As The World Turns
HIGH It feels so much like a JRPG from the PS2 era.
LOW Sometimes I want to send it back to the PS2 era.
WTF “Hogbunny” doesn’t sound like the kind of name a species would give itself…
It’s been long enough since the turn of the century that JRPGs are sometimes treated as objects of nostalgia, ripe to be mined for new “retro” development projects. I find this a bit ironic considering that JRPGs have never stopped reinventing themselves, often within the same franchise. In fact, I’d argue that moreso than many other genres, the only true convention of JRPG design is that there are no true conventions of JRPG design. Nevertheless, folks are making “retro” J-style RPGs, and in the case of Norway-based indie studio Snowcastle Games’ Earthlock, they’re made well.
As the first of a planned trilogy, Earthlock is an odd sort of throwback in that it doesn’t evoke the early ’90s era of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, like so many others do. Instead, the polygonal graphics and twists on turn-based combat remind me more of the early-to-mid ’00s, when the PlayStation’s dominance of the console market led to a flowering of third-party JRPGs, each attempting to be the successor to Final Fantasy VII‘s crown.
Earthlock‘s setting is Umbra. It’s a world where an ancient civilization’s passing has left a legacy of magic, and an unfortunate side-effect — the total ceasing of the world’s rotation. This so-called “Deadly Halt” has left the remaining races to a grim fate, as environments are wrecked and previously-inhabitable lands are frozen over with ice or turned into hostile deserts.
One survivor in this apocalypse is Amon, a sand scavenger who just wants to care for his uncle. Fate has other things to say about it, and Amon is quickly drawn into events of global significance. He’s joined by other would-be world-savers like the ambitious soldier Ive Lavender and the moogle-like “Hogbunny” Gnart Tigermoth. Earthlock features six playable characters who can endear with personality and flashes of wit, but aren’t done any favors by the cookie-cutter archetypes the writing fits them into.
It’s possible that this familiar feeling is deliberate on Snowcastle’s part since Earthlock began as a crowdfunded project explicitly evoking the nostalgia for that era of JRPG design. In fact, this version of the game is actually a re-release of sorts — an “extended edition” that incorporates changes and features designed to address complaints about last year’s release titled Earthlock: Festival of Magic. I never played the original and can’t speak to how it compares, but this updated Earthlock is available free to people who own the original, so previous players can try it out at no additional cost.
Mechanically, there’s no denying that Snowcastle knows how to put together an engaging tribute to this era of JRPGs. Earthlock cleverly twists old-style turn-based battles by including a system for grouping up enemies before wiping them out in a single round. Each character gets multiple “stances” and opportunities to build a unique approach to combat. A light crafting system, minigames and base-development segments also fill out the world and allow players to take a bit of a break from the bland main plot.
However, despite being a solid offering, I feel like Earthlock doesn’t do enough to set itself apart and properly modernize while maintaining the homage feel. For example, the stances and turn order manipulation in the combat system tickled my brain with possibilities at first, but the encounters rarely grow in complexity or demand more from the player as time goes on. Similarly, the crafting and base development features never feel necessary except as a way to alleviate the level grind needed to unlock every character’s skill tree. “Quality of life” choices like convenient fast travel and remote management of the base cuts out some of the tedious upkeep native to old-school JRPGs, but Earthlock bafflingly insists on an old-school save system that can cause players to significant progress if the adventure takes an unexpected turn — often, a turn brought on by one of Earthlock‘s unexpectedly tough boss fights.
Though uneven at times, it’s clear that Snowcastle Games have gotten it mostly right in their attempt to evoke the JRPGs from the turn of the century… It’s just a bit disappointing that this focus on bringing back old conventions hasn’t resulted in an experience that feels like it does anything new.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Snowcastle Games. It is currently available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 27 hours of play were devoted to the single-player modes. The game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+, and contains content descriptors for Fantasy Violence. The official description is as follows: This is a role-playing game in which players lead a band on heroes through adventures on a magical planet. As players explore the environment, they interact with characters, solve puzzles, and engage in turn-based combat against enemies. Players use various attacks (e.g., melee, magical, and ranged gun/cross-bow attacks) to defeat fantastical creatures and human enemies. Colorful light effects, smacking/impact sounds, and depleting hit points indicate damage during battles; enemies quickly fade away and disappear when defeated.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All interaction takes place in text. No audio cues are required for play. the text is not resizable. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.