Earthlock: Festival of Magic is an RPG in a unique position. It undoubtedly feels like a JRPG, but was made by Norway-based SnowCastle Games. It's a Western developer taking a crack at making an RPG on the scale of Tales of Symphonia or Final Fantasy, but Earthlock may be reaching beyond the scope of what SnowCastle can make as an indie studio. It's a fun game that I'm admittedly still in the early hours of, but one that already feels like it's just going through the motions of imitating those games, rather than being inspired by them.
This isn't to say Earthlock is just a JRPG rip-off—far from it, in fact. There's an interesting "talent board" system which lets me customize the stats and perks that my characters get each time they level up, and the in-combat action point system that replaces mana is a refreshing change that forced me to think a bit more about spamming certain moves. But most of the game feels like it's walking in the footsteps of other JRPGs without ever understanding why.
The environments I've seen so far are bright and beautiful, but also strangely hollow. They feel like well decorated hallways full of placed set pieces, rather than lived-in areas of a believable, larger world. Dungeons are relatively linear, usually with a very straightforward puzzle in the middle, followed by a boss fight that just feels like a stronger version of the enemies I'd previously been fighting. It's as if SnowCastle knew it needed to design Earthlock's levels to look this way to be considered a JRPG, but didn't understand what makes that sort of design fun.
This extends to the story and characters too, none of which I care about in the least. They all have beautifully designed character art that disguises flat stereotypes. I control a young scavenger that dreams of glory who is unexpectedly paired with a brainy healer, and before I know where or why I'm being told to leave my home and travel to a far-off swamp. There we're joined by a tough fighter who doesn't need our help, but nevermind the generic insults she's throwing at us, we all have to walk somewhere else now. There's little emotion behind any of it as my characters are pulled from place to place, so I never became invested in their lives.
Looking for a fight
But for some, none of that missing depth will matter. The game is visually stunning, the plot in most JRPGs can be ignored, so what's it actually play like? The answer is a pretty standard, turn-based combat affair. Each character has two stances they can switch between and there are plenty of damage-type weaknesses and resistances to discover, but it's about what you'd expect from a turn-based RPG—and, so far, wholly unchallenging.
The more interesting parts of combat are instead outside of those encounters altogether. Customizing talents is part of that, but I could also pair certain members of my party to give them unique super-abilities that charge up after they've fought together for a while. Ranged attacks require ammo, which can either be purchased or crafted, and my home base hub area has a farming mini-game where I could grow and water plants that provided me with crafting ingredients.
Additionally, you can see the enemies you'll fight on the map (no random encounters here), allowing me to run from or lure in nearby monsters to determine how many I want to take on at once. More enemies is harder, but provides a bonus to money and experience if you win. It's all this prep work that keeps the battles interesting, while executing the fights themselves were more straightforward—sometimes just a matter of continuously pressing the 1 key. I'm hoping later enemies, and particularly later bosses, add something to shake that pattern up.
I'm definitely interested in playing more of Earthlock, but it's going to need a significant change of pace to keep me interested for the whole 30+ hour duration says it has. So far, it's a decently fun JRPG, but has pushed me quickly through a story without making me care. It's exciting to see a Western take on a traditionally Japanese genre, but Earthlock may end up being a lesson in just how hard JRPGs are to make.