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Eschalon: Book III is the third and presumably final chapter in Basilisk Games' Eschalon RPG trilogy. Basilisk was kind enough to send us an "Alpha 5" build of the game, which allowed me to spend about 15 hours trying things out. The alpha build was created in December, and Book III has a February 14 release date, so while the alpha build isn't a finished product, it's certainly in the ballpark, and it means I can give you a few ideas about how the new game will work.
Eschalon: Book III picks up where Book II left off. You were caught in a magical explosion at the end of the previous game, and you were thrown into a mysterious jungle. When you wake up in Book III, you quickly discover that you're on Wylderan, an island to the west of the regions you explored previously. You also discover that your mind and body have been addled by the blast, and so once again you have to start out as a new character at level 1.
While you're exploring Wylderan, you're contacted by two of your old friends, and you learn that not only are the crux stones still in play, but you need to collect as many of them as possible to prevent "The One" from using them to Eschalon's detriment. The game then follows your attempts to track down and acquire the crux stones, and presumably to confront The One at the end. If you haven't played Book I or Book II yet, and if you don't know what the crux stones are, then the game takes care of you. You see a review of previous events at the start of the game, and when you meet people who you should know, you can claim not to remember them, which prompts them to re-introduce themselves. So playing the previous entries in the trilogy isn't a requirement for playing the finale.
Book III, like its predecessors, is played using an isometric view of the world. You control a single character, and everything takes place in turns -- but in a friendly way. Nothing happens until you have your character do something (like move or attack), but then everybody else takes their turn simultaneously and quickly, and so it becomes your turn again almost instantly. In fact, walking around feels like it takes place in real time, and about the only place where turns are noticeable is when you face enemies who have slow attack animations (like archers), and you have to wait for them to finish before you can attack again.
Characters in the game have eight attributes and 26 skills. The attributes include the likes of strength, intelligence and perception, and they do about what you would expect. For example, strength controls how much weight you can carry and how much damage you can do with melee attacks, while intelligence controls how much mana you gain when you level up and how many arcane spells you can learn. Meanwhile, skills include proficiencies for weapons and armor and also non-combat endeavors like detecting traps, foraging for food, and brewing potions. But perhaps the most interesting skill is cartography; the more points you put into that skill the better your mini-map looks, and without it you don't get a mini-map at all.
If you've played the previous two Eschalon games, then the character system might sound familiar. In fact, the engine for Book III as a whole looks like it's going to be almost identical to the engine for Book II. You still need to eat and drink and repair equipment (although these rules can be toggled off), you still need to juggle the best way to see during nighttime and underground explorations (torches aren't convenient and frequently "blow out" now), and you can use skill books and trainers to improve your skills (and it looks like trainers will take you up to rank 8 now rather than just rank 5 like previously).
The main difference I saw between Book III and Book II is in the forage skill. In Book II this skill was way too good; it reduced how quickly you became hungry and thirsty, it found alchemical ingredients for you when you rested, and it put those ingredients into bags, which in essence allowed you to create storage locations for yourself anywhere. But now in Book III the skill only occasionally finds food (and supposedly ingredients at higher ranks) for you when you walk around. I put five points into the forage skill, and the best thing I found was a lightweight fruit that maybe filled my hunger and thirst bars by 10%. This is probably one of the parts of Book III that's going to see some adjustments before the game is released.
Other differences include some new spells being available, including "Polar Claw," which allows you to damage an enemy you're next to, and "Malachi's Gruel," which creates a lumpy gray gruel for you to eat. Equipment now has extra requirements; previously you just needed a single point in a weapon or armor skill to use associated weapons or armor, but now you might need extra points to avoid a penalty. There are now brass knuckle weapons for unarmed specialists to use during combat. You can now see clouds in the sky when you're exploring outside, and they look nice. And you're not allowed to learn as many spells as before; previously you could learn int/wis divided by 2 spells, but now it's int/wis divided by 3.
So far I'd say that Book III looks pretty good. It definitely feels like an Eschalon game, with the content I saw leaning more towards humor and oddness than character depth and emotional catharsis. For example, while The One looks like he'll be the end boss for the game, you don't see or hear from him at all, and instead you complete offbeat quests where you rescue kittens and deal with snapping clams. Book III's tone might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're looking for. I enjoy quirky games, and so it works for me, and I also prefer games where you start your character fresh (the earliest levels are usually the most interesting as you're guaranteed to have gaps in your repertoire), and so that's a bonus for me as well.
The build of Eschalon: Book III I played had maybe half of the content available (I visited 7 of the 11 quick travel points, but there were a few missing quests and places I couldn't enter along the way), and that took me about 15 hours to complete, which means the full game might have somewhere around 30 hours of content. Basilisk Games still needs to do some polishing and balancing, and they still have some content to add, but the title appears to be progressing nicely, and it's scheduled to be released on February 14.