Eschalon Book One is an isometric role playing game for the PC. I picked this game up on a whim and found it to be one of the best impulse purchases I have ever made. The creators, Basilisk Games, are an indie game studio that don’t have the funding or resources of their big-name rivals, but they do have one awesome and enjoyable game. Book One is, as you may have already guessed, the first installment in the Eschalon series. Book Two was released a little while after and Book Three a little while after that.
Eschalon looks a lot like a late Ultima game, a kind of mix between 6 and 7, only really, really polished. The gameplay however is a little different. The entire game world is essentially one huge grid and when your character takes a step, everything else on screen is awarded a turn and may move or perform an action. This may sound kind of weird, but it works really well. You don’t notice it at all when you are just walking around and exploring the place. It’s only when there are enemies on screen and you stop in your tracks to formulate a plan of attack that the grid based system becomes apparent. It’s a turn-based game, through and through. The good news is that when the player makes a move, all the other characters make their moves at the same time, meaning there is no sitting around waiting for five-or-so enemies to all get their act together. The game is also single player; there are no other party members nor hirelings to accompany you on your adventure so the character you created is the only one you have to worry about keeping alive.
Character creation is a real treat with Eschalon. While the base attributes are pretty stock standard for an RPG, (with the odd inclusion of dexterity and speed), the wide selection of skills really lets you fine-tune your character just the way you want him. The attributes in Eschalon work a little differently from your typical D&D fare, but a brief explanation of what each attribute does is given when you add points to it. The skill system is what really makes Eschalon a whole lot of fun. For a start, there are no class based restrictions. You could create a thief that buffs himself with divine magic if you wanted to. This skill system also lets you create more outside-the-box characters. For example, there is a skill called mercantile which effects how much you can buy and sell items for. If you pump mercantile high enough, you can sell items off for a small fortune and buy other items at a pittance, meaning that while you might not be a very skilled fighter or magic user, you still have plenty of potions and all the best armor to see you through. Another interesting skill is alchemy, which plays a surprisingly large role in the game. You are constantly finding reactants and reagents in the game, and mixing the correct combinations will yield beneficial results, like health potions or explosives. The recipes for various potions can be found throughout the game and, to my disbelief when playing for the first time, you can reuse bottles. Once you drink a potion the game leaves behind an empty flask in your inventory. Genius.
The game itself favours specialisation more than creating a Jack-Of-All-Trades and this adds to the re-playability of the game as once you have completed it with a magic user, you can’t wait to see what the game would be like with a thief, or a fighter. I personally like to pour all my skill points into the Hide in Shadows and Move Silently skills, wait until night time and move around completely undetected.
After you have created your character, the game starts. I mean the actual game itself. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to not have to sit through some long winded training mode that breaks the 4th wall and makes me feel like a complete idiot. I actually think that not having a training mode adds to the overall experience. As you venture forward, much like your character, you don’t know much about the world around you and it’s really an amazing feeling when you figure certain functions of the game by yourself. Having said that, the game does come with a manual which one can turn to if they find themselves stuck.
The story is interesting. You start out having lost all your memories and spend most of the game trying to piece things together and remember who you are. While not groundbreaking, it’s not a plot line that has been completely done to death either. The plot isn’t really the focal point of the game, but it is a big part of it. One thing I really like is that the story isn’t forced down your throat. The game relies on the player to figure things out and chase down the story line, not the other way around. There are also various side plots and side quests which make the player feel like they are in a living, breathing world. I won’t give the plot away, but I will say that while it may not be Shakespeare, it is interesting enough that you will find yourself really paying attention to what NPCs have to say. There are also books littered throughout the game world which make for interesting reading, though not crucial to the game itself.
The real icing on the cake with this game, along with the stat-based character creation and its seamless battle system, is its atmosphere. The simple but polished graphics and smooth user interface are complimented by its moody music which really makes this game something special. It is quite an immersive experience and I often found myself completely losing track of time when playing this game. I would start up the game around 9 o’clock at night, play for what felt like five minutes and then check my watch only to find out that it was three in the morning. Do note that there is no voice acting within the game. Some people seem to think that not having voice-overs in this day and age is unforgivable, but I appreciate the fact that the game allows me to build more of the characters inside my head. While voiced dialogue can be fine, it tends to rob the player a little by forcing the personality of a character more so than plain text. I like it when there is a little left to the imagination.
No game is without its faults, however. In Eschalon’s case, what little annoyances and oddities it does have are not so horrible or game breaking that it will make you want to stop playing. The level of difficulty probably tops the list of common complaints. Eschalon is pretty difficult and has a steep learning curve. Another niggle is the walking speed of your character; it’s a bit on the slow side. You don’t notice how slow the character is the first time you enter a new map, but it becomes all too painstakingly apparent whenever you have to back-track anywhere. Lastly, your character’s to-hit rate is pretty awful at the beginning of the game and you will often find yourself swinging your weapon over and over unable to land a blow and even when your to-hit rating does increase, it still feels like you are missing all of the time.
The game’s creators, Basilisk Games, have gone to great lengths to re-create the feeling of an old-school RPG and they have succeeded in every way. It may look like some kind of Ultima clone, but give it a little more play time and you can definitely see elements of other role playing classics such as the Wizardry and Might and Magic series. Anyone who longs for the glory days of the PC RPG should definitely give Eschalon try.