A few hours in
Several dangerous and/or exciting things did, in fact, end up happening.
As I write this, I’ve clocked about ten hours in Earthlock: Festival of Magic. In that time, it has moved through a number of JRPG plot beats, as I assume we were all expecting. There was mention of an ancient power and an evil cult, aided by one of General Lavender’s trusted underlings. There were a handful of mysteries around ancient technology, including but not being limited to the ancient disk that Amon found, and that Benjo got himself kidnapped for. Yeah, that did also happen. Don’t pretend you didn’t see it coming. I know we were all rooting for Permanent Party Member Benjo, but we got some good people in return! Like Gnart, the ‘hogbunny’ scholar. Or Olia, the jerk warrior with a heart of pyrite. Ive and her dog Taika showed back up again too! And then there’s the robot, whose name is PAT.
Okay, so this is a bit of a babbling opening for a page 2 section. I normally have more to say about the preceding gameplay here, which I then try to segue into my gameplay talking points. I’d love to do that for Earthlock as well, though, but it’s just… I don’t know how to do that. I can’t really connect Earthlock‘s narrative and gameplay experiences to relevant critical observations when Earthlock itself doesn’t seem to be interested in doing this.
Is that good? I don’t know if that’s good. Does that sound good to you?
I’m trying to find a way to talk about Earthlock: Festival of Magic without sounding overtly mean, but that’s harder than it sounds. See, there are two general issues that informed my Earthlock experience: The story isn’t very good, and the mechanics aren’t very good. That… doesn’t leave a whole lot to be nice and positive about!
Let’s start with Earthlock‘s story, which is… not great? It’s not terrible either, just…
Game stories in general, and RPG stories in particular, tend to be driven by characters, worldbuilding, and plot beats, in varying degrees. In all three categories, Earthlock presents a relatively mediocre effort. It’s never particularly bad, or frustrating, it’s just never very interesting either.
Let’s start with the world and setting, arguably the most interesting part of Earthlock from the outset. There’s a lot of narrative potential in a world with an ancient past, a world that stopped spinning due to an unexplained cataclysm and is now divided into Perpetual Day and Perpetual Night with only a small habitable area left on the planet, and a world steeped with ancient technology, magical energy, and varying animal-human races. It’s a potentially interesting setup, but Earthlock never really does anything with it. Apart from brief mentions to the Deadly Halt here and there, the peculiar state of the planet Umbra has so far never been relevant to story or gameplay: You never visit the zones of eternal light or darkness, you don’t hear anything about different races or cultural differences, and even the lack of a day-night cycle is never brought up. You can just sleep in normal beds, in normal rooms, at any time! Seems like that would be tricky in a world where the sun never sets. The game almost goes out of its way to not do anything with its own setting. One section sees you traverse the Burning Desert, source of the above screenshot. You’d think this would be a perfect set piece to showcase the dangers of the eternal light side of the world. But no, it’s just… part of the small island you’re on. If this is intended to be the dangerous light side, it’s never mentioned or brought up. In fact, the only reason I even know that Earthlock has this interesting setting is because writing this review had me go over early screenshots. During normal play, I’d plum forgotten about it.
And I already joked about Uncle Benjo, right? Benjo, Gnart the hogbunny, and Unnamed Hogbunny the hogbunny are (as far as I can tell) still the only three non-human figures you meet. All towns and places are primarily filled with humans. Again, this is never brought up, or questioned, or explained.
And then there’s the character writing. It’s functional on the barest level. Amon is a scavenger from the desert, who cares about riches and about finding his uncle back. Ive is the daughter of the general and the best of her class. Gnart is a scholar, and he’d prefer not to be out adventuring. Olia is a solitary warrior who doesn’t seem to think much or care about the others. These are all decent character summaries, outlines, and with a projected 20 hour play time there’s a fair amount of development and interaction you can get out of this. Even by leaning on the tropes, a few stories present themselves: Maybe Amon and Ive clash because of their different upbringings (but then find they’re both self-made survivors), or maybe Gnart isn’t as prepared for adventuring life as the others. But this doesn’t really happen in Earthlock. The character outlines are never really filled in or developed, leaving the characters in this strange limbo state where they’re half ‘character starting point’ and half ‘whatever the writer needs them to be at that point’.
When we re-meet Ive (who crashed her plane for vague reasons), her driving motivation is finding her dog, Taika. This causes the tiniest bit of friction between her and Amon, but nothing to write home about. Then, when Taika is found in the desert, Ive just… ceases to have a motivation of her own. ‘Sure,’ she says, ‘I’ll help you guys on your quest now’. There is no mention of the failed test flight, or the forces that brought her down, or the fact that her father — who explicitly tried to stop her from doing this flight — must be super worried. Then again, who am I to say that he is? I know nothing about Ive’s father.
And when Earthlock does try to do character development… Once you get to the Burning Desert section, Gnart (who apparently can’t stand the heat very well) passes out. This blacks out the screen, despite there being no precedent for Gnart being any kind of viewpoint character. When ‘you’ come to, the character Olia is gone. Just gone from the party, like that. Ive and Amon explain that Olia didn’t want to wait for Gnart to recover, and went ahead on her own. That’s it, that’s the whole character beat. We don’t even see Gnart reacting to this baffling betrayal from a character he was specifically ordered to escort. Not to mention it totally overlooks the fact that not ten minutes ago, these characters were all united in wonder and friendship over their new magical island home — but more on that in a bit.
Narratively, Earthlock doesn’t have a lot on offer. It could still stick the landing by having compelling and interesting gameplay systems. But then, you probably already know what direction this part of the review is taking.
Earthlock is evidence of a common problem in game design I like to call ‘the problem of non-interlocking systems’. The game is packed with systems, and mechanics, and ideas: It’s a fair assessment to say that whatever Earthlock is, exactly, it is a lot of that. But very few of these systems actually interact. The art of game design is so often the art of choosing which systems (and themes, and stories) are core to the intended experience, and then making sure everything works together mechanically and thematically. Earthlock, in contrast, seems to have thrown in Everything And The Kitchen Sink.
Let’s look at some individual systems and you’ll see what I mean. Obviously, the one you’ll be spending most time with is the combat. It is… functional, as far as JRPG combat goes. I would describe it as largely the same idea as Final Fantasy X, but without the cleverness and polish that make Final Fantasy X as good as it is. Up to four characters on your side, and up to apparently infinity characters on the enemy side, take turns using abilities, fighting, drinking potions, resting, and switching stances. Last one standing takes the crown.
It’s a decent combat system, though by no means great. I do like the conceptual idea of locking abilities to different stances, even if the reality of it is that you’ll probably stick your characters to one preferred stance unless you really need to switch — Gnart’s healing is incredibly valuable, so his ‘buff party stats’ stance sort of pales in comparison. And Olia’s counter-attack stance is only nice if you face enemies that you’re sure use melee attacks and nothing else. You get the idea.
Even within this single system, you can already see some ideas at war with themselves. So many of Earthlock‘s combat abilities inflict timed effects on enemies and allies: Healing, haste, burning, poison, the whole toy box. Together with its penchant for throwing large enemy groups at you, you might believe Earthlock‘s combat is characterized by carefully buffing allies and debuffing enemies to survive the long haul. But then in the same breath, Earthlock decides that it wants to be a fast game. This isn’t your grandparent’s stodgy JRPG, Earthlock keeps up the pace. So animations are fast, and turns whiz by quickly. Your turn, my turn, his turn, her turn, your turn, my turn, your turn again…
But when turns are fast and turnaround is high, buffs and debuffs tend to be over before you know it. Literally, in some cases. Like, there’s a Haste buff that some characters can activate, that increases the speed of their next two turns. Which sounds good in theory, but then in a matter of seconds those two turns will have passed. And the buff is gone. Was that… really valuable? Should you do it again? Similarly, characters getting poisoned or burned isn’t all that big a deal — three turns, tops, and it’s gone.
In practice, the only things that end up being important in Earthlock‘s combat are abilities that damage your enemies’ health bars, and abilities that keep yours up. Anything that isn’t explicitly that feels like a waste, and a drag. Why would I spend one turn making myself faster, so I can attack more quickly for two turns… when I can also attack on that first turn, and then attack again on that second turn, and still have two attacks under my belt? Many JRPGs suffer from this problem, of the combat becoming a boring exchange of basic attacks in the interest of efficiency. But Earthlock is the only example I can remember in recent memory that has systems in place to counteract that, then goes out of its way to sabotage its own systems.
No doubt to add some more tactical thinking to the fighting, Earthlock introduces consumable items as a critical factor of sorts: Almost all direct (non-over-time) healing is done with potions, there are potions to cure status effects, and Ive and Amon use various kinds of elemental ammo for their ranged attack stances. There aren’t all that many chests in dungeons, and not all that many merchants on the road, so in basic theory, items are rare.
This is actually an issue in its own right: Amon and Ive are the only characters with a stance that becomes entirely useless if you don’t carry the right items. What’s more, these stances and items are also the only way to damage flying enemies, as per the tutorial. Can you imagine how much fun it’d be to run out of spud bullets in the middle of a combat zone?
Earthlock ‘solves’ this ‘problem’ by giving you access to a magical island of solitude and safety, where you can grow various plants to craft into ammo as you need to.
No, but really.
There’s really no easy way to describe Plumpet Island, so I’ll just sum things up. First, it’s a warp hub: Only when you find this place do the ‘Warp Statues’ live up their name, allowing you to warp to and from the island. Which means you need two steps to warp from one normal statue to another, but whatever. Two, you can heal here by sleeping, which is not something save points do by default — but which you can still access from any save point at any time. Three, it’s a crafting hub, for ammo and potions and level-up mechanics. And four, there’s the aforementioned magical garden.
It goes a little bit like this: Sometimes, you’ll find seeds. You plant these seeds in indicated spots in Plumpet Garden, and water them, and they’ll slowly grow into plants. Once they’re grown, you harvest them for materials, water them again, and the cycle continues. Every now and again the plants will grow bigger (for more harvest) or ‘mutate’, which lets you plant advanced plants. In a nearby house, plant materials can be used to craft healing potions, and various kinds of ammo.
You might be wondering how long it takes for the plants to reach harvest maturity. You might be picturing a Farmville-type situation, where every few hours of play you duck out of dungeon-crawling to check on your spuds. You’d be wrong. On average, plants bounce back from being harvested in something like 20-30 seconds. In fact, once you have about six plants going, it’s entirely possible to run circles around your garden, harvesting and watering plants with almost no pause, forever.
Now, first off: This is baffling. It’s such a weird solution to a weird problem. Why do only two characters need ‘ammo’ for their attacks, but nobody else does? Why do these characters essentially get a whole suite of elemental attacks for free, while other characters have to work for it? And why would you make ammo a consumable resource, but then also make it a functionally infinite resource? I can at any time pop into Plumpet Island and spend ten minutes farming relevant plants, and I’ll end up with hundreds of ammo items. The only reason I can think of is game-padding, and even that doesn’t work, because this isn’t even that much of a time sink.
(Worse, the problem that Earthlock tries to prevent here is essentially solved. Providing limited health and ammo consumables a la Dark Souls, or even per combat like Penny Arcade’s On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, would basically do what I think this system is intended to do.)
More to the point, this is essentially what I mean when I say that Earthlock is a game of ‘non-interlocking systems’. There are a lot of different in Earthlock, but they don’t really meaningfully interact. Combat is packed with status effects and interesting timing puzzles, but it’s also zippy and fast and over quickly. Players are arbitrarily held back by a need for consumables and ammo and healing, but then Plumpet Island essentially removes that need immediately. The game encourages you to take risks in combat, but then fails to account for the power it’s voluntarily giving you, meaning that ‘grab all the enemies’ is always the most EXP-efficient solution, except when it isn’t. And I haven’t even gotten into some of the other systems yet. Like the Talent Board, the game’s chosen level-up system, which is really interesting in theory (you place tiles on a board that represent stats, perks, and new abilities) but fairly straightforward in practice (you’ll usually just give each character the stats that match their roles). Or the neat-on-paper ‘bond’ system, whereby two characters unlock new bonuses by fighting together as a ‘pair’… Except they don’t really fight as a pair, it’s all bookkeeping, and all this does is make you jump through an additional set of hoops to make sure everyone is as powerful as they can be.
Every single one of these ideas, the ones that I spent a lot of time and the ones that I just name-dropped, are cool in isolation. All of them! I’d love to see another JRPG that does Fire Emblem-style pair-bonding in a way like Earthlock. I really like the combat system’s focus on taking risks and being daring, which is exemplified by the EXP bonuses you get after a match: ‘This many enemies’, ‘And they outnumbered you’, ‘And none of your dudes died’, so here’s a ton of bonus EXP. In a more fully realized timing-based battle system, the stances and the modular abilities from the Talent Board could lead to really interesting character building and decision making.
It just doesn’t connect. The mechanics all exist in their own little world, each system an island unto itself. And the basic story, moving through expected JRPG beats, never once stops to really look at those elements in its settings that are actually interesting and unique. Why haven’t I in my ten hours of play seen the dark side of the world, or the light side. Why don’t I know anything about how this world persists or operates? And why, why, do none of the characters ever react in the appropriate way to being given a magical staff that teleports them to a magical island of unlimited food and ultimate safety from any point across the world?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
You know, I discovered two interesting things about Earthlock while doing research for this review. One, the alpha versions of this game were apparently significantly different from the final product. The same skeleton is there, but I’m talking different graphics, different characters, different story, different mood. I wonder at what point in the development that game turned into this game. More and more, the Earthlock that I’ve played comes across as an out-of-control tech demo, or a prototype that was released before a crucial polish stage; Who knows, maybe that’s actually what happened. Or maybe I’m being needlessly cruel right now.
And two, the reason I discovered one in the first place: If you Google ‘Earthlock wiki’, the very first search result sends you to a fan wiki for this alpha version of the game. Honest to goodness. The very first wiki you can find for this game is a wiki for a version of the game that does not exist. Tell me that’s not fascinating. It’s almost the digital equivalent of archaeology. How did they get all this material?
As is stands, the Earthlock: Festival of Magic that we ended up getting is a decidedly functional game. It works. It doesn’t do much more than work: The story is perfunctory, heavy on clichés and light on character development, and the various systems never come together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. But it does work, I can’t fault it for that. If all you want is a JRPG where you can fire exploding potatoes, harvest plants on a magical island, and play as a warthog scholar bunny, Earthlock‘s got you covered, I guess.
It does cost almost thirty dollars at full price, though. I, er. I don’t generally recommend that you wait for a sale, but in this case… Let’s just say that if I paid more than ten bucks for this experience, it’s entirely possible my review would’ve been more overtly mean-spirited than it already was.
Jarenth has no magical plants in his real house. Poor him. Console his lack of plant-liness on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?