Demo Driver 8: Eschalon Book 1 (#224)
The trouble with talking about games that are deliberate throwbacks to an earlier period of gaming is that critiquing them is like critiquing nostalgia. You can tell me time and again that gaming has moved on a great deal since Kirby’s Adventure or Super Metroid, for example, and you’d be entirely correct in saying so, but that’s not going to make me like either game less. Handing someone a title like Eschalon Book 1 is like being asked to tell someone why their fond memories of an earlier age are wrong or confirm that they’re totally right and games suck now.
There’s your salt to munch on whilst I tell you that this is exactly the sort of game that made me reluctant to get into PC gaming for a really long time. Much like there’s a spectrum of racing games you can make, there is a spectrum of different RPGs you can make on a computer, and Eschalon falls firmly on the side of the camp that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get into. The reason being that I was a teenager, I played Dungeons & Dragons, and I would prefer to avoid this attempt to replicate that experience.
You get a sense for what sort of game you’re in for as soon as you load up Eschalon. Here you are, staring at the character creator, and here’s your selection of classes, origin points, religious affiliation, ability scores, skills, will save adjustment, adjusted encumbrance level, detailed multiphasic scan radius – wait, sorry, I started slipping into Star Trek technobabble there. My mistake. I think I’m making my point here, though. There are a whole lot of mindless fiddly bits here and there, the sort of experience that’s very reminiscent of early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons where you would waste a great deal of your life determining exactly how far your character could haul an ox.
That’s one school of design. Give your players the option to make anything they want. It’s not a school that I particularly like, because it sets you up to build whatever you want when in fact the game already, by definition, has a very specific idea of what it wants you to be.
Remember Fallout 2? Remember making a character who was meant to be a fast-talking master and an accomplished bullshitter? Remember when that character died over and over because the first area of the game was built assuming a certain level of combat survivability? That might only be the most egregious example, but therein lies my core frustration with this particular ethos. If you give me the freedom to create a character who can lift an ox and throw it a county mile but can’t use a sword to save their life, then you had better give me tools right from the start to be a champion ox-thrower.
Otherwise you’re essentially turning character creation into a collection of red herrings. You’re telling me to do whatever I want with this toy, then you’re slapping it out of my hand and scolding me for doing the wrong kind of whatever.
The other style of computer RPG, obviously, is the Final Fantasy style, where simulation isn’t really important and it’s all about an entertaining narrative and a focused set of mechanics. I find this infinitely preferable, and it comes down to, again, Dungeons & Dragons. Because this particular flavor is based on the wide-open possibilities of tabletop roleplaying whilst forgetting the core of how tabletop roleplaying works.
If I’m running a campaign for four people and they all make characters who are fast-talkers with the combat acuity of a wet noodle, I’m going to make a campaign based on a minimum amount of combat and a maximum amount of intrigue. If one of them is a doctor, great, here’s a medical challenge. If there’s no doctor, there are no medical challenges, because no one cares. A tabletop game, by its very nature, morphs to fit the participants. Computer games, meanwhile, only ever have the one way to progress, only ever give you the one option. Trying to present a computer experience as if you can get that same depth strikes me as an experiment doomed to fail on a conceptual level.
And, as I said, here’s where you fall into the uncomfortable spot of criticizing nostalgia. Because some people genuinely like that. Some people enjoy playing through the same fixed scenario dozens of times, trying different character builds and seeing what’s possible. I have friends who enjoy that. Heck, when the game is right I enjoy that; I can’t honestly pretend there’s no appeal to treating the game as a puzzle, where it’s a question of what starting choices will produce the best long-term results.
But it is outdated game design, and more to the point I don’t think it’s particularly good. Guessing whether you’ll need the Fire or Blizzard spell when you can only get one isn’t interesting when there are no hints about what comes next. Offering choices like these should mean that you have more ways to tackle the game from the start, not that there are lots of worse ways and one right way.
Anyhow. Eschalon, yes? You wake up in a wrecked cabin with no memory of what happened and here we are, fantasy setting, mysterious protagonist with no memories, off we go again. This game is nostalgia. I’m relatively certain it’s emulating one of the Ultima titles or another, but not having been a fan of the series, I can’t be sure of which one; perhaps someone more familiar with it can tell from the graphics, which feel not so much familiar as they are distinctly creating an homage.
And you know, if you like the particular thing that’s being called back here, you’re going to like this. If you’re like me, it’s going to feel like a tedious walk through the parts of design that you don’t like and that gaming has rather wisely evolved past. It lets you start off as a haggling merchant when you’re going to have to kill a whole lot of salamanders when the game kicks off, quite possibly dooming your character before you even start. There’s a sequence early on in the demo wherein you have a long section of floor covered in traps, and the only way to find out the right past is to step onto a trap, see if it hurts you, save, take the next step, and reload if you get hurt again. That’s not a puzzle. That’s a guessing game in which you reset each time you make a wrong guess.
Like I said, it’s hard to criticize effectively. But maybe it’s just what you want, a chance to play through a familiar engine with an unfamiliar scenario. If that’s not what you want, though, I’d advise giving it a pass.