Story centred around an ancient, powerful, but long-vanished civilisation? Prominent mechanised and militaristic city-state with airships – one of which crashes in the first 5 minutes? Pastoral-coded rogue with a heart of gold and a strong familial bond?

Sheeeeit son… looks like we gots ourselves one of those Japanese RPGS.

Beer and pretzel-flavoured pocky fun

Earthlock actually hails from the land of lutefisk and sursild, Norway. It wears its inspiration proudly on its sleeve though, with a peculiar blend of indie-gem shine (and roughness) and the polish of worn tropes creating something that’s strangely satisfying, occasionally surprising, and often very familiar.

After the somewhat infodumpy intro with no immediate relevance, you’re thrown directly into the boots of a well-to-do female soldier of the aforementioned military.

Pictured: who knows?

Stormdog, electric mouse, whatevs

Frankly, I was expecting a plucky young male hero with lots of spirit, naivety, and a mysterious past… so this was a pleasant surprise. Also there was this Pokémon-looking goodboi.

And if you stop reading here, that’s basically the secret of Earthlock. A slight twist on the familiar that help shake-up a stale genre. It feels like a passion project from fans familiar enough with the well-trodden trails of JRPGs to mix things up occasionally, without losing their way.

A chicken-horse of another colour

From the soft orchestral music to the bright palette and heartwarming critters to murder, everything about Earthlock screams Final Skies of Tales of Fantasy. It’s not until the combat tutorial that you’ll appreciate how many mechanics of the game are different than you’d expect. It’s more than a cookie-cutter Chrono Trigger clone.

Mana points have been thrown out the window in favour of amri, life-energy (or mako, if you prefer). These little yellow pips power all your moves, magic or not, and the management of this slowly regenerating resource decides the success of the tougher encounters. In one sweep, this frees mages from their crippling blue potion addiction while giving your armoured chonkybois choices to make.

That’s right, my stormdog has… water and fire attacks.

Speaking of your stablads, they’re able to inflict more damage types than just ‘sword’, meaning exploiting weaknesses and overcoming resistances is no longer a caster-only game of Rock Paper Scissor. Again, a lovely addition that helps share the spotlight.

Shot taken seconds before being slapped into next week

And how better to do more damage than to go more often. Though fights are turn-based you don’t take it in turns thanks to a queue system. Faster characters? They come earlier and get more spots in the queue, really showing you the value of slowing, speeding-up or skipping individuals, as well as giving you a heads-up on who’s coming next.

Adding to this are stances. Each character has two drastically different movesets to tackle the changing battlefield – perhaps melee and ranged, healing and buffs, or something else entirely. This takes time, but no amri. Switching, then, becomes a question of whether and when you can afford to let enemies jump the queue as well as if you’ll have the energy to then do what you need.

And before you even get to the fight…

Earthlock has the Tales mechanic of showing enemies on the map that chase you down, giving you a chance to evade before you’re warped to the pocket dimension murder zone. Nothing new. The twist, though, is that once the cannon fodder is locked onto you, you can press a button to bring the fight to them. This nets you bonus XP and a possible first strike.

This, along with other mechanics, allows enough fine control that you either gather up groups to slay them at once for convenience/more experience, or pick off the more nightmarish monsters for an easier time.

You can also dress your hogbunny up like a frog. 10/10, game of the year.

And breathe…

I’m taking a brief break from what seems like endless gushing to clarify – nothing here is revolutionary, but it is interesting. It is layered. And it’s a welcome breath of fresh air. If everything else to this game was as well-done as the mechanics (ominous foreshadowing) then I’d be beating you over the head until you bought it.

But back to the hypefest.

Tired of Spheres®? Try Squares™! Now with more corners.

Moving on up

Sooooooo… that’s from level one-ish. But what are you gonna do with all that hard-won experience?

If you said ‘Level up’, then you’re right, but also you’ve not been paying attention, because of course there’s more than that.

Every level you get some stat boosts and a point to spend on the Talent Board, which is a more rectangular version of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid.

Each square will take one of three types of Talent – Stat (bigger numbers!), Ability (new powers!) or Perk (bigger numbers that make existing powers better!). Some of these are already laid out, but all of them can be switched after the fact. You’ll never utterly screw yourself over with your choices, and you’ve got space to explore different paths without the danger of analysis paralysis.

You’ve also got THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP! Pair-up with a battle buddy for a fight (so two pairs in a full four-person party) and your love for each other will slowly grow like the view count on a niche Porn Hub video. Each level of Bond gives you a Talent point to spend, as well as a unique perk that’s active as long as you’re partnered – poison attacks or improved healing, for example.

Yes I am friends with the froghog

Switching partners mid-battle can be an effective move if you’ve got a firm grasp of the Bond system, encouraging you to try new combinations. This also has an effect on your Super. That’s your Limit Break. One stance from each character has its abilities massively upgraded, perhaps hitting more targets or having additional effect. You level of Bond correlates to the level and number of Supers you can use for each full charge.

Titanium plot armor, baby

Less crunch, more fluff

But let’s get all artsy fartsy for a bit and look at the story and the characterisation. Regrettably, I feel this is where the game falls down.

Characters are interesting enough, certainly visually, with distinct personalities and goals… but they also feel flat. Nothing they did surprised me, there was no inter-party conflict, and they always did exactly what was needed to progress the plot in the most efficient fashion.

While the story makes an effort to dodge cliches, it feels more like they’ve shuffled an old deck into a slightly different order. It’s not bad, it subverted some of my expectations, but there was no ‘wow’ moment – just a few slight eyebrow raises.

Full disclosure, I’ve not completed the game. I can’t discount there may be some amazing plot twists and characterisation I’ve not seen… but according to the achievements while 50% of players beat the first boss, less than 10% unlocked the full party. If I had to guess, four out of five people failed to engage with the plot and drifted away.

I’m sure a character named Uncle Ben will pull through this illness just fine for the sake of his adopted son

Penultimate Fantasy

If you can’t get enough of JRPGs, then you could do worse than Earthlock. Damning with faint praise perhaps, but I enjoyed nearly every minute and found it much less frustrating overall than many triple-A titles.

If Final Fantasy is a three-tiered wedding cake, all expensive pomp and spectacle with the odd gritty raisin that makes you relish the sweet icing, then Earthlock is that tub of own-brand ice cream sitting in your freezer. You know what you’re getting, it’ll be there when you want it, and you may even be pleasantly surprised when you dig in.

Can’t promise I’ll complete Earthlock, but I’m impressed enough to be keen for Earthlock 2’s release in 2022.

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