The Reliques of Tolti-Aph

Graham Nelson (2006)

The Reliques of Tolti-Aph is the latest game by Graham Nelson, written to showcase some of the new features of Inform 7. It is not traditional IF, rather an RPG with IF elements. It implements a modified D&D engine referred to as Woodpulp & Wyverns (W&W). The implementation of the engine is impressive, but the gameplay itself falls a little short: it fails to adhere to its own conventions and several of the puzzles have unconventional solutions. (Thank goodness for David Welbourn's walkthrough!) It's not balanced, it's not fair, and it can be very frustrating for the player. Play at your own risk!

The first thing that the game needs is a manual, and ideally a tutorial as well, covering concepts such as scroll creation, spells and how to create a sanctuary where you can go to retreat and rest. Understanding the game is more than learning about combat, and I suspect many players will end up resorting to the walkthrough in order to get the hang of it.

One good feature is the ability to retreat (i.e. run away) during a fight. If you get away, you can go back to your sanctuary, meditate (heal), and save. This is just as well, as meditating and saving can only be done in a sanctuary, and UNDO has been completely disabled. While not allowing UNDO makes sense, I do not think it's a good idea to disable save, except perhaps during combat. Some other RPGs do this, but it usually doesn't work, and I've seen it corrected later by a patch.

My biggest complaint is that your strength does not increase as your level increases. This goes against one of the most basic rules of the RPG, and makes some of the creatures almost impossible to kill. The wyvern, for example, can kill you in one shot, no matter what level you are on. There is a spell to get past it, but this is a RPG and you earn experience by killing creatures and casting spells. In a hard boss fight like this, you should earn more experience from killing the beast than casting a simple spell. Overall, the game feels unbalanced: you face sudden death far too often. Either the monsters need less bite or the player's defensive bonus needs to be brought up, or both. In a good RPG, you win most fights and only have to work harder on a small number of boss fights.

Then there's the random maze. That's bad enough, but the strength problem makes every fight feel like a boss fight. Also, with spells needing components to be able to cast them, it becomes impossible to fight the monsters using your spells. If you try, you face a real inventory management problem as you're always running around looking for scraps of metal so you can fire off your magic missiles. This is a bit much, and I had to give up at this point. I think it would be better to remove the component feature from the engine altogether; the mana cost is enough of a penalty.

Another problem with the game is that many of the puzzles are under-clued, and don't follow any sort of pattern. For example, early on I had to write on a blank parchment with a metal feather to create a scroll. "Ah," I thought, "this is how you make a scroll." I never did it again. Later on, I had to look up a saying in the diary and write it on a pyramid. Why couldn't a monster have been protecting a blank parchment? Then it would have been obvious that I should write on the parchment to create the scroll I needed. Having established a convention, the game should carry it through. In addition, when you learn a new spell this way, the game doesn't even tell you that you've learned it: you have to look it up in your spell book. The player should know when they've done something right.

The game has an awkward dual personality, trying to combine conventional IF puzzles with the RPG elements, and doesn't quite pull it off. There are some great puzzles here, but some of them are so hard that they disrupt the flow. As an RPG, I feel it should have been more action-oriented, with IF puzzles that don't act as roadblocks.

A pet peeve of mine is that the game is not always clear about which exits are available. This was particularly noticeable in the maze, where there are no room descriptions for the tunnels, and some of the room names (e.g. NORTH-EAST BEND) are misleading. More than once I had to resort to trying random directions.

Technically, the game is very polished, and the only bug I found happened upon death when trying to cast a spell. Once, when I tried to make a sanctuary the sand coming out of the door killed me, and the game responded with:

Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game or QUIT?


That enchantment cannot be cast at anything.

The game would not let me restore, and I had to restart before I could restore my saved game.

Overall, I think the idea of an IF RPG offers some great possibilities. Some things need to be changed within the engine, and a few things need to be worked out within the game itself, but this could definitely become a solid game engine for others to build on.