Challenging old-school gameplay, crisp graphics, and an unfolding story make Eschalon: Book II a CRPG worth playing.
Eschalon: Book II ($25, free demo) is a single-player turn-based CRPG in the classic Ultima mold, where you control a single character who wanders the landscape fulfilling quests, slaying monsters, and chowing down on rat meat. A lot of rat meat.
Eschalon: Book II picks up where Eschalon Book I left off… but if you didn’t play Book I, don’t worry. The game is perfectly playable with no prior knowledge of the world. Indeed, the opening backstory explains your character has become so content since saving the world in Book I that he’s completely forgotten his prior life, which is why he’s beginning with virtually no skills or equipment. Adventure soon calls, though, and when you make it to a nearby inn to meet a mysterious stranger, he’s immediately executed by a sniper’s arrow, setting you off to unravel who killed him, and why, and to fulfill the needs of the local populace for debt collection, parcel delivery, and pest elimination.
Hearkening back to some of the oldest games in the genre, Eschalon Book II demands you carry sufficient food and drink to sustain you on your voyage, plunges you into impenetrable darkness if you don’t have a torch, and has your weapons break and your armor tear with depressing regularity. “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is the rule here; if you swap out your bow for a sword and shield when the bandits have closed on you, you will take several blows while you do so. The amount of loot you can carry is limited by weight. Fighting in the dark is very difficult… but if you want to hold a torch, you can’t hold a shield or a two-handed weapon, and torches burn out. Merchants have limited supplies of goods and restock infrequently; it’s quite possible to buy out all the food the innkeeper has to sell. The cost of armor and weapon repair–and healing potions–can easily chew up the reward from any quest.
This pain has a purpose, though: Knowing you didn’t just idly click your way through makes your success all the sweeter. Eschalon: Book II requires you to make choices, most especially when to run. It also encourages some creative solutions that aren’t handed to you by simply clicking in the right spot. (Hint: Those heavy barrels of gunpowder you’ll find have a million uses around the home and office.) Characters can invest skill points in many skills, and trying to learn to do everything will often leave you unable to do anything.
Combat is turn-based in Eschalon: Book II, but your character’s speed and other factors may let you attack more, or less, often than your enemies. You can adjust your combat mode to trade off accuracy for damage. You must also pay attention to how much damage your weapons and armor are taking–there’s nothing like having your only weapon break mid-fight, leaving you with your fists to fight with. To add injury to insult, you may take damage from striking something bare-knuckled if you’re not trained in fisticuffs.
As you play and perform quests, the story of Eschalon: Book II unfolds… strange invaders from the south, an ancient legend come to life, a corrupting force that whispers in men’s minds and drives them mad. To find the answers, you will need to explore dungeons, traverse dark woods, and kill, and eat, a lot of rats.
The area-locked demo for Eschalon: Book II offers around 90 minutes of gameplay, including several quests. It’s sufficient to let you decide if you like the style of gameplay enough to buy the full package, reasonably priced at $25.