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Eschalon Book II - Initial Impressions

The problem with going back and playing your old favorites from a decade or two ago - or even worse, games you had always wanted to play but never got a chance to - is that they don't always hold up to modern expectations. Let's face it: a lot has changed in the world of video gaming over the course of the last couple decades. A lot. Graphics are the most obvious but possibly least important improvement; for my money, user interface and control improvements are the most indispensable, though gameplay, writing, and voice acting (where applicable) have also made great strides. I can't tell you how many times I've revisited a childhood classic, only to find it poorly lacking. Some do hold up, yes, but many do not.

I think this explains, at least to some extent, the popularity of throwback titles. You get all the nostalgia of yesteryear with all of the modern innovations of today. There are plenty of factors, to be sure: lower cost of development, quicker production times, and a different set of expectations that comes along with the retro graphics (primarily difficulty). Hence titles that practically could have been done back then like Super Meat Boy, hence titles that only feel like they were done back then, like Revenge of the Titans, and hence titles that are somewhere in between, like my current addiction, Eschalon Book II.

Eschalon Book II is pretty obviously the second in a series, and it will apparently be a trilogy when all is complete. It's an isometric, turn-based roleplaying game built on dice rolls and stats, and was developed by Basilisk Games, and indie outfit within 100 miles of myself, which makes me feel sort of warm and fuzzy for playing it. I think that's about as local as game development gets for me. It's a throwback to the days of Ultima 7 and the lot, to PC RPGs that were about statistics, classes, dice rolling, and saving, loading, and dying a whole goddamn lot. There's a similarity there to another game that I am currently in the midst of, Rune Factory Frontier: both are well crafted games that are targeted at a very, very specific niche, and if you're in it, you need know little more than that this is a game for you.

Eschalon II, despite being a direct sequel to Eschalon I, starts you off at level 1 in a new continent with a brief overview of the last game. You've fled an invading horde, and they are now knocking at your new doorstep, in search of a long lost artifact. You've voluntarily ingested a memory-wiping potion, which explains both your reset to level 1 and the need for you to meet a mysterious stranger who will reveal your purpose to you. He, of course, is killed five words before revealing said purpose to you, sparking your transcontinental quest to figure out how you must combat the onrushing evil.

But let's be honest here: the plot doesn't matter. It took me perhaps two decades of playing RPGs, of them being my favorite game genre, to realize that, in the ostensibly plot-based RPG genre, in the most heavily writing-centric section of the medium, plot generally doesn't matter. The plot of Eschalon II is unremarkable, the writing is solid but not memorable, and the characters are practically nonexistent. I couldn't tell you the name of a single character in the game. Dialog is one step away from being a JRPG (i.e. "Press X to continue"), and the game doesn't even bother to follow the more recent fad of having you make moral choices. The plot doesn't matter.

What matters is the gameplay. What matters is building your own custom character, from rolling (yes, unlike most modern RPGs, you actually roll dice for) your starting stats, dumping a few bonus points into your favorite attributes, picking skills, picking your religion, and picking your class. What matter is collecting loot, completing quests, leveling up, killing monsters, and exploring. I don't remember what the plot of Ultima 7 was - something about a new seemingly benevolent dictator, a red-faced Guardian, actually being a force of evil. Whatever, who cares? What was fun was running around the world, slaughtering enemies, exploring dungeons, and casting spells. It's no different for Eschalon II.

There are a variety of rules that you can set at the beginning of the game, from the seemingly helpful - you can't save while poisoned or near monsters - to the slightly annoying - weapons and armor wear away and must be repaired - to the potentially lethal - you need food and water to survive. Enacting them gives a variety of bonuses along with an increase in difficulty. There are plenty of ways to make your character, with five class archetypes to start with - fighter, ranger, rogue, cleric, mage - that serve only as guides. Your fighter can pick up divine magic, or lock picking, or alchemy, or medicine. You can brew potions, you can cast spells, you can sneak through the shadows, and you can bash heads with big metal hammers.

The world is turn based, though it behaves in a fairly seamless fashion: when you move or act, a turn passes. Hold down the left click to keep walking west, and wolves tailing you will keep pace, even though there's no obvious "a turn has passed" mechanic. This gives you time to think through your actions in combat while not slowing the game to a crawl when monsters are around. As time passes, day becomes night, clear skies become clouded, and you become hungry and thirsty. Weather and darkness hamper your ability in combat, snow and cold affect your recovery in camp, and disease, poison, and starvation affect your health.

The game is not for the faint of heart, however, in two regards.

First, there is no hand holding to be had here. There's no tutorial, though the controls are largely self explanatory. The UI is nice and modern and usable enough, though a few things were mysteries to me, familiar with the genre as I am. The most notable is that holding left shift allows you to force an attack, which will let you kill civilians or break barrels. Outside of that, I got the hang of the engine pretty quickly, though I fear that those not familiar with these kinds of games might have a harder time.

The more subtle aspect of the lack of hand holding, however, is that it is entirely possible to create a horribly broken character. Even worse, it's also quite possible that you won't realize how broken your character is until you've sunk hours into the game. It took me probably 10 hours of play to finally get the game, and if I could go back, I'd make a different character and level him up very differently. The lack of classes means that you can, to a certain extent, correct mistakes you've made in the initial character creation - but only to a certain extent.

The other half of the games brutal learning curve is that it's hard. Hard. I have probably died upwards of 50 times, and possibly over 100. I don't mind too much, as I just reload my last save - which, at any given point, was no more than five minutes ago, and see to it that it's that way for you, too - and try again. The combat, however, is almost frustratingly dice-based. In the first, say, six hours of playing, my fighter - the most combat-centric character, and thank hell I went that way - was lucky to have a 50% chance to hit. In some RPGs, you have a party, which gives you some overall tactics and multiple ways to approach an encounter. In Eschalon, particularly with a fighter, you have one approach: get in there and start swinging.

You can choose between focusing on damage with a penalty to your to-hit rate, or vice versa, or a balanced approach, or a defensive stance (which I've yet to learn the point of, since no one else is there to kill them while you defend). Any way you go, though, you click to attack and hope you hit, and then hope they miss, and then repeat the process. In typing that out, it sounds awful, but I still somehow enjoy it. What I dislike about the system is that all too often, the difference between dying and living is how the dice fall. There's not much else you can do to affect the outcome. I mean, at my current level, I'll always beat the hell out of a giant rat, and I'll pretty much always get slaughtered by the shadowy assassin. Everything in between, however - i.e. 90% of the game - is a toss up.

There are some other unfortunate aspects of the game, too. Your intelligence or lore skill determines whether or not you can identify any given object in the game. Any object. Which means that my dumb fighter ass cannot identify a steel short sword, like the one I've spent the last eight hours smashing enemies with. The kind of sword that I am expertly skilled at using, yet cannot recognize. The kind of sword I've picked up and had identified and used and sold and found and sold and found again. Perhaps (perhaps) worse, I sometimes cannot identify - or use! - an apple. An apple. That is something a gibbering retard can manage. You should not need to identify an apple. That is dumb. Most sensible games keep identifying to magical equipment, which makes loads of sense. Eschalon should have, too.

That said, the game is loads of fun. I find myself playing long past when I should have stopped, hoping to find just a few more enemies so I can get my level up, or wanting to uncover the last corner of the cave I'm in, or the last patch of woods I'm exploring. There's a large area to explore, and enough of interest in it that you want to explore it. There are enemies to kill, chests to crack open, spells to learn, potions to brew, towns to find, and quests to complete. It's like a trip back to high school, to staying up way too late playing Ultima or Wizardry, and though that's not for everyone, if it is for you, it's an absolute blast.

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