Retro-inspired RPGs are a dime a dozen these days, and as an avid RPG fan I’m not really complaining about it. However, too often those games rely solely on nostalgia while lacking in overall quality. Earthlock, formerly Earthlock: Festival of Magic, is a title influenced by older 3D RPGs of a bygone era (ie. the late 90s for you young whippersnappers). Originally released on the Xbox One and PC in 2016 followed by the Playstation 4 and Wii U in 2017, this game was met with mediocre reviews at launch. The Switch version is touted, by the developers, as the Should-Have-Been Edition. Apparently, they adjusted the game based on the feedback from the other platforms, and re-released it simply as Earthlock. Having said that, I can only speak of my experiences with the Switch version, as I did not play the original game. What I can say is that Earthlock does, for the most part, succeed in going beyond its nostalgically-inspired roots.
Umbra, the world you inhabit, is the product of destruction caused by a civilization and a mysterious power of yesteryear. The world changed forever due to those events, but mankind learned to adapt to the new landscape regardless. Fast forward to the present, what begins as a simple scavenging trip for Amon (a human) and his uncle Benjo (a hammerhead shark humanoid, of all things) quickly turns into a plot filled with mystery and deceit. If this all sounds like your typical run-of-the-mill RPG plot, it more or less is. It’s not really fair to fault Earthlock for that considering the rarity of a truly unique story, especially in the RPG genre. But where other games build upon the generic framework with interesting characters, exciting locations and engaging lore, this game comes up short on most of those marks.
Terminology is key in any game because worldbuilding is essentially impossible without it. Earthlock, however, tends to throw names of locations, political groups, and events at you in a way that makes you feel like you should be familiar with them already. It, in many ways, expects you to understand (or more importantly care) about these things with little or no context in return. This does get better as you progress the story, but in early hours I found it easy to forget many things. This is because the game failed to make me care about them in the first place. Earthlock could have easily remedied this by including some sort of in-game compendium or primer that explained some things in finer detail. A tool that could be used to easily reference characters, points of interest, and specific happenings would have allowed me to remain within the game world despite the otherwise shaky delivery methods early on.
The subset of RPGers that dislike an excess amount of text will appreciate what Earthlock has to offer in that regard. I would say that the base amount of information is given in almost any situation. If you don’t care much about the details of how or why something happens, then rejoice! Those wanting a little more meat to chew will find some of the scenes and dialogue a bit awkward, however. It’s almost as if some of the events finish and leave you with the feeling as if this was actually a movie and time constraints caused some fat (or dialogue) to be trimmed off. Regardless, Earthlock does a well enough job as-is telling its story, but it could have done so much more to get you really invested in the world.
On the other hand, Earthlock has no problems whatsoever enveloping you in its world by way of its interesting art design. The cartoonish art, reminiscent of things like Wildstar and World of Warcraft, is incredibly refreshing in an age where most RPGs that play on nostalgia go for the 2D Final Fantasy look. I promise I am not crazy. I love pixel art just as much as the other guy, but this game’s unique art design is nothing short of admirable. I realize the arguably cutesy graphics may not appeal to everyone, but it sure did make me happy. You’ll visit a vast amount of locations with varying paint jobs that all remain a treat regardless of whether it’s your first venture there or you’re revisiting it for something else entirely.
Can I just say how much I appreciate the design of the characters themselves? Finally, a dwarf-sized furry that doesn’t get on my nerves immediately (though his casting chants came pretty close a couple of times). There’s a storm dog that would make a Final Fantasy black mage jealous. In addition, there are TWO female protagonists that aren’t designed with sex appeal in mind, something incredibly refreshing to me. While the plot itself failed to really flesh out these characters, you can’t but help to cling to them because of their design alone. Unfortunately, the main villain does not share the same fate as the heroes.
I’m a firm believer that primary antagonists should strive to be Kefkas, in a world where most are nothing more than a random enemies given the spotlight and an opportunity (design-wise). When you see this person and find out that they’re “the one”, you can’t help but be like “what the heck?” A villain should at least look the part; otherwise how else will you make their dastardly plan believable? Despite that, the look of the world is top notch if you can appreciate its more cartoonist approach to things. Playing into those strength is the game’s soundtrack, which is simply superb. It really does a good job of selling the world as the mysterious entity, full of adventure that it claims to be. I got some serious Illusion of Gaia: Signs of the Past vibes from many of the pieces. Seriously, listen to Whispering Seedlings and tell me that you don’t want to go adventuring in that world. The sound in this game is just that good.
Systems-wise, Earthlock has a lot to offer. On the combat side of things, it is very much inspired by games like Final Fantasy X. Encounters play out in a turn-based fashion, and the order is based on the speed of enemies, allies, and their respective buffs and debuffs. You get a glimpse of the current turn order on the right-hand side of the screen, which can vary depending on how the turns actually play out. Fans of elemental-heavy systems will love that Earthlock emphasizes attack types and properties heavy handedly. Offensive abilities can have multiple traits, including crushing, slashing, fire, electric, water and more. Almost every enemy in the game has strengths and weaknesses, and it is in your best interest to play into those as often as possible. You can ignore this mechanic altogether, but expect to drastically extend the length of even the most basic encounters should you do so.
Your party is designed around stances, or two forms that each member has at their disposal during combat. You can change stances in or out of combat at will, but are slightly penalized for doing so in the heat of battle by way of losing a turn. There are a lot of interesting and varied abilities for each character, but I did not find myself swapping stances very often outside of the first few hours of play. You can easily get to a point where most encounters are handled without having to do so. Since you already bind your choice of abilities in each stance as you see fit, I would have just liked for the two stances to be combined and you pick them to your liking (though perhaps some balance adjustments would have to be made to certain abilities as to not become overly powerful). Either way, the stances are a nice option and certainly provide a wide variety of ways to load out your characters.
You can have up to four party members on the battlefield at a time. Interestingly enough, their actual lineup adds another layer of complexity to the game. Bonds are formed when you pair certain characters with one another. Keeping party members grouped up together long enough rewards you with talent points (more on that later) and passive traits that remain active as long as you are paired with that specific character. Each character has five traits that can be unlocked per character combination, with every first, third and fifth trait unlocking talent points for the pair to use. This system encourages you to mix and match your party to not only build up the strong passives, but also to really cash in on the talent system.
Think of Earthlock’s talent table as a Sphere-Grid-Lite, where you use talent points awarded from leveling up and bonds to acquire stat increases, new abilities, and passives. While each character is limited to their initial “class,” there is a decent amount of customization to be had here. There are many times where you may want to adjust your talent loadout based on the boss you are about to face, and the system is designed with that in mind. You are not penalized for adjusting talents, as you are only required to use your talent points to open up a brand new talent squares. Therefore, any previously used talent square can be adjusted based on your needs at the time (though you are limited to only changing stat-based talents on their respective squares, ability talents on theirs, etc..)
The whole talent feature is extremely useful because there are definitely some challenging encounters in Earthlock. The game’s description on Steam even warns of that, welcoming JRPG veterans while admitting the game may not be for casual players. I would disagree with this statement as I feel the game is easy enough for anyone to get into, but doesn’t really hold your hand after the first portion of the game. If you are looking for a title that approaches combat by encouraging single attack spam, you will get stomped in this game (especially in boss fights). There is a varying degree of strategy in most encounters, and almost every boss has a gimmick you must pay attention to if you want to be successful. As one who desires a decent challenge in most games (but not a frustrating one), I came to appreciate Earthlock’s approach to it a lot. Although some instances could have been smoothed out in favor of the overall pacing of the game.
By that, I mean you should be prepared to hit a brick wall towards the end of the game. Unless you chose to excessively grind out levels in each area leading up to a certain point, you will inevitably hit said wall. To put things into perspective, I didn’t run from a single fight the entire game. I did some backtracking and running around to gather resources, and made it a point to attack things along the way. In some cases, I would go out of my way to fight a few enemies. Even then, there came a time in my adventure where a certain boss just destroyed me. I was not really expecting that since I did make it a point to fight quite a bit along the way. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and I had to go back and grind out a handful of levels before taking on the boss in question again.
I should clarify that I do not mind grinding at all, but I feel like that particular section could have used some smoothing out regardless. One resolution I thought of that wouldn’t necessarily break the game would be to spread out the HP gain per level from 10 to 20 (the latter being the cap). As it stands, the game gives you a ton of health in the last 3-4 levels specifically. The boss in question could have been more easily handled without requiring grinding if your team had a little more health. It still would be very difficult, but not impossible without grinding.
Luckily, the grinding itself wasn’t a huge issue at all due to how Earthlock handles experience gains. Encounters happen when you run into an enemy on the map. Alternatively, you can press B before the enemy reaches you to invoke a first strike, where your party members attack before your enemies. On top of that, you can actually run around and pull a massive amount of enemies together take them all at once. Earthlock rewards the use of this mechanic with enormous experience bonuses any time you fight large groups of enemies at once (more so if they outnumber your current party size). Even though a dedicated grind session had to be done in the end, it really didn’t take long in the grand scheme of things.
Earthlock has a fairly robust crafting system. You are able to create new weapons and, more importantly, restorative items and ammo from materials you find and grow in your garden. Yes, you have your very own garden in this game, and it is extremely useful. Gardening is your main source for components in crafting ammo and various potions. The usefulness of potions seems to come and go over the course of the game, but are worth investing in to a certain extent. Ammo, on the other hand, is incredibly useful and is part of one of the strongest combat offensives in the game. Fortunately, Earthlock’s simplistic approach to the gardening system means you can create these things without a ton of micromanagement.
Plants themselves will level up over time, which increases the yield of resources you receive from them. On rare occasions, fully leveled plants will procure new species for you to grow as well. Also, you can water your plants which will increase yield, speed up their production rate and may affect the mutation chance (though I don’t know that last one for sure). Honestly, you could probably ignore all the gardening mechanics by just tending to them each time you happen to be at your garden rather that just obsessing over them to no end. There is depth there for those that really want to produce a ton of stuff, but you should be able to get by with minimal time investment if you prefer that route. I took the middle road and did quite a bit in the beginning, but tapered off towards the end. I ended up with more than enough ammo and restoratives for most of the game with that mindset. It can certainly be approached in more than one way though.
If you are one that likes a strong sense of progression in your RPG by way of equipment, you may be put off a bit by the design in Earthlock. In a nutshell, it offers ability and stat-buffing weapons at the cost of a very limited selection. Armor doesn’t even exist in the game outside of it being the name of a +defense talent board trait (so, not actual armor). Each of these weapons require a lot of different crafting components, many of which I never found during my playthrough. This came to be quite an annoyance, especially with there being limited equipment customization already. I would have much preferred more traditional, stat stick-like equipment if it meant I could actually craft more things. I maybe crafted two or three different weapons throughout my playtime, and that just isn’t enough to whet my equipment appetite.
As you can tell by now, there’s a lot in the Earthlock package that I really enjoy. However, a few things in particular aggravated me quite a bit. Without spoiling anything, there is a particular important character that you are tasked with helping towards the end of the game through a seemingly simple side quest. The problem lies with actually completing it. Once you’ve finished the task, the quest giver refuses to acknowledge your progress. After running around trying to figure out why it wasn’t registering, I tried looking up the particular event on various forums to no avail. Regardless, I was unable to help this particular character because I could never complete the quest. UPDATE: The Earthlock developers have acknowledged this issue as a bug, and intend on patching it as soon as possible.
On the topic of side quests, the majority of them didn’t really do much for me. Being a MMO veteran, I’m no stranger to busy work. But Earthlock’s side quests overall are uninspired at best. A bulk of them involve you picking herbs or catching bugs on the overworld; neither are fun or interesting. Their respective rewards are typically not worth your time either. It doesn’t really help that the overworld, outside of holding key crafting components and being home to solid mob grinding locations, is a drag in both its look and framerate. Like, the framerate literally slows down when you traverse the overworld. This in itself is perplexing because the world map is literally as bare bones as you can get in terms of doodads, trees and such. There is a lot more going on when you zone into actual locations, and there’s little to no slowdown there. Ultimately, the majority of quests and chores that can be done on the overworld feel a bit too tacked on for my tastes.
There is a lot to love about Earthlock, and I think it is a great choice for those wanting a solid RPG experience on the Switch. It cannot be compared to the genre’s famous juggernauts in terms of scope of and quality, but also has a smaller price tag ($29.90USD). Earthlock’s world and character design is captivating, despite suffering setbacks in the story and actual worldbuilding departments. I finished up most of the game’s offerings in only 15-20 hours, but I feel it is still worth your time. If you are a more casual player, don’t let the thought of limited hand-holding shun you away. Earthlock should be more than approachable and enjoyable to most RPG lovers; veterans and newcomers alike.