Roleplaying game is perhaps the vaguest of video game genres. It has been applied to everything from Dragon Quest to Fallout to Mass Effect to Undertale, and when you delve into subgenres it gets even more complex. If you like monster breeding, for example, you might be able to scratch that itch with the cute and quirky world of Pokemon – or the darkly fascinating Persona. Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XV cater to different playstyles despite falling into the same series. When you multiply this vagueness by oversaturating the genre, it can feel impossible to zoom in on the types of RPGs that appeal to you specifically as a gamer.
I found Earthlock first as a demo during a time when I was searching for a game to occupy the time between major releases. The demo hooked me with its mechanical complexity and while I originally criticized that perhaps it showed too much of the game, in reality it showcased everything it needed to in order to get someone like me interested. I was fortunate enough to have my review catch the attention of a couple of folks at Snowcastle Games, who were kind enough to provide me with a key so I could finish the full game.
In a world where RPG can mean so many things, what kind of game is Earthlock? Who would be interested in diving into its depths? And is it worth your time in a world where so many other RPGs, both indie and mainstream, are available to you? My goal today is to answer these questions, though by the end of the article you’ll find that the answer will be different for different players. So let’s dive into the world of Earthlock and talk about what makes it unique in a world with so many RPGS to play.
Earthlock tells the story of a tech-fantasy world which was changed dramatically by a great war in the past. A godlike race of beings once ruled the world with an iron fist using the power of the energy within the earth, called amri. When humanity rose against them, the resulting conflict caused a cataclysm in which amri washed over the entire world of Umbra, changing the landscape and infusing plant and animal life with this powerful energy. Amri made the world more dangerous but also opened to door to great technological marvels, and as you explore the world of Umbra you’ll discover more about the technology of the past as well.
I originally found Earthlock’s story a bit bland, and in the early hours it definitely feels like every RPG you’ve ever played. A general’s daughter struggles to rise above her heritage at the academy; a poor scavenger searches desperately for his big break to save his ailing uncle; an ancient race with advanced technology has mysterious followers in the modern world. It’s an overly-familiar narrative that can tempt you to dismiss the story entirely in favor of focusing exclusively on the mechanical aspects of the game. A big part of why Earthlock’s narrative felt week is in how the story is delivered.
Earthlock’s storytelling doesn’t happen in cutscenes earned through combat or quest completion. You’ll get some small moments there, but the meat of the game’s narrative actually happens elsewhere. Simply playing the game from start to finish won’t reward you with lore and character development. All of those things happen in optional features of the game. The lore and worldbuilding all take place in the great library of Suvia, a city you reach right around the middle of the game. And the character development takes place on Plumpet Island, the home base where your party members spend their time crafting materials for their journey.
In the House of the Owl Tide in Suvia, the archive contains a truly massive number of books which dive deeply into the history of the game world. These works are truly detailed and contain anything you might want to know about the world of Umbra. This makes your arrival at the Owl Tide essentially an optional lore-dump; if you want to know about the world in more detail, you are free to dive in and spend your time reading in-depth about the history of Umbra. Should you choose to ignore the texts, you won’t necessarily miss out on anything, but perhaps the game’s revelations towards the end won’t have as much significance to you.
When it comes to the characters and their motivations, that dialogue takes place almost exclusively on Plumpet Island. When you talk to the various characters on the island, you can learn a little bit about their background or motivations. While most of these conversations focus on the same two or three points, changing the combination of characters does lead to some alternative dialogue that gives you glimpses into each person in the group. Of course, because only four of the six party members are capable of speech, your animal and robot companions don’t end up feeling as fleshed out as the other cast members.
Even after completing Earthlock, I can say with confidence that I consider the narrative to be the weakest point. The story covers a lot of familiar ground, and while that’s not a crime – all stories are simply reincarnated over generations of retelling – this familiar tale is told in clumsy ways. Having an optional lore dump through dry history books is a rather uninteresting way to tell us about Umbra, and in my case I simply skipped it during my actual playthrough (though I did read through some of the books in preparation for this review). And the conversations between party members are quite limited, leaving most of the characters as one-note protagonists with nothing outstanding about them outside of a single feature. Those who look for fun in a strong narrative can find something here, but only if you enjoy absorbing the story by actively looking for it in specific locations. If slowly experiencing the world throughout the whole course of the game is more your style, Earthlock isn’t going to help you there.
That’s the bad news about Earthlock – if you’re here for a roleplaying game which tells a compelling story, this game won’t scratch that itch for you. However, story is only one part of a video game, and it’s clear from the difference in depth and execution that the real focus in Earthlock is on the mechanical aspects of the game. So let’s move away from the storytelling to focus instead on the gameplay: the quests, the crafting, the puzzles, and the combat.
Earthlock has a typical quest structure with mandatory main quests and optional side quests. Some side quests can be infinitely repeated in order to farm experience points and money, while others only take place one time. You can always check your quests in your quest log, though sometimes the information there is a little lacking. Luckily, the map takes over where the journal leaves off, highlighting your main quest locations in yellow so that you at least know where to go, even if you aren’t 100% sure what to do once you get there.
One thing commonly received during the completion of quests is crafting materials. These useful items are used on Plumpet Island in order to arm your party with the resources they need to succeed in battle. You can craft a lot of helpful resources, from ammunition to healing items to the perk talents that give your characters advantages when they level up. For the materials that you don’t earn from quests, you can generally buy from the shop on Plumpet or grow yourself in the garden. Grinding for materials in your garden is not unlike playing a farming sim, so if fun via submission – the repetition of straightforward tasks – is your style then Plumpet offers that in spades.
Earthlock’s various dungeons have a variety of puzzles, with some mechanics staying consistent from location to location while others change depending on the environment. For example, in the Burning Desert simply navigating the environment is a puzzle as you try to determine the best path between two shaded areas – staying in the heat too long will cause you to pass out and start over. Conversely, in an underground train station you have to rearrange the train tracks to get the ancient amri trains to move you where you’re trying to go.
The puzzle style that stays consistent between most locations is connected to the protagonist Amon and his Amri Attractor. This artifact absorbs amri energy from lamps (stationary sources in the environments) or lanterns (enemies that must be defeated to obtain their amri). There are three colors of amri energy, and different devices need one or more colors in order to function. Moving around an area to obtain different colors of amri, flipping switches on and off to change your path forward as needed, becomes a familiar task as you progress through the game.
I never found the puzzles of Earthlock to be difficult, but I still found their challenge refreshing. Many turn-based RPGs rely on puzzles to create a solid break from the action and Earthlock incorporates this balance well. The puzzles make you think but are never so complicated that a battle with an amri lantern will make you forget everything you had worked out up to that point. They provide a break from the fun challenge of battle by providing a different type of challenge – still fun, but satisfying a different need.
Now we come at last to the meat of the Earthlock experience: the combat. Earthlock battles features turn-based combat where characters use amri to take actions. Basic abilities cost a single point of amri, while powerful abilities can take as many as four to use. You have four characters on the field at a time in two pairs – these pairs build up bond energy together and use that energy to unleash powerful techniques. Each character has two stances that they can switch between and utilize different abilities in each stance. This could be the difference between melee vs. ranged, offense vs. defense, or combat vs. support. It also might mean the difference between the elemental abilities at your disposal.
Earthlock has a number of elements. There are physical elements such as piercing, crushing, slashing, and explosions, as well as magical elements like fire, water, ice, electricity, earth, and wind. Different attacks have different affiliations, such as Amon’s Stab dealing physical piercing while Taika’s Water Bomb deals magical water damage. Enemies have different weaknesses based on their type, so during battle you’ll want to rely on characters who can take advantage of an opponent’s weakness in order to maximize your damage. Elements have other effects too, such as ice often slowing the opponent, or explosions being used to trigger traps.
This is where Earthlock truly begins to shine. The search for the best character pairings, the most powerful combos, and the strategy that is most effective against each enemy type offers challenges to overcome throughout the course of the game. Every boss battle begins with a statement that the enemy is strong, but that the party feels that they can pull through. “If we don’t make it,” they say, “we may need a different strategy.” This refrain will punctuate every major encounter in the game, and it’s great advice. Defeat rarely comes because you’ve not gained enough levels or learned the right ability – it’s all about approaching the enemy in the optimal way.
I love to get into the mechanical depths of RPGs. Figuring out damage formulas or optimizing character builds satisfies a logical, mathematical part of my brain that isn’t stimulated by the typical action game. This is often expressed here on my blog as the creation of guides for the games that really give me deep mechanics to dig in to. For Earthlock, I loved how the different character combinations and possible talent pairings gave me a lot of different ways to approach the game. Finding how two talents worked together to create satisfying kill-chains or learning how two particular characters could perform infinitely better by reaching a specific bond level – those moments in Earthlock are right on point with what I love the most about roleplaying games.
Such was my enjoyment of leveling up my characters, testing their bonds, and trying out different combos that all of my complaints up to this point didn’t impact me much. The weak narrative didn’t matter because I wasn’t paying attention anyway – I wanted to try out the cool new talents that the boss just dropped. Not knowing the right direction to go because of a vague journal gave me the opportunity to fight new enemy types and build up bond levels for my characters. Because the things that Earthlock does well hit perfectly on the types of fun that mean the most to me, I was able to easily overlook the areas where the game feels weaker.
Not every player is going to have that ability. For those who find fun in a narrative well-told, or in a game which obscures the mechanical details with heavy layers of fantasy and lore, Earthlock probably isn’t the game for you. However, if you’re like me and enjoy games where leveling up your character and trying out different combos is a major focus, then I cannot recommend Earthlock enough for its surprising complexity. I spent many hours – many more than I expected given the short length of the demo – experimenting with character combinations and learning the best pairs for my style and strategy. Grinding levels with a Let’s Play running in the background, then arranging my newfound talents into effective combos before charging headlong at a tricky boss; it was an ideal relief each evening after a stressful day at work, and I’m grateful to Snowcastle for giving me the opportunity to have that experience.
I want to end off this review with a discussion of value. While I was fortunate enough to benefit from Snowcastle’s generosity and play this game for free, you might be weighing the pros and cons, wondering if the price tag is worth the experience I’ve described. At full price on the Nintendo Switch, Earthlock comes in at $20. I personally consider this price to be quite reasonable for the amount of content that Earthlock offers. While the Nintendo Switch’s playtime measurements aren’t always the most accurate, mine is clocking me at roughly 30 hours of play – that’s less than $1 per hour, and my completion is only at 75%. While some might consider dollars per hour to be a solid measurement for game value, for me the value of a game is in the fun you have with it. Knowing now what the full Earthlock experience offers, I would purchase the game. It appeals to precisely what I enjoy in roleplaying games, and so if you too enjoy mechanically-focused games then the price tag will likely be well worth it for you.
If you’re considering whether or not you would add Earthlock to your gaming library, I hope this review was valuable for you. For those still unsure, I highly recommend that you download the free demo (which I also reviewed) and experience the first part of the game for yourself. If there’s a question you have about the game before purchase that I haven’t answered here, feel free to post it in the comments and I’ll be happy to share any knowledge I have that wasn’t included in the text of the review. And if you’ve played Earthlock yourself and have your own thoughts to share, I’d love to hear those as well!