I’ve been growing ever more wary of the indie scene. It feels like one day we all went to sleep in a world where indie games stood apart as works of art competently made by small teams of visionaries and woke up in one that was completely different.
One where lack of funds is used as a defence for lack of quality, where charlatans occupy the same marketplace as creators, and where the good is hopelessly buried under the terrible.
I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, it’s just that more often than not I’ve picked up what looked like an interesting and promising indie game only to be left thinking, “Oh… well that’s disappointing.” Earthlock is another one of those games; a middle-of-the-road JRPG that doesn’t really offend, but does little to impress as well.
Earthlock has a bit of an interesting past. It was successfully Kickstarted in 2014 and released in late 2016, where the game was initially met with fairly mixed reviews. However, Snowcastle wished to address the criticisms and set to work fixing the game, putting the already in development sequel on the backburner. Having not played the initial release—originally containing the subtitle: Festival of Magic—I cannot speak to any changes that may, or may not, have been made. What I can speak to is the game I did play, and that leaves a lot to be desired.
Earthlock tells the story of the world of Umbra, once ruled by a despotic civilization who harnessed the power of “Amri,” Umbra’s magical energy. A cataclysmic event occurs that stops the planet from spinning and leaves part of the world scorched by constant sunlight and part of it perpetually cold due to lack of sunlight, with a patch of livable land in between. The main story follows the adventurer Amon; who, while scavenging within ancient ruins, gets entangled in a much larger conflict with the ruling Suvian Empire.
The gameplay is pretty standard JRPG affair. Players explore various lands and dungeons, encountering monsters to fight in turn-based battles. While seasoned RPG players will find most of the dungeon crawling and puzzle solving fairly old-hat, the combat has enough depth that fans may find something to enjoy. Earthlock certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it puts its own style on familiar ideas—like the “stances,” that change a characters moveset during battle, or the “Talents” system that is very reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid system—albeit square and very simplistic.
In terms of visuals, the game does have a distinct charm with original character, enemy, and city designs, unique environments, and a simplistic yet detailed cel-shaded art style. However, like many indie games I’ve played recently, Earthlock does have some good ideas, and a lot of originality and charm, but it suffers most from an overall lack of polish.
This is noticeable almost immediately when the game opens on a character and her canine companion (whose eyes are super-glued open) and her first line of dialogue is. “Time to wake up!” Once that curtain is pulled back, you begin to notice more and more things that make Earthlock look amateur. Like Paper Mario or The Legend of Heroes, combat can be initiated by striking an enemy first in order to get the upper hand at the start of the battle. However, unlike those games where you physically hit an opponent to do this, Earthlock simply has you press a button before an enemy reaches you and that’s it. Combat start.
Combat is probably where the lack of polish is most noticeable. Attack animations play out with little-to-no delay between input commands, element animations are janky and limited, there’s no delay between character attacks and enemy attacks, and the whole affair ends up feeling rushed in a bad way.
Being on the Switch, one has to take portability into account for their game, and Earthlock definitely does not. The game features no autosave function, which is common in RPGS, and save points are very few and far between, especially in dungeons. So if you’re playing on the go it better be for a car trip, otherwise, you’re going to have to leave the game running for a long time.
Earthlock is just okay, and it’s a bit upsetting because you can definitely see where a great game could have been just beneath the surface. This fact is doubly upsetting considering this version, supposedly, fixed a lot of issues. Fans of JRPGs will definitely find something to enjoy here, and I certainly didn’t hate it, but even after spending hours with the game, I never felt hooked by it.