Bottling up nostalgia and delivering it in a video game, especially in today’s market, is an art. Earthlock: Festival of Magic is one of those titles that captures the enjoyment from role-playing games of 15 years ago to create something special – even though it all feels quite familiar.
Developed by Norwegian team Snowcastle Games, Earthlock takes place on the planet of Umbra where a change in its rotation has caused havoc with various creatures and plant life. There are lots of quirky characters on Umbra and none more so than the game’s main protagonist, a scavenger called Amon, whose Uncle Benjo is actually a shark.
Snowcastle Games establishes Amon’s story with three other individuals: Gnart, a scholar of the ‘hogbunny’ species; Olia, a hotheaded hunter wielding a poleaxe; and Ive, a young army Cadet and daughter to a renowned military General. Getting to know these characters and their motivations takes time and Snowcastle Games does itself a disservice by frequently chopping and changing to different character perspectives within the opening two hours of play. Earthlock’s prologue lingers with a slow and convoluted story with forgettable references to ancient battles and secret societies.
Your patience and expectations of Earthlock may be tested here, but the game finally opens up shortly after Amon and his band of buddies gain access to a secluded island as their base of operations. This location contains a shop stocked with useful items as well as several workbenches to craft weapon ammunition and healing items. There’s also a makeshift garden that’s rather important in the crafting process, as many items require supplies harvested from your plants in order to be created.
Outside of this sanctuary, players will be roaming Umbra in search of precious items and powerful enemies. Earthlock integrates large-scale free-roaming sections woven into its story with smaller dungeon-crawling levels to create a world perfectly suited to adventure and exploring the unknown. The landscapes of Umbra are as diverse as they come, from searing deserts to dark luminescent caves and lush, hilly mountainous regions, Earthlock’s PlayStation2-esque graphics only add more to the intrigue. However, it’s a shame that Snowcastle Games have only implemented a camera rotation mechanic to half of its capacity due to its fixed position during dungeon exploration. I always like to see what’s going on around me and the inability to rotate the game’s camera quickly became a real nuisance. The limited soundtrack variety too adds to how dated the game feels, as the tunes accompanying the free-roaming sections and battles soon manifest into white noise due to their repetitiveness and lack of gusto.
I spent quite a bit of time, through no fault of my own, aimlessly wandering throughout the world until I stumbled upon a checkpoint or cutscene. You see, Earthlock doesn’t have a quest log and contains an unreliable in-game map – so it’s hard to keep track of current objectives and past adventures. For instance, I was sent to battle a creature in a region called the Konkylian Plains, which failed to show up on my map. It turns out I’d previously explored this area but there were no signposts to speak of – making Earthlock’s navigation quite misleading in this respect. Also, there’s so much potential in this world to be filled with treasure hunts and and other hidden goodies, that every location is virtually tied to the main story anyway; there’s almost no side quests to speak of and no reason to travel beyond your means.
The battles themselves are where the meat and potatoes of Earthlock lie and each character has two combat Stances that reflects two different styles of play. Amon can use ranged attacks with a makeshift rocket launcher or switch to a Thief for more melee-focused moves; as a mage, Gnart can buff the party with health or damage and accuracy spells; Ive can trap enemies in continuous spells or use a crossbow for a variety of elemental attacks on flying opponents. Furthermore, there’s a blue gauge that will light up to signify when a Pair can activate a new combat Super stance filled with more advanced abilities, whether they be for increased healing or insane amounts of damage.
There’s also the game’s mana system, called Amri. Unless a character is using ammunition-based movesets, every ability costs a certain amount of amri to cast – seen as small yellow squares. Resting for one turn gains some extra health between pairs and another amri point but it’s a risky move because that particular turn could be used for another attack or consuming a healing item instead; it’s simple but deep gameplay that makes every turn so important.
Earthlock’s strategic gameplay is given another dimension thanks to the Bond system. Every time a specific Pair of characters battles together they gain experience towards a set list of perks while in battle – ranging from one star to five stars. There’s an entire cross-section of perks that correspond to each potential pair, so it’s definitely worthwhile switching this order as often as you can. For example, having a five star Bond between Amon and Ive’s pet dog Taika gave me a 25 percent boost to fire damage, whereas a five star Bond between Gnart and Ive increases the efficiency of Gnart’s healing abilities. Despite the absence of a ‘Bond Metre’ that reflects your progress towards a new star rating, it’s quite fun mixing and matching the best Pairs to go into battle.
My roster of pairs was made all the more important by a deep and intricate levelling system. This simple two-dimensional board is filled with Stat (blue), Perk (red) and Ability (yellow) nodes that can be collected from chests, dead enemies or crafted from items at your base of operations. The Stat slots increase numerical outputs like damage and speed; Perks are the passive benefits a character takes into battle regardless of their pairing; Abilities are the real game-changers and their blueprints are usually dropped from boss fights that improve everything from ammunition damage to a quicker build-up of Bond during a battle. However, how you choose to craft each character’s skill tree is key because you can only advance further down by connecting different nodes.
Another noteworthy inclusion to Earthlock is its Bestiary – picture a more straightforward, simpler version than the bestiary from The Witcher 3. Full of electrical bugs, giant lizards and other fantastical beings, this log becomes an invaluable tool when battling different elemental creatures and identifying their strengths while honing in on their weaknesses. Still, even the bestiary wasn’t without its problems because, no matter how many times I dispatched a particular type of creature, their strengths and weaknesses weren’t revealed. This quickly became a problem, as this bug or glitch accounted for over a dozen enemy classes and put a sour note on a relatively useful game mechanic.
Earthlock doesn’t do anything new, but it re-introduces past gameplay mechanics from titles like the older Final Fantasy entries. But despite Earthlock’s charm, with its deep skill trees and interesting Bond system, it still manages to deliver a fairly average gaming experience. Even with an approach where players can jump in and explore right away, Earthlock: Festival of Magic falters with a muddled story and lack of useful navigation both in its map and camera manipulation. This game is worth a try but it goes without saying there are far better RPGs out there where the content matches the enjoyment.
For Yesteryear, From Today
The story of Earthlock: Festival of Magic struggles to find its feet but is saved by its battle structure and Bond system.