The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes.
“The following is a contributor post by the Mail Order Ninja Mage.”
Earthlock is a very clear example of an evolution of a video game during development and the many iterations it goes through during its lifespan. Originally the game was a Kickstarter success story, its clear JRPG inspired roots seeking to bring back the glory days of the original PlayStation RPGs. This resonated with people and led to them getting heartily funded, enough to make the console stretch goals.
Eventually, it was released on consoles under the moniker Earthlock Festival of Magic, and it was here as an Xbox Games With Gold title debuting in September 2016 that I first got to play the game.
Unlike many people that month who were surprised by the inclusion of this indie title, I had waited impatiently for its release having followed it since Kickstarter and was extremely excited to play it. My initial playthrough lasted somewhere around the 15-hour mark (over halfway through the game), and despite my enjoyment of it at the time, I slowly found new releases crowding out my time to play the charming RPG. As many games often do, it went from a must play to a backlog title, and I’m ashamed to say I never made it back.
It turns out that is all just as well, as the developers were planning to move on to Earthlock 2, but just felt their game could be all the better if they made some improvements suggested by the community. So they got to work doing just that, improving various story elements, fleshing out characters, adding new gameplay elements, adding new animations, and providing even more polish to the experience. They relaunched the game on all consoles in March, re-branding it as simply Earthlock, and allowing any who previously owned the game to upgrade to the new version for free.
First off, I have to give much-needed praise to Snowcastle Games for doing this. It would have been easy to move on from their premiere game and work on improvements to the sequel, but instead, they sought to make the original game what so many people saw it could be. Offering it for free as an upgrade was of course the right thing to do, but not necessarily the preordained thing to do, and they could have just as easily called it the definitive edition and charged again for it.
Not to get too far into 8-bit Review territory here but that additional polish and content fixes many quality-of-life issues and plot contrivances in the original experience. As someone who played through the original, I can’t help but feel grateful to the developer for that. It shows a level of care that isn’t guaranteed even in triple AAA experiences and a dedication to the product that ensures I’ll be playing whatever the studio pumps out in the future.
Considering Snowcastle Games is already working on the sequel to this game–and how much I enjoyed Earthlock–that is a very exciting prospect indeed.
The 8-bit Review
I still cannot believe an indie studio that started on Kickstarter can make a game that looks this good. Though the designs are more simplistic in nature, with clean lines throughout, the color palette and layout is utterly superb. If you had told me this was a brand new retail release from Square Enix, maybe from their Tokyo RPG Factory team (I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear), I would have believed you without hesitation. It simply looks that good.
I absolutely adored the character’s designs in particular, they reminded me of the eclectic cast of something like Final Fantasy IX, infusing a dash of whimsy into anime-inspired artwork that would feel at home in a Studio Ghibli movie. Enemies are just as interesting, ranging from giant golems to what basically are anthropomorphized sharks and everything in between.
Environments aren’t to be outpaced either, they are simplistic in design at times but packed to the gills with small details. Disarrayed bookshelves, cluttered desks, chests hidden in small nooks and crannies, all make it clear that much love went into making the world feel lived in, and it certainly is something to be appreciated.
In case my love of this game’s visuals couldn’t be any more clear, the title screen has been the desktop of my PC and PS4 for the last several weeks, ever since I started playing the game again. High praise indeed for any game, but doubly so from a game put forth from an indie studio.
Though the music of Earthlock doesn’t break barriers or recreate the mold of what we can expect from video games, it is pleasant and often relaxing throughout the experience. My favorite track, “Key to the Earth”, echoes some of the great Final Fantasy tracks, with a simple piano working through the tune.
I also really loved “Deep into the Shadows”, which harnesses some orchestral and chorus themes, along with a tense undertone that is really enjoyable.
Again, I find myself impressed that these tracks were put together by an indie studio, as I could easily picture these in one of Square Enix’s epics.
Earthlock’s main goal was always to invoke that sense of the golden age of JRPGs back on PlayStation, and it recreates that here, including bringing with it an incredibly by-the-numbers tale. As you might guess, an orphan with mysterious parentage starts out on a simple quest for the people closest to him, which very quickly turns into a quest of world-spanning importance that brings together a quirky cast of individuals to save said world.
You’ll primarily take control of a desert scavenger named Amon, who has a love of adventure to go with his kind heart. He lives on a world named Umbra where a cataclysmic event thousands of years ago has altered the world and made it stop spinning. Half of the world is a scorched wasteland and half is perpetually gripped in a dark winter, which leaves a small sliver in between the two that is constantly livable, and thus constantly fought over. Amon retrieves an ancient artifact along with his Uncle from ancient ruins, and this artifact has mysterious enemies seeking him across the land.
While it may not be wholly unique, and relies heavily on cliches and tropes, it does a very good job of doing so. The improved dialogue and animations help tremendously in telling their story, with the characters personalities and arcs more pronounced than the previous iteration of the game. Writing is oddly varied most of the time, ranging from absolutely excellent, to mediocre, and everything in between. Either way, the characters are likable, and even ones like Gnart who seems to be the simple mascot character are more than they appear at first.
While Earthlock doesn’t do anything particularly unsafe with its narrative, it delivers on the story it seeks to tell, with a cast of characters that I found to be interesting, if a little one-note.
Let’s face it, with Final Fantasy XV moving firmly into the realm of Western action-RPG, the turn-based JRPGs we know are a dying breed, especially those with high production values. Though I’ve grown to embrace most all genres, JRPGs were my original love. And though this wasn’t made during the PlayStation era, it feels like a lost gem from that time.
If it was released in the late 90s it would be just one small option in an absolute flood of traditional JRPG games, and might get an incredibly low score for its uniqueness. In today’s landscape it is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and a welcome return to that classic style of game, while bringing along with it concessions that make it feel like something relevant to today.
By threading the needle between old and new, Earthlock feels like a combination of both, and aside from games like Bravely Default, or I Am Setsuna, something that is increasingly rare in the JRPG arena.
I’m a very big fan of character-unique, JRPG style, turn-based combat. Thus, I am a very big fan of Earthlock.
When I say character-unique, what I’m referencing are fighters who have wholly unique roles and abilities in combat, and thus stand out from one another. You can customize them to a very small extent, but for the most part they are what they are designed to be, and fill a specific role in combat. Your job then is to decide what combination of characters are best suited to individual scenarios, and part of the fun of a true JRPG style game is switching up party layouts to come up with new strategies.
This is something that seems to have fallen to the wayside in favor of an overwhelmingly positive reception to the power of choice when developing your characters. While I truly love and appreciate that in something like Mass Effect, where my avatar is me, when it comes to these types of turn-based experiences with a cast of characters, it makes the choice of who to take with you redundant, since everyone can do everything equally well.
In Earthlock, each character has two stances that they can swap between in battle, and each provides unique skills. The hogbunny Gnart has a mage stance where his abilities focus primarily on healing his allies, while his other stance grants buffs to attacks and defenses. Amon swaps between the close range dagger stance that allows him to steal from opponents and a long ranged potato gun (yes potato gun) that allows him to fire deadly ranged spuds with a variety of elements.
While you’ll no doubt find your favorite standard stances, swapping between them and experimenting is the key to victory, especially in harder battles. It is also just a lot of fun to play with strategies and figure out what stances and which characters work well together. As you level up and flesh out your abilities, these choices just get deeper and by the time you have all six of your characters you’ll have plenty of depth to combat.
That depth is further fleshed out by a bond system between characters. You can pair individuals within your team and overtime that bond levels up. These provide passive boosts to both characters depending on which pairing you have, which changes up who you might play with and incentivizes you to try out all of the fighters.
In addition there is a meter that fills in battle with each successful attack of a pair and when it is full one of your pairs can unleash a special attack. For instance, Gnart and Amon are your first bond, and when their meter is full either Amon can fire off a fire-based attack that hits every enemy, or Gnart can use his special to cast a powerful version of a heal on the whole group.
When you level up, you will actually utilize a board for each character that is filled with stat boosts or abilities. By slotting items you receive from beating bosses, or from random chests or enemies, you add bonuses to stats for that character and when the pieces of the board are filled in succession, you’ll unlock the new abilities of the character. This allows you to decide which ability is more important to you originally, though the entire board will easily be filled up by the end. It also gives you that level of customization we talked about earlier, without overriding the character’s uniqueness. Gnart will never be your primary damage dealer but which stats you buff might change which of his stances you use most.
All of these things that you slot can be removed and rearranged between characters at any time, meaning you’ll never regret plugging a bunch into one character and finding out later that another is far more suited to it. When you combine this with the different stances, unique abilities of the characters, and the flow of overall combat, it provides a welcome level of customization that elevates the game as a whole.
On the overworld map you’ll be able to switch between each of your six characters, as each of them have a different ability they can engage. Though this is simply mapped to holding a shoulder button and moving an analog stick on a wheel selection, it can get a bit annoying to swap out to Gnart to pick up a plant, and then swap back out to Amon to harvest scrap. It is a minor distraction, but one worth mentioning, as it does break the flow of traversal on the overworld map.
All of the enemies whether in dungeons or the Overworld can be seen on the map. If they see you, they will immediately begin to chase you and you can actually run about gathering up as many as you like at once. Pressing the B button will engage combat with whatever monsters are following you at the time, giving you the first strike and also a big boost to experience for that battle. Of course, that battle will be far tougher than it might have been before, but the rewards scale as well. It is a welcome addition to the classic formula, and something I utilized often throughout the experience.
Outside of that there are dungeons in the game that feature light puzzle-solving and exploration, and while you’ll never feel lost, it does provide enough that it feels worthwhile, if only barely. Everything has been improved here from the original as far as framerate and performance, and on the Switch I never ran into any significant slowdown or issues in performance. That is, when it was running. Unfortunately I ran into a number of glitches and bugs that hampered my overall experience with the game, bringing the overall score down significantly.
These ranged from small annoyances to me losing almost 3 hours to one of them, though that was partially my fault. Each time the issue was such that I had to restart the game, because I was froze on a blue screen or in combat without being able to choose anything. Once, I went back into the game from rest mode, and it was frozen, forcing me to restart. Another time, I walked through an area and nothing loaded on the next, I just sort of walked around in an empty landscape I couldn’t interact with.
It is worth mentioning that in my time with the original version on Xbox One I never had any issues of this sort, and my brother who is playing the game on Switch now has not run into any issues. Perhaps I’m unfortunate but I ran into this problem on five separate occasions.
Most of the time these didn’t matter because I had saved my game, but at least once I went through a dungeon grinding out experience and this freeze caused me to lose the last 3 hours of game time since Earthlock doesn’t autosave.
Speaking of saves, not everything that Earthlock borrows from the bygone PlayStation era is a wonderful thing though, the save system operates in a way you’ll recall from back then also. In order to save progress you have to find a statue that has been scattered around the world, and while there are plenty of them, it was sometimes irritating that I had to continue through a whole dungeon before I could save.
I will say that those saves are lightning quick and since we have a rest mode on the Switch it isn’t as huge an issue as it might otherwise be. Considering the Switch is also a portable system though, and the fact that it is further complicated by freezes that will possibly have you losing your progress, it makes constantly saving at statues a must and feels like something from a bygone era that shouldn’t have been brought along into the game.
One of my biggest problems with Earthlock on the original Xbox version was often brutal upswings in difficulty. The arc of difficulty seemed to be erratic, with enemies falling easily to me, and then suddenly reaching a boss that would absolutely destroy me.
I’m not sure if the developers lowered some of that difficulty, but I’m assuming it was the added sidequests that provided additional experience that made up for most of the difference in challenge. Either way, it felt far better paced in this instance, and I never ran into anything that felt too difficult for me.
The individual enemies can hit hard but because of the way combat is set up as long as you have Gnart in your party you can always keep your team topped off. This makes individual run-of-the-mill enemies a bit boring after some time. It seems like your characters don’t do quite enough damage unless you are spamming bond specials, so often it led to lengthy fights that got a tad boring. Luckily, a fast-forward button is included in combat so that you can get through some of the slower animations, but it was certainly something that stood out.
The biggest problem with challenge in the game is that the bosses are often more puzzles than they are strategic battles. Usually there is one specific combination of moves or character you are meant to use; if you are vastly overpowered you can probably bash your way through it but typically you must complete the battle in this way.
That is further demonstrated by the fact that if you lose, the game will give you the option of being told on your return to the boss what that strategy is. While I appreciate they at least give you the choice to decline the advice, it clearly illustrates that there is only one real solution to these bigger fights.
The best example is the first real boss in which your training wheels are off, a band of outlaws led by a cool looking shark-man. In this battle, the individual hits for massive amount of damage and if you persist with strategies you’ve used before it is almost impossible to keep your party standing. However, once you realize you should be using the counter move of one of your characters, the boss becomes extremely easy to defeat.
This sort of thing sidesteps one of the best things about the genre, and even though it might be fun to test out a boss and figure out what that strategy is, it doesn’t let you come up with your own in a feasible manner. While that might be a difficult thing to pull off, it is an important balance, and one the game fails to strike.
Some of the choices that directly impact challenge by their nature also increase accessibility. There are a lot of people out there that might not play RPG games of this sort in abundance, and so I think it was clever of Snowcastle Games to give players a choice to be told how to defeat the bosses. After all, most people are just going to look it up online anyway, so placing it directly into the game could be a welcome addition for many players.
All of the menus are extremely easy to read, there is nothing that is too difficult to understand, and you always have ready access to every tutorial you’ve seen so far in the game. This sounds like the simplest of things, but you wouldn’t believe how many triple A experiences get this wrong entirely, especially in the more niche JRPG genre.
In addition the game has this wonderful island you can travel to and there you can plant and farm crops that you craft into usable items and ammo in the game. Instead of making the farming intense and difficult, you simply plant the crops and keep the water levels at an optimal threshold. This is indicated by a small line you are supposed to keep it in, and they’ve made farming go quick enough that it is extremely calming as well as satisfying to gather materials.
All of this lends a sort of casual approach to this sort of game that typically you just don’t see and I think it would be a good starter JRPG for someone who is new to the genre.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I have very mixed feelings about Earthlock to be honest. There were times playing the game that I felt like I was playing a super polished JRPG from the PlayStation era, a somehow missed classic that I was getting to experience for the first time. The artwork is beautiful, I found the characters whimsically fun and I really appreciated some of the great ideas in the turn-based combat system.
However, that love was constantly tempered and tested by technical glitches, a lack of challenge that sometimes teetered on boring, bosses that had to be beaten with one strategy, and a narrative that fails to go anywhere truly unexpected.
The encouraging part is that these things often felt like annoyances, rather than outright failures. Honestly, they are highlighted all the more because of the glimmer of greatness you see under the hood of this game, and ultimately I do feel like the game rises above these issues to deliver something worth playing.
If you are a fan of old school, party-filled, turn-based combat like myself, there is a lot you will find to love about Earthlock; just keep in mind the problems I’ve listed that you’ll encounter along the way.
We’d like to thank Snowcastle Games for furnishing us with a copy of their game for this critique!
Aggregated Score: 7.4
The Mail Order Ninja Mage loves video games across every console: an assassin of fanboy nonsense. He also really loves martial arts and pizza, though that is of no consequence here. To read more of his random word soup, or to view daily(ish) photo mode screenshots from his favorite games, visit him at Home Button.
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Categories: Game Review