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Elwro's Eschalon 2 Evaluation

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Elwro's Eschalon 2 Evaluation

Review - posted by Elwro on Wed 18 August 2010, 10:10:28

Tags: Basilisk Games; Eschalon: Book II

While travelling through the world of Eschalon: Book II, Elwro learned the hard way that if you love a puppy, you must let it go and not sell its pelt to unscrupulous shopkeepers.

There are a few well done locations (Port Kuudad has its fair share of secrets) and quests. For example, to cut a long story short, a dwarf asks you to steal a puppy from a big wolf. You are told to bring exactly one puppy and leave the rest in the den. You will be tempted to take more than one, because they are valuable and you could certainly use the cash. You are told that something bad will happen if you take more than one puppy... and let me just tell you that it does happen. You have to weigh this consequence against your heavier purse. A real choice, a good quest.
Read on for his full review.

Two years ago Eschalon: Book I, a debut title of a new cRPG developer Basilisk Games was released. You may remember a quite favourable review from yours truly; the first game of the new studio bode well for their future titles. Recently, Eschalon: Book II hit the (virtual) shelves. In most aspects it is very similar to the previous entry in the series. Of course, lack of fundamental and groundbreaking changes is nothing wrong when it comes to indie cRPG series: just ask Jeff Vogel. If it isn't broken, don't fix it. Still, I am under the impression that Book II is only a small step in the right direction. The game was improved in the (already good) stat system department, interesting difficulty options were added and combat got a bit more diversified; however, some faults of the first game were not addressed (and perhaps the developers do not regard them as faults at all), while new ones were introduced. One purchase gives you a code which unlocks the game on all supported platforms: Windows, Mac and Linux. I played the Linux version.

Let me begin with the new difficulty options you can set before the beginning of the game. The choice is whether or not you want your character to require food and water to survive, whether your equipment should deteriorate with use, whether the save option should be blocked when your character is diseased, poisoned or badly wounded, and lastly, whether random events such as lock picking, trap disarming and item creation on opening chests should use a predetermined seed, which forces consistent results. Checking the last option means that if e.g. you break all your lockpicks in futile attempts at dealing with some obstinate door, there's no use in reloading and trying again. Setting all options to “on” gives you a small bonus to all experience rewards, a slightly better quality of generated items (presumably since you won't be able to reload after discovering that a chest you valiantly fought your way to contains only meat scraps and a single rock), and a bonus to the score the game calculates for you when you finish the game. The score is also influenced by how many “challenges” you meet in your playthrough. Aiming to complete some of them (e.g. “The Pacifist”: total kill count must be lower than 20) may add some complexity to your playthrough; but e.g. “The Journeymaster”, which simply requires you not use the Quick Travel option, seems to be an exercise in boredom, especially for non-spellcasting characters. Still, it's nice the challenges are in and adding the difficulty options was definitely a good choice. The rest of the review is written from the perspective of checking all the options, the setting the game describes as “Hardcore”, but which shouldn't intimidate anyone.

As I said, similarities between Book I and Book II abound. The graphics are again pleasing to the eye and some environmental effects were introduced which not only look fine but also have tangible effects on the gameplay; Book II may just be the best looking indie cRPG on the market. The music is again spot on. The soundtrack provides the ideal aural background for the game: there is an enjoyable tune every once in a while, but the music manages not to become boring even by the endgame. I left it on during the whole game, which I seldom do when playing titles from any genre.

The stat system is also almost the same as in the previous game. I won't repeat myself here: if you haven't played Book I, (read my review and) start with it; if you have, you should remember the way it worked - because it worked quite well. Let me just say that skills are connected with statistics so that no stat can truly be a dump stat; I do not understand, though, why the game – which aims to please the “oldschool” crowd – does not give us exact formulas governing the relationships. But this is a minor point. The important thing is that two new skills were introduced: Repair and Foraging. Both come in effect when you rest in your tent. The repair skill, intuitively enough, causes the level of degradation of your equipment to decrease, starting with the stuff you're wearing at the given time and proceeding later to the items in your inventory. Foraging emulates your scavenging for alchemical ingredients around your campsite: the longer you rest and the higher your skill level, the more (and the better) components you will find stored in a bag near your tent. As a sidenote, if you want to remove something from your inventory but store it for later, you cannot just put it on the ground - it will disappear, which the game will warn you about. You need to use a container, and - apart from dead bodies - the bags created by the Foraging skill can really come in handy this way.

This is especially true since you will most likely want to haul quite heavy things around. You may remember explosive powder kegs from Book 1; there were even opponents using them kamikaze-style. In Book 2 you have the option of carrying such kegs yourself; you can position them near anything you'd like to have blown up and then fire an arrow at them, e.g. taking revenge at a door for your lockpicking humiliation. Cracked wall sections, closed doors you lack the skill to open or the will to bash, big rocks blocking your way... there will most likely be more locations in which you would want to deploy the kegs than the number of kegs you will find; you will have to make some choices.

In general, scarcity seems to be the main theme of the game, both in a good and in a bad way. First the good one. If you aren't playing one of the particularly efficient builds, and it's highly likely you won't be doing so in your first playthrough(s), everything your character gains will be a valuable commodity, from items to skill and stat points. You have less skill points than in Book 1 and, as described above, two valuable skills have been added. If you want to take part in melee combat, and you don't take the Repair skill, you'll lose a fortune paying the smiths for fixing your gear, which will probably force you into taking the skill after all or investing in Mercantile. Practicing Alchemy in the long term pretty much requires developing Foraging to a decent level. There is now additional incentive for raising your combat skills, since you get a special feat you can perform every once in a while when you reach level 10 in a given skill; the "cool-down" period shortens with the skill level, too. (The feats themselves need some balance work; the one for thrown weapons is certainly less useful than the one for bows and the one for axes is worse than the one for swords, but including them is a step forward.) And so on each level up you face a really tough choice of distributing your measly 3 skill points (the level cap is now 30). You get the feeling that every point counts; also, you need to have at least one point in Cartography before you get a basic automap, and, reasonably, one point on Lockpicking before you can even attempt picking a lock. (Skill point-wise, it's better for your starting character to know only a minimal number of skills, since the cost of buying the first point in a skill is higher during character creation than on level-ups.)

To continute the scarcity theme, you need food to survive, and there's only ever so much of it you can salvage from the remains of the beasts you come across. You will most likely have to buy it once in a while, and it can be expensive for a new character; resting in inns may seem overpriced, but at least they kick you out well-fed. It's best to learn the spells Create Food and Draw Water; also, the higher your Foraging skill, the slower your satiation level drops when resting. (A nice touch: some food types rot when you store them in your inventory for too long.) There aren't many alchemical ingredients available, too, and that's the main reason why the Foraging skill is important. There are quite a few efficient ways in which the game will try to get hold of your character's money; apart from paying for food, ingredients, and repairs, there is the issue of item identification. If you consider making Intelligence your dump stat, think again (while you can). Even a seemingly moderate Int score results in your character being unable to ascertain that the scraps of meat he's holding are, in fact, meat scraps. This is crucial since you can't use (or eat) unidentified items, and you don't store the knowledge about the item's type: after the last example of the given object is gone from your inventory, you'll have to identify any new instances of it you may stumble across again. On the other hand, if you already have one instance of object X identified in your inventory, and you find an "uknown" object you suspect to actually be of X's type, you can compare the two items and, if your suspicions were correct, the second instance will be identified. Unidentified items sell for only a fraction of their true value, of course. All this can be counterveined by raising Intelligence, investing in the Lore skill, or (better) casting the Lore spell at a high enough level (you will find items which boost your casting abilities).

In short, for many things you will have to pay either will money or with points used to buy levels in various skills; it might seem that the best course of action would be to invest in a single skill, Mercantile, and use the money for everything else. Let me just say that yes, you can break the economy (guaranteed profit from every transaction) by developing Mercantile to absurd levels; but most mechanics in most games can be exploited, and I would just consider other ways of playing the game as more fun.

For me, the best aspect of playing Eschalon: Book 2 is experimenting with using the environment and stat system to overcome obstacles you come across. For example, there are pretty complicated mechanics both for lighting and for sound. Darkness hampers your (and everyone else's) "to hit" chance. There are torches on dungeon walls you can put out (or light), changing the conditions. Sometimes it is possible to manouvre around your opponents so that they're visible very well while you're standing in relative darkness; you can also extinguish all light sources, drink the potion of Predator Sight and enjoy hunting for the silhouettes only you see as glowing. What you are wearing, where you go, and how high your Move Silently skill is influences the chances of someone hearing your actions; if you take care (the Hide in Shadows skill is also useful- in general, a rogue has many options to spend his skill points), you might sneak through a dangerous location. Closed doors / chests can be bashed, but this makes a lot of sound and gradually destroys the item you're bashing with.

To get back to combat, it's still quite basic, but a bit improved over Book 1. I already mentioned the new combat feats. A perhaps more important addition is that of stances; you can choose e.g. to hit less often but more deadly, or vice versa, or to (try to) parry all incoming blows. I have to confess that I sped my way through a few late-game encounters after I noticed that I'm practically impossible to hit in the defensive stance and the opponents do not follow you if you enter a new location. A pure fighter will probably not want to use a shield, because he won't be able to hold a torch (assuming he has a weapon readied) and will not see much in the darkness. So even the most melee-oriented characters benefit greatly from being able to cast Cat's Eyes. And this is just the beginning; if you check the buffs available (and e.g. the possibility of imbuing your weapons and armor with various bonuses if you are skilled in Alchemy), soon it becomes apparent that playing a fighter - alchemist, or even a fighter - mage - cleric - alchemist, or simply a jack of all trades, is a very fun way of playing the game. Its various challenges require various skills.

Book 2, just like Book 1, is not turn-based in the traditional sense (think the Gold Box games, Dark Sun: the Shattered Lands or Fallout), but more similar to roguelikes with a very simple speed system. Assuming you're not hasted, moving one step, casting a spell or delivering a blow takes 1 "tick"; after your "tick" everyone else has their own single "tick", and so on. You can imagine what this leads to if in a melee fight between two opponents among some barren wastes one decides to flee. The other simply cannot reach him. Fortunately you can use Haste (or switch to different forms of atack) to overcome this, but it would be nice if some more subtle speed system was introduced in Book 3. Book 2's combat differs from Book 1's by the inclusion of feats and stances. This is, again, a small step in the right direction.

Just a few more words regarding the environment: your character may notice that storm clouds are coming. When it starts raining, it becomes harder to hit anything with missile weapons, and to use any sort of fire (e.g. torches or magical fire darts). If it starts to rain at night, and you're relying on your torch to see where you're going, you'll be in trouble as the torch will probably go out and it won't be easy to light it again. If you are caught outdoors by a snow storm (in the frosty northern regions), you will slowly take damage (if you don't make a save vs. elements). This can be deadly if you're sleeping in your tent.

You may be wondering why so far I didn't say a word about the plot. Well, simply put, you won't be playing this game for its plot. Rest assured, this is nothing like the Biowarian “find 4 pieces of something in the order of your choice” formula. This time it's only 2 pieces and the order is fixed. And, even though it's assumed that your character is the same person who helped Thaermore in Book 1, you start as a level 1 fleshling; still, the arguably most overused cliche of the genre, amnesia, is not employed. No, your character simply emmigrated to a different land and devoted a few peaceful years to fishing, all his adventuring skills devolving in the process. Unfortunately, one day he finds a mysterious note which orders him to meet a mysterious stranger, with which the main quest kicks off.

As I said, I'm pretty sure it won't be the plot itself which will keep you involved with the game. There are other things, though. During the course of the main quest you will have to reach initially unavailable locations, and there are a few ways of doing so. There exist at least two keys to a certain underground complex, one of which is highly non-trivial to find. Book 2 has one big city, Port Kuudad - replete with shops and trainers (more on that below) - and initially your character is denied entry because he does not have a citizen writ. How to enter the city? If you don't want a big fight, you can obtain a writ through unofficial means (there are a few copies scattered around the world), use magic to charm the guards, drink an invisibility potion and switch the gate lever yourself, or search for an alternative way in.

Usually there is a reasonable way of dealing with obstacles. This makes playing various builds fun; e.g. there are locations which are really difficult to enter if you don't develop the traditional rogue skills. There is one exception, though, and it's in the main quest. In a big dungeon, after dealing with a few quite interesting levels, you come upon a door. That's it, a closed door. No other way to proceed. If I find something like this in the main quest of a game, I naturally think there must be a key I missed, a lever somewhere, or a secret passage. I checked anywhere I could. All the time I thought this was some sort of elaborate puzzle I didn't get. I got genuinely intrigued. There is not enough powder kegs easily available to deal with the door the explosive. But what do you know, there simply does not seem to be any way of getting through that door other than picking the lock or destroying it. No key is to be found either on an opponent or anywhere else. No lever seems to open the door. I guess it's my fault for having misguided expectations, but I felt pretty disappointed after discovering such a “primitive” obstacle on my way through the main quest. Well, one man's Vltava is another man's Hatikvah.

Since dealing with the world and developing your character so that he has more and more courses of action available is fun, you might be lenient regarding one big flaw in the plot. You see, there are Four Things which should never be brought together because APOCALYPSE would happen. Naturally, the Enemy wants to gather the Four Things together. Of two of the Things we don't know much. The third one is certainly in the hands of the enemy. We set out to find the fourth one. When we find it, we are given the task to take it to the Enemy lair, where we should track down the above mentioned third Thing, summon the Good Guys and wait for the ending credits. Any adventurer worth his name would certainly be at least a little suspicious about such a plan. Why should we bring an object the enemy wants (and which we already know the enemy wants) to his lair? It would make a lot more sense to leave the fourth Thing in the Good Guys hideout, sneak into Enemy lair and steal the third Thing. Well, at least it's something our character should point out in conversation with the Good Guys, but no - to finish the game you have to agree to the unreasonable plan.

There is no respawning and the opponents, save for those who (very infrequently) disturb your rest, are not level scaled. The loot, however, usually is both area and level scaled. This means that e.g. the same shopkeeper will have better loot when you return to him after gaining a few experience levels. And that there's no point in expecting the shopkeepers from the first half of the game to have scrolls of higher level spells in stock when you meet them for the first time. Reading scrolls is the only way you learn spells in the game, so your repertoire is highly dependent on what you find in shops, which restock every week. It's quite possible you won't find a scroll of e.g. Melt Lock until late in the game.

In terms of area count, the game is almost twice as big as Book 1; unfortunately, all it means is that it's more empty. The walking speed is a bit improved, but is still too slow: even with the Quick Travel system, the game in some sections is close to “a few minutes of thrill, a few hours of boredom”. I can here you saying “the story of my life”, but let's not go there. There simply is not enough to do in all these locations. And when you clear an area, it'll be dead and lifeless to the end of times: nothing changes at all. Nothing new appears at any point anywhere in the game. No new encounters along the way. No new quests. Almost no changes in the world resulting from you completing any quests. The later parts of the game - or: the parts of the world which become available to your character later on - are, unfortunately, particularly unconvincing. A smaller, more detailed and varied world would have been better!

There are a few well done locations (Port Kuudad has its fair share of secrets) and quests. For example, to cut a long story short, a dwarf asks you to steal a puppy from a big wolf. You are told to bring exactly one puppy and leave the rest in the den. You will be tempted to take more than one, because they are valuable and you could certainly use the cash. You are told that something bad will happen if you take more than one puppy... and let me just tell you that it does happen. You have to weigh this consequence against your heavier purse. A real choice, a good quest.

You will also have a choice regarding a certain guy who really seems to deserve to die; most probably you'll accept a quest which requires killing him to be completed. It turns out that he's the only trainer for some rogue-related skills in the game. If you decide to keep him alive and benefit from the training, the quest is forfeited. But it's a forced choice: the natural option (for a scum) would be, of course, to first milk the guy for any training he has, pretending to be his friend, but THEN betray him and take his life. The game does not allow this.

On a more positive note, you will find two people accusing each other of being a werewolf. There doesn't seem to be a clear cut way of non-violently establishing once and for all which one of them is the lycanthrope; you have a few (weak) hints and have to rely on your gut instincts to some extent. One of the men owns a magical shop you might not want to lose access to... An interesting, difficult situation; the dev gets points for that.

Unfortunately, these are only isolated instances of interesting content in the predominantly empty game world. With all the bugs (now mostly ironed out) and general feeling of emptyness, it's unfortunately obvious that the developer simply had to put this game on the market in May. There are also two places, a cave entrance and a staircase, which should provide access to two dungeons which do not exist in the game. You're told “There's nothing more in that direction. Turn back – your fate awaits elsewhere!” With all the empty areas, I felt like having been ripped off a little. This is unfortunate, since it seems like a matter of presentation. It would be better if the entrances were non-approachable by the character, or if they were simply removed, as the dungeons might be added in a future addon. You might remember that a similar project for the first game did not take off. Here's to hoping the developer fares better this time. If he did not put the entrances in the released version of the game, the players could await the dungeons as a nice, free expansion. Unfortunately, due to overall lack of content in the game they look like something which should have been there from the start.

There are also some balance problems. First, there is absolutely no reason to use Heavy Armour. Use Light Armour instead. It gives almost the same defensive bonuses and is, well, light. Eschalon: Book 2 breaks with the cRPG tradition in that the more rare smithing materials are heavier than the common ones. (Mithril is heavier than iron, for example.) The tungsten armour you find late in the game will weigh a lot more than your beginning iron set. This means that even if you increase your Strength regularly, if you use Heavy Armour, you will continuously have to throw stuff out in order not to become encumbered. And it's always nice to have 25 free pounds for a powder keg, just in case.

A bigger problem regards stat trainers. They can now teach you (for a price, of course) a skill up to the skill level of 8; there are trainers for most of the skills. This means that if you want to become a good alchemist, you should NOT invest your skill points in that skill (or read the book which increases it) before you pay the trainer for teaching - otherwise the skill levels you could've gained with the trainer are wasted. This is a bit frustrating on the first playthrough - "Come on, I wouldn't waste points on Cartography if I knew I can pay 100 coins to get a point in the skill" - and still difficult to properly deal with on subsequent ones. Book 2 seems to punish your character if you don't metagame. In general, in cRPGs paid skill trainers are, I think, a problem, not a solution; the problem becomes big if you can reach level 8 in most of the skills just by saying goodbye to a sizable pile of cash. Perhaps the best thing to do is to try to subdue the feeling of being punished and play the game without minmaxing; Book 2 is easy enough that most likely your character won't be overwhelmed even if he's not developed as perfectly as he could have been.

Since the loot you will find is pretty low magic, but plentiful, the game should offer more slots for remembering equipment configurations (right now there are two). By the endgame, for any important skill you'll most likely have an item (or two) which boosts it by two points. So, before you rest, it'll be best to put on your rings of the boar (Foraging bonus) and tinker's gloves (Repair). After this, it's brewmaster ring time to brew the potions you'll need on your busy day. Entered a dungeon and want to cast Cat's Eyes at the highest level available to you? Switch your hat and rings again. An unidentified item you cannot figure out with Lore cast at Level 3? Swith the rings again. Since almost your every action can be (by the endgame) boosted by something wearable from your inventory, the dress-up process should be, uh, streamlined somehow. There's no autosort button for the inventory, but we have a key ring now.

Eschalon: Book II is a game whose short length (a detailed playthrough, save for the already mentioned run through the final location, took me exactly 24 hours) encourages replaying. Broadly speaking, there are at least 3 genuinely different, but viable builds – no surprises: fighter, mage, rogue – with endless variations. I already wrote above how fun it also is (at least in the endgame) to play a jack of all trades. I know I'm tempted to try the game with a few different starting skill sets I haven't used yet. So, all in all, the game is perhaps worth its price. I can't help but notice, though, that e.g. in similarly priced games by Spiderweb Software the content oozes from every nook and cranny, while in Eschalon you have to search for the content yourself in a pretty empty world. Well, this also has its charm; coupled with the fantastic music and adequate visuals it makes for the unique character of Basilisk Software's games.

I guess was quite a bit harsh in this review. But was I unreasonably harsh? To quote myself from the review of Book I, “All in all, Eschalon: Book One is a very promising first title from a small team”. Simply, Eschalon: Book II is not good for what it is: a sequel to a promising title from a new CRPG developer. But it's still a pretty nifty game which every fan of the genre should try. And which fans of the first game can safely buy before even trying.

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