Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Temple of Elemental Evil (PC, 2003)

People have a tendency to return to things that they actually really disliked the first time around. Things like giving birth, old relationships, the LFG-tool in WoW Classic... Where you first went "never again!" your brain slowly starts to whisper "was it really that bad though? Maybe you just did it the wrong way? Maybe this time it will be better because you know what to expect?". Those rose-tinted goggles can be dangerous.

This is the relationship I have with games that apply the Dungeon & Dragon gameplay system. I've tried a fair few so far - NeverWinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale to mention the classic ones. The only one that I managed to get farther than a few hours into, and in fact complete, is Planescape: Torment, which I actually really enjoyed.

Without fail, every time I try these games I have high hopes of a fun, party-based, turn-based, story-driven RPG to sink my teeth into but after a few fights I always get reminded of how evil these games are and quite frankly just badly designed. 

Everything revolves around wasting the players time and around having the feeling that you don't have all the information you need to do a good job.

Unfortunately, The Temple of Elemental Evil turned out to be no different in this regard. I went in with my classic hope of finally having gotten the grasp of these games, like the fact that you simply can't play with certain classes unless you're mega-pro, because they are too weak. And even when you have a whole party full of seemingly battle-worn adventurers that should be able to do everything from smash skulls, shoot lasers and mend wounds in-between themselves, they always turn out to be a bumbling mess of kindergartners who couldn't hit the side of a barn if it fell on them.

How was it ever considered fun that every character you play is so incredibly bad at everything they do? If I have a Rogue I expect them to be half decent at picking locks, or sneaking or setting traps or at least something. If I have a Barbarian I expect them be good at breaking things. If I have a sorcerer I expect them to be ok at throwing a spell or two. But that is just not how the Dungeon & Dragon rule set works and I can not fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea?

So I choose my first line-up, a Warrior, Sorcerer, Cleric and Rogue. Immediately I learn that the very first and weakest mobs you come across can easily hit you for 3-7 damage but my Clerics "Heal Light Wounds", which he can only cast once before he needs 8 hours of rest, only heals for 1 damage. Oh and speaking of resting, if you're in a safe zone like a city you can only rest in an inn which costs money. If you're in the wilderness you will get attacked by mobs if you try to rest. Every 2 damage any of your characters have taken, and they will take a lot of damage, takes a whole day to rest up.

This just results in a flurry of quick-saves, quick-loads and running back and forth between the town and the questing area. All the while you're doing this, your characters get stuck in the environment, behave according to their "personalities" which just means they won't do what you ask them to and overall act like the opposite of my idea of fun. I literally have a character in my party who picks up everything I loot and refuses to hand it to anyone else or sell it. He is so encumbered and just hoards all my stuff, such a prick!

I haven't even gotten around to talking about the story or the setting or the atmosphere. There is just so much frustration in me trying to navigate the controls and lack of control that I can't think of anything else or enjoy anything that might be good.

The alignment you choose (a mix of Good/Neutral/Chaotic) affects which party members you can have and also which starting quest you get. From what I can tell they still get you to the same starting area, which is a little country town called Hommlet. I quickly find more people to add to my party in Hommlet, for which I am immensely grateful. So far the only character remotely useful however have been rogues and barbarians. Everyone else either can't hit for the life of them (literally) or die in two hits. If I had a 6-man party of only rogues and barbarians I would probably do ok at the beginning of the game. I suspect the end of the game will not be as easy though. The game design expects and in fact requires that you carry half your party for a big part of the game because they won't be useful until later.

I find a few quests, some require me to try to negotiate small village quarrel, but some are more interesting. I get way-points on my map and decide to explore them. A plus for the game is that enemies don't seem to respawn once you've painstakingly got rid of them. But a huge minus is that, as mentioned, after practically every fight I have to travel back to the inn and rest. There is no challenge in that, just a waste of my time.

I've played three hours of this game and I have only managed to finish the very first quest, which literally only tasks you to find a certain someone in Hommlet. And even that took me over two hours to figure out. Maybe I am just really, really bad at these games...

It makes me a bit sad, because I am sure there is a decent game buried under all the evil game design. But to look on the bright side, as someone closing in on 40 it isn't often I get to feel too young for something, but I am definitely too young to understand this game.

So I give it another go.

This time I go in with a different mindset. This game isn't about going in guns a-blaze, it's about thinking, preparing, utilizing every tool and skill at your disposal. Instead of running my group around I sneak with my rogue, allowing me to prepare for fights that come ahead (which slightly improves my chances of survival). 

Instead of sending every character to try to chop the enemy's head off I carefully select their positioning, paths and skills to make sure they get more hits off than the enemy (which slightly improves my chances of winning).

Instead of thinking the game will come to me, I make sure to explore every nook and cranny, really listen to (carefully read and take notice of) what people say to me (which slightly improves my chances of finishing quests).

I save after every achievement, every little step forward. 

And I get a glimpse of an entertaining game, with no hand-holding, that wants you to deserve the good bits with blood, sweat and a lot of patience. But that much patience, unfortunately, I am too old for.


  1. I can see where the old style isometric RPGs can turn some people off, so no worries.

    1. Not the aesthetics for sure, I love the Fallout games for instance. It is the mechanics though. They are so stiff.