Recently, there’s been a trend in RPGs – from big AAA titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition to crowd-funded classics like Pillars of Eternity where, in complete contravention of common sense, the early part of the game feels bland and uninspired, with paper-thin characters going through the motions as they stumble from one objective to the next. This seemingly pointless tedium can continue for hours, prolonged by the thought that surely things have to get better, until eventually, usually after a grisly end that seems to come out of nowhere, one has to take a step back and think about how one is spending one’s time.
At that point, one has to decide to either keep playing, trusting that the rest of the game will surely be better, or to shelve the title and move on. A couple of years ago, I decided to stick it out with Dragon Age: Inquisition, due to my enjoyment of previous Dragon Age titles, and once I left the dreaded Hinterlands – and Haven – behind, the game did improve markedly, with its story, characters, and world design finally coming to the fore, in spite of combat that felt watered-down from previous iterations of the franchise.
I didn’t give Pillars of Eternity that chance. While there might have been a juicy plot and rich world-building waiting for me if I was willing to invest the hours required, the sheer frustration of going through early-game combat with a Chanter, with its high deflection but depressingly low health pool, trying to play tank for a low-leveled party of a wizard, priest and – oh – another Chanter – was such that I decided to cut my losses and try something completely different.
What I decided to go with was Earthlock: Festival of Magic, Snowcastle Games’ love letter to early 3D console RPGs.
To be perfectly honest, I came in not expecting much, but what I found was a charming little gem of a game, with a beautiful “hand-painted” art style, a rich world that hinted at mysteries just out of sight, a thoughtful turn-based combat system, and a colorful, quirky cast of characters.
We begin the game with Amon, a desert scavenger with a thirst for adventure, who, together with his uncle – a bipedal hammerhead shark, are going through a temple from before the time that Umbra, their world, stopped spinning, looking for any artifacts that they might sell. Amon’s combat abilities – like those of the other playable characters in Earthlock, are divided into two “stances”, each allowing them to play a focused role as a member of a party.
Amon’s Thief stance is focused around melee damage, with skills that make him untargetable by enemies, increase his speed and evasion (so he gets more turns and is harder to hit), and can stun enemies or inflict non-elemental damage over time. His Blaster stance, however, revolves around the use of his Spud Cannon, which, as the name suggests, uses potatoes as its ammunition.
Potatoes infused with elemental might, that is.
Now, one might think that this could be a problem, as magical potatoes aren’t usually something one finds in a shop, and it is true that early on, one starts out with a limited stock of spuds and has to be strategic about when to use them (hint: reserve them for use against flying enemies, or things weak to certain elements). However, not long into the game, Amon and his companions, a timid Hogbunny (which as the name suggests, looks like a bipedal cross of a warthog and rabbit) who alternates between healing the party and throwing out combat buffs, and a gruff red-headed wanderer who specializes in cutting down foes with her glaive or counterattacking, when needed, are given access to a hidden isle whose fertile soil is full of magical energy.
In this place, which serves as the player’s home base for the rest of the game, one can farm a rich spread of plants, including spuds, from which one can craft a good range of ammunition and potions. Notably, the more time you spend raising and harvesting from your plants, the more magic they take in, and eventually, after one has harvested enough times, one may find a seed for a more powerfully enchanted plant – whose product are needed in higher level crafting recipes.
Crafting occurs on the island as well, in a laboratory adjacent to the island that is charmingly styled the “Farmory,” as it is there you will put together your 100% organic implements of death – and the tonics and elixirs good for what ails you – and there will be plenty of that, given how fights sometimes go down in Earthlock.
Earthlock makes use of a turn-based combat system where the number of turns one gets – and the order in which those turns are taken – is determined primarily by one’s speed, with the effects of Attack, Defense, Magic, Magic Defense, and Evasion fairly self-evident.
These stat spreads are highly customizable, given that as characters increase their personal “level”, as a result of a certain amount of experience, or their bond level, through killing a number of enemies alongside another party member (these unlock specific bonuses for the pair), they unlock slots in the Talent Table, pictured below.
Slots on the table may be filled in with Talent Tiles, some of which give a mix of 2-3 stats, some of which unlock unit-specific active abilities, and some of which unlock Perks, passive bonuses useful on any character. These Talent Tiles can be found in the world from chests, quests, or defeating enemies – or can be crafted from recipes, assuming you have the necessary ingredients.
Notably, how you decide to build a character is almost entirely up to you.
One other notable aspect of combat is that there are no random encounters. Monsters wander the overworld, just like players, and one can can try to sneak around mobs, to challenge one at a time so one can minimize the risk of injury, or to strategically take on up to eight enemies at a time, with the game offering bonuses to experience and items drop-rate for those challenging a large number of enemies.
Learning to kite enemies effectively, as well as gauging whether a weakened party can can break contact with unwanted pursuers or whether one should risk a pre-emptive strike so one gets the first turn advantage, are all important. It is perhaps fitting that how one prepares for and sets up a combat situation is just as important – or more so – than one goes through combat itself.
If the game can be said to have a weak-point, its that the story is not especially fleshed out, with more being hinted at than revealed, and it is largely lacking in sidequests or other pieces of lore to help fill things in. Still, there is enough, coupled with the rich mechanics and the lush visuals of the world itself, to make the experience of playing Earthlock a compelling one.
From the grand scale of the architecture, the size of the monsters one faces, and the sheer danger present in the world, one gets the impression that the inhabitants of Umbra, are living in a world once occupied by forces and beings that were larger than life, with their wit, guile and skills helping them to not only stay alive, but thrive.
In that sense, Earthlock is a celebration of both old RPGs, where a party could rise from humble beginnings to challenge even the gods, as well as the power of the human spirit, which allows us to survive in spite of terrible odds. This charming little gem, available on PC, Wii U, PS4, and the Xbox One – and coming to Nintendo Switch – is a refreshing from the tedium and sameness of many of the western RPGs on the market today, and is definitely worth a look by anyone who likes unconventional art styles, well-thought out combat, or just the joys of tending a virtual garden.