Eschalon: Book I – Staff Review

Modern role-playing games have come a long way, delivering bigger worlds, shinier graphics, and – sometimes – better acting and writing.  Yet ask any old-school RPG fan and they’ll tell you some things just can’t be done with fully voiced characters and state-of-the-art visuals.  Illustrating the point is Eschalon: Book I, the debut title from Basilisk Games and first in a planned three-part series.  With thematic roots in series like Wizardry and Ultima, Eschalon is at once a nostalgia trip and a smart, atmospheric standalone adventure, provided you’re up to the challenge it poses.

Eschalon‘s story starts off in familiar fashion, if not familiar territory.  Our customizable hero wakes up in the ruined town of Elderhollow, suffering from plot-mandated amnesia and beckoned by a mysterious letter to pick up a package from a neighboring village.  The resulting trail of identity breadcrumbs leads him right alongside a two-front war in the nation of Thaermore, fought over a stolen gemstone of considerable power: the Crux of Ages.  For the most part anybody who’s at all familiar with amnesia plots won’t be too surprised at the developments here, and few characters have any real contribution to the plot.  However, there’s a lot of interesting backstory here, and the story covers its bases well; smaller quests tie sensibly into the big picture, and both dialog and descriptive text show the mark of a skilled writer building a cohesive world.

That said, the real selling point of Eschalon is its gameplay, with adventure and character building at center stage.  Controls are simple, with hotkeys for menus and the mouse handling most movement and interaction.  Movement might take some getting used to – the camera is locked on your character, and you move in the direction the mouse is pointing – but it shouldn’t pose a huge problem.  Point-and-click handles talking, fighting, opening doors, etc., though you won’t automatically move to a target if it’s out of range.  Movement is turn-based even out of combat, meaning time only passes when you actually do something, giving you plenty of time to learn the controls and consider your options.  A quicksave button is there when you need it, though you’ll want a hard save before you try something dangerous.

Today's fortune: you will face unorthodox challenges today.  And *how*.
Today’s fortune: you will face unorthodox challenges today. And *how*.

This being an RPG, you’ll be doing something dangerous pretty much all the time.  Encounters aren’t random unless you’re attacked while resting in the field, so once you clear an area it’s generally safe for good.  However, fights aren’t instanced; nearby enemies will come running if they hear the commotion.  With proper equipment, tactics, and training, you can match single enemies with ease, but groups of even weaker ones can quickly shred the unprepared.  You can specialize as one of five pre-set classes, and it’s wise to play to certain strengths along the way, but this is a solo adventure and it’s on you to deal with every obstacle you come across.

Fortunately, the character building system doesn’t lock you into any particular path.  Your choice of nationality and belief system (or lack thereof) carries unique benefits and drawbacks, but otherwise you can build up your stats and skills as you see fit.  Mages and thieves can wear heavy armor, warriors can cast fireballs and pick locks, and everything in between.  Social and survival skills vary in utility depending on your playstyle, but a little dabbling throughout the game can go a long way.  Obviously some combat training is necessary, but a master merchant can get more bang for their buck, and a skilled alchemist can make life-saving concoctions from common materials.  Certain skills have in-game trainers, books, and item enchantments, which help a player round out weak spots.

This character building is at the heart of what makes Eschalon work well: versatility.  Quests themselves usually have single solutions, but you have a wealth of options in dealing with the world’s hazards.  Playing as a sword-fighting rogue, I found myself routinely getting rolled by powerful enemies in large groups that I couldn’t sneak by.  So I went the Red Mage route and used whatever advantage I could find: using a nightvision spell and fighting in darkness, waiting for enemies to split up, luring them into traps, lighting torches and waiting in shadows with a bow at the ready, casting Haste to start fights in my favor, using doorways and other chokepoints.  You can play dedicated tank, thief, or mage archetypes, and you certainly won’t master everything by the end. Still, it’s both fun and practical to mix and match, and combat has surprising tactical depth.

Both side and plot-critical quests are linear, but versatility and freedom extend to the overall gameplay.  Locked doors and objects can be picked or bashed open, at the risk of breaking your tool of choice.  There’s almost nowhere you can’t get to right from the start, though straying from the beaten path can invite more trouble than you’re ready for.  Although you travel alone, you can lure enemies into battle with town guards and other friendlies, and some types of monsters hate each other as much as they hate you.  Key characters can die, possibly by your hand if you’re feeling malicious.  Diligent adventurers can recover quest items before they’re needed, and backtracking is minimized by the handy checkpoint system; you can instantly warp to certain marked locations at any time, provided you’re above ground and out of combat.

Grimmhold, eh?  So... would you say they had to leave their valuables behind?  And it's to the west, you say?
Grimmhold, eh? So… would you say they had to leave their valuables behind? And it’s to the west, you say?

The extent to which Eschalon‘s visuals work for you depends how tolerant you are of the old-school aesthetic it’s clearly gunning for.  That said, the game gets a lot of mileage out of the isometric tileset, and most of the forests, coasts, and badlands you’ll visit are interesting to explore.  The game’s various dungeons are aided by vivid descriptive text and careful use of in-game assets, such as a ruined, flooded town adorned with goblin standards and skull decorated posts.  Light and darkness are also used effectively, and more than once you’ll light a torch to reveal you’re both surrounded and now quite visible.  The tiles do create blocky edges along cliffs and such, and both character models and animations are fairly simple, but overall the visual theme holds up well.  However, the game’s resolution is locked at 800×600, which can be a problem for large or widescreen monitors.

Music shares the intentionally subdued quality of the graphics, yet the soundtrack is an excellent work that capably complements the setting.  The title and opening overworld tracks are quietly memorable, catchy string pieces that steadily build and convey an upbeat sense of adventure.  The music shifts based on your location, and dungeon tunes range interestingly from creepy to somber, an example of the latter being a fortress that fell recently to a goblin incursion.  Things get loud for battle and the occasional spot music swells for something dramatic, but Eschalon‘s measured pace is largely matched by the music.  Sound effects are similarly restrained yet effective, with meaty weapon strikes and convincing ambient noise.  There is no voice acting, but it’s hardly missed given how much time you spend far afield versus dealing with other characters.

Many of Eschalon‘s quirks can be explained by its obvious homage to past CRPGs, but there are a few genuine problems that nostalgia can’t hide.  Some skills are out of balance beyond a certain level; a high enough mercantile, for instance, lets you sell back items you just bought for more than you paid.  Your movement speed is a touch slow given the size of most maps, and some important areas don’t have easy access from nearby checkpoints.  This is most notable late in the game, where one region locks out fast travel and, unless you figured out how to work an easy-to-miss teleporter, you’re stuck hoofing it back if you need supplies.  There’s no ignoring the potential of quicksave to break the challenge of saving throw rolls, but an odd loading glitch can even cause monsters to de-aggro if you load an in-combat save.

What’s likely the biggest issue for some players, which veterans might consider part of the charm, is that Eschalon can be unrepentantly hard.  Minor problems for common RPG parties become far worse when it’s just you on your own, like that poison trap you just carelessly set off.  Enemies will happily surround you if you let them, and ambush situations are full-scale emergencies requiring the use of every trick you have to survive.  The introduction sets the tone for the adventure: you stagger out of an abandoned house in a daze, surrounded by recently made ruins, and are too busy trying to figure out the business end of your cheap little dagger to realize that you have no idea what’s going on.  Although you will make allies along the way, they will be few and far between, and can offer little help where you could really use some.

L-l-look at you h-h-hacker, a pathetic creature of meat and bone... I hear SHODAN gets a quarter every time someone says that.
L-l-look at you h-h-hacker, a pathetic creature of meat and bone… I hear SHODAN gets a quarter every time someone says that.

Apart from versatile gameplay, this sense of isolation and danger is one of Eschalon‘s most compelling aspects.  It takes real effort, or one hell of a suicide run, to make that first trek to another settlement.  It’s far from impossible, but when you make your way from the cozy town of Aridell to the improvised shantytown at the border, you know you’re not just some fledgling amnesiac abusing the quicksave function.  The aptly-named Bordertown may only have a handful of dingy inhabitants, but they’ve got goods for trade and they’re the first sane humans you’ve run across in hours.  Even the comparatively large city of Blackwater offers only tenuous security, surrounded as it is by hostile wildlife.  The whole land feels cut off, neglected, and left to fend for itself, and this aptly mirrors what you have to deal with to stay alive.

Bear in mind the game is not as epic in scope as some recent RPGs, and the story doesn’t stray far from “find out what happened to you and how it relates to the magic thingy that went missing.”  Nonetheless, sidequests and secrets abound, and a thorough playthrough can clock comfortably in the 20-25 hour range.  Both endings are accessible regardless of your conduct up to the finale, and the good ending avoids any overt cliffhangers while definitely hinting that there’s more to come, in case the Book I part didn’t make that clear.  Despite the lack of major plot branches, there is replay value to be had in brewing up different characters and finding other ways to get around the game’s obstacles.  Program stability was a non-issue, and this reviewer experienced no technical problems of note other than the above save-aggro glitch.

To be clear, Eschalon isn’t a game everybody will enjoy, especially if you never saw the appeal of CRPGs in the first place. You should definitely try the demo and see if it’s up your alley before committing the $19.95.  What Eschalon is, however, is a reminder that not every game needs or even benefits from million-dollar production values and labyrinthine plots.  It’s a game you play if being dropped in a strange world and tasked with mere survival is appealing to you.  It’s a game you play to convince yourself that beating Baldur’s Gate on core rules back in the day was no fluke, and you really do know what you’re doing.  It’s a game you play when you’re done with the hand-holding and, for once in your life, are ready to explore on your own.

For the uninitiated, Eschalon: Book I can be difficult to figure out.  But it’s a solid first offering from Basilisk Games and if you can deal with its quirks, you might wonder why you didn’t give the genre a fair shot earlier.

This game was played to completion with a digital download copy purchased through Steam.

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