Lately I've had the desire to play some classical-style games, especially RPGs. While there's certainly a strong argument supporting the 'simplification' that characterizes many modern titles - typically in the service of improving user-interface and reducing tedious, unnecessary actions - we've also seen a disappearance of the sort of 'depth' that used to be standard among PC games. This erosion of depth is not always a bad thing, but there's something to be said for how titles used to embrace the 'math' behind the dice rolls and let players fuss over all aspects of the underlying mechanics and strategy.
Encouragingly, I've recently become aware of some indie game companies that have taken the path of combining modern interface tweaks (and play balancing) with classic RPG elements. One such company is Basilisk Games and their 'Eschalon Trilogy' of RPGs, of which the first two are available.
Eschalon: Book I's design is clearly (and explicitly according to the developer's website) influenced by classic Ultima titles, with a bit of Fallout thrown in for good measure. The game takes place in a large, open, isometric world in which you control a solitary adventurer whose attributes and skills are custom selected from a decently sized list. Actions in and out of combat take place in turns, with rolls and chances-of-success stated on screen, much in the vein of the original, also isometric, Fallout titles.
Despite its 800 x 600 resolution and dated feel, the game does incorporate some really interesting ideas that play into its strategy. For instance, there's a very large emphasis on lighting, both when it comes to day/night cycles and in dark dungeons. Torches cast light around you, but you have to leave a hand free to use them. This leads to bows being of dubious utility in darkness. However, you can learn spells that allow you to cast light sources while leaving your hands free for shooting. Or, alternatively, you can place torches into sconces and lead enemies into their light while you fire at them from the cover of darkness. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that what initially looked like a fairly simple interface disguised a surprising amount of combat complexity and strategy.
I'm sure that most gamers will look at something like Eschalon: Book I and fail to see past its primitive graphics (which actually aren't so 'primitive' as all that, as all equipment is represented on the character). Once the game begins, though it's easy to see how the various skills, weapons, and schools of magic have much more in common with an Elder Scrolls style of open world game than many 'diluted' modern RPGs; not primitive at all, actually. It's also quite well play-balanced: I completed the game in 17 hours without any real frustration and with enough leeway to try out a number of different skills and sub-systems (like potion-brewing, and lock picking). It does seem as though multiple classes and play styles are legitimately possible, unlike many modern titles where playing a mage, for instance, is akin to cranking the game's difficulty to 'insane'.
There are a few aspects to Eschalon that I'd change if given the chance, the most important being that the game's general pace is jarringly slow at first - both in terms of movement and turn speed. You'll get used to it, but it would've been nice to have a double-speed button for when your player is walking across familiar terrain (at least you can quick-travel between towns that you've discovered). The game also errs on the wrong side of a trope of classic RPG combat: You miss a lot. Statistically speaking, missing with 60% of attacks could be equivalent to allowing you to hit far more often while raising enemy hit points. These may be 'equivalent', in terms of combat time and difficulty, but there's something much more satisfying about landing blows compared to 'whiffing' over and over. Thankfully, any other complaints are relatively minor and seem to have been addressed in the sequel, so I'll reserve judgement for once I've explored Book II.
I love the idea of supporting a small company that caters small, niche audience and gives them exactly what they're looking for. If any of this seems remotely appealing, at least give the Eschalon demo a try, or better yet, pick up the game.