Eschalon: Book II - A Review
Have you ever played a game where - while you can see the quality with which it’s imbued and you have to admit that basically it is a very good game - there’s just something about it that doesn’t grab you. I found Dragon Age-Origins to be such a game. Happily, however, the same can’t be said for Eschalon Book 2 by Basilisk Games. This sequel to the surprise hit Book 1, delighted me from beginning to end.
At its core, it’s an unabashed ‘old skule’ rpg. The graphics won’t win any awards - they are old skule too - but they are certainly more than adequate for an indie game from what is basically a one person operation. They are 2D all the way, but at least there are no complaints about annoying camera angles. Animations and effects do the job while the day/night cycle and weather in the form of storms generally work well, though occasionally you will find it raining inside a building.
Character creation is simple but definitely not limiting. You may begin as one of four ‘classes’; warrior, mage, thief, ranger; but this really only affects your starting equipment and attribute bonuses. There are a few other choices to make which have a more lasting impact. These are more in the nature of trade-offs. For example, you can have faster mana regeneration while outdoors in exchange for mana regeneration penalties while in a dungeon. Once your initial selection is made, you then have skill and attribute points to spend as you tailor your character to your preferred playing style.
Each attribute has a detailed explanation of exactly what character aspects they affect. For example, Intelligence is vital to an arcane mage, while Wisdom is essential to a healing mage. Rangers need high Dexterity, etc. Finally you are faced with a choice of starting skills. This is where real thought and pre-planning is important.
Choosing to learn a new skill will cost you three skill points, both at creation and during level ups. Improving an already learned skill costs one skill point per level. You gain three attribute points (to improve your attributes such as Strength, Intelligence, Perception, etc), and three skill points, at each level up. However, there are also skill teachers/trainers and skill books, from which you can learn and improve skills as well. Therefore, instead of spending three precious skill points to learn ‘swords’ level 1, you can find a trainer to teach you the skill for 100 gold. To improve to level 2 in a skill would cost you 200 gold and so on, up to level 8. A skill book which you can either find in a random loot or chest drop, or buy from a store will either teach you a skill, or improve an already learned skill by two levels. Choices, choices. Remember, the higher your skill level, the more proficient you are with that particular skill.
These proficiencies become essential to your success throughout the game. Certain locks require a certain level of skill to pick; some potions can only be made by a person with a high alchemy skill; some high level spells require an even higher level of casting skill to be effective. While you can learn every skill in the game, not all are essential to every character and if you don’t master at least a few skills, your character could end up severely gimped.
Once character creation is finished, there are a few difficulty levels and special challenges to consider. For example, you can choose whether or not to make eating and drinking an essential part of the game. Or, you might attempt something like playing as a ‘pure mage’ who uses nothing but magic the entire game for a special end of game score bonus. My suggestion would be to save these challenges for a replay.
You don’t have to have played Book I to enjoy Book II. You begin as a weak, level 1 character with little equipment and even less money. Throughout the game you will improve on this situation. Making money is not very difficult, even early on. There are quests for various people who will reward you with gold; monsters tend to drop loot which can be sold; barrels and chests are plentiful and if you have the foraging skill, every time you sleep, you will get a sack of reagents (for making potions) which you can sell. Your mercantile skill determines how much things sell for, but there are rings and necklaces which will boost certain skills while you wear them. For example, a Hat of Mercantile adds 2 to your mercantile skill while you’re wearing it. One neat innovation I loved was the opportunity to set up two weapon/clothing configurations you could quickly and easily switch between. I had one set up for general play and my second set up for foraging and buying/selling. Saved time swapping around rings and hats all the time.
One of the key elements for an rpg is exploration and there’s plenty of that here. The game is, in many ways, huge. I’m a completist and my playtime was 69.1 hours according to the game itself. Much of that was spent exploring and of course, fighting my way through hoards of monsters. One key point here; your in game mini-map will only work if you have at least one skill point invested in Cartography. This is sufficient for the early stages but either find/buy an amulet of Cartography, or increase your skill level to three as soon as you can: it really helps make the map more readable. You will discover several towns, forests, grasslands, icy wastes and lava flows in your travels, but several quick travel locations do make this less of a chore once you discover them. The walking speed has been increased from Book I, but many people still complain it is too slow. It didn’t bother me, but then I’m a slow player.
The other essential component of a good rpg, is obviously combat and - joy of joys - here it is: my beloved Turn Based. In fact, the entire game is based on turns. Each move you make at any time is considered a turn. Nothing will happen until a key is pressed. Fortunately, it is fairly fast turned based combat. All monsters take their turn together between your turns. There’s no waiting while each individual opponent moves or attacks. There’s also no special combat window or grid. Monsters don’t suddenly appear either, you can see them coming and prepare appropriately. There are weapons to suit all playing styles; swords, axes, spears, hammers, bows and of course spells. Choose your poison, but don’t get poisoned or diseased; you might lose strength, end up encumbered and unable to move while the monsters happily beat up on you.
There are two types of magic in the game, arcane (attacking) and divine (primarily healing/buffing) and anyone can learn either, or both. Spells are cast at various power levels ranging from 1-6. Each power level requires more spell points and a minimum skill level and they can be assigned to a ‘quickbar’ using the numbers 1-0. One word of warning; the number of spells you can learn is determined by either your intelligence or wisdom and there are a lot of spells available. You can learn the number equal to half your attribute score; intelligence for arcane and wisdom for divine. Casting a spell is as easy as selecting it from either the spell menu or your ‘quickbar’ and right-clicking.
Any half decent rpg should have a reasonable story and while Eschalon won’t be winning any awards for literature, the story is at least standard fare. Yes, you’re the only person who can save the world and you have to battle alone through hoards of monsters to do so while struggling to find the people who can offer advice and help. What else is new! At least it all hangs together, sort of, with an ending which prepares you for Book III. Some people will offer you quests, others just advice, while at least one will attack you almost immediately. It’s your general rpg structure with nothing really new or innovative, but I did warn you it’s ‘old skule’.
Quests are an important, even essential part of any rpg. In Book II, while following the main storyline and its associated quests, there are a multitude of optional side quests which not only make the game more fun, but which help to provide the necessary experience required to reach the higher levels. Without those levels, many of the main quest objectives will be far too difficult to accomplish. While many of the quests are straightforward, some are complex and others offer alternative solutions. In one fairly early quest, you are charged with confronting and killing a werewolf. However, when you find this alleged person, you discover that the quest giver might himself be the werewolf. Whom will you believe? At one point, while following a lead from one NPC, I met another who gave me a further quest. Following that one led me to still another one. Eventually, this series of quests gained me about three levels. I needed them. Some quests may not be able to be completed till later in the game and this is especially true with a couple of the Easter Eggs you’ll find. They are worth pursuing however. A final note on quests. With a few, there are very subtle hints available and several involve the solving of puzzles. All in all, a most enjoyable and diverse collection.
There have been improvements since Book I, most notably in the increased walking speed of the characters. Other animations have been tweaked, and the Skills now appear to function better. I found playing a Mage type to be much easier this time, as not only do the spells seem more effective at higher levels, but mana regeneration has had an apparent overhaul. If you boost certain attributes, then your mana will begin to regenerate at a faster rate. By the end of the game, my mana was recovering so quickly, I rarely needed any potions unless fighting waves of monsters.
There’s lots more to enjoy; potion making via the alchemy skill, disarming traps, opening locked doors and chests. In fact, there’s everything you’ve come to expect from a game such as this. What’s more, it’s a lot of fun. I have yet to finish DA:O; I got bored with the endless, repetitive combat, but with Eschalon, I couldn’t stop playing it. I haven’t enjoyed a game so much from start to finish since, well...since Book I. At the price, it’s a steal; get it today direct from the developer Basilisk Games.
Information aboutEschalon: Book II
Developer: Basilisk Games
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2010-05-12
· Publisher: Basilisk Games