Once upon a time, in an era long gone, there was a gamer who became so embroiled within a distant land of role-playing and adventure, that it became a landmark in what he sought when it came to the genre of RPG games. The title of that game was Final Fantasy VII and it was the only role-player that I ever, truly, invested myself in and completed to its very end. Since that time, I’ve always strived to find another title that could match that same level of investment. Some have come close, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild probably being the closest, but saying that, I would have to admit to not even being close to seeing everything that title has to offer, let alone finish its story. However, a recent discovery has led me back to that golden age of exploration and has found me completely invested within its role-playing mechanics.
Earthlock, published and developed by Snowcastle Games, is that game. Although previously released on other platforms, this new version for the Nintendo Switch has seen a complete overhaul with a massively changed and improved story, side quests added and optimised performance and cut-scenes. Despite its Norwegian origins, Earthlock has been developed from the inspirations of the Japanese style of classic 3D adventure RPG’s from the late nineties. However, with a fresh take on its turn-based combat and character progressions, this is very much a game that feels very modern as much as it does reminiscent.
The story takes place within the world of Umbra; a setting that has been built upon its past values of an evil force that was once deposed and destroyed, giving way to a more, pastoral way of life. However, within the shadows, a mysterious evil still lurks. Earthlock’s central plotline revolves around two main characters, Amon and Ive; two strangers whose destinies intertwine when an ancient cult kidnaps Amon’s uncle and the two of them set off on a rescue mission that finds them uncovering a very dark secret.
From the offset, the story had me invested in its mystery and intrigue. As with the introduction of Earthlock’s various characters; the development of their various personas soon had me feeling an interest within their lives; this is mainly due to a well written and conversed script despite the game containing no voice overs. With six playable characters to alternate between, the game offers a differing perspective to the stories and events that unfold. One of the attributes that helps develop an investment into each character, is the need to build friendships and relationships; by pairing up different combinations of character, you can gain an advantage in combat by utilizing different attacks and techniques that they build through trust.
These become important assets when fighting within the game. Using a turn-based mechanic, there is a good deal of strategy that needs to be considered during the heat of battle. Each character possesses different stances that allow for melee attacks, ranged combat and magical properties that can heal as well as cause elemental damage. Each stance contains a number of different moves which need to be taken into consideration depending on the outcome of each various battle. With the freedom to explore cities, towns, dungeons and temples, as well the larger expanses of a world map, there is no shortage of enemies with which to fight. Whereas, the Final Fantasy series of games incorporated a random element into its battle frequencies, Earthlock’s inhabitants are clearly visible which gives you the option of whether you want to engage in combat or not.
As well as the branching paths in combat abilities, each character also possesses a skill tree with which you can utilize various talents, as well as strengthen character development. All of these different branches also contain other areas which can be developed, and some skills or traits that can even be crafted, which offers a very expansive system in which to develop each of your characters. Although at first sight it all looks a bit daunting, the implementation of its system is expansive enough to satisfy the most hardened of stat collectors, yet is simple enough to understand and utilise with relative ease.
All the basic elements that comprise the genre of an RPG are all present within Earthlock. From trading, crafting, harvesting, exploring and travelling, all of the assets available to you are easily identifiable and don’t involve a myriad of menus or difficult steps of equipping and using various techniques, items or spells. All the locales, cut-scenes and world maps look visually beautiful with a large enough area to fully explore without getting too lost. If there is one gripe with the environments, then it would have to be the omission of any meaningful navigation. As you progress with character introductions, you do acquire a world map, however, with more local landscapes, or even traversing the world map, a lack of any waypoint markers makes it difficult to work out where you have to go, although thorough exploration will find what you are looking for. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as some locales possess a static camera angle and certain items of value or treasure chests can be missed without investigating your immediate area thoroughly.
The soundtrack produces a nice ambience that perfectly matches the scenery and setting of the game. Its production values are easily on par with a film score, as is the whole experience of the game; especially with some of the characters that you meet on your journey which had me feeling that there was a sprinkling of Star Wars magic in their appearance and execution. Overall, this new and improved version of Earthlock has substantially overhauled what the game may have been lacking in its previous iterations. The visual and audio aesthetics are suitably pleasing, as is the story and character development which really draws you into the game with a thirst to unveil whatever destinies may await them. There is a huge scale of depth, both in combat and character stats, with countless options for experimentation to find a suitable partnership that works for you with each combat encounter. As far as role-playing games go, this is easily a title that has gained my interest again and has me flourishing in nostalgia as I explore the land of Umbra with the same zest that I had when I travelled around Gaia as Cloud Strife investigating the secrets of the Shinra Corporation.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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