Eschalon: Book II, the second installment in Basilisk Games’ indie RPG hit series addresses many of its predecessor’s shortcomings and incorporates some challenging new features. Despite some barriers to entry, ultimately and overall, the results are magical.
Eschalon: Book II is the sequel to 2007′s award winning RPG Eschalon: Book I, although no previous experience is needed to play and enjoy Book II.
Some perks to the new edition include:
- New weather effects: snow, rain, and thunderstorms. Weather isn’t just an effect; severe weather effects gameplay stats and skills.
- Improved GUI including additional save game slots
- “Equipment configuration” presets for convenient swapping of entire armor and weapons sets.
- New difficulty modes and tracked statistics add to replay value.
What We Think
Eschalon: Book 2 brings players into the war-torn world of Thaermore and presents them with a really daunting task. It can certainly be no more daunting than coming up with a successor to its 2007 hit indie RPG title, Eschalon: Book 1 without breaking what already worked *eyebrow raised* or can it…?
There are no pressing ties to the first game, so players new to Eschalon don’t have to worry about missing any major plot points from the first game. This blank slate approach is also strangely fitting, as you will find yourself awash in a world that seems familiar to those who’ve played games like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, but it’s a world that doesn’t offer up much along the line of helpful clues or instruction. Eschalon: Book 2 does not hold your hand at all, and getting a feel for the game can be a really frustrating experience at first.
The main quest revolves around details lost to the player in a somewhat laughable “memory wipe”. You awake in your humble cabin, with little memory of anything that happened to you during the wars. Exploring the room will present you will class-specific starter gear. Once you venture out your front door, you’re introduced to the main plot via an invitation to meet with a shadowy figure in shadowy surroundings to discuss “your destiny”.
You’ll spend a great deal of your journey exploring the countryside. This can be tedious at first (especially early on, when even wandering rats can pose a threat), and you only have one speed to travel at. When you come across major towns, discovering a waystone or town sign will add the name of the town to your Fast Travel list, and you can revisit any of these areas by simply clicking on its name in your list. Those who don’t remember to save their games frequently (such as yours truly) may voice annoyance when an hour of uncovering the map is lost when a pack of hungry wolves is discovered and health points are already low. Fortunately, there are many slots to use for this purpose.
Could This Be the Final Fantasy?
The story is pretty standard RPG fare. You’ve been tasked with stopping a powerful enemy from becoming more powerful. They have their eyes set on the +2 Arcane Item of Bad Mojo (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea), and as luck would have it, you already belong to the elite team tasked with eliminating them. Your memory had to be blanked to protect you, y’see. And wouldn’t you know, just as the Guy With All The Answers was about to give you All The Answers, he was killed by an unseen assassin. So now, if the game is to progress at all, you have to assume that the Dead Guy Now Possessing No Answers wasn’t just clutching desperately at the first guy with amnesia he could find. The plot is nothing original, but the dialogue sequences are well written and enjoyable.
Conversing with NPCs will often provide plot points, and some will offer side quests. Completing these missions will often provide some sort of reward, whether it is an item or a stack of gold coins, and all of them will give you a boost in experience points. Be careful not to engage in any untoward actions (stealing and the like) while NPCs are around; they will often feel the need to intervene, at which point your only options are to flee or fight back. Once NPCs are dead, they are gone from the game for good, and in the cases of vendors, this can make improving your character unduly challenging. Any NPC can be attacked by holding down left-shift while hovering the cursor over them, but it shouldn’t be done lightly.
As you start a quest, you can add elements of difficulty to the game, which promise and boost to your end-of-game status, while removing all hindrances will result in a penalty at the game’s conclusion. Enabling the default “House Rules” causes your equipment to deteriorate with normal use, making occasional repairs necessary. It also demands that you keep your character fed and hydrated. I found the default settings weren’t too jarring, once I learned to stop letting my character starve to death. You can take all the luck out of actions such as picking locks, or saving against poison. If your stats don’t match up, they don’t match up, end of story. You can also make it impossible to save your game when critically injured, diseased, or being pursued by enemies.
Such a Thing as Too Much Freedom?
The character creator feature will allow you to set up whatever character you’d like to play, or you can opt to choose a pre-rolled character from a specific class. Though the freedom exists, you may find that you’ve created a character that might not possess the stats or skills you’ll need later in the game. Getting several hours into the quest only to discover you need to roll a different character can be extremely frustrating. I ended up starting two characters, only to roll a third when neither of them seemed to contain the right mix of attributes to survive the game’s specialized version of natural selection. At least with this third character I was able to make some progress with the main quest and reach some higher experience levels. It’s when your character starts to get stronger that this game really starts to shine.
There are plenty of ways to augment your character traits outside of level-up bonuses. There are several trainers to be found in cities willing to part with their knowledge should you be willing to cough up the coins. You might also come across books that will imbue you with new skills (these can also be sold after you’ve read them). Unless you’re swimming in gold, you’ll only net a few points this way.
Keep tabs on the weapons, armor and magic vendors. Even if a shop seems to come up with zeroes when you check it the first time, you’ll find that the inventory changes frequently. You’ll want to keep your gear current, and keep your current gear well-tuned. Damaged equipment will eventually fall off and become unusable if it continues to sustain damage.
There is a wealth of spells to learn, and just as many helpful (or destructive) potions to be found, crafted or purchased. Elemental magic will bring the fury of fire and ice down on your foes, while Divination magic will unleash powerful spells of nature, both medicinal and torturous. The visual effects when casting spells are impressive, with just enough flash to go along with the bang. If you’re versed in alchemy, you can make your own potions from the reagents you find. Even if the resulting concoction is of little help in your quest, you can offload it to vendors to help line your pockets.
Take in the Sights
I enjoyed the visual style used for the game. The world is presented as an isometric view. It follows the steps of your character, and the insides of buildings are wholly visible (a distinct advantage should you be planning an ambush). The character models aren’t cutting edge, graphically, but they fit the role required of them. The trees in the forests are greatly varied, and even in areas where they snarl together to prevent passage, it never looks like a copy-and-paste layout. The maps aren’t without hitches, however: the paths can sometimes look a little blocky when going off in diagonal directions, and sudden switches in water depth aren’t blended at all, often resulting in a light blue square immediately next to a dark blue square. I would also have enemy sprites “wink out” while fighting them. They would turn invisible (and not as the result of a cloaking spell) and I would have to move my cursor over it to locate it again.
The soundtrack is one of the best parts of Eschalon: Book 2, and it beautifully accompanies all parts of the game. In recent days, I can attribute almost all my cases of earworm to tracks from a dense forest or a dark dungeon. I was also impressed with the sound design. Character exclamations, spell effects, and battle noises are all very well implemented.
Eschalon: Book 2 also introduces a weather system that can bring all kinds of challenges for players. Proud of the strength of your mage’s Level 6 Fire Dart spell? You might want to keep an eye on the clouds! Being surrounded by a horde of undead warriors is bad enough without discovering that a rainstorm can turn your best magic spell into more fizzle than kapow. You might also consider finding a place to camp when the rain starts, especially if it’s already dark outside. Torches will also go out if it is rainy or windy enough. Even if you manage to re-light it, it’s just as likely to blow out again. The system is far from perfect, and I found that my torch would sometimes get doused even when I was inside a building.
Status ailments and diseases can also be crippling. Poison will whittle away at your health points. Contracting a tapeworm will cause you to get hungry faster. Troll Flu will leave you weak, causing a large drop in your maximum encumbrance. If you aren’t able to cast a spell to right the ailment, be sure to invest in some potions, or you’ll be on death’s door sooner than not.
In a Big Country
Thaermore is a large place, especially when braving it on foot. There are many towns to be found (as evidenced by the number of slots in the Fast Travel list) and each one will offer up possible side quests. You can spend a great deal of time with the game, and perfectionists could even spend upwards of 50 hours trying to tie up all the loose ends. There is also a list of challenges posted in the options menu. Players looking to up the risk can try to adhere to any of these, but be cautious: they are not for the faint of heart. Some of the requirements include only using magic, never failing in the picking of a lock, and only using physical attacks to name but a few. I managed to fail all of these in rapid succession, and if you’d rather not be reminded of your suckage, you can turn off the notification.
I had to turn a corner with Eschalon: Book 2 before really enjoying it. At first, I found it frustrating and unnerving. The learning curve is steep, and there is very little to encourage players who might be unfamiliar with this type of RPG to continue playing through the rough patches. Yet, after a while, I found a rhythm, and really started to enjoy the complexities of the game. Even after feeling I had played enough to review the game, I know I’ll be going right back in to play more. This is one of the few games that can lock me into the “just 5 more minutes” habit until I find that hours have passed, and I’m still playing. The prospect of going back with a wholly different character class is also deeply intriguing.
Visually appealing (if not stunning), and wildly challenging, Eschalon: Book 2 is also highly rewarding. Fans of RPGs will pick up the subtle nuances of the game sooner than those new to the genre, but any player willing to stick out the lean beginnings will find a deep game with a wide array of choices, paths and play-styles.