Eschalon: Book 1, the debut title from Basilisk Games, will take you back to the nostalgic days of Ultima and Might and Magic. It's a turn-based, tile-designed RPG, a system that many fans of the genre are familiar with. Eschalon offers a rich, engaging and open-ended world to explore, with a similarly deep storyline. It's a modern-day tribute to the old CRPG's that fans grew up on, at a time when storytelling, adventuring and honing your character's skill took precedence over shiny graphics and cutting-edge mechanics.
Eschalon is the name of the world this RPG takes place in, and you begin your adventure tucked away in a remote, abandoned area of the Commonwealth of Thaermore, the "continent" Book 1 takes place in. You awake with amnesia, virtually threadbare and unaware of your surroundings. A single note is the only clue you have to set you on your path. It's a bit cliché, but hey, it works. You're immediately thrown into the thick of it, as you explore your surroundings, defend yourself from low-level monsters and try to make your way to your starting town of Aridell. From there, you'll learn more about yourself and the world of Eschalon as you interact with NPC's and shopkeepers. You can wander the outskirts for a while, killing the wildlife and looking for scraps of treasure, or jump right in and start accepting quests from the townsfolk. And like most RPGs, quest completion nets you far more experience that monster-killing, so it's a good idea to keep your quest book full.
Much of your path will be influenced by the type of character you chose to roll. Eschalon offers a detailed character creation system reminiscent of the pencil-and-dice method. Although you can only play a human male, there's a wide variety of variables to choose from. "Origin" defines what part of the land you were raised in, with each choice having inherent attribute bonuses. "Axiom" is similar, but involves choosing between various spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). And of course your "class" defines your combat and play style, each also possessing its own unique benefits. You can choose between a Fighter, Rogue, Magick User, Healer and Ranger. You can spend attribute points to strengthen those which will help your class the most, and even re-roll your base stats an unlimited number of times. Lastly the "skills" table is used to spend points on skills that will compliment your class, as well as uniques like Alchemy and Cartography. (I highly suggest putting at least one point into cartography, as it's the only way you'll be able to use your mini-map.)
The character creation alone gives an initial impression of how deep and complex Eschalon is; the gameplay features dozens of modifiers in combat depending on a slew of factors. Everything from lighting to distance to terrain is taken into account, and much more. There's a really complex engine under the hood, instantly running all those calculations that players used to need scribble out during combat on pencil-and-paper RPG's. Armor and weapons have their own attributes that factor into combat, although their effectiveness is dependent on your proficiency. This leads to a rather slow start in the game, spending half your time missing enemies or not doing an amount of damage that feels gratifying.
On the other hand, the interface and controls of the game are intuitive and easy to interact with. Movement is controlled by clicking the mouse button in the direction you want to go. There's no path-finding, although you can use the middle button to set it on auto-walk and course-correct as needed. For some reason, out of the eight directions of movement, walking up or down seems painstakingly slow compared to the rest. Your inventory, quest book, spell book and the rest are all accessible by a mouse click in the upper-right corner of the screen. Keyboard shortcuts are even handier, and luckily included. It's an adequate setup, overall, designed well enough not to hinder your playing experience.
Analysis: If you've enjoyed the new fad of games featuring quick dungeon crawls and hour-or-less adventures, but have begun craving something more — something deeper — then Eschalon is a game you'll want to try. In fact, even designating it as a casual game is a stretch, but it's designed so that you can adventure for however long you like, save your progress, and come back later.
Even though Eschalon was released just a short time ago, the graphics and overall presentation aren't anything to write home about, although it's certainly adequate to house the deeper aspects inside. This is no quick-play RPG like some of the casual flash and download games we've seen gaining popularity over the last few years (FastCrawl, Monster's Den, etc.). That's not to say that the game looks like crap, either. Gameplay graphics are obviously rendered of modern quality, and much of the still-screen art is uniquely attractive.
The world of Eschalon lies somewhere between high and low fantasy; tied together with a linear storyline but the option of non-linear play. There's a distinct overall feeling of good versus evil, although you're given the choice to follow your own path. As of the writing of this review, a sequel (Book II) is already in the works. So if you've been craving a deeper, more involved RPG — one that won't take up gigs of hard drive space or require and Oblivion-compatible graphics card — Eschalon might just be the middle ground you've been looking for.