Game review: Eschalon Book II

  • Title: Eschalon Book II
  • Developer: Basilisk Games
  • Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
  • Price: $24.95

Eschalon Book II is the second game in the Eschalon series by Basilisk Games. Eschalon is an isometric, nonlinear wRPG reminiscent of Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. It does almost everything well, but there are a few areas where the game fails to live up to its promise.

Let’s talk about the things Eschalon does well. First of all, Eschalon is beautiful. The visuals all hang together perfectly, the scenery is vivid and lush, and all sorts of neat little environmental details really help the world come alive. Plus, everything you would expect to be animated is animated. (I’m looking at you, Avernum.)

Eschalon’s music is also very well-produced and atmospheric. It’s generally pretty unobtrusive, which is nice, since you’ll be hearing it a lot. On the other hand, it’s not very memorable.

The Eschalon game engine is simply superb. Everything is turn-based, but if you keep moving, it looks positively real-time. Hunger, thirst, gradually degrading equipment, changing weather and day/night cycles make you constantly aware of the passage of time. Eschalon feels like a survival game at times–it’s thrilling to play an RPG where your character faces a real risk of starvation if you don’t plan ahead. Darkness has noticeable effects on visibility and on your ability to successfully hit things in combat. You’ll need to stock up on torches to get much done underground or late at night.

The engine plays to Eschalon’s strengths: namely, exploration and loot collection. The world of Eschalon is huge, and once you get Cartography, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself compulsively traversing the wilderness in an attempt to simply map it all. I found myself wanting to put extra points into Cartography even when I didn’t really need to, simply because of how satisfying it was to watch the mini-map fill up with color.

The world of Eschalon contains many unmarked secrets. Wandering around, I often found myself stumbling across hidden caves, obelisks, bandit camps, and nests of unfriendly wildlife, to say nothing of abandoned chests full of loot. Occasionally, I would be led back to one of these places with a side quest later in the game, which I actually found disappointing: it was much more satisfying to find something no one else knew about, even in the fiction of the game world.

I have only two complaints about the exploration and survival aspects of Eschalon. The first is small but not insignificant: you can only view your Cartography maps as an auto-scrolling mini-map for the current area. You cannot create your own world map, or even pan the auto-map for whatever area you are in. This rarely has any impact on the gameplay, but it does make it hard for the player to look back on his or her mapping handiwork, which in turn cuts down on the satisfaction of having explored vast swathes of wilderness.

My second complaint is the fact that the main character evidently suffers from some kind of food-related learning disability. He is unable to recognize a potato or a cabbage without outside help. You literally have to take him to a magic store and pay money in order for the store clerk to tell him that the potato he is holding is a potato. Even worse, you can’t just tell him to eat the damn potato without identifying it, and once it’s been identified and eaten, he won’t recognize any new potatoes if you happen to find another one.

The only way your character is going to recognize staple foods is if you create him with a high Intelligence score. But the only characters who actually use Intelligence for much of anything are wizards. Which leads me to conclude that it is an act of magic in the world of Eschalon to know what a cabbage is.

Intelligence snafus aside, character creation in Eschalon is robust. Characters are eminently customizable, with a half dozen races, religions, and classes. There is also a full array of skills to choose from ranging from weapon skills to foraging, schools of magic to lock picking, dodging to cartography. Each religion functions like a Fallout perk, in that it comes with one advantage and one disadvantage (though you can always opt for Agnostic, which confers no advantages or disadvantages). Players who like tinkering with character stats will delight in the large array of options at their disposal here.

There is only one thing conspicuously missing from the skill list: pick-pocketing. There are so many chests scattered around the world that this doesn’t matter much for purposes of making money, but there are certain instances where it matters quite a lot for purposes of good role-playing. A good thief character ought to be able to simply lift items off of NPCs rather than having to bargain with them (or kill them).

Eschalon is competently written, with pleasant if rather unremarkable prose. NPCs you meet in the game will converse with you via dialog trees. However, there is an unfortunate paucity of memorable characters and dialog alternatives to color your interactions with them.

You have no Charisma or Personality stat, so there are rarely more than one or two ways a conversation can go. Most conversation trees give you two branches at a time: one “I’m ending this conversation” branch, and one “I’m continuing this conversation” branch. That’s mostly it. Consequently, the hand that guides conversations forward never manages to stay out of sight. You will always know that you are talking with a “Give a Side Quest” or “Advance the Plot” marionette. For a game so plainly about exploration, the inability to meaningfully explore other characters is a major oversight.

This stinginess with dialog options extends to the quests. Just to be clear: the non-dialog-driven quests in Eschalon are nicely non-linear, with multiple ways of achieving the same objective. Entering Port Kuudad, for instance, can be accomplished in a wide variety of different ways, few of them immediately apparent when you first arrive at the outer gates.

But once you start talking to NPCs, all this non-linearity goes out the window. Eschalon reprises one of the problems that plagued the original Baldur’s Gate: encounters that always devolve into fights no matter what you say or do.

Worse, quest-related dialog in Eschalon only supports one objective at a time, leaving you no room to manipulate the characters you’re dealing with. The game, in fact, affirmatively forbids you the opportunity to say one thing and do another. If you say you’re going to do something in

conversation with a character, the game will oftentimes actually rewrite the quest in your quest book so that you can only complete the quest in that fashion. You cannot tell a lie. It’s like you’re playing Lil’ George Washington.

While I found the linearity of in-game dialog disappointing, it wasn’t bad enough to sabotage my enjoyment of the game. That honor was reserved for something else entirely: the learning curve. I played the game on Normal with default game settings. I played four different games this way, each with a different character. My conclusion? Eschalon Book II is balls-hard for the uninitiated. I’m talking billiard balls dipped in titanium.

To begin with, it is surprisingly easy to create an utterly useless character. I started off trying for a Cleric, typically a versatile, well-balanced character in wRPG tradition. “Yeah!” I said to myself. “A good melee fighter with healing spells–I’ll be self-sufficient and powerful in no time!”

Um, yeah. I began the game, left my cottage, and was promptly attacked by a giant rat. He immediately bit me, transmitting some sort of loathsome disease. Troll Syphilis or something like that. It cut two of my primary combat stats down by 50%. “Okay,” I thought, “I’m a priest. This will be easy to deal with. Where is my Cure Disease spell?”

Um, yeah. I had none. I didn’t even have a healing spell. All I had was something called Flesh Boil, which just sounded like a particularly nasty symptom of Troll Syphilis. So with my combat skills down lower than Verne Troyer doing the limbo, I only barely managed to survive the very first encounter in the game. I made it to town, slept, and bought some healing magic. “Okay–now I can heal myself. I’m a legit cleric. Time to try combat again.” It wasn’t long before I started fighting some black molds and needed healing. “Great!” I thought.  “Time to invoke the divine powers of healing!”

Um, yeah. You don’t get divine powers. In Eschalon, “healers” are basically just crummy wizards. I was carrying a sword, and the somatic requirements of my healing spell meant that I needed to have my hands free. So in other words, my disease-ridden “healer” couldn’t even use a basic healing spell on himself without disarming in the middle of a crowd of monsters.  I decided at that point that he actually deserved to die, and I left him to the care of the black molds.

My fighter fared substantially better. At first. But by the time I reached the second town, the quests required me to take down monsters way beyond my poor fighter’s ability to kill. I took a job to kill a sentinel plant, which looks like a giant spiky corn stalk. I figured I would walk in with my sword and walk out with creamed corn, but no: instead, the corn creamed me. I just kept swinging and swinging and missing and missing. (How does a corn stalk dodge a sword?) And then I was dead.

There is a continuum in game battle systems between luck and skill, randomness and determinism. Chess is 100% deterministic, the outcome of a match 100% decided by player skill. Games like Fire Emblem add randomness into the equation, turning the proceedings into a game of risk management. There can be a lot of strategy in risk management. But there have to be enough mechanisms under player control to stack the odds in his/her favor.

Most games with randomized hit/miss/damage accomplish this feat by giving the player a party to control. Eschalon’s cousins Baldur’s Gate and Arcanum do this. Avernum does it too. You have different characters with different abilities, and smart positioning and use of their respective strengths will usually triumph over bad luck.

Eschalon does not have this going for it. You are one character. Tactics consist primarily of using different combat stances and deciding when to use potions or run away. But for the most part, whatever your character’s hit percentage is, that’s it. You’re stuck with that and whatever the dice give you. And unfortunately, the way the game is balanced, characters spend so much time missing, they should be on the back of a milk carton.

I just know people are going to show up here and comment that I suck at combat in Eschalon. I mean, okay, I did die over and over again. But there’s nothing to suck at. Oh, sure, maybe I could have given my character a bow to take ranged potshots with. But that would have been a minimum of three skill points I’d need to take away from my sword skill, and even with me pouring all of my offensive skill points into swords, I could barely hit anything for the first 10 hours of the game. It would have just been me accidentally hitting cows and passerby with arrows, then drawing my sword in time to start a fresh batch of missing everything I swung at.

Wizards don’t get off easy, either. Their spells always hit, which is a godsend, but the early spells don’t deal much damage unless you jack up their level (and associated mana cost). And once enemies close the distance with a wizard, it’s time for the bookie to pack up and go home, because that fight is over with. Absolutely ensuring that wizards die constantly is the fact that it is nearly impossible to use hit-and-run tactics in Eschalon. This isn’t Fallout, where your move distance is determined by your character’s speed. For every space you move, enemies move one space. You can jack your character’s speed up to 30, and this will still hold true. (I checked.) So enemies will always maintain distance with you when you run away, unless you manage to interpose some obstacles to mess with the game’s pathfinding AI.

I finally managed a playable character with my second fighter, a blunt weapon user named Bash-ette. I rolled as close to straight 14s as I could get, then poured every single point I could into two stats and two skills: Strength and Dexterity, Blunt Weapons and Light Armor. I found and completed every single side quest I could in the initial area, leveling up and pumping all of my new points into those four skills and stats. I was level 6 by the time I made it to Everdale. I was just barely able to survive the quests in that area.

I now believe that I could create a non-combat-centric character and survive–maybe even do well. But it took about 20 hours of play time for me to figure out how that could possibly work (hint: run away from everything, save up your money, and try to get into Port Kuudad so you can buy combat training and complete all those quests you skipped from earlier). This will appeal to some people: this is a game that rewards patience and repeated playthroughs. This will turn off others: it takes a long time to reach a level of familiarity with the game world that permits even a single successful playthrough.

The verdict: 4/5. Eschalon Book II is enthusiastically recommended for patient players who don’t mind dying all the time while they figure out how to survive in the game, and cautiously recommended for others who don’t mind playing on easy.

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