on Jan 10, 2008
Thomas Riegsecker recently provided me with a copy of Eschalon: Book I for review. I realize this makes me dangerously close to something like a mainstream game reviewer / journalist. Note that I don’t plan on acting like a reviewer anytime soon. I’m not going to assign points or give thumbs up / down or any of that nonsense. I’m still going to review the game by analyzing the gameplay mechanics and doing a little armchair game design. (Much easier and safer than real game design, I’m sure.) You’ll have to work out for yourself if it’s something you might want to play. In fact, given that this is an indie title and the author of the game is familiar with my site, I might be even more obsessive than usual. You’ve been warned.
Single player. Turn based. Stat heavy. Story driven.
These are either magic words for you or they aren’t. As graphics have evolved, big-name developers have all but abandoned the old turn-based formulas. If you want an RPG which focuses on strategy in combat instead of reflexes, you either have to check out indie titles or play a ten-year-old game. Some have that real-time / turn-based hybrid gameplay you see in KOTOR or Final Fantasy XII, but for a game that will let you ponder your move without a timer (like in a tabletop game) you need to go back a few years.
Stat-heavy games are, for better or worse, getting rare. A game with heavy stats is able to offer more depth and more replay, at the expense of alienating a good segment of the already-niche RPG demographic. I love them, but they seem to be unpopular. Most developers are favoring the minimalist approach to character building. Oblivion is the only big-title game I’ve played recently with real number-crunching depth behind it, and in that game the whole system was rendered nearly pointless by the auto-leveling monsters.
So Eschalon: Book I is a rare breed of game in this day and age. It revisits gameplay mechanics which have been slowly supplanted or abandoned over the last decade or so. If you’re nostalgic for the old days or want to see what you missed, this is a pretty good example of what RPG’s were like before polygons ruled the world.
Character creation begins, surprisingly enough, with the character creation screen:
The attribute points are set with an interesting blend of dice roll and point-buy. You have eight attributes in all. Strength, Dexterity, Perception, Wisdom, etc. All attributes start with a random value between 7 and 14, and you are then given 15 extra points to spread around as you see fit. There’s nothing really wrong with this system if you’re a normal person, but if you’re like me the dice roll demands that you sit there and pound away at it until you get a “good” set of initial values. There are 88 possible combinations, so the odds of getting all 14’s is only 1 in 16,777,216. Assuming you click once every second, you should hit the magic combination in about 194 days, assuming you never stop to rest. I did manage to stop clicking after a while and live with something less than all 14’s, but you must understand that doing so required an act of willpower on my part.
There are five races (all human) for you to choose from, five outlooks (mostly dealing with religion and philosophy) and five character classes. This offers a nice variety of choices to serve as a starting point, although they don’t really restrict you in the long run. If you choose the “Nefarious” axiom you’re still free to run around helping NPC’s for altruistic reasons if you like. Fighters can acquire skills in magic if they want to.
Like Oblivion, Morrowwind, and Fallout, most of your success in the game is dependant not on your attributes, but on the skills you’ve mastered. There are 24 in all, from Swords to Elemental Magic to Lockpicking. Note that while you start out with certain skills, you’re free to pick up new ones any time you level up. This means that you’re pretty much free to make up your own character class if you want, although this freedom does mean it’s possible to cripple your character in the long run. On my first play-through I was a fighter with a bunch of rogue skills. These extra skills spread my skill points too thin, and I ended up with a guy who was mediocre at a lot of things instead of great at a few things. This made the game really hard, and I was obliged to abandon that character and begin again. The game expects and even demands a little min-maxing, so if you want to explore all the different skills you’re going to have to play through the game more than once.
|I seem to have lost all of my memories! The only thing I can remember is… playing about a hundred other games that start out just like this one.|
The game offers a little freeform fun as well. You can, if you like, begin wandering around the map at random. (It’s big.) This will probably lead to your death early on, but the important thing is that there aren’t any dang plot doors keeping you out. You can also murder and steal in towns, assuming you’ve got the desire and the might to do so. It’s not really of any great benefit to go around offing people (a little short-term monetary gain at the expense of not being able to interact with the person in the future) but I like that the game allows you to do so anyway.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.