush in for first licks -- it's totally up to the player, and success often depends on the situation. Fighting creatures outdoors is very different from fighting within the temple, where the tight spaces create interesting strategic opportunities.
Character generation is well-implemented, and real rpg fanatics can spend hours crafting their party of intrepid adventurers, which we all know is the best part of any crpg. How many times have we meticulously crafted an imaginative party only them wander into an unimaginative dungeon hack of a game where their non-combat skills were superfluous. (Pool of Radiance: RoMD, you have scarred my brain). Thankfully, that's not the case here. For the most part, your skills matter and are useful at different points of the game. Your party reacts to situations in whatever way you want them to. If your Dwarven fighter loses his temple at an irritating barkeep, he can show him the bad side of his dwarven war axe, no questions asked.
The core mechanics of the gameplay are sound, and the turn-based combat is a welcome change of pace from the real-time battles of bioware's outstanding infinity-engine games.
There are bugs, however, and oversights that mar the game's polish. One glaring flaw is the lack of full item descriptions. A help box will show you what a weapon is called and what its numbers are, but if you find a cloak of elvenkind, God help you, because the game gives you no clue as to its benefits. I shouldn't need a player's handbook on my desk while I play the game. Also, items like 'bullets of DO_NOT_USE' appear in the game, and some 3.5 rules are implemented improperly- Weapon Finesse doesn't cover the use of magic short swords and chainmail gloves slow you down, to name a few. Troika can offer up the usual excuses, 'Game is deep, short development blah, blah blah...' but the fact is this game was not properly play-tested and should not have been released.
Story (8 out of 10)
The story in this game is a mixed bag. There is a compelling plot here, if you look hard enough. The game is open-ended and the story structure is slightly different depending on the alignment of your party and Troika has done a excellent job in making the game feel different depending on your party's disposition.
The trouble is the story is a little weaker for some alignments than it is for others -- and the most common choices, neutral and chaotic good, seem to be the weakest. I didn't feel like these alignments were given quite as strong a reason to progress through the story as the others and there were times, I wondered, sure, I'm going to this place marked on the map called 'The Temple of Elemental Evil' but there never seemed to be a very compelling reason for me to be there. Once in the Temple, there's a whole lot you can see and do, but it also depends on your alignment, and for groups that contain paladins, the whole thing can turn into a giant bugbear-killing simulation.
What the heck is a bugbear, anyway? There are times when I think Gygax and the gang were stoned when they were finishing the monster manual. 'Twelve more monsters, Gary. What's next?' 'How 'bout a bugbear?' 'Great. How many hit dice?' 'Two. Plus one. How you like them apples?' Goblins, sure. Orcs? Tolkein-esque. But a bugbear? It's didn't help that picture in the Monster Manual made it look like a furry Weeblo. It should scare you that you know exactly what I'm talking about. I digress.
The bottom line is there is a rich back-story here and a deep, involving plot (with 30+ NPCs who can join you!), but without a DM to guide you through it you can get a bit lost. And continuing a theme, little details stand in the way of the game's greatness- too many of the quests are of the 'go and talk to this guy over on the other side of town variety', and some of the quests are just plain broken.
Visuals (9 of 10)
Concept artist Chris Glenn has put together a fantastic visual universe. The portraits, backgrounds and pre-rendered models look great and all feel like they're part of the same world.
Character and creatures animate nicely, but there are times in the Temple itself where a few creatures on the screen at the same time cause noticeable slowdown, unforgivable in an isometric pre-rendered rpg like this one. This isn't Half-Life 2 folks, let's keep the frame-rates moving, please. Also, after a very compelling opening movie, the rest of the cut-scenes are poorly done and seemed stapled on. The first time you see the temple you treated to a shot of a 3d temple that gets closer and closer while a few chords of ominous music play. Oooh... must be evil!
A few more character portraits would have been nice all well. As it stands, my all-halfling party looks exactly the same. I wouldn't mind that someone in my party looks exactly like an NPC, throw those portraits in the mix and you'd have plenty to choose from.
Audio (6 of 10)
Ron Fish's music in the game is generally good -- a nice, eerie orchestral score with the right amount of strings to set the mood. The music, unfortunately, doesn't work as well in context, and fails to set up the appropriate level of tension during a fight, nor is it dramatically different as the party makes it's way down into the Temple's dungeon. These are small things that mar an otherwise great score.
The sound effects are good, not great -- spells sound effects, for example, aren't as dramatic and don't match up to the striking visuals.
TOEE audio's glaring weakness is the voice acting. It's usually hit or miss in your basic crpg, but here its mostly 'miss.' It's disconcerting to put together a serious-minded group of adventurers and have them joined by an NPC who sounds like Barney from the Simpsons. 'Er... Homer.. Lots people died here. *burp*.' Nice. The monk, Toruku, sounds computer-generated; like the mutant cross between Stephen Hawking and James Lipton. It's not all terrible -- the guy who plays Otis does a credible job, but the ingenuity present in the dialogue as written is not matched by the voice-over actors.
Overall (8 of 10)
Overall, I'd say Temple of Elemental Evil is destined to become a rpg classic... when its finished. The best thing I can say about it is that, despite it flaws, I can't wait for a better-polished sequel.
Who'll like it: I'd recommend to anyone who likes turn-based games and who has fond remembrances of pen-and-paper D & D. If it's properly patched, I would recommend it to any fan of role-playing games.
Who won't: Anyone who prefers a Diablo-style rpg to the number-crunching that you'll find here is better off staying away. If you're the type to write your congressman at the first sign of a bug, I'd also recommend a pass. There's plenty of elementally evil bugs in this one.