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Can Earthlock: Festival of Magic scratch that RPG itch?

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    Earthlock: Festival of Magic

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Can Earthlock: Festival of Magic scratch that RPG itch?

    When’s the last time you played an old-school RPG? The kind where your team and the enemy line up, and then you all take turns hitting each other (so orderly!). Chances are that it’s been awhile. "Earthlock: Festival of Magic" aims to change that with its own spin on the classic genre, and if you’re anything like me, that call of nostalgia can be a tempting lure…

    As the game starts, we are told of an ancient civilization that ruled like gods… until "an uprising" happens and the planets "amri core" was shattered, tainting the creatures and plant life on the surface and grinding the planet to a halt ("Earthlock" is an apt name, it turns out). You know how these things go… ancient civilizations turn to legend and legends are forgotten as time goes on.

    With the back story out of the way, the game itself primarily focuses on the rebellious military cadet Ive (short for Ivory) and a desert scavenger named Amon and how their paths cross. While there’s some promise early on with the game’s story (and particularly with Amon’s personal interest in how he fits in overall), by the end the story just falls flat. Character motivations are left unanswered, even when they are called into question. The ultimate bad guy isn’t introduced early enough and doesn’t have enough interactions with any of the characters to make you care about him, and worse of all the game’s back story (what with the earth no longer moving and all…) just isn’t delved into nearly enough. These things are bad enough on their own, but they are amplified even further due to the game’s genre: people EXPECT good storied in their role-playing games. It just feels like the developer dropped the ball here, as we have an interesting back story, world and character potential, but none of them are delved into deeply enough to create a memorable tale.

    What the game lacks in good story however, it makes up for with its game play. I was quite honestly surprised by how much fun I had while playing this game, all thanks to the additional systems that are at play here. At its core, this is indeed a turn-based RPG where you defeat enemies, gain levels, and become stronger over time. However, each character has two "stances" they can be in that drastically change their attack type. You can change these stances mid-battle of course, which adds a bit of strategy to the fights. For example, do you need a fighter to become a tank mid-battle, or perhaps a thief to add ranged attack options. All possible with a stance change.

    The strategy goes deeper than that however. You can pair characters up with each other and as they fight, they’ll gain bond points which unlocks abilities (and with six characters in total, there are a lot of possible pairs here, with a lot of different perks unlocked). The way you level up has a touch of strategy as well. Each level up and certain bond pairings give you "Talent Points". You can use these points on a talent board (think of a smaller version of the "License Board" from Final Fantasy 12), adding cards that increase passive stat bonuses, give you active skills, or give you passive skills, depending on how you want to move around the board. The best part of this board is that you can swap out these cards at any time. Are you facing an area where enemies use a lot of magic attacks? Think about swapping out that "Armor" card for a "Resilience" card to buff up your magic defense. Or perhaps you’ve been stacking too much attack and find yourself missing too many times in this new area… sounds like you’d better swap some "Might" cards for some "Accuracy" cards.

    Another pleasant surprise is that this game can be challenging. Some of the boss fights throughout the game (especially at the end) can be HARD and definitely require some strategic play to overcome (your party member pairings and how you chose to fill out your talent board really do matter). The last real noteworthy thing that sets Earthlock apart is your base of operations, which you’ll gain shortly after starting the game. At this base you can grow plants which will level up and mutate over time (an addicting little hobby…). These plants act as free sources of materials that you can use to craft ammo and items for your characters. Who knew horticulture could be so profitable?

    In the end, the game play of Earthlock goes a long way towards making up for the story as a whole. It takes the classic turn-based formula and adds its own spin on several systems in order to add some much-needed strategy and game play ideas.

    Another thing you’ll likely notice right off the bat is the game’s graphics and how similar to the PS2 era they are. Quite good for an indie title, really. The environments and dungeons here are all 3D, with the models being 3D as well, but given a cartoon-like style which was a great design choice. The animations throughout the game are all solid, but occasionally have the odd hiccup here and there (I’ve seen character turns get hung up in battle and walls you were supposed to interact with in a dungeon just plain missing…). Many of the dungeons also have puzzles that must be solved to proceed and were designed quite well, but the developer clearly overly relied on the old "match the light to this lock" type of puzzle and puzzle variety suffered as a whole because of it. Still, overall the graphics are solid and there’s nothing game-breaking here.

    Being an indie title, you shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no voice acting to be seen here. There’s that nostalgia kicking in again: we have to get all of our story through reading text, just like the good old days! The music in the game ranges from mediocre to some impressive tunes. I particularly liked the main theme and boss battle themes, as well as the world map theme (Go check out "Smashing Waves" and "Vast Canyons" if you want some good audio tracks). Solid all-around, even without voice acting.

    The game can undeniably get a bit repetitive as time goes on. This is eased in the beginning and middle parts of the game thanks to new characters and abilities being added, but near the end of the game you’ll have your strategies worked out and, well… why mess with something that isn’t broken? Until a boss shows you how broken it is, of course…

    You can expect a solid 20-25 hours out of the game. There’s a few side-quests and optional bosses you can delve into, but with a level cap of 20 there’s no hiding the fact that this isn’t the biggest RPG out there. The strategy and HQ systems in place do help quite a bit, as does the fact that the game has a full trophy list (including a platinum) that is relatively easy to obtain.

    Overall: 7/10

    In the end, while the story is regrettably un-memorable and fairly lacking, the game play makes up for it with several clever, strategic spins on time-tested game play mechanics. Back that up with solid graphics and audio and you have yourself an old-school RPG that should scratch that itch you’ve been having. Have fun and keep playing!

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