“An old school role-playing game,” it says on the box, and Basilisk Games isn’t kidding. Nowadays, most RPGs are big online games, mostly about grinding away on level treadmills. Before that, the big RPGs were massive clickfests where players tried to control up to half a dozen or so adventurers in real time.
We’re going further back. No, not like Might and Magic, a turn-based party adventure with cool graphics and a fun story. No, not even like Bard’s Tale, another turn-based adventure where you needed to click on every single space, and where each 10’ square could contain, I kid you not, 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers, 99 berserkers, and 99 berserkers.
Further back. Anyone remember Temple of Apshai? This was the first cool computer RPG, though folks complained because it could only run on computers with the ridiculously large 16k (sic) of memory. Even then, players were expected to consult a book as they play, reading out the room descriptions written there, since the computer couldn’t be expected to hold all the text needed to describe several dozen rooms.
That’s the last time I’ve seen a game like this, although, in one of the few nods to modern technology, the text descriptions of rooms are saved in the software, to pop up every time you enter the appropriate area.
Rolling up a character (and this is a single character game) is done the old school way, with stats literally rolled up via computerized dice, although the player has the ability to re-roll and extensively modify the results, as well as pick whatever skills he’d like. Character development likewise is the “old way.” As you gain levels you get skill points to spend on skills. The skill list is fairly limited, containing the bare bones of what a player needs. Generally, you’ll pick a weapon skill (e.g., blunt weapons, although unarmed is probably the best), an armor type (heavy is the no-brainer, as there are no spellcasting penalties), spell skills (arcane or divine, and you can get both if you like), and cartography (a must-have, as this activates the auto-map), and perhaps one other skill to play around with. You can pick other skills later, and generally a good character takes a few more skills to round out all his abilities.
The adventure game starts in the tried-and-true fashion, with the player waking up in a ruined city, with no possessions, not even a memory. Little notes placed in barely obvious locations guide the character along the main quest of recovering his memory, improving the world along the way. Book 1 only covers a dozen or so significant locations, although even this is large enough to justify a number of waypoints, allowing the player to travel safely to and from town to sell loot and acquire better stuff.
While the general story is adequate, the play is disappointing. Combat is a bump-fest, bump into the monster to take a swing, hitting for damage based on weapon and skills; alternatively, you can use spells, at least until the mana runs out. After a few fights, your character requires rest. As you rest, you regain health and mana, but there’s a random, but likely, chance that a swarm of monsters will pop up next to you. They’re almost always too much to fight, especially if you’re weak (you’re resting, after all), so you’ve no choice but to run to the next zone (yep, old school zones give you a way to escape hordes), where you can rest… but another wandering monster encounter might send you scurrying to the next zone, and so on. Once you finally get to recover, you’ll have to fight through those hordes to get back to what you were doing in the first place.
|"While the general story is adequate, the play is disappointing."|
Alternatively, you can just save before each rest, and reload if the horde appears.
There is no auto-save, so the age-old “save at every opportunity” rule is in force. In another nod to old-school ways, your character can easily wander into areas far beyond his level, leading to a brutal stomping. Similarly, old methods of dealing with AI, such as exploiting corners and the aforementioned “zoning” to escape, work well.
|"...your character can easily wander into areas far beyond his level, leading to a brutal stomping."|
The game makes much of light, and combat in dungeons or at night is usually frustrating, as enemies are “partially hidden by darkness,” making it difficult to land a blow. Your character has little choice but to keep at least one hand free to hold a torch; granted, slimes and such might battle in pitch darkness, but it’s rather odd that human enemies don’t seem to care about needing light. Torches are plentiful, at least, though players wishing to use a shield or two-handed weapon will find the preoccupation with light to be most annoying. Merely exploring in darkness is unpleasant as well; turning up the brightness on your monitor will be more rewarding than lighting a torch.
Despite the many warts, Eschalon is not without charm, as this game would have been an award-winning achievement in 1986 or so. Everything is done well, for that era, but, much like steam locomotives, I’m just not convinced this style really works nowadays. Players with that certain hunger for this sort of game will be satisfied, although mainstream gamers will probably find their gaming dollar better spent elsewhere.
– Lacks newer features.
– Crude combat.
– Crude character development.