Nostalgia’s just as popular these days as it’s always been. There’s plenty of folks who’d like to escape from the here and now to revisit their past, after all, and the games industry is more than happy to sell them the opportunity. That’s the driving force behind games like Terrain of Magical Expertise, a turn-based RPG from NEO-C Productions that hopes to bring back a little of that classic RPG flavor – not to mention the humor, art style and atmosphere of an era long past.
ToME is based on a web series that I missed back when it was in its heyday, which apparently had a later reboot, an RPG system, a huge wiki that there’s no way I’m reading through and so on. Pretty big stuff, apparently! It centers on the titular MMORPG, the Terrain of Magical Expertise, a pretty standard MMO experience as portrayed through the lens of something like the .hack games. We follow a white-hat hacker following up on a friend’s request to investigate cheating within the game. They log in, slam out a character as quickly as possible (you can choose a body type and combat abilities, but no customization options at all) and get to work.
In the process, they’ll meet up with a guild of misfits hoping to win a huge cash prize by competing in a game-wide competition, as well as dealing with cheaters and less benevolent hackers along the way.
ToME’s art style might remind you of the classic Mega Man Battle Network games, but from a gameplay perspective it’s got a lot more in common with Super Mario RPG. You’ve got a party composed of various adventurers that you meet throughout the world of ToME and, when you’re not running around doing the standard RPG staples of chatting up NPCs and searching for treasure, end up pitting them against both monsters and enemy players. This plays out in the form of turn-based battles where your characters unleash attacks, sometimes spending a chunk of a party-wide mana bar, while defending against enemy assault.
Characters have elemental affinities to pay attention to as well as a variety of buffs, debuffs and healing abilities to mix things up; your main character is also capable of using hacking abilities to give you an edge or deal with enemy cheaters.
The biggest quirk here, aside from the aforementioned party-wide mana, is the ubiquitous quick-time events (QTEs) that interact with pretty much every combat action. We decided these were bad a few years ago for some reason and they don’t show up too often these days, but QTEs make a great addition to turn-based combat. Without them, turn-based gameplay too often turns into a numbers game that boils down to “heal, or you’ll eventually die.”
In games like ToME, though, there’s a little more reliance on player input and skill to get the most out of your attacks. It’s not as immersive as something like Tales of Arise, but ToME’s combat works well for what it is. There’s some definite pacing and difficulty issues – you don’t have access to purchasable healing items for surprisingly long given the frequency of combat, for instance – but that kind of suits a game that feels like a fanfic about an imaginary MMORPG, I suppose.
ToME’s presentation has a lot in common with the web series it spawned from. This is classic Flash-style art – think 2000s-era Cartoon Network – and there’s something to be said for that little nostalgic tickle it brings back. The highlight here might be the vast array of characters that show up both in and out of combat. It really opens the mind as to how deep ToME’s customization might be…if your hacker wanted to interact with it at all. They don’t, but at least you’ve got your choice of plain gray models!
We also need to touch on the writing and style here. It’s all very…lolsorandom – and if you were consuming pop culture from a decade or two ago, I think you know exactly what I mean. Think Newgrounds or College Humor and you might have an idea; even when the characters are being serious, there’s a definite fanfiction.net flair to the dialogue. Likewise, there’s tons of voice acting for pretty much all of the game’s dialogue. It varies in quality both from an acting and an actual sound-quality perspective, but the effort that went into this really shows regardless.
That nostalgia angle is really the selling point when it comes to Terrain of Magical Expertise. That mid-2000s-style writing and acting is really something to behold. It’s something for you Homestuck, Red vs. Blue and Rooster Teeth fans out there. Save for a few nods to the Current Era that are bound to date the game, this makes for a solid step back into the past. RPG fans who are willing to deal with some game design quirks might want to log in to the Terrain of Magical Expertise.