While the ‘J’ in ‘JRPG’ ostensibly stands for 'Japanese', it refers to a style of role-playing game rather than country of origin; strong, often linear stories and turn-based combat are the calling cards of the genre, and Western-made games such as Child Of Light and Cosmic Star Heroine follow its conventions just as much as classic Japanese examples a la Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. That’s also the case with Earthlock, from Norwegian developer Snowcastle Games. After a successful 2014 Kickstarter run that saw Earthlock: Festival Of Magic release on Wii U (among other platforms), this significantly updated version has landed on the Switch. A love letter to the genre, it plays like a thoughtfully modern take on PS1-era Square adventures, and will be a real treat for JRPG fans.
Earthlock takes place in Umbra, a world bearing the scars of past catastrophe and an imbalance of ‘amri’, a magical energy. After a brief playable in situ introduction, you’ll begin your journey in earnest as Amon, a young scavenger living with his uncle in the town of Zaber. A routine mission gone awry turns Amon’s world on its head and sends him spiralling into conflict with empires, and it’s your job to guide him - along with an ever-growing cast of characters - on his journey to save his family, and ultimately, Umbra.
It’s an enjoyable tale that shows strong parallels to Final Fantasy IX, especially in its six playable party members. The characters - from a kindly ‘hogbunny’ named Gnart and capable military captain Ive to Taika, her loyal dog - are interesting and likable, and we quickly become invested in seeing their stories through. The writing can be oddly hit-or-miss; dialogue ranges from excellent to just okay, and there’s little linguistic coherence among invented place names and terms. Still, it’s an entertaining narrative, and its strong characters kept us interested throughout.
In terms of its gameplay, Earthlock builds off of a solid JRPG base: you’ll move your party of adventurers through a traversable overworld, entering cities, towns, and villages to progress the plot, pick-up quests, and refuel, in-between exploring monster-ridden dungeons and fighting turn-based battles with enemies and occasional bosses. It’s a classic formula, but a big part of what makes Earthlock so fun is that it improves on the genre’s conventions in tangible, modern ways.
In battle, for instance, Earthlock introduces several new wrinkles on the standard turn-based template. Before initiating combat, you can gather multiple enemies to fight by getting within range and then giving them the run-around as you pick up additional adversaries, Pied Piper-style, for EXP bonuses. Once you get into battle, you’ll find that each character has multiple ‘Stances’, which enable them to access different skills. Switching Stances costs a turn, but can be well worth it; Amon’s Stances allow for either melee combat and thieving or long-range elemental attacks, for instance, while Ive can switch between setting strategic traps and slinging arrows from crossbow.
Instead of consuming an MP meter, every action in battle uses one or more yellow squares of energy, which replenish at a certain rate for each character every turn. This system - recalling the one used in Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes Of Light - is appealingly simple, and also means you won’t be stuck backtracking to top up MP in the middle of exploration, which keeps the pace snappy and fun. The controls in battle are also worth mentioning; you’ll use the left analog stick to quick-select between different ‘submenus’ - with no menus involved - and the face buttons to dial in different actions within each of those. It’s quick and streamlined, and before long you’ll end up with muscle memory to pull off specific combos and strategies with ease.
In addition to their on skills and attacks, your characters also benefit from party dynamics in the Pair system. Pairing off party members lets them level up their bond, as well as gain access to a shared meter in battle. When it fills - by attacking in concert - either member of the twosome can use their 'Super Stance', a Limit Break-like special move that can be activated on command. Not only is this a great way to save up some extra power for bosses and challenging battles, it’s also a fun way to encourage mixing up your party formations, and experimenting with all the combinations on offer.
Outside of battle, you can customise how your characters progress through the Talent Board system, which lets you personalise their stats, skills, and abilities. Like the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X, it’s couched in the guise of a puzzle-like system, where you’ll need to connect different nodes as you place them on the board in order to activate their effects. All this adds up to a combat system that feels fun and fresh throughout; you’ll learn new strategies and skills at a good pace, and varying the Pairs in your party allows for plenty of experimentation as you go.
Beyond the combat, Earthlock also adds thoughtful new touches to the overworld exploration. There’s an excellent focus on gardening, for instance; you’ll find different seeds on your travels, and be able to plant them in various patches and plots around the world. By making sure each plant is watered according to its needs (by keeping a micro-game meter correctly balanced), you’ll be able to harvest rewards: ingredients for crafting items, weapons, and more.
Each character also has a special role to play in the overworld through their unique field abilities. Amon can find useful items in scrapheaps, for example, while Gnart can forage through flower fields. It’s a nice touch that helps underscore the importance of every member of your party, and gives a practical reason to switch which character you control - made delightfully simple by the satisfying shortcut of pressing the ‘L’ button and swinging the analog stick.
Along with Earthlock’s modern take on JRPG gameplay, it brings a similarly thoughtfully updated look. Its gorgeous, lived-in environments recall the busy prerendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy IX - including treasure chests hidden in nooks and crannies obscured from camera-view - and it’s both an immediately appealing aesthetic and an impressive in-engine achievement. They’re backdrops just begging to be explored, and with unique settings that go beyond desert and forest tropes; one of the first dungeons you’ll comb through takes the form of a partially-submerged mansion in the process of being reclaimed by the swamp it was built on.
In fact, Earthlock’s presentation in general is quite impressive; beyond the backgrounds, the character models look lovely, and animations - from battle stances and attacks to kicking open treasure chests - are smooth and full of personality. Enemy designs are imaginative and fun, and the whole experience feels wonderfully polished and clean. The orchestral score provides an excellent audio backdrop as well, with an impressive variety of memorable melodies.
For as good a job as Earthlock does feeling like a truly modern JRPG, however, there are some disappointing archaisms that really stick out; most notably, an antiquated save system that’s limited to designated points, with only one or two in each dungeon/town. Not being able to save mid-dungeon is arguably a design feature in many RPGs, but Earthlock’s implementation feels overly restrictive, and is a particular issue in a (potentially) portable adventure. Another unfortunate throwback to the 32-bit era: loading screens are frequent and long enough to annoy, popping up between rooms and in other common transitions. Their persistent presence breaks up the flow, and can start to grate in longer sessions.
Finally, Earthlock also feels like a real blast from the past - think N64 - in its implementation of rumble. Rather than providing subtle force feedback with the Switch’s HD Rumble, it instead just turns the motors on full blast, sometimes for seconds at a time. It’s bone-shaking and awful (especially disappointing after seeing RPGs like Golf Story integrate HD Rumble into the genre in thoughtful ways), but it can thankfully be turned off.
An indie adventure with a lush world, fun characters, and enjoyable battles, Earthlock brings the soul of PS1-era JRPGs to the Switch with excellent results. Inconsistent dialogue and notable load times are among its few missteps, but as a package, it captures the appeal of the epoch wonderfully. If you’re looking for a fresh-feeling JRPG that still calls back to the classics, this is a lovely choice.