Earlier this month I posted on Twitter about being caught in the crossfire of two different sensations I’ve discussed on Adventure Rules in the past. Having wrapped up a major project at the end of September and then immediately finishing a major video game right after, I found myself directionless and unmotivated at the beginning of October. In an effort to fill the gaming void I decided to check out the demos in the Switch e-shop to see if anything caught my fancy. One of the demos which jumped out to me was Earthlock, a game that promised a unique spin on turn-based RPG gameplay. I’ve been craving a JRPG experience recently, so I decided to give Earthlock a try.
The game opens on some lovely artwork with a classic future-fantasy exposition. There’s a magical energy called amri that can be used to power great technology, a precursor race misused the power and drove the world to war – you know the drill. The game starts you off as Ivory, or “Ive” for short, the daughter of a general who is about to take the final test which will allow her to be a pilot for her nation’s military. Ive is accompanied by a dog companion called Taika. The final test for her exam turns out to be a combat test, which is odd because she’s a pilot but convenient because her “test” is actually the first combat tutorial for the game.
Earthlock uses a turn-based combat system made up of many pieces that will seem familiar if you’ve got an RPG background. On the right side of the screen is a series of character portraits that shows the attack order of allies and enemies, allowing you to see when your actions will be. In the upper left corner are the essential stats of your characters: current health over maximum health and the amount of amri they have stored. Amri is effectively the energy you have to perform actions: most actions cost one, and you regenerate one at the beginning of your turn, so there’s no danger of ever being locked out of your basic abilities.
The thing is, most of your powerful or useful techniques will cost more than one amri. In the demo, examples of moves that cost two amri are those which hit multiple targets, inflict status conditions or grant buffs, and healing abilities. Because you only regenerate one amri on your turn, this means that using a special move will set back your total. After two uses of such moves during a battle, your amri will be stuck at one and you can only use basic abilities unless you rest. Resting spends your whole turn recovering a single point of amri, and also restores a small amount of health. It allows you to quickly get back into fighting shape, but the wasted turn definitely feels like a punishment for burning all of your amri.
Now at the bottom of the battle screen is your combat menu, although it’s more of a wheel than a traditional text menu. You have options for combat abilities, items, tactical options, and bond abilities in the left menu, and you select between them using the left control stick. Depending on what you’ve selected there, on the right menu you have more options using the ABXY buttons. For example, if you’ve selected combat abilities from the left menu, then your right menu might have a basic attack mapped to the B button and a special move mapped to the A button. Pressing the button once allows you select your target, and then you press that button again to confirm. Pressing any other button will back out of your currently-selected action.
During combat, each character has two different stances they are able to switch between. Each stance unlocks a different set of combat actions. In Ive’s case, this is the difference between melee and ranged attacks, but it’s a little different for every character in the game. Changing a stance takes an entire turn, so if you start out in the wrong one or realize you need to change mid-battle it can be a little frustrating. With some characters you can get away with staying in the same stance nearly all the time, but there are lots of complex mechanisms that give you an incentive to change.
First of all, the distinction between ranged and melee. Ranged attacks are the only way to hit airborne foes, but each shot of a ranged attack costs ammo. Ammo takes money to buy or resources to craft, so you don’t want to burn it on enemies who are vulnerable to melee attacks. However, you also have to keep damage vulnerabilities in mind. Every enemy has a weakness, but you have to experiment with the types of damage that you deal in order to identify that weakness. Attacks can be physical or magical, slashing or piercing, exploding, or have one of five different elemental affiliations. Many attacks fall into two or more categories, such as Ive’s Lance being a physical piercing attack. Because certain attacks types may only be available in particular stances, you have to be aware of the enemy’s weaknesses and adjust accordingly.
The big incentive for stance changing, though, is that some entire strategies are locked to a particular stance. The final character to join you in the demo is a warrior named Olia. Her main stance is an offensive stance where she can deliver piercing or slashing melee attacks with her spear. However, her second stance puts her in a defensive pose where she automatically counterattacks any melee attacks used against in. In this stance, she can use a technique which draws aggro towards her so that the enemies don’t attack the rest of your party. Against foes who primarily fight in melee, this means she both protects the rest of your party from damage and deals great damage to the enemy as well. Of course, if you’re in this stance and your enemies all have ranged weapons, you’ll have to spend a turn to get her out of it.
The combination of different stances, party members with different specializations, and enemies with different attack types and weaknesses means that the battles in this game aren’t necessarily as simple as clicking “attack” over and over again. This isn’t to say that every single fight is a strategy game – weak enemies can easily be mowed over by just using your most basic abilities. But bosses are tough without the right plan of action, and I can imagine that in later parts of the game, party composition and stances in use will be pretty significant.
After being introduced to combat by Ivory and Taika, the game jumps to a different cast and remains with them for the rest of the demo. Meet Amon and his uncle, a couple of scavengers who hunt for old technology to sell for a profit. Uncle Benjo is sick with [Vague Coughing Disease] and needs the extra money for his expensive medication – talk about a relateable character in 2018, amiright? At any rate, these characters are your first introduction to a dungeon with puzzles as well as a boss battle.
The puzzle mechanisms shown off in the demo are pretty simple compared to the depth of the RPG rules. Amon wears a bracelet that can absorb amri energy and then use that energy to charge different devices. Technology powered by amri needs to be charged with the right color, so the trick is to find the lamps with the correct color energy in order to power different machines and progress. The first and only puzzle using this mechanic is not a difficult one, but it can put you in a situation where you have to walk back up the stairs and undo something if you get too ahead of yourself. It’s the kind of puzzle that, for me, is satisfying in a roleplaying game – a break from the combat mechanisms that gets you thinking without being overly time consuming or complicated.
The game’s first boss, on the other hand, is a total joke. It may be incorrect to even refer to it as a boss. I think this is by necessity because Uncle Benjo only has two attacks, so there aren’t enough characters with varied strategies to make this fight compelling. But the sequence helps you to get an idea of the typical dungeon structure and familiarize you with what Amon is capable of, and it introduces you to the more impoverished characters of the setting and gives you an adventure hook in the form of finding a cure for Uncle Benjo.
Now this seemed to me like a pretty natural place to wrap up the demo. We’ve met three of the game’s six party members in the form of Ivory, Taika, and Amon, learned the basics of how combat works, gotten the plot hook – it seems like a solid teaser. I was surprised when I walked out of the village and the game world was open for me to explore. While I thought that combat, puzzles, and the game’s opening were sufficient information for a demo to convey, the demo would go on to explain character bonds, the level-up system, the crafting mechanics, overworld exploration, the hub community, and five of the six playable characters – every major feature of Earthlock is shown off in the game’s demo, along with a hefty portion of the story.
This isn’t necessarily a complaint about the demo; it’s worth noting that I truly enjoyed everything that I experienced. Characters level up as they gain experience points from battles and quests. Battles are started when enemies are encountered in the overworld, and there’s a sort of encounter minigame that you play. When enemies spot you, they’ll start to move towards you to attack. You can press the B button before their encounter meter fills up and it will start the battle with an ambush in your favor. The more enemies you aggro at once and then surprise, the more experience points you’ll get for the battle. But if you spend too long trying to draw in enemies and the encounter meter runs out, you’ll be on the receiving end of the ambush. It’s a nifty risk-reward system where you have to decide when to pull the trigger on how many enemies you can work into a single encounter, and whether it’s worth it to start a battle with an advantage or with more enemies to face.
Once you have enough experience points to gain a level, you net a talent point. Each character in the party has a talent board, the game’s equivalent of a skill tree. There are multiple types of talents that can be filled in using talent points, but the trick is that you have to have the talent in your inventory – it’s not just some esoteric part of your character that you can unlock whenever. The board has an origin talent to which all other talents must connect in order for them to viable, so you move from the top of the board down in order to unlock new abilities. This means certain spots on the board are inherently better than others because you can gain multiple talents at a time while also covering more spaces on the board in order to extend your reach.
The other major method of getting talent points is increasing the bonds between the characters. The first and second character in the party and the third and fourth character in the party each form two pairs. These pairs slowly build their bond together over time, and when they increase their bond level they unlock a new ability. With some of these new abilities – specifically the ones at bond levels one, three, and five – come talent points for both characters in the bond. Additionally, bonded characters unlock powerful one-time attacks to use in combat, and that energy builds faster the higher the bond level between them. Because building bonds gives talent points to both characters involved as well as unlocking new abilities, you want to mix and match in order to reap the maximum benefits.
Since the talent board requires you to have talents in your inventory in order to spend points, crafting talents is an important skill. After defeating the first major boss of the game, you get access to a hub area which has a number of different features for you to interact with. You can raise plants in a garden to harvest materials that you can then use to brew potions or craft ammo. Materials scavenged from monsters or draw points in the overworld can be used to make weapons or talents as well. Each party character has an overworld ability that only they can use in order to contribute to the crafting system. Amon scavenges supplies from heaps of scrap, while the hogbunny Gnart grows and harvests plants.
It is at this point in the game that the demo finally comes to an end. The demo thoroughly introduces the world of Earthlock, showing off five characters in varying levels of detail as well as teaching you to level up, explore, craft, and battle. For a game with more content and length, this seems like a sufficient introduction, but the problem is that Earthlock is not a 30 hour RPG. By the time I finished the demo (an endeavor that took maybe two hours), the completion percentage on my save file was 21%. A demo is an introduction to a game, the equivalent to a trailer for a film. In Earthlock’s case, my concern is that this is a trailer with too much information, where all the good parts of the movie have already been showcased. In a way the fact that I’ve already experienced one-fifth of what the game has to offer makes me less excited about the possibility of getting the full version.
That said, if you’re interested in experiencing Earthlock for yourself I think it’s a worthwhile title. The 20% of the game that I have experienced at this point is enjoyable, with a number of interesting mechanisms that present a compelling RPG. The game most certainly is not long – if my playtime is any indication, you’re probably looking at 15 hours and that’s if you play it slow. But $20 for a quality 15 hour game is a good deal, particularly if you’re a busy adult who is looking for a shorter, more contained experience to fill your game time. Earthlock may have overplayed its hand a bit with the demo, but overall it’s a good game that has me looking forward to what Snowcastle Studios might come up with in the future.