Welcome to Umbra, a magical world in which legends tell that men had once bowed in fear of a mythic civilisation that ruled across it. These harsh rulers had learned to harness Amri, a magical energy that they stored in the world’s core. But, there was an uprising and, as the world’s people fought for their freedom, the Amri core burst and spread across the land. Volcanoes erupted, tsunamis rose and, once the sea had calmed, the mythic civilisation was no more. Time has passed since then, and the Suvian Empire now rules in the north while dark whispers stir in the ruins of old.
You start your adventure in Earthlock as Ive Lavender, the rebellious daughter of a House of the Great Wave general. When, after completing her final combat exam, he refuses to send her on her first scouting mission, Ive’s friend Punch lets her go in his place. Your perspective on events then changes to Amon Barros, a desert scavenger who has a bold heart and longs for adventure.
Looking for riches in Zabirum Temple to sell for money to buy the medicine that his Uncle Benjo badly needs, he happens to defeat the Temple Guardian and retrieve an ancient disk. Wanting to sell the ancient disk, Amon’s chance encounter with the hogbunny scholar Gnart Tigermoth somewhat innocently sends him on a quest to Zaber in search of an outright cure.
Earthlock is a classic RPG in every sense of the phrase, and it is in this moment that your adventure really gets underway. The events that transpire in this 25-odd-hour quest will eventually bring together a party of unlikely heroes, that aside from Amon, Ive and Gnart, the mysterious protector Olia Alagbato, PAT, an aged machine that was built before the Deadly Halt, and Ive’s loyal pup Taika, who you briefly fight alongside at the start of the game until you cross paths again.
Much of your time will be spent trekking across the world map, conversing between characters, racking your brain to solve puzzles in dungeons and looting chests to collect crafting materials, ammo, talents, recipes and whatever else they contain. Between your energetic jaunts you can use the Onurasi statues, which are otherwise relied on as save points, to warp to Plumpet Island. Here, you can rest to restore your party’s health, craft potions, talents and ammo, plant seeds that you can harvest crafting materials from, and return captured Barnacles to help the infectiously lively Frogboy restore the island.
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the rest of your time will be in battle, fighting the many beasts that were once tainted by Amri. It’s here that developer Snowcastle Games throws in many of their best ideas that help Earthlock stand out. The monsters that you clobber can be seen marauding the environments that you wander, and you can hit the B Button when they’re close to gain a First Strike advantage. You will then transition into turn-based encounters, with the battle queue down the right-hand side of the screen showing the turn order.
The clever part is that each character in your party has two stances, presenting you with different Combat Abilities that you can call upon to suit the situation. Amon, for example, has a Thief stance where he can steal items and money from enemies and a Blaster stance where he can deal elemental and non-elemental damage at range. Whereas you will come to rely on Gnart to heal the party, casting Regen in his Mage stance or boosting their Focus stance, and on Olia for her ability to taunt enemies to draw their attacks.
There are different damage types and enemy weaknesses to consider, changing stances takes one turn, and your characters are paired up and build a Battle Bond as they fight that will let you access more powerful Super Stances. It’s clear that the developer has thought long and hard about the combat system to make sure that it’s different from the crowd, and helps to lend Earthlock its own identity. For the most part, it succeeds. But, one element that annoyed me perhaps more than it probably should have is that ranged weapons require ammo. It seemed an unnecessary distraction to keep this stocked up, whether that be from crafting or bought from shops, especially with all the other systems that are at play.
Success in toppling your enemies will reward you with experience that will eventually level your party, but there are other ways to strengthen them. Battle Bonds that are built between two characters will enhance their abilities, such as like seeing Amon’s Stab ability become able to inflict poison, increasing the potency of Gnart’s healing magic or having immunity to specific status conditions. Changing your character pairs is important, then, to unlock their potential.
And then there’s the Talent Board, which is Earthlock’s twist on character progression. These boards are made from nodes, on which you can unlock those that neighbour anything that you have already activated. Some are prefixed, usually holding a character ability, but you can choose to improve your stats, perks and abilities however you wish. Nothing is permanent either, and you can swap Talents that you have slotted onto the board with others. It’s refreshing to have this much freedom over character progression, but I worry that less experienced players may end up with an imbalanced party that could end up hampering their adventure.
More than anything, it is a joy to exist in Earthlock’s painterly world. This throwback to PlayStation-era JRPGs ranks among the best role-playing experiences that there is to be had on the Nintendo Switch so far. And, while it can be seen that its inspiration has held it back in certain ways, the refreshing approach to turn-based combat and the strategising that underpins it will hopefully help the game to be remembered as a classic in its own right.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Snowcastle Games