2016 had seen the release of a crowdfunded RPG titled Earthlock: Festival of Magic, the first game of a proposed trilogy, after being revealed in 2013. A common criticism was that it left the players wanting more from the lackluster experience, despite excelling in other important areas. Indie developer Snowcastle Games had taken the feedback to heart and instead of immediately working on the sequel, they’ve addressed the issues and implemented features they’ve always intended for the game to have. It’s quite a substantial update and one that is free for players who own the game with the only loss being the “Festival of Magic” moniker. Now titled Earthlock, its completeness has been favored going from an average reception to a positively good one. Although it has been developed from a team based in Norway, Earthlock scratches the itch for a late 90’s-early 00’s JRPG while adding a new flavor of its own and is one I can easily recommend for Nintendo Switch players looking to get their classic JRPG fill.
Gnart’s the cutest.
Earthlock begins its tale in the land of Umbra, a fantasy-steampunk world with a total imbalance of its amri (mana) causing a disruption to the flow of everyday life and the people of Umbra can certainly feel it in the air. Sound familiar? Yes, most RPG’s follow this plot model which ultimately makes it the weakest part of Earthlock. The writing itself can be a miss most of the time coming off as okay just to move the plot forward, but it would be wrong of me to dismiss the unique names given and occasional moments with humor that gave me a chuckle thanks to mostly likable characters.
You begin by taking control of Ive (short for Ivory Lavender, and “please call her that”, as she insists), a determined militant hoping to prove her worth to her father who is the House of the Great Wave’s General. Shortly after the opening, you end up doing a training sequence which serves as both the game’s first battle and tutorial. By her side is a stormdog named Taika who she rescued as a pup. As with all characters who you get to see in battle for the first time, dialog within your party takes place giving context to the player of a character’s battle style and what they are skilled in. Ive is great at trapping enemies into attacks while Taika is keen on elemental powers. It isn’t much long after the introduction to gameplay where the scene shifts to a different area and two other characters where the real journey takes off.
Switching over we meet Amon Barros, a scavenger of sorts who wields an amri bracelet being able to harness and use different colored amri, which is also a mechanic for navigating Earthlock’s dungeons in general. Amon and his uncle Benjo are scavenging through ruins for treasure and we are again introduced through dialog just how they play during battle when it takes place. It is also here where players will first get a taste of boss encounters. Soon the two find a unique artifact which Amon holds onto as they return home to Zaber and the rest unfolds from there.
As far as the humanoid characters are concerned, their designs aren’t necessarily screaming “we’re the stars”. I felt the artists could have aimed a little higher to stand out. They do look good, but essentially they look human and that’s not exactly a fault. There are alternate outfits which do look better. The non-humanoid characters definitely show style, however. This extends to everyone outside of your party as the enemy designs along with their animations are exceptionally great. There is no voice acting which may be a letdown for some, but also retains some of that classic goodness of using your inner voice. One thing that noticeably throws the visuals off is just how dead the humans look. There are no facial expressions and everyone looks like puppets during what should be emotionally-driven events. The game feels like a fun blast from the past, but visually it doesn’t look like one. Earthlock is a pretty game so at the very least characters not looking lifeless would’ve helped.
There’s a very smooth quality to Earthlock’s visual design. Plenty of the texture work look as if they were created using pastel mediums. There’s little to be said about backdrops in the distance as they’re barely noticeable. What’s immediately eye-catching are much of the detailed designs, especially indoors, looking great as well as the lighting tones set in place. Thankfully, the game plays as good as it looks.
Earthlock in 2018 feels fully-featured. Occasionally you may feel that it’s grind time and want your party to become stronger. It does fall victim to that RPG nature. What Earthlock does is add in various ways to gain experience, earn Daler (currency) and obtain items such as healing potions and ammunition. Players do have the option to purchase said items which can be costly, but nothing is stopping the player from farming their own. Special seeds of various strengths and elemental properties can be planted into your own garden and be grown in real time. Watering these plants the proper amount will optimize growth speed. The plants will bloom and sparkle letting you know they are ready to be harvested. Doing so will allow them to grow in different stages and even mutate. Once mutation happens, you may obtain a seed for a stronger version of that same plant which you can then plant to obtain its own special harvested goods. There are no limits to how many items you are allowed to harvest from a single plant. It’s just a matter of you putting in the time and it’s definitely worth it for reaping the rewards. All of which can be used for crafting while on Plumpet Island. Be sure to seek out all the recipes for crafting. It’s a neat little feature on the side to change the pace from battling to bottling. And it’s one of a few.
Each characters adds to the diversity of Earthlock. Amon is a scavenger, so naturally he can craft weapons on Plumpet Island, but also find rare parts in the overworld map. Gnart is an ambitious scholar honing his skills in alchemy. Mini diversions are added to gameplay such as Taika the stormdog – having a strong sense of smell – being able to dig up items and treasure chests in locations marked on the map by Ive who knows locations from her experience of flying. And more. They all have their own gimmick and switching between them is as easy as holding R and rotating the left analog.
Players should expect some challenging, if not puzzling battles for the bigger bosses in the game. Side-quests are also available for additional rewards and EXP, but don’t expect them to be tied to an engaging side story. For a JRPG, the game has enough meat, but still rather on the shorter side capping at around 30 hours for an average playthrough. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of lengthy sidequests, but at the same time Earthlock manages to remove what is often called “filler” in other JRPG’s and just gets straight to the point. Regardless of what’s to be said, I wish there were more backstory of the characters. Earthlock hits some humorous and emotional beats, but there’s not enough additional scenes to shape the characters more. It would be a good time to mention seeking the additional dialogue found on Plumpet Island.
One unforgiving thing about Earthlock is saving your progress: not being able to save while roaming the overworld map. If you’ve been grinding for a while and think you might lose all that progress, by all means dramatically feign your own death in a battle to escape and make it to a save point. In towns and at least one in dungeons, there are save points known as Onurasi statues. They also allow warping to other Onurasi statues you’ve found, but they only allow you to travel from your current point to Plumpet Island. It’s only from Plumpet Island where you are able to choose your desired location. It’s a bit odd having to travel to one location only to travel the location you wanted instead when this feature serves the same purpose. This extra process is a pointless one, especially when there’s convenience in other areas of the game such as the battle system.
Earthlock does away with MP and allows any form of abilities, whether physical damage or magic, to be used by a consumption of amri, depicted by yellow squares next to each character’s icon. These could be described as Action Points, or Amri Points if you will. Use of abilities will require certain amounts of amri to be consumed, players may also choose to rest during a turn to refresh an extra amri. For example, Gnart’s “regen” ability heals 1 member and generates health for additional turns thereafter. This ability costs two amri out of the three he currently has which will leave him with one left. He may choose to use his “club” melee attack which does very little damage at the cost of his 1 amri he has left, or he can rest 1 turn to stock up. There’s a bit of strategy involved when choosing abilities and it never leaves you feeling like you’re hopeless since you essentially don’t run out of “magic points”.
Another interesting about Earthlock’s battle system is that each character has two different styles – also known as Stance – you can switch between at any time during battle, although it costs a turn. Amon, for instance, has both a melee “thief” stance and another being a long-distance attacker with a gun that causes heavy physical or elemental damage. Players may also switch stances before a battle begins to be prepared for which enemies they’re about to face. In fact, engaging with enemies for the most part is left up to the player. Enemies may always be seen in locations such as the overworld and in dungeons.
Indicated by a timer and the number of enemies who have spotted your party, players may choose to get the first strike by tapping B to engage in battle. Doing so will grant every member (left) to make a move before the opposing side (right). The clever balance here is that enemies also change their stance so striking at the correct opportunity may serve you well. Leveling wouldn’t be fun if it weren’t for bonus multipliers. There are various factors to this, such as if it’s a tough battle or you are outnumbered. Racking up a challenge will provide faster leveling. I did notice multipliers vanish once you are overpowered compared to much weaker enemies.
The varied styles of play doesn’t stop there. If you’ve taken notice in the above images, character portraits are matched together like pairs. This is known as Bonds. Players are able to pair with any one of the other characters for unique stats and ability combinations.The more a pair works together, the stronger the bond grows. During battle a blue meter will fill showing bond strength. When the bar fills and flashes, a Super Stance may be triggered by either of the two. These behave like special moves which are powerful either offensively or defensively. Think of it like the LIMIT meter from the Final Fantasy series. Yellow amri squares also turn blue during this stage. Initially, players may only be able to perform one at a time, but as bonds grow stronger new abilities are learned and may be performed additional times during one Super Stance. As an example, Amon may use his blaster to deal heavy damage to every enemy at once for multiple turns in a row or Gnart may provide healing or a cure to remove status effects for the entire party multiple turns in a row the higher the bond levels become. It’s interesting to play around with different pairs and see what new bonds can bring to a fight.
Each time you level up you gain a Talent Point (TP). Talent Points are good for filling nodes in your Talent tree. 1 TP is worth 1 Node. Ovals represent stat talents, such as boosting your evasion speed or attack power. The puzzle-shaped nodes represent Perks, which may give you unique stats or enhancements. And the diamond nodes represent Abilities and are the only ones that aren’t universal, but exclusive to each character and what they can do. These may be applied as you learn more, but can only be done as long as filled nodes are linked together. The Talent system adds a bit of customization here. Maybe you’d like to spend TP on boosting your stats at the current moment rather than learn a cool new move. Talents cannot be removed. They may be swapped out for another, however. Additional talents may be crafted at Plumpet Island given you have the recipe.
The final aspect about Earthlock that deserves mentioning is the soundtrack. It’s beautiful and definitely inspired by Final Fantasy, as composer Eiko Ishiwata (or Eiko Nichols) certainly created her own renditions of the series in the past. There are tracks here setting an emotional atmosphere and definitely holds a candle to some of Final Fantasy’s best. There’s a lot of celestial and regional vibes fitting for each location. The back & forth transitions from exploring and battling are seamless as well. The music for the boss battles are just as grand. Great stuff here. I hope she returns for the next two games.