By Josh Speer / May 15th, 2018
|Release Date||March 8th, 2018|
|Platform||PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, XBox One|
|Age Rating||E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood|
EARTHLOCK might seem like a strange choice after my last RPG review. After all, it was also crowdfunded and developed by a small indie group, so it might seem as though I was stepping into a trap once more. But I’m nothing if not an optimist, so I decided to give EARTHLOCK a shot. It’s actually been on my radar for a while, ever since I saw it listed on Steam and Wii U as Earthlock: Festival of Magic. Turns out it’s a good thing I waited, since this is the most complete version of the game. The question is, was this indie RPG worth the wait? Or should I have left it on my wishlist?
It’s quite evident early on that EARTHLOCK was inspired by RPGs of yore. Several of the typical tropes can quickly be checked off. Mysterious energy source providing magical creatures? Check. Sinister forces at play trying to take over or destroy the world? Check. Band of merry miscreants brought together in common cause? Double check. Honestly the plot is the least interesting thing about the game, despite dropping you into a compelling and rich world. But that’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing. Much like Legrand Legacy, EARTHLOCK is more of a loving tribute to the games of our past than just trying to cash in on our nostalgia.
One of the things I like most about the game is how well streamlined many aspects of it are. Ranging from the combat, the exploration, the side quests and the crafting, every major part of the game is easy to implement and typically easy to understand. Take crafting, for example. So long as you have a recipe and the right ingredients, you can turn them into new weapons, items and other goodies. Most important are Harvesting seeds, which your lovable bookish Hogbunny Gnart specializes in. By watering plants grown on Plumpet Island or in pots found in cities, you will have more than enough raw ingredients to craft the majority of your healing items, which has the upside of you rarely needing to spend money in stores.
Side quests are as simple as talking to someone to generate them, satisfying their request and then reporting back. While many of them are simple fetch quests and hunting trips, they still provide good experience and other rewards. Best of all, the game makes use of mysterious froggy Onurasi statues to offer a way to warp back to the HUB area of Plumpet Island. It flows like delicately interconnected clockwork, and the upside is that you’ll always know what you’re supposed to be doing, though you are given leeway to wander about.
Like many classic RPGs, there is a varied cast of characters, and for the most part the tone of the game is whimsical and somewhat laid back. You’ll eventually recruit a group of six very different characters, all with their own personality quirks and distinct combat utility. While part of me does feel there was a missed opportunity not allowing characters to change into different classes and thus offer more replay value, the variety here is still appreciated. That is especially true because each character has two different stances they can alternate between in battle, which provide very dynamic combat options. For example, your thief Amon can steal and poison or switch to a gun-toting stance, which allows him to hit high-flying foes. Another example is Taika, your loyal stormdog who can use elemental breath attacks in one stance and protect the entire team from the elements in another. You can probably tell there’s a lot of nuance in combat, and that’s one of the things I most enjoyed about the game.
One thing the game does differently is the use of Bonds between characters. You can go into battle with two pairs of characters. As they fight together, their Bond will increase, unlocking passive perks (such as immunity from poison or increased critical attack chances) as well as additional Talent Points (more on that later). Each pairing provides different benefits, so it’s in your best interest to constantly change up your teams, since you’ll never know what the next battle may require, especially the boss battles. That Bond is also used for your Super moves, which are essentially powered up versions of their regular attacks that hit multiple targets. While I may have been a bit underwhelmed by the Supers lack of visual and audio flair, they were nevertheless vital in battle.
Additionally, the higher your Bond, the more times you can use the Supers, which is why you never want to go into battle with a pair of units at anything other than max Bond. The only thing that detracted from my desire to max out the Bonds with every character was when I discovered the max level cap for all characters is level 20. While not every game needs to max out at 99, the moment I reached that precipice I lost a lot of interest in casual combat, since doing so only provided a minor amount of Daler (currency in the game) and occasional items for crafting. It didn’t ruin the game for me, but I do hope that Snowcastle Games has designs to implement DLC for EARTHLOCK later on that increases the level cap and gives more areas to explore.
Though I enjoy the battles in the game, I do have to admit they lost their luster in the latter part of the adventure. This is because I had maxed out my levels about 20 hours before I beat the game, which turned the last third of the game into a grindfest. Not for levels, but to get items for crafting and especially for Talents. By using the Talent Board, you can equip your character with Stats, Abilities and Perks. Stat Talents are pretty basic increases to things like Armor (boosting your DEF and Magical DEF) and a variety of others. Ability Talents open up new attacks, but are pretty much character specific, so don’t get too excited about crazy combinations. Perk Talents meanwhile are passive bonuses that help you in combat, such as allowing you to auto revive or providing an extra turn when you dodge an attack. The only catch is having Talents to equip on the Board and having enough TP to equip them, since each placement requires one TP. Luckily, each time you level up or increase your Bond to a certain point, you’ll get more TP. The only thing I didn’t much like about the Talent Board was that you couldn’t remove Talents, only swap them with different ones in your inventory. I would have loved an option to clear my Boards and reapply Talents, but that’s sadly not possible. Overall though, I felt the Talent Board opened up your options in a positive way.
Visually, EARTHLOCK is a delight. There’s a certain handcrafted charm to the design, as is evident in the well drawn portraits that show up when the game loads or in the distinct feeling of each area of the game’s world. While the character models are a little more primitive, I still thought they did a good job of exhibiting distinct personality just in their visual style. Though the music in the game is fine, I found it to be really quiet when playing the Switch portably. Anything less than turning it up all the way left the game sounding muted. Even when dialed all the way up, the sound effects lacked the distinct punch or memorable tunes I associate with many classic RPGs. Still, what’s here is obviously lovingly made, so I am not saying this to be cruel, but just to offer my honest appraisal of the art. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s a lot more good than bad.
While I enjoyed my 70 something hours playing EARTHLOCK, I do feel the need to summarize some of my irritations with the game that kept it from a perfect score. Even though overall the game runs fine, I’ve encountered some odd quirks. Perhaps the most perplexing is how one tutorial says to use the X button to activate abilities on the world map, when Y is what actually activates them. This was a bit problematic early on, since you need some of those abilities, such as Gnart eating berries or Amon excavating scrap, to satisfy side quests. More serious was in a couple of dungeons I was exploring and managed to loop to the beginning of one area from its own exit. Visually, the game has a few oddities as well. The Mirror enemies would knock themselves backward with their own attacks, often pushing them off the screen, meaning I couldn’t see their health meter or tell when I was targeting them. Also, the way icons are stacked over character’s heads during battle to indicate buffs or debuffs is very hard to translate in a coherent way, especially when there a bunch of them.
While I do like the crafting aspects of the game, it’s sometimes hard to know where to go to get the right items for recipes. Many are only found in quests or by hunting monsters, which was exacerbated since the bestiary doesn’t show you what their drops are. Also, since you mostly craft all your items, I wish there was an option to split a crafted item into its component parts to use to them in crafting higher tier items (Spud Blast and Spud Blast+, for example). Lastly, I wish you didn’t have to return to the HUB area of Plumpet Island to warp to other Onurasi statues. In a game so well streamlined, it would have made more sense if you could jump from any statue to another one.
All in all, I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to take this game off my wishlist. I did enjoy my time with EARTHLOCK, and felt I got a really solid little RPG for $29.90. Though there are some quirks that prevented this from a perfect score, there’s a lot more to enjoy, from the crafting to the combat to the characters. While I do wish the plot was a bit more elegantly crafted, since it mostly felt like a haphazard rollercoaster ride, what’s here is a worthy effort. If you are nostalgic for the RPGs of yore and want to play one on the go, you need to pick up EARTHLOCK on your Switch.
Review Copy Provided By Publisher
classic rpgEarthlocknintendo switchSnowCastle Games