Snowcastle Games’ Earthlock: Festival of Magic is a turn-based RPG that has recently released for the Nintendo Switch, PC and PlayStation 4 and has players explore the world and take on an unimaginable and exciting quest to explore the world about them.
+Extremely beautiful graphics, animations, and settings.
+Some of the best sound designs available, including the score.
+Combat is fresh, unique and doesn’t shy away from its JRPG origins.
+The Talen Board system is a subtle nod to games of yesteryear.
-Camera angles can get hard to deal with from time-to-time.
In a day and age where JRPGS (the ‘J’ standing for ‘Japanese’, but rather it describes a unique style of RPG games rather than its country of origin) are becoming endangered by the move to action-focused titles. In this age, we’ve only seen a handful of JRPGs rise from non-Japanese developers, some of these titles include Child of Light, Cosmic Star Heroine, and now the Norweigan developed Earthlock by Snowcastle Games.
Since these titles are becoming extremely rare in the modern day, we have a hard time understanding what they are meant to accomplish, but also why these games are so unique. In many ways, one can look at titles like Earthlock and view them as a love letter to everything JRPG and of the PS1 and PS2-era’s of games. In Earthlock, players will explore the world of Umbra, a world that bears the scars of is catastrophic past and an imbalance of a magical energy by the name of ‘amri’.
During the game’s brief – albeit amazing – introduction mission, will get to meet Amon, a young scavenger who lives with his uncle in the town of Zaber, a village commonly housing traders, scavengers, and relic hunters. After our introductory mission and story moments go awry, Amon finds that his life has begun to become just a bit more complicated as a routine mission has gone completely wrong and draws the attention of the empires and stirs together an unexpected conflict ignited between them.
But along his way, it’s not as lonely as it may sound nor does Amon have to carry the hardship alone. Along his journey to save his family, the world of Umbra, and his friends, Amon is joined by a bright and colorful array of cast members ranging from a bunny-like creature to fish-like (his uncle) people and a variety of other unique friends and acquaintances.
In short, it’s an enjoyable tale that shows extremely strong design and story making decisions that sit in parallel with the Final Fantasy franchise, but more specifically Final Fantasy IX where players can have six playable party members at all times when enough cast members have been met. What’s more impressive is even our bunny-like creature, all of the cast members are unique in their very own way, each packing their own story for us to explore, but also their own unique approach to the games rock-steady combat systems.
But this is what causes a few things to go wrong. While the story tends to be great overall, there are moments where the writing in it feels a bit off, at times feeling as if it has its own hit-or-miss moments that range from ‘eh, okay, this is acceptable,’ to that feeling of ‘I can’t… Stop… Playing’. That’s the charm behind Earthlock, however, it’s charming, its great, and even very minimal translation-based errors within the English language are beyond acceptable. Even then it was an entertaining narrative, one that was fun to read, and even makes it even more fun to experience twice over thanks to a chance to review both its PS4 and Nintendo Switch versions.
Just like the JRPGs of yesteryear, Earthlock is built off the solid foundations of the JRPG genre’s building blocks. In classic JRPG fashion, you’ll move your party through their adventures by traversing the world in an overworld view. In this overworld you’ll journey from city to city, looking for crafting materials, hidden items, engaging in combat with random monster NPCs that are on the map, and even getting a chance to explore many of the titles uniquely designed locales.
Combat itself matches what we’ve seen with previous JRPGs. Combat takes place through turn-based battles where enemies and occasional bosses will put your group of friends to the test. But there are some subtle changes from the well-established genre as a whole. Before combat, you can gather groups of enemies together, allowing you to pick and choose just how many you want to combat against, and even take on the ability to earn massive XP bonuses through these massive horde-like battles.
Once combat begins, you’ll take notice of several familiar things. One, combat is turn-based as always. You’ll have the chance to select the items you want, the attacks you’d like to use, if you want to block enemy attacks, or simply flee from combat in a fashionable order.
Earthlock does see one minor change from the well-established genre. You can change stances in combat. Each stance has its own unique approach to each scenario. For example, Amon, our leading man, can play as a thieving rogue in melee stance or you can change him up for long-range elemental attacks using his crossbow, which allows him to strategically alternate between stealing items from your foes or slinging bolts from your ever-so-trusty crossbow.
Unlike JRPGs such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross, or any well-established franchise, Earthlock doesn’t use the established MP meter. Instead, every action you take, whether it’s an attack or a ‘spell’ of sorts, you’ll notice they’ll use one or more of those yellow bars of energy near your characters HP bar. Once used, you will have have to wait for them to replenish during each encounter. This can easily be done by using basic attacks, using items, or simply blocking an enemies assault.
Like most JRPGs, Earthlock does set off to do its own unique thing by tying ‘menu ‘controls to your left thumbstick, allowing you to flip back and forth between each of the games ‘submenus’ doing this. This negates the need for overwhelming menu options and even allows you to navigate each of the actions of the game with a sense of ease. This streamlined approach makes combat fun, simple, and easy to enjoy without forcing too much strain on your muscle memory. This approach also allows for quick ease of use in performing specific combos and strategies with, as said before, a sense of ease.
Along with having their own skills and attacks, there’s a unique way your team benefits from being in a party and taking advantage of their rather unique dynamics. The pair system. Characters can pair off with other party members, allowing them to level up their bond, gain access to a shared meter while in battle, and even allow them to use a ‘Super Stance’ (did anyone else just imagine Vegeta and Goku doing this?), which resembles that of Cloud Strife’s Limit Breaks in Final Fantasy VII, which can be activated on command.
This unique dynamic also allows bosses and challenging battles to be completed with a little more ease than before. This means smashing your way through a single boss may be rather easy to some extent, but only by a bit. Thanks to this unique little mechanic, testing the waters with each of your members pairing up with a variety of the cast is an absolute blast and can alter the way you set up your party formations. Just remember, test to see what you like the most, you can’t go wrong with experimenting with all the combinations the game has to offer.
Outside of battle, the game is just as enjoyable than you can imagine. Character progression can be customized through the Talent Board system, which allows you to personalize each of the characters stats, their skills, and even their abilities that you can use throughout the game. For those familiar with Final Fantasy X and the Sphere Grid, you’ll feel right at home, and you’ll even quickly find your way through connecting each of the different nodes in order to activate their effects. Toss all this together and then realize it ties into the combat system itself, and Earthlock quickly becomes one of the most evolved JRPGs in modern times.
It’s a game that wants you to explore every inch of it, that wants you to play it through several times so that you can master entirely new strategies, skills that you want to access first, and even find your own pacing within the game as you make your way through the world of Umbra. Combine all of this information with a crafting system that allows you to craft armor, weapons, and items that you’ll use throughout the game – along with plenty more of stuff – and there’s a surprising amount of depth to Earthlock at its fullest.
That’s what is astonishing about this game and it shows through every second of its duration, even when the credits begin to roll. You’ll get to take note of the characters and how each of them has something unique to offer, how each of them reacts with the world in their own unique ways, such as Amon collecting useful items for him and his friends to use from scrapheaps, or Gnart who can forage through flower fields and bushes for items to use or trade. It’s a nice change of pace from what we’ve seen with recent franchises such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which have taken the more action-packed route in recent years.
While Earthlock – at its core – is a modern take on the JRPG gameplay mechanics we know and love, it brings a unique and thoughtfully designed look. It’s gorgeous. Everything feels natural, lived-in, unique, and even manages to pop even in the games busiest of moments. Even treasure chests that remain hidden in the nooks and crannies thanks to them being obscured from the camera’s line-of-sight. It’s a brilliant and wonderful thing, seeing a team bring such things back to life and in such a manner that it’s appealing, easy to look at and overall impressively well done.
Even now, with having beat it on multiple times, it’s a blast to take on the go with a Nintendo Switch or sit at home with the same handheld. Even then, there’s the PlayStation 4 option, which runs just as smooth, and looks just as great. The most admirable part of it all? I never felt as if the team backed down, compromised a moment of gameplay, or even gave a second thought as to what they are looking to accomplish with their game. Even the music fits perfect, bringing the games excellent audio designs to life, allowing this game to feel like a lived-in experience to the very end.
Earthlock – PC, PlayStation 4, Switch and Xbox One
Primary Version Reviewed: Switch
Developer: Snowcastle Games
Release Date: Now Available
The only real complaint I’ve had with my time in the game? The save point system. It’s restrictive, dumbfounding, and at times – downright infuriating. I’ve had moments where I wanted to walk away for a day or two before coming back and even more-so, I had moments where I glared at the game as I quickly became discouraged when dying halfway through a boss fight and realizing I’m being sent back to the beginning of a dungeon. Toss in the fact load screens are commonplace and you do have some minor irritations waiting to pester you as you play the game.
The persistence of each load screen does take away from the overall level of immersion I had once begun to adore, but even then, I’d find myself sinking right back in a moments notice, saddling up once more for a thrilling ride. But overall, Earthlock has set out to do what the team had wanted. They successfully brought back the nostalgia of playing RPG titles while on the go, offering console-like experiences on the Nintendo Switch and even giving me a reason to experience the game multiple times thanks to the chance to play a PlayStation 4 copy of the game.
Our review is based on a retail version that was provided to us by the game’s publisher. For information about our ethics policy please click here.
Final Score: 8 out of 10
About the Writer:
David Dailey is a major fan of extremely niche games, often offering an in-depth look at what separates them from the rest. He’s also extremely obsessed with Magic the Gathering and his ‘sneks’.