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Review: Earthlock (PlayStation 4)By Renan At 06.08.2018 13:35

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Narratively, Earthlock is as traditional as it gets, at least as far as the PlayStation era is concerned. The protagonist, Amon, is a young man yearning for adventure that is thrust into it by an outside party and quickly finds himself taking on more than he signed up for. Not that he's complaining. It's a classic call to adventure story played fairly straight without many deviations from what's expected. Not that that's a detriment. It isn't exactly a fresh premise or plot, but it works for the story being told.

Really, the only downside to the plot is the grammar. Characters are likeable and the story moves along at a nice pace with some light arcs to keep the beat by beat moments engaging, but the script suffers from a serious lack of commas and a generally lackadaisical approach to punctuation. It doesn't hurt the narrative overtly, but since the title lacks voice acting, as expected from a PSone JRPG, dialogue takes centre stage and said dialogue isn't nearly as polished as it should be. Perhaps it can be seen as unintentional homage to shoddy localisations of days past, but weak writing is weak writing, regardless if it's intentional or not.

Even if the dialogue isn't up to the standard it should be, it's the gameplay that takes centre stage in the experience. The story is present and plays an active role, but not to the point where it usurps battles, side-quests, and dungeons as the main draw. While side-quests are perhaps far simpler than they should be, the dungeons and battle system do enough to ensure the core content is always, at the very least, enjoyable.

Not every dungeon is a hit, with the biggest issue being a lack of engaging and thought-provoking puzzles, but they do feel in-line with what would be expected of dungeons in the PlayStation era. The fact that puzzles are a focus in dungeons at all is a great plus, especially when compared to contemporary JRPGs that have made a habit of turning dungeons into puzzle-less labyrinths filled with enemies. In that sense, it's a nice breath of fresh air, even if the dungeons are lacking in more engaging puzzles for the most part.

What's not lacking, however, is the battle system. Snowcastle Games has gone above and beyond what would be expected from an old-school JRPG. At the same time, the core concept is simple enough where it doesn't feel out of place, either. Rather than sticking to a traditional turn-based structure, like many indie RPGs do, Earthlock goes for a speed-based approach where turns are dictated by who's fast. That's not what makes the battle system so engaging, though. Rather, it's how battles approach attacking, abilities, and increasing a character's stats.

Every single character has two Stances they can choose from in battle to take advantage of certain situations. Amon has a Thief Stance and a Blaster Stance, for instance. The former allows him to steal items and do melee damage, while the latter keeps him shooting at a range with his abilities now requiring ammo. It's imperative to truly understand how Stances work in order to make the most out of the battle system.

There's also a bonding system in place where characters that battle alongside each other form a bond, allowing them to build up TP, which can then be spent on a Talent Board. Similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, characters can up their stats, alongside their actual levels, by spending TP on their board. By chaining squares on the Talent Board together, characters can also unlock new abilities to use in battle along with taking on some new buffs.

The only real downsides to the core combat are the level cap and the difficulty curve. Characters cap at 20, a pitifully low level for any RPG. While the game is designed with the cap in mind, it's more designed in the sense that players shouldn't use levelling as a crutch. That's a fine enough idea in theory, but it makes the late game downright insufferable at times. It's not impossible, but the flow of battles is absolutely killed when capped since there's really nothing left to gain from them outside of Daler, the currency, and items. It's a shame considering how, up to the last quarter or so, Earthlock paces itself incredibly well. It still does after the fact, at least narratively, but the gameplay does ultimately suffer.

Earthlock is not incredible and, at times, unimpressive, but it knows exactly what it wants to be and it carves a clear identity for itself even when rooted in paying homage. The core experience flows nicely up until the very end, and the sudden burst of difficulty will likely please players seeking a deeper challenge from their JRPGs. It's a bit pricey, but it's worth purchasing for anyone desperate for an authentic JRPG adventure.

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Final Score
[i]Earthlock[/i] isn't going to go down as an essential JRPG, especially on the PlayStation 4 where RPGs aren't exactly uncommon, but it will go down as a charming, respectable title that pays tribute to the PSone era of the genre without forgetting to carve an identity of its own. The difficulty curve is less than ideal, in large part thanks to an absurdly low level cap that does the game no favours, and the script could have used another read through for grammar's sake, but the core combat, along with the pacing, offers enough to offset most issues. Battles are, when balanced appropriately, fantastic. Stances are an inspired concept and each character has an onslaught of abilities to equip. The narrative is exactly as long as it needs to be, fleshing out characters just enough to not outstay their welcome. [i]Earthlock[/i] is by no means a perfect or necessary JRPG, but it's one worth picking up if only to experience something new that feels appropriately old.



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