In the indie gaming department, little gems fall through the proverbial cracks all the time. Don’t believe me? Go play Cave Story and get back to me. I’ll wait. OK, have you played a bit of it? Maybe even finished it? OK, so we got the action end of the spectrum down, but what’s the role-playing end of the spectrum? Finding a solid indie RPG is a bit difficult. It seems to be a popular field as nearly everyone wants to create a game on par with games from the past. If you have that particular itch, Eschalon: Book 1 may be a perfect fit for you.
Eschalon: Book 1 follows the path of an amnesiac trying to figure out his identity. Thankfully, Basilisk games took the high road in this path: The protagonist (who you get to name) took a potion that stripped him of his skills and identity. So it is up to you to recreate an identity for him, learn about his past that forced him into hiding and eventually save the war-torn country. OK, so it isn’t the most inventive plot and is reminiscent of the plots such as that of Baldur’s Gate. However, it does its job rather well. There is this rich world of mythos waiting to be discovered if you take the time to read all the various books and interact with people.
Gameplay continues this old-school theme. You get to create the hero however you like. You get to choose his origin, class and alignment. You will roll and re-roll stats to find the perfect base and then modify them to your liking. Furthermore, you get to choose which skills you want. Class only dictates the only skill you get for free. Past that, it is up to you choose what skills complement what type of character you want to play. Want to play the archetypical paladin? Choose the fighter class (which starts with the long sword skill) and then add some heavy armor and divination skills. Then start raising the levels of those skills. Want a rogue with some arcane magic skills? You can do that. A ranger who only uses bows and alchemy AND he knows where he’s going? Go for it. You can even recreate those old-school character classes such as the infamous fighter/mage/thief. There is nothing but your imagination to stop you. Certain creations will make certain parts of the game easier (or harder). For example, traditional fighters will find the beginning easier due to their high health and armor class. But they will probably find latter parts of the game more difficult due to their limited magic use.
Once you get past the creation system, you’re dropped into an open-ended world. You can go where you like, and nothing holds you back except for your character’s level and skills. Exploration is turn-based. Just point and click, and he’ll go in the direction you want. Monsters move whenever you do something. Left-mouse button initiate your primary attack, whether it is a sword, mace, dagger or bow, while the right mouse allows you to cast spells. So if you’re being chased or have encountered a tough monster, you can take all the time in the world to decide your next move. Basilisk is not joking with the statement about “playing at your own pace.” You can literally stop and smell every flower. For me, this is one of those games that is perfect to play at the end of the day. Just prepare a cup of chamomile (or Sleepy Time) tea, turn on this game, and slowly inhale and exhale. Feel the tension slowly fade away.
The game is rather nice to look at and brims with details. Water flows down the river, torches cackle, blood spurts whenever a creature is hit, lighting is expertly used as one can watch the sun go down and the moon rise in the distance, and bolts of flame are seen whenever a certain spell is cast. The downside about the latter is that as a spell increases in potency, it never gets any grander. It is sort of a shame because it does not give a sense of power that occurs when mastering potent spells. But let me make this clear: It does its job well. If it was any stronger, the gameplay would probably suffer.
Audio wise, everything is in its proper place. The traditional swords and magic spells effects are heard. Your character’s footsteps are heard as you travel across the various surfaces in the game’s world. Monster growls of all types are heard, whether its wings flapping or the sounds of a salamander crawling across the ground. There isn’t much music in the game. Drums and wind instruments are heard whenever combat is initiated, but it does help keep the tension during that situation tight. Plus, the game isn’t afraid to turn the music off and let the ambiance take center stage. Birds are heard as you travel through forests, and drips of water are heard inside caverns.
Eschalon: Book 1 is a wonderful, solid, old-school RPG. It is a little rough around the edges, but it shows off the competency and potential of its creators. It does a wonderful job of channeling those old-school computer games. This is the type of game Mom would make if she had the time to create it. It is warm and comforting — even though virtually everything in the game is just waiting to kill your character. Eschalon: Book 1 is worth the $20 admission fee. Plus, there is a pretty decent-sized demo available on Basilisk’s Web site. Go check it out. Very few companies do what they do well. Now I want to see the second installment. I cannot wait for it to be ready!