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by Infogrames

It’s a difficult task to create and sell a competent and accurate recreation of the D&D rulebooks. After putting together a game based on the complex set of guidelines for combat, character creation, and equipment usage, among other things, one then has to sell what amounts to a turn based system to a gaming community that seems to be demanding a faster action level and a quickened pace. The most popular games in the genre tend towards skewed and warped versions of the D&D laws, such as Baulder’s Gate and its “sort of, but not quite” turn based approach to combat. The Temple of Elemental Evil, developed by Troika Games, aims for the pure blood RPGers amongst us, adhering to a strict interpretation of the D&D 3.5 rule set, and a clean, solid graphical presentation. Accompanied by a roughly 175 page manual, Elemental Evil does a decent job of presenting an incredibly complex world of rules in such a way that the average human being doesn’t get too lost in the details. Beautiful to look at, fun to play, Elemental Evil is atmospheric and capable of dragging you under for longer periods of time than you meant to be taken down, despite a few flaws in design. While difficult, and lacking any resemblance to mercy for the poorly skilled, a good night in the dungeons of this game will send chills up your spine.

In most elements of the gameplay, Elemental Evil covers up the complexity of its roots rather well. Arrows fly by their targets with a hit or miss, battleaxes fall without a single die roll being evident. This doesn’t hold true for character creation, and rightfully so. In a game such as this, creating and developing your character is half the fun. Killing the monster isn’t fun, getting that really big and expensive weapon so you can play with the monster like a cat does a mouse, then and obliterating the monster – that’s fun. In order to customize your character, you have to go through the options of choosing his alignment, his skills, his class, and race. Unfortunately, that means that if you’re unfamiliar with the D&D universe, the first half hour of so of the game, before any story takes place, before any fighting, you’ll enjoy it hunched over the starting pages of the manual, reading about every option on the list. So the slow part, the tedious part, the part that will have the average, non-RPG gamer out there on the fence giving up and walking away, hits you right up front. Once you get passed that, however, Elemental Evil lays out a stunning graphic adventure for you.

Based on the same engine that drives Baulder’s Gate and Icewind Dale, Elemental Evil is graphically beautiful, with excellent environmental and character detail. As you walk through the forest, the trees rustle in the wind, and with that wind comes perfect environmental sounds. When you’re in the dungeons and the light plays out before you, slowly revealing more and more of your destination and any creature that may linger there, the atmosphere is wonderful. Simply wonderful.

It’s a shame, then, that certain design elements did not receive such excellent attention to detail. There are small flaws, really, elements that interfere with the emersion of the game. For example, when you are fighting in the forest and an enemy falls beneath a tree, good luck finding his body for looting. Where moments before you were happily battling for life and loot, suddenly you’re left clicking randomly in the foliage in hopes one of your characters will accidentally stumble over the enemy’s corpse (which, we presume, fell under a pile of leaves on dying and is thus difficult to see). This sort of thing also represents a problem in dungeons when near walls or fighting in close combat. Your minions, and their minions, are both equally hard to distinguish when in tight areas, and it’s relatively easy to accidentally end up shooting your own teammate with a crossbow bolt.

Other problems range from the significant to the minor. It would have been nice had the inventory screen listed information on how much a character could carry before becoming encumbered, automatically calculating such details about how badly injured the character may be. As it is, all that’s given is the total weight the individual is carrying, and then leaves it up to you to look up the character’s strength, and use the manual to determine his encumbrance point. If he’s hurt and can’t carry as much, it simply informs you that your character is encumbered, but neglects to mention how much weight he has to shed in order to be up and trotting with normal agility again.

Another minor problem with design has to do with dialog. Say you enter a room, and you click on a non-player character to start up a conversation for the first time. Your muscle man, a big brute with the IQ of a crow – meaning he can yield tools but conveys emotional states mainly with grunts – takes the initiative and says something suave like, “Me Joe.” Realizing your mistake, you click your quickest available option to get out of the conversation – which happens to be, “Me leave,” – and reinstate dialogue with your wizard.

The damage, though, is already done. This NPC, who you’ve exchanged no more information with than the name of your rather bulky friend, starts off asking all sorts of personal and knowledgeable questions, as if somewhere between you’re saying hello and you’re saying goodbye, another part of you was actually engaged in some sort of bonding experience. The game assumes that once you’ve chatted with a NPC, no matter how briefly, that you’ve already stripped him of all the relevant information you need, and changes the dialog options. So the first time you click, no matter how little talking you actually do, a question you can ask might be, “How do you keep this inn up on your own? Do you have a family?” Re-clicking will have your character saying things like, “Fred, I think I may have figured out a way to help your daughter save the farm and marry that blacksmith that she loves over yonder, who’s having the spat with the hay guy that you told me about last time we chatted.” No matter how large the leaps in conversation, the characters never seem to get lost, but it leaves their human masters staring at the screen wondering just what exactly is going on.

The more significant errors all tend to fall in the category of bugs. From the occasional program crash, to the fact that if you save your game during an enemy’s combat turn you can never re-load it successfully, Elemental Evil has some significant problems. In some respects, Elemental Evil feels like an unfinished game of the type that happens when a development team is pushed too hard to produce too early. Most of these are addressed in a patch available from the Elemental Evil website, released on November 19th. I highly recommend it. In fact, reading over the list of bugs fixed, it’s an absolute necessity. One error even allowed you tell an NPC that you had completed an important quest to receive credit for it, and to move on the game, whether you had done the job or not. But the option was there in the dialogue, and so click on it, and boom. Done. The patch is simply a must.

Not that The Temple of Elemental Evil is bad. In fact, such hang-ups, crashes, and difficulties are all the more frustrating because Elemental Evil is a game that wants to be played. From the opening animations to the tutorial, to the start of your adventure in the underground dungeons of the temple, TOEE begs to be played. When the music starts to play, you know you’re in for a treat.

So while novice D&D player can expect a tough time getting going, with plenty of death all around, experienced players will find a accurate and detailed recreation of the Dungeons and Dragons experience. With a heavy focus on combat and dungeon exploring, over, say, NPC interaction, TOEE is more for those looking to beef up with the bigger axe to fall the bigger giant more than to solve the local villages problems with their water supply, but is nonetheless a worthy and entertaining foray into a world that could easily have been bogged down by details. Remarkably accessible for the average player interested in D&D games, Troika Games has done a good job in producing a solid and entertaining experience.


Eric Stanton   (11/21/2003)


Ups: Wonderful atmosphere. Accurate recreation of D&D 3.5 rules without being inaccessible. Atmospheric elements dead on. A patch is available for many of the bugs.

Downs: Lot of bugs, including a few that kill the experience right out of the box. Dialogue is stilted and doesn’t ask for player interaction before changing the conversation options. No difficulty level adjustments.

Platform: PC