I know fantasy roleplaying. I might not know who's number one in the pop charts, or who is top of the Premier League, but I can tell a goblin from an orc just by the smell, and I can even say ‘bastard sword' without sniggering. So I'm pretty much as qualified a nerd to comment on FRPG videogames as anyone short of the bald Dungeon Master out of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.
So then. Eschalon Book 2. It's the sequel to... well, take a wild guess. Here's something we don't really see much of any more: an isometric, turn-based RPG. Of course, there's a good reason why it's something we don't really see any more. The world has moved on. Fallout 1 was great fun - God knows I sunk enough hours into it - but Fallout 3 is prettier and, yes, more immersive because of it. So Eschalon 2 is something of a throwback - graphically, it looks like something out of the early 1990s.
Which isn't to say it's a bad game, of course. Graphics maketh not the game, as we all know, but if they didn't really, really add to it, we wouldn't all spend our hard-earned groats on enormous noisy graphics cards, would we? True, the ‘traditional' graphics make the Eschalon system requirements gentle and therefore ideal for your netbook, (except for some inexplicable slowdown in heavily wooded areas) but it's hard to shake the fact that Baldur's Gate 1 looked significantly nicer than this. Remember Baldur's Gate 1? No? Nobody? God, I'm old.
As for gameplay, we're in the familiar realm of fantasy RPGs, with its strength and dexterity, magic dwarven hammers, warehouses full of giant vermin that needs to be exterminated in exchange for some gold pieces and experience points... Everything you know and love about RPGs is here, and handled in a well-balanced way. However, there's not really a lot that's novel. There are a couple of wizards, a legendary artifact or two, a bunch of side quests that require a certain number of a specific type of beast to be killed, weapon shops next-door to magic shops... it's all really familiar to anyone who has any experience of the fantasy RPG tropes.
And none of these tropes are really messed with too much.
Which, and I must keep repeating this, is not to say it's a bad game. It's just a... normal game. With ancient graphics. If you've finished all the RPGs you can get your hands on and you're still lusting after more monster-bashing, gold piece collecting, and skill point spending, have at it. Just don't expect anything desperately memorable.
OK, I'm going to dig deep and try to come up with a couple of selling points. It is cheap. Well, it's $24.95 as a download from their site, which on the day this review was written comes across the ocean as £17.38, which really isn't that cheap. It's fun (for some hardcore roleplayers) to have to worry about feeding and watering your hero as well as worrying about his inevitably-dwindling hit point total. The cartography skill is kind of fun, too: every time you put skill points into it, the level of detail on the maps you create increases, although the bare minimum is more-or-less enough to see you through most of the time. The story is pretty well-written despite being standard fantasy fare.
If you spend a lot of time with just a low-powered laptop for company and a hankering for some fantasy (not like that), this is good in the same way that ham sandwiches are a decent packed lunch. It's adequate, and there may even be a point where you find yourself enjoying yourself. It's just a shame nobody thought to smear some mustard on there to zing things up a little.