In an age where role-playing games are aplenty, it’s hard to find the ones that stick out from the rest of the crowd. Earthlock: Festival of Magic has all of the potential to fulfill the niche that the genre needs, but fails to deliver on most fronts. Underneath the flawed layers, however, there might be a game worth picking up.
Earthlock: Festival of Magic starts off with a different approach to storytelling that isn’t seen to much in the medium: starting the plot with a side character that won’t be seen for a few more hours upon absconding. After that, the game begins down the path most games in the genre tend to follow: there is some special item out in the world that happens to fall into the protagonist’s hands, a villain out there in the world wants said item, they eventually retrieve it, then you have to fight your way through hordes of enemies in order to stop them from using it. We’ve seen it all before, so the premise here doesn’t capture the attention of the player in the slightest.
Not even the main character, Amon, seems too interested in what he is doing or with the people he is surrounded by. He often times makes crude remarks about his companions, to which they make a comment that gets disregarded immediately. The rest of the characters are sub-standard for a game such as this: a healer that also happens to be comic relief, a stoic fighter, and a ranged character that is jubilant about her career choice. There is nothing about the characters that stand out, which is a shame due to the core mechanics they are involved with.
There isn’t much to say about role-playing games nowadays that hasn’t been said or that hasn’t been seen before. Final Fantasy paved the path for games to come back in 1987, and many games have come out since then with the same formula involving combat and character management. Earthlock: Festival of Magic, though, offers up something a bit more involved that ends up being the game’s saving grace.
There are the usual suspects in the game that players will know how to coordinate them in battle, but what is interesting is that who the individual characters are paired with (bonded) makes all the difference in the world. For example, if Amon is paired with our hogbunny friend, Gnart, he gets different bonuses than if he was paired with someone else. This mechanic creates a number of combinations that offer different styles of battle, and it will take players a while to find something they are comfortable with.
There are also the ability trees that each character has that can either be unlocked to give passive upgrades or abilities in combat. The word ‘tree’ is used loosely here since it actually is just a solid plane of upgradable slots that can only be allocated in if they match adjacent, filled slots. These slots can be changed at any time outside of combat, making everyone in the party more diverse in nature.
At first glance, Earthlock: Festival of Magic offers players an enjoyable, if dull, experience that everyone could enjoy. After about an hour of playing and getting through the tutorial, I began to notice that things just didn’t seem…right. The game lacks a certain polish about it that it never obtains throughout the 15+ hour storyline. During the in-game cutscenes, characters will walk right through each other or give deadpan reactions to things that would scare anyone with a functioning brain. Sounds for entire sections of the game will just drop and never return except through loading the game back up. Characters will enter the wrong stances than the ones chosen pre-combat, making for infuriating battles. And that is only on the surface.
While the game was built in Unity, it doesn’t give the game a pass at all the errors that plague it. The menus and just raw presentation feels like something a student would conjure up at college. The only word to properly describe the way the menus look is this: unprofessional. I also encountered odd camera issues that would make progressing literally impossible since I couldn’t see what was in front of me. What made this issue prominent wasn’t that I couldn’t advance, but it was because I had to reload the game, forcing myself to fight the previous boss for the fifth time in a row. It amazes me at how things like this get passed the developers’ hands, but they are there nonetheless.
A common, but minor, complaint I have is that the ‘start’ button doesn’t prompt up a character menu or item screen; it doesn’t bring up a menu at all. The ‘Y’ button does this instead, meaning that every time I press ‘start’ it only pauses the game. I must have lost an hour in total due to this, and I sincerely hope it gets resolved in future games of the trilogy.
The most intriguing issue the game has that stands out the most as unpolished is the fact that you can attack yourself or your teammates. Yes, you heard that right, you can deal damage to your allies that you’ve slaved through hot deserts with. This is because during combat, when selecting which enemy to hit, a simple tap to the right will now prompt you with the option of hurting a friend. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but in a genre that this never happens, it’s hard to break out of that logic. This doesn’t just apply to attacking teammates, but it also translates into healing your enemies. I think I have accidentally healed my foes more than I have healed myself, which is saying a lot given the game’s challenge.
My biggest complaint with Earthlock: Festival of Magic isn’t the technical problems it clearly has, but rather the difficulty inherently. The first few encounters with enemies are simple and easy to decipher, but after the game drops you into the overworld, may God help you. There is no way to determine if you are properly leveled for an area until you are getting destroyed by just the simplest of mobs. I found myself dying several times to enemies that I knew were just the basic ones of the area. Now, most players would see this as a fault in their play-styles, but alas this is not the case. The game forces you to grind out ever last drop of experience in order to move on, then, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across a boss that will tear you to shreds.
It would be one thing if Earthlock: Festival of Magic was sold as a challenging RPG that forces players to think about everything they do. It wouldn’t be a surprise if it had the same concept as Dark Souls, but it doesn’t. There is nothing to prepare players for what they will come across, and since the game is free for those with an Xbox Gold Membership, I suspect many players will drop due to the challenge.
This difficulty doesn’t go away either as the game continues on, but rather it seems to get more difficult. The game isn’t impossible due to this major flaw because the crafting materials needed for healing potions (balms) are extremely common and can be farmed, but having to use a dozen health potions per fight is tedious and boring. By the time the last fight rears its ugly head our way, we are so used to the pattern of healing, doing damage here and there, then repeating. Earthlock: Festival of Magic ceases to be a game at that point; it becomes a chore masked by vibrant colors and damage ticks.
Earthlock: Festival of Magic genuinely has a promising game underneath all of the rubble that clutters it up. I recognized that Snowcastle’s passion for the game was there all along and never left, but it was never fully realized either. It seemed they focused too much on the fact they were making a game instead of focusing on making a good game. There’s a certain level of charm, of personality that can be seen, but by the half-way point all else detracts from this. The game plans to release onto Steam on September 27, but those with an Xbox One can get the game for free.
The game is the first in a trilogy that Snowcastle plans to make, so hopefully the next two games completely capture the flavor that Earthlock brings at a first glance. Hopefully they retain that flavor throughout, or else they will share the same fate as Festival of Magic: mediocrity.