Char generation screenAs many know by now, Eschalon is billed as an “old-school” style of game. That’s certainly true. It brings back several features that are rarely, if ever, seen in the modern crop of CRPGs.

Foremost is character creation based on dice rolls. The last game I recall with that is Wizardry 8, so it’s been awhile. These dice generate a spread of 7-14, and can be re-rolled as much as you like. Then you augment the results from a pool of 15 points, along with a small bonus to two stats by choosing one of four backgrounds.

The next choice is class, which are the usual ones: Fighter, Rogue, Ranger, Mage, and Healer (Cleric). Each provides a different bonus skill for starters. Then you pick up to six more skills by allocating from a pool of 20 points, at a cost of three to learn, and one to increase.

There is no alignment as such, but there is something called the “axiom”, a sort of quasi-religious outlook. This ranges from atheist through druidic, virtuous, nefarious, and agnostic. Except for agnostic, each has a small positive and negative effect on your character.

Trainers are available to teach or increase skills. However, only a few skills can be taught; there aren’t trainers for all of them. Additionally, you can take training only up to rank 5. After that, skills can be increased only with point allocation at level up.

Points at level up time aren’t generous: 3 for skills and 3 for stats. This can create problems, since first time through, you aren’t sure which skills will really be important to you, and you don’t know what trainers are in the game. For example, I didn’t find any armor trainers, so it would be wise to choose an armor skill at the start.

Encumbrance is a factor in the game, based, as usual, on strength. The more muscle you have, the more you can haul around. There are no silly restrictions about casting spells in armor, either.

However, the combined weight of a weapon in hand and gauntlets worn does have an effect. In this case, the weight must be equal to, or less than, one-third your strength rating. Otherwise, spellcasting with enemies nearby is not possible. This is the best way I’ve seen to handle spellcasting in armor, be it heavy or light.

World mapUnlike many games today, the world is not linear. For example, in Neverwinter 2, locations showed only when you learned about them in some way, and so travel was very restricted. Eschalon is more like Oblivion, where you can start walking in any direction, without waiting for someone to tell you about an area.

Going some places too soon, however, can get you killed. Unlike Oblivion, monsters do not scale to your level. So it’s entirely possible for you to wander into an area you’re not strong enough to handle yet.

One thing not seen much in games lately is the puzzle. Eschalon does have some puzzles strewn through the dungeons, though none are particularly difficult, and most have clues nearby. Still, a nice touch.

Another nice touch is the inclusion of the easter eggs. There are three of them, not easy to obtain, and completely optional. Finding all three and placing them in a certain location, however, will boost your character to the next level.

Alchemy has become popular with many gamers, and here it comes with two abilities. First, naturally, is mixing up potions. You’ll need to find or buy recipes and ingredients. Mixtures come in three strengths, depending on skill.

The other ability is using Alchemy to enchant weapons and armor. If armor already has a plus, you can’t add to it, but a weapon with a plus (usually for damage) can be enchanted for a bonus to hit.

Correction: Originally I wrote that a weapon could be imbued for either a plus to hit or a plus to damage, but not both. Ag (Scorpinslayer) claimed that was a mistake and he’s right. A weapon can be enchanted for each, however only once for each. My apologies to all for that gaffe.

Fighting an acid grubIn either case, your skill must be 5, 10, or 15 to get 1, 2, or 3, respectively. Going beyond Alchemy 15 confers no additional bonuses. Since potions aren’t hard to come by, I found the skill most useful for enchanting weapons.

Probably the most old-school feature is that the game is completely turn-based. Your character can stand there while you take a shower, walk the dog, watch a movie, and nothing will happen. No time passes until you take an action. Thus combat fits seamlessly into the whole. There is no separate combat mode, no action points, no frantic button-mashing.

Where Eschalon differs from the classics is in the view, which is third-person rather than first, and the ability to move and attack in any direction, instead of in 90-degree increments.

I can add that the graphics are better, too, although they won’t be giving, say, the Bioshock developers any sleepless nights. Still, while not “cutting edge”, they are adequate, especially considering this is an independent product.

Traveling is done on foot, but the game has a “Quick Travel” feature that allows swift movement between certain points. Naturally, you have to reach those points the hard way first and touch a nearby sign. And there are some areas where it doesn’t work. You also can’t use it when enemies are nearby.

Quest journalOne other method of “quick travel” is using the portal spell, which is like the old Lloyd’s Beacon. It’s possible to have up to six anchored spots, although a very high magic skill is needed for that. Most players will probably have no more than three or four.

Conversations are straightforward and simple. There are no convoluted dialogue trees, and usually no need to guess at what to say. You don’t have to play any “what is the good/neutral/evil response” games. There are times when you can be nasty, if you want to be.

While Eschalon has the usual automap, in this instance you must have the cartography skill for it to work. At low skill levels, the map is very barebones. At high levels, it is much more detailed, to the point where nearby enemies are shown, even when not in visual range.

The plot is the prosaic “Stop Foozle”, and the story begins with that tired old ploy, amnesia. Not the most auspicious start, although farther along the reason why is explained. You don’t, by the way, ever regain your memory.

As usual, there are those little errands you can run for various NPCs. Most provide some cash, and all give experience. You do have the option to refuse a job, but as always, it’s better to accept. There aren’t all that many of them. This is a small world with just three towns, not a huge world like Oblivion.

For that matter, there are only ten dungeons, the majority of them no more than one level deep. That’s a big departure from the old games, which typically featured large dungeons with many complex levels.

Naturally, the main line is linear, as in most CRPGs. Also naturally, it’s better to take your time, do some “odd jobs” and a little exploring, before following up too quickly on the main path. Going too far too soon is a good way to get into trouble.

AutomapThere are three endings to Eschalon. Which one you get depends entirely on your actions in the endgame section. In this respect, it’s somewhat like Geneforge 4, although not as elaborate. Two of these might not be considered “good”, depending on your viewpoint.

The game ran cleanly, although I did run into one bug. This was the original release and there was a problem with some spells vanishing from the spellbook. That happened to me (ouch). Getting the 1.02 patch fixed the problem, but I did have to buy the missing spells again. Otherwise, though, I experienced no crashes or other oddities.

While there is much to like about this game, in common with those “golden oldies”, it has some rough edges, some things that weren’t well-thought-out.

There is little differentiation between the character classes. Aside from the free skill at creation, all the types are really very much the same. The mage and healer do get a small bonus to their mana points for high intelligence/wisdom respectively at level up, but that’s about it.

Fighters and rangers get no bonus to fighting. Nor does the rogue receive anything for attacking from ambush. For that matter, with the Lockmelt and Trapkill spells, the Rogue is a superfluous class.

Attack magic becomes less effective as the game goes on. All spells require mana, and there are six levels at which a spell can be thrown. The level acts as a multiplier on the base cost.

The strongest spells start at 10, and you need both a high stat and a high skill to learn them. These are mass effect spells, but the damage is puny. Supernova does only 3-4 points per level, and you’d need Elemental magic 31 and 60 mana to do a “whopping” 18-24 damage against multiple enemies. And that’s not even considering they may have magic resistance and take no damage at all.

That’s much too weak for the cost. You’d do better with a low-level spell and dancing around, staying out of harm’s way. Anyone counting on playing a pure (or nearly so) magic character will be sadly disappointed. The firepower just isn’t there.

It's DARK in here!One of the hallmarks of the early games was the struggle at the start, and Eschalon provides this through exorbitant overcharging by merchants. All prices are double the list value. So that 60 gold helm will cost you 120. The only way to get better prices is to raise mercantile skill, and it will have to go very high. Even at 20, you’ll still pay over list.

Perhaps Basilisk put that in as a way of dealing with the “gold problem”, that moment in a game when money is no object and there’s little to buy with it. If so, this was a poor way of handling the matter. As it is, even the most basic outfitting will use up your small cash supply far too quickly. There are some struggles we can do without.

And there’s the dark. It’s just too dark. None of the light sources available – torches, lanterns, Gravedigger’s Flame spell – helps very much, and the Cat’s Eye spell is completely worthless.

Indoors, it’s remarkably easy to miss important features like levers to open grates. For that matter, it’s easy to miss those grates, since they aren’t hot spots like doors. You need to be really close to distinguish grates from wall sections.

Outdoors, if you go off-road, you’ll end up blundering into trees and brush. You can always camp out until morning, though you run the risk of being attacked during the night.

While the automap (at high skill level) does a good job, there are some features that would have made it better. First, a zoom feature, to get a closeup of where you are (the map is one size only).

Second, a better way of showing the character position, which is just a tiny dot and not always easy to see. Third, and most of all, the ability to make map notes of important things like grate locations. I spent a lot of time my first run through trying to find grates I knew were “somewhere back there”.

Saving and restoring can be done at any time, and there’s a quicksave hotkey as well. However, you have only ten positions total. In these days of huge hard drives, there’s no reason at all for such a paucity of save positions.

Full screenYour character can have two weapons equipped, a primary and an alternate. Typically, these will be a melee weapon and a bow, and switching is done by hitting the Enter key.

Unfortunately, if you equip a shield to go with your sword, you won’t be able to switch to the bow, or vice-versa. You should be able to make the switch; other games have managed it, notably Neverwinter Nights, where you could quick-change among multiple weapons, including sword/shield combos.

Some players have complained that the screen size of the game is fixed at 800×600. I had no problem with that; it’s the resolution I use for my desktop anyway. Still, I can understand that others may want something more “upscale”, so Basilisk should consider having a few more resolutions in the next game.

So is Eschalon worth playing? Of course it is. We have to keep in mind this is the first product from a tiny company. If everything had been right, what could they do for an encore?

Seriously, though, the one big flaw is that lack of distinct character classes, which cuts down on replayability. The rest are those niggling points that annoy, but aren’t gamestoppers.

What Eschalon seems most like to me is an early Might & Magic in miniature. A compact, modernized version, with enough to do but not so much that it becomes boring as in larger games.

In fact, this is a good game for those who want to play “the old-school way” without having to slog through a huge world for months at a time. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Eschalon is for you.miniscorp

Eschalon: Book I is available online only from Basilisk Games, at $27 for the download, or $37 for a CD, and you can still download it while you wait for the disk.

Basilisk has placed its faith in the gaming community and released this with no copy protection. None. That IS a great show of faith, and I hope the company will be rewarded for it in these days of CP paranoia.

Basilisk Games website