Basilisk Games’ second foray into the PC RPG realm, Eschalon: Book II (sequel to Eschalon: Book I), is a tricky indie hoodlum to judge. On one hand, the game brings back complexities of yesterday’s PC RPGs that are rarely included in modern games. On the other, the game hosts incredible balance issues as well as various lesser botherations. So crippling are these issues that I was unable to progress farther than approximately ten hours into the adventure, due to impossibly challenging enemies that got no less impossible upon leveling up. Like a chain-smoking pregnant woman, I made some bad choices during the creation of my character. Choices that spelled doom, death, and frustration.
EBII uses a newly-invented rules system for character creation, skill use, and combat. It’s creative, but clearly not play-tested thoroughly enough. Where a rule set like Dungeons and Dragons has been adapted, honed, and perfected for use in RPGs, a new system is vulnerable to hamstringing imbalances. Basilisk had Book I as a trial run, but they did not learn all of the necessary lessons from that experience. Character creation is delightfully complex and looks great at first. Ability scores are even rolled with the sound of rattling dice! Many of the choices, including class and race, have surprisingly minimal effects on the end result. Every character can learn every skill – skills which govern just about everything from magic to swordplay to cartography.
Sadly, here’s where the great DM above called for a Balance check, and Basilisk Games rolled a one. Choose skills carefully, because the wrong selections may spell the same doom, death, and frustration for you that they did for me. Spreading out skill points among many skills – you know, exploring options, something normal games allow for – is fatal. Skill points are as rare as blue moons in this game, and there is no room for error.
In many PC RPGs, a melee warrior is one of the most powerful archetypes, or at least a viable option for a character. In EBII, they cannot survive past hour ten unless the player hasn’t made a single mistake. Not one inexpertly-allocated skill point or ability score. A challenge is acceptable and welcome, but the character creator shouldn’t be able to shit out a character that turns into a virtual nebbish. Especially not one that hides his total uselessness until hours into the game, when it’s too late to turn back and too frustrating to begin anew.
In the beginning, it isn’t easy to determine if a character sucks, if the game is simply challenging, or if the first few battles are simply a struggle to one who never played Book I (that’s me). In my defense, Basilisk Games explicitly states that anyone can enjoy the second Book without playing the first. Insidious marketing lies. If my warnings malfunction, play Book I first. At least with that game, you can find out how botched the rules are more cheaply.
Much like the original Fallout titles, EBII uses a turn-based battle system from an isometric view. Time passes only when the PC moves, even out of combat. With every step, he allows NPCs, monsters, weather, and even Father Time himself to progress toward their unique and inevitable ends. Babies are born by the steps of your character. In combat, therefore, quick decisions are unnecessary, unlike the Infinity Engine games. Mistake? Turn-based worked for Fallout, but it doesn’t for EBII.
Combat almost always feels like a monumental struggle. A tribulation, and not a very fun one. Rats sent my warrior back to his cozy bed for a good night’s rest, and the thought of multiple enemies was terrifying. Even without the meathead warrior type, though, combat would not suddenly evolve into smooth, razzle-dazzle bouts of excitement. Perhaps there aren’t enough options during combat. Especially for warrior folk. Each weapon type (and any given character will only specialize in one, or else! ) has exactly one special attack that operates on an invisible cool-down timer. There’s no party to control, no flanking, no strategy. Just click-hit-click-hit. Perhaps it’s the little things that keep combat from excelling, like the difficulty of catching up to retreating enemies or escaping from ferocious man-eating lizards. It can be impossible unless the enemy makes a mistake, which admittedly happens sometimes, due to the poor AI. Artificial Idiocy.
But perhaps combat is a struggle because everything is so difficult to accomplish. The punishing gameplay of just surviving makes everything worse. Typical scenario: my meathead warrior is in the forest in the middle of a rainstorm at night. He’s running out of hit points and hasn’t eaten in hours. I can’t see around my character. I try to light a torch so that I can see. It fails because it’s raining. I’m all out of gold, because I just spent my last hundred on food. I’m almost out of water. There are wolves over there, rustling in the bushes every time I take a step. I try to camp to let the rain pass, but I can’t, because there are enemies in the area. I try to fast-travel to the farthest town, but I can’t because there are enemies in the area. Alt-F4.
Should one decide that EBII is not about combat or survival, one has a few other options. Story, exploration, and character building, for example. Exploration sounds promising. Let’s go with that. EBII features an open world of plains, rivers, forests, caves, snow fields, mountains, and towns to discover and explore. While the game doesn’t suffer from complete Elder Scrolls syndrome (large world with nothing – nothing! – to find except for a couple of forks and a crab leg on a plate), there’s still a lot of walking without much yield. A slow walking speed doesn’t help, but fast travel between towns does. The open world may work for some, but I found it largely bland and dead. The setting is generic fantasy schlock, and the limited graphics don’t offer enough pretty sights to soak up. Random enemy encounters with the occasional giant dragonfly or killer wolf interrupt the monotony, but there were too many seemingly random battles and worthless loot that served only to weigh down my already armor-encumbered brute even more. So much for playing EBII for exploration.
How about character building, then? The level-up rate starts hopefully high, but dwindles just when the PC starts needing some extra skill points. Again, all of the options can make character progression fun, but it’s stupidly punishing, and the “options” are really forced decisions, if you want to get past hour ten. Characters gain significant power with each new level, however, and being able to finally kill those pesky sewer rats feels good. New and better equipment is somewhat scarce, though, as is gold. I used the same sword for almost ten hours.
Then EBII must be about the story!
EBII’s story is a continuation of the first Book, and through a laughable amnesia device, those events must be expounded upon again in the beginning of this entry. How nice. That exposition gives one the impression that the first Book had a weak and insignificant plot, and if that’s the case, then Book II is a true sequel in that regard. In fact, I can barely remember what I experienced of the story. Something about an evil army of monstrous beings and four omnipotent magic crystals. That’s always a good guess.
What, then, is EBII good for? Some PC RPG veterans will find the experience worthwhile for its complexities, difficulty, trial-and-error character creation, and grueling survival aspects. As a plus, weapon degradation and food/water requirements can be eliminated. At the beginning of any new game, the “house rules” can be switched on or off (switch them all off – seriously – you can’t go back). Others will enjoy the freedom of the open world, particularly those who don’t enjoy first-person RPGs. Patient players could glean 40 to 60 hours from the game with exploration and side quests. They may be mostly of the fetch-me-six-apples-and-I’ll-give-you-an-orange variety, but they add content all the same. Still others might find enough satisfaction and enjoyment in the few moments when everything goes well, or in the old-school atmosphere. After all, the graphics are competent and the music enjoyable, if a bit shy. Regardless, EBII is undoubtedly for the perfectly patient and tolerant gamer, particularly those familiar with the series. For those who loved Book I, Book II won’t disappoint.
Eschalon: Book II was made with good intentions – intentions that I appreciate – but it proves that crafting a playable game requires more than the desire to do so. I could say that EBII is good for an indie RPG, but that would be insulting and useless. Instead, I’ll say that it means well and may appeal to a breed of old-school gamers. All others, stay away or take my warning that enjoyment will vary. B for effort, D for execution. That averages out. Right?