Long ago, in the land of Flanaess, an evil demoness founded a cult dedicated to exploring evil in its most elemental forms. This cult was based in a temple just outside the village of Hommlet in a vile shire known as Nulb. Soon, this cult ruled the region with tyranny; times of chaos and violence ensued. Hard-fought battles were waged and the war was eventually won by the good armies of nearby lands. The temple was razed, the villains were imprisoned, and order was restored. The temple itself faded into distant memory...until now.
I never really was into pencil & paper games. I never spent a night at a friend and skipped sleep only to explore a vast fantasy world in my imagination. Of course I played my share of different card, paper and miniature games that DON’T need a PC including Magic: TG (lately I was shocked to see how many expansions, new editions and rule sets came out after I stopped collecting but not playing a few years ago), the similarly popular Warhammer (beware my mighty unpainted dwarven army!) and lately some of my friends suggested to try out BloodBowl. None of them just happened to be P&P RPGs.
You see in fact I never played a “real” D&D game outside my PC. I’m quite into RPGs and in the mean time after playing Neverwinter Nights and its expansion and other games before I begin to have a clue about the general D&D rules, races, classes, abilities, skills and alignments. Still I had only a very basic idea of what to expect from a game that uses the “3.5 set of rules” and is the first time appearance of this “module” on the PC.
A bit of research later I was a little smarter but not really better prepared. The 3.5 set of rules is the most recent version of the Dungeons and Dragons base rules making this game interesting for fans that waited for a game making use of the new rule set. This special module is mainly interesting for the older or more experienced players on the other hand. The Temple of Elemental Evil is an adventure book from the mid 80’s that till today is one of the most reknown so-called “modules” for D&D and more importantly was written by D&D’s father himself, Gary Gygax.
Let the newbie slaughter begin
Throughout the game I more than once had the feeling that the game expects more than just my very basic skills to get the most out of it. It starts right at character generation. Just like it’s “step brother” Neverwinter Nights – they are both D&D games but follow different rule sets – you have to generate your character before the game itself starts. But already here the big differences begin to show. First of all there is no real aid or help during character generation – in NWN you had an option for auto generation – giving newbies a hard time. Even worse or should I say “dangerous” is the fact that you not only have to create one character but a total of four of them. The game starts and is played controlling a party of four and if you spoil your characters right at the start you will have a very hard time achieving anything. Every single character ought to be balanced and even more importantly your different character’s abilities should complement one another. If you have no experience with the D&D rules you will likely have to select the pre-generated characters to start with although I believe you will have only have half the fun doing so.
Hommlet – no not the “To Be or Not to Be guy”
After successfully (or maybe not so successful as you might find out later) generating your characters your party stumbles right into a battle between a caravan and some bandits. I really suggest you play the built-in tutorial when playing for the first time as it will give you a bigger chance of surviving your first encounters with the wicked forces of Evil. Being (perhaps) the good guys and girls you will likely save the caravan and your next mission is bringing word of the attack to the city of Hommlet. Fans of Neverwinter Nights will perhaps be disappointed by the graphics right away. Temple of EE makes a step back since it doesn't feature 3D environments with a free camera; instead you will be reminded of games like the original Baldur’s Gate, since your characters move around in an almost static (yet highly detailed) environment and you, the player, will watch them from a fixed camera position. The characters and enemies on the other hand are all well animated and highly detailed, as are the environments and dungeons - that makes up for the static graphics. And the lightning and magic effects later in the game are sweet, sweet eye candy.
Finding your way around the village you will meet the indispensable NPCs that have many stories to tell, items to sell and most importantly quests and side-quests to accept, and after resting and filling up your inventory you are soon off to other missions (ultimately bringing you to the Temple of Elemental Evil of course).
Battle in Temple of Elemental Evil is all turn-based, with every character using action points to move, attack, cast spells and use abilities. All units involved in the momentary conflict are represented by portraits in the upper portion of the screen giving you an idea of the chain of turns.
With the numerous abilities, spells, skills and actions possible you will spend a large amount of time browsing through the menus. A classic “ring” interface splits the many actions into clearly laid out groups and e.g. in this case the turn based combat is a real blessing if you are looking for a special ability or spell. Although never neglect tactics while in combat – always keep an eye on whose turn it is next, since if you don’t take care it could easily happen that you end your turn, and after several enemies one after another had their turns the situation could develop in a very bad way for your group.
As you progress through the game you will visit many places and dungeons, so a good mapping system should be essential. Yet here we meet one of the flaws of the game. While there are detailed maps of every stage, they lack any marks or points of interest. Manually you have to label points of interest like important merchants and characters in the cities you might need to stock up again or get your reward for a accomplished quest. Maybe a small annoyance, yet an annoyance.
Will evil be triumphant?
Like stated before the “original” D&D doesn’t mean much to me and what started to show in character generation soon got more and more obvious as I progressed: the game is really hard and unforgiving. The rules were followed to the letter (note that e.g. NWN included many, many modifications and adoptions to make it more playable on the PC and for inexperienced players) and the game is really not intended for part-time RPG players that feel lost even in the Diablo Character sheet.
Old school D&D player on the other hand will be more than happy with this game. Almost no technical gimmicks but a little graphical eye candy, just hardcore roleplaying to prove that you know the tome of rules by heart and that you already have planned the evolution of your party characters from level 1 to 10.
Infamous last words
Roleplaying hardcore gamers will fall in deep love with this game, yet inexperienced adventures could be driven away by the complex rules as they are perfectly crafted into the game. A game truly not for the broad masses but for specialists – but they will kill for it.