Monday 28 May 2018

Switch Review - Earthlock

Retro gamers are certainly guilty of romanticising the past. But does this nineties inspired JRPG stick too closely to the PlayStation games that have inspired it? 

Developed by Snowcastle Games
Released in 2018

Many long-term JRPG fans have been dismayed by the direction Square Enix have taken with the ‘Final Fantasy’ series. Once the poster child for the genre, the latest iteration is less “Japanese Role Playing Game” and more the “Role Playing game Japan thinks the modern West wants to play”. Turn based battles have vanished in favour of active real-time combat. The sweeping epic stories have been lost with a shift to a focus on unlikeable generic characters instead. A modern numbered ‘Final Fantasy’ is no longer a single entirety; they offer narratives that only truly make sense if you immerse yourself in a plethora of accompanying anime, spin-offs and manga. “There is so much good here, so much heart” IGN noted when reviewing ‘Final Fantasy XV’. “It just comes with some changes and compromises that were, at times, difficult for this long-time ‘Final Fantasy’ fan to come to grips with”.

While hardcore ‘Final Fantasy’ fans can’t seem to agree if the seventh or sixth game is the best, there is also an awful lot of love for entries 8 and 9. For many the series hit its peak in the nineties with the PlayStation 1 era polygon games. 

For Snowcastle, a small development team in Oslo, this was certainly the golden era. “The 3D JRPGs of the 1990’s we all loved and grew up with” remembers game designer Nikola Kuresevic. The team decided to create “a love letter” to those games, specifically for fans that were turned off by modern sequels. “‘Earthlock’ is a traditional take on the 3D JRPGs of the 90’s with (thoroughly reworked) mechanics that encompass both the new and the old love for the genre” notes Kuresevic. 

To fund the game Snowcastle turned to Kickstarter, with a bounty of promises that were irresistible to many “true JRPG fans”. When finished ‘Earthlock’ would feature “a Rich, non-linear story, Turn-based combat, a gorgeous over-world with a retro feel [and] no random encounters.” 4,506 backers pledged $178,193 to bring the project to life. The anticipation couldn’t have been higher and as The Hardcore Gamer website noticed “‘Earthlock: Festival of Magic’ is shaping up to be a heavy hitter in the RPG community.” Total Xbox Magazine was convinced that the game would “go down a treat with the West's embattled community of JRPG fans” but sadly it wasn’t to be.

“Most of the game feels like it's walking in the footsteps of other JRPGs without ever understanding why” noted PC Gamer. “It’s just going through the motions of imitating those games, rather than being inspired by them.”
“The story is paper thin" Push Square criticised.”Poor writing doesn't help with the lack of effective character development either, as each companion is only distinctive in game play terms.” 

Snowcastle paid attention to this criticism and rather than cash in their Kickstarter profits they did something about it. Further games in the series ‘The Last Memory’ and ‘The Awakening’ were shelved and instead funds and efforts were redirected to making the first game meet the standards backers and critics had expected. “We have spent 15 months extending, improving and polishing ‘Earthlock’” claimed Snowcastle. “Now the game has become what we always wanted it to be.” Along with revised difficulty, Side quests, Mini Games, New cut scenes and characters were added. But more importantly the story was reworked. According to Snowcastle “It’s massively changed, almost from the start. We have added more depth, humour and character to the story and things that did not make sense before now do.”

‘Earthlock’ takes place in Umbra, a planet that has stopped spinning following a historic catastrophe. For the most part you’ll play as Amon, a young scavenger who gets tangled up in a larger conflict with the ruling Suvian Empire. As generic traditions dictate, on his adventure he’ll be joined by a ragtag group including Ive Lavender - a rebellious soldier, Gnart Tigermoth - a Hogbunny scholar and Taika - a part lion part dragon Flamedog.

Dialogue is accessible but functional. It lacks flourish and as the game progresses you’ll feel like you’ve had the same conversation with far too many similar characters. Like so many RPGs obscure phrases, locations and characters get tossed into conversations fairly liberally and while your character may know what others are talking about you sometimes feel left out of the joke. Thankfully Snowcastle have opted to include an in-game journal to help players keep track of the lore. This also includes pages of tutorials covering everything you need to know to progress. While things are nicely drop fed, ‘Earthlock’s combat system is surpassingly complicated and adaptable and to get the best results in a Battle you will have to consider a lot of variables. 

It’s essentially built as an evolution of the classic turn-based battle system that emphasises strategic combat. Taking inspiration from the ‘Tales’ games, ‘Earthlock’ offers multiple battle options for each character, combination attacks, a pairing system, elemental powers and abilities that trigger under certain circumstances. “We wanted, from the start, to make the combat strictly turn based. We feel that the pacing of our game lends itself to that, rather than relying on stressing people out with time based mechanics” says character designer Fredrik Tyskerud. “In short; strategy over stress.”

Each character has multiple stances, which determines the actions they can take. A player can swap between the two mid battle depending on the need and situation. There's nothing stopping you putting your mage in an offensive stance and have them help out in combat, but then they won’t actually be able to do any healing. Alternatively you can have your thief take a stance that allows for long-range attacks, but making the change will cost you the ability to steal loot. Switching stances take up an entire turn, and it’s frustrating that unless you’ve memorised every character’s abilities, there’s no way to know what options will be available after the change. All too often you’ll find you’ve change stance to something that offers no benefit at all. Then you have no option but to switch back - wasting yet another turn. It seems most secondary stances are designed to be useful in very specific situations making switching pointless for the most part. It’s likely you’d be put at a tactical disadvantage by switching stances in combat unless it’s painfully obvious that you need a specific ability.  

The other big addition to the combat is the pairing system. Every character in the game has to be coupled with another. Typically you’ll have a fighter teamed with a protector; one does the damage and the other supports them with healing or stat boost abilities. “The character combination pairings are one way we’re trying to add some spice to the turn based formula” says Tyskerud. There’s reward for keeping couples together to. A loyal duo will gain access to bond actions; typically a stronger attack. “Basically you will be able to unlock special perks and abilities that are only available to the characters when they are teamed up” clarifies game director Bendik Stang. “We also have a friendship energy that builds up when you have a team active in combat. Using this energy they’ll be able to unleash pretty awesome combo attacks based on who is teamed up with who.” But like Overdrives in other games, this super attack is single use only, and once exausted you’ll have to earn it again.  “Usually you can get through the bosses in ‘Earthlock’ by choosing the right strategy, getting your talent board set up and having the right character pairings” Tyskerud notes. The talent board he defences is the way you upgrade your characters in ‘Earthlock’. Similar to the orb system found in more recent ‘Final Fantasy’ titles, players are given a grid with each rectangle representing an ability or stat upgrade. Once earned, players are free to swap cards in and out allow a character to be reshaped should the occasion demand it. “This board can be rearranged at any point, so the player is free to balance their team in any way they want” believes Stang. 

While the wide range of different combat abilities and character combos do present a plentiful buffet of offensive options, a player may find they just stick with familiar and upgraded techniques. The routine of battle soon becomes one you navigate through almost on autopilot, rhythmically tapping buttons.

From the initial Kickstarter, farming has always been a key part of ‘Earthlock’ and now with the popularity of games like ‘Stardew Valley’ it’s an attractive addition to many. “Crafting and adventuring [is] tied together in a very real way. When you’re out adventuring and battling creatures and bad guys, the ammo used is the one you’ve grown and harvested yourself” boasts Tyskerud. However I found the farming aspect of the game an uncomfortable extra task that’s felt at odds with adventuring. Farming Sims demand a time investment; you’re rewarded for returning to your crop and devotedly tending to it. Meanwhile Adventuring requires exploration, not feeling tied to one set place, free to roam into areas unknown. There are fast travel options as you progress through ‘Earthlock’ but to be honest I usually want to progress forward in an adventure game rather than having to keep returning to the same place to pick up more ammo.

You are left wondering if the farming was added to extend ‘Earthlock’s life. I was somewhat concerned that an hour into play my save file said I was 12% into the game. Most players will finish the main story section of game in less than 25 hours, which is comparatively brief compared to the classic of the JRPG genre. 

The game promises big reward from taking big risks. Players who take on a large number of enemies at once can level up fastest but sadly the battle screen isn’t large enough to accommodate such game play. Groups of eight or more enemies flood off-screen making targeting a challenge. It’s not game breaking by any means but it’s not something you wouldn’t see in higher profile titles. It’s reflective of ‘Earthlock’s more humble development and the graphics on the whole are pleasant if primitive.  

Of course its developers describe the art style as a modern nod to old-school JRPGs like ‘Jade Cocoon’, ‘Suikoden’, and ‘Vagrant Story’. “The characters are deliberately designed very clean, from concept art through 3D to textures” claims Stang. “This way of working has allowed us to make something that looks colourful and fun while not taxing any hardware too much”. The problem is that it’s hard to shake the feeling that ‘Earthlock’ looks like a budget mobile phone game. In its favour, the main characters are eye catching and memorable especially the nonhuman characters. Up close they actually looks quite detailed but for most of the game they’re so small on screen you hardly notice. Environments seem to alternate between vibrantly detailed and entirely devoid of life.

 There’s also the jarring realisation that you don’t always have camera control. Like the games of the past, your view of dungeons and the world map is dictated by what the game wishes you to see. Annoying, this does mean your characters is often entirely obstructed by the environment as there’s no transparency effects on foreground objects. Taking camera control away from the player does disguise the fact that many outside environments are largely linear. Though they may appear vast, there is little scope to explore too far off the beaten track.

‘Earthlock’s audio is an equally mixed bag. The music is enjoyable setting a unique tone to each of the game’s areas whiling paying tribute to the legacy JRPGs. Meanwhile the sound effects are extremely inconsistent across the game. Weapons often recycle sounds, and what works with one doesn’t work with another. While authentic to the era it replicates, the lack of speech means a great deal of reading for the player. Of course as ‘Final Fantasy X’s infamous laugh shows, millennial RPG games were renowned for sometimes awful western dubbing so maybe the mute protagonists in ‘Earthlock’ are actually a blessing in disguise. 

Naturally it’s the “Shouldhavebeen” edition that has finally arrived on Switch, a console that Snowcastle have always been attracted to. “The entire team fell in love with the Switch when it came out “says Nikola Kuresevic. “As luck would have it that ‘Earthlock’ feels at home on the console”. Like other versions released in 2018 ‘Earthlock’ on Nintendo’s latest machine “has taken into account a lot of player feedback “adds Kuresevic. “We have been able to build in a lot of elements we did not have the time or resources to work on for the first version”. With their eye on Switch players it’s odd the saving mechanic wasn’t refined for this iteration of ‘Earthlock’. Like older RPGs you’re limited to saving only at designated points but this is frequently far too far from a boss battle. There’s nothing more annoying that narrowly failing a battle and having to repeat half a dungeon as a result. The alternative is lengthy back tracking to find the save point before challenging battles, but this is tiresome and repetitive. The Switch functions as a Portable machine and playing on the go means you may have to stop when it’s not possible to continued playing. It’s another reason why you should be able to save at any time and it’s a mistake that Snowcastle have stuck to an archaic system. 

‘Earthlock’ is a game that has clearly been made with a lot of love and respect for the various classics that have inspired it. Its flaws are essentially also a bi-product of this. While fans will be delighted by the tribute newcomers to the genre will likely wonder why the locations are so sparse and the mechanics are, at times so obtuse. Like so many of us Snowcastle Games are guilty of romantising the past. Yes it’s sad that games aren’t the same but there’s often a reason why things changed; it’s an improvement. Games like ‘Octopass Traveller’ and ‘Bravery Default’ show a better way to pay homage to what’s come before; games that remind us of the past without forgetting the demands of a modern gamer. If ‘Earthlock’ had come out in the era that the developers love so much, it would have been held aloft as a classic -especially since it was made by such a small team. For those who have played ‘Final Fantasy 7’ and ‘Chrono Cross’ countless times, it’ll serve as a nice reminded of a favourite period in time. However, everyone unfamiliar with these games won’t see loving head nods; they’ll just see glaring faults. 

If you’re interested in discovering the types of games Square Enix used to make you’d do better just playing them. But for those who have been in the JRPG club for more than twenty years it’s a pleasant window onto the past; cracks and all. 

A download copy of this game was provided for review. Publishers and developers have not seen or influenced the content of this post prior to publishing.

1 comment:

  1. Definitely going to give this one a play! Sounds like a fun shoutout to my favorite gaming era.


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