It's odd that it's taken me this long to acknowledge the hard work of Indie developers that have tried their own spin on a 16-bit/32-bit JRPG throwback. The Indie scene can sometimes feel like a zombie movie with the amount of antiques emerging from the grave stronger than ever, but this direction's been serving them well in getting some much needed attention from a general audience perhaps apathetic to new, untried properties but very invested in reliving some aspect of their childhoods. On this very column (is that term applicable to blogs?) I've covered first-person dungeon crawlers like Operencia (#202) and Vaporum (#155) that liberally borrowed from Wizardry, Dungeon Master, or Might and Magic, top-down CRPGs like Eschalon (#66) and Avadon (#153) that are resurrecting that Ultima flavor, and of course Zeboyd's output (and similar 16-bit champions like Stegosoft's Ara Fell (#177)) that are taking the Chrono Triggers and Final Fantasies of the SNES era into bold new directions.
Less common, and perhaps harder to pull off given the requisite increased size and scope, are riffs on PS1- and PS2-era RPGs. In recent months on IGotW that's included the likes of Indivisible (which had some distinct Valkyrie Profile aspirations), Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom (inspired by the Tales franchise, particularly Symphonia, and the Legaia games), and The Tenth Line (mostly doing its own thing, but gave a tip of the hat to Final Fantasy VIII and IX): Indies that were certainly ambitious, but overall mixed in terms of their execution. Earthlock, first released in 2016 and then rereleased with enhancements in 2018, looks to be another in that vein; mixing lots of ideas from older RPGs into a gestalt that feels like a paradoxical blend of familiar and distinct, with all the inherited pros and cons of the era of gaming it hearkens back to.
The story of Earthlock has yet to kick into high gear, but so far involves a group of travellers who meet by circumstance and are working together to complete mutual goals. Desert scavenger Amon is out to find the kidnapped uncle who raised him; the squat bestial scholar Gnart left the comforts of civilization for an important courier mission and badly wants to return home; Imperial scout Ivory "Ive" Lavender is looking to rescue her canine partner (and eventual party member) from goblins; and mysterious agent and martial artist Olia has a top secret mission that occasionally keeps her away from the main party. Both the look and feel of the game so far reminds me of the output of Tokyo RPG Factory (I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear, etc.) in how they're channelling a specific time and place that maybe sits somewhere between the PS1 and PS2 eras - everything's 3D, but the character models are relatively simple and low-poly and the art direction is more stylistic than realistic (so, to invoke them again, more like FFIX than FFVIII) - and to compensate for this low-tech presentation more emphasis has been put on elaborate mechanics and features inherent to the combat and exploration aspects of the game.
While there's little Earthlock has that is truly novel, it does include a number of systems I haven't seen in a good long while, which I appreciate both because it means someone is keeping these older innovations alive rather than left forgotten, and because the developers clearly know their RPG history which is reassuring to know whenever you take a leap on one of these throwback projects. These features include: a character development system that resembles a streamlined Sphere Grid, most of which is empty until you can fill it with whatever stat boosts, skills, and passives you prefer; an encounter quirk similar to the one in The Last Remnant where you can "stack" multiple enemies in the field for a tougher but more rewarding (via bonus XP) battle against all of them simultaneously; a stance-switching mechanic that means every character has two effective combat roles (Amon, for example, has an elemental ranged stance for aerial targets and a rogue-like melee stance that lets him steal); and the ability to pair characters together to let their bond grow which unlocks passive boosts that emphasize the traits of those two characters that happen to overlap - for instance, Gnart and Ive are the party's healers, and keeping them paired together will eventually boost the power of their respective healing abilities. Beyond these ideas, though, the game plays exactly how older Japanese-style RPGs do, replete with an overabundance of random encounters (they can be avoided, but it's not always feasible) and a fairly generic plot about saving the world from a mysterious group looking for ancient artifacts.
The boilerplate story in particular is at current wasting a semi-novel premise for a setting: Earthlock's world of Umbra suffered a magical catastrophe that stopped it from spinning, turning the half of the planet permanently facing the sun into a desert wasteland and the dark half into a frozen realm of endless night. The remaining life on the planet congregates in a narrow band with liveable conditions on the equator between the two halves, though the world map and general NPC dialogue don't really reflect this unusual geography at all, set as it is across a handful of open areas with some standard desert, forest, and plains biomes. However, since I've barely reached the halfway point of the story so far - there's still a slot open for another party member, even - I'm not going to come down too hard on this aspect until I've made more progress.
What I've gleaned about Earthlock's design philosophy suggests the developers wanted to present a simple and familiar framework elevated by some deeper character customization and a level of strategy to the combat that would be uncommon to the late-'90s era it homages; to the latter I'll say that the game has not been overly easy so far, especially boss fights that often require you to figure out the trick behind these powerful foes before they can wipe your party. For example, an early boss fight against a Goblin King proved overwhelming with the powerful counterattacks it sent the party's way, until I realized it never countered ranged attacks and reorganized my party to be more ranged DPS friendly. As with Operencia from a few weeks back, or perhaps something like Divinity: Original Sin II, the freedom to respec each character's stat and ability distribution from scratch at no extra cost means there's free rein for some necessary retooling if a boss fight's proving too much to overcome with your current loadout, and understanding how each party member's two stances can serve the party dynamic can be tantamount to success. That said, the game's not exactly beating my ass down at every turn either; if anything it's found the right balance of challenge with its encounters thus far, where even randos hit hard enough that you can't ignore them and mash on through with regular attacks. I'm just glad to know that if I ever hit "that one boss" there'll be methods at my disposal to push past it. Exploration-wise, there's an in-depth crafting system for making new gear and talents (what you equip to power up your character after they level up), a treasure hunting mini-game, and a farming sim that boils down to running around a garden harvesting plants every few seconds whenever you get low on healing or ranged ammo supplies (since the plants restock both): all relatively minor additions, but they offer a reprieve from the battles and a way to refresh and enhance your party should the need arise.
Given the limitations of an Indie studio, Earthlock uses what little it has admirably by prioritizing what's important over what is often fluff; its flaws meanwhile are those it shares with the old-school RPGs it venerates - an abundance of random encounters and uninspired storytelling. If you still have the tolerance for that slower approach, there's enough going on under the surface of Earthlock to merit some digging.
: 4 out of 5.
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