on Jan 11, 2008
The biggest loss that RPG’s have suffered as they have evolved over the years is the abandonment of text as a vehicle for environmental data. You know, the cute little text window. Planescape Torment had it. Fallout had it. (Although it was sadly underused in the Fallout series.) The newer games don’t have it, and the games are inevitably more shallow for it.
|Modern RPG developers take note: I can see here that the town has been destroyed, but the text that pops up still adds flavor and helps establish a mood. Which is something your fancy full-scene anti-aliasing can’t do.|
Text is also a great way to convey things that the player might not know, but their character would. “These soldiers are wearing the uniform of the royal guard. They probably spend most of their day in or around King Pancibald’s throne room.” I think it’s much smoother to convey that sort of thing in narrative text, as opposed to clumsily working it into NPC dialog and hoping the player stops to chat.
Eschalon Book I reminded me of how useful the text window can be and how much we’ve been missing out with newer games. Words are powerful. Words are potent. Words are so powerful that you can run an entire tabletop game and relate a new, unfamiliar world using nothing but text which you read aloud (or make up on the spot) and convey everything the players need to know. Visuals complement text nicely, but visuals in lieu of text can deprive the player of tremendous depth and subtlety. That’s fine if you’re playing a quick game of “Kill the Monsters and Take Their Stuff“, but most games aspire to be something deeper. And nothing adds depth like well-written prose.
In Eschalon, I liked when I would enter a room and the game would give me a bit of descriptive text. It was, in a lot of ways, like a minor reward. I could have done with more of them, and I would have liked a way to have a description repeated later (hey GM, what did you say this room is like again?) but even the classics I mentioned before were annoyingly short on text for my taste.
The economy in this game is nicely balanced. Far too many games starve you at the start, but then allow the player to accumulate vast sums of wealth, to the point where they should be able to buy and sell towns. Certainly adventuring should make you money, but if it makes you enough cash to employ an army it’s not clear why the player – now one of the wealthiest people in the world – would continue risking their neck for more. Eschalon doesn’t have this problem. At the start I really was starved for cash, and every bit of loot was important. But even in the late stages of the game I still felt like money mattered and I was still being careful with my resources.
I would say the biggest drawback of the game so far is the sheer randomness of it. Aside from the dice-rolling at character creation, there is dice-rolling when you loot objects and (naturally) dice-rolling during combat. It’s not that things shouldn’t be randomized, it’s that the outcomes vary so much. I can trade a few blows with an enemy and die. I reload the game, fight the same enemy and walk away with half my health. In some cases it feels like the strength of my stat-building is overshadowed by the noise of the random number generator. There has to be a pretty big delta between two combatants before the outcome of their battle is at all certain. Randomness should add flavor to a battle, but it shouldn’t be the driving force.
|I waited for nightfall so I could sneak back behind this building and loot some containers without getting caught by the town guards. Turns out they’re empty. How disappointing. However, if I load the game I might try again and discover them loaded with fabulous cash and prizes.|
I can keep clicking on the same barrel and then reloading the game if I don’t get something good. By doing this, I can make more money in 30 seconds of clicking & reloading than I could in a half hour of just playing the dang game. The incentive to act this way is just too strong, and the rewards are too great. Again, randomizing loot adds variety, but the randomness shouldn’t overshadow the other factors. Randomness should be spice, not the main dish.
Still, I’m now on my fourth character, which should be seen as an indirect endorsement. I wouldn’t have spent so much time with the game if I wasn’t enjoying it. This is, despite my nitpicking, a fun game. The story and character progression are the meat and potatoes here, and I haven’t even touched on those yet. I’ll get to that eventually.
UPDATE: Can I get an “amen”?
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.