Much to my own shame, me and traditional JRPGs have never really clicked. I love plenty of games that straddle genres, like Kingdom Hearts or Valkyria Chronicles, but when it comes to your retro Final Fantasies, Chrono Triggers or Lost Sphears, I lose interest incredibly quickly.
Going into Earthlock, I expected it to be yet another game tossed onto the pile of JRPGs that just don’t do it for me. I’d heard of the game’s previous incarnation, Earthlock: Festival of Magic, before, but had quickly forgotten about it by the time this enhanced, remastered edition came around. Advertised as a linear experience with turn-based combat, its major selling points were all the things I like least about the genre. Yet, somehow, this plucky Norwegian-developed JRPG has managed to win me over.
Set in a quasi-dieselpunk world full of powerful organisations, ancient civilisations and deadly monsters, Earthlock follows scavenger Amon and his new-found allies as they work to save Amon’s uncle (who is also a hammerhead shark?). Along the way, the team’s differing reasons for being on the journey pull them all into conflicts much bigger than them.
If that sounds vague, it’s because the story is the absolute last thing Earthlock has going for it. The characters and the world are beautifully designed, but what happens with them quickly gets lost in its own lore. Gnart the Hogbunny is a something for the Great Owl Somethingorother – whatever that is – who is sent to Amon’s town for… some reason. Characters come and go as the challenges ahead call for it, with little in the way of plot explanation. And god knows what the Frogboy’s all about.
The story is the absolute last thing Earthlock has going for it
For a genre that has only ever really had their stories and characters going for it, this might sound like a fatal criticism for Earthlock. While it’s certainly no Final Fantasy 7 or Chrono Trigger in its storytelling, it doesn’t need to be when it reinvigorates what could’ve been a stale set of mechanics to make something that is enthralling to play purely from the challenge it throws at you.
Combat encounters aren’t random, something I’ve always despised. Instead, with a bit of clever manoeuvring, enemies can be grouped up and engaged with en masse, giving stacking rewards should the team be able to wipe out a whole load of monsters at once.
It also changes your relationship with the world.
It’s a cool idea that not only helps make trawling through dungeons quicker – rounding up and taking down 5 enemies at once instead of 5 individual fights is always good – but it also changes your relationship with the world. Have a lot of low-level enemies blocking your way? Egg them into bunching up to make short work of all of them. Have a horde of stronger baddies instead? Divide and conquer them by baiting a single enemy, pulling them away to engage, and make the future battles a lot easier at the same time.
The fights themselves are also much more than what I’ve (perhaps wrongly) come to expect from the genre. The character and team building systems allow for flexibility while maintaining a decent level of challenge. It encourages constant improvisation, experimentation and adaptation, and it manages to do that within the framework of a genre notorious for being limited in its player freedom.
They play out in a pretty standard queue-based way, with speed determining a character’s position in said queue, brute forcing an encounter is likely to end badly. Identifying the enemy’s weaknesses, who is the best positioned to abuse it, and adjusting the team on-the-fly to accommodate new strategies is an essential part of every fight. Amon might be your primary damage-dealer in one engagement, but may become a low-damage, money-stealing support character in the next, should it turn out another character has a skill the enemy is particularly weak to.
On top of that are expansive talent and bond systems laid on top of the usual equipment systems common to JRPGs. Who each party member is paired up with can unlock new abilities and benefits for both as their bonds level up, meaning it is worth constantly rearranging the team to get as much use out of every character as possible. Talents, meanwhile, are statistical buffs that can be swapped at almost any time, allowing for experimental freedom without worrying about pigeonholing a specific character into a specific role.
Experimental freedom without worrying about pigeonholing a specific character into a specific role.
There’s also a surprisingly enthralling base for your team to populate and make full use of. Collecting seeds to grow into plants, which can then be used to craft potions, building new talents and equipment to fine-tune the team, and scavenging for new loot all offer a nice respite from the story and linear dungeons. I’ve particularly become obsessed with my garden, and tend to not leave to return to the main mission until I’ve levelled up a few plants and have more potions than I know what to do with.
Earthlock isn’t going to do much for JRPG veterans, as it lacks a level of polish and epic storytelling of series like Final Fantasy and Persona. But, for people like me who bounce off of anything even remotely hinting at a random encounter or linear dungeon, Earthlock manages to maintain the feel of a JRPG while adding and tinkering with a formula that’s been codified over literal decades. I couldn’t tell you what on God’s green earth is actually happening in it, but I can definitely tell you it’s worth your time regardless.
Review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PC/Xbox One/PlayStation 4/Switch [reviewed]
Developer/Publisher: Snowcastle Games
Release date: Out now.