A Festival of Magic
Earthlock is a throwback to classic 90s RPGs with all the fixings – a turn-based combat system, customizable character progression, and a plot about teens fighting for the world. Developer Snowcastle Games originally released this title in 2016 as Earthlock: Festival of Magic but decided to improve the game’s story flow and quests. Although I haven’t played the original version, I can share my experiences for this “Should Have Been Edition” as a first timer.
Please be sure to check out my Video Review!
Earthlock takes place in Umbra, a magical world that has stopped spinning due to an apocalyptic catastrophe from the ancient past. A young scavenger named Amon has a simple goal: rescue his sick uncle Benjo – whom, by the way, is an anthropomorphic hammerhead shark. He forms a party with strong female warriors, animals, and robots. I liked the main characters but found their dialogue dull and stiff, as if they were just going through the motions on this fairly linear journey. Consequently, emotional moments were hard to take seriously with the relatively flat characters during cutscenes. At least the ethereal tunes of the soundtrack fit with the lush, colorful backdrops, sporting a style that recalls classic PlayStation 2 RPGs. It’s a shame that the promising story premise – while not bad – falls short of delivering an engaging narrative.
Otherwise, I found the characters charming with regards to their abilities and appearances. Everyone looks like they popped out of a classic fantasy novel and sport powers that reflect their uniqueness. Gnart is a rabbit and hog hybrid who is just short enough to run under low structures, and Ive is a trained cadet who uses stealth to bypass enemy encounters on the map. Navigating the overworld and puzzling dungeons requires ample switching of your characters. I grew to enjoy the party based on how they played more than how they contributed to the story.
Robust character progression helped me appreciate the gang even more. In a system reminiscent of the Final Fantasy series’ sphere grids and license boards, Earthlock has a talent board. By earning talent points through battles, you can upgrade your character using tablets that represent either a stat boost, unlockable ability, or passive trait. Each tile on the grid holds one tablet of the appropriate type, and you can only fill in tiles adjacent to tablets you’ve already placed.
There are two standout features of the talent board. First, there are pre-placed tablets on the board, and by connecting your own tablets to it, you get a bonus boost. The second big feature – and the reason I highly approve of this system – is that you can freely replace and reuse tablets as you wish. In a gaming atmosphere obsessed with perfect maxed-out characters, it’s such a relief that you can easily switch around your party’s stats and abilities as needed. In fact, the game encourages you to equip the most ideal stat distributions and powers for any given situation. The malleable progression is both smart and forgiving.
Preparation is a big theme of the gameplay. An entire area, Plumpet Island, is devoted to helping you plan for future fights. You can construct ammo, healing items, and ability-granting tablets by using materials you earn, purchase, or harvest from plants. Yes, there is a gardening side-task, which functions like a time-sensitive mobile game. Thankfully, Earthlock’s system is faster, usually taking less than a minute for the garden to bear fruit. That being said, the gardening and crafting loop gets tedious, and I would have appreciated a more streamlined system. But at least it’s a relaxing break from battle.
Speaking of which, the battle system is…decent. Elaborating with the positives, battles follow a solid formula. You bring in a party of four into turn-based combat. Just like in Final Fantasy X, you can see the turn order and change the queue depending on your actions. Each move consumes either ammo or magical energy called Amri. If you run out of Amri, you can rest to regain it, or, humorously enough, play dead to escape battle. Combat controls are fairly intuitive. Instead of picking actions from a standard menu, you press buttons corresponding to the skill you wish to use.
The major features in battle are stances and bonds. Each character has two stances, or playstyles, that they can switch between during battle at the cost of a turn. It’s a clever mechanic that artificially doubles the amount of playable character classes. For instance, Amon can use daggers to stab enemies, as well as a blaster to hit airborne foes. Olia has powerful attacks that can slash or pierce. Or you can switch her stance to a counterattacker, who taunts the enemy and strikes back in full force. It adds strategy during battle, although I usually avoided changing stances when I could. Meanwhile, bonds refer to pairing characters during battle. You can make two groups of two members, and each specific character combination wields different perks, like enhanced healing, that unlock over time. Pair them long enough, and they can activate a temporary power boost to their abilities, which is gratifying to witness in action.
Combat may be sound in theory, but battles feel like they drag on forever. Most battles are against large groups, and it takes a while to whittle each grunt’s HP, more so without effective area attacks. To make matters worse, attack animations feel long, even with fast-forward on. Due to the steep difficulty curve, some bosses required a grind, which I dreaded having to do. The bosses themselves present a nice challenge requiring unique strategies, but facing fodder mobs was a chore. The game isn’t even that lengthy for an RPG – roughly 20-25 hours depending on how many fetch quests you do – but it feels long due to the slow gameplay. Some minor quality of life issues don’t help either, like the fact that you can only warp or heal by first going to Plumpet Island.
The “Should Have Been Edition” of Earthlock has clever ideas, but they’re not all executed as well as they could have been. I was particularly engaged with the character progression and preparation mechanics; but the story and battles, while certainly decent, were slow grinds that didn’t make strong impressions. There are better adventures on the Nintendo Switch, but for what it’s worth, Earthlock is a fine choice for fans of retro ‘90s RPGs.
Note: A review copy was provided by the publisher for this article.