Another week, another poorly made retro JRPG throwback.
Earthlock promises to be something of a throwback to old JRPGs from the Playstation era. That’s a weirdly specific time to select, one that often gets ignored in favor of the sprite-based years on the SNES. There’s a longstanding argument about when precisely the golden age of JRPGs happens to be, but the Playstation is one of those systems that is often brought up.
And on the surface, Earthlock does a great job emulating the classics of yore. The graphics look like more polished versions of the polygonal stuff from that time. It’s actually quite tricky to emulate not how those games actually were, but how they felt at the time; that’s something that sprite-based throwbacks have been working on and sometimes struggling with for some time (see Eastward for how to do it right). Yet Earthlock manages to do a great job encapsulating the feel of playing one of those old Playstation titles.
The story isn’t particularly groundbreaking; in fact, I’d call it quite average for a game of this genre. You follow Amon, the scavenger pictured above. He originally starts looking around in old ruins and temples to find treasures to sell in order to make a living. He does this with his Uncle Benjo, who gets the honor of being the only guest character in this game. Of course, Amon stumbles onto some ancient lost tech, then meets up with the scholarly hog-rabbit Gnart. Together they set out to figure out what’s happening and pull more and more characters into their wake.
So again, fairly standard stuff. I will give the game the same credit I gave Astria Ascending: there’s some variety in the game’s characters. It’s always frustrating to play a game like this where there are all these fantasy races and notice that your party is primarily human. In this case, half the party are human, and the other half are the aforementioned hob-bunny, a robot, and a dog. It’s a bit unfortunate that they slide into the stereotype of giving you not only a dog but a robot companion for those last few slots, and it’s even more unfortunate that they made the decision for both of those characters to not have a single spoken word of dialogue.
This means that a third of your party literally cannot speak. Sure, Taika the elemental hound can communicate via her mannerisms and noises like a Disney animal, but this still feels like a cop-out for character development. Not that we really see much in the way of development in the other three characters either. Amon stays the same standard protagonist throughout, and soldier Ive is still the over-achiever. The only character who really sees development is Gnart, who realizes he possesses his own sort of bravery (despite the game primarily leaning on Amon as the protagonist, Gnart feels like he fulfills the role better). It’s ironic that the creators supposedly wanted to break stereotypes, but went ahead and leaned into them so hard that it’s almost comic.
The battle system sort of works. There’s this really intriguing idea they have where you pair up your party of four into two pairs. The pairs add bonuses to one another, and they share your standard limit break system between them. This provides an interesting depth to the combat, as different pairings are more or less effective for different fights. The game also encourages you to mix up the pairings by granting rewards for doing so. This comes in as the pairs are leveled up by fighting and using abilities and the like. I love this sort of system, as it strongly encourages you to experiment with different party compositions and use everyone in the party.
It’s a shame that not everyone in the party is created equal. Taika the wonder-dog carved a spot into my roster the moment she joined and never left. See, she’s the only character that has moves that naturally target more than one enemy. Given that the game encourages you to gather up large groups of enemies together for higher experience (more on that botched mechanic in a bit), this means you’ll regularly fight upwards of eleven enemies. That is fun, but less so when you’re pretty much relying on one character to do the heavy lifting.
Yes, the game does reward you for fighting every battle. This means experience, money, and growth in the bonds you have. TP pops up every time you level, and is used to buy skills and enhance attributes via a Talent Board system that is pretty much just FFX’s sphere grid. But the thing is the more enemies you fight, the higher your loot is. Which means you’re constantly going to be wrangling in large groups of enemies, which means you’ll want to have attacks that hit more than one enemy, and, again, Taika is literally the only member of your party who can do this.
It’s bad game design, put simply. If you’re going to emphasize large battles, you need to built the characters in such a way that they can handle it. Instead, you’re left most likely relying on the one character who can do damage to groups, while the others do other things.
Now, that being said, the bosses are usually pretty well done. Often Earthlock presents bosses less as a bit obstacle to overcome and more like a puzzle to figure out. Sure, you can go grind and come back, but generally speaking, each boss does a certain thing, and figuring out how to counter it is the quickest path to success.
The one that most sticks out to my mind is my fight against the Gob King. The first time I went against him, I got my head handed to me, and it wasn’t even close. I was so baffled by this that I did what most modern gamers do: I looked up tips online. Turns out the trick is to hit him from a distance: melee attacks provoke his counters, but ranged attacks don’t. I tweaked my party setup and was able to overcome him with ease.
That’s a pretty good way to handle bosses. It’s a bit of a shame then that in a game that’s only 20 or so hours long with about 10 bosses that so many of those are outright reskins. You fight the same golem fight twice: the only difference is that one is earth while the other is ice. They also plop a semi-optional boss gauntlet down in the last dungeon.
Enemy design on the whole feels a bit lacking. There’s a lot of reskins running around, and there really aren’t that many enemies total anyway: pretty sure there’s less than 100. It makes things a bit of a drag.
But not nearly as much as the stupid level cap. For some reason, the developers capped the max level at twenty. For a RPG with a semi open world setup! I ended up hitting the max level with three dungeons to spare. That meant I had almost no reason to get into any fights at all, and thus spent several dungeons, including the last dungeon in the game, running around avoiding enemies and running from battles I got into. It’s utterly baffling why they set the max level so low (I hate low level caps period anyway; there’s a reason that most classic games set it for 100 but you could usually beat the games around level 40-50).
On top of that, “open-worlds” and JRPGs really don’t mix well. The game doesn’t really hit that open world status until the last half or third or so, where they give you several objectives throughout the relatively small “world” (it’s a continent and a half) and let you loose. But this is a JRPG, and that means that your characters level up and gain skills and abilities. That means in order to design it properly, you have to set it so that there’s a progression to enemies that matches your players. You could set it so that the enemy levels match the characters’, but that still doesn’t always work, not without a lot of tweaking. And this game does not have enough tweaking (hints for later).
With that open world setup, I randomly selected to go to the desert location as my first stop. I had just cleared the area previously and figured that meant the fights would give me a challenge. I actually did alright fighting my way through mobs, got to the boss, and got my head handed to me (shockingly familiar, right?). So I did what you do in an open-world: I opted to go somewhere else.
It turns out I selected the path that leads to the final area. I cruised through the dungeon introducing it, because the enemies were all weak to lightning and that’s Taika the wonder-dog’s specialty. I got to the final area, and was pulling in so much experience that I shot up in level, gaining something like five levels in just one little area. I wasn’t struggling too much thanks to my talent at abusing Taika’s abilities, but I quickly realized that I was in the last world map of the game. I veered back to another area, and proceeded to cruise through a dungeon without trying… because I was supposed to clear it earlier.
The open-world setup just didn’t work. Mix that with the stupidly low level cap, and I ended up wasting the last chunk of my time with the game. The combat, which previously had been the highlight, became a chore, because I wasn’t getting rewarded for it and most of the fights came down to “Taika, use Lightning…. It’s super effective!” The story had already become more or less monotonous by that point, since the characters remained as static as ever. Only Gnart and to a lesser extent Ive are all that likeable or developed. Amon could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout, and the two non-speakers are just sort of there.
I haven’t mentioned the glitches yet.
See, partway through the game, around the time I went back to that dungeon to cruise through, I started to noise… glitches. It seemed fairly minor, graphical errors and the like. But soon I realized that any time I shifted from the game to the Switch home screen, my character would drop down a layer in the graphics. This meant that I was moving in the black outside of the stage instead of on the terrain in the middle. The first time this didn’t effect me much: I was in a sort of open swamp area and just moved to the next screen to refresh.
That didn’t happen with a later tower. There I did the same thing, switching over to the home screen, a regular action I do to check the time or silence the game for a call, and I came back to find that I couldn’t progress. I tried it again to see if it would fix, and I got this.
This game has been out for a while: there’s no excuse for literal game breaking glitches.
Mix that with an archaic system of saving that relies on save points, and I was effectively screwed. I lost a good half hour or so of play because the game wasn’t properly playtasted and rigged for the system it’s on. At least it didn’t delete my save, or this review would be even lower.
Earthlock started strong. I came to it fresh from Astria Ascending, so I was optimistic, willing to overlook minor flaws and lean on the strengths. Its early hours present those strengths: an intriguing battle system, semi-likeable characters, and decent exploration. However, as the game wears on, it tries on various concepts that don’t work and the cracks start to show. It feels like a rough draft that needed at least one more revision to be a truly worthwhile experience.
4 early potential doesn’t make up for a lackluster follow through, and some really inexcusable bad choices, including game-breaking glitches