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Earthlock (PC) artwork

Earthlock (PC) review

"Flukes Are Not Accidents, They Are the Kindling of Talent"

Sometimes you find games where they try to be something magical, and yet the same passion doesnít resonate with you. Earthlock greatly suffered this problem, and while the enhanced edition--or the aptly named, the Shouldíve-Been Edition--provides enough improvements to anyone who didnít complete the game, it doesnít address the core issues to anyone who completed the game and didnít enjoy it. If you did enjoy it--and for some reason youíve not already played it-- then the enhanced edition is easily superior with the amount of gameplay tweaks, side-quests, and a revised story that helps makes the journey worthwhile.

Honestly, this game makes me wonder if the translation doesnít due its justice as I cannot imagine how a game with so much care for its details can come off as average, especially the cast of characters that every now and then have a moment where they shine. Storytelling isnít the only value to a JRPG; however, if you delve deep into the world you can often find the same creative effort put into its writing that you can easily see from its aesthetics. Thankfully what the enhanced edition does improve the most is the satisfying gameplay; there are more than enough alterations, especially the open-world map that offers various straightforward tasks, for what remains a surprisingly a tough, though mostly fair, adventure.

If Something Ainít Broken, Buff Only the Dents by Making New Ones

When it comes to a more traditional take on JRPGs, there are bound to be some details to consider from the reviewer. Considering what type of RPGs Iíve played recently that offer far more complex choices in questlines, combat, and exploration, it should be noted that I am not comparing Earthlock to those RPGs. The open world also has less to do with scaling difficulty and side quests, more so in common with old RPGs that use set a set scale across the world with random encounters as well as extra tasks primarily providing additional encounters to gain items or extra XP. Its structure resembles the Tales series or the 3D era of Final Fantasy titles, which Earthlock evokes the same innate appeal from the overworld map to the four-party turn-based combat.

These last aspects perhaps have benefited the most from the new changes. Previously, the overworld felt barren as well as making characters feel homogenous. Each party member now provides a small gameplay benefit on the overworld map like stealth, taunting, speed-boost, etc. Sometimes these mechanics are tied to the simplistic side-quests such as the Scavenger or Treasure Hunting ability that reward the playerís exploration. Most of these fetch-quests can be completed naturally as you wander the map, and only in the rare occasion does it ever feel like a grind or waste of time (catching the flies for tokens being the exception). The importance behind these small additions is they make the world feel more interesting to wander while also providing an incentive to mix-and-match party members, which is perhaps one of the more unique elements to Earthlockís combat.

Combat largely imitates what you expect from turn-based JRPGs, yet Earthlock makes significant strides towards avoiding similar problems--to an extent. Spamming the best attacks is still optimal as the elemental and status effects are a large component, and there is a certain amount of grinding expected to make fights easier, but not as much as you think. What keeps the combat refreshing is that there are systems in place to prevent stagnation such as special attacks being based on companion bonds, which is a system that encourages players to diversify their party to gain more passive and active bonuses; the cost of action points per turn; and the steep damage values that force players to play with more consideration of the trajectory of the fight. Unfortunately, the bond system is rather basic, and the farming system encourages crafting tons of ammo to spam powerful firearms. In spite of these issues, battles require more observation than spamming the same button, and there are plenty provided with the end-game optional boss-rematch dungeon. However, after the ten or fifteen hour-mark, the shine of these features begins to expose their limitations.

Personally, the combat system is one of the better implementations and itís largely because of the tough-yet-fair difficulty. Addictive and as casual as the systems are, they never became tiresome after the twentieth hour while there were more optional boss-fights to pursue. However, combat is only one facet to the thrill of a great JRPG as the context of the fight is what also matters, and, unfortunately, this aspect is where the game falls short despite coming up with genius ideas like a hogbunny.

Itís a Hog and a Bunny--a Hogbunny!--What Stroke of Genius is This?

It may come across as a tangent, but Gnart may be the sole reason to enjoy Earthlock if nothing else because not only is the hogbunny design charming as the world of Umbra but he is also perhaps the gameís best written character. Heís no new benchmark for writing yet there is an undeniable charm that comes from his backstory. From first impressions, Gnart appears as the scholarly bookworm trope who is a coward sent out to be a hero, and yet the more you travel with him the more his personality blooms from overhearing him reading his letters from his beloved and his concerns for their future. Even though his role in the plot is rather small, the value he provides for becoming invested into the world makes him worth a lot more. If every character had that same level of detail, then this world would be much livelier than the end-of-the-world scenario with a group of friends with one or two character traits that has become by-the-numbers for JRPGs.

Tropes by themselves are not bad as they are tools for telling stories, and how you use those tools is far more important. The problem is the narrative set-up nor the characters ever come across as distinct as the world; you have the orphaned boy who desires to see the world, the daughter of a general kept safe by her father, the hardened warrior on a mission to retrieve an item, a dog, and a robot with more personality in his movements than any personality traits. Some characters would be fine in a better scenario where they could be fleshed out more such as the orphan boy thinking the daughter was an enemy in a civil war--the "two enemies turned into friends" cliche is in the game, but the topic rarely gets brought up. Outside of the gameplay Bonds, the friendships with these characters never have as much chemistry as they ought to have for the doomsday scenario. This major problem is why the narrative, or at least the translation, often feels anemic because it is trying to invoke an emotion that players never really get to see or hear from the charactersí interactions.

Flukes Are Not Accidents, They Are the Kindling of Talent

Narrative quibbles aside, the narrative is acceptable aside from how formulaic it comes across. Formulaic is perhaps the best word to describe the game; the narrative feels out of place in the world, taken as a guideline from other stories, and not the outcome from what is going on in this world. The same can be said for the gameplay, which as great as it is also feels too conventional despite making important changes that make it feel distinct. Every detail from the gameplay and the world could tell a unique story given how much effort went into its art style, and it would be a shame if it never sprouted from that great foundation.

If there is ever the chance for a sequel, the one thing I would desire is for the story to tell me what makes this world its own character. Inspiration takes only one character striking the proverbial mud puddle to make it happen, and to make a lot of other hogbunnies happy.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (May 14, 2020)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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