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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (437)

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Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5

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Earthlock   PC (Steam) 

Festival of Boredom    2.5/5 stars

“Earthlock: Festival of Magic” was initially released on PC and XBONE in 2016, with ports to the WiiU and PlayStation 4 a year later. The developer, a Norwegian Indie outfit called Snow Castle Games, however, didn’t just leave it at that, but did what so many Eurojank developers do and, in 2018, re-released the game in an ‘enhanced edition’ form for current-gen platforms, dropping the subtitle. Now known simply as “Earthlock,” the game features more fleshed-out side content than it did at launch. However, in spite of the fact that there’s a sequel, “Earthlock 2” allegedly being released this very year of 2022, I can’t help but feel like the original is still drastically lacking in redeeming qualities.

Presentation
“Earthlock” is at its best when it comes to looks, sounds, and related things. Like so many amateur first-time Indie projects, “Earthlock” is built in the Unity engine. However, unlike most Unity games, it does look and feel quite polished. While even the human characters have a stylish look, somewhere between ‘realistic anime’ and ‘realistic Western cartoons before CalArts took over everything,’ the real visual pop comes from the unique non-human creatures that populate the game world. Specifically, there are bizarre shark-people called Hammerheads who look… like a bipedal hammerhead shark, and there are the iconic Hogbunnies, who look like Chris a cross between a pig, a bunny, and a midget. Monster designs are mostly familiar, however, consisting of a pallet-swapped variety of things. However, these pallet swaps typically denote a change of elemental affinity rather than a change in difficulty, as the same enemies typically recur in multiple game zones at wildly different challenge ratings. Environmental design has a nice Steampunk aesthetic, mixed with a handful of ancient ruins that help give the entire thing a subtle ‘Indiana Jones’ vibe.

Audio is adequate, with a soundtrack featuring a handful of pleasant, if not-particularly-memorable tunes that hearken back to the PlayStation 1 days of explosive RPG proliferation. However, there is next to no voice acting, outside of the battle shouts that the characters emit during combat.

Technically, “Earthlock” is pretty solid. The only real technical issue I’ve come across is the fact that the mouse cursor in the Windows version doesn’t automatically hide itself when playing with a controller. The controller support is, otherwise, excellent, with native Xinput support out of the box, and a novel combat interface where, instead of picking items from a menu, each character ability is mapped to a specific controller button.

Story
While “Earthlock” tries to invoke the epic storytelling of RPGs past, it completely fails to get off the ground from a narrative perspective. Much of the worldbuilding and lore is glossed-over so briefly, it’s difficult to make sense of it. Apparently, the game takes place in the world of Umbra, which became tidally locked to its sun – the titular earthlock – during an event during the ancient past called the Deadly Halt. There was a great and powerful, but tyrannical, empire in charge of the world during that catastrophe, but they disappeared, leaving only ruins behind.

Our heroes are a ragtag group of kids who… really have no reason to stick together, since they are all pursuing different goals, and those goals are connected to each other in only a ramshackle and tenuous way. Our ostensible ‘hero’ is a boy named Amon, who lives with his ‘uncle,’ a sickly, old Hammerhead named Benjo, who teaches the orphan the ways of desert scavenging. Our ostensible ‘heroine,’ on the other hand, is Ive, the daughter of the General who leads the world’s main military/peacekeeping force. Ive wants to prove herself competent more than anything, and is willing to break a few rules and regulations to do so.

Our heroes eventually meet up, along with a random red-haired Black girl (in a world where she’s literally the only Black person), a Hogbunny scholar (who is also a coward), Ive’s pet Stormdog, and an ancient robot cobbled together from scrap. Together, this Scooby Gang of boring character archetypes uncovers a sinister plot within the military to revive the ancient civilization that broke the world so long ago.

The writing and character arcs feel rushed and trope-y, while the titular ‘festival of magic’ is quite literally a combat arena written into the plot as a temporary McGuffin that never feels well-developed or intriguing, and becomes forgotten almost immediately as the characters move on with the plot.

In general, I feel like there’s a LOT lost in the translation from Norwegian to English, here. Dialog is frequently torturous, while the lore always feels poorly-explained. Lots of proper nouns appear with no explanation, but also lacking in context that would allow for their meanings to be intuited.

Mercifully, “Earthlock” is not a particularly long game, clocking in at about 30 hours. Completionists who want to grind-out all the achievements and get 100% can probably get another 5-10 hours out of it. However, based on the achievement percentages on Steam, not even 10% of owners played it long enough to reach the titular festival, let alone stuck it out to the end.

Gameplay
“Earthlock” is a fairly standard Turn-Based RPG that tries to invoke nostalgic feelings for the genre the way it existed during its heyday in the 5th Generation. Gameplay and mechanics are strongly reminiscent of games like “Wild ARMs,” “Valkyrie Profile,” and even a little bit of “Xenogears” thrown in there, but lacking in most of the intrigue and charm that made those older titles so memorable.

From the outset, the player will be dealing with the combat system, in which each skill a character has is mapped to a specific button. Characters appear in an initiative bar based on their Speed stat, and when it’s their turn, they get to do one thing. Doing that one thing costs a varying amount of Amri, which is simply an in-universe term for Action points. Instead of relying on a permanently-consumable energy source for casting spells and skills, characters simply use Amri to power their moves with one Amri charging up at the beginning of a character’s turn. However, many moves cost more than one Amri, so there’s an option to ‘rest’ and skip the turn.

Each character also possesses two different stances they can enter, granting access to completely different assortments of skills. Amon, for example, can either be in his Dagger Stance, which allows him to stab, steal, and do other roguish things, while his Blaster Stance allows him to pull out a blunderbuss and shoot… potatoes at enemies (some of these potatoes are elementally charged!). Black Girl, on the other hand, only has one weapon – a spear – but she can toggle between an Offensive Stance, where she stabs and slashes at enemies, or a Defensive Stance, where she taunts and counter-attacks. It’s an interesting system that is ultimately laid-low by the fact that changing stances wastes a turn, and I was unable to figure out how to change stances outside of combat. It is, likewise, impossible to cast healing spells outside of combat.

Combat is, itself, a rather arduous affair, with generally poor balancing through most of the game. Rank-and-file trash mobs generally have way too much health and take way too long to defeat. Meanwhile, bosses typically use one specific gimmick (which takes trial and error to figure out) over and over as the party tries to chew-through their enormous health pools. To make matters worse, there is a ‘Suikoden’-inspired experience cut-off for monsters in various regions, yet these monsters – all visible on the map – never stop chasing the party, even when fighting them won’t award any more experience points, making for a fair amount of tedium. Of course, the reason for these hard experience cut-offs is the fact that, unlike most console RPGs, but quite a bit like tabletop RPGs, the level cap in “Earthlock” is a super-low 20. There are ways to squeeze more experience out of encounters, such as provoking all the enemies in an area and getting into a fight with all of them at once, but up until the endgame, when characters are level 15+, picking big fights is too dangerous to be useful.

Other bizarre limitations and unnecessary changes to RPG standards include the equipment system… which is just barely there. Characters only have a weapon slot (or two, for characters like Amon who can switch weapons when they switch stances), and no armor or accessory slots AT ALL. Nearly all the weapons in the game must be crafted by Amon at the smithy that opens up when the team gets a home base, but it’s rare to have the ingredients on-hand after finding a blueprint. Even worse, after acquiring all the materials and crafting these weapons, I found that nearly all of them were, at best, a side-grade from the party’s starting equipment.

In lieu of armor and accessories, each character has a Talent Board, which allows the player to slot a variety of stat-boosting tiles, as well as passive buffs and new skills. Each tile type only fits in a specific type of slot, and can only be placed on the board next to an existing tile. It’s slightly reminiscent of the systems found in “Final Fantasy 12” and “Dragon Quest 11,” but generally – like everything else in the game – quite a bit smaller.

The last bit of character development and mechanical gameplay to address is the Bond System. While there are 6 playable characters, only four can be in the active combat party at once (and, annoyingly, are the only ones that gain experience). These four characters are divided into two pairs, who are linked more closely than the others in combat. Pairs of characters gain Bond simply by fighting together, with each level of Bond (up to 5) unlocking a unique passive buff for the pair (plus additional Talent Board points).

Outside of combat, the player can expect to swap the party leader numerous times, as each character has a unique skill that they can use in the overworld/dungeons. Amon can salvage scrap piles (granting crafting materials), Ive can do stealth, Black Girl can provoke every enemy in earshot, Hogbunny can do botany and harvest plants for temporary buffs, the dog can dig up treasures (if you bought and deciphered the map, that is), and the robot can… move slightly faster than everyone else. In addition, Amon has a magical bracelet that allows him to store a charge of color-coded energy that operates ancient technology, leading to a few instances of overwrought, lugubrious puzzle-solving within dungeons.

Overall
“Earthlock: Festival of Magic” desperately wants to be a 5th Generation, High-Golden Age RPG, but fails to live up to the challenge across the board. While the inoffensive and mildly pleasant presentation makes for a good first impression, actually getting to the meat and potatoes of the story and gameplay makes for a rough experience that is neither fun nor interesting. Not even the ‘enhanced edition’-style re-release could save this game from itself, and, as a result, I have zero interest in the upcoming sequel.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 2/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2.5/5

 

 


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