“There’s a new JRPG on Xbox One I think you’ll like”.
The kind of text message that’s bound to grab my interest, even when tired and grouchy.
Since I let my Xbox Gold membership lapse awhile ago, I hadn’t bothered paying attention to what free games came via Games with Gold. That is, until a friend told me he was convinced I’d love Earthlock: Festival of Magic.
He was right. Earthlock: Festival of Magic is utterly flawed and old-fashioned, but it’s kept my interest for longer than most games of late.
Earthlock completely passed me by during its successful Kickstarter campaign last year, which led to its release for Xbox One and PC last week. The game is a tough sell in many ways, which is precisely why being thrown in for free for Xbox Gold subscribers is a smart move. There’s pretty much no risk involved for the consumer.
The storyline in Earthlock is pretty straightforward–and familiar. The world of Umbra is under threat, and there’s a ruling Empire out to oppress innocent people. It’s all very formulaic, right?
This familiarity is precisely why Earthlock is a ‘love or hate’ kind of game.
Combat is turn-based, with the player commanding their characters to attack or defend at relevant moments, before the enemy fights back. There’s no opportunity to interfere mid attack, like some of the more recent JRPGs offer. It’s slow paced combat too–not ridiculously slow, but slow enough to indicate that you should be paying attention to your every move. This is all very old-school.
Earthlock also has a steep learning curve. Even ‘yard trash’ on the world map requires you to plan your moves, otherwise you’ll get wiped out sooner or later. Much like JRPGs of old, you invariably have to grind through numerous enemies, gaining additional levels before standing a chance in a boss battle. Even then, you can still die from a couple of ill-thought-out moves.
There are other problems with the game. The dialogue is stilted and frequently quite brief. There’s no voice acting. Even buying items isn’t as clearly laid out as you’d think. As I learnt when I accidentally bought a pile of potions instead of one, because I was looking for some kind of visual or audio cue to demonstrate what I’d done.
And while Earthlock’s design looks reasonably good, it’s dated, and nothing exceptional.
And yet, I really like Earthlock. It reminds me of those distant days when I’d desperately seek out any JRPG possible for my Playstation 1. In the UK, the Playstation 1 had some JRPGs (hello, Final Fantasy VII and Suikoden), but it was never quite enough. That’s how I found myself playing Wild Arms, Alundra, and Grandia. None of them were perfect, but they scratched that itch.
I get the impression that this is exactly what Earthlock: Festival of Magic is designed to do.
While it’s clunky and broken, it offers moments of inspiration. A flexible levelling system, for example–each time that a character gains a level, they gain a talent point. These talent points are then used on a grid that allows players to plot out abilities and stat increases however they want. That’s fairly standard for a levelling up system, but where Earthlock: Festival of Magic stands out is the fact that you’ll often have to ‘respec’ what you’re doing. No one build fits all. Instead, manipulation is key. Certain bosses require you to change things around, focusing on magical defense over attack, for instance. You need to be on your toes at all times.
That focus on defensive skills as much as physical attacks continues throughout the game. Many games simply require you to hit hardest, but battles in Earthlock are a little more varied. Frequently, you’re better off casting various buffs (boosts, essentially) beforehand, and taking a few weak blows early on in preparation for a stronger attack later.
Earthlock: Festival of Magic might lack depth when it comes to its storyline, but actually having to think about each move makes a delightful change after so many years of mainstream JRPG games.
That’s really where Earthlock: Festival of Magic comes into its own. It’s thoroughly nostalgic in its outlook. It consistently doesn’t hold your hand, right down to its vague journal feature that means if you leave the game for a few days, you might not know where you’re meant to be going next.
That’s both good and bad. If you’re relatively new to gaming and didn’t grow up with JRPGs, you’re probably not going to like Earthlock. It’s sometimes mean and always obtuse–just like they all used to be. As someone who’s been there before, however, I’ve enjoyed my return to the past. Sometimes, slightly broken just kind of works.