Nostalgia is not enough to make a RPG an enjoyable experience.
Taking a leap into the RPG genre is a tough task for any developer, especially for a indie team of 15 people. Snowcastle Games went through five years of development and a Kickstarter campaign in order to make its first console title, Earthlock. Leveraging their self-described love of classic 3D RPGs of the late ‘90s, their hope was to create something that like-minded fans would appreciate, but what resulted was just a repetition of stale ideas.
Earthlock begins with your typical RPG history lesson: an ancient civilization ruled over all the people of Umbra by utilizing the magic or amri that is stored within the core of the world. After a period of time, the oppressed rose up against their oppressors and in the ensuing battle the amri core exploded, causing catastrophic disasters that effectively wiped out most everything and spawned a new civilization where beast and man alike can control magic. Umbra has settled into a relative calm since that forgotten time but the whispers of the old civilization have begun spreading from the old ruins.
It’s at this point in Umbra’s history that your journey takes place. Throughout the story, six different characters will come and go within your party. All have their own goals and motivations but for the most part everything revolves around the character Amon. A discovery of an ancient artifact leads to Amon’s uncle becoming abducted and all of the character’s personal quests intertwining in the common goal of rescuing him. Earthlock does a well enough job of making each character distinct but none are all that compelling. The story doesn’t really offer any narrative that hasn’t already been fully explored in past RPGs. The dialogue between the characters is fairly bland so you don’t get much of a deep look into their personalities and therefore don’t get that personal investment into any of their stories.
The combat and progression structure don’t offer any fresh or unique ideas either. Combat is your standard turn-based JRPG, with your party on the left and the enemies on the right with a line of profile pictures that illustrate whose turn is coming up. Each character has two stances, the fighters have melee and ranged, the healer has focus and healing, and the final three characters have variations of attack and defence stances. Most battles tend to require a mixture of combat styles, with the exception of boss battles that are more about solving a puzzle than actual strategy. Each boss requires you to figure out which particular attack or defence is optimal, with victory pretty much relying on that mechanic. You can try to rebel against this design choice but you’ll just be disappointed. To hammer home that you must rely on a specific strategy, after you lose to the boss, an NPC that acts as a guide will simply appear when you respawn and can tell you what you need to do to win.
Progression of each character’s statistics also borrows elements from past RPGs. A progression grid that Final Fantasy veterans will immediately recognize gives you a bit of variation on how you want to strengthen each character. This is on top of your standard XP collection through the defeat of enemies, which also provides stat boosts when you’ve earned enough XP to reach the next level. One interesting aspect of Earthlock was the usage of a hub island that acts as the party’s quasi-base of operation. At save points, you have the option to teleport to the island to farm materials that allow you to make ammo and potions, craft new weapons, or combine elements to unlock bonuses in the previously mentioned grid progression.
The feeling I get from playing Earthlock is that the developers love of JRPGs from the late ‘90s and the need to recapture that feeling really handcuffed the potential. From the animation to the structure of the combat and progression, most aspects of Earthlock can be traced back to an earlier game that just did it better. Without its own original or unique hook, Earthlock just feels bland and dated. For an independent developer to be able to carve out a piece of the RPG market dominated by big players like Atlus and Square Enix you need to bring something new and unique to the table and unfortunately this is something that Earthlock doesn’t accomplish.