6 years worth of fan patches have turned this forgotten gem into more than a hardcore RPG, it's now a legend.
Since there are so many, it makes it hard to separate the gold from the dross, so to speak.
So where does that leave Toee? An RPG that was released nearly 6 years ago as of the writing of this review?
Temple of Elemental Evil is, without a doubt, the most accurate portrayal of pen and paper D&D on the PC. While it does borrow a few of the more annoying rules (such as charging you 100 gold pieces for the casting components of the identify spell) it more than makes up for it by giving you tons of crafting, combat, and spellcasting options that you simply will not find in any other D&D game...at least not with this level of detail. As a matter of fact, the game is so accurate that several rules never even spoke about much less used in D&D computer games are presented here in their full glory. No matter how obscure or meaningless the combat rule is, you'll have to learn it in order to survive.
And quite frankly, that's the way an RPG is suppose to be.
Granted, TOEE isn't the kind of game that makes a company millions of dollars, but it *is* the kind of RPG that makes Old fogeys like me cry with joy.
Why is that, you ask? Simple, it's because the game is so unapologetically difficult and combat heavy. Instead of relying on strong narrative and long cutscenes involving 50 pages worth of carefully crafted long-winded dialog, TOEE simply drops a small army on top of your characters and laughs as you go into panic mode and flail away at them with impunity.
One example of this is very early in the game when you reach the second floor of the temple itself. One of the first fights you'll encounter is a battle with three relatively high level werewolves that attack you in a very small, confined space. While werewolves were relatively easy in the Bioware Infinity Engine games, in TOEE they are much more deadly and incredibly resistant to all but your very best magical weapons. If, by chance, you have yet to start enchanting your weapons that early in the game, you will be mauled to death by these heavily resistant lycanthropes before the second round even ends.
The game is full of amazing battles like this that are deliberately stacked against you. Nearly every room has a horrible army of baddies just waiting to pounce on you if you so much as rub against their elbows. As you can imagine, this makes the game extremely combat-heavy and will turn off all but the most diehard of old school D&D players. Much like the SSI Goldbox games, TOEE revels in its complexity and its reliance on strategic, rule-laden, statistic-driven battles.
There is a story, of course, but TOEE isn't about a plot. I have gone through the game five separate times and in each playthrough I force-attacked non hostile creatures and wiped every living, breathing thing out of the game. I even found sneaky ways to get non-hostiles to attack my paladin without having to lose my lawful good alignment. I simply enjoy the combat so much that I become addicted to it so badly that I can't go a few seconds without stopping to enjoy its turn-based goodness. Words cannot describe the joy TOEE's combat gives me, and I doubt the English language will ever give me an opportunity to.
TOEE does, or rather, did, have its weaknesses. Before the famous "Circle of Eight" and Livonya fan patches, the game was incredibly unstable and nearly unplayable in some areas. Crashes, lock-ups, and saved game corruption were so common that even the most stalwart of PC RPG'ers were driven away from the game. Thankfully, after almost 6 years of constant work by the fan community TOEE is an almost completely fixed game that finally lives up to the promise its developers made back in 2003.
The fan patches even add new content such as improved enemy AI, more accurate hit point totals for NPCs, harder traps, more feats, extra spells, and an extended level cap and an entirely new area with a unique boss crafted especially for advanced players.
With all the attention paid to Neverwinter Nights, Dragon age, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, it's hard to convince an RPG'er to go back and experience this under appreciated classic when it requires so much from the player. It's difficulty combined with its need to be modded in order to be played correctly as well as the incredible learning curve that casual fans will undoubtedly experience during their first ten or so hours with the game makes it a "hard sell". All I can say is that if you feel up to it, you really should give TOEE a try. It's worth more than a king's ransom and is several hundred times as hard to come by.
Though you'll probably slam your fist down a few times during each fight, you'll eventually learn what real D&D is like...and possibly look at the current crop of CRPGs in a new light.
It's like eating Fillet Mignon and then being forced to eat sloppy joes instead. You simply cannot look at lesser RPGs the same way again.